Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

During the 1980s, two books” Evolution: a Theory in Crisis , by Michael Denton, and The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories , by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen”unwittingly gave rise to the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Books by scientists”Michael Denton, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer and others”pointed out various deficiencies in the theory of evolution: millions of gaps in the asserted “tree of evolution,” the impossibility of producing certain types of “irreducible complexity” by chance interactions, the failure of algorithms used by evolutionists to explain certain evolutionary developments, etc.

Critics of ID, on the other hand, especially prominent militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, have been ridiculing ID theorists for years as unscientific, and extolling “natural selection” as a kind of “blind watchmaker” accomplishing something that just “seems” like design through random developments over billions of years.

Surprisingly, two recent books by atheist philosophers of science have joined with ID theorists in the criticism of neo-Darwinism.

J erry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, in What Darwin Got Wrong come at neo-Darwinism from a number of directions. Initially, they draw a comparison with B.F. Skinner’s psychological theory of “operant conditioning,” which attempted to explain changes in human behavior by patterns of stimulus and response. Limitations of that theory have eventually been revealed: it did not take into account internal mechanisms in organisms subjected to external stimuli; and the intention of researchers or subjects affected the results of experiments. Skinner’s behaviorism can be corrected by taking these aspects into account. But no such correction is possible in neo-Darwinism, which has no interest in “the internal organization of creatures . . . (genotypic and ontogenetic structures)” and recognizes no “intentions” in evolutionary processes.

The remaining chapters of their book add qualifications that almost seem like ID arguments: Fibonacci patterns, in which each term is equal to the sum of the two preceding ones, seem to be prior to all evolutionary developments; scaling factors in organisms are multiples of a quarter, not of a third, according to the “one-quarter power law”; computational analysis of nervous systems of organisms show that their “connection economies” are perfect; “cost versus speed” analyses of the respiratory patterns of the song of canaries show the most efficient use of energy; tests of the ratio of foraging honeybees to those staying in the hives show perfect solutions in all situations. There is perfection everywhere. They also offer an example of a type of wasp whose patterns of feeding her young competes with ID theorist Michael Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”

But the major neo-Darwinist problem, they conclude, is that natural selection, in analogy to artificial selection, depends on the existence of a mythical “Mother Nature.” But since there is no Mother Nature, “she is a frail reed for [adaptationists] to lean on. Ditto, the Tooth Fairy; ditto the Great Pumpkin; ditto God. Only agents have minds, and only agents act out of their intentions, and natural selection isn’t an agent.”

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design , in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for the truth , wherever it leads.

Monton’s starting point is the recent trial, Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District , which ended with a decision against a school board in Pennsylvania. The school board wanted to require a disclaimer read to 9th grade biology students, informing students of the existence of ID as an alternative theory regarding evolution. Judge John Jones in 2005, however, ruled against the school board. After hearing expert witnesses on both sides, he concluded that ID is a religious view and not science, and thus cannot be taught in public schools.

The reason given for the “non-scientific” nature of ID was that science had to be restricted to a naturalist methodology, prohibiting any approach or evidence which could bring in the supernatural. Monton considers such a restriction as completely arbitrary, and even offers some thought experiments showing how a supernatural agent could be detected through scientific methods. He mentions with approval some examples of two conversions of atheists to theism, on the basis of scientific evidence: The physicist, Fred Hoyle, whose atheism was “shaken” when he came to the conclusion in 1982 that some “superintellect” had “monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology”; and the famous philosopher, Anthony Flew, who in 2004 announced that he could no longer remain an atheist, largely because of his study of “fine-tuning” arguments in physics and the resistance of DNA evidence to any naturalistic explanation.

The reason that Monton, in spite of some doubts, sticks to his belief in atheism, has to do with his belief that the universe is infinite. In an infinite universe, or an infinite number of universes, of course, there are infinite possibilities”even our world!

But philosophers such as Aristotle and John Locke, as well as some contemporary physicists, have maintained that a physical infinity is impossible; the fact that the universe seems to have begun with the Big Bang has led some atheists to extraordinary stretches of the imagination, purely speculative attempts to avoid dealing with the possibility of creation.

Mouton’s insistence that we should search for the truth, and not restrict our search to naturalistic scientific methods, is refreshing. And the arguments of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, although they hold no brief for ID theory, in their criticism of “natural selection,” unintentionally bring out examples that certainly sound like, well, design.

Howard Kainz is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent book is The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct .

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles