Rocinante Rides Again: Intelligent Design Redux

Over at The Loom, the science writer Carl Zimmer is taking a turn at bat against the creationists. In a thoughtful, nicely written 4-part series, he recounts his experience trying to engage Intelligent Design advocate David Klinghoffer and pin him down on the evidence for his view, and provides an excellent summary of some of the chromosomal evidence for our evolutionary split from the higher apes. Zimmer is characteristically succinct, clear, and entertaining, but he’s tilting at windmills: The argument isn’t really about science.

Zimmer has been asking for even a shred of actual evidence that evolution can’t have happened, and of course the folks at The BioLogic Institute (the new entity of the Discovery Institute) are hemming, heeing, and hawing–cherry-picking quotes from 10 year old papers, masking data behind paywalls, twisting and massaging facts until they seem to say what they want them to. It’s like trying to talk seriously to a 9 year-old playground bully: they’re interested only in winning the argument, not in serious inquiry, and they use any rhetorical technique they need to do so.

As I argued in The Panda’s Black Box, this is just what you’d expect. The ID movement is patently an offspring of American creationism (which Ron Numbers shows irrefutably in his superb history, The Creationists). The last time we saw these folks was in Dover, PA, in 2006. But there is a new ID text, Science and Human Originsand the ID folks are shilling it. It may seem strange that this would pop up now, of all times. We’ve never had more evidence for evolution and human origins. But such moments are always when we have a new wave of anti-evolutionism. Also, the country’s political center has never been farther right. Although it claims to deal in the realm of scientific evidence, ID is one of the things that science doesn’t explain (or in this case, explain away). Intelligent Design is not about evidence.

How can that be, given all the scientific “evidence” they throw around? I mean that ID is about the cultural authority of science, not about science itself. It’s about fear of the godless Dawkinsian world Darwinists advocate, and about the dominance of science–and especially biology–in our world today. The IDers use science to fight science–they have taken up the weapon of their “oppressors” because they too recognize that science is the most powerful weapon today. Intelligent Design is superficially scientific anti-science–a tacit, ironic vindication of the power of the scientific worldview.

I actually have some sympathy for that view—and that sympathy makes my small intestine clench, because I disagree with the IDers on just about every point of policy and social theory. I do not agree with the means the IDers employ and I certainly don’t agree with the worldview they espouse (however coyly). I’m as godless as they come.

But I too have a critique of science and particularly biomedicine as the dominant cultural force in our society. Science has an enormous amount of power in our society–rightwingnuts notwithstanding–and I take part of my job to be being nervous about that. Science and technology have done much to improve our quality of life, but it does not have a good track record as a basis for social policy. So I defend science against irrationality, but I criticize its cultural hegemony. Dissent is the sincerest form of  cheerleading.

We should stop engaging the IDers on issues of science. They’re not interested in sincere inquiry–it’s bound to be fruitless. And it’s not what the argument is about, anyway. What we need to worry about is that textbook. If the rightwingnuts get their way and teach American children their medieval worldview, their other great concern–the Decline of America–will only accelerate. America will be to Europe and Asia what Mississippi and Kansas are to America.

The way to disarm the IDers is to dismount Rocinante and contextualize this movement. History, not science, provides the explanation.


20 thoughts on “Rocinante Rides Again: Intelligent Design Redux”

  1. No-one seems to pick up on the most interesting question about ‘Creationists’. These are intelligent people who clearly do not themselves believe the fantasies they are peddling. So what is their motive? Why are they trying to control the minds of vulnerable people?

    • That’s part of what I’m saying. The IDers are very smart–it’s not that they don’t *get* the evidence. It’s that evidence doesn’t persuade them. The complication is that they themselves use scientific evidence in their arguments. They use scientific evidence and arguments as weapons, not as tools of inquiry. So it’s pointless to try to engage in inquiry with them.

      Their motive, I maintain, is to critique what they see as an immoral worldview. What you call controlling minds, they would say is making the world a more moral place. As a rational secular person trained in science, I say they go about it in a dangerous and hostile way. But as a historian, I have some sympathy for a general critique of a political and social world dominated by science.

      • I think it is more than that. It is a deliberate deception in order to keep people guessing about what science is and what is culturally important. I have had very intelligent people expression viewpoints on ID that show that the strategy has worked to cause confusion over the facts of biology.

        • I agree that’s part of the strategy. My point is to address why they use the tools of science at all, given the incommensurability of faith vs rational arguments. Why use rational arguments to bolster an essentially faith-based position? Because science is the dominant cultural enterprise of our age. If you are using science to make an anti-science argument, it makes sense to deliberately cause confusion over the facts of biology.

  2. The article ends by saying;
    “History … provides the explanation.”

    Historically, we are told:

    Exodus 20:1,8,11 (NIV 1984Bible)
    The Ten Commandments
    1 “And God spoke all these words …
    8 ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy ….
    11 For in six days
    the LORD made the heavens and the earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.
    Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’

    Creation in six days, one day of rest.
    The pattern and reason for our 7 day week.

  3. Are you really trying to draw me in to a debate over the historicity of the bible, given my post? If there’s one thing that should be clear from it, it’s that I’m not playing that game.

  4. @Joseph – Wait a minute, the heavens and the earth and everything in them were created in six days just several thousand years ago, because the Bible says so. That’s not even a logical argument, let alone scientific. Science deals with relevant real word data (the evidence). “Because the Bible says so” is just an empty circular argument and thus a mere fallacy. However, even though “genotopia” didn’t do so, he should have thanked you for jumping in so quickly to prove his point. Belief in creationism isn’t really about the scientific evidence. Indeed, it isn’t even about rational analysis (which is why creationist rhetoric is so permeated with the usage of fallacious rhetoric). It’s about belief in particular religious doctrines on the basis of religious faith. Everything else is treated as a mere tool to serve at that altar. Anything that doesn’t serve at that altar is sacrificed.

