The Weekly Standard, June 7, 1999, BOOKS & ARTS; Pg. 35
Michael J. Behe is professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University and the author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.
In the 1940s, the British astronomer Fred Hoyle was puzzling over the origins of the element carbon. According to the science of his day, virtually no carbon should be made by stars, the nuclear furnaces that forge almost all the other elements. Yet carbon, essential for life, indisputably exists. So Hoyle guessed that there is a lucky arrangement of things, "resonance levels" for several kinds of atomic nuclei that allows stars to make carbon.
And when other physicists searched for such resonance levels, they found them, exactly where Hoyle predicted.
In consternation Hoyle, an atheist, later wrote,
A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
And that, in a nutshell, is what philosophers call "the argument for design." When a number of separate, very unlikely events combine to produce something as complex as life, we suspect that the conditions were intentionally arranged for the purpose.
Design arguments remain controversial for a number of reasons, the most obvious being their theological overtones: Theists generally find them persuasive; atheists don't. But sometimes, as the example of Hoyle demonstrates, and atheist will find himself forced to accept such arguments.
And sometimes it works the other way around. Robert Pennock, a professor of the Philosophy of science at the University of Texas, is a theist, a Quaker, who doesn't like the design argument, and he's written his new Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism to parry it. Unfortunately, whatever merits exist in Pennock's analysis, they are obscured by biased rhetoric. His term "creationism," for instance, is one that readers will typically take to mean biblical literalism: a "young earth" created as recently as 4004 B.C., Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and all the rest.
But Pennock applies "creationist" to writers who believe in none of this. His actual opponents turn out to have doctorates in things like embryology, biochemistry, the philosophy of science, and mathematics from places like the University of Chicago, Cambridge, and Berkeley. And they write books and articles that engage, rather than avoid, serious issues in science and philosophy.
To be fair, Pennock does note the difference between modern intelligent design theorists and biblical literalists. But he never asks whether the term "creationist" can be used for both, and he exploits the confusion by using lines of argument against the modern intelligent design theorists that tell only against the old-fashioned literalists.
His title, Tower of Babel, for example, alludes to a device that he uses to try to get young-earth creationists to admit the error of their ways: The Bible says that all the plants and animals were created within a few days of one another; the Bible also records that human languages were created simultaneously by God, to foil plans for the tower of Babel; so Pennock concludes that if he can convince creationists there is good evidence that modern languages arose from a common ancestral language, he may be able to get them to give up their insistence on the simultaneous creation of all living things.
He announces proudly, "To my knowledge no one has drawn this important parallel before" between linguistic and biological evolution. Well, no wonder. People who believe that the Bible trumps fossils and Stephen Jay Gould will also use it to trump Noam Chomsky and Indo-European roots.
But Pennock is being disingenuous. His target is not biblical literalists; it's intelligent design theorists, who have no quarrel with linguistic changes. His whole etymological argument stands as an exercise in misdirection: The point is simply to leave an association in the reader's mind between the design argument and the inability to see that French is similar to Spanish.
Throughout the book Pennock milks "creationism" for all the negative connotations he can. He calls it a "meme" (the term coined by the Darwinist popularizer Richard Dawkins to mean an idea that spreads by natural selection), even though many other Darwinists disavow the concept of memes. So, Pennock says, a new variety of creationism (by which he means intelligent design theory) "evolved" from young-earth creationism as a "cluster of ideas that reproduces itself" and that these new intelligent design "creationists" today "forget their own history," as though there were a straight intellectual line to be drawn between the two types of opponents of absolute Darwinism.
But Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at Berkeley and the chief target of Pennock's criticisms, was an agnostic until his mid-thirties and came by his skepticism of evolution after reading the atheist Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker and the agnostic Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. I am a lifelong Roman Catholic who was taught Darwinian evolution in parochial school and believed it until, as a professor of biochemistry, I started noticing some biochemical difficulties for natural selection. Pennock's supposed intellectual lineage is baseless. It's true that the argument for design has a venerable history, going back at least to Aristotle. It's had its low points over the last few hundred years, but it has made a strong comeback at the end of the twentieth century. And its rising fortunes have been boosted by discoveries principally in physics and astronomy: The Big Bang theory and "anthropic coincidences" (life-friendly features of the universe, such as the resonance levels Hoyle pointed out) are summarized in a number of scholarly texts and popular books. More recent design arguments have also been based on chemical problems confronting the origin of life and on aspects of biology.
