Category Archives: Intelligent Design

Expelled redux: Darwinism leads to atheism?

[Following up on previous posts here and here.]

Perhaps the most specious claim in Ben Stein’s creationism polemic Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is that Darwinism leads to atheism.

While certain atheists may claim inspiration from Darwinism, there is no reason to take their word for the accuracy of this connection.

In truth, evolution simply removes one argument for theism—the argument that speciation and variety in nature can only be explained by appeal to god. (Mono)theists got along without this argument for nearly the whole life of monotheism. Nor do all theists make use of it now. The moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, to whom contemporary Christians are arguably indebted for their ethics, denied the whole of such “natural theology.”

By analogy: The fact that ‘god didn’t cause speciation’ is like the fact that ‘my best friend didn’t cause the coffee stain in my carpet.’ My friend didn’t spill the coffee—nor did he murder Jimmy Hoffa, nor has he done the great majority of things which are done every day in the world. But this hardly means he doesn’t exist. When I offer an alternate explanation for the coffee stain—the cat did it, or I did it—it has no bearing on my belief in my friend’s existence; there can be spilled coffee with or without my friend. In this sense, there can be natural speciation with or without god.

My point is not just that replacing a ‘godly’ mechanism with a natural one leaves any other arguments for god untouched. It is that there really should be more arguments. If Darwin’s single omission invites atheism, the case for theism was pretty weak to begin with. Similarly, if my marriage is over simply because my wife forgets how to cook pasta, the argument for us staying together (i.e., her pasta skills) was poor anyhow.

Followup on Darwinism and eugenics, Nazism

Here I tried to show that Darwinism does not theoretically license any attempt to engineer humans to become more “fit,” e.g. eugenics, killing disabled people in the Holocaust, etc. I quoted where Darwin himself says the practice would violate morality.

I might have added: Darwin condemns it on practical grounds as well. In The Origin of Species, he writes:

“It is good thus to try in our imagination to give any form [i.e., adaptive feature] some advantage over another. Probably in no single instance should we know what to do, so as to succeed. It will convince us of our ignorance on the mutual relations of all organic beings; a conviction which is necessary, as it seems to be difficult to acquire.”

In other words, not only may we not “enhance” humanity through artificial (versus natural) selection, but it wouldn’t work if it we tried. We simply don’t know which adaptations will enhance fitness and which won’t. The situation is a bit game-theoretic: The complexity of an environment, which includes all of the other organisms, and all of the infinite ways it (and they) might change in the future, preclude a solid basis for “engineering.” This is precisely why the theory of evolution is not a predictive one. It locates a real causal mechanism for speciation, but it by no means follows that we can anticipate precisely how a species will change to come. Yet this is precisely what would be needed in order to “breed” humans for fitness. (We can sort of breed animals for fitness only to the extent they remain in a relatively artificially closed system of domesticity or captivity.)

Ben Stein, Do we need any further evidence to prove that Darwinism does not contain the “seeds of horror”?

All wrong: A review of Ben Stein’s Expelled: Part II

Is the Academy enforcing thought control against Intelligent Design?

Part I of my review covered Expelled’s specious attempt to link Darwinism to nasty “social engineering” projects like eugenics and the Holocaust. Here, I discuss the film’s second major theme: Alleged “thought persecution” of pro-Intelligent Design professors by the academic establishment.

ben-stein-fake-ass-rebelBen Stein: Fake-ass rebel

Negative “freedom”: A bogus virtue

A valorization of ‘negative freedom’—defined as the absence of external constraint—frames the whole film. Stein begins his narrative, “Freedom is what makes this country great….But imagine if these freedoms were taken away.” Well, he doesn’t have to imagine: American professors, he argues, are being punished for sympathizing with Intelligent Design (ID) theory.

The “taken away” line, consequently, is accompanied by a montage of young black Civil Rights marchers brutalized by police dogs and hoses. Stein must intend that the “freedom” fought for by these marchers is the same object now being denied his academics.

This seems a stretch precisely because it is. In truth, there is no generic “freedom” to guide us in morals or social policy. There are only specific freedoms to do specific things. And just as our commitment to “food” doesn’t commit us to favoring every nutritive substance on earth with equal vigor, it is possible to embrace “freedom” without being equally committed to, or worried over, every freedom to do every thing. (Indeed, as every freedom is mutually incompatible with some others, we can’t be equally committed to all.)

