A variety of consumer fraud depends on an advertiser using undefined or vaguely defined terms to mislead the buyer. A food item, for example, might be offered as “organic,” “light,” “natural,” or “Animal Care Certified,” according to a definition known to the seller but never clarified for the purchaser. In his bestselling recent defense of “evolution,” The Greatest Show on Earth
, atheist biologist Richard Dawkins can be charged with engaging in just that sort of deception. Dawkins continues to win plaudits even from surprising venues like the conservative interfaith journal First Things
. Allow me to contribute a few thoughts.
Why did I put “evolution” in quote marks just now? Because the word is used to mean many different things. If it simply refers to the fact that life has taken varying forms, with species coming and going from the fossil record over the course of hundreds of millions of years, then the case for “evolution” seems undeniable. If it means that all life is joined by a continuum of descent, then there is evidence to support the idea and Dawkins presents it — though other, contradictory evidence exists as well, unacknowledged by Dawkins, pointing in other directions.
If it means that species themselves take varying forms over time depending on environmental factors or human manipulation — with modern dogs, for instance, emerging from wolf ancestors through the intervention of breeders — then again the case for evolution seems airtight if trivial. Not even the Biblical creationists that Dawkins rejoices in abusing as “history-deniers” (on the model of “Holocaust deniers”) deny the fact of microevolution. Dawkins, like Darwin before him, makes much of artificial selection. It’s quite a trick, however, for an artificially derived animal breed to survive in that form in the wild. Darwinian evolution is about nature’s selecting genes for enhanced survival. If you release your poodle in the forest and leave him there, be prepared for tragedy.
Against literalists who read the Bible as if it were a newspaper retelling of past events, Dawkins argues strongly for an “old” earth. Against, well, nobody, he argues at great length for microevolution. Yet with his undoubted gift for lucid expression as a scientific popularizer and cheerleader for other people’s research, he raises no serious objections to the case for intelligent design made by any of its foremost champions.
Intelligent design is the scientific theory that finds positive evidence of a guiding, designing purpose at work in life’s history. It stands in contrast with Darwinian evolution, which finds blindly, purposelessly churning natural selection operating on random variation to be adequate in explaining the forms that organisms have taken.
In the contemporary debate about life’s origins and history, the two main opponents locked in combat are Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. The really meaningful definition of evolution, the one that’s actually up for discussion between the majority of orthodox biologists and a dissenting, frequently suppressed yet growing minority of Darwin doubters, is the definition that has to do with the evolutionary mechanism. If that mechanism, natural selection, explains everything, then that leaves no role or purpose for a designer like the God in whom Jews, Christians, and other theists believe.
Whether intelligent design advocates are right or wrong on the scientific merits, this is why Darwinism remains controversial with many millions of thoughtful people — with, in fact, most Americans. A Zogby poll
commissioned by the Discovery Institute in 2009 showed that 52 percent of Americans agree “the development of life was guided by intelligent design.”
Dawkins keeps these facts veiled from his reader, whom he must picture as the sort of faux sophisticate who likes to believe that sophisticated types are all Darwinians while it’s only rubes from the Bible Belt who would deny “evolution,” whatever that word even means.
As for intelligent design, Dawkins alludes to it by name in one chapter. He mocks the “unintelligent design” evident, he thinks, in the recurrent laryngeal nerve’s detour from the brain to the chest and then back up to the larynx. In a giraffe, he points out, the detour is extremely long. Furthermore, look at what a seemingly disordered jumble a creature is once you cut it open:
The overwhelming impression you get from surveying any part of the innards of a large animal is that it is a mess! Not only would a designer never have made a mistake like nervous detour; a decent designer would never have perpetrated anything of the shambles that is the criss-crossing maze of arteries, veins, nerves, intestines, wads of fat and muscle, mesenteries and more.
This is not science. It’s embarrassingly naïve theology. How exactly does Dr. Dawkins know what a designer that he doesn’t believe in would do? It is also an example of the famous “argument from incredulity” with which design theorists are always tagged. Repeatedly, Dawkins discovers that he can’t understand why a designer would make this or that design choice as we find it in certain organisms. Therefore, a designer didn’t do it.
Dawkins compares the “haphazard mess” inside a person or animal unfavorably with an automobile’s orderly manifold with its “neat line of pipes.” Are we humans poorly designed compared to our cars? Rare indeed is the car that can reason, dream, love, create exquisite art, or engage in a conversation. The origins of fully modern human beings capable of all those things, the Cromagnon man whose sudden burst into creative life about 35,000 BCE the British physician and writer James Le Fanu powerfully describes in his recent book Why Us?
(Pantheon), is another subject that Dawkins ignores.
Writers in the intelligent design community have offered cogent responses to the challenge of seemingly flawed design — not that Dawkins gives any evidence of being aware of those responses. But this is all a distraction. The major arguments for design go unremarked upon or unanswered. Nowhere mentioned in the book are the names and thoughts of the leading ID proponents: Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Philip Johnson, Jonathan Wells, Doug Axe, Robert Marks, just for a few examples. Dr. Dawkins, famous for his evangelizing atheism, stays very far away from Meyer’s topic in particular — the origin of the first life
— than which nothing could be more fundamental.
Dawkins alludes to ID proponent Michael Behe not by naming him or quoting from his work but by dismissing the argument for design, articulated by Behe, from “irreducible complexity.” The illustration Dawkins offers that’s supposed to refute the implied Dr. Behe is one that Behe has written about extensively. It has to do with the evolutionarily acquired ability of E. coli bacteria to digest citrate. Behe has demonstrated that nothing in the enthusiastically trumpeted experiment by Richard Lenski, fawningly praised by Dawkins, falls outside what Behe calls the “edge” of Darwinian natural selection, its modest capacity to effect change at a microevolutionary level.
Dawkins seems unaware of Behe’s published response to Lenski, just as he appears not to know that Behe’s analysis of how extraordinarily difficult it would be for a human population to develop evolutionarily just two linked mutations has been confirmed in the page of the journal Genetics
. Writers there, who started out seeking to refute Behe, estimated that it indeed would take more than 100 million years just for that couple of measly mutations to pop up, making even such a minor genetic event “very unlikely to occur on a reasonable timescale.”
Dawkins said recently that intelligent design proponents do not deserve to be debated by him because they haven’t “earned it.” The putdown would presumably apply to the more than eight hundred scientists who have signed a statement declaring their doubts on the ability of natural selection to produce macroevolutionary changes in life’s shapes and forms. The signers include professors at institutions including MIT, Yale, and Rice universities.
In Dawkins’s view, who does deserve to be debated? Who has “earned it”? The opponents cited and attacked in the pages of The Greatest Show on Earth
include Answers in Genesis
, a website associated with the young-Earth creationist ministry of Ken Ham; Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer