Parading Superficial Victories • Denis’ Blog, Portfolio and Resumé

Parading Superficial Victories

Non-scientists want to determine what is scientific

Charles Darwin by CGP Grey under Attribution 2.0 Generic

Darwinist proponents of the Dover Trial parade around superficial, rather than substantive, victories.

In the weighing of complex, competing ideas, it takes a long time to construct an informed opinion, and then even longer to work out how to articulate that opinion. Along the way, though, there are clues as to where the conversation among the community of experts is heading.

A few signals that somebody holds a strong position are:

an ability to describe unambiguous evidence that would change one’s mind; a charitable description of competing arguments (where arguments are engaged in their strongest form); an apparent lack of emotional involvement with the subject matter; etc.

By contrast, a few signals that somebody holds a weak position are:

equivocation, used as a means to categorically dismiss an argument rather than engage it; an uncharitable description of competing arguments (where arguments are engaged in their weakest form); emotional involvement with the subject matter; etc.

Of all these signals, there is one that has stood out to me lately: settling for, and parading around, superficial, rather than substantive, victories. I suspect that the rise in frequency of this particular “signal” has something to do with marking the ten-year anniversary of the “victory” being paraded about: the 2005 Dover trial. At this trial, colloquially described as a sequel to the infamous Scopes trial of 1925, a Pennsylvania school board attempted to insert Biblical Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) into public classrooms. Judge Jones ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and ever since, the trial has been lauded by the Darwinian camp as a “crushing defeat” for ID (which by the way, opposed the school board’s policy from the beginning). Fortunately for all of us, judges do not decide what is and is not scientific - the scientific community does.

Before getting to what the scientific community is saying, it is worth considering what, exactly, those celebrating Dover are saying (let’s call them “Doverists”). To that end, there are a few pertinent facts. First, Judge Jones told a reporter prior to the trial that he planned to watch the mythical portrayal of the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, for “historical context”. It’s difficult to take an opinion seriously when fiction was an unabashed reference point for rendering that opinion. Second, Judge Jones not only ruled that public schools (in the mere third of Pennsylvania under his jurisdiction) can’t teach Creationism or ID, but also that school boards may not implement education policies that “disparage” evolutionary theory. Blasphemy laws, anyone? Third, it is peculiar that anyone championing “science” would get so excited about the exercise of judicial, rather than scientific, authority. This is especially odd, given that it is often the first recourse of the Darwinian camp to dismiss opponents on grounds that they lack scientific authority, yet these are the same people celebrating the opinion of a non-scientist on scientific questions. Surely, no scientist would consent to having a single non-scientist serve as a peer-reviewer of scientific research, but in the case of Judge Jones, Doverists do so enthusiastically. So as we mark the 10th anniversary of this superficial victory for Darwin, let us keep in mind exactly what it is that the exultant Doverists are also committing their affections to: the exercise of law to settle scientific disputes; blasphemy law; that a non-scientist is an adequate peer to authoritatively review the subject matter.

Nevertheless, Doverists incessantly claim that ID was delivered a “huge blow” in 2005. What they seem to forget is that, at the original Scopes trial, Darwinism lost - and look how that turned out. Now, the tables have turned. ID lost a legal battle in 2005 (and not one of its own making), just as Darwinism lost in 1925. And just as Darwinism continued its advance anyway, so ID has been marching ahead for the past decade. It is now undeniable that ID publishes in mainstream scientific journals, and one of the most unambiguous examples is an article about biology’s “Wow!” signal, published in the journal Icarus (the “Wow!” signal is an allusion to cosmic signals captured by SETI that seemed to indicate an intelligent cause). Highly-successful books have come from the ID camp as well, including Stephen Meyer’s 2013 work, “Darwin’s Doubt,” which held the number one spot in several science categories on Amazon for many months, and Michael Denton’s 2016 book, which is also earning top spots in Amazon’s science categories. It’s not just ID work that’s posing problems for Darwinian evolution. Increasingly, papers are emerging in the scientific literature with titles like “The Fate of Darwinism: Evolution After the Modern Synthesis”, appearing in journals like Biological Theory, saying things like, “Darwinism in its current scientific incarnation has pretty much reached the end of its rope.” Then there are books, like “The Cambrian Explosion”, published in 2013 by undisputed champions of paleontology, Erwin and Valentine, who write skeptically about the explanatory power of Darwinian mechanisms: “One important concern has been whether the microevolutionary patterns commonly studied in modern organisms by evolutionary biologists are sufficient to understand and explain the events of the Cambrian or whether evolutionary theory needs to be expanded to include a more diverse set of macroevolutionary processes. We strongly hold to the latter position.” In other words: Darwinism is no longer adequate to explain the history of life. The examples I cite here are but a tiny sample of a seismic shift in tone currently underway in the scientific literature, and among scientific experts.