If by “we should secure freedom,” Stein really means, “we should secure freedom to teach Creationism in the classroom,” fair enough—and make the case on the merits of the thing. But let us not pretend that a commitment to “freedom” automatically spells a commitment to this freedom.

Academic freedom, no less

Stein is shocked that “scientists” should be less than “free to ask any question, to pursue any line of inquiry without fear of reprisal.” But a strict absence of constraint in the classroom has never existed, much less “made America great.” Nor should it exist. (Nor is Stein really, in his heart of hearts, agitating for any such thing.) It would amount to nothing less than the abandonment of curricular standards.[1]

“Persecuted” professors?

Stein’s general approach

Regardless, Stein’s examples of ID sympathizers persecuted by the academy are so exceedingly weak that we can assume, if this is the best he has, the issue is effectively nonexistent.

Stein’s entire case rests on the testimony of five science professionals profiled in the first fifteen minutes of the film. I dare anyone to watch to that point, parse the narration carefully, and tell me precisely where Stein demonstrates how, in his words, “ID is being repressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion” by the academic establishment.

To establish the victim-hood of his subjects, Stein employs the following suspect tactics:

(1) “Suggesting” causal connections without evidence: Stein describes how a subject (A) made public a commitment to ID, and then (B) suffered some loss of position. “A happened; later, B happened.” Of course, this gives the impression that the two events are actually connected in some way; but if you watch carefully, you’ll see Stein never makes the case. He doesn’t even try.

(2) Overlooking possible causes other than ID loyalties: Often Stein’s “victims” violated some university or professional policies which could just as likely explain their “discriminatory” treatment.

(3) Confusing “fired” with “expired”: In three cases, the so-called “expulsion” of Stein’s subjects coincide with the predetermined end of their contract period.

The charges which don’t fall under these categories are “offenses” which, even if true, are simply not serious. Nor is there evidence they had anything to do with the victims’ ID commitments.

Finally, all of the accounts are purely anecdotal; nothing any “victim” claims is corroborated by other first-hand accounts. (Indeed, where others involved give their versions, they always contradict, and outnumber, Stein’s subjects.)

Stein’s profiled “victims”: A case-by-case analysis

(a) Richard Sternberg

This appears to be Stein’s “flagship” case. According to Expelled, Dr. Richard Sternberg, while managing editor of a biology journal, decided to publish a colleague’s paper “suggest[ing] intelligent design might be able to explain how life began.” At the time, Sternberg also held an “office” at the Smithsonian.

The paper, Stein recounts, “ignited a firestorm of controversy…[Sternberg’s] political and religious beliefs were investigated and he was pressured to resign.” Sternberg adds that the department chair (and other unspecified “people”) said bad things about his decision. But at this point, the worst we have is “pressure…to resign.” And Sternberg didn’t resign from anything. This hardly rates the imposing, red-inked “Expelled!” stamped across Sternberg’s face with a thud—a recurring graphic motif in the film.

So what did happen?

First, Sternberg could not have “resigned” his editorship on account of the article, as it appeared in the issue he’d already scheduled to be his last. In a subsequent issue, the journal’s publisher ran a retraction of the article. This was not for its ID-themed content, but because it violated their own (and standard) peer-review protocol: Sternberg claimed the paper had been reviewed by “four well-qualified biologists,” but refused to name them (and never has); he also failed to mention that he was one of them. The entire process was done behind the backs of the other editorial staff. This is all highly unorthodox and violates the practice and express rules of the journal.[2]

Neither could Sternberg have “resigned” from his job at the Smithsonian, because he didn’t have one. He was an unpaid researcher there under the rubric of another institution. He did, as he claims, “los[e] his office,” but this was not because of the paper, or ID, but because his set term as researcher was up. Right after, he was offered another research position at the same institution. Sternberg’s own email records document his supervisors’ opposition to any sanction of Sternberg for his ID sympathies.

This hardly describes the “exile” the professor claims to have suffered.

(Note too that the journal is a tiny regional paper with a circulation mostly internal to its publishing council. Whatever happened to its editor would hardly implicate “the academy.” )

(b) Caroline Crocker

Caroline Crocker was a biology professor at George Mason University. Stein begins, “After simply mentioning intelligent design in her cell biology class…her promising academic career came to an abrupt end.”

Note the correlation without causality: Crocker mentioned ID here; she lost her job there. But the link between the two events, if any, remains unshown.

