Root and Branch | The Nation


Root and Branch

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Lienesch is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the successive waves of anti-Darwinism, right up to intelligent design. Kitcher, as I said, reflects on why Americans need God. He mentions the moving story of a noted agnostic scholar who found comfort in a great New York cathedral, after she had learned that her child would soon die of a horrible disease. A cathedral? Somehow, that is a giveaway. Kitcher's background is Episcopalian (mine, too, for my sins). I think he is just not down to earth enough when he turns to the abiding strengths of religion. I'd like to say his heart is in the right place, unlike the current crop of atheist propagandists, but the trouble is that, as with many Episcopalians, it is more mind than heart. (It takes one to know one.)

About the Author

Ian Hacking
Ian Hacking, the author of The Taming of Chance and other books, is an honorary professor at the Collège de...

As a foreign kibitzer, I would like to repeat what I said at the start about democracy. Movements need perspiration and organization, but they also need uptake by the people. I have no use for anti-Darwinian campaigners, but I do have a lot of respect for popular skepticism. The people do not trust those who present themselves as elite. If you want a sense of the monstrous self-confident complacency of days gone by, read H.L. Mencken's daily reports to the Baltimore Sun on the Scopes trial, now reissued under the title A Religious Orgy in Tennessee. Or read any of the self-indulgent, virulent atheists in circulation today--Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens being just two. Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt. That part of the American population that believes God made man in His own image has a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls. I am inclined to say, God bless the people, even when they get it wrong.

I have said nothing about the second sticking point for the anti-Darwin movement, that chance variation and natural selection have sufficed to produce the living world as we know it. It is an incredible doctrine. Darwin himself was pretty cautious about it. I respect anyone who says he cannot believe it. But that is where one should stay, in a state of disbelief. Once you start arguing against it, you end up being silly.

Intelligent design is silly. It is a refurbished version of the argument advanced at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth by those I call Royal Society divines--important Anglican clergymen, often fellows of the Royal Society of London, the leading scientific institution of the day. The argument at its most concise is known as Bishop Paley's pocket watch. If you found something like a watch in the desert, you would of course suppose it was an artifact of an intelligent watchmaker. Here we find ourselves in an intricate world that we think of as an elaborate mechanism, so there must be an intelligent worldmaker.

The argument had predecessors: that there must be a creator because there is an obvious purpose in the world. That is called the teleological argument, which goes back to antiquity and which is Thomas Aquinas's "Fifth Way" to God. Kant and Hegel thought it the sole rational consideration of merit. But only the English, obsessed by machines, tried to construct an argument based specifically on the fact that the world appears to be very well and intricately designed, a pocket watch on a universal scale. (The "argument from design" is a pretty standard part of American freshman or sophomore philosophy courses, but there is not even a name for it in France, where it seems at best, well, sophomoric.)

There is a problem with the argument, including its most up-to-date versions: It says nothing about the designer. At the end of the teleological argument, the Fifth Way, we learn about the purpose in the world, and purpose requires an agent. Having established a purposeful agent who creates, an Aquinas can exclaim, "And this Being can be only Thou, O Lord!" That does not come so easily at the end of an argument from design. So the world must have a brilliant engineer, a molecular engineer at that, a veritable nanotechnologist. Why think this being has anything to do with any god, Christian or other?

There is the trite ad hominem observation, repeated by Kitcher, that quite a few aspects of the design, even of humans, seem rather imperfect; a reasonably good engineer could have done better. The nasty cynic says, "Why not an absolutely evil genius as designer?" So we get an argument for the existence of the devil at work.

An amused cynic is more fun. Life seems the handiwork of a mad designer, who fits several DSM diagnoses from the American Psychiatric Association. He--only a male would do this--is obsessed with intricate details so long as they do not get too much in the way of other devices he concocts. For example, he designs and builds a bird such as the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea, apt name, that), which annually migrates in a figure-eight pattern across the North and South Atlantic from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Brilliant, brilliant design, a navigation system with two routes from pole to pole, sturdy enough to survive earth's cruelest seas--all madly miniaturized in a brain the size of a plum. But why on earth, were it not for a lunatic fascination with design itself? A proof, thus, that the earth with its denizens is the work of a crazed design-freak.

This silly cynicism invites a more attractive thought. Leibniz proposed that the actual world is the one that combines the maximum of variety with the minimum of complexity for its fundamental laws. The "best" world, the world sought by the most intelligent designer, is one that maximizes variety in its phenomena and simplicity of basic law. Such a world has no place for a specific set of plans for the Arctic tern. The upshot is not attractive to those who favor intelligent design. It is in effect a proof that we live in a world of quantum-mechanical laws that are counterintuitive (to humans) but intrinsically simple--a world that, once these laws are in place, is then allowed to evolve out of a very few raw materials by chance and selection into unendingly complex patterns, including life on earth as we know it. It is a fact that you will get complex structures if you just let such systems run.

The wisest designer would choose the governing laws and initial conditions that best capitalized on this mathematical fact. A stupid designer would have to arrange for all the intricate details (the Arctic tern again) that anti-Darwinians eulogize, but an intelligent designer would let chance and natural selection do the work. In other words, in the light of our present knowledge, we can only suppose that the most intelligent designer (I do not say there is one) would have to be a "neo-Darwinian" who achieves the extraordinary variety of living things by chance.

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