Evolution and Design

April 28, 2008
Dear Reverend,

     Your recent article concerning evolution was thoughtful and well-written but, to my mind, begs for a rebuttal on a number of points.
     As we all know, Charles Darwin, the author of what we call “evolution”, wrote the Origin of the Species to explain the variety of life on our planet.  He concluded, based on years of thought and observation, that the dynamic at work was “natural selection” – or the ability of successful species to change and adapt to their environment.  Prior to that time we really didn’t understand the diversity of nature.  It was nice to think that God simply made the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea.  But to many that explanation fell short.  Although he did not understand the mechanism, Darwin did recognize the “random” character of adaptation, and it did trouble him a great deal from a spiritual perspective.  
     Although man’s curiousity about the world stretches back to the earliest times, scientific advance has not been steady.  Greek and Roman civilizations made strides toward turning mystery into knowledge and reason.  The Fall of Rome, however, turned the clock back, and we entered 1000 years of tyranny that demanded that all thought conform to religious doctrine.  It is not accidental that during the Dark Ages little progress was made in bettering the lot of human beings.  It is also not accidental that such things as steam engines, electricity and penicillin came along only after reason broke free of religious authoritarianism.
     As much as I admire your convictions and your obvious good intentions, many of us regard “intelligent design” as proof that the Dark Ages are not completely behind us.  We look at Islamic fundamentalists, for example, and see that religious absolutism remains alive and well.  We believe that the future of society requires that we protect the distinction between scientific knowledge and religious belief.  There is room for both, many believe, but the two categories are essentially different.  We fear that intelligent-designers have lost that message.
     My strongest criticism concerns the fallacy that evolution and design are merely competing theories.  I believe this fallacy is particularly dangerous, first, because intelligent fellows like you should know better, but second, because it intentionally wraps its arguments in the jargon of science to mislead us into thinking that the two notions are comparable.
     They are not.  Evolution is, in fact, a remarkably sophisticated, comprehensive and detailed theory that explains phenomenon from the mammalian characteristics of the great whales to the behavior of anti-oxidant enzymes.  From the psychology of the human brain to the genetic clocks built into the mitochondria of each human cell, evolution opens a panorama of understanding of the world around us.
     Design, on the other hand, to put it plainly, explains exactly nothing.  It points to the “failures” of evolution, and does a victory lap.  Although you raise the strawman of the Scientific Method (and then decline to do much with him), I believe that you actually misconceive how science works.  When, in your view, evolution “fails” to explain this or that, you conclude that design is vindicated.  This is nonsense.  Most scientific experiments fail.  Indeed, many scientific discoveries arise from the most interesting failures.  The fact is that the physical world is deeply complex.  We don’t understand lots of it.  That we don’t, and that we frequently bump into a wall trying, does not prove design, but underscores how difficult real science is.                                                                                                                                You refer to the “monopoly” of The Theory of Evolution, as if it were a crime family bossing the scientific waterfront.  One might as persuasively include the monopoly of the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Electromagnetism.  I believe, with all due respect, that you are missing an important point.  If a young biologist were to stumble over proof that evolution was in fact erroneous, akin to Einstein’s historic de-bunking of the theory of the “ether”, this person would, like Einstein, find himself not a pariah, but rather a hero.  Science, as the pursuit of flawed human beings, may not be perfect, but neither are we living in North Korea.  A discovery that refuted evolution – and we are not speaking of some crack-brain, pseudo-science – but a real discovery, would rock the foundations of science, just as did the theories of Newton and Einstein, and spawn a generation of celebrated professorships.  To misunderstand this betrays a profound blindness about the world we live in – and about the real integrity of science.
     You complain also, if I understand you, that supporters of evolution are somehow picking on the design supporters, even violating their civil rights (the great bogeyman of the Modern Age).  I cannot see that point either.  Science cares no more about design than the quarterback cares about the fat guy shouting at him from the stands.  He has work to do.  All that supporters of evolution are saying is that if you don’t subscribe to science, you don’t get a seat at the scientific table.  Science can be ruthless and will not tolerate cranks.
      Of course, Evolution may explain a lot, but it does not explain everything.  Life is too rich and complex.  “Evolution” itself has undergone substantial change.  We have traveled from the early notion of “survival of the fittest” to a theory of steady mutational change, to the prevailing idea of environment-driven “punctuated equilibrium”.  Notably, design suffers no such growing pains.  The proponents of design simply sit on the sidelines and heckle.  They are not, to make a point of it, scientists.  In fact, they are quite the opposite.  They are anti-scientists who are unhappy, as was the Roman Church with Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus and the hundreds of others who challenged the existing power structure.  The proponents of design are simply threatened by evolution.  And I can’t say I blame them.
      Religious faith in the Age of Science is difficult.  The cold, random character of evolution, man’s unmistakable descent from earlier primates, the vast antiquity of the Earth, the incomprehensible size of the universe, the baffling and bizarre behavior of matter at the quantum level, and other progeny of science unsettle our faith.  It unsettles mine.  But finding faith and morality in the modern world – the real world – is the challenge, isn’t it?  Denying evolution, and cobbling up some hollow and jejune substitute, is beneath both of us.

1 Comment

  1. Nostradamus says:

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