Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

In the last issue of the LRB, Steven Shapin mentioned an anti-Darwinian organisation in California called the Institute for Creation Research. ‘Its leading lights call themselves Creation Scientists,’ he wrote, ‘and its website flaunts their doctoral degrees in natural science from distinguished universities.’ By some unscientific coincidence, the current issue of the New York Review of Books carries a full-page advertisement announcing ‘a scientific dissent from Darwinism’. Most of the page is taken up by the names of a hundred or so scientists who are ‘sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life’. They are listed ‘by doctoral degree or current position’, all the way from ‘Henry F. Schaefer, Nobel Nominee, Director of Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry, U. of Georgia’ down to ‘Richard Sternberg, Invertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution’ (would he be higher up the list if he were studying vertebrates?). Their assertion that ‘careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged’ is fair enough: otherwise evolutionary theory sinks into dogma. It’s disappointing then that the size of the list of names doesn’t leave room for any actual arguments, though there is just enough space in the bottom right-hand corner to squeeze in the logo and web address of the Discovery Institute.

The Discovery Institute is a conservative Christian think-tank – although some of its fellows are quick to deny they are either of those things – set up in 1990 by Bruce Chapman, at one time a Deputy Assistant to President Reagan and currently a board member of the American Anglican Council. The Discovery Institute’s ‘mission’, according to its mission statement, is ‘to make a positive vision of the future practical. The Institute discovers and promotes ideas in the common sense tradition of representative government, the free market and individual liberty.’ In 1996, the Institute took up the cause of ‘intelligent design’ theory. This is not to be confused with creationism. It ‘refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof.’ We are invited to ‘consider’ not the lilies or the birds but Mount Rushmore:

The pattern of the rocks in the talus slopes below the faces is due primarily to chance and natural law. The pattern of erosion alongside the faces is due primarily to natural law and chance. The pattern of the Presidents’ faces is due primarily to intelligent design.

In nature, design theorists cite information-rich systems like the genetic code, irreducibly complex systems like the bacterial flagellum, and the fine-tuning of the laws of physics as evidence of intelligent design.

Obviously, this is completely different in every way from creationism, even if ‘the point of view Discovery brings to its work includes a belief in God-given reason and the permanency of human nature.’ The intelligent designers (or should that be designees?) are cunning enough not to make claims about who exactly is sitting at the drawing-board. But they do have a martyr in the shape of Roger DeHart, a high school biology teacher in Burlington, Washington, who in the spring was banned from teaching the theory.

Evolution is a more satisfying explanation of life than intelligent design/creationism – or anything else that’s been so far proposed – because it doesn’t require the existence of anything for which there is no evidence (which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be discarded if something genuinely better comes along). But one of the more interesting things about intelligent design theory is what it has in common with the teleological excesses of fanatical Darwinism: where one demands cause, the other demands purpose; both recoil from the random and the accidental.

Peter Carey has deservedly won the Booker Prize for True History of the Kelly Gang. The WHSmith Book Award, continuing its flight from elitism, has renamed itself ‘The People’s Choice’. To have a go at being the people’s Kenneth Baker, all you need to do is submit a fifty-word review of your favourite book – ‘be it a cookery book, thriller or biography’, which covers just about everything – before the end of October, and you could not only have a say in what’s shortlisted for the prize, but ‘secure a place at the star-studded award ceremony to mingle with celebrities and literary heroes’. Now that’s intelligent design.