Crocker’s “lost…job” amounts to the university’s failure to renew a contract that ended at a set time. This is not at all unusual—especially for part-time faculty, as was Crocker—and implies nothing particularly sinister. The university claims the decision had nothing to do with ID, and there is nothing but Crocker’s “feelings” to say otherwise.

(And Crocker did much more than “simply mention” ID. She taught the damn thing. But more on this below.)

(c) Michael Egnor

Stein narrates: “When neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor wrote an essay…saying doctors didn’t need to study evolution in order to practice medicine, the Darwinists were quick to try and exterminate this new threat.”

So what did this sinister effort look like? In Egnor’s own words, “A lot of people on a lot of blogs called me unprintable names.”

This is the entire charge. At most, some of these bloggers encouraged their readers to call the university and ask for Egnor’s resignation. (We are not told whether any of them ever did.) But Egnor wasn’t fired or driven out from anywhere. His name-callers weren’t associated with any university or professional administration. For this, Egnor is the most dubious recipient of Stein’s thunderous “Expelled!” stamp across the forehead.

(d) Robert J. Marks II

Dr. Marks, an engineering professor at Baylor University, erected a website on the university server to solicit grant moneys for private research. The site explored ID theories. Marks’s entire complaint in Expelled is that the university asked him to add a disclaimer—the same type that introduces every infomercial—clarifying that Marks’ personal views may not represent those of the university. This reflects university policy, which, if anything, appears to have been bent in Marks’ favor to let him keep the site. Instead, Marks chose to export it to another server, where it remains.

Again, this is the entire complaint. Marks is still at Baylor university and continues to receive a river of grant monies totaling in the millions. (And again with the “Expelled!” logo. Jesus. A disclaimer on a website is “Expelled”??)

(e) Guillermo Gonzalez

Finally, Stein profiles astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez of Iowa State University. After publishing the ID-sympathetic book, “The Privileged Planet,” Gonzalez’s petition for tenure was turned down.

Once more, we are presented with two events but no evidence—no attempt, even—to show how they might be connected. Gonzalez himself can only speculate: “I have little doubt that I would have tenure now if I hadn’t done any professional work on intelligent design.” (Well.)

The Chronicle of Higher Education notes Gonzalez, by the time of his tenure denial, “had no major grants during his seven years at ISU, had published no significant research during that time and had only one graduate student finish a dissertation.” A Physics Dept. colleague of Gonzalez reported his work leading up to the denial conspicuously lacked any math, measurements, or tests.[3]


Expelled was Stein’s big chance to slam the intellectual establishment. With two years and a ton of resources (in his words, it is “possibly the most expensive documentary for its length ever made”), he produces this anecdotal piece of shit. It is as if the Klan produced a documentary to prove once and for all the validity of white supremacy and all they present is a couple people saying black guys cut them off in traffic. I’d love to hear from people who find this convincing. I just don’t get it. Ben Stein has always sucked, but he’s better than this.

Two concluding points:

(1) Again, nobody in the documentary was fired, or otherwise sanctioned, for teaching ID. But what would be wrong if they were? As noted, “academic freedom” per se is simply crazy, and even the people who invoke the value don’t believe it in a strict sense. Stein himself gives the caveat that we wouldn’t want teachers to push Holocaust denial or flat-earthism in the classroom. So he must want limits to this “freedom.” But he never specifies what they should look like.

So why couldn’t ID in principle be relevant to one’s claim to lead a classroom or edit a journal? If the theory is plainly, grossly wrongheaded—crudely put, if it’s a damned stupid thing to believe—why should its endorsement not be a sign of scientific incompetence? I mean, fine, argue that it isn’t stupid; but stop acting as though nothing a professor believes could be ever relevant to his tenure.

On the other hand, ID could be a serious liability to scientific performance. It is classic god-of-the-gaps. And if you stop at the next gap, the next unknown phenomenon, and just assume it is designed, you stop looking for a genuine explanation. And the whole history of science—even the science the ID folks accept—is nothing if not the history of naturalistically filling gaps which looked at first to be designed.

(2) The most annoying part of the project is its faux rebellious air. Stein snarkily reports that his subjects “questioned the powers that be” and are now paying the price for it. This is accompanied by montages of the old Soviet Union building walls and showing force against “dissidents.” Of course the academy is supposed to be the brutish, conservative Regime and Stein and the ID guys are the lone rebels. This imagery is part of Stein’s cloying effort to hippen or “MTV”-up the film.

But rebellion in itself is nothing to celebrate. The NAMBLA pederasts’ website is full of challenges to a rigid orthodoxy. Every purveyor of every vile or idiotic thing is almost by definition a convention-flouter. You don’t get to be a cool rebel just because you believe crazy shit.

* * *


[1] By “scientists,” Stein refers to academics who are also scientists. Granted, the (alleged) persecutions are not strictly for things said, as I wrote, “in the classroom.” Some teachers have been targeted (again, allegedly) for things they wrote in academic journals. But my comments stand: Not only is it unreasonable to expect total freedom in the classroom, it is unreasonable to expect that you can exercise total freedom in your published work and it not affect your claim to a classroom. I’m sure Stein has no objection to teachers’ receiving jobs, or tenure, on the basis of published works. Everyone sees these as factors relevant to one’s teaching status. This is why every published professor with a website lists a C.V. But this relevance works in two directions.

[2] Nor was Sternberg, among those associated with the journal, nearly the most qualified to review the article. The article covered Cambrian-era invertebrates, on which many of the publishing Council are experts. (Sternberg is a taxonomist with no paleontological background.)

The article grew out of a meeting between Sternberg and the author (Stephen C. Meyer)—not the other way around. There is some reason to think they planned it as a “lame duck” parting shot which they knew would never fly under normal circumstances, and which Sternberg would likely be sanctioned if he weren’t already leaving. Meyer offered no new scholarship that would normally occasion publication, but cobbled together parts of papers he’d already published.

[3] The film also mentions “petitions” circulated by an “Avalos,” hinting that it sealed Gonzalez’ fate. Hector Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at ISU. He co-wrote a general statement (not a “petition” for anything) against ID explanations which was signed by 130 other faculty. It wasn’t a policy document, nor did it result in any policy change. It predated Gonzalez’s tenure bid by two years. Nor did it name Gonzalez or any specific person.

All wrong: A thematic review of Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” part I

Part I: Darwin and the science of “social engineering”

This documentary film bears two central themes: First, as the title suggests, it charges that American professors are being punished for sympathizing openly with Intelligent Design theory (ID), a spruced up version of Creationism. Second, it wants to place some blame upon Darwinism for inspiring ugly historical movements like eugenics and the Holocaust. This critique is likewise placed within the context of an extended pro-ID argument.

This part of my review deals with the second theme.

ben-stein-airy-suggestibilistBen Stein: Airy suggestibilist

Wrong from the start: Stein’s fatal error

Eugenics is the effort to “fitten up” the human species by breeding the strongest members, while sterilizing or otherwise preventing reproduction by those deemed weaker. The Holocaust, of course, aimed at the same effect by killing off the weaker ones directly. (I refer to these efforts collectively as “social engineering.”)

Stein not at all specific as to why these sins should be laid at Darwin’s door—but more on that later. For now, one obvious problem with any attempt by ID advocates to blame Darwinism for “social engineering” is that the part of Darwinism that (allegedly) licenses these acts is the very part which ID theorists themselves accept.

Proponents of ID, including those interviewed by Stein (e.g. William Dembski), are fond of saying that Darwin’s mistake was misapplication. He started with a sound idea—natural selection—but simply tried to explain too much with it. All ID theorists accept that natural selection explains “microevolution,” or changes within the same species over time. But they deny that it explains the differences between species; that is, they disagree with “macroevolution” whereby one species evolves into a completely different one. It is at this line of speciation that ID folks part ways with Darwin.

Fair enough, let’s assume. But it is not any particular application of natural selection that inspires the “social engineers”—but rather, natural selection plain and simple. If Darwin’s theory, as Expelled contends, contains the “seeds of horror,” then so does the very ID theory the film endorses. I see this inconsistency as nothing less than fatal for the entire project.[1]

What precisely is the claim here?

But let us dig deeper.

Again, Stein never bothers to say just how Darwin is supposed to be connected to Nazism and eugenics. The film throws up a lot of insinuations and “feelings” on the matter, none of which are really explored.

For a few of the documentary’s claims:

* The eugenicists and Nazi architects were “inspired” by natural selection. But so what? Sometimes inspiration is “taken” rather than “given.” Thirty years ago, John Hinckley, Jr. was “inspired by” Jody Foster to shoot President Reagan. Foster was the inspiration, but her influence was completely passive, and completely excusable.

* Many leading Nazis, and almost all eugenicists, “were fanatical Darwinists.” Maybe, but they were mammals and Westerners and a lot of other things, too. Most all of them had noses,  I expect. Correlation is not causality.

