Why Darwin Matters

On a shopping trip with my girlfriend south of the border (a common excursion for Canadians, given the recent relative strength of their dollar), I picked up two books I’ve been anxious to read: Why Darwin Matters, by Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer, and Your Inner Fish, by paleontologist Neil Shubin. I finished the former in less than 24 hours, and though I’m a couple years behind the game, I’ll be writing my impressions here.

Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design is at its heart a book of persuasion. shermer divides the world into three types of people:

True Believers, Fence Sitters, and skeptics. Religious True Believers will never change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them, and science-embracing skeptics already accept evolution. The battleground is for the Fence Sitters – those who have heard something about a claim or controversy and wonder what the explanation for it might be.

Thus, from the start, the book is not really directed at me, as I whole-heartedly accept evolution. However, I quite enjoyed reading it, as evidenced by the fact that I could hardly put it down. Here’s why.

First, Shermer presents an entertaining history of intelligent design and creationism in the United States, and why they persist in the face of overwhelming evidence for evolution. In so doing, he provides riveting accounts of William Jennings Bryan’s boisterous prosecution of the Scopes trial, and most memorably of all a debate between he and the namesake of the Hovind Scale, the fast-talking creationist and current jailbird Kent Hovind. His account of this debate can also be found on the website of Skeptic Magazine.

In the meat of the book, Shermer systematically dismantles the arguments for Intelligent Design, finding them all unequal to rigorous standards of science. He then exposes the real agenda behind the ID movement, most memorably by recounting the words of Discovery Institute fellow William Dembski at the annual conference of the National Religious Broadcasters:

…intelligent design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God… The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ… And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.

To close as Shermer does throughout the book, Q. E. D.

Finally, and most challengingly for me, Shermer devotes a large portion of the book to explaining why evolution is perfectly compatible with both Christianity and conservativism. The reason for the first is obvious: most Americans and virtually all American creationists are Christian, and to sell evolution to doubtful Christians is to convince them that it does not contradict their faith. The need for the second is less obvious. What reason would a conservative have for doubting evolution, except that most conseratives in the United States are Christian? Still, Shermer cites poll data showing that some 60 percent of Republicans are creationists. Clearly something is at work here. To woo conservatives to the side of evolution, Shermer cites 19th century economist Adam Smith, whose posited “invisible hand” works in precisely the same way as Darwin’s natural selection. (In his review of Expelled for Scientific American, he recounts memorably his reminder of this fact to Ben Stein, during his interview for the film.)

I say that this part of the book was challenging for me because I have difficulty with the arguments for the compatibility of religion and evolution. It is certainly true that there is nothing in evolution, or in science in general, that precludes the existence of a god, but this is because nothing in science could do so; God is by definition not a part of the natural universe, and so not amenable to empirical observation. God is therefore superfluous, unnecessary, a cheap rhinestone pasted on the scientific edifice to increase its appeal to the religiously-minded. Still, as long as God is technically compatible with science, and as long as most humans believe in one god or another, the smartest tactic may be to stress the compatibility point, and confront creationists on their so-far successful ploy of equating evolution with atheism.

Having said all this, by far the most entertaining part of the book for a scientific True Believer like me is its coda, Genesis Revisited, in which Shermer rewrites the book of Genesis to fit in with creationists’ insistence on its literal truth. Here’s a representative excerpt:

And God saw that the land was barren, so He created animals bearing their own kind, declaring Thou shalt not evolve into new species, and thy equilibrium shall not be punctuated. And God placed into the rocks, fossils that appeared older than 4004 BC that were similar to but different from living creatures. And the sequence resembled descent with modification. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Q. E. D.

I recommend the book heartily, whether you are a skeptic or a Fence Sitter; it will entertain either variety. Hell, I recommend it to the creationist True Believers as well. Shermer was such at one point, and you never know when a tendril of truth will sneak through a crack in the stone wall of denial.

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