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Living with DarwinReview - Living with Darwin
Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith
by Philip Kitcher
Oxford University Press, 2007
Review by Daniel O'Brien, Ph.D.
Jul 10th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 28)

Philip Kitcher's Living With Darwin joins a collection of recent high profile books in attacking Christianity through rejecting creationism and Intelligent Design (ID). ID is rejected, not on the usual grounds that it is a pseudoscience, but on the grounds that it is "dead science". And thus -- contra the views of the Kansas Schools Board -- ID has no place in the biology classroom, just as alchemy should not be taught in chemistry as anything more than a historical view.

Kitcher usefully describes ID as involving a two part strategy. First, problem cases for Darwinian selection are highlighted. There are, Kitcher acknowledges, gaps in the fossil record and it is not easy to see how complex organs such as the eye, or the molecular machinery within cells, could have evolved by various stages of random mutation as evolutionists claim. Kitcher has various responses to these "concrete case" arguments. He suggests a certain disingenuousness on the part of creationists. There is no fossil evidence of the transition between reptilian and mammalian reproductive systems, but how could there be: such systems are not bony and thus do not get fossilised! And, he claims, creationists are well aware of this. Kitcher is admittedly less combative than Dawkins (say), although there is occasional exasperation at the argumentative strategy of creationists: in uncovering deficiencies in arguments for ID one can "feel that the task is Sisyphean...Creationist literature is especially creative in its misunderstandings...creationists can manufacture spurious "problems" faster than evolutionists can unmask their sophistries." (70-1) He is more sympathetic to problems concerning complex biological structures, although some such as the eye can be explained by the Darwinian, and although complex cellular structures do pose interesting problems for molecular biology, that's not to say that these are unsolvable.

The second part of the ID strategy is to postulate an alternative source of the diversity of species, that being an intelligent designer. Here Kitcher distinguishes three creationist stances. There is "Genesis creationism" that accepts the first book of the Bible as literal truth. This is summarily rejected as bad science. (A dangerous strategy for a Christian since if this is seen as allegorical, then so perhaps should miracle stories, the Resurrection, and the virgin birth.) The official position of leading advocates of ID is "anti-selectionism": God does not conjure up new organisms; rather, he directs the evolutionary transition between new traits, organs, and structures. The phylogenetic tree of life is a correct diachronic representation of the evolution of species through time, but the tree is pruned by God and not left to sprout randomly as Darwinians claim. Kitcher argues, though, that at heart ID is committed to "novelty creationism": from time to time God introduces novel types of organism into the world, man being the result of one his recent interventions.

 One of Kitcher's key arguments against ID is that the 'design' of nature just isn't that intelligent, and various (sometimes humorous) examples are cited: there are woodpeckers where no trees grow, birds with webbed feet who live on dry land, the tangled reproductive and urinary tubes of mammals, and "if you were designing a human body, you could surely improve on the knee." (57) Particular attention is given to post-Darwinian genetics. For example, most of our DNA is non-functional "junk"; according to neo-Darwinians this consists of genetic material that once had a function in our distant ancestors. It is, though, an odd feature for God to include, and it is especially poor design given that this junk leads to diseases such as Huntington's.

Perhaps God should be seen "as whimsical, bungling, a mediocre engineer, an unintelligent designer." (49-50) Instead, though, Kitcher argues that the second part of the ID strategy is based on a fallacy: just because things appear to be designed, it does not follow that they are. Order can be the result of unplanned processes, as happens in the structure of snow flakes, the honeycombs of bees, and free market economies. Persuasion is therefore required on the part of creationists: a positive story is required of why the particular order of nature requires a designer, and of the methods by which this designer works. And this we do not have.

A common Christian response here is to claim that God's methods are inscrutable, but any such response lacks explanatory power and thus cannot itself answer the admittedly problematic concrete cases that creationists highlight. Here, I think, the hollowness of Kitcher's main claim is evident. At heart ID should not be seen as a scientific alternative to Darwin. There is a pretence of scientific respectability -- which of course helps in persuading School Boards to include ID on the curriculum -- but when the science itself is scrutinized, the non-scientific "inscrutable" move is readily made. Kitcher allows ID too much intellectual respectability. After all, "from the perspective of almost the entire community of natural scientists world-wide, this continued resistance to Darwin is absurd." (3)

Another popular line is that Darwinism is compatible with religion. But it's not, and here Kitcher revises his earlier view in Abusing Science (MIT Press, 1982). Evolution accentuates the traditional Problem of Evil. Over millions of years, billions of animals have suffered and died in order that humankind were to evolve. And, since God is omniscient, this suffering and death was all part of the design plan. This suggests the handiwork of "a bungling, or chillingly indifferent God" (124); certainly not a Christian God. Surely an omnipotent God -- one who can perform miracles -- could have achieved his plan "without so long and bloody a prelude." (127)

In the last chapter Kitcher moves away from ID in particular and looks at atheism in general, or the "enlightenment case against supernaturalism." (131) The book loses its focus here a little, although there is some strong criticism of biblical testimony: it is filled with contradictions, "Matthew has wise men, but no shepherds. Luke has shepherds but no wise men" (136), and mistranslations: pre-Christian translators mistranslated the Hebrew "young woman" as "virgin"!

Living in the UK, the argumentative zeal of Kitcher's book, and the recent releases of Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchins, seem a little out of place (as these writers all acknowledge). Those famous pictures of Darwin with the head of a gorilla are seen as quaint pieces of Victoriana and not as illustrations of a shocking, subversive and dangerous world-view (as presumably they are for parts of the US and elsewhere). In certain respects, then, these works and polemics lack a clear audience. If you are sympathetic to their aims, it is unlikely that you will need to be persuaded or that you even think there's a contentious issue here; if you're not sympathetic, then it hardly seems likely that philosophical argument will overturn ID dogma. (I don't know whether this is deliberate, but the hardback cover with its sepia tones and tacky graphics is very reminiscent of certain evangelical pamphlets!) Notwithstanding this reservation, Kitcher's book draws some key distinctions within ID and these bring clarity to the debate and will allow the sceptic to aim at the often moving target of ID.

© 2007 Daniel O'Brien

Dr Dan O'Brien, School of Politics, International Relations & Philosophy, Keele University.


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