* “The Nazis relied on…Darwin.” This is more specific but fares no better. For they also “relied on” bacteriology and neurology. A ton of real science was involved in the torture of and experimentation upon the “unfit.” (Hell, they relied on mundane things like trucks, wool and tinned meats, too.)

Of course, what Stein really means to say is that the Nazis claimed to be relying on Darwin. As such,

* Mein Kampf cites a “correspondence between” Darwinist ideas and Nazi ideas. But even if some ugly movements claimed to be Darwinist, it doesn’t follow that Darwinism is to blame for them. It is not enough that someone claim to be inspired by a belief to perform some horrible act; in order to blame the theory, it must be shown that it has not been misinterpreted. It must be shown that the perpetrators were correct to draw the inference.

* Darwinism is “a necessary condition” for the rise of Nazism (though not a sufficient one). This is more specific yet. But just as correlation is not causality, causality is not culpability. Perfectly benign entities such as oxygen, gravity, the nation-state, British and American citizens, and Jews, are “necessary conditions” for Nazism as we knew it. Of course, that doesn’t make those things bad. Hitler’s grandmother could have been a lovely human being, but she was a “necessary condition” for Hitler(ism).

* * *

So nothing like an argument is to be found above. The film leaves it unclear what the “engineers” thought was Darwinist about what they were doing, and what was in fact Darwinist about it. (This is compounded by the fact that when actual “social engineers” speak for themselves, they aren’t much clearer.) But perhaps we can stitch something together.

Helping Stein along

The breeding of human beings was an attempt to make humans more “fit” by purifying the gene pool of disease, deformity, stupidity, and so forth, on the assumption, of course, that these traits have a genetic basis.

If you look for “Darwiny” elements in this, I suppose you can find them. You could say that selective breeding of any kind is a “mimicking” of the natural selective processes Darwin codified. And granted, Darwin drew an analogy between natural selection and animal husbandry, to help readers understand the former on the basis of something with which they were already familiar. I suppose with some leap of the imagination you could read into this an analogy between human natural selection and human “husbandry.” But to suggest—even openly—an analogy between human evolution and human “breeding” is hardly to suggest that humans be bred. It is just to say the two processes are alike in some respect.

Also, why would the “engineers” think they had to artificially produce mechanisms that are already working naturally? If they were true Darwinists, wouldn’t they predict the unfit would simply die out on their own? A strict Darwinism, it would seem, would obviate the need for “engineering” altogether.

Stein hints at an answer: The film rolls a clip from a Nazi propaganda film in which the narrator argues, “We [Germans] have transgressed the law of natural selection in the last decades” by permitting inferior members of the species (ostensibly Jews, the disabled, etc.) to survive and reproduce.

The suggestion is that in “the wild,” these inferior beings would die sooner and reproduce less, and thus not threaten the gene pool significantly. But modern culture has interfered with these “natural” self-correcting processes. Now we coddle and tolerate inferiors. Modern medicine—corrective surgery, wheelchairs—compensates for what nature has denied them. And liberal politics have removed the competitive pressure for resources by universalizing access to health care, education, suffrage, etc. This means we will cease to evolve (and possibly “devolve”) unless we act the role of nature and remove these genes ourselves.

“Social engineering” doesn’t follow from Darwinism

I guess this is the link Stein wants to draw. But there is nothing authentically Darwinist about this story. Here are the main problems I see with trying to hang “social engineering” on the theory of natural selection:

(1) Darwinism offers a description of a natural mechanism. Even if that description is false, and natural selection doesn’t exist, it is unclear how any description alone could license specific human behavior. The claim that natural selection operates upon organisms in no way implies that we should operate in “the same” way, or engineer things to bring about “the same” effects that it would. Likewise, the theory that cancer causes mortality does not license us to mimic this effect by killing cancer patients.

Darwinist “fitness” is not a moral category; it is not “good” or “right”—it just is. Getting from “disabled animals naturally die out, enhancing fitness” to “we should kill disabled people to enhance our fitness” requires a moral link that is not found within Darwinism itself, but which must be imposed from the outside.

