God, the Devil, and Darwin

Submitted by CliveBradley on 15 April, 2006 - 9:40

God, the Devil, and Darwin: a critique of intelligent design theory by Niall Shanks (Foreward by Richard Dawkins) Oxford University Press.

Last December, a US federal judge ruled against the teaching of so-called ‘intelligent design’ in schools – at the end of the biggest public trial, in effect, of Darwinism since the infamous Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in the 1920s. But ‘intelligent design’ (ID) has not, and will not, go away, either in the United States or in Britain. Already, in the UK, there are schools which teach religious alternatives to Darwinism; and with the government-led growth in faith schools, and religious involvement in schools, there will surely be more. This book, by a professor of philosophy, biology, physics and astronomy (which is quite a resume), is a valuable attempt to provide detailed responses to the arguments of this rehashed creationism.
Creationists – those who believe the Earth and all that’s on it is the result of the word of God, not natural processes – like to describe Darwinism as just ‘a theory’, which therefore should not be given priority over other theories. ‘Hard’ (Christian) creationism – which holds every word of the Bible to be true, and claims, for instance, that the world (indeed, the universe) is only 6,000 years old, that dinosaur fossils were put there to test our faith, and so forth – is plainly not very marketable to most people, certainly in Britain. ‘ID’ offers instead a more modest agenda – pointing to supposed gaps and problems in the theory of evolution, often with apparent scientific back-up. With its more ‘theoretical’ presentation, its adherents demand it be given ‘theoretical’ weight in biology education, alongside the mere ‘theory’ of evolution. Shanks shows that this is a conscious ‘thin end of the wedge’ strategy.
He gives a very readable account of the origins and development of creationist ideas, going back to the ancient Greeks, of the development of modern science – and how modern science works. He takes the most sophisticated theorists of ID – in particular William Dembski and Michael Behe – seriously, and subjects them to a proper critique, in several key areas. And he appeals for resistance to this ‘thin end of the wedge’ creationism in defence of Enlightenment values.
Three issues in particular are worth summarising. First is the general status of ID as science. ID, as opposed to old-style creationism, does not – on the face of it – insist that God (in practice it’s usually the Christian God, although of course there are Muslim and other creationists, too) is the answer to the questions they raise. Take the eye. Old-style creationism likes to point to the eye and demand an explanation for its immense complexity: how could evolution build an eye gradually, when half an eye is useless? (Shanks, following other writers, shows that it is entirely possible for the eye to have evolved gradually, and that there is a lot of evidence that it did, several times in different lineages). The eye being so amazing, it must have been designed by God. ID, in effect, sidesteps the last two words in the last sentence: it must have been designed; ‘by God’ is left as an inference. ID is all about attempting to show that there must be a designer in nature, without explicitly naming Him. Shanks shows very effectively how poor, and dull, this is as science, ie that it isn’t science at all. It leaves you with no testable hypotheses. (And in fact, in any case, they do of course mean by God).
Shanks goes into detail in two areas. Behe in particular has developed a theory of ‘irreducible complexity’. The basic idea is the old one about the eye: there are things in nature which, in order to work, need all their parts; it is impossible for evolution to have made them, since it could only have made the parts separately. Behe’s claim is not about eyes, though, but about molecular chemistry.
The argument against this is quite technical and hinges around a concept of ‘redundant complexity’. Shanks cites a powerful metaphor developed a decade ago by a biologist, who was interested in the same sort of stuff as Behe, but from an actually-scientific perspective. AG Cairns-Smith pointed to stone arches in architecture. How could you build them? You can’t put the keystone at the top until the other stones are in place, but without the keystone all the other stones fall down. In fact, what you do is build a scaffold (and a pile of rocks would do the job, you don’t need anything more sophisticated). Shanks argues the same thing happens at the molecular level to explain the ‘irreducible complexity’ which mesmerises ID theorists.
