SPOOKY SCIENCE

By Bill Kohlhaase

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Posted November 16, 2007 in Arts & Culture

There’s one thing you can say for all the hubbub that’s aired about intelligent design—it’s made Charles Darwin bigger than a dead rock star. The past few months have seen the publication of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen’s look at the last half of the evolutionist’s life; Darwin Loves You, George Levine’s slant on the joys of natural selection, with a title that even Jesus would like; even a novel, The Darwin Conspiracy, which brings some sleaze, albeit fictional, to the great naturalist. And for those of us who just want to be able to rebut the asses who bray that Darwin’s heretical science proves that God—their God—exists, there’s Michael Shermer’s Why Darwin Matters.

Shermer’s book is designed for those of us who never lost interest in science even after we gave up our chemistry studies back in high school to experiment with drugs and sex. How many times have we been struck dumb at a cocktail party when the intelligent design sorts start arguing that the bacterium flagellum is something so basic and perfect that it could never have been created by evolution—therefore, there must be a creator? Shermer gives us the tools to call bullshit.

A columnist for Scientific American and the publisher of Skeptic magazine, Shermer is uniquely qualified to make the argument against intelligent design. He became a born-again evangelical in high school and supported creationist theory through his undergraduate years at Malibu’s Pepperdine University. But while studying scientific research methods and statistics, his life changed. “It turned out that the creationist literature I was reading presented a Darwinian cardboard cutout that a child could knock down.” The real Darwin, he realized, was as solid as fossils.

Shermer discovered that creation theory, as even the courts have declared, was paper-thin. That’s why proponents have largely abandoned the term in favor of “intelligent design,” a theory, ironically enough, that masquerades as science while keeping a specific God (Yahweh) lurking behind the scenes. Of course, proving that Darwin’s theory is incorrect doesn’t mean that theirs is valid. As Herbert Spencer, quoted by Shermer, writes, “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not adequately supported by the facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.”

The meat of Shermer’s book comes in the long, middle chapter “Debating Intelligent Design.” Many scientists declare that arguing with intelligent design supporters only fuels the notion that evolution can be proven (or disproved) by debate rather than science. Not Shermer. Avoiding creative intelligence, he reasons, only adds fuel to the creationist arguments of the “what-are-they-afraid-of?” sort. Shermer, who’s debated such leading creationists as William Dembski, instead asks them to bring it on. He takes apart the most prominent and confounding design arguments—including “no laboratory experiments or field observations reveal evolution in action” and the mistaken notion that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes evolution impossible—and trumps them in language even an art student can understand. In fact, if this book has a drawback, it’s that it doesn’t delve more deeply into the science of it all. Even so, by the end, the reader knows exactly why bacterium flagella developed as they did.

Rebutting creationist arguments isn’t Shermer’s only goal here. He sees the larger picture—why religions feel challenged by evolution theory and science in general, as well as why they should not. He asks us to follow the money behind those supporting intelligent design, which, of course, leads us to pro-Christian organizations, often with right-wing political affiliations. And he makes an argument that Christians and conservatives should accept evolution—why it makes sense and holds no contradiction for them to accept both God and evolution. He even provides a chapter titled “The Real Unsolved Problems In Evolution” that discusses such topics as natural and sexual selection.

Despite the magnanimity towards his intelligent design rivals, Shermer is adamant about what’s at stake. The attacks on evolution are attacks against science, attacks generated by the fear of having belief proved false. No matter how veiled the religious motives behind intelligent design are, they still represent a challenge that would thrust us back to the middle ages (think stem cell research). Those who want to observe the issue from the other side of the fence would do well to read Dembski’s The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design. You’ll be struck at how small a role God plays in its arguments. But make no mistake: Shermer vs. Dembski is science vs. the supernatural. And the observable facts, such as they are, favor Shermer.

WHY DARWIN MATTERS: THE CASE AGAINST INTELLIGENT DESIGN BY MICHAEL SHERMER; TIMES BOOKS, HARDBACK, 199 PAGES. $22.


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