Friday, June 30, 2006

Harry Jaffa and Charles Darwin

The debate among American conservatives over Darwinian evolution is evident in some recent writing by James Q. Wilson and Harry Jaffa. Wilson wrote an article praising Judge John Jones' decision in the Dover case. In the spring 2006 issue of the CLAREMONT REVIEW OF BOOKS, Jaffa criticized Wilson. The summer 2006 issue of the CLAREMONT REVIEW has some correspondence on this debate.

It is hard for me to understand what Jaffa is trying to say in this article. But I would make three points.

First, Jaffa assumes that the school board policy in Dover, Pennsylvania, came from the school board members being persuaded by the arguments for intelligent design. In fact, the testimony at the trial made it clear that the board members who favored the policy knew almost nothing about intelligent design theory. They were Biblical literalists who thought intelligent design reasoning would support their Biblical creationism. The proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute rejected the board's policy because it was motivated by a purely religious purpose.

My second point is that Jaffa is confusing in that he seems to both affirm and deny intelligent design theory. He seems to be defending it. But then he says: "there is . . . nothing in the theory of intelligent design--many intelligent design advocates to the contrary, notwithstanding--which necessarily implies a designer." Here Jaffa rejects the fundamental idea of intelligent design theory.

My third point is that--like many conservatives who criticize Darwinian science--Jaffa confuses ultimate and proximate causes in Darwinian explanations. If natural selection favors traits that enhance survival and reproduction, Jaffa suggests, then this must mean that all human desires are reduced to the desires for survival and reproduction, which is the crudest form of reductionism. But this is not so. For example, if mothers provide parental care because they love their children, this maternal love is comprehensible on its own terms as a proximate motivation for behavior. But this proximate motivation might also have been favored in evolutionary history because it enhanced human reproductive fitness in a species where offspring need extended care by parents. This explanation by ultimate causes is fully compatible with an explanation by the proximate causes of conscious motivation.

Most of what Jaffa says about the uniqueness of human beings as rational and moral animals is acknowledged by Darwin, who stressed the importance of deliberation, thought, and moral concern in distinguishing human beings from other animals. Jaffa says that we are "the only earthly species that can live outside the boundaries of the experience that is accessible only by sense perception." Similarly, Darwin says that "a moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions and motives,--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who with certainty can be thus designated makes the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals" (DESCENT OF MAN, chap. 21).

As Jaffa intimates, Darwin agreed with Abraham Lincoln in condemning slavery as contrary to our natural moral sense. So it seems that Darwinian science can sustain human moral judgment. As Wilson has argued in his book THE MORAL SENSE, a Darwinian understanding of human nature supports morality as rooted in the natural moral sentiments of the human animal.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Darwinism Is Not Atheism: The Darwin Fish, The Jesus Fish, and The Dawkins Fish

The primary reason why some conservatives oppose Darwinian science is clear: They assume that Darwinism is atheism. They are wrong.

Beginning with the first Christians in ancient Rome, a schematic drawing of a fish has symbolized Jesus Christ. Recently, in the United States, some Christians have put Jesus fish medallions on the back of their cars. Some people have responded to this by putting Darwin fish medallions on their cars. I once saw a car with a bumper sticker that showed a giant Jesus fish eating a tiny Darwin fish. Under the picture, it said "Survival of the Fittest."

I do not have either a Jesus fish or a Darwin fish on my car, because I do not accept the idea that these fish are predatory competitors. I think the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish can swim together without one eating the other.

Although conservatism does not require religious belief, most conservatives believe that religious traditions support morality and social order. As a result, many conservatives object to Darwinism in so far as it seems to promote atheism. They think that when the Darwin fish meets the Jesus fish, one must eat the other.

In defense of Darwinian conservatism, I argue that Darwinian biology is compatible with religious belief, and particularly with Biblical theism. Although Charles Darwin was probably not an orthodox Christian at the end of his life, he recognized that questions about ultimate first causes could not be answered by natural science, which left an opening for religious belief. He also thought that religious belief reinforced morality. Darwinian conservatism sees that religion satisfies some of the deepest desires of human nature as shaped by evolutionary history.

