The Dover Intelligent Design Decision, Part III: Compatibility

Albert Alschuler
Albert Alschuler
December 31, 2005


The court’s opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District declares, “Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general.” The court speaks repeatedly of this “false duality” and “contrived dualism.”

Natural selection is compatible with the idea that a supreme being created life in a one-celled organism and then stepped aside. Darwin’s description of life as “having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” hinted at this quasi-deist vision. The mechanism that evolutionary biologists posit to explain later developments, however, attributes all life forms other than the first to random mutation against an environmental background composed, in significant part, of other life forms shaped by random mutation. Complex life forms are the product of a mindless rather than a purposeful process. All of our own species’ characteristics, mental and physical, exist only because, at some point, they furthered our ancestors’ reproductive success. Although evolution itself poses no challenge to the idea that a purposeful process shaped life as it grew more complex, natural selection does. The emergence of humans and hippopotamuses from a one-celled organism over the course of 3.5 billion years could not have been the product of both a purposeful process and an entirely random process. Try as one might to embrace both theism and Darwinism, purpose and chance remain antithetical.
Well-meaning efforts to bridge the chasm fail whenever it rains.

The Dover court noted that the argument from design is “an old religious argument for the existence of God.” An expert witness traced this argument to Thomas Aquinas, and he might have found it in Cicero as well. Evolutionary biologists do not blush when they proclaim that they have vanquished the argument from design.

The more someone studies the human brain (or the pigeon’s), the more wondrous this instrument becomes. The brain can do many things that no instrument devised by human beings can. Researchers examine in detail which areas of the brain perform which tasks and how neurons transmit information. Despite their efforts at reverse engineering, these researchers have no thought that they might build a brain themselves within the next century or two. Although the brain appears to be designed, evolutionary biology says that this appearance is an illusion. Aquinas to the contrary notwithstanding, the design apparently found in nature should not increase your awe of God or lead you to believe in Him.

If science and religion exist in separate spheres and if the argument from design is “religious,” the scientists who debunk this argument must have entered the religious sphere, not the other way around. The Dover court must have gotten things backwards. The court’s position appears to be that scientists may answer a traditional religious argument (and may do so in the public schools) because they are engaged in “science.” Defenders of this traditional argument may not reply, however, because they are engaged in “religion.” Catch 22. Of course the court’s error lies in its assumption that religion and science must be entirely distinct, an error discussed in my December 23 post.

Perhaps a rigorous “methodological naturalism” could bridge the gap. Biologists might declare that they adopt only an assumption of natural selection, that their purpose is simply to see how far this assumption can take them, and that they take no position on whether this assumption is true. That, however, is not what the biologists say, and it may not be what they should say if their goal is to describe the world as it is. The biologists say that “evolution is a fact not a theory.” Their critics then insist that “evolution is a theory not a fact.” (For a school board to place a sticker with the critics’ statement on a biology textbook is unconstitutional, or so one federal court has held.)

Proclaiming “it’s a theory” or “it’s a fact” does not help. The simplest sort of factual conclusion (“that’s a spoon”) rests on an interpretation of electronic impulses that rays of light generate when they stimulate your optic nerves. Some parts of your visual cortex perceive lines that go this way, and others perceive lines that go that way. Your mind makes assumptions of regularity (for example, that matter is cohesive and that surfaces are uniformly colored) as it assembles the visual picture (“why, that’s a spoon”). The visual brain doesn’t work like a camera, and how it integrates images from electronic data remains mysterious. Of course visual perceptions and other perceptions of fact can be wrong. Like all other forms of knowledge, they should remain at least a bit provisional. As I emphasized in my December 23 post, virtually all knowledge from the simplest to the most complex consists of sensed patterns in experience. Nelson Goodman said appropriately that facts are small theories and theories are large facts.

Peacock’s tails and bacterial flagella pose challenges for natural selection, but other phenomena pose greater challenges. These phenomena underscore the conflict between Darwinism and virtually all of the world’s religions. They are central to religious conceptions of who human beings are.

