Unintelligent by Design

DarwinOne of the criticisms I’m regularly seeing in discussions of evolution is that those who claim that life shows signs of intelligent design are relying on a “god of the gaps” argument.  The charge is that where they cannot explain how something happened, they’re just answering “God,” without any further intellectual curiosity or explanatory possibilities.  In fact, I’ve heard several skeptics call it “Intelligent Design of the gaps.”

But it occurs to me that if something shows signs of being designed by an intelligent mind, and a skeptic says that such an explanation doesn’t count, what he means is that intelligence isn’t a thing.  Intelligence doesn’t have explanatory power.  You can’t point to something and say that it’s obviously the work of an intelligent mind.  If that’s true, the skeptic of intelligent design must literally be saying that intelligence doesn’t, in and of itself, exist.  There must be something behind the appearance of intelligence which isn’t itself intelligence.  The skeptic literally won’t stop looking until he’s found something unintelligent.

It’s a little bit difficult to give credence to an idea being forwarded by someone who from the outset dismisses things that look intelligent.



My sense for how our design points us towards a designer is in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.

Changing My Mind on Darwin

ImageSo I’ve changed my mind about Darwinism.  I guess I have to tell you where my mind was to tell you where it now is.

I’ve never invested much study in evolution because I was neither threatened by it theologically nor enchanted by it philosophically.  The biology teachers taught it to me.  I can explain it.  As a follower of Jesus, I can see a viable explanation for how God could do it that way.  I’m also not overly confident that science is fueled by objective curiosity rather than passionate self-interest and ideology, money and power.  Science is motivated reasoning on its best days.

When I listen to militant Christians talk about Darwinism, it’s pretty clear they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  When I listen to militant Darwinists, it’s pretty clear that they aren’t scientists, don’t know what they’re talking about, and aren’t even open-minded enough to think about the subject.  I guess there are just so many fundamentalists in this debate on both sides, I’ve stayed away from it entirely.  I read a few books about it years ago and felt like there were a few intelligent people arguing for and against, surrounded by a cacophony of lunatics.

I’ve just read Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt.  Meyer is a Cambridge PhD in philosophy of science.  He hangs out with the Intelligent Design people.  His writing is fluid, detailed, and reasonable.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

The book makes the case for the fact that the fossil record doesn’t support Darwinism.  The sudden appearance of new phyla without sufficient time for the mutation and selection process to work is simply unaccounted for by the rocks.

The problem is that when Meyer says things like, “the Precambrian fossil record simply does not document the gradual emergence of the crucial distinguishing characteristics of the Cambrian animals,” how on earth should I know if he’s right?  I don’t have time to immerse myself in paleontology.  I’ll never be an expert.  I just have four hundred pages of articulate, self-assured, well-documented evidence for Meyer’s case.

So here’s how I find my way into a conversation on subjects that are not my primary field of study.  I read the reviews that are antagonistic to the source and just look at the logic that’s employed.  I find that this often gives me the best read on a work.  If the critics are sincere, the reviews are usually precise.

The New Yorker’s review began with a genetic fallacy, presented arguments that Meyer had refuted without mentioning that Meyer had addressed them, and then deferred to another blogger for the scientific content of the review.  It then called Meyer “absurd,” which, given how shoddy the review actually is, was an absurd thing to do.

Then I read the review from which the New Yorker piece got its “science,” which was actually written by a grad student at Berkeley.  Now I have to say that Berkeley is, in fact, one of my fields of expertise, and I know exactly how Berkeley grad students go about their “work.”  Somehow Berkeley selects the crazies and the militants who show the most promise and then teaches them that knowledge is a completely subjective power tool which should be manipulated by those on an ideological crusade to undermine authority.  I’m not kidding.  I went to Berkeley.  That’s what we did.

What’s interesting about the grad student’s review is that it was posted 24 hours after the release of Meyer’s book, and it’s filled with snark.  He’s not having an intelligent conversation, he’s insulting Meyer in order to defend something religiously.  In a later, defensive review, the grad student says that he read the book “during lunch.” He read over 400 pages of scientific material during lunch, and then posted an insulting review.  He says his detractors are just “slow readers.” People who win speed reading competitions tend to cover 1,000 words per minute (maybe 4 pages) with 50% comprehension.  That level of comprehension is almost useless, and it becomes less useful the more information-rich the content.  A book of Meyer’s size would have taken an hour and forty minutes at that pace, with minimal retention, and that’s if you’re not, oh, say, eating lunch.  On top of that, the review is almost 10,000 words long, which would take some time to write, making it highly suspicious that the review was written after the book was read and not before, in anticipation of the book’s release.

See, this is how I know who to trust in academic communities.  The charlatans have no character.  You read the grad student’s defenses of his review (and they sound a little panicked), and you realize that he has been following Christians around and arguing with them for years with an inquisitor’s zeal.  There’s a personal agenda here, and his approach to new information on the subject is anything but scientific.

