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Friday, March 06, 2009

Michael Shermer's _Why Darwin Matters_

I recently read Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, by Michael Shermer. (New York: Holt, 2006). Since I knew that, as the Wikipedia article on Shermer puts it, he is ". . . founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating and debunking pseudoscientific and supernatural claims," I expected an anti-Christian tract. Shermer is no Christian, but his book shows considerable respect for the place of religion.

For example, Shermer says:
Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside time and space; that is, God is beyond nature -- super nature, or supernatural -- and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. God is beyond the dominion of science, and science is outside the realm of God. (p. 125) That could well have been written by many Christian theologians. Shermer's 7th chapter is entitled "Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion."

His basic thesis is three-fold. First, evolution* is a fact, and it is proved by a number of independent lines of evidence, such as fossils, DNA, behaviour, comparative anatomy, population genetics, and others. Although, for example, the fossil record does not show complete sequences of evolutionary change, the acceptance of evolution by the majority of scientists does not rest on the fossil record by and of itself. Second, there should not be a conflict between Christians and scientists. Third, the Intelligent Design movement is a religious and political movement, not a scientific one, and it usually attempts to pretend that the opposite is true.
*Unfortunately, Shermer, like many others, does not exactly define the word, which has several possible meanings. See here and here for two attempts to specify different meanings of the word.

I agree with Shermer's basic thesis, but I don't accept everything Shermer says, or, even if I did, many Christians would not. Shermer writes:
Evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, and by accepting -- and embracing -- the theory of evolution, Christians and conservatives strengthen their religion, their politics, and science itself. The conflict between science and religion is senseless. It is based on fears and misunderstandings rather than on facts and moral wisdom. (138) He is referring to the free market, sexual fidelity and honesty, and claims that all of these can be explained as the products of selective forces. I find it impossible to imagine my pastor, or any evangelical pastor I have ever known, preaching about honesty, and using natural selection as part of his basis for admonishing me to be honest. (Shermer doesn't suggest that the free market is part of Christianity. It is, as he says, often espoused by those who call themselves political conservatives.)

Shermer knows his material. He is particularly good at attacking the Intelligent Design movement. For example, on pages 18-19, he lists 10 features of humans that are difficult to explain as the result of design. They are nipples and a vestigial uterus (which, he says, is attached to the prostate) in males; a thirteenth pair of ribs in about one in every 12 humans -- chimpanzees and gorillas normally have thirteen pairs; the human tailbone; wisdom teeth; the appendix; body hair; "goose bumps"; ear muscles (in some humans) that enable us to wiggle our ears; and the vestigial nictitating membrane of our eyes. Shermer believes that it is much easier to accept that these features are found in some or all humans because of our ancestry, not because they were designed to make us more efficient.

Shermer attacks, point for point, the Icons of Evolution presented by Jonathan Wells.

Over and over, he presents evidence that the Intelligent Design movement is religiously motivated, not scientifically.

Shermer spends some time on the political action of the Intelligent Design movement, in particular on the Kitzmiller case.
Here is a quotation from the ruling of Judge Jones -- a church-going Bush appointee:
. . . we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom. Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

On pages 166-167, Shermer lists eight different views that different Christians take about origins. (His source appears to be here.) One of the weaknesses of the book is that Shermer seems to lump all these views into a single one, and attack it. Nonetheless, the book is well worth reading. It is short (less than 200 pages, and the dimensions are smaller than those of many books) and well written.

Thanks for reading.

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I have personally argued (I am by no means alone) that the Bible itself teaches us that scientific findings are part of God's revelation to humans, and that Shermer is largely correct about the Intelligent Design movement. For more on my own opinions on these matters, see this post, and this one.

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