Biologists and theologians agree that consciousness must serve a purpose. The biologists, however, have no idea what this purpose might be. Our autonomic nervous system has no need for consciousness to keep our hearts pumping, and our minds process tons of information without our awareness. If some information processing and control of our muscular contractions can occur without awareness, why not all of it? Why waste energy on sentience? Scholarly papers purport to supply an answer, but Steven Pinker writes, “As far as scientific explanation [of sentience] goes, it might as well not exist.”

The theologians maintain that consciousness permits us to exercise free will, a notion that most biologists dismiss as the silly idea of a ghost in the machine. Often, however, the biologists do not stick to their guns. For example, while Pinker dismisses the ghost in the machine, he also rejects the “naturalistic fallacy” and declares that we can choose to be other than what nature has made us. He does not explain how we can make the choice to depart from nature without free will, nor does he explain why we would want to after realizing that our concepts of right and wrong are just adaptive tools that furthered our ancestors’ reproductive success.

Similarly, E. O. Wilson is one of many biologists who reject the compatibilist position that other biologists endorse. Wilson writes, “[L]ife has diversified on Earth autonomously without any kind of external guidance. Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural selection from one generation to the next.” Although Wilson refers to “the processes and goals obviously chosen by human beings” as “processes evolved as adaptive devices,” he champions a “scientific humanism” that, he claims, “imposes the heavy burden of individual choice that goes with intellectual freedom.” One wonders what choices Wilson makes as a humanist – those that further his own reproductive success? How could he and other humanists have evolved the capacity to do anything else? Perhaps the adherents of theistic religions can’t stand the brutal truth that Wilson believes science has established, but then, neither can he. Could there have been a miraculous moment in the evolutionary process when natural selection gave way to culture and free will? At what point was reproductive success no longer the only maximand, and what designer might have been behind it?

At first glance, the altruistic behavior observed in humans and other species cannot be squared with natural selection. When a ground squirrel spots a predator and shrieks a warning, the squirrel endangers itself as it benefits others. Groups in which members aid one another have clear evolutionary advantages over groups in which they don’t, but it is difficult to see how altruism could have evolved within groups. When the squirrels that give warning cries lose their lives at a higher rate than the squirrels that stay quiet, the altruistic squirrels should die out before long.

Darwin wondered how natural selection could have produced castes of insects that spend their lives serving others while producing no offspring. This anomaly seemed, he said, “fatal to my whole theory.” In 1963, however, William D. Hamilton provided a partial explanation. Because an organism’s genes are shared with its close relatives, saving close relatives can preserve enough common genes that altruism may yield a net evolutionary gain even when the altruist dies. Selfish genes can produce selfless organisms. Hamilton’s theory (“kin selection” or “inclusive fitness”) revolutionized evolutionary biology. It reportedly led J. B. S. Haldane to remark that although he would not lay down his life for his brother, he would for two brothers or eight cousins.

At most, Hamilton’s theory explained altruism within kinship groups. In 1971, however, Robert Trivers did a massive amount of pre-computer math to show that, in some circumstances, reciprocal altruism toward non-kin (helping them until they fail to help you) could confer an evolutionary advantage. In a profession in which the paradigm of natural selection was unquestioned, proving that altruism was not a complete stopper – that it was mathematically possible in some situations – led many to conclude, “Ah ha, that must be how it happened.” Evolutionary biology is not (and could not be) a profession with clear standards of proof.

In an iterated game of prisoner’s dilemma, cooperating on the first encounter and then either cooperating or not to match the opposing player’s prior move is very often a winning strategy. This strategy (Tit for Tat) ends in disaster, however, when opposing players never cooperate. In a biological world governed by natural selection, the first reciprocal cooperator in a group of selfish organisms would lose, and it is difficult to see how a regime of reciprocal altruism could get started. Biologists hypothesize, however, that kin selection or something else could have put a sufficient number of cooperative organisms in place to make Tit for Tat a winner.