This trend is one of the reasons that Karl Giberson described 2013 as “a terrible year for evolution.” It certainly doesn’t help that respected figures in the scientific community have increasingly legitimized the arguments advanced by ID. Michael Behe’s arguments are regularly “refuted” in peer-reviewed journals, and even though Behe is not usually allowed to respond in those same journals, the attention given to his arguments does settle the question, in the affirmative, of whether ID raises challenges to Darwinism (and other materialist ideas) that are worth exploring scientifically. Philosopher of science Thomas Nagel shocked many when he agreed in his 2012 book, “Mind and Cosmos,” saying that “defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude”. Perhaps more startling is the conspicuous subtitle to Nagel’s book: “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. Nagel cites the arguments of Behe, Meyer, and the religiously-neutral Berlinski as instrumental in his change of mind.

Nagel is by no means a singular anomaly among respected intellectuals. One of the early major events that portended the influence of ID arguments was the conversion of atheist-heavyweight, Antony Flew, to a form of theism. James Tour, one of the ten most cited chemists in the world, once delivered a near-polemical review of the state of evolutionary science, saying that nobody, not even Nobel laureates, understand the mechanism for Darwinian evolution (when extrapolated to common descent). An article posted on Tour’s website makes the same case, citing sympathy with ID criticisms of Darwinism while ultimately eschewing the conclusion of ID. It was Tour who persuaded Nobel Laureate and chemist, Richard Smalley, that Darwinism does not explain the diversity of life. In fact, there have been several Nobel Laureates and Nobel candidates who were either ID proponents or were strongly skeptical of Darwinian evolution: Brian Josephson; Abdus Salam; John Eccles; Ernst Chain; Wolfgang Pauli; Guglielmo Marconi; Fred Hoyle; Raymond Damadian; Eugene Wigner; Max Planck; Charles Townes.

The situation has reached a point that even the most ardent Doverists are publicly taking note. The bombastic Jerry Coyne lamented in 2012 that, “Virtually all of the non-creationist opposition to the modern theory of evolution… come from molecular biologists. I’m not sure whether there’s something about that discipline… that makes people doubt the efficacy of natural selection, or whether it’s simply that many molecular biologists don’t get a good grounding in evolutionary biology. And now we learn that another respected philosopher (Jerry Fodor was the first) has come out against neo-Darwinism, too: the distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel.” The opinion of British sociologist, Steven Fuller, is not likely to assuage Coyne’s angst: “Intelligent design is alive and well, but it has begun the sort of process that normally happens to radical ideas that eventually become assimilated into mainstream inquiry… While I don’t predict that ‘intelligent design’ will ever name a distinct academic discipline, I’m confident that it will inform many of them – even in the life sciences.”

Indeed, evidence is accumulating that ID has successfully pushed its way into the public mind, as well as institutions of higher learning and academia. Leveraging the same survey platform used by NBC News and the Los Angeles Times, the Discovery Institute has found that super majorities - mostly over 80% - of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, theists, atheists, and many other demographic measures, all support teaching both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution - a proposition advanced by ID and maligned by Doverists. ID is even making its way into pop culture, with icons like legendary author Stephen King endorsing ID outright in 2014, and top-rated rap artist Lacrae mentioning “intelligent design” by name and alluding to Behe with phrases like “complexity is more than irreducible” in his lyrics.

But like I said, it’s not just pop culture. The journal Nature reported in 2012, with some melodrama, that “South Korea surrenders to creationist demands” (to which ID proponents humorously offered an alternative title: “Darwinists forced to Keep Textbooks Up to Date in South Korea Despite Vigorous Protest From The Darwin Lobby”). One of Brazil’s top universities, Universidade Estadual de Campinas (comparable to Yale in the U.S.), has become the South American hub of ID activities. In 2014, it hosted the First Brazilian Intelligent Design Congress, whose goal was to “consolidate the grounds for Intelligent Design Theory as a scientific theory in Brazil”. Then there are numerous calls from highly-credentialed scientists calling for a paradigm shift away from Darwinian evolution: Osaka Group; Altenberg 16; Oxford 50; and most recently, the Royal Society. This trend has been closely followed by journalist Suzan Mazur, who remarked in an interview with Lawrence Kraus that “whole swaths of the scientific community now have Darwinian science in the margins.”

It’s alright if all of this comes as a surprise to you. The obfuscation committed by Doverist rhetoric is powerful. Do not confuse these signals of weakness for signals of strength. Rather, take some real time to reconsider the issue, to investigate why skeptics are saying the things they are saying. I implore you not to forget that the claims of Darwin’s theory are extraordinary, and that they are not to be taken for granted. As Willian Jennings Bryan once said, “Are those who reject evolution as an unproved hypothesis unreasonable in refusing to accept, as conclusive, the evidence offered by evolutionists in support of a proposition that links every living thing in blood relationship to every other living thing? … Surely, so astounding a proposition should be supported by facts before it becomes binding upon the judgment of a rational being.”

Last year on February 12th, I wrote that Darwin cautioned his own followers against credulity. Today, ten years after Judge Jones supposedly delivered a death blow to ID, it is ID proponents, and not the Doverists, who are heeding Darwin’s advice and making society at all levels, academic and otherwise, less credulous.

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