Now I start to smell a rat, and I change tactics.  Now I really want Meyer to be wrong.  I want one, good, solid review by an objective thinker, maybe even a Christian, who can debunk Meyer.

So then I read Donald Prothero’s review.  He’s a paleontologist and a scholar.  It begins with a caricature and a smear, saying that anyone who questions evolution suffers from confirmation bias (explain Thomas Nagel?).  He then says they have PhD’s in the wrong fields and thus aren’t qualified to discuss evolution (Meyer, again, studied philosophy of science).  Then he launches into unsubstantiated accusations, saying there are errors on every page.  He says Meyer claims the Cambrian explosion happened “all at once.” Now look, I just read Meyer, and he doesn’t say that at all.  This isn’t a mistake.  This is a lie.  The truth comes out as he goes on to refer to Meyer’s religion as a “fairy tale.” Again, I haven’t found a scientific mind.  I’ve found another fundamentalist.

Now I start to sweat.  A host of scientists have endorsed the book (http://www.darwinsdoubt.com/blurbs/).  I want one to reject it on perfectly level-headed grounds, with no patronizing rhetoric.

Another definitive work on the Cambrian Explosion came out in January of this year.  Called The Cambrian Explosion, it attempts to give a scientific explanation for how so much variety erupted in such a short time.  The authors say “the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition.” That means the evolutionists are saying the fossil evidence doesn’t bolster evolution in this particular era.

The New York Times ran a science article last month that said that scientists will spend the coming years trying to figure out what combination of environmental triggers caused the Cambrian explosion.  It doesn’t mention Meyer.  It also seems to leave a big, open question mark about why we need to defend Darwinism at points where the evidence leans away from it.

So now I’ve changed my mind.  I don’t think the fossil evidence does support the current representation of Darwinism.  I think there are some otherwise well-trained scientists who are freaking out, and doing it in widely public and observable ways.  Their lack of command of reason is a tell-tale sign that their motives for defending their orthodoxy are not scientific.  And I believe the failure of the scientific communities to engage in this conversation in a rational way is a manifestation of power brokering rather than honest intellectual engagement.

Could humanity have evolved?  Sure.  But the case isn’t as strong as they told me in biology class.

The Mystery of the Missing Mystery

shellIt occurs to me that the secular culture can only succeed in triumphing over the Church when it misplaces mystery.  The secular culture must lead us through some back-bending mental gymnastics to convince us that there is no mystery where it obviously is, and that there is mystery shrouding all kinds of things that are patently obvious to a clear-headed ten year old.


First, it must extract mystery from experience like taking color out of a painting.  Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has made a name for himself recently by suggesting that blind Darwinian evolution is simply an inadequate explanation for the complexity of life.  He writes, “Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect.  But for a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works” (Mind and Cosmos, p5).  This position is not unique; rather, what is unique is that the well-respected atheist got picked by the same team captain who chose the Kansas Board of Education, the President of Southern Baptist Seminary, and the Pope.  Secular society must convince us that wonder is a physiological reaction no more meaningful than indigestion.  In fact, wonder is sonar.


A child walking down a beach can consider the vastness of the ocean without being aware of the uncharted world within her own brain.  She can run her fingers over the smooth, ivory underbelly of a spiraled shell without understanding the Fibonacci sequence.  She is cascading with sensations and emotions and imagination, and everything inside her tells her that the world is magic.  A good education will cure her of that.  Science will do its darndest to reduce her to overconfident explanations, and, should she go that way, seminary will do worse.  The fact is that she right now has a better sense for the way the world is than the person who can analyze its particulars.  Her wonder is a compass pointing her in the direction of a wonderful counselor.


Second, secular society must put mystery where it’s not.  It must convince us that our intuitions for morality, which seem, on their face, straightforward, are forever awash in grayness.  Derrida would claim to stand at the place where forms are stamped into particulars, where, if one were sufficiently adept, one could see that every clear and distinct idea is simply the manipulation of whomever is in power.  Clear and distinct ideas are not.  Truth, said Foucault, is the error that has been hardened by the long baking process of history.  If we had the time and patience to trace every idea back through its genealogy to its origin, we would find that none of them have any more authority than if they had been announced by the Wizard of Oz.  Thus, secular society would have us believe, those things that seem most obvious to us actually shouldn’t be.  The moral goal of secular society is that morality would be reduced to, “Seems like I shouldn’t, but it’s not hurting anyone.”


C.S. Lewis quips in the Screwtape Letters that the tempter’s ultimate goal for humanity is the materialist-magician: he who believes in the supernatural which can ultimately be explained naturally.  Secular society will be able to put the Church aside when it has finally turned particles into little, tiny gods.