arroba Email

A Sharp Split on Darwin, design

Two authors' takes on science and life

Original Article
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design
By Jonathan Wells
Regnery, 273 pages, $19.95, paperback
Why Darwin Matters
The Case Against Intelligent Design
By Michael Shermer
Times Books, 199 pages, $22

These two books – released within a few weeks of each other – address Darwinism and its critics, but in radically different ways. Not only do the authors hold entirely different positions on Darwinism and the alternative theory of intelligent design, but there also is a vast chasm between the tone and approach of these books.

Jonathan Wells, who holds doctorates in both religion and embryology, is a leading advocate of intelligent design. This view holds that “it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes.”

Wells criticizes Darwinism – a view that says every aspect of the natural world is explained by unguided natural processes – because of its lack of evidence. This stance requires that Wells shoulder the burden of proof, since Darwinists control the scientific establishment.

But Wells takes up the challenge by sticking closely to the scientific and philosophical issues at the heart of the debate. He not only critiques the weaknesses in Darwinism, but presents intelligent design as a constructive alternative. While titled a “politically incorrect guide,” the book is never glib, although it is not lacking in wit or confidence.

On the other hand, editor and author Michael Shermer, formerly a professor of psychology, is generally condescending toward intelligent design. He even writes that his friends Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, leading evolutionists, advised him to not stoop so low as to write a book against the theory.

Nevertheless, Shermer believes that intelligent design’s influence in recent public debates – especially the attempt to teach it in public schools – merits a response. Shermer’s contempt for intelligent design is evident from the first chapter. While recounting his expedition to the Galapagos Islands – famous for Charles Darwin’s studies there – Shermer abruptly asserts, “Creation by intelligent design is absurd.” This premature editorializing sets a sharp tone for the rest of the book.

Shermer conflates creationism and intelligent design, sometimes referring to “intelligent-design creationism.” Yet these two approaches, while critical of Darwinism, are distinct in both their methods and their conclusions, as Wells argues.

Creationism insists on a literal view of Genesis. This requires divine creation in six literal days and a young Earth and universe. Intelligent design makes no appeal to Genesis for its arguments and avoids questions of the age of the Earth. Instead, it concentrates on whether particular aspects of the natural world (such as DNA and microscopic molecular machines) display evidence of a designing intelligence.

Whereas the majority of Wells’ book concentrates on the evidence for design in nature, Shermer takes up this issue only in his chapter defending Darwinism and his chapter criticizing intelligent design. Shermer aims at many irrelevant targets: American cultural history (the Scopes “monkey” trial); psychological reasons why people do not believe in Darwinism; makes points against creationists that do not apply to intelligent-design thinkers; and lectures Christians that they should not expect a transcendent God to be detectible in the physical world. This would be a dubious claim coming from a theologian, let alone an agnostic psychologist.

Wells’ case is arguably the more thorough, respectful and thought-provoking of the two. He disputes Darwinian claims that the fossil record, embryology and molecular biology prove evolution. Wells assesses the claims of Darwinism empirically and rationally, never appealing to religious texts to support his arguments.

Wells also notes that contemporary scientists typically presuppose a materialistic philosophy, which locks them in to Darwinism. They then bring this philosophical perspective to their endeavors – as opposed to making a solid case for Darwinism based on the empirical evidence. Shermer himself claims that science is permitted to give naturalistic explanations for life only because “there is no such thing as the supernatural or paranormal.”

Yet to define science in this way must philosophically exclude any possible evidence for an intelligent designer. In informal logic, this is known as the fallacy of begging the question: What should be proved is instead presumed. Shermer’s definition of science does not allow him to take sophisticated arguments for intelligent design as seriously as they should be. After all, they have to be wrong.

For Shermer, Darwin matters because he has been vindicated by science, and science gives us the best account of reality possible. For Wells, Darwin built a house of cards that is supported more by ideology and materialist philosophy than science itself. Thinking people should be apprised of both sides and judge accordingly, because two very different and exceedingly important visions of reality are at stake.

Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of “Truth Decay.”