Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Intelligent design: junk science and junk religion

Probably "gentle" is not the first adjective that comes to mind when you hear there is a book titled Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. But calm and kindness toward those who differ is what I encountered in Professor Joan Roughgarden's little volume. I won't entirely replicate her equanimity here, but don't doubt that she exemplifies it in these very troubled waters.

Roughgarden is a scientist, a researcher and professor at Stanford University. She writes about the science of evolution with sophisticated authority. And she is a believing Christian, though in the realm of faith she adopts a somewhat more tentative tone than in the realm of biology, as perhaps all of us should.

In 1992, her first encounter with intelligent design -- the alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory that she labels a "search for evidence of God through science" -- was with a book she reviewed as adding "little light to the creationist/evolutionist debate, but its sarcasm and condescension do add heat." A U.S. court in Pennsylvania has since ruled that intelligent design is creationism and creationism is not science, but a variant of religion that cannot be taught as science when public funds pay for the teaching. Yes, it is intuitively hard for humans to believe that complex animal structures could have emerged from mutation and natural selection -- but by and large, scientists have developed testable evidence that this is what happened. Darwinian evolution may have begun as a good idea that lacked an understood mechanism or much evidence, but by now 150 years of science has filled in most of the gaps in the original hypothesis. For science, there is simply no debate left, though there are certainly unanswered questions and areas for further exploration.

But then the problem of the heat comes in.

I know people may be uncomfortable with how dismissive evolutionary biologists are when discussing intelligent design. This discomfort alone is enough to turn some against evolutionary biology, regardless of the intellectual points being made. Is this dismissiveness just attitude, or is there some basis to it?

Intelligent design strikes evolutionary biologists as naive. ... [For example,] the bacterial flagellum is beautifully complex. But a lot of nature is marvelous. The whole of nature is marvelous, as befits God's creation, not just little bits and pieces here and there. ...For most scientists, the matter of intelligent design is already completely settled -- intelligent design has no data going for it, and intelligent design advocates are wrong in charging that complex structures can't be explained by neo-Darwinian narratives.

What makes Roughgarden unusual is that it matters to her that intelligent design is not only junk science, it is also junk religion.

Intelligent design asks that you believe in God on the basis of miracles.

She argues that in the Gospels themselves, the reported miracles aren't the substance. Miracles are aid to the perceptually impaired, help for weak humans to notice that God is alive in their presence.

Miracles are at best a crutch for those, like [the apostle] Thomas, of little faith. Miracles by themselves don't convince a skeptic to become a believer, and their absence shouldn't dissuade a true believer. In the terminology of logic, miracles are neither necessary nor sufficient for belief in God.

Interestingly, Roughgarden does think intelligent design should be taught in schools, in both the science and the religion departments. In both arenas, students need to learn to discriminate between the substantive and the half-baked. Junk science and junk religion are both hazards that need intellectual deconstruction. I like this thought.

In this brief discussion, I have not even touched on the most mind-stretching parts of this little book: the author's pointers toward as yet ill-explored questions confronting evolutionary theory and that theory's limitations she sees as deriving from its embrace of conventional polarities of gender and sexuality. Evolutionary biology has much more to learn and religious faith is an unfinished journey. For Roughgarden, and for this reader, there's no necessary opposition in that.

1 comment:

bookpublishers said...

Superb post, Roughgarden's ideas may seem strange or different to some, but I believe her Christian strength is uniting.

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