(2) There is no such concept as “fitness” per se. An organism is fit only in relation to a specific environment. Someone that is fit in one environment might not be fit in another. So it makes no sense to say that “unfit” humans are being artificially kept alive in a modern environment; this can only mean that the modern environment—with wheelchairs, welfare, etc.—has now made them fit. Similarly, a person with 20/200 vision might be unfit in a hunter-gatherer tribal environment, but is no longer so in an environment with eyeglass technology. The new environment simply does not select these persons as unfit.[2]

Once more, anyone wishing to rectify our “transgression of natural selection” is not only wrong but reaching beyond the clear bounds of what is authentically Darwinist.

(3) Even if Darwinism did license killing “the unfit” among us, who says that the targets of the Holocaust and eugenics are “naturally” less fit than anyone else? The social engineers had crazy ideas about what constituted fitness. For example, eugenics was driven by unscientific, “Dickensian” ideas correlating poverty with genetic-based human weakness and moral degeneracy. Likewise, the Nazis had poor theories about “blood purity” which deemed the Jews as less fit than others.

These theories are just false. It is simply not the case that poverty stems from “weak genes,” nor that without modern, liberal German amenities, the Jews would die “naturally” before reproducing. Nor do these views have any part in Darwinism; they had to be grafted on from outside.

(4) Assuming the effects of natural selection could be mimicked artificially, this would endorse social engineering only on the insane assumption that everything which can be done ought to be.

Still, putting aside the moral question, it is unclear that “mimicking” natural selection is even possible. Who knows whether our idea of fitness is the same one “nature” would select for, were its modern constraints removed? Even if they match, it is unclear that the goal of fitness can be achieved in a non-counterproductive way.

For instance, as virtually every evolutionary biologist believes (and Darwin seems to), empathy and altruism are themselves evolutionary adaptations. They have a useful social function, on which the reproductive success of the group depends. Mimicking natural selection would require abandoning these behaviors, risking our becoming less fit in the longer term. Trying for group fitness is probably a contradiction in terms.


Any attempt to link Darwin to the horrors of social engineering has to overlook that he explicitly and unambiguously argued against the practice himself. In The Descent of Man, Darwin strenuously condemns this on purely moral grounds. (The quote, with emphasis, and the analysis which follows, comes from this article in Scientific American.)

Darwin writes:

“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

As SA points out, Expelled shadily quotes the passage immediately preceding this one in Descent, alleging its support for social engineering. They ignore the one which contradicts that interpretation entirely—though Stein and the producers had to know of its existence.

[See part 2 of this review, and redux.]


[1] The most Expelled could contend is that both Darwin himself and the “social engineers” misapplied Darwin. Still, this lets Darwin off the hook for anything more than, again, the technical “paper error” of over-explanation. The moral error falls squarely on the heads of the social engineers.

[2] Behind the social engineering theory is an untenable (and un-Darwinian) nature-versus-culture dichotomy. The reason is makes no sense to say we blocked the action of “nature” is because “we” are as much a part of nature ourselves. Indeed, our action changes the environment, and thus the direction of selective pressures on ourselves, but this hardly makes it “unnatural.” All organisms do this very thing. We could change our behavior, and thus the direction of selection, but this wouldn’t be a return to behaving “naturally.” It would just be a different “natural” behavior than the old “natural” one.

On the “pragmatic” argument for special creation

[Job training has distracted me from blogging for several weeks. It appears I might be back.]

[I’ve been on an evolution kick. Read Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” if you can. It covers all the angles and reads like a novel.]


We’ve all heard the sentiment that our having evolved from “lower” animals is less ennobling than special creation by deity; that it decreases our special worth or dignity.

Sometimes this sentiment is worked up into an argument—as when Darwin’s contemporaries said that one had only to look at the queen to know she just couldn’t have come from a monkey. This is “pragmatic creationism”-proper.

Today, this idea rarely appears as an explicit plank in the creationist’s case, but the feeling persists that evolution degrades humanity, existentially speaking. And I suspect this feeling motivates the creationists: Among this group, there is a broad spectrum of evolutionary phenomena that is admitted: Young-earthers accept no evolution whatsoever; more liberal types accept micro-evolution; others accept macro-evolution nearly across the board; still others (the “irreducible complexity” folks) accept that species macro-evolve, but deny that biochemical cellular processes do. But every creationist stops short of human (macro) evolution.

Two responses leap to mind:

First, it is simply wrong equate the origins of a thing with the thing itself—or the goodness or badness of the one with the goodness or badness of the other. (This is the logician’s “fallacy of origins.”) To say that B came from A is hardly to say that B is A, or is even like A. Granted, Bs often look like their As, and not by accident; sons are somewhat like their fathers, and so forth. But the quality and degree of this identity, and what worth to attach to it, must be investigated, not merely assumed.

