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.


Nice Review

Just got this nice review of The Science of Human Perfection in Publishers’ Weekly!

Here’s the link, and here’s the text:

In this intriguing history of medical genetics, Comfort, associate professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins, makes a bold and rather uncomfortable assertion: that together with the compassionate drive to reduce individual suffering, the eugenic drive to improve the biological trajectory of the human race overall has always been central to the practice of genetic medicine, despite attempts to separate the discipline from its racist reputation after WWII. Comfort supports his assertion through carefully tracing the development of ideas about heritability and how they became manifest in academic, medical, and governmental contexts in America from the early 1900s to the present. Two strains of thought in particular come together: the Garrodian influence, focused on individual biochemical variation and the interaction between a particular patient’s natural constitution and environment; and the Galtonian influence, tracing traits across large populations, with a focus on social implications and human engineering. As we move from treating manifest disease to predictive and preventative medicine based on “latent disease” detected only in an individual’s genes, Comfort provides some complex food for thought about the balance between creating good for individuals and for the human species, and about the ways we define the methods we use.