You are here

Review: Darwin's Nemesis

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
26
Year: 
2006
Issue: 
6
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
30–33
Reviewer: 
Lawrence S Lerner
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Darwin's Nemesis
Author(s): 
William A Dembski, editor
Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press, 2006. 357 pages
In April 2004, the leading lights of the "intelligent design" creationism (IDC) movement met at Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) to confer on their "godfather", law professor Phillip Johnson, the Phillip E Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth. Thus began a two-day conference entitled "Intelligent Design and the Future of Science." The talks presented there formed the basis for the present volume.

A perusal of the book gives a pretty good picture of what IDC really means to its advocates. The subject matter of the papers ranges widely, and I will try below to give the flavor of some of them. But first let's survey the contradictory faces the IDC movement presents to the general public (it is really science!) and to its friends (our mission is to impose our God on every aspect of society).

In his preface, William Dembski writes of a 1992 meeting, "Here, for the first time, a radical non-materialist critique of Darwinism and naturalistic evolutionary theories was put on the table for a high-level, reasoned, academic discussion without anyone promoting a religious or sectarian agenda" (p 14, emphasis added). And in his conference paper, he writes, "… most reporters who interview me ask how intelligent design differs from creationism. This gives me a perfect opening, and I can explain how intelligent design is not a religious doctrine about where everything came from but rather a scientific investigation into how patterns exhibited by finite arrangements of matter can signify intelligence" (p 98). But given that Darwin's Nemesis is an insider work, that is about all there is of the public face. Almost all of the rest of the book consists of one argument after another supporting the superiority of a theistic — and almost always a specifically "Christian" — worldview, with science reduced to the medieval role of handmaiden of theology. Here are just a few examples:
Christianity is not burdened with the requirement that everything result from natural processes. … either natural or supernatural explanations of nature are allowed. In the study of biology, … Christians have a broader palette of explanations to draw on than do materialists. (Timothy G Standish, p 119)

The revolution from the paradigm of Darwinism to the paradigm of intelligent design will undoubtedly be accompanied by a metaphysical shift from materialism to theistic realism. (David Keller, p 159)

Years before, as a seminary student at Unification Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, I had become convinced that there is a fundamental conflict between theistic religions and Darwinian evolution. Among the former I include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Unificationism and Zoroastrianism. … Now I realized I couldn't be a theist and a Darwinian. (Jonathan Wells, p 164–5)

[I]f Darwinism is true, Christian metaphysics is a fantasy. (Nancy Pearcey, quoting a 2002 interview of Phillip Johnson, p 228)

Complexity theory views the essence of life as independent of its particular physical medium, consistent with Christian belief. … We are thankful that the God of Christ's love is also the God of purpose and order who superintends complexity and chaos. (Wesley D Allen and Henry F Schaeffer III, p 300)
Clearly, the conference participants quoted above have found it difficult or impossible to reconcile the generally accepted evolutionary theory with their personal religious views. The one speaker at the conference who accepts evolution, the philosopher and "friendly critic" Michael Ruse, summarizes the intention of his contribution in the sentence, "My aim has not been to defend Christianity, but to defend the integrity of the Darwinian who wants to be a Christian" (p 148). In the light of what the other twenty contributors have to say, he was probably wasting his time at the Biola conference.

If there were still reason to doubt that IDC is about religion, not science, a scrutiny of the speakers at this "scientific" conference yields further revelations. Using the biographical information at the back of the book itself, together with a quick internet search, I tallied the disciplines in which the twenty participants (other than Ruse) had degrees. I was able to find 39 degrees identified with a specific discipline (including two non-degree areas of intensive study on the part of contributor Nancy Pearcey and Marcus Ross's PhD candidacy in geoscience). Here is how the disciplines stack up, in order of frequency:
  • 16 degrees in theology, religion, or philosophy;
  • 9 degrees in the physical sciences or engineering;
  • 4 degrees in the social sciences;
  • 3 degrees in biology, microbiology, or biochemistry;
  • 3 degrees in geology and earth sciences;
  • 2 degrees in law;
  • 1 degree in mathematics;
  • 1 degree in environmental biology and public policy.
Not quite the lineup one might find at a conference on evolutionary biology, but not surprising for an evangelical revival meeting.

Let me now turn to some of the more interesting chapters.

Part I, "Portraits of the Man and his Work", centers on accounts of how the authors first met and were influenced (or inspired) by Johnson. Stephen C Meyer rehearses the standard nonsense about "gaps" and "lack of transitional forms" in the fossil record and the supposed inutility of mutations for producing useful structures. Michael Behe, the father of "irreducible complexity" and of nine children (whose names he enumerates in his essay), is more fun. He presents a folksy account of his Catholic childhood in an enormous family, his early uncritical acceptance of evolution as he had been taught it in Catholic schools, and the doubts gradually instilled, first by an evangelical lab technician he dated, and later by a series of other events. In particular, he infers on the basis of a conversation with a fellow Catholic postdoctoral scholar that deep down, biologists in general do not think that life could have originated through natural means. All this is cemented by his early contacts with Johnson, who instructs him in the underlying realities of the biological sciences. Thus enlightened, he encounters (and reflects bitterly on) the scorn with which IDCs are regarded in the scientific community. Specifically, he is taken aback when a letter he has written to Science, criticizing a negative review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial, is not published. But all is resolved when he publishes his Darwin's Black Box.

Thomas Woodward devotes most of his essay to a contrast between Johnson's rhetoric and that of mainline evolutionary scientists. I am not sure what essential contribution rhetoric can make in forwarding the sciences, but Woodward's most interesting point is this: "… I was amazed once to hear a brilliant rhetorician whom I respect very highly describe the issue of God's existence as a nonrhetorical issue, implying that it is a purely subjective (that is, non-rational) issue, one that cannot really be argued at all." In a long footnote, he expands on his objections to this position. They boil down to a dilemma. We can be sure that his intercourse with a very personal God is very extensive; otherwise he could hardly continue as a professor of Bible and Theology at the small Bible college where he teaches. But he wants objective, external evidence of God that will have more weight with others. This would become possible, if only science would pursue evidence of the supernatural, as Johnson insists it should. In this light, Woodward's support of IDC is entirely understandable. Receiving the Holy Spirit oneself is the sine qua non for evangelicals; disseminating it to others is the Great Commission. Even as a non-scientist, he could hope one day to see a newspaper headline something like, "Scientist Finds DNA Sequence That Decodes As 'I Am Who Am.'"

William Dembski leads off Part II, "The Wedge and Its Despisers". I was a bit surprised at the querulous, even angry tone of his essay, beginning with its title, "Dealing with the backlash against intelligent design". The cool, scholarly tone of his writings aimed at the "outside world" is not apparent in this us-against-them piece. The essence of the chapter is pretty well captured in the following quote:
We have this going for us, however, which the evolutionary naturalists don't, namely, the evidence and arguments are on our side. It's therefore to our advantage to discuss intelligent design and naturalistic evolution on their merits. Conversely, the other side needs to delegitimate the debate, … casting intelligent design as a pseudoscience and characterizing its significance purely in political and religious terms. As a consequence, critics of intelligent design engage in all forms of character assassination, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association and demonization. (p 82)
Part III, "Two Friendly Critics," is an odd fit in the general context of the book. The ever-idiosyncratic David Berlinski contributes two short fables. He attributes them to the Argentine literary giant Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). Though the fables clearly attempt to mimic Borges's dry, witty, and often hieratic style, Borges is a hard act to follow. The first fable ridicules the idea of evolution; the second does the same to the idea of IDC. Both sport a stiff manner that does Borges injustice. Nice try but no yerba maté.

As noted above, Michael Ruse bravely attempts the impossible reconciliation, showing that one can be a Christian evolutionist. That is true, but one cannot be a "Christian" evolutionist — that is, a Christian defined as a member of the subset of evangelicals to which the volume's contributors belong.

Part IV, "Johnson's Revolution in Biology," gets to the heart of the matter. Is IDC really science? If it were, IDC-based papers would be making floods of new, groundbreaking contributions to the sciences and would be vigorously debated in scientific journals. The one paper that actually made it into a journal is reprinted here. Stephen C Meyer's paper "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories" was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (2004; 117 [2]: 213–39). As Meyer's brief biography notes (p 352), it "created an international sensation." However, the sensation was not about the content of the paper. Rather, it turned out that the editor of the journal, who had no expertise on the subject matter, had creationist leanings of his own. He therefore published the paper, though it had nothing to do with the specialized field of the journal. The result was indeed a sensation — or rather a scandal. The upshot was that the Biological Society of Washington officially deemed the paper "inappropriate". For an analysis of the paper's content, see Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley R Elsberry's "Meyer's hopeless monster" (available on-line at http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2004/08/meyers_hopeless_1.html).