The other area, for me, is more problematic: cosmology. This is outside the frame of reference, I think, of old-style creationism, but developments in cosmology over the past few decades have made a religious assault pretty inevitable. The currently widely-accepted theory which explains the structure of our universe is the ‘big bang’ – that the universe, meaning space and time, came into existence about fifteen billion years ago or so, when a ‘singularity’ which contained all the matter and energy which exists compressed infinitely small, to put it crudely, exploded. Since then the universe has been expanding. This theory obviously begs the possibility of a ‘First cause’ creator. Added to this are what are called the ‘anthropic coincidences’: if the expanding universe had had different qualities (if gravity had been a bit different, for instance) – and we are talking very, very small differences – galaxies, stars and planets, and therefore life, and therefore us, would not have formed at all. It is a peculiar fact of our universe that has exactly the right features to make stars, planets and life possible. Recalibrate any of it, and the whole thing turns to soup. The chances of this happening by, well, chance, seem very small indeed.
Shanks points out quite rightly that an appeal to a creator doesn’t solve anything (who created the creator?), and in any case, once again, is untestable. He’s also right that stuff does just happen: we encounter chance improbabilities in our daily lives all the time. The other supposed naturalistic theory to explain this to which he refers seems, to me, though, very unsatisfactory indeed: this is the theory of multiple universes. The argument is that our universe might only be one such universe in a bigger structure. If you assume lots of other universes – an infinite number - the peculiarities of ours are less surprising. (There’s a version of this which for some reason he doesn’t mention: as the universe is expanding, it may one day contract to a ‘big crunch’ – scientists are divided about this. This might mean the expansion/contraction has happened, so to speak, ‘before’. Our universe is only one instance of the expansion in an infinite number).
The trouble with this ‘multiple universe’ theory, surely, is that it is no more testable than the theory of a divine creator. Shanks does say this, and consequently prefers the ‘pure chance’ explanation. But it worries me that modern science, at its cosmological end, is engaging in theorising so speculative as to be not much far removed from the non-science of ID. If there is a problem in the observable universe which is so great (and so basic) that in order to explain it you have to imagine an infinite number of alternative universes, for which there is no evidence at all, with an infinite number of different laws of physics – I think we have a problem.
I am not suggesting that ID provides a better answer. And indeed it is doubtless a problem that the existence of ID makes frank discussion of gaps in scientific knowledge more difficult.
There are those in the scientific community who think the problem lies with the theory of the Big Bang itself. I am (obviously) not qualified to judge this; and in my understanding the evidence for the Big Bang – expanding universe, background radiation, etc – is compelling. And in any case it’s outside the scope of Shank’s book.
Recently there has been a rather public falling out between those scientists, like Richard Dawkins, who think opposition to ID should be explicitly atheistic, and those who think it important to reassure religious believers that accepting the theory of evolution does not require abandoning their faith hook, line and sinker. Shanks falls, generally – despite the foreward by Dawkins – on the second side in this debate. His argument is that ID, for all its soft-soaping, is actually the work of religious extremists. (The Pope, for instance, accepts the theory of evolution). He points out, also, that some of these extremists are very right-wing on social questions, aiming to use ‘proof’ of the soul (and free will), for instance, to argue against welfare programmes (ie, the poor are to blame for their predicament).
Dawkins and others argue that explicit atheism is vital because Darwinism is, unavoidably, atheistic in its conclusions and it is simply dishonest and facile to pretend otherwise.
The problem with this approach is that it treats religious belief as purely intellectual (and a rather bewildering intellectual choice, at that). People’s reasons for believing in God are, however, sometimes very complex, and to do with social circumstances as much as simple intellectual choice. Our opposition to creationism shouldn’t pander to people’s beliefs, but it should find ways to engage with them. It is not, however, as the opponents of Darwinsim like to claim, that scientists are ‘arrogant’, or that they have faith in science no different to religious faith, etc. On the contrary, there needs to be a concerted effort, in Britain as well, to resist the introduction of rehashed creationism into our schools, and to defend Darwinism. Niall Shanks’ book should be a useful weapon.

Clive Bradley

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