The other night my oldest son and I watched the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu, an early cinematographic take on the Dracula story that includes many haunting images. One of them is a mantelpiece clock that strikes the hours by an automated hammer-wielding skeleton. It’s a classic memento mori, a reminder of death’s relentless approach and a stimulus to the wisdom that comes with that knowledge. People once decorated their homes with such objects for the purpose of attuning the mind to ultimate questions that we might otherwise treat lightly.
That raises the problem of what surprising news the authors of a research paper in PLoS ONE thought they had to share. The title says it all: “Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution.” With a little bit of the air of a snarky high-school science fair entry, authors Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart and Jason Martens want to sock it to ID advocates by showing scientifically that openness to intelligent design proceeds not from “logic and reasoning” but from “psychological motives.”
When shown a passage of ID scientist Michael Behe’s writing and another by Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, subjects were more likely to accept Behe’s conclusions if they had first been asked to write a description of their own death.
What else would anyone with some common sense expect? People open their minds to socially disapproved ideas for all kinds of reasons. While admitting that ID has no religious content, the authors say it offers “comfort in something larger and more significant than one’s own brief life — via the understanding there is a purpose to the human enterprise.”
Yes, they’re right! They find their study to be “consistent with research demonstrating humans’ basic need to maintain a sense of meaning.” Again, obviously, right! ID speaks to this need. Evolution, when honestly presented, negates it. Dawkins’s old Oxford colleague, chemist Peter Atkins, expressed this well in his 1984 book The Second Law:
We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.
Only someone who’s fooling himself about evolution’s ultimate meaning, or who possesses a stunted soul and so just couldn’t care less, could read such a passage and not feel the need to seek out an alternative view.
Speaking of prose passages, what about those “174-word similarly styled passages…excerpted from the authors,” Behe and Dawkins? In Behe’s case, the prose was not entirely authored by Michael Behe. In a small slip-up by the team of meticulous social scientists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Union College in Schenectady, the supposed Behe “passage” was actually a pastiche mixing sentences from the beginning and later portions of Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box with another in the middle that wasn’t written by Behe at all. It comes from the Foreword to a book, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, co-authored by him, William Dembski and Stephen Meyer.
Behe tells us the Foreword, which is unsigned, was contributed by the book’s publisher not by any of the named authors. “This is science?” he asks.
Shush, Professor Behe! You are disturbing the concentration of Drs. Tracy, Hart and Martens as they seek to knock us over with a revelation that Samuel Johnson had already expressed two and a half centuries ago. “Depend upon it, sir,” said Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The authors need 13 pages of stiff academic prose to convey the same point.
Of course, what they really intend to convey is the prejudice that ID, unlike accepting Darwinian evolution, is fundamentally not a rational commitment but only an emotional one, and therefore safely dismissed. If they had really wanted to test the point, they ought to have assigned their subjects to write a description not only of their own death but of an emotionally charged event of a different kind.
For example, “Write a description of how your holding a particular scientific belief would result in your being taunted by peers as a religious fundamentalist ‘creationist,’ or at best ignored as an unserious thinker who substitutes emotion for rational thought.” Now show them the passages from Dawkins and “Behe” and then see whether that drives some people to a greater willingness to embrace Dawkins.