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Matt Young and Taner Edis (Eds)


A scientific critique of the new creationism

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This book provides detailed rebuttals of the main arguments that have been put forward in defence of Intelligent Design (ID). It is intended chiefly for educators at university or sixth-form level though it would also interest readers who have seen or heard mention of ID in the media and wonder whether there is a genuine issue to be debated. Those in this last category should however be aware that some of the chapters are quite technical. The book covers both biology and, at a more abstract level, information theory and complexity.

ID seems to have developed as a would-be scientific version of Creationism. It does not claim that the Earth is only a few thousand years old but it does maintain that nature cannot be understood except as the product of design. The actual existence of a Designer is implied but not always spelt out in so many words. Although most readers of this book will probably think of ID as an idea that is popular among certain groups of Christians, especially American Christians, it also exists within Islam, and this is touched on in the introduction by the two editors and again in Chapter 1. However, the book is not concerned with theology or religion as such, but with science.

In biology, Michael Behe has become known for his claims for what he calls instances of irreducible complexity: systems that are so complicated that they could not possibly have evolved by natural selection. Behe's favourite example of irreducible complexity seems to be the bacterial flagellum. This is certainly a remarkable organ, which is probably the only example of a true rotatory structure in biology. It is discussed in detail here in two separate chapters by David Ussery and Ian Musgrave, both of whom are sure that it is in fact possible for the individual components of the mechanism to have evolved separately before coming together in the present structure.

Another apparent example of irreducible complexity is provided by the wings of birds, which are extraordinarily well adapted for flight both mechanically and aerodynamically. This topic is treated by Alan D.Gishlick. The discussion is interesting but I think it requires more space than it can receive in a multi-author book. Gishlick refers to a number of details of bird anatomy, a grasp of which is required if the argument is to be fully understood, but his description amounts to little more than a list of names with one small diagram and we really need more than this if we are to form a clear grasp of the issues.

In passing, I am always surprised that the ID enthusiasts do not make more of the extraordinary complexity of many parasite-host systems, which can involve the participation of several intermediate hosts. Although I am fully persuaded that all these systems must have arisen by natural selection, it often seems difficult to imagine the steps by which this has occurred.

The later chapters in the book move on from detailed treatment of biological questions to look at design in a more general context. Chapter 7, by Niall Shanks and Istvan Karsai, examines how order and complexity emerge spontaneously within physical systems and among social insects. William Dembski is a proponent of ID who has written a lot about such questions and his views are questioned here. This is fairly abstract stuff, and so is Chapter 8, by Gary S. Hurd, which is about what Dembski calls the explanatory filter and how this relates, or fails to relate, to archaeology.

Chapter 9, by Jeffrey Shallitt and Wesley Elsberry, will also be pretty challenging for non-mathematical readers because it deals with probability theory. These authors find that Dembski's treatment of complexity is incoherent and ill-defined, and does not have the properties he claims for it. Chapter 10, by Taner Edis, is on the related theme of chance and necessity but is more accessible for the non-specialist. In an echo of Jacques Monod, Edis concludes that the appearance of design in nature is the result of blind forces. "Deep down, there is only chance and necessity."

In Chapter 11, Mark Perakh takes us, with apologies, back to mathematics to demonstrate why the existence of complexity does not require prior intelligent design. He ends with a damning quotation from Dembski: "As Christians, we know that naturalism is false." This of course makes it clear that what Dembski is advancing cannot be science since he has made up his mind in advance about what he is going to conclude is the case.

Although there is plenty of reason to discount the claims of ID in biology, it has to be admitted that today's cosmologists face a genuine difficulty in explaining why many of the constants of nature seem to be critically finely tuned to permit the emergence of life. This is the subject of the penultimate chapter by Victor Stenger. He finds that so-called anthropic arguments for the fine tuning of the universe are modern versions of the Argument from Design for the existence of God. This is true but it is surely irrelevant to the validity or otherwise of the argument.

One often-proferred solution to the fine-tuning problem, which Stenger also favours, is to adopt the many-universes hypothesis. If there is a huge number of universes there will presumably be some which, by chance, have the right properties for life, and obviouly we could not exist in any universe that lacked those properties. But there is something uncomfortably ad hoc about this solution. However, Stenger also finds reason to question whether the requirements for a life-compatible universe are as stringent as some maintain they are.

The final chapter, by Mark Perakh and Matt Young, summarizes the whole book and concludes that ID is an example of pseudoscience. It is, they say, legitimate to look for evidence of design in nature, but it is unscientific to start from the position that design must be there as a matter of principle, which is what ID proponents do.

This book will provide ample material for educationalists who find it necessary to counter ID arguments they may meet in the course of their work. Up to now this has mainly been relevant to the USA, but trends of this kind are beginning to appear in Britain as well so its relevance is likely to increase here as time goes by.

19 March 2007

%T Why Intelligent Design Fails
%S A scientific critique of the new creationism
%E Young, Matt (editor)
%E Edis, Taner (editor)
%I Rutgers University Press
%C New Brunswik, New Jersey, and London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 978-0-8135-3872-3
%P xii + 238pp
%K science
%O paperback edition

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