I don’t usually get into the “Intelligent Design” argument, because I don’t have a lot to add to it; but once in a while poseurs like Professor Richard Dawkins jump into the fray with such outrageous aplomb that I feel compelled to answer. See here for his latest.
Dawkins uses a simple method of argument: proof by repeated assertion, plus entirely ignoring what the other side says: instead he will tell you what he wants you to believe they said (if he bothers with the other side’s arguments at all). Then he asserts that anyone who believes that nonsense is an idiot not worth your attention, and all his opponents are ignorant buffoons at best, and more likely mendacious scam artists. To say he has no respect for the other side of the argument is a simple understatement of fact. Yet, for all that, the arguments don’t go away, which causes despair for Mr. Dawkins, Professor at Oxford University and usually considered the definitive spokesperson for the modern Darwinist position.
Example of Dawkins arguments:
“Intelligent design ‘theorists’ (a misnomer, for they have no theory) often use the alien scenario to distance themselves from old-style creationists: “For all we know, the designer might be an alien from outer space.” This attempt to fend off accusations of unconstitutionally importing religion into science classes is lame and disingenuous. All the leading intelligent design spokesmen are devout, and, when talking to the faithful, they drop the science-fiction fig leaf and expose themselves as the fundamentalist creationists they truly are.”
This statement is typical of Dawkins. It is also egregiously wrong. Begin with the last sentence: that only fundamentalist creationists assert the possibility of evolution influenced by aliens from outer space. This was in fact an hypothesis put forth by the late Sir Fred Hoyle in his book Evolution from Space ; and let me assure you that far from being a fundamentalist creationist, Sir Fred had a pretty sophisticated theory of how evolution might be influenced by extra terrestrials who were neither gods nor superbeings. Sir Fred’s theories would and did horrify fundamentalists.
They were also theories. By theory I mean statements sufficiently precise to generate falsifiable hypotheses. Sir Fred’s book gives a number of assertions about Darwinism and natural selection, and gives his reasons for believing in the high improbability to impossibility that certain known conditions were the result of random factors. His arguments are complex and I don’t intend to reproduce them here; but they are available in his book. Whether or not Sir Fred makes his case I leave to others; but I at least have not seen a definitive refutation of what he said. Mostly Sir Fred has been ignored.
Nor is Sir Fred the only one I know of to assert what anyone not beginning with utter contempt for his opponents would call real theories. The essence of “Intelligent Design” theory is summed up in the statements: “If you find a watch in the woods, you do not look for a random assortment of parts that somehow put themselves together; you look for a watchmaker. And if you find a watchmaker…” In other words, they assert that there exist features of living creatures that are so complex that they could not have arisen by chance plus natural selection; that certain steps in the evolution of those features are, far from giving a species advantage, would give them an evolutionary disadvantage at one stage of the development.
Now I am not going to get into that argument here. I do point out that Dawkins certainly doesn’t. All he does is assert that his opponents are fools, and that he, inspired by random selection and the dance of the atoms which is the only meaning to the universe on his assumptions, is far the wiser and the purveyor of the only true theory of the ascent of man (only of course there is no actual ascent). Why those who assert that there is no intelligent design and that all is a random dance of the atoms, a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing, are so fervent in their assertions is probably of interest to psychologists, but not relevant here.
I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about intelligent design because I have never had any concern about the impossibility of reconciling something like Darwinian Evolution and religion (nor indeed of reconciling reason and religion). This is probably due to my education at Christian Brothers College (now Christian Brothers High School) in Memphis during the 1940′s. Brother Fidelis was careful to teach the theory of evolution (although the Scopes Law had not yet been repealed and it was in theory illegal for him to do so) along with St. Augustine’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’s discourses on reason and science; and the concept that God could easily have created the universe in germinal causes and fixed laws, and allowed development to proceed with a bare minimum of miraculous interventions.
Miraculous interventions are by definition outside the general laws of the universe; outside the purview of science; and rare enough that no statistics or laws can capture them as theory. In that sense Dawkins is right: those who rely on a handful of miracles to direct what is usually lawful evolution do not have anything that a scientist, including myself, could honestly call a theory. Most of us never claimed that, either.
On the other hand, intelligent design theorists do have scientific critiques of Natural Selection’s ability to explain what we observe. I have already alluded to one, irreducible complexity, which states that certain organism or organs are simply too complex to have arisen in stages. One example often given is the functioning eye as exhibited by humans and octopi.
The opponents of intelligent design assert that they have computer programs that do, or soon will, show the steps needed to get from light sensitive spots on skin surfaces to fully developed eyes in bony sockets, and Monte Carlo simulations in which those steps take place.
The number of steps varies; the minimum I have seen (and I admit not to have paid a lot of attention) is about 32. I have never seen a convincing computer model nor a successful Monte Carlo run of the theory; they have all, in my experience, needed “adjustments” to come out right. Their theories also have several parameters and variables not yet observed. This doesn’t negate them: many theories assert the existence of undiscovered variables. On the other hand, until those variables are observed, the theory remains no more than a theory; and that, so far as I can tell, is the actual state of the refutation of the assertion that functioning eyes are an irreducible complexity. The returns aren’t in, and until they are, it is hardly buffoonery to espouse either side of the discussion; and calling each other names is not likely to advance our understanding of biochemistry.
To sum up:
- while many “Intelligent Design Theorists” are in fact fundamentalist creationists, not all of them are, and some like the late Sir Fred Hoyle are not creationists at all.
- The panspermia hypothesis, which asserts that life originated on a planet other than Earth and was brought here by either natural or intelligently directed actions, is hardly ludicrous, has at least some unexplained evidence in its favor, and holding it as an hypothesis is hardly evidence of buffoonery. The late Robert Bussard was well known to believe in panspermia. Several of my science fiction novels make use of this hypothesis, and I have yet to see any definitive refutation.
- Many of those in Dawkins’ camp use proof by assertion: they simply say that there are no features that demonstrate “irreducible complexity” and those that seem to are illusions; and while they have not shown the steps that would lead from easily explained conditions to the complex feature, they have great confidence that they will find them, and anyone who doesn’t believe that is an idiot.
- In my judgment, reason and science are not in conflict to those willing to spend the time and effort in genuine study of the apparent irreconcilable differences. I note that I share that view with His Holiness Benedict XVI, who has asserted this all his life, most notably in his Regensburg Speech ( Full Text ), which is well worth your attention. Do note that the truth or falsity of this point is not definitive regarding my critique of Dawkins. It does, I presume, qualify me as a buffoon in Professor Dawkins’ estimation.
Jerry Pournelle is an American Science Fiction writer, essayist and journalist. Visit his website: http://jerrypournelle.com