by Denyse O'Leary
As a freelance journalist based in downtown Toronto in the mid-Nineties, I was mostly writing auto, insurance, auto insurance, a cat care column, gardening tips, the rag trade, sewer and water, intercity motor coach, and trucking issues - best described perhaps as a utility freelancer.
One day, a political science prof drew my attention to an article in Commentary by a secular Jewish mathematician named David Berlinski, outlining the mathematical impossibility of Darwin's theory.
... the final triumph of Darwinian theory, although vividly imagined by biologists, remains, along with world peace and Esperanto, on the eschatological horizon of contemporary thought.
– David Berlinski, Commentary, June 1, 1996
The poli sci prof asked me to read the article and tell him what I thought. Well, I thought it was clever, but would have long since forgotten it - except for the huge storm of angry replies that it unleashed.
I came away thinking that Darwinism (Darwinian evolution) was a cult whose idol had been spray painted. But I didn't pursue that at the time.
(Note: An evolutionary biologist in the audience informed me that Darwinian evolutionists don't like the term Darwinist, even though they in fact use it, apparently, despite denials (scroll down to Edward O. Wilson) . So in the talk I was very careful to say "Darwinian evolution," wherever I could remember to do so, but was not necessarily consistent. One difficulty is that Richard Dawkins, for example, is quite comfortable calling himself a "Darwinist," thus so am I.
And when it comes to purely conceptual ideas like meme theory (a theory about how ideas spread from one person to the next via Darwinian natural selection), it is not clear that there is any actual evolutionary biology involved. For that reason, I am reluctant to allow evolutionary biologists to determine the terminology in the further reaches of universal Darwinism.)
Michael Behe accepts Darwin's wager
American Michael Behe, a Roman Catholic biochemist, is quite comfortable with the idea of evolution.
That is, he assumes that evolution happened and that common ancestry is a reasonable idea. He has even told me that he thinks that all the design in the universe was probably coded in at the Big Bang.
But he believes that the design of life is actually there, that it is not an illusion, as Darwinist Richard Dawkins argues.
Now, in arguing that all design is an illusion, Dawkins is merely following up on Darwin's wager:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
– Charles Darwin,The Origin of Species (6th ed. NYU, 1988, p. 154).
Anyway, here's what Behe did: As a biochemist, steeped in the complexities of his craft, he took up Darwin's wager. Behe thought he knew of just such a system, the flagellum of the bacterium, a tiny outboard motor.
This tiny motor system, Behe argued, could not work at all unless it were completely assembled first. Behe said that the flagellum demonstrates irreducible complexity - that is, it must be completely assembled before it can work, somewhat like any motor.
Now, what does irreducible complexity mean for Darwinian evolution? Irreducible complexity does not require a creation event, but it does require design. That is, the evolving flagellum must be preserved during long periods of evolution when it is still useless because it will be useful in the future. However, Darwinian evolution has no future tense because it does nto assume a mind behind nature that could intend future events. So irreducible complexity must be non-Darwinian. The flagellum has since become a sort of flag of the ID community, waving teasingly on a variety of ID Web sites.
Now, if such systems exist, they may be few or many. But remember, Darwin had staked his theory on the idea that there are none. Indeed, a fully naturalistic system requires that there be none. It also requires, for example, that mind and consciousness be merely epiphenomena of the brain and that free will be an illusion.
Behe became very widely hated for his acceptance of Darwin's wager in Darwin's Black Box, so much that he was compared in one biology journal to Osama bin Laden.
"Stalin or Osama bin Laden, or Michael Behe, or your favourite villain..."
– Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, Biology and Philosophy, 2003
If those people were joking, they have an odd sense of humor. Anyway, either this guy Behe was very wrong or very important. Which? Both? Neither?
The difficulty with what constitutes evidence
Jumping a bit ahead, I came to realize later that Darwinism, strongly held, mixes assumption and evidence in a seamless web. That seamlessless very much shapes public discussion of intelligent design (ID).
If you are already completely convinced that there is no mind behind the universe, that the universe and life are a meaningless confluence of matter that has only the illusion of design, then you know that the bacterial flagellum cannot be irreducibly complex.
As a result, any evidence for irreducible complexity, no matter how apparently convincing, must be wrong. Any evidence against it, no matter how weak or sketchy, must be right.
Thus, Behe regularly heard or read that irreducible complexity "has been refuted." What he actually encountered when he checked into it was yet another sketchy idea about how it could possibly be refuted.
For their part, committed Darwinian evolutionists do not understand how anyone could doubt that a hypothesis is just as good as a demonstration because... well, because Darwinism is the only possible history of life anyway.
Of course, this conflict between standards for evidence has led to frequent charges that the other side is "dishonest." Darwinists demand little evidence for Darwinian evolution because they already believe it to be true beyond confirmation - that is to say, it must be true. Intelligent design theorists (hereafter IDists) demand strong evidence because they doubt that Darwin's mechanism plays the creative role that Darwinists claim for it.
So what is Darwinism really?
Looking into ID theory meant, of course, that I had to look more closely at Darwinism, including Darwinian evolutionism. (As I mentioned in the note above, many Darwinist exotica have little to do with evolutionary biology as such.)
Darwinism is basically the industry in science teaching that attempts to assure the public that not only is Darwin's idea - that the life around us is produced by natural selection acting on random mutations - the best idea that anyone has ever had, but indispensable to technological progress.
"I think that Darwin's idea, properly used, is just the best idea anybody ever had. Abused, it can do a lot of harm."
– philosopher Daniel Dennett, interview with Alan Alda, PBS
Now, I knew that Darwinism is not indispensable to technological progress, and it was interesting to see quite recently that a prominent Darwinist agrees with me:
"..., if truth be told, evolution hasn't yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn't evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of 'like begets like.' (Jerry Coyne, "Selling Darwin", Nature, Vol 442, 31 August 2006 )
Anyway, as I gradually became aware of the immense hold that Darwinism has on the intellectual elite in the Western world, I appreciated the deep challenge that ID theory poses to it. Now that was worth a book, not just a column!
Go to Part Two
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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