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A New York Times Writer Blames the Science-Religion Rift on…Intelligent Design?

David Klinghoffer


James Ryerson at the New York Times has written what starts out as a nice essay reviewing several books on the theme of the New Atheism and the myth of science and faith locked in combat. Check out the riposte he cites (from James W. Jones) to the idea that religion is just a maladaptive holdover from our ancient evolutionary past.

All is well until Ryerson winds up to ask, “You might wonder, then, why the conflict myth has such a grip on us today.” The answer he offers is to blame, most curiously, the theory of intelligent design. His source on this is a new book from Cambridge University Press, Creating Scientific Controversies: Uncertainty and Bias in Science and Society, by philosopher of science David Harker.

Count the misconceptions as the pass. Ryerson writes:

You might wonder, then, why the conflict myth has such a grip on us today, especially given that polls indicate a good number of scientists believe in God.

This is a little misleading. We’ve often noted the 1998 survey of members of the elite National Academy of Science that showed “almost total” disbelief.

One reason is the rise of intelligent design theory, which presents itself as a science but is thought by many to pit science against a tacit religious agenda.

This is bizarre. Like it or hate it, ID offers an explanation of life’s origins that, while relying strictly on scientific evidence and arguments and making no theological claims, would have the effect of healing a perceived rift with theism. This is the opposite of pitting science against religion. As for ID’s “agenda,” if that’s different from its stated aim of offering a better scientific theory than Darwin’s, that could be known only by recourse to mindreading.

He goes on to introduce Harker’s book, which I haven’t read and which “us[es] as case studies today’s heated disputes over climate change, the anti-vaccine movement and intelligent design.”

Proponents of intelligent design contend that at least some aspects of the biological or cosmological world can be explained only as the direct handiwork of an intelligent agent.

Can “best be explained” is more like it. As for nature being the “direct handiwork” of a designer, that’s not a contention of ID. See biologist Michael Denton’s new book, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, which presents what you might call the case for ID as the ultimate in “front-loaded” design. The advocates of intelligent design that I’m familiar with make no claim to specify the method by which a designer interacts, directly or indirectly, with the “handiwork” that constitutes the cosmos or biology. I’m not sure, as a scientific matter, how that could be known. Philosophy might be of more use in suggesting an answer. See Ann Gaugher, “What’s the Mechanism of Intelligent Design?

Harker is aware there exists no simple litmus test that distinguishes science from pseudoscience. (Sorry, Karl Popper fans, falsifiability won’t do.) But he does argue that the intelligent design movement features three “indicators” that strongly suggest it is not engaged in a genuine scientific debate.

Here we go. The first indicator:

First, the movement’s dominant emphasis is on raising doubts about a mainstream view, not developing and testing positive theses of its own.

In fact, ID does both — critique Darwinian theory and present a testable alternative. See Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, Chapters 18 and 19 and Appendix A as well as Casey Luskin, “A Positive, Testable Case for Intelligent Design,” and William Dembski, “Is Intelligent Design Testable?

The second indicator:

Second, the target audience seems to be the general public, not the relevant expert community. (Media coverage of intelligent design far surpasses its representation in peer-reviewed journals.)

If anything, I think ID could be taken to task for couching its arguments at a level that might assume more background expertise on the relevant sciences than the “general public” possesses. We could do more by way of popularizing. And see here for “Peer-Reviewed Articles Supporting Intelligent Design.” Since when did the volume of “media coverage” become a criterion for evaluating a scientific theory? Anyway, how does “media coverage” of Darwinism stack up against support for the theory in “peer-reviewed journals”? Classic Darwinism is, in fact, embattled in precisely such venues, as Steve Meyer shows in Darwin’s Doubt.

The third indicator:

Third, the motivation appears to be a desire that the mainstream view be wrong, rather than a reason for thinking it inadequate.

Again, mindreading. And “motivation,” even if known, sheds no light on whether an idea is right or wrong. For that you’d need to grapple with the relevant arguments, something Darwinists seldom do. I could cite “motivations” plainly evident in the writing of some evolutionary spokesman — see our comments on evolutionary biologist David Barash of the University of Washington, who obviously revels in knocking humankind off our presumed perch, according to tradition, as reflecting the image of God. That fact doesn’t excuse us from mounting a scientific critique of his views or offering a compelling scientific alternative. More:

Intelligent design theorists will protest that they do have good reason for thinking evolutionary theory inadequate: for example, the appearance in the biological world of “irreducible complexity,” intricate systems that couldn’t have arisen through a series of stepwise alterations as evolutionary theory requires.

This barely scratches the surface of evidence for design in biology and cosmology. Ryerson should go back and read the past month’s articles at Evolution News, for a start. But moving along:

Here, however, Harker quotes the biologist Michael Behe, perhaps the most sophisticated advocate of intelligent design, who has admitted that even in the case of an apparently irreducible complex system, “one cannot definitively rule out the possibility of an indirect, circuitous route” by which it was produced.

This is a quote from Darwin’s Black Box (p. 40). However, Behe goes on immediately to say, “As the complexity of an interacting system increases, though, the likelihood of such an indirect route drops precipitously.” He finds such “indirect evolution” highly implausible, and so do others outside the ID movement. Behe cites University of Rochester evolutionary biologist H. Alan Orr, for one, who says:

[W]e might think that some of the parts of an irreducibly complex system evolved step by step for some other purpose and were then recruited wholesale to a new function. But this is also unlikely. You may as well hope that half your car’s transmission will suddenly help out in the airbag department. Such things might happen very, very rarely, but they surely do not offer a general solution to irreducible complexity.

Ryerson goes on:

By Harker’s lights, this sort of concession is a telling sign that such thinkers are less interested in pursuing a promising avenue of scientific research — e.g., what might that “indirect, circuitous route” be? — than in gazing in wonderment.

What? First of all, Behe “conceded” nothing important. And “gazing in wonder” is lovely on a starry evening, but that’s not what ID scientists and scholars do in their writing and teaching. I would invite Mr. Ryerson to confirm that for himself. By way of an initial exploration of ID, I offer him the evidence of Dr. Denton’s new book, Stephen Meyer’s books, the lab work of Douglas Axe and Ann Gauger at Biologic Institute, the journal BIO-Complexity, or — most easily accessed of all — any random day or week of coverage here at Evolution News.

We are going to need to check out Harker’s book, which Ryerson indicates is “aimed at college students in an introductory philosophy of science course.” College students! I hope there’s more to it than Ryerson’s treatment indicates.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.