In the often heated debate between Science and Religion, both sides see their theoretical opponent as nothing more than creative science. SALIENT Feature Writer Nicholas Holm wades into the literature, talks to the experts and comes to some conclusions of his own at the front line of the battle between the two ideas.
It’s a lovely clear day, so instead of taking the bus like you normally would, you decide you can save the dollar or so bus fare to contribute to your drinking fund and walk home from uni instead. The fastest way back to the flat is to cut straight across Kelburn Park, so you hop the fence and are continuing merrily on your way, when a flash of light draws your attention to a shiny polished object sitting in the grass. As you’ve roughly the same attention span and priorities as the common magpie, you find yourself unavoidably drawn to bend down and inspect the offending object. You find a pocket watch, seemingly discarded in the middle of the field. If you’re a scientist you think to yourself, “Fucking Christ, some small creature’s managed to spontaneously evolve into a watch!” And you stop and marvel at the ability of nature to recognise and exploit ecological niches, such as your need for a stylish timepiece, before you slip it into your jeans and rush off home before the Bourbon’s all gone. If you’re a devout Christian on the other hand, you’re more likely to stop and think, “Doodly Dandly, God himself has made me a watch and left it here as proof of his divine plan!” Cradling it to your bosom you rush home, and construct a shrine suitable for such a miracle, where for many years to come it will be visited by impoverished Somali families who believe it has the ability to heal leprosy and grant wishes.
And if you’re a Commerce student you probably bash the watch with a rock to check if there’s any chocolate inside.
“In crossing a heath, suppose … I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” William Paley, Natural Theology, 1802
It should be immediately apparent to most readers that the above scenarios are slightly over-exaggerated (except for the Commerce student, we stand by that), but it never hurts to cover your back when you’re dealing with a subject as touchy as the debate between Creationism and Evolution. It’s an argument that’s fought across a seemingly ever-shifting terrain, where the definitions and positions of each opponent are in a steady state of flux and that, in many cases, is deeply implicated in people’s understanding of the universe and their place in it. The Victoria University Christian Club, for example, were reluctant to grant an interview on the topic because, as they said, “in our experience, interviews like these have often resulted in our being misrepresented or twisted in some way, reflecting badly on our beliefs and on our club.” Such attitudes are representative of the lack of mutual faith that characterises exchanges between Christian and secular parties in these debates.
The Intelligent Design movement has established itself as a political force in the American education system in recent times, with its repeated demands that public schools “teach the controversy,” a tactic that developed after previous attempts to ensure the teaching of Biblical Creationism in place of Darwinian Evolution met with little success. The controversy in question is the apparent debate that has sprung up between Darwinian Evolution on one hand and Intelligent Design on the other. Intelligent Design, or ID as it’s called by those in the know, argues that the complexity of biological systems can not be accounted for through mechanisms of chance and necessity alone, and thus some guiding force must have contributed to the process. Critics of ID argue that this guiding force is the Christian God, and that ID is simply a rejigged version of Creationism. Such allegations aside, ID has proved extremely popular with the Religious Right for whom any alternative to the strict atheism of Darwinian evolution is an improvement.
Adding to the confusion, key terms such as “Intelligent Design” constantly defy demystification as each new book on the subject redraws the parameters and reconsiders the fundamental tenets of the arguably “scientific” discipline. As Intelligent Design has become something of a cottage industry, analogous in size to the anti-Bush publishing market, this has lead to an almost constant reassessment of the field and a degree of confusion between where Creationism leaves off and Intelligent Design begins. “When I hear Intelligent Design it sounds a bit more vague,” says Dave of Victoria’s Christian Union, which he describes as the most “mainstream” Christian group on campus. “Intelligent Design seems to include more of a range, from literal creationism to theistic evolution, but creationism seems more to me like literal seven-day stuff.” In many discussions the two terms become almost mutually interchangeable. This in turn has made it difficult for the supporters of Evolution to mount any real challenge against their ideological opponents, and pro-Creation writers take great delight in charging Evolutionists with failing to appreciate or understand the subtle nuances of their position. So it becomes paramount then, if an argument is to make any attempt to shield itself from the righteous fury of passionate Creationists and their apparently science-minded Intelligent Design friends, we should first distinguish between the two schools of thought.