To see the importance of theistic religion for Darwin, one only needs to glance at the beginning and end of The Origin of Species. He begins the book with an epigram from Francis Bacon: "Let no man out of weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficiency in both." This metaphor of God as speaking through two books--the Bible as His word and nature as His works--was commonly used by Christians to justify the scientific study of nature as compatible with reverence for the revelation of Scripture.

Darwin's last sentence in The Origin of Species conveys a vivid image of God as Creator. "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

In The Descent of Man, Darwin stressed the importance of religion for morality. "With the more civilized races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advancement of morality." In particular, he saw the Biblical statement of the Golden Rule as "the foundation-stone of morality."

But you will never see anything like this in the writing of Richard Dawkins! Dawkins is a dogmatic atheist who never tires in his widely publicized attacks on religious belief. Although Dawkins is a distinguished evolutionary biologist, he cannot really support his claim that evolutionary science dictates atheism. Here I agree with Carson Holloway in his recent piece on Dawkins for National Review Online. As Holloway indicates, Dawkins derives his atheism not from his science but from his own doctrinaire scorn for religion. Modern natural science cannot rule out the possibility of supernatural, ultimate causes behind the natural, proximate causes of ordinary experience.

And yet conservatives like Richard Weikart, Peter Lawler, and Ann Coulter agree with Dawkins in his claim that Darwinian science must be atheistic. The rhetoric of the Discovery Institute in its attacks on Darwinian evolution relies on this claim. But this ignores the compatibility of Darwinian science and the conservative respect for religion.

For conservatives, it is the moral and political utility of religious belief that is decisive, and Darwinian social theory can support that insight. But Darwinian science can neither affirm nor deny the transcendent theology of Biblical religion.

The human search for ultimate causes that would explain the universe culminates in a fundamental alternative. Either we take nature as the ultimate source of order, or we look beyond nature to God as the ultimate source of nature's order. Our natural desire to understand is satisfied ultimately either by an intellectual understanding of nature or by a religious understanding of God as the Creator of nature.

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate explanation. But it can secure the moral and political conditions of ordered liberty that leave people free to explore the cosmic questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.

The Darwin fish cannot offer us supernatural redemption from earthly life and entrance into eternal life, which is the promise of the Jesus fish. But when it comes to earthly morality and social order, the Darwin fish and the Jesus fish are swimming in the same school.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Intelligent Design Movement and the Dover Decision

On December 20, Judge John Jones released his decision in the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board. The decision appeared to be a devastating defeat for the intelligent design movement. Now the Discovery Institute--the leading think-tank promoting intelligent design--has published its critique of Jones' decision: David DeWolf, John West, Casey Luskin, and Jonathan Witt, Traipsing Into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Decision (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2006). Reading the trial transcripts, Jones' decision, and this book allows us to see the general character of the debate over intelligent decision. Although I posted a statement about this case a few days ago, I deleted it because I decided that I was oversimplifying a complex case.

The Dover Area School District in Dover, Pennsylvania, had required that a statement be read to students in the ninth grade biology classes, a statement indicating that there there was controversy over Darwin's theory of evolution, and that they could consider "intelligent design" as an alternative theory by reading a reference book in the library--Of Pandas and People. Parents sued the school district, arguing that this was an unconstitutional establishment of religion, because "intelligent design" was not a genuine scientific theory but a religious doctrine.

Judge Jones decided in favor of the petitioning parents, concluding that those promoting the teaching of "intelligent design" in the school were motivated by religious doctrines of creationism, and that "intelligent design" was not really science at all.

Many American conservatives have criticized Judge Jones. Ann Coulter ridicules him as a "hack judge." Coulter and others see this as an attempt of the federal judiciary to indoctrine students in a liberal philosophy of atheistic materialism as rooted in Darwinian reductionism. I and some other conservatives disagree, because we think Darwinian science supports traditional morality and the general principles of conservative social thought, and because we think Darwinian science is supported by extensive evidence and logic.

From my reading of the trial transcripts, the judge's decision, and the Discovery Institute book, at least four points become clear.

The first point is that it is hard to disentangle the intelligent design movement and biblical creationism. The members of the Dover school board who instituted the disputed policy wanted the biblical account of creation to be taught as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. When they were advised that this would be clearly unconstitutional, they adopted "intelligent design" as a substitute for overt creationist doctrine. The Thomas More Law Center took over their legal representation. Initially, the Discovery Institute supported them and arranged to provide expert witnesses for them. But then shortly before the trial began, the Discovery Institute announced that it opposed the policy of the school district, becaused they feared that the case would be too hard to win. In the book published by Discovery Institute, the authors indicate that "the instigators of the policy were supporters of Biblical creationism, not intelligent design" (p. 8). So here they actually agree with Judge Jones's decision that this policy had a purely religious purpose and the claims of interest in scientific debate were just a cover for their religious agenda. The proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute want to employ the rhetorical strategy of asserting that "intelligent design" is utterly different from Biblical creationism, but the Dover case illustrates how difficult this is to maintain. It is true, however, that advocates of "young Earth creationism" like Ken Ham scorn "intelligent design" as an attack on Biblical literalism.

The second point is that the establishment clause jurisprudence of the Supreme Court is flawed if it requires an absolute separation between science and religion. Of course, most of us would agree that a literal reading of the Biblcial creation story is religion and not science. But something like "intelligent design theory" is harder to classify. It can have religious implications if one believes that the "intelligent designer" is God. But I think the Discovery Institute folks have a good point when they say that many scientific theories can have religious implications even when the theories themselves are not necessarily religious. The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe has religious implications if one believes that the cause of the Big Bang must have been divine. But we can judge the scientific evidence and logic supporting this theory without taking up the religious implications. Similarly, why can't high school students study "intelligent design" reasoning as a scientific theory without deciding the religious issues?

The third point is that intelligent design reasoning is predominantly, but not entirely, negative rather than positive. In other words, most of the argumentation for intelligent design is an attack on Darwinism, with the assumption being that as long as Darwinian science is not conclusively proven, intelligent design remains as the only reasonable alternative. As I have argued, this is a weak position. Michael Behe and others argue that intelligent design does have a positive argument: if we see the purposeful arrangement of parts in living mechanisms, we can infer intelligent design as the cause. But this kind of reasoning is very vague, because we cannot infer from this exactly who (or what) the intelligent designer is, and we cannot infer exactly how this intelligent designer works in nature. (Behe argues that the same could be said about the Big Bang theory: that it happened does not tells us how it happened or what caused it.) The reasoning is also dubious because it works by analogy with human intelligent design. We have all seen human intelligent design at work. But we have not seen how a divine intelligent designer could create "out of nothing."

The fourth point is that Kenneth Miller distorts Behe's position by attacking a straw man. Behe's central argument in Darwin's Black Box depends on the idea that Darwinian evolution cannot explain any "irreducibly complex" system, which is "a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning" (p. 39). The problem for Darwinian evolution is that "an irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional." Behe concedes, however, that this leaves open the possibility of "an indirect, circuitous route" of evolution by which mechanisms serving one purpose might be incorporated into more complex mechanisms with different functions (pp. 40, 66, 111-13, 177). And yet he thinks the probability of this happening decreases as the complexity of the mechanism to be explained increases.

When Miller tries to refute this reasoning (at the Dover trial and in various published writing), he attacks a straw man, because he ignores what Behe says about the possibility--even if unlikely--of an "indirect, circuitous route" of evolution. Miller shows, for example, that the type III secretory system of bacteria resembles some parts of the bacterial flagellum, which shows that one can take away many parts from the flagellum and still have a functioning system, although it will be serving a different function. This reasoning about "exaptation" is a standard response of Darwinian scientists to Behe's "irreducible complexity" argument. But this does not refute Behe's position, unless one ignores what Behe says about the "circuituous route."

It is true, of course, as I have indicated in previous postings, that Behe and other IDers set up an unreasonably high standard of proof for Darwinian science. To show rigorously and in precise detail the step-by-step evolutionary pathway for the emergence of the bacterial flagellum is extremely difficult. If students were permitted to study this debate, they would see this as belonging to what Darwin himself called the "difficulties" for his theory. But they might also see this as an example of the inevitable limitations of scientific reasoning, so that hardly anything is ever conclusively proven in science, although we can still judge theories as more or less plausible by weighing the relevant evidence and arguments.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

William Dembski and the Negative Rhetoric of Intelligent Design Theory

Bill Dembski is one of the leading proponents of "intelligent design theory" as an alternative to Darwinian science. At his weblog, he has recently posted a Foreword to a forthcoming book. He boldly declares: "Evolutionary theory, in its grand macroevolutionary Darwinian form, flies in the face of the scientific method and should not be taught except as a discredited speculative hypothesis that properly belongs to nature religions and mystery cults and not to science."

