Thursday, November 30, 2006

Well Put

Peter Hitchens:

Fanatics in the classroom

The left-wing Guardian newspaper is in a state about what it calls "creationist teaching materials" being used in British schools. What is this row really about? What does "creationism" mean? Why does hardly anyone discuss it honestly?

The cause of the controversy is a concept called 'Intelligent design' (ID). Unlike most British journalists, I have spent some time in the parts of the USA where this idea is popular, and have talked to its supporters as well as to its opponents. I touched on this a few months ago when Archbishop Rowan Williams came out against ID, and I'd like to go into a bit more deeply now.

For what I noticed (as I have also observed over the global warming controversy) is that the people on one side of this dispute tend to misrepresent the other side. Rational scientists who are doubtful about Darwinism are abused. And expressions such as 'Creationism' are used to suggest that a complex, nuanced position is in fact a crude Hillbilly superstition.


If you cannot give an honest account of your opponent's position, then you cannot argue properly against him. If you lose your temper with him, and seek to shut him up, then you are revealing your weakness, not his.

Now, there is no doubt that some of the people behind the campaign for 'Intelligent Design' are passionately religious. Well, so what? Religious belief is a legitimate position of choice, held to by many of the greatest minds who have ever lived (including many scientists) and in my view religion is the foundation of all morality, art, literature and culture. The Darwinist theory of evolution seems to me to knock religion on the head. If Darwin is right, the realm of nature was produced out of random, undirected chaos, in which case we have invented God, and there is no reason why any idea, action or work of art should be considered superior to any other.

I am sure some supporters of ID do so for tactical reasons, and actually believe (but keep quiet about their belief) that the Genesis account of the creation of the world is literally true, and is an accurate and factual description of events - that the Earth was made in six days and is only a few thousand years old. This I, and many other Christians, do not agree with. I think the scientific evidence on the age of the planet simply contradicts this view.

But what's interesting is that many of the Genesis people, who control large funds, will not support the campaign for ID - because ID refuses to endorse the 'Young Earth' Bible literalist position. Now, when people turn down the possibility of generous cash aid, that seems to me to suggest that principle is involved.

Schoolchildren ID, whose opponents haven't bothered to find out much about it because they already know it's balderdash, is not in fact an all-embracing theory about the origin of species. Darwinists seem to have thought they needed to have such a theory, since they had overthrown centuries of Christian orthodoxy. So, rather than just sticking to their basic and unquestionable point, that the Church could no longer claim that certainty was on its side, they developed a complete explanation of everything, which has been under constant revision ever since as new facts have come to light or - just as important - failed to come to light.

Perhaps this is why evolutionists assume that their opponents also have an all-embracing theory that explains in detail how the realm of nature came to be as it is. Well, they used to, but they mostly do not any more. The original opponents of Darwin tried to stick to the Biblical theory. But they were defeated not by Darwin but by the growing body of scientific proof that the Earth is far too old for the Bible account to be literally true. Many ID supporters concede all that. What they say is much more subtle.

They examine various organisms in the light of the latest science, and argue that it is highly improbable that such organisms could have evolved as Darwinists believe. This is the theory of 'irreducible complexity;' advanced by the microbiologist Michael Behe (pronounced 'Beehee').

Behe cannot be certain that his chosen examples were not produced through natural selection, but he maintains that - for this to happen - an extraordinary number of changes would have needed to take place simultaneously. This is because of the interdependence of the parts of the organism, pointless on their own, all of which would have had to alter at once to have any evolutionary purpose. Behe' has written a book 'Darwin's Black Box', which goes into this theory. Darwin was unaware of this problem because in his lifetime the scientific knowledge did not exist. The question is one of probability, rather than certainty (and in fact all evolutionary theory can only be about probability or improbability, since the process - in the majestic form suggested by Darwin - has not been, and cannot be observed, and therefore cannot be tested against the theory or used to predict events).

Behe and his supporters are not trying to produce a mirror image of Darwinism, in which the hand of a Creator can be observed at work - as you might think from the rage and fury of the liberals who complain when schools propose to include 'ID' in their classes. All they are doing is casting doubt on the supposed certainties of Darwinism, and using advanced scientific knowledge to do so. If Darwinists are as secure in their beliefs as they claim to be, they should easily be able to see off the ID proponents, in school or out of it, without suppressing, abusing or misrepresenting anyone. And surely the fact that some scientists question Darwin's theory is itself an interesting fact, which any inquisitive mind ought to be informed about. What good does it do to hide the existence of a scientific disagreement from the young?

Yet the evolutionists trumpet and bellow about this small, modest challenge, like an enormous elephant panicking over the presence of a mouse. I wonder why.

The comments to the piece contain plenty of "I know you are, but what am I?" snarkiness from the Darwinists. But that's no surprise. There are none so predictable as those who insist on thinking of chance as the First Cause.

See also.

Update: Hitchens responds to the critics of the original piece.

No comments: