Debating Darwin and Design

A Dialogue Between Two Christians

Joshua Gidney-Opening Statement

Automatically rejecting dissenting views that challenge the conventional wisdom is a dangerous fallacy, for almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy in this way, whether in a research laboratory or in a court room, is profoundly inimical to the search for truth…’1

Stephen J. Gould

When it comes to the ultimate, vexing questions of origins, life, meaning and purpose, few are as hotly debated as questions about Darwin’s theory of evolution and Intelligent Design theory. For decades there has been much controversy in public and academic circles and although this controversy is most prevalent in America, the heated discussion can be found thriving almost anywhere. Due to the nature of the issues, discussions are often fraught with emotion, ideological baggage, worldview and religious beliefs and so it is often remarkably difficult to get to the truth behind the matters at hand. These questions are so important and attract such passion because they are to do with our own history, nature and origin. As philosopher and mathematician David Berlinski notes ‘There is a wide appreciation of the fact that if biologists are wrong about Darwin, they are wrong about life…’2 They are also important because science is one of the most successful and powerful cultural authorities, and theories firmly held to be true within the scientific community often have a huge influence on how everybody else views the world.

It is true to say that Neo-Darwinism ‘The synthesis of Darwin’s original theory with Mendelian genetics…’3, is zealously affirmed by the majority of those within the scientific community. Biological complexity, they claim, has evolved by natural selection acting upon random/chance genetic mutations, producing descent with modification. Neo-Darwinian theory can be expressed simply in the following way:

RV + NS –> DWM

These are purely non-teleological unguided mechanisms and so it is argued that Neo-Darwinism is sufficient to explain the diversification of all biological life without reference to any creative intelligence. The theory is said to be strongly supported by several different lines of evidence which ‘Taken together…converge to provide a mutually supporting evidential framework.’4, and although the theory has been voluptuously embraced by the majority of the scientific community, it has been rejected with contempt and disdain by many people ever since it was first proposed.

Amongst Darwin dissenters are Creationists who mistakenly oppose it based on their particular literalistic interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. On the other hand many committed atheists attempt to surreptitiously foist a metaphysically naturalistic philosophy onto the theory. Since the majority of the human race is religious in some sense, no wonder it’s opposed and disbelieved by so many! Despite all this it is vital to note that ‘There is an important difference between the biological theory of evolution and the various philosophies that people have tried to derive from it…’5 Neo-Darwinism, if true, would not in any way imply atheism as there are many independent reasons to think that it is false. Also it seems that it is perfectly possible to reconcile scripture with the theory of evolution as Christians are open to a wide variety of interpretations, allowing them to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Science is not in a perpetual conflict with Christianity. The more fundamental question is whether or not Neo-Darwinism is true. I myself do not think so. Being a committed Christian, I used to be a tentative theistic evolutionist but against my will I have recently been persuaded to join another party.

As I have mentioned, the clash between creationism and evolution has a long and turbulent history, but in the last couple of decades the Neo-Darwinian paradigm has been challenged by another voice. This challenge has come from the Intelligent Design movement. They are a small but growing number of scientists and academics from various fields, who believe strongly that Neo-Darwinian theory is inadequate to explain certain physical features within the universe. They also believe that there is positive, scientifically detectable evidence that some form of intelligent agency is involved. Being a born again Darwinian, Richard Dawkins, along with most other evolutionary biologists, affirm that biology is ‘The study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed.’6 The appearance of design being entirely illusory. In contrast, ID theorists believe that ‘…real design exists in nature and is empirically detectable by the methods of science’7 (emphasis added). Philosopher Peter S. Williams succinctly summarizes the core claim of ID theory as claiming that ‘empirical evidence warrants a scientific design inference using reliable design detection criteria.’8

ID advocates claim that to recognise something as having been designed, it needs to exhibit both complexity and specificity. Design theorist William A. Dembski has defended this design detection criteria at length and it is known as “specified complexity”, also referred to as “complex specified information” (CSI). This criterion tells us that ‘Neither complexity without specificity nor specificity without complexity compels us to infer design’9, but a combination of both does. It is important to note that ‘Design detection is used in a number of scientific fields, including anthropology, forensic sciences that seek to explain the cause of events such as a death or fire, cryptanalysis and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI)’10, and thus design detection is already used in other scientific circles. Once the design detection criteria is applied to particular features in the universe, design theorists argue that intelligent design can be shown in several areas within nature (this is a point that’s often forgotten by many critics). Proposed areas that claim to exhibit signs of intelligent causation are the information rich structures found in DNA, irreducibly complex bio-molecular machines, the Cambrian explosion, the fine-tuning of our solar system and local habitat, and the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe for the development of carbon based life. Design inferences tend to be more controversial in the area of biology because they suggest that there are certain features that cannot be explained by purely Darwinian processes.

Although the ID movement is growing, it is true to say that the majority of the mainstream scientific community do not accept it. In fact, to say this would be an understatement. There are many people who hold ID theory in such withering contempt, that it probably makes their blood pressure rise to triple digits when they discuss it. Witness chemist Peter Atkins in his remarkably apoplectic review of biochemist Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box:

‘Dr Behe waves his magic wand, discards the scientific method, and launches into his philosopher’s stone of universal explanation: it was all designed. Presenting this silly, lazy, ignorant, and intellectually abominable view — essentially discarding reason and invoking that first resort of the intellectually challenged (that is, God).’11

Vacuous objurgations such as these are often hurled by many scientists who oppose ID and it often prompts a lapse from the well-ordered decencies of academia. As the controversial movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed revealed, opposition amongst the scientific ‘elite’ is often so vociferous that many people who have expressed support for ID, have been ostracized and ‘expelled’ from academia, several supporters losing their jobs.12 As well as provoking indignation amongst many atheistic scientists, it also frustrates many theistic evolutionists and Creationists. Theistic evolutionist Denis Alexander claims that ‘it fails to meet the most basic criteria of scientific theorising and practice.’13 whilst biologist and Catholic Kenneth Miller, one of ID’s most vehement critics, argues that ‘…design is built upon a stunning lack of curiosity and a remarkable unwillingness to embrace scientific discovery. Design rests ultimately on the claim of ignorance…’14 Critics claim incessantly that ID theory is merely a form of “stealth creationism”, that ‘Not a single paper espousing creationism or intelligent design has ever been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.’15, and that all of the claims made by ID theorists have been refuted or are devoid of any content.

As mentioned, despite all the controversy and often vituperative debate that this topic provokes, these questions remain at once profound, fascinating and important. As a committed Christian, I used to hold the position of theist evolution but have gradually been persuaded that the Neo-Darwinian synthesis is deficient and that the ID theorists are correct. I think that ID is too often misrepresented, misunderstood and its various criticisms are largely without merit. I also affirm that it is a legitimate scientific theory. My good friend Francis is also a committed Christian but holds to a theistic evolutionary view and so on this issue we are in disagreement. Because we are both fascinated with questions such as these, we have decided to initiate a respectful written dialogue, all of which will gradually be published on both our blogs. It should be said that neither of us are scientists or are formally qualified in the areas pertinent to the issues, but we will attempt to responsibly present research and substantial and informed argumentation. We both hope that readers will find the discussion edifying, thought provoking, and helpful.

 

References

  1. Brief Amici Curiae of Phys., Scientists, and Historians of Sci. in Support of Petitioners, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., at 2–6, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) (No. 92–102).
  2. David Berlinski. The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. (United states: Basic Books. 2009). p.186.
  3. Graeme Finlay. Stephen Lloyd. Stephen Pattemore. David Swift. Debating Darwin: Two Debates: Is Darwinism True & Does it Matter? (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press. 2009). p.X.
  4. ibid. p.131.
  5. Dennis Alexander. Robert S. White. Beyond Belief: Science, Faith and Ethical Challenges. (Oxford: Lion Hudson. 2004). p.106.
  6. Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1986). p. 1.
  7. Marcus R. Ross. Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism: Investigating Nested Hierarchies of Philosophy and Belief. (2003) Available at: http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2003AM/finalprogram/abstract_58668.htm
  8. Peter S. Williams. The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement: A Critical Review. Philosophia Christi (Vol. 9, Issue 2, 2007). Available at: http://epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=54
  9. Williams. The Design Inference from Specified Complexity Defended by Scholars Outside the Intelligent Design Movement: A Critical Review. Op.cit.
  10. Uncommon Descent. ID Defined. Available at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/id-defined/. (Accessed 25th August 2011).
  11. The Secular Web. 1998. Peter Atkins Review of Darwin’s Black Box. Available at: http: < http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/peter_atkins/behe.html&gt;. (Accessed 25th August 2011).
  12. Cf. Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (Premise Media/Vivendi Entertainment, 2008).
  13. Denis Alexander. ‘Designs on Science’. Available at: < http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=260&TopicID=2&CategoryID=1&gt;. (Accessed 26th August 2011).
  14. Kenneth Miller. Only a theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. (Viking Penguin: New York. 2008). p.87
  15. Charles Foster. The Selfless Gene: Living With God and Darwin. (Hodder & Stoughton: London. 2009) p. xiv.
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