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Yale’s David Gelernter: Darwin’s Doubt Is “One of the Most Important Books in a Generation”

This is important. Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter is a polymath, a brilliant writer, artist, and thinker. Famed both for his specific scientific expertise, and for his cultural, political, and historical reflections, he’s also now a confessed Darwin skeptic. More than a skeptic really. 

In a wonderful essay in the new issue of The Claremont Review of Books, “Giving Up Darwin,” he credits reading Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt as the primary cause of his rejecting neo-Darwinian evolution, a “brilliant and beautiful scientific theory” but one that’s now been overtaken by science.

An Intellectual Landmark

He calls Darwin’s Doubt “one of the most important books in a generation,” a “landmark in the intellectual history of Darwinism,” and says that, “Few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact.” Well, “open-minded” is the key qualifier, isn’t it?

Dr. Gelernter is not on board with intelligent design:

Meyer doesn’t only demolish Darwin; he defends a replacement theory, intelligent design (I.D.). Although I can’t accept intelligent design as Meyer presents it, he does show that it is a plain case of the emperor’s new clothes: it says aloud what anyone who ponders biology must think, at some point, while sifting possible answers to hard questions. Intelligent design as Meyer explains it never uses religious arguments, draws religious conclusions, or refers to religion in any way. It does underline an obvious but important truth: Darwin’s mission was exactly to explain the flagrant appearance of design in nature.

The Deciding Factor

While Gelernter is a religiously observant Jew, he makes clear that, despite what the critics so often say, neither for him nor for Meyer is religion the deciding factor. Science is:

The religion is all on the other side. Meyer and other proponents of I.D. are the dispassionate intellectuals making orderly scientific arguments. Some I.D.-haters have shown themselves willing to use any argument — fair or not, true or not, ad hominem or not — to keep this dangerous idea locked in a box forever. They remind us of the extent to which Darwinism is no longer just a scientific theory but the basis of a worldview, and an emergency replacement religion for the many troubled souls who need one.

It’s worldview commitments that drive loyalty to Darwinism, along with considerations of career and personal prestige, joined with herd thinking and sheer complacency.

What Now for Biology?

I’ll have more to say about this remarkable testament to independent thinking. But as for biology, now what? “Darwin’s intellectual daring will always be inspiring. The man will always be admired.” I have no doubt about that. But:

How cleanly and quickly can the field get over Darwin, and move on? — with due allowance for every Darwinist’s having to study all the evidence for himself? There is one of most important questions facing science in the 21st century.

This long, thoughtful, and beautifully written article reflects David Gelernter’s own willingness to “study all the evidence for himself.” He cites the work of our colleagues Douglas Axe, David Berlinski, and Paul Nelson by name. He notes that two books I collected for Discovery Institute Press, Berlinski’s The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays and Debating Darwin’s Doubt, he also found to be “essential.” Wow.

A lot of writers, a lot of scientists, less gifted than Professor Gelernter refuse to think through these issues for themselves. We’re familiar with the results. Others take the plunge: Tom Wolfe, Thomas Nagel, Dennis Prager, and Ben Shapiro are four quite different but all fiercely independent voices who startled friends and enemies by studying the matter and coming out as Darwin critics. All had their brush with Stephen Meyer’s work, including Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell.

Just the Past Few Months

We are watching as one support after another peels away from the intellectual “consensus” supporting evolutionary theory. We’ve seen this in just the past few months: Three Nobel Prize-winning scientists endorse chemist Marcos Eberlin’s case for intelligent design, argued in his brand new book Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose. Well over a thousand PhD scientists declare themselves publicly as evolution skeptics. Modern ID theory’s founding scientist, biochemist Michael Behe, engages in an extended written debate with one of the world’s most distinguished evolutionary researchers, National Academy of Sciences member Richard Lenski, over Behe’s new book Darwin Devolves — and wins (as any fair observer would agree from the record of exchanges between Behe and his critics).

Scientists, intellectuals, and ordinary thoughtful adults are giving up the old pledge of allegiance to Darwin. The evolution in thought is very gradual, admittedly, but it’s unmistakably happening.

Photo: David Gelernter, by Doc Searls (Flickr: 2010_08_05_techonomy_154) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.