To support this conclusion, he employs the same rhetorical strategy of negative argumentation that runs through all of the intelligent design reasoning. He concedes that there is plenty of evidence for "small-scale microevolution" and "a gradual progression of living forms." But he denies that the Darwinians have shown the "macroevolution" of novel species from ancestral species through chance mutations and natural selection. In one of his comments, he speaks of "the utter absence of a detailed account of how the Darwinian mechanism can build biological complexity."

Try this exercise. Go through this statement and replace "Darwinism" and "evolutionary theory" with "intelligent design theory." You will see that Dembski's negative argumentation depends on demanding a level of proof and evidence that has never been met by "intelligent design theory." We could easily speak of "the utter absence of a detailed account of how the intelligent-design mechanism can build biological complexity."

For example, one of the favorite examples of biological complexity for the IDers is the bacterial flagellum. They rightly point out that Darwinists have not yet offered a step-by-step account of the evolutionary pathway by which bacterial flagella have arisen by random mutation and natural selection. But the Darwinians could respond by pointing out that the IDers have not yet offered a step-by-step account of the precise pathway by which the Intelligent Designer did this. Exactly when, where, and how did the Intelligent Designer create flagella and attach them to bacteria? The IDers have no answer to that question. But their rhetorical strategy depends on negative argumentation in which they criticize the Darwinians for failing to provide exact step-by-step explanations for the emergence of biological complexity, while refusing to provide their own explanations.

As long as they put the Darwinians on the defensive, they win the debate. But if Darwinians were to employ the same rhetorical strategy, they could declare: "Intelligent design theory, in its grand Creationist form, flies in the face of the scientific method and should not be taught except as a discredited speculative hypothesis that properly belongs to nature religions and mystery cults and not to science."

But what would be accomplished by such sophistical invective? Wouldn't it be more sensible and intellectually productive for both sides in this debate to challenge one another to come up with the best positive explanations for biological complexity? If the IDers have a precise, testable explanation of exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer created the bacterial flagellum, let them offer it, so that scientists can go into their laboratories to test it. If the Darwinians have a better explanation, let them offer it for testing.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


On January 9th, I posted a response to Carson Holloway's book The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy, which criticizes me and other Darwinian conservatives such as Francis Fukuyama and James Q. Wilson.

The Washington Times has published an interview with Holloway about his book. Here he repeats the general point of his book. He argues that Darwinian conservatism cannot properly support morality, because it relies on natural moral emotions rather than religious belief. The moral emotions are not reliable guides to moral judgments, he says, because "you need some principle that transcends our human nature," which comes only from religion, and particularly its teaching that "every human being has certain moral obligations to every human being, and no matter how much your interests may conflict with someone else's, you still have to respect their basic rights."

As I have indicated in my responses to Holloway and other religious conservatives such as Peter Lawler, these folks do not explain clearly how we derive moral principles from religion without appealing to our natural moral sense. For example, Holloway assumes in his book that religion teaches that slavery is immoral because it violates the moral dignity of human beings as created in God's image. But as I have said, the defenders of slavery have been able to support their position by citing the Bible. I assume that Holloway would say this is a misuse of the Bible. But how does he know that? When Paul in the New Testament tells slaves to obey their masters, how do we know that this is not a moral endorsement of slavery? How do we know that the Southern Baptists were wrong to believe that the Bible sanctioned slavery in the American South?

Charles Darwin denounced slavery because he thought it violated our natural moral sense that teaches us that human beings have a natural desire to be free from exploitation. The rhetorical attempts of slaveholders to justify slavery show that even they were sensitive to this injustice and felt the same moral emotions as their opponents. In Darwinian Natural Right, I have a long chapter on how slavery violates the evolved moral desires of human beings.