Second, “wishin’ don’t make it so.” Assuming we would be made “lower” by lowly origins—why should the facts succumb to our feelings about them? Our origins do not become one way because we would be uncomfortable with alternative scenarios. I may be upset at being the product of an alcoholic father, or an incestuous relationship, but this emotion hardly changes the case.

Darwin weighs in

Darwin himself gave a cleverer answer in the conclusion to his The Descent of Man:

“I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction.”

In other words, if it is off-putting that our entire species should have emerged from a “lower” form, it should be at least as off-putting that each individual human develops from a lower form in the womb—a form much lower than any adult “ape” (i.e., pre-human hominid). And yet this development is something no creationist would deny, nor feel particularly bad about.

Worse, on the road to “higher” humanity, the human embryo has to escalate through multiple lower forms: We begin as fish do, with gills, a tail, and a fishlike branchial circulatory system. Then we go through an amphibious, then a reptilian stage. Before becoming recognizably human, we have a brief “lower primate” stage, when the fetus becomes entirely covered with a coat of fine hair called “lanugo.” (We shed this before birth, while monkeys retain it.)

* * *

Our embryonic staging is itself evidence for evolution, in the sense that the story makes better sense on an evolutionary view than on a theory of special creation. Per Haeckel’s famous “ontogeny replicates phylogeny” dictum, the sequence of embryonic stages mimics the sequence of major evolutionary stages through which our species evolved. First we were fish, then amphibians, reptiles, etc. (All other evolved organisms show this pattern also.)

Evolution typically proceeds by addition, or accretion; it is easier (that is, more conducive to fitness and survival) if nature “tacks on” a new feature than to remove one and hope that the remaining ones work around the gap. Of course, this means tacking on a new gene which codes for the feature. In the womb, we develop in ways our “lower” ancestors did (or do) because we have inherited strings of their old genes, the ones that code for their development. We don’t keep the reptilian, etc. features because we have acquired other genes which turn the old ones off before birth.

It is weird enough on technical grounds that a creator would place genes for gills, fur, etc., inside us, only to deactivate them before birth. Instead, s/he could have started us as Aristotelean homunculi: tiny, intact humans that do nothing but grow in size.

On moral grounds, it is pointless that a creator would, in a bid to secure our “specialness,” forbid us as a group to develop from lower beings, only to force each of us individually to develop this way.

Conclusion: The aesthetics of descent versus special creation

The main error of the “pragmatic creationists” is to mistake an aesthetic preference for reality. This aside, is it really preferable on aesthetic grounds that we should have been created, rather than to have evolved?

We are the culmination of a vigorous natural epic, billions of years in the making, one that could have gone in a billion other ways, but didn’t, and that will continue beyond us in ways that we help determine. This is simply more interesting than our having been dropped here, without papers, without biography, without a legacy. For all the reasons “God did it” is a scientific non-starter, it also makes for a piss-poor narrative.

Perhaps our being formed by the same processes as hagfish, dung beetles, and leeches decreases our “specialness” among them. But “being the best” is hardly the only value. And it isn’t always that valuable. It’s lonely at the top. To believe ourselves fundamentally, irreducible set apart from the world can be—it should be—profoundly alienating. An evolutionary story recovers for humans a sense of “at-home-ness” in the world. It permits us to belong and identify.

Not to say that our special place totally dissolves. For we among all “beasts” can reflect upon our mutual heritage. We alone can write the story down. (We alone can blog about it.)

Finally, in poetic terms, our evolution represents a kind of achievement. “We” have struggled, and triumphed. Typically, we praise and admire achievements over charity. (For this reason, heirs and contest winners are always resented by those who “earned” it.) To sit atop this long struggle is arguably more “special” than to have been given the damn thing. Again, this could be said of other species, too, but again, only we can appreciate it.

Richard Dawkins for good and for bad; Intelligent Design still fails

Richard Dawkins is an important apologist for evolutionary theory and, less deservedly, for atheism. However, I am uncomfortable with his focus on the “bad outcomes” of religious faith—say, the violence it historically engenders. How should a religious person respond to the charge that her view engenders violence? I mean, if she already has good reason for believing in God (and implicit reason to think (a) she should do whatever God sanctions and (b) God sanctions [that] violence), then what of it? Surely Dawkins would not argue that anything and everything which engenders violence is automatically illegitimate—that nothing could possibly be worth fighting for. Of course, he would clarify that it is not so much that religion causes fights but that it causes them for no good reason. But then the question becomes, Just how is religion shown to be poorly reasoned (that is, what reasons do we have for not believing in God)? I agree that there is no good reason for believing religious claims—and that, alone, is my argument. If there were good reasons for being religious, and if these legitimated violent defense or conquest of territory or whatever else, then, by God, so be it. But there are not, so it does not.