Intelligent Design as its advocates make precious little effort to hide the fact that they love God. And, as anyone who’s been in love will attest, being in that kind of state can make you say ridiculous, and kinda funny, things. In the book The Origin of Man, Stuart Burgess argues, with a literary straight-face, that the beautiful curves of a woman’s body are proof that we are indeed God’s creations. James Brown would no doubt be proud to have produced such a stirring combination of male chauvinism and Christian theology. This remark comes amidst a whole torrent of similarly inappropriate remarks, such as claims that hourglass waistlines, slender necks, delicate ears and neat hairlines all reveal the unique beauty of humankind, which is proof surely that we were designed by a creator who wanted something nice to look at. The scrotum, probably the most noticeably unattractive corporeal feature in nature, is conveniently absent from Burgess’s list. However, scrotum or not, the question remains, “if God is responsible for designing the beautiful people, who came up with the rest of us?” Burgess’s account of the unique beauty of the human form leaves no doubt that if there is a God, he’s clearly not into fat chicks.
Both sides in this argument are guilty of being blinded by their institutional and ideological assumptions
Creationism is also much more closely wedded to a literal interpretation of the Bible than other alternatives to Evolution. It is therefore much more committed to the downfall of the current scientific understanding of the universe than Intelligent Design, which prefers to present itself as an amendment to the scientific establishment, rather than a full blown opponent. The problem seems to be that science has so far failed to recognise either; that God created the earth and all its creatures in a literal six days, or that he subsequently flooded his creation for 220 days killing all but a select few animals who rode out the storm on a giant wooden boat. Creationist accounts of biological diversity then require that all known species of animal radiated out from the Ararat mountains in Turkey, following the whole Noah-Flood incident, though they’re willing to admit that some land snails may have floated on pumice rafts. Clearly somebody has some explaining to do. And given that most scientists are unwilling to acknowledge the notion of literal seven-day creationism long enough to refute it, a luxury afforded them courtesy of their position at the top of the ideological food chain, the burden of proof quickly falls onto the creationists.
Picking holes in the theory of evolution isn’t as difficult as you might think, on a superficial level at least. The task is made infinitely easier by the lack of any real consensus, not only in biology but in any of the scientific disciplines. A copybook example of Creationist rhetoric in this area is Jonathan Sarfati’s assessment of bird evolution in his polemic, Refuting Evolution. Most scientists agree that dinosaurs, in particular T.Rex-type therapods, are the ancestors of present-day birds. However Sarfati identifies a divergent group who proposed that a species of small tree-dwelling lizards, who first glided and then flew between trees, are the true ancestors. Such disagreement is in no way atypical in scientific circles, where theories are always open to debate and challenge on the basis of new evidence and shifts in theoretical paradigms. This is especially true of fields such as palaeontology where new discoveries have the potential to completely alter inherited models.
Chambers: “If there is design in biology, it’s the illusion of design created by the incremental process of change and it isn’t intelligent.”
Sarfati, a trained scientist with a PhD in Chemistry from Victoria University, should be fully aware that debate and informed dissent are the main methods through which scientific knowledge is constantly refined and advanced. Instead he steps in and, playing the role of pseudo-mediator, informs us that both sides are correct. He acknowledges that it would be foolish to disagree with the evidence that disputes avian evolution from Tyrannosaurus Rexes, but then he can find no faults in the argument that birds could have evolved from gliding crocodiles either. And therefore in the absence of any other options it quickly becomes apparent that, you guessed it, God must have created birds. Such sophistic manipulation is typical of the palaver of those attempting to discredit evolutionary thinking, and exhibits a willful misunderstanding of the arguments of researchers working within a mainstream tradition.