Is it really true that religion--particularly, Biblical religion--gives us an authoritative, clear, and reliable moral teaching that allows us to see the injustice of slavery? Or is it rather the case, as I argue, that we have to pass the Bible through our natural moral sense, because otherwise the Bible could support immoral practices such as slavery?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Reply to Peter Augustine Lawler

In his book Stuck with Virtue (ISI Books, 2005), Peter Augustine Lawler shows himself to be a conservative who is ambivalent about Darwinism. On the one hand, he welcomes Darwinian science as supporting the conservative view of the natural sociality of human beings. On the other hand, he scorns Darwinian science for promoting what he assumes to be a reductionistic, materialistic, and atheistic view of human nature that denigrates the transcendent longings of the human soul. Such criticism of Darwinism arises from a mistaken understanding of Darwinian thinking.

Lawler identifies some of my writing as "the most ambitious effort to unite political philosophy and evolutionary biology into a conservative ideology" (159-60). And yet while he concedes that the "partial truth" of Darwinian science does support the conservative defense of family life, moral norms, and social duties as rooted in evolved human nature, he also warns conservatives to resist my "Darwinian lullaby." He insists that all human beings are "aliens," because they have transcendent longings for supernatural redemption that make them feel homeless in the natural world. So he is bothered by the closing sentences of my book Darwinian Natural Right: "We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home."

As a Heideggerian existentialist, Lawler thinks human beings really were "thrown" into nature from some place far away, and so they properly long to escape from their alienated condition in nature. This is expressed as a religious longing to return to our supernatural Creator. Lawler believes that this transcendent longing to escape from nature is what makes us uniquely human in a way that sets us apart from and above all other animals, who have no such longing. So when he sees me apparently denigrating that transcendent longing as illusory, he rejects this as a "reductionistic" claim that human beings are just animals--"clever chimps"--who differ only in degree not in kind from the other animals. This is the "Darwinian lullaby," because it seems to teach us to relax like other animals and give up those illusory longings for the transcendent that only create unnecessary anxiety. Religious conservatives often make this criticism of my Darwinian conservatism.

But far from being "reductionistic," I argue that a Darwinian science of human nature teaches us that human beings are uniquely complex in having diverse natural desires that are often in tension with one another. The natural desire for "intellectual understanding" can lead to the sort of scientific or philosophic understanding of nature that Lawler scorns as the "lullaby" that denies the existential anxiety of human transcendent longings. But he fails to tell his reader that I also identify the natural desire for "religious understanding." This is the desire to understand the world through religion or spirituality. Religious doctrines about human relationships with divine powers or spiritual feelings of self-transcending union with the universe satisfy this longing to make sense of one's place in the universe. So here I agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their natural desire for religious transcendence.

But unlike Lawler, I see this desire as coming into conflict with the desire for purely intellectual understanding, the sort of intellectual desire that he attributes to Leo Strauss and those under his influence. The natural desire to understand the uncaused cause of everything ultimately leads human beings to a fundamental choice--nature or nature's God. Some human beings will assume that the ultimate source of order is nature. But others will assume that we must look beyond nature to God as the ultimate source of nature's order. Our desire to understand is satisfied ultimately either by an intellectual understanding of nature or by a religious understanding of God as the creator of nature. This is the choice between reason and revelation. I think that choice has to be left open, because neither side can refute the other.

Darwin always insisted that ultimate questions of First Cause--questions about the origins of the universe and the origin of the laws of nature--left a big opening for God as Creator. As Darwin said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

There is a similar mystery in explaining the origins of the human soul. Darwin often asserted that the mental capacities of human beings and other animals differed immensely in degree but not in kind. But he sometimes spoke of the human difference as a difference in kind. "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them. We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity." He also identified "the habitual use of articulate language" as "peculiar to man." And he observed that "no animal is self-conscious," if this means "that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth." Here Darwin would agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their capacities for reflecting on the meaning of life and death, for self-conscious moral choice, and for articulate language, which make human beings different in kind from other animals.

How does one explain the origin of that human difference? Lawler rejects "fundamentalist creationism," and he concedes that natural evolution might explain most of human nature. But he asserts that an "ontological leap" would be necessary for the appearance of the human soul. He doesn't explain exactly how this "ontological leap" occurred. I would explain it as the human soul arising through the emergent evolution of the primate brain. With the increasing size and complexity of the frontal lobes of the primate neocortex, novel mental capacities appear at higher levels that could not be predicted from the lower levels. Even if we see this as the work of God in creating human beings in His image, we can't deny the possibility that He exercised his creative power through a natural evolutionary process.

