Finally, some reasonable arguments from the NYT on ID

After an awful series on the evolution “debate,” the New York Times has finally published a sane argument on the topic. Now, I don’t know how many IDers are going to read all 2,400 words of Daniel Dennet’s article, but Dennet does an admirable job of dismantling some of the key “arguments” of the intelligent design community.

He slays the argument that we should “teach the debate” thusly:

The proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist’s work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a “controversy” to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. “Smith’s work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat,” you say, misrepresenting Smith’s work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: “See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms.”

To the contention that intelligent design is being treated unfairly, unlike other “theories,” Dennet offers a whole assortment of unproven hypotheses that have yet to filter into the high school curriculum:

Get in line, intelligent designers. Get in line behind the hypothesis that life started on Mars and was blown here by a cosmic impact. Get in line behind the aquatic ape hypothesis, the gestural origin of language hypothesis and the theory that singing came before language, to mention just a few of the enticing hypotheses that are actively defended but still insufficiently supported by hard facts.

And he turns the favorite ID prod at Darwinism on its head — the “argument” that the eye could never have evolved — by pointing out that while there are obvious cues to how it did evolve, its design is exactly the opposite of what a truly intelligent designer would have come up with:

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye’s rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.

The only part of Dennet’s article that troubles me a bit is this one:

The fundamental scientific idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling; natural selection, by executing God’s traditional task of designing and creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of the best reasons we have for believing in God. So there is plenty of motivation for resisting the assurances of the biologists. Nobody is immune to wishful thinking.

The idea that evolution denies “one of the best reasons we have for believing in God” is not only a terrible stretch, it plays right into the hands of the IDers, who want to pander to the fears of religious extremists. Convince them that the biologists are out to destroy God, and you don’t need to mess with the ugly details of science at all. Instead of assuaging the fears of the religious right, Dennet calls religion “wishful thinking,” which again, is walking into a rat’s nest of criticism.

As an atheist myself, I don’t have any easy answers for how to avoid inciting such fears, but certainly the rhetoric used by biologists could be toned down when issues of religion come up. I do think a better approach here would be to say, “we’re just scientists, and many of us are people of faith — while we have a lot to say about science and how it works, we can’t say much about religion, especially in the context of science. Religion and science work in different ways, but that doesn’t mean they are incompatible. After all, why wouldn’t God want us to try to understand the world he /she made?”

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One Response to Finally, some reasonable arguments from the NYT on ID

  1. Samantha Kolbe says:

    It was great to read Dennett’s piece. I had just finished reading The Ancestor’s Tale
    by Richard Dawkins and have been wanting someone like him to respond to the IDers.
    Dennett did a great job.

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