The beauty of this approach is that there is precious little that science can say or do in response without compromising it’s own philosophical dedication to constant scepticism. The scientific method requires its practitioners to cultivate an attitude of sustained inquiry that can then be taken as proof by Creationists that scientists seemingly lack certainty in their own ideas. And it’s not as if anybody arguing on the side of evolution lacks any conviction as to the truth of their contentions, it’s just that if they take the bait and let slip that there is no possible evidence that could convince them of the existence of God, then the Creationists pounce and decry them all as dogmatists. There is an almost overbearing sense of irony to the frequent Creationist assertions that the scientific establishment is closeminded, these claims coming from people whose faith is defined by an unverifiable belief in a higher power.
Discussions of bird evolution and intellectual integrity to one side there is one other highly captivating argument often mobilised by Creationist demagogues. Evolution isn’t something that we can witness in our own lifetime, it’s a slow and gradual process. If we want to “see” evolution we have to pick our way through the fossil record amassed in the earth over hundreds of thousands of years, and hopefully piece together a continuous chain of fossils that follows from the dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures to their modern analogues. Much of the Creationist literature takes great delight in the gaps that populate the fossil record – missing links between species where science has been unable to locate appropriate fossils to determine how particular species could become others over time. The reason for this failure to locate these missing links, argue the Creationists, is because apes and humans, for example, were created as they are, with no need for some intermediate form. The fossil record as we know is evidence of the Great Flood recorded in the Bible, and the different layers of sediment were all stirred up by the floodwaters that covered the surface of the entire Earth. However Geoff Chambers, a lecturer on Evolution in Victoria’s Biology department, feels differently. He believes there is a straightforward way to justify the fossil record without rushing madly to the bible; “There are no gaps,” he says and then goes on to explain, “the idea that there are gaps in the fossil record, which are incredibly difficult to explain and defeat the idea of evolution, is an old idea.” His allegation can be quickly confirmed by a quick check of the references in a book like Sarfati’s, there are no references in Refuting Evolution relating to the fossil record dated more recently than the late 80s. “People have just been repeating [the gap theory] and the data has caught up and all of those things that were thought to be gaps, transitions between ancient mammals and whales and stuff like that there’s a really good fossil record for now,” he explains.
According to Genesis the Earth has only been around for the past 6000 years or so, which requires a drastic rethink of mainstream cosmology and geology, which my Creationism books assure me is just another arm of the mainstream science conspiracy against God.
And just in case anyone’s still hanging on to the hope that a belief in literal seven-day creationism can be reconciled with a scientific outlook on the world, we should consider the implications of the young earth. According to Genesis the Earth has only been around for the past 6000 years or so, which requires a drastic rethink of mainstream cosmology and geology, which my Creationism books assure me is just another arm of the mainstream science conspiracy against God. Creationists reject not only radioactive dating, the main method used to date the age of ancient artefacts and objects, but also reject most accounts of tectonics and land formation, instead arguing that the world as we know it today was shaped into its current form by the Great Flood in the year 2348 BC by most accounts.
Intelligent Design, on the other hand, is an entirely different kettle of Christian theology. Though proponents of ID will argue that it possess a long and distinguished history running back to the turn of century at least, and arguably even as far as the work of the Ancient Greek philosophers, it appeared in its modern incarnation sometime during the late 1980s. The term has gained greater currency in recent years as a more sophisticated and allegedly more scientific take on Creationism, though ID theorists would hardly relish the comparison. Indeed, ID seems to go to great pains to point out that in no way does it specify the identity of the intelligent designer. While it’s convenient, that, yes, if you were that way inclined, you could consider it to be the Christian God, but it could also be the “Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus [or] the divine reason of the ancient Stoics,” as William Dembski helpfully muses in The Design Revolution. We also can’t rule out aliens.
