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Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement
edited by John Brockman
Vintage Books, 2006
(272 pages, $14.00, paperback)
reviewed by Anika Smith & Casey Luskin
When sixteen leading Darwinists write essays on a crash schedule to get a book out by the end of the school year, you might suspect a sense of urgency, and indeed, editor John Brockman opens Intelligent Thought with a plea for his colleagues to defend Darwin-based civilization from “the Visigoths at the gates,” the proponents of Intelligent Design, “whose only interest in science appears to be to replace it with beliefs consistent with those of the Middle Ages” and who pose “the gravest of threats to the American economy.”
Brockman, a literary agent who went from pop publicist to managing popular science writers like atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, has a long history with this particular body of “preeminent thinkers,” as his book boasts. He publishes Edge: The Third Culture, an online salon where the authors claim to offer a new culture of intelligentsia who are interested in “thinking smart” and not in “the anesthesiology of wisdom.”
On this site, Brockman shared an e-mail sent to him from a Darwinian who teaches freshmen at Columbia, who was concerned that students aren’t rejecting Intelligent Design for the right reasons, but “merely because the religious and conservative stripes of ID can sometimes look a little uncool.” He and his colleagues wrote Intelligent Thought to present the public, especially students, with scientific reasons to reject Intelligent Design.
The book is published as a collection of essays from sixteen of Brockman’s Edge contributors, including Dawkins and Dennett, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Jerry Coyne, professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, and Scott Atran, research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Despite the promise of the subtitle, much of Intelligent Thought is devoted not to scientific but to philosophical and especially dysteleological arguments against Intelligent Design. A dysteleological argument makes certain extra-scientific, theological assumptions about the moral purposes of the designer, then asserts that life or the universe could not be the result of intelligence because nature is (allegedly) not the nature those assumptions require.
For example, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind, who discovered string theory, writes that most of the universe is “hopelessly hostile to life and uninhabitable. But here and there some small pockets happen, by chance, to be more conducive to life, and that’s where life forms.”
For Susskind, this rules out any possibility of intelligent design, because he assumes that the designer would have chosen to create a universe full of life everywhere, rather than one as hostile to life as the one we observe. Because the universe he perceives does not match the universe he thinks a designer would make, he rejects design.
Susskind’s assumption is certainly questionable in itself. To put a twist on William Paley’s metaphor, if you found a lone cell-phone in the middle of the Sahara Desert, would you conclude that it was not designed simply because its designer didn’t fill the desert with cell-phones?
These same theological objections to Intelligent Design are found throughout the collection, but particularly in the essays contributed by Dennett and Berkeley professor Frank J. Sulloway. The authors consistently argue that if they were the designer, they would have designed the cosmos differently; because it is not designed the way they believe it should have been, it must not be designed at all.
The most poignant example of dysteleology comes from University of Michigan professor Scott Atran, who complains that the design of the human back sometimes causes pain. Assuming that a designed world must be one without pain, he argues that the presence of physical discomfort refutes Intelligent Design, an objection that is not scientific, but moral.
Even that argument quickly deteriorates when the author, assuming that a good designer must take the rule two heads are better than one literally, asks what may be the most inane question ever addressed to the designer, “Why did he give us just one head?” It could be (dare we say it?) that the designer had his own reasons for giving animals only one head.
A Theological Debate
Darwin himself was unable to reconcile what he saw as natural evil (in particular, a family of parasitic wasps) with his view of a loving and powerful God. Again and again, the arguments set forth in this volume and presented by the Darwinians as scientific resolve into the classic theological debate over the problem of evil.
These theological objections have nothing to do with the theory of Intelligent Design. Indeed, such objections can be disposed of through the simple observation that even things with an evil moral purpose can be intelligently designed. Torture chambers and electric chairs are clearly designed, often ingeniously so, the evil uses to which they are put notwithstanding. What this book poses are questions not about the world as science can study it, but about final causes, about which science has nothing to say.
Science does not address Atran’s objections because they are theological in nature, and as such, they require theological answers. One comes away from reading Intelligent Thought not with any new scientific argument to consider, but with the impression that the fundamental reasons for these authors’ rejection of Intelligent Design are philosophical and theological. It may be that, writing in haste, the authors revealed more of their real arguments and assumptions than they intended.
Perhaps more alarming for the Darwinists who rushed it into print, Intelligent Thought lacks the originality and creativity needed to invigorate an argument for Darwinism. Instead of illuminating “the real science of evolution,” these sixteen prominent thinkers reveal their philosophical biases against design.