Pennock, however, is preternaturally uninterested in scientific objections to evolutions. "Of course," he yawns, modern design theorists "are right to suggest that the origin of life remains a mystery." But, he adds lethargically, "Research into this topic has started only relatively recently" which turns out to be seventy-five years ago. Of the problems I pointed out in my 1996 Darwin's Black Box, for example, he remarks, "Behe will no doubt complain that I have not addressed the biochemical details of his real examples, but as we have noted, the evidence is not yet in on those questions." But several of the biochemical systems I discussed have been well understood for forty years. For Pennock, the evidence will never be in if it points to intelligent design.
Tower of Babel puts two philosophical objections to intelligent design theory. First, Pennock faults it for using negative argumentation and false dichotomies: To argue that Darwinism is wrong is not to prove that Genesis literalism is right. Perhaps some evolutionary mechanism other than natural selection is at work, or perhaps some other creation story, like that of an American Indian tribe, is true instead of Genesis.
Pennock admits that Phillip Johnson, for example, does not defend biblical literalism, but he says that Johnson commits the fallacy anyway, because as a Christian he speaks of an active God who can intervene in nature. This, Pennock sniffs, neglects such possibilities as deism, an impersonal God, and a "universal life force."
Philosophers call this logic chopping. Johnson was writing not for philosophers but for the general public. Suppose he had spelled out the argument this way:
Darwinism is the most plausible unintelligent mechanism, yet it has tremendous difficulties and the evidence garnered so far points to its inability to do what its advocates claim for it. If unintelligent mechanisms can't do the job, then that shifts the focus to intelligent agency. That's as far as the argument against Darwinism takes us, but most people already have other reasons for believing in a personal God who just might act in history, and they will find the argument for intelligent design fits with what they already hold.
With the argument arranged this way, evidence against Darwinism does count as evidence for an active God, just as valid negative advertising against the Democratic candidate will help the Republican, even though Vegetarian and One-World candidates are on the ballot, too. Life is either the result of exclusively unintelligent causes or it is not, and the evidence against the unintelligent production of life is clearly evidence for intelligent design. The second philosophical objection in Tower of Babel is that design violates "methodological naturalism," which means roughly that science must act as though the universe were a closed system of cause and effect, whether it really is or not. "Without the constraint of lawful regularity," Pennock lectures, "inductive evidential inference cannot get off the ground."
But wasn't it an "inductive evidential inference" that led the atheist Fred Hoyle to conclude that nature doesn't follow merely blind forces? Isn't it "the constraint of lawful regularity" that turns chemicals in origin-of-life experiments into goo at the bottom of the test tube, rather than into primitive cells? Pennock implies that our only choices are a cartoon world, where genies and fairies swirl about endlessly dispensing magic, or a world of relentless materialism where, say, the charitable work of a Mother Teresa is explained only in terms of evolutionary selection coefficients.
Why should we think our explanatory possibilities are limited to these choices? Observation and experiment demonstrate that law-like regularities explain much of nature. The same methods indicate that intelligence accounts for other aspects. It is ludicrous to forbid Fred Hoyle to notice what for all the world looks like design, or to say that if he does notice, he's no longer a scientist.
Methodological naturalism proves at last nothing more than an artificial restriction on thought, and it will eventually pass. Despite would-be gatekeepers like Pennock, the argument for design is gaining strength with the advance of science and for a simple reason once described by the physicist Percy Bridgman: "The scientific method, as far as it is a method, is nothing more than doing one's mind, no holds barred."
No holds barred, even though that may force us to conclude that the universe reveals, in its intelligent design, traces of its intelligent designer.
Copyright © 1999 Michael Behe. All rights
reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.14.99