Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Behe's Intelligent Design as Intellectual Retreat

The August 16th issue of The New York Review of Books has a review of Philip Kitcher's Living with Darwin by H. Allen Orr. Unfortunately, the full text of this review is available only to subscribers.

Although I have a copy of Kitcher's new book, I have not yet had a chance to read it. Orr's review makes me think that it's a good book. As summarized by Orr, Kitcher's book confirms my claim in some posts on this blog that Michael Behe's version of intelligent design theory is really an intellectual retreat from earlier versions of creationism. The first version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis was common among many scientists in the early 19th century. This was refuted by a fossil record that did not conform to the Genesis story. The fossil record showed clearly that the earth was much older than 6,000 years and that some primitive forms of life appeared long before other forms. This fossil record could not be explained as the consequence of Noah's Flood.

The next version of creationism was what Kitcher calls "novelty creationism"--over a long expanse of time, the Creator intervened to miraculously create new species. Geologist Charles Lyell took this position. But this new form of creationism was rendered implausible by the pattern of evolution. For example, why would the Creator create new species of finches on the Galapagos Islands remarkably similar to those on the South American mainland? Such patterns of geographic speciation are plausibly explained as products of evolutionary descent with modification.

The third form of creationism--intelligent design like that proposed by Michael Behe--is a further retreat. Behe agrees that Biblical literalism is implausible. He also agrees that evolution by common descent is more plausible than "novelty creationism." He retreats to the position that the Intelligent Designer somehow arranged things at the beginning of the universe so that evolution by common descent might unfold so as to produce "irreducibly complex" mechanisms like bacterial flagella. But then we ask, what is his alternative explanation to substitute for Darwinian natural selection? When, where, and how did the Intelligent Designer do this? Behe has no answer to such questions. And so "intelligent design theory" is left with almost no intellectual content.

As Orr indicates, Kitcher wants also to explain the implications of Darwinism for religion. He thinks Darwinism refutes Biblical literalism and supernatural religion, but not "spiritual religion." And yet, as Orr indicates, since "spiritual religion"--that idea that some spiritual leaders offer morally exemplary models--denies both Biblical revelation and supernatural reality, it seems hardly distinguishable from secular humanism.

Kitcher thinks that skepticism about the divine inspiration of scriptural texts subverts supernatural religion. But I would suggest that supernatural religion does not require belief in the authenticity of scripture. All that it requires is the belief that some supernatural cause is the only answer to questions of First Cause or ultimate explanation: Why is there anything at all? Why not nothing? Darwin acknowledged that such questions point to a fundamental mystery. I do not see how Darwinian evolution denies such supernatural explanations for the origin of life and the universe.

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