The most common argument voiced against ID at this stage, is that most of nature isn’t really that intelligent in its design, which is pretty much true. Not to put too fine a point on it, but again, what about the Scrotum? Chambers agrees that not everything in nature is all its cracked up to be: “The one thing we know about design in the natural world is that it is not intelligent. Most of the things are very good and they’re wellsuited for that purpose, wings, gills on fish all these things but lots of things are very strange.” His example is the eye, which unlike a ergonomically designed Handycam is wired back-tofront.
The beauty of this approach is that there is precious little that science can say or do in response without compromising it’s own philosophical dedication to constant scepticism.
“[The eye] has the photoreceptors at the back, with the wires coming out the front running across the surface and disappearing down a hole in the middle which means you’ve got a permanent blind spot in each eye where the wires go back through,” Chambers explains. “If there is design in biology, it’s the illusion of design created by the incremental process of change and it isn’t intelligent.”
It isn’t that straightforward however. As way of proving the earlier point about the vagaries of ID, intelligent in this context doesn’t mean that the design is particularly efficient or tasteful, it just means that it looks like someone’s been meddling. The way we identify this meddling is analogous to the SETI program, which scans electromagnetic radiation from outside the solar system in an attempt to identify signals from outer space, and therefore potentially alien life. The aforementioned book by Dembski, The Design Revolution, makes this exact comparison, which tellingly reveals several flaws in the logic behind ID theory. SETI and ID both attempt to locate specific and complex patterns, SETI in intergalactic radiation, and ID anywhere it can find it.
The difference is that if SETI were to locate such a signal it wouldn’t necessarily follow that they’d found aliens, it would only mark the beginning of a rigourous scientific process. What’s more, such a signal would be a distinct change from business as usual. ID proponents, on the other hand, see specific and complex signals everywhere. They see them in DNA, they see them mammalian circulatory systems, and in the cellular structure of leaves. Given half a chance they’d probably see it in the tightly coiled stool of the family dog. Unlike the scientists in charge of the SETI project, specific and complex patterns are an everyday occurrence for ID supporters. To compound the issue rather than retaining an attitude of scepticism when faced with their findings, their initial reaction seems to be an immediate acceptance of the pattern as proof of the existence of an intelligent designer, who may or may not be the Christian God. At this stage ID is just begging to be seen in terms of what scientists call “an argument from ignorance.”
Which brings us back full circle to the story of the pocket watch lying in the field. The argument from ignorance is the argument we make when we can only conceive of one possible reason for the world being a particular way – in this case, a pocket watch lying in the field is either hyper-evolution, a gift from God, or filled with chocolate – but just because our imagination is unable to conceive of any other explanation, it doesn’t necessarily follow that no other explanation is possible. And while this is often a charge levelled at Creationists and ID theorists by supporters of Evolution, this is a sword that cuts both ways. Both sides in this argument are guilty of being blinded by their institutional and ideological assumptions; scientists by failing to admit that perhaps there is an outside chance that aliens have tampered with our DNA, and ID supporters refusing to relinquish their claims that a directing force, which is blatantly the Christian God (you’re not fooling anyone guys) has its hands in pretty much everything under the sun.
It seems almost perverse that the twin forces of Religion and Science, which for so long worked hand in hand as the pillars of a Eurocentric and Rationalistic society, should fall to squabbling in such a public and vulgar manner. For the time being there seems to be little chance of a shift in their relative positions either; Science holds the upper hand at the moment, and Religious and religion-friendly movements such as Intelligent Design are a long way from mainstream acceptance. There is however some signs that change may be coming, ID proponents claim that up to 90 percent of the American public now believe that their theory should be taught in school, and while the figure is no doubt grossly inflated, the very fact that it can be stated indicates a growing confidence amongst its true believers. One hundred and fifty years ago Darwin told us we were little more than apes, and we were suitably outraged, now Intelligent Design tells us that we are planned, little more than Blade Runner’s replicants, how will we respond this time?