My point here is that religious conservatives like Lawler have no reason to fear that a Darwinian science of human life will promote a reductionistic materialism that denies human freedom and dignity. A Darwinian conservatism can explain the unique freedom of human beings for deliberate thought and action as arising from the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain.

Religious conservatives like Lawler look to God's eternal order as providing a transcendent purpose for morality and politics. Skeptical conservatives like Friedrich Hayek look to the natural order of life as providing a purely natural purpose for morality and politics. Skeptical conservatives will be satisfied with Hayek's thought that "life has no purpose but itself."

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate causation and purpose. But at least it can provide a scientific account of the moral and political nature of human beings that sustains the conservative commitments to private property, family life, and limited government as the grounds for human liberty. And in a free society, individuals will be free to associate with one another in social groups--in families, in religious communities, and other voluntary associations--in which people can freely explore the ultimate questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Battle of Titans: Charles Darwin versus Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter's latest book--Godless: The Church of Liberalism--became a best-selling book as soon as it was published this week. Although liberals might not think of themselves as religious, Coulter declares that liberalism is actually an anti-Christian religion that has become the state-sanctioned religion of the United States. Liberalism's "creation myth" is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which supports the atheistic materialism of liberalism. Far from being science, evolutionary biology is "just a crazy religious cult" (199, 217).

The popularity of this book might come from the deep wisdom and incisive wit of Coulter's writing. Or it might come from the sexy photograph of Coulter that fills up the cover of the book jacket. She stares at us with a sweet smile, blue eyes, long blond hair, a slender body in a low-cut black dress showing cleavage, and a necklace with a cross dangling over the cleavage. At her website, Coulter has a photo gallery. My favorites are the pictures of her in a black leather dress. This Christian conservative sexpot is going to seduce us away from Darwinian liberalism!

Ok, I won't challenge her in a beauty contest. But I might try to convince her conservative readers that her arguments against Darwinism as a liberal religion are shallow. She has never actually read any of Darwin's writings. But she has picked up all of her arguments against Darwinism from three proponents of "intelligent design theory" at the Discovery Institute--Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and William Dembski (303).

For example, she argues that Behe has "disproved evolution" by showing that Darwin's theory cannot explain the evolution of "irreducibly complex" mechanisms like the bacterial flagellum. But she ignores the criticisms of Behe's reasoning. It has been shown that some bacteria have a type III secretory system (TTSS) that allows them to inject protein toxins into the cells of host organisms. The similarity in the protein structures of the TTSS and those in the bacterial flagellum suggest that the flagellum could have evolved by incorporating the structures of TTSS, so that mechanisms originally serving one function could be taken up into new mechanisms serving new functions. In fact, Behe himself admits that such explanations could be possible (see his Darwin's Black Box, 40, 66, 111-13, 177).

Now actually showing the step-by-step evolutionary pathway that led to the bacterial flagellum or other complex biomolecular mechanisms is extremely difficult. But, of course, it's also extremely difficult to show the step-by-step pathway by which the Intelligent Designer created the bacterial flagellum! Comparing these alternative explanations, we can not conclusively prove one over the other, but we can at least weigh the evidence and arguments. Coulter doesn't do this.

Coulter also makes the famous argument about the "Cambrian explosion" refuting Darwin. About 540 million years ago, at the beginning of the Cambrian Period of geologic time, many forms of shelled invertebrate animals appeared over a period of 5 to 10 million years. Darwin assumed that there had to have been many animal species long before the Cambrian Period. But in his time, there was no fossil record to show this. He admitted in The Origin of Species that this was "the most obvious and gravest objection" to his theory. He offered a "hypothesis" that conditions prior to the Cambrian did not permit the formation of a fossil record. Coulter cites the "Cambrian explosion" as showing how "absurd" the "evolution fable" is.

But over the past 30 years, paleontologists have found an extensive fossil record of animal life prior to the Cambrian. Coulter dismisses this by saying: "instead of a glut of evolutionary ancestors, all we have at the outset of the Cambrian explosion are some sad little worms and sponges" (222). Here's the typical rhetorical strategy for Darwin's critics. First, they say that to prove Darwin's theory, there should be a fossil record of animal life prior to the Cambrian epoch. Then, when this fossil record is discovered, the critics say this not enough--"some sad little worms and sponges." What would satisfy them? "A glut of evolutionary ancestors"! And how many transitional fossils do we need to make a "glut"?

