I think the thing I like best about the Intelligent Design debate is watching highly educated and highly respected thinkers criticize ID. I enjoy this because it quickly becomes clear that many of our culture's leading intellectuals are simply reacting, often reflexively, to popular and sensational claims rather than demonstrating a reflective approach born of independent, critical thinking. The latest example comes from Mary Midgley.
Intelligent Design Theory, which claims to provide a scientific rationale for Creationism, is now highly popular in the United States and is gaining ground in Britain. Considered as science it is apparently vacuous, yet its influence is growing rapidly. We surely need to try and understand this phenomenon.
There are two glaring errors here. First, Midgley conflates ID with creationism. This is the common error of the Pop Mind that indicates she is relying on superficial thinking (the intellectual equivalent of the Big Mac). Second, Midgley wants to understand "this phenomenon" rather than deal with the concepts. Fine. If so, then she should adopt an empirical, social sciences approach that actually seeks to gather data and test hypotheses. That's how you understand social phenomena. Does she do this? Nope. Instead, she "understands" "the phenomenon" with nothing more than words that come to her mind, the same mind that hears "creationism" when "ID" is spoken or written.
The theory does not, as one might expect, merely aim to add a spiritual dimension to supplement accepted biological views, which would be quite unobjectionable. Intelligent Design (ID) is presented firmly as a scientific theory to displace existing ones.
Given that Midgley's opening paragraph makes it clear she is relying on superficial thinking, it should not surprise us that she would proceed to paint with the broad brush. Instead of speaking in the third person, creating the illusion of objectivity, Midgley should make some effort to cite the people making this claim. After all, it is simply not true that "Intelligent Design is presented firmly as a scientific theory to displace existing ones" in the pages of The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues.
Its central point is that living things are so "˜irreducibly complex' that they cannot have evolved gradually by natural selection. They must therefore have had a designer. He might not be supernatural "“ he might even be an alien being "“ but the special biological kind of complexity could not have arisen without him.
Here it becomes clear that Midgley is talking about Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box. But even then, she gets it wrong. Behe does not argue that living things are irreducibly complex.
What makes the complexity irreducible is that a biological device is composed of parts which must all be present if it is to work. The comparison often given is to a mousetrap, which can't work till all its parts are combined. Various integrated natural systems are also held to consist of parts which must have been brought together by some other agency before natural selection could begin working on them, since natural selection can only work on something that's already functioning. Thus, their development cannot be explained without a designer.
Biologists have pointed out the feebleness of the mechanical analogy, of course. Organisms and their parts do not consist of separate items that must be put together deliberately in the workshop, but of continuous tissue, areas of which often have several different functions and can shift between them by what is called "˜co-option'. No helpful designer was needed in order to provide a cow with a fly-whisk: cows themselves acquired one merely by using a rather undifferentiated tail in a new way. But the public which is impressed by ID theory does not read these replies.
Those who have read The Design Matrix might find themselves smiling at these claims.
The disturbing feature about ID theory is its open imperialism. It inserts a Creator not as a metaphysical background but as a necessary part of the physical process. Thus it tries to reactivate the old idea of a stark epistemological Cold War, a contest for dominance between science and religion.
During the last half-century, that military method of "˜progress in understanding' has been going out of favour, because it plainly darkened counsel. Its competitiveness made it very hard for people to see the many less extreme positions that lay open to them.
Okay, so the intellectuals have likened ID to the Taliban, to terrorism, to nazism, and now to imperialism. It's only a matter of time before ID is likened to child abuse. Or puppy abuse. Such rhetoric is common among the critics, as it helps to elicit the desired emotional responses. But what it ironic is that while Midgley positions herself as a voice for the "many less extreme positions," her perspective about ID is completely blind to the many less extreme positions that lay before her.
All in all, Midgley brings no serious intellectual challenge to the table.