To elaborate: The “religion is violent” argument is like arguing to a man who tends to fight over his girlfriend, “Look at all the trouble your belief in her causes—she must not really exist.” At most, we would argue instead that he is right to believe in her but wrong to fight so over her. Actually, Dawkins’ argument is more analogous to a case in which some crazy stranger keeps fighting over someone else’s girlfriend: Most religious people in Dawkin’s audience probably don’t approve of the author’s examples of religious violence (that is, they would be opposed to using violence to promote their religion). Telling these peaceful believers to stop being religious because someone else thinks its OK to fight over their religion is like telling the boyfriend to stop believing in his girlfriend because some other, random guy keeps fighting over her. What does he—or what do the Crusades—have to do with me?, it will be asked.

(All of this is not to shortchange the argument that the historical wars “over religion” are always epiphenomenal on more bread-and-butter concerns—fights which then would have erupted regardless but with other pretexts. But more on this another time.)

In any case, I like Dawkins’ latest book The God Delusion for driving home an argument which may be ‘the’ refutation of intelligent design (ID) theory. ID theory is mostly the very old idea that certain aspects of the natural world (or, the whole natural world itself) are best explained as the handiwork of an intelligent, personal cause. ID is promoted as a rival to Darwinism and any other theory of an unintelligent, impersonal cause or causes of these phenomena. It seeks to show that complex, highly ordered systems can only be the product of an “orderer,” the alternative being sheer, random accident, the probability of which is prohibitively low. Crudely put, if the neatly interworking parts of a sewing machine imply a designer, no less should those of, say, biological “machines” like spermatazoa or elephants (or the finely-tuned universe embracing them as “parts” in turn).

ID’s novel aspect rests in its refusal to officially posit just who this designing agent is or what he/she/it is like—or conversely, its stress upon the point that an inference from nature to a designer does not in itself imply any particular idea of the character of that designer. I remember many years ago reading David Hume’s argument to this effect and laughing out loud: The simple inference of a designing agency does not get us to the God of Christianity; there could be a bungling designer, upset and embarassed with we, his imperfect, earthly first attempt, or perhaps a concert of twelve designers who hate and compete with each other. (As we shall see, however, ID theorists do believe in the God of Christianity and conceive the ID movement as a way of pushing this view.)

Dawkins stresses the rejoinder that the ID “hypothesis” never ultimately explains anything because the designer itself requires its own, similar explanation. This argument I take to be decisive: If all complex entities require a designer to account for their existence, then what of the designer him/her/itself—who must be at least as complex as the entities it so cleverly crafts? Either we have an “actual infinite” regress—which is probably impossible—of designers, each one invoked to explain the one before it; or the ID theorist must accept that the Designer’s existence somehow requires no special explanation. (Thus that not all complex entities must be designed.) But if that complex entity is permitted to stand on its own, logically speaking, then why not the whole complex world (or biological entities within it) itself? Why should that need a special explanation but not God?—How better then to obey Occam’s razor and minimize our explanatory variables.

Here is a paper I wrote for a philosophy of science class which treats the ID hypothesis in, I think, its strongest and most interesting form. Seeing the above weakness of the concept of “complexity,” some ID theorists have replaced it in their arguments with the qualified “irreducible complexity.” An “irreducibly complex” system might have five “parts” that work together so neatly that removing any one of them would render the whole system non-functional. The implication is that a Darwinian explanation—whereby an initial, simple entity evolves by accretion to have the second part, then the third, later the forth, and so on—is inapplicable to such a system. Nothing less than the “whole” combination of “parts” could operate (i.e., survive)—thus, nature could not have selected for the “parts” individually. And since the whole interlocking system could not have sprung into random existence fully-formed, the designer, again, must be called up to account for it.

The paper argues against the “irreducible” version of ID theory. It is long and as cerebral as a philosophy paper should be, but I hope somebody gets something from it. [n.b. The footnotes are superscripted but not live–you gotta scroll to the bottom to read them. I’m working on putting the links to the websites mentioned in the text.]