Biologists cheer Trivers’ “just so” story not only because it provides a possible explanation for what otherwise might be a knock-out anomaly for the theory of natural selection but also because it makes natural selection seem a bit less awful. Contrary to what earlier Darwinists believed, nature is not entirely red in tooth and claw. Natural selection offers an explanation for nice impulses as well as vicious ones. Some biologists believe that they have rediscovered natural law.

Natural selection, however, cannot explain the behaviors and values that most religions endorse, that nearly everyone regards as virtuous, and that we actually observe from time to time. Accepting Trivers’ story leaves the basic anomaly in place.

Perhaps, as Trivers says, natural selection provides an explanation for reciprocal altruism. More clearly, however, it explains rape, robbery, and homicide. Natural selection validates altruism no more than it validates our darker side. If natural selection authenticates anything, it authenticates whatever blend of noble and rotten impulses produced our group’s triumph over the tigers. Natural selection fails to explain why every religion and tribe regards one side of our nature as more virtuous than the other.

“Reciprocal” altruism, moreover, is not the kind of altruism the golden rule endorses. Every tribe’s heroes are those who sacrifice themselves for the group without prospect of reward. Natural selection fails to explain why every culture views this un-Darwinian behavior as noble and why we sometimes see it happen. The views of humankind taught by Darwinism are not those taught in most churches.

In the main, religion has no quarrel with science. Science has revealed phenomena as wondrous as anything in the Book of Genesis, and far from contradicting the argument from design, most modern science seems to reinforce it. The God of the big bang and the expanding universe may strike believers as more awesome and inspiring than the God their grandparents knew. Perhaps a moment of creation even implies a creator. Evolutionary biology is distinctive in insisting that the evidence proves randomness and in rejecting Einstein’s dictum that God does not play dice with the universe.

The seventeenth-century shift in focus from irregularities in nature (miracles) to regularities or patterns changed the world for the better. Modern science posed a challenge for stand-pat religion, and over the course of the next century or more, religion responded by consigning its work and science’s to separate spheres. Theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher declared that religion was about the “sense and taste for the infinite” and the “feeling of absolute dependence.” Religion told science that it could take rationality and the physical world while religion took faith, feeling, and spirituality.

When offered this truce, the scientists might have whispered to one another, “What a deal!” Over the long term, limiting religion to irrational ways of knowing gives the game to science. Religion is indeed about the “feeling of absolute dependence,” but sound religion, like sound science, requires the use of all our ways of knowing. It demands that we do our best to integrate what we know into one coherent package. Ironically, the assault on separate spheres now comes mainly from the religious groups regarded as the most conservative. For the most part, other groups, unwilling to look like yahoos by questioning Darwinism, duck the issue. The conservatives, more alert than the others to the incompatibility of Darwinism and theistic religion and less willing to paper over the problem with pap, now seek to confront Darwinism on its own term.

Perhaps the proponents of intelligent design should have a smaller place in the public schools than they want and a larger place than their opponents would give them. It is difficult to see how students would be harmed by devoting the last day of a high school biology course to the question whether the material they have studied leaves room for an intelligent designer. Partisans on both sides might prepare ninth-grade-level statements of their positions; teachers might ensure that students understand the arguments; and if some students prove bold enough to voice their own views, so much the better. How this discussion would endorse or establish religion or cast non-religious students as pariahs escapes me (especially if the Darwinists have the better case).

The rapid pace of modernist change (not all of it good) leads many to dig in their heels and declare that they want none of it. The frightening gap between open-throttle modernists and old-time religionists grows wider. Both sides in the culture wars might look less for ways to smash each other and more for ways to build bridges. An honest discussion in high school classrooms of whether biology undercuts religion, reinforces religion, or simply lets the mystery be might help. The wedge of which the proponents of intelligent design sometimes speak may go both ways.

Albert Alschuler is the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Criminology at University of Chicago Law School.