Jonathan Wells has nothing new to say. His piece is a short version of his earlier writing on the evolution of his life's mission: "Just as many of my fellow Unificationists had dedicated themselves to destroying the antitheistic ideology of Marxism, I dedicated myself to destroying the antitheistic ideology of Darwinism" (p 166).

Part V, "Ever-Increasing Spheres of Influence," moves beyond scientific issues into the realm that really concerns most creationists, namely, what they see as the baleful influence of evolution in the areas of theology, philosophy, and the extrascientific world in general. Nancy Pearcey expounds on the connections between "Darwinism" and abortion, sexual promiscuity, and postmodernism. She concludes, "The Darwinian creation story leads to an upper story of postmodern relativism, and ultimately undercuts itself. But Christianity offers a rationally coherent, logically consistent worldview… It lays claim to be truth about every aspect of reality… In that sense it is total Truth" (p 243, emphasis in original).

J Budziszewski takes an essentially Thomist tack: "Nature, then, is a contingent being, not a necessary being like God, and contingent beings need causes" (p 246). For him, the clinching argument is that "'Darwinian' natural law" (whatever that is) is not consistent with Thomist natural law, but IDC is.

In "A Taxonomy of Teleology," young-earth creationists Marcus Ross and Paul Nelson make an elaborate analysis — a mock-cladistic one, no less — of the various types of creationists. The details are tortuous and of little interest, but the conclusion is clear: "Johnson is a creationist, all right — just not a young-earth creationist" (p 275).

The chapter "Complexity, Chaos, and God" is the most intelligent and interesting part of the whole book. In it, chemists Wesley D Allen and Henry F Schaeffer III use a clear if brief exposition of the essence of chaos theory to explicate an ancient theological dilemma: human free will versus the determinism implied by divine omnipotence/omniscience. In some completely classical physical systems, where the uncertainty principle is not relevant, the evolutionary path of the system is so exquisitely sensitive to the initial conditions that it is impossible to predict its exact course. Many real-world systems are chaotic in this sense. Hence, for humans the course of the universe is unpredictable and free will operates; for God, who can perfectly control the initial conditions, the universe is deterministic.

A pretty application of physics to theology; so far, so good. But Allen and Schaeffer lose me, I fear, when they make parallels between chaos theory and the Christian's ultimate fate as revealed in 1 and 2 Corinthians, from which they infer that "[t]he concept of a human soul can be retained in complexity theory as an emergent, nonreducible collection of properties or essences." Well, that's fine, though some theologians may get a whiff of the God of the gaps.

But next, IDC gets dragged into this discussion by the ears, as it were. Specifically, the authors conflate biological evolution with prebiotic evolution — a standard creationist ploy — and then attack prebiotic evolutionary arguments on the basis that they are as yet not heavily constrained by the available evidence. This point, well understood by the scientists in the field, they attribute to Johnson. But again, this is a God-of-the-gaps argument.

Allen and Schaeffer then make the error of taking Dembski's "fourth law of thermodynamics" seriously. As physical chemists, they should know better; the mathematics and physics of Dembski's arguments have been thoroughly and definitively demolished by numerous experts (see Mark Perakh's Unintelligent Design [Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2004], or his "A free lunch in a mousetrap" (available on-line at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dem_nfl.cfm).

Finally, a word about editor Dembski's preface. The decision of Judge Jones in Kitzmiller v Dover came down as Dembski was preparing the book. Needless to say, the bulk of the book was already complete. Dembski tries to make the best of Jones's devastating critique of IDC, which bears heavily on its essentially and ineluctably religious nature — a point that this book can only re-inforce. But as Dembski writes, "Ultimately, the significance of a court case like Kitzmiller v Dover depends not on a judge's decision but on the cultural forces that serve as the backdrop against which the decision is made." In that, Dembski is absolutely correct. It remains to be seen how American society will react in the broader sense — onward and upward with science or into a new Dark Age with concern for the soul's fate in the afterlife trumping interaction with the material world in which we pass our lives.

For those who want to take the trouble (and it is a good deal of trouble) to delve into the inner motivations of "intelligent design" creationists, Darwin's Nemesis is a good source. Needless to say, I do not recommend it to the casual reader!

About the Author(s): 
Lawrence S Lerner
College of Natural Science & Mathematics
California State University, Long Beach
1250 Bellflower Boulevard
Long Beach CA 90840
lslerner@csulb.edu

Lawrence S Lerner is Professor Emeritus in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach, and a nationally recognized expert on state science standards. He received NCSE's Friend of Darwin award in 2003.