Book Review: Doubts About Darwin
A History of Intelligent Design
By Thomas Woodward
Brazos Press, 303 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis
Special to The Denver Post
The media often organize information according to predictable and simplistic stories. Sometimes the media story captures the truth, and sometimes the truth eludes it. One oft-repeated story is that all challenges to Darwinism are merely religiously motivated and hopelessly unscientific.
Science is about objective facts. Religion is about subjective values. Darwinism is scientific. Challenges to Darwinism are not scientific and so have no place in any public institution. This standard story is being upended by lawyers, scientists and philosophers who claim that Darwinism fails the tests of good science. These thinkers, who are neither theologians nor preachers, make up the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, which is chronicled in this important book written by a professor at Trinity College in Florida.
Woodward’s account shows that the problem with the template of “religion vs. Darwin” is that it simply doesn’t fit the ID movement, although many detractors try to insist otherwise. The founder of the movement, Phillip Johnson, was, until his recent retirement, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. While on sabbatical in the late 1980s, he studied the scientific case for and against Darwinism and concluded that the empirical case for Darwinism was surprisingly weak. He then presented his findings at a symposium held through his law school and was further encouraged to pursue his criticism of Darwinism. As Woodward amply documents, the proponents of this movement, which include a biochemist (Michael Behe) as well as a philosopher of mathematics (William Dembski), have “doubts about Darwin” based on their investigation of the empirical evidence.
Proponents of ID argue that Darwinism lacks crucial evidence, begs important questions, and often caricatures alternatives unfairly. It excludes the possibility of any design in nature by philosophical fiat, not by winning the game empirically.
The proponents of ID make their case against Darwinian evolution by pointing out flaws in the arguments and gaps in the evidence, not by citing religious texts. Neither do they argue that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old, nor do they care to discuss Noah’s flood. That is, they are not part of the older “scientific creationism” movement.
Rather, ID thinkers are a diverse group united primarily in their belief Darwinism isn’t beyond the reach of scientific criticism. They claim that the category of intelligent design is a legitimate scientific concept required to explain certain aspects of the natural world, but they say little about the nature of the designer.
Chance and necessity alone, they argue, do not provide sufficient scientific categories for explaining the origin of complex living systems, such as DNA and the bacterial flagellum (a microscopic rotary motor). The scientific and philosophical establishment is beginning to interact seriously with ID claims in academic journals and at conferences, although it is still often dismissed as “unscientific.”
A growing number of books defend and criticize ID, but Woodward’s book is unique in that it assesses the history of this movement of the past decade or so from the perspective of the classical discipline of rhetoric. Given the book’s angle, the reader is treated to the straight arguments for and against Darwinism, as well as an inside look at the personalities and persuasive strategies used on both sides of the debate. (For example, when noted Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould first met Philip Johnson, he dispensed with pleasantries and said, “You’re a creationist, and I’ve got to stop you.”)
In Woodward’s account, Johnson emerges as the rhetorical mastermind of ID, who, though an outsider to the scientific guild, nevertheless mastered the scientific case against Darwinism and helped develop a consistent strategy for the ID movement. His simple charge is that Darwinism is driven more by a commitment to a materialistic worldview than by the actual evidence of biology. If one admits the category of intelligent design back into science, the case for Darwinism crumbles – or so Johnson claims.
While Woodward is a friend of the Intelligent Design movement, he lets the thinkers speak for themselves and is neither partisan nor unfair. Rather, without getting too technical, he frames the debate in terms of rhetorical strategies employed. In this way, the reader can discover the larger intellectual, historical, emotional and cultural contours of this growing debate, which is not about to go away any time soon.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of “On Pascal.”