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Intellectuals Who Doubt Darwin

A bracing collection of controversial writings.

By 11.23.04

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Uncommon Dissent:
Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing

Edited by William A. Dembski
(ISI Books, 366 pages, $28; $18 paper)

WACO, Texas -- At one time, the debate over Darwin's theory existed as a cartoon in the modern imagination. Thanks to popular portrayals of the Scopes Trial, secularists regularly reviewed the happy image of Clarence Darrow goading William Jennings Bryan into agreeing to be examined as an expert witness on the Bible and then taking him apart on the stand. Because of the legal nature of the proceedings that made evolution such a permanent part of the tapestry of American pop culture, it is fitting that this same section of the tapestry began to unravel due to the sharp tugs of another prominent legal mind, Phillip Johnson.

The publication of his book, Darwin on Trial, now appears to have marked a new milestone in the debate over origins. Prior to Johnson's book, the critics of evolution tended to occupy marginalized sectarian positions and focused largely on contrasting Darwin's ideas with literalist readings of the Genesis account. Johnson's work was different. Here we had a doubter of Darwin willing to come out of the closet, even though his credentials were solid gold establishment in nature. He had attended the finest schools, clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, taught law as a professor at highly ranked Berkeley, and authored widely-used texts on criminal law. Just as Darrow cross-examined the Bible and Bryan's understanding of it, Johnson cross-examined Darwin and got noticed in the process. He spent much of the last decade debating the issue with various Darwinian bulldogs and holding up his end pretty well.

PHILLIP JOHNSON, AND a number of others, raised enough doubts about the dominant theory to cause a number of intellectuals to take a hard look, particularly at the gap between what can be proven and what is simply asserted to be true. Since that time, authors with more technical backgrounds, like mathematician/philosopher William Dembski and biochemist Michael Behe, have published books providing even more powerful critiques of the neo-Darwinian synthesis based on intelligent design theory. Behe's work has been particularly disturbing to evolution advocates because he seems to have proven that organic machines at the molecular level are irreducibly complex and therefore could not have been the products of natural selection because there never would have been any intermediate working mechanism to select. Now, the two team up as Dembski edits and Behe contributes to a bracing collection of controversial writings titled Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing.

Dembski displays the intellectual doggedness of the group of contributors when he uses his introductory essay to ruthlessly track down and scrutinize the footnotes offered by those who would refute Behe's case. Reference after reference claiming to have decisively defeated Behe turns out to be inadequate to the task. What passes for refutation is instead a collection of question-begging and "just-so stories." Right away, Dembski sets the tone for the book. Nothing will be uncontested. The pro-evolution community will be made to fight for every inch of intellectual real estate without relying on the aura of prestige or the lack of competent critics to bolster their case.

The best way to read the book is by beginning at the end and perusing the profiles of the contributors. There, the reader will be able to select essays from representatives of a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, philosophy, biochemistry, biophysics, chemistry, genetics, law, and medicine. The most enjoyable in terms of sheer brio are the essays by Dembski, Behe, Frank Tipler, Cornelius Hunter, and David Berlinski. Tipler's essay on the process of getting published in a peer-reviewed journal is particularly relevant and rewarding because it deals with one of the biggest strikes against Intelligent Design. ID theorists have had a notoriously difficult time getting their work published in professional journals. Tipler, a professor of mathematical physics at Tulane, crankily and enjoyably explains why.

TOP HONORS, HOWEVER, go to David Berlinski's essay, "The Deniable Darwin," which originally appeared in Commentary. The essay is rhetorically devastating. Berlinski is particularly strong in taking apart Richard Dawkins' celebrated computer simulation of monkeys re-creating a Shakespearean sentence and thereby "proving" the ability of natural selection to generate complex information. The mathematician and logician skillfully points out that Dawkins rigged the game by including the very intelligence in his simulation he disavows as a cause of ordered biological complexity. It's clear that Berlinski hits a sore spot when one reads the letters Commentary received in response to the article. Esteemed Darwinists like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett respond with a mixture of near-hysterical outrage and ridicule. Berlinski's responses are also included. At no point does he seem the slightest bit cowed or overwhelmed by the personalities arrayed against him.

For the reader, the result is simply one of the most rewarding reading experiences available. Berlinski and his critics engage in a tremendous intellectual bloodletting, with Berlinski returning fire magnificently. In a particularly amusing segment, Berlinski, constantly accused of misperception, writes, "For reasons that are obscure to me, both [Mr. Gross] and Daniel Dennett carelessly assume that they are in a position to instruct me on a point of usage in German, my first language." Though his foes repeatedly accuse Berlinski of being a "creationist," the tag has little chance of sticking to a man arguing for little more than agnosticism on the question of origins and who disavows any religious principles aside from the possible exception of hoping to "have a good time all the time." One suspects that the portion of the book occupied by the Berlinski essay and subsequent exchanges will gain wide currency.

For far too long, the apologists for Darwin have relied on a strategy of portraying challengers as simple-minded religious zealots. The publication of Uncommon Dissent and many more books like it, will severely undermine the success of such portrayals. During the past decade, it has become far too obvious that there are such things as intellectuals who doubt Darwin and that their ranks are growing. The dull repetition of polemical charges in place of open inquiry, debate, and exchange may continue, but with fewer and fewer honest souls ready to listen.

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About the Author

Hunter Baker is associate dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award. His personal website is www.hunterbaker.wordpress.com.