    • Steve the bible is very clear that God’s time is not measured as man’s and a honest reading of the creation story in Genesis shows that the earth was not created in 6 days as you understand them. Once you can grasp that concept there is no conflict between science and Genesis, only between the theologies of faith and secularism.

    • Steve the bible is very clear that God’s time is not measured as man’s and a honest reading of the creation story in Genesis shows that the earth was not created in 6 days as you understand them. Once you can grasp that concept there is no conflict between science and Genesis, only between the theologies of faith and secularism, which sadly and perhaps unavoidably taint science.
      You will never find what you are not looking for.

  5. Why waste your time with “creationist clowns”, that don’t understand Genesis? It would be more of an accomplishment if you would lock horns with the world’s only Genesis expert. Both old and young Earth creationism are a misrepresentation of the Genesis text, and Intelligent Design is an inept waste of time, that does not address the geologic and fossil records of Earth.

    The correct opposing view to evolution is the “Observations of Moses”. So challenging those other silly creationists is old news, and you’re just playing in the sand box. Stand up and challenge someone more meaningful. Even the Pope, all the Vactican, and all the Arch-bishops of England were too scared to respond.

    Herman Cummings
    [email protected]

  6. I propose to you that creationism/Intelligent Design and evolution are entirely compatible, the trouble comes from attempting to use science to discredit God or the reverse.

    • @Blossom. In a way, I agree with you, although perhaps not in the way you expect. But yes, there’s no point in using science to discredit god or vice versa. God simply isn’t scientific–although many have claimed that natural laws demonstrate the existence of (a) god.

  7. Click my name or click here for a review of a great book that puts ID in its place while warning that creationism will still recur in other guises.

    This fight will be constant, but it is not a scientific fight. It is an ideological one, where science’s antagonists play by a different set of rules. But we need to keep fighting and pointing out both evidence on our side and logical failures on the other side.

  8. Sure, Ken Miller, the author of Only a Theory, is the one stirring the pot again now. I strongly support the fight against adopting ID textbooks in science classes, and I support the teaching of evolution generally. What I think is a waste of time and probably counterproductive, is arguing with creationists. Miller does all three.

  9. I’m at a loss as why one would think that I.D. proponents have anything to “win” or that they seek to “control the minds of vulnerable people…” Yes. It’s truly sinister to have the thought of design in mind when studying the aerodynamics of the dragonfly or trying to think of a way that the functions necessary for cicatrisation could have developed incrementally. Tsk! Tsk! How dare they! Criminal I say! (Insert the sound of pitchforks and clubs clanking and the sound of torches being lit!) Really? Have we even progressed past the Salem Witch Trials?

    Why do we countinue to argue the issue of Creationism when that is the point of I.D. (insert a labored “Duh” here). However, Creationism is a deduction from design not a prop for it. This is agreed to by most I.D. frontrunners – and not at all cloaked (Psssst! The “I” stands for Intelligence. Very sneaky huh?). Glad there’s PhD’s out there to do the heavy lifting for us rubes.

    As to “cherry picking” research citations we all know that never occurs in Darwinian circles. (I mean who needs those research dollars anyway?)

    As to the authors atestation, “I’m as godless as they come.” – Why does that leave you off of the agenda driven hook? That is certainly not a morally neutral position – although it is presented as such.

    Who, in the Darwinian camp, has the honesty or courage to say they promote certain (strident and intolerant) worldviews – nested neatly in science of course – have absolutely no effect on their work. The cloaking that is done is that there is an unwillingness to look at the inherent design of things that are. That is the basis of I.D.’s inquiry.

    As Doug Axe says, “… I’m asking evolutionists to do what other scientists do when they aim to say something credible about the distant past. They do the work of connecting it in a credible way to the present. They base their claims about what did happen on their understanding of what does happen. Before scientists claim that a natural process produced humans from apes, they ought to spend some time reflecting on what would have to be true in order for this really to happen…”

    Yes… that sounds very, very suspicious. Who would ever ask science to do what… well… what science does. Audacious!!

  10. You wrote: “Although it claims to deal in the realm of scientific evidence, ID is one of the things that science doesn’t explain (or in this case, explain away). Intelligent Design is not about evidence.”

    What do you mean ID is not about evidence? Intelligent Design is not based on some fancy idea that popped into the mind of a 9th grader. From our observable environement through archeology, forensic science etc. we are pretty sure how to recognize presence of civilization and foul play respectively. The reason is because effects/signs of intelligence can be distinguished from effect by natural causes. For example, Mount Rushmore. But one could raise the argument that Mount Rushmore is understood to be caused by intelligence because we know from hstory that it was so. To this it could be replied that archeology finds new civilization and evidence for civilizations. There were archeological findings of civilizations that were totally unknown till the day of finding. One streak of chalk marking in a cave is enough to conclude the presence of Intelligence (civilization). If one finds remains of a bunch of sticks put together and burnt, it is reasonable to conclude presence of Intelligence. Why is it then ID is not science when the theory itself rests on the fact that intelligibility is most probably an effect of Intelligence.

    • Intelligent Design is inept, a waste of class time, and does not explain Genesis, nor the fossil record. Just telling the student that “there had to be a Creator”, over and over again is not giving much information concerning the pre-historic events that lead to the creation of current life forms. The ONLY correct opposing view to evolution is the “Observations of Moses”. Throw away everything else!

  11. Repeating “The ONLY correct opposing view to evolution is [my book] the ‘Observations of Moses'” over and over again isn’t giving much information either. You’re being as dogmatic as the IDers.

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