Friday, November 17, 2006

Darwin Strikes Back

A Good Summary but an Inaccurate Analogy., November 10, 2006
Reviewer: Fritz R. Ward "dayhiker" (Crestline, CA United States) - See all my reviews

It is not often that scientific debates generate intense public interest and commentary. The American public is fascinated by scientific advances and debates (how to classify Pluto, for example) but generally does not feel the need to elect school board members who support teaching specific theories and ideas. Intelligent Design, a broad category of ideas that suggests chance and natural law are insufficient to explain all that we encounter in nature is an exception to this rule. Not only is it hotly contested within scientific circles, but it also results in intense political debate within the general population. The main reason for this is that both evolution and intelligent design have theological implications that extend well beyond the scientific issues themselves. Moreover, debates even within science about intelligent design often seem more acrimonious than normal scientific dialogue. They include character assassination, charges and counter charges of poor science, and claims that one or the other side is faking evidence. For those who are interested in following a blow-by-blow account of this debate from the 1980s to the present, Thomas Woodward's book is a good start. He honestly admits he is writing from the prospective of one who is convinced by the claims of intelligent design, but as an historian he does a decent job of representing the arguments of key players in the debate and an excellent job of pointing his readers to other (and more complete) sources so they can read the literature directly for themselves.

'Darwin Strikes Back' is meant to complement Woodward's previous study, 'Doubts about Darwin' in which he chronicled the rise of the Intelligent Design Movement and which focused mostly on the writings of Philip Johnson. In this book, Woodward examines three other major design theorists: Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and William Dembski, and their various critics, notably biologist Kenneth Miller, philosopher Niall Shanks, educator Eugenie Scott, and the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins. In every case, Woodward finds that critics of intelligent design often offer flawed analogies and argue for a tautology: namely that intelligent design is unscientific (and hence that it cannot be falsified) while simultaneously offering the assessment that its claims are demonstrably false. This is problematic, as are the unfounded personal attacks that frequently accompany such arguments. (E.g. Jonathan Wells did no experimental research during his post doctoral work at Berkeley.) These points are not an argument for intelligent design as such, but it will certainly appeal to most reader's values about what is fair and reasonable in a debate. The book also discusses some of the advances in physics, the problems associated with the chemical evolution of life, and summarizes the work of such diverse scholars as physicists Paul Davies and Robert Jastrow, and the Chinese paleontologist Jun-Yuan Chen. In doing so, Woodward provides helpful metaphors and generally makes the hard science of these people accessible to the average reader. This is the mark of a very good work of popular science and Woodward should be commended for it, even by readers who do not share his affection for intelligent design.

In the final analysis, however, I am troubled by the persistent war analogy that runs throughout the book. Intelligent Design is an "explosion" on the scientific landscape. Critics respond to it with metaphorical "rockets and mortars." Perhaps this analogy, which actually supports the whole framework of the book, is useful. It may help keep the reader's attention, but I think this approach may actually distort what really happens in the scientific community. It probably reflects the author's own experience as a naval intelligence officer. My own experience (doctorate in church history) leads me to a rather different analogy. The reaction of some scientists to intelligent design is not so much to go to war as to "ex-communicate" those who dissent with them. Indeed, when I read the writings on evolution of the well known and very talented physicist, Lawrence Krauss, I do not see a general directing troops so much as I see the fourth century bishop Athanasius railing against heresy. It is almost as if "science" and its established "doctrines" are simply beyond question, and those who do so face the condemnation of the "full scientific community" just as Athanasius claimed that those who disagreed with him about the "nature" of Christ were "outside the church." And the problem is, science acts this way even when there are no theological issues at stake. University of Idaho anthropologist Jeffrey Meldum is under attack because he dares to even examine what scant evidence there is for "Bigfoot," a legendary creature that supposedly haunts the northwestern United States. Rather than examine and refute his claims, his critics declare his work "unscientific" and want him expelled from the "church" (i.e. academic employment). Jeffrey Schaffer proposes a new interpretation for the formation of Yosemite Valley and is denied a doctorate despite having done more detailed field research than anyone before him. He asks that his critics join him in the field and refute a single claim. They do not even attempt to do. Woodward's book thus touches upon a larger problem with the culture of science in general. Despite public professions of objectivity and "value free" research, much of theoretical science today is in fact highly dogmatic and political. Woodward's wonderful book highlights one of the most glaring examples of this. I highly recommend it to all.

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