Here's how this works: as the evidence for evolution accumulates, just raise the standard higher and higher so that it can never be satisfied. And in a historical science like evolutionary biology, where demonstrative proof is unattainable, and where a preponderance of the evidence is the best we can hope for, setting an unrealistic standard of proof is an effective rhetorical move for denigrating the evidence.

And yet what really drives people like Coulter is not the scientific arguments over Darwinism, but the religious, moral, and political arguments. To prove her religious argument that Darwinism is necessarily atheistic, she quotes from Darwinian scientists like Richard Dawkins who are proud of their atheism. But one could just as easily prove that Christianity is necessarily anti-Semitic by quoting Martin Luther's brutally anti-Semitic writings.

Coulter admits the fallacy in her rhetoric when she says, "Of course it's possible to believe in God and in evolution," because "if evolution is true, then God created evolution" (265, 277). The point here is that evolutionary theory is about the natural causes of life, but whether those natural causes depend on some ultimate supernatural causes is beyond evolutionary theory as a natural science.

Coulter worries about atheism, because she believes that morality is impossible without belief in God's commands as the source of morality. "If God is dead, everything is permitted" (277). This completely ignores Darwin's account of the "moral sense" as rooted in the evolved nature of the human animal, which would suport a morality of natural law. Apparently, Coulter would reject this natural morality because it is not based on divine command. By contrast, she declares, "religious people have certain rules based on a book about faith with lots of witnesses to that faith" (281). She doesn't explain how religious people resolve disputes over the authority, clarity, or reliability of those "rules based on a book."

And yet, even as I find Coulter's scientific, religious, and moral arguments weak, I am more persuaded by her political argument. I agree with her that it is unreasonable and perhaps even undemocratic to prohibit high school biology students from studying the debates over Darwinian biology. There is no absolutely conclusive proof for Darwin's theory. Darwin himself admitted that there were many reasonable objections to his theory. The best we can do is to weigh the evidence and arguments for competing positions. So why shouldn't we allow high school students to study the debates? If they were to read some of Darwin's writings, some writings from recent evolutionary research, and some of the critical writing from the proponents of intelligent design such as Behe and Dembski, they could study the reasoning in this debate and decide for themselves which side seems more plausible. Wow! Students thinking through scientific arguments for themselves! What a novel idea.

Not long ago, at an academic conference, I made this proposal for an open discussion of evolutionary reasoning in public high school biology classes. Chris Mooney--the author of The Republican War on Science--was present, and he protested that high school students were not smart enough to read Darwin or to study the controversy over evolution. Instead, he insisted, they should only be presented with standard textbooks that summarize what the "experts" in biology believe. High school students should never be permitted to question these "experts."

I can't agree with this. Mindless memorization of what the scientific "experts" believe does not cultivate a serious intellectual ability to assess scientific evidence and arguments. This is especially important when it comes to something like Darwinian science, which has moral, religious, and political implications that citizens need to understand and debate. Here Coulter and the intelligent design folks have a good point: some of the proponents of Darwinian biology assume a stance of arrogant superiority and dogmatism that suggests fear of real debate and free inquiry.

Darwinian conservatism does not require a dogmatic commitment to Darwinism. It requires only a serious inquiry into the ways that Darwinian science might support the moral and political principles of conservative thought as rooted in human nature.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The June issue of The New Criterion has a review of Darwinian Conservatism by Paul Gross. Unfortunately, this is available online only to subscribers.

Gross generally praises the book: "The argument is conscientious, documented, and timely." He agrees with me that Darwinian science does indeed support conservative thought.

His only disagreement with me is that he thinks I go too far in conciliating the proponents of "intelligent design." I suggest that it could be good for high school biology students to study the "intelligent design" arguments compared with Darwinian science. He dismisses "intelligent design" as not being a true science, and so he thinks it has no place in a science class. He also questions my recommendation that high school students read Darwin's own writings. He doesn't think this would work. He might be right.

In any case, I am encouraged that some of the reviews in conservative journals are favorable to my book, which suggests that there is a growing openness among conservatives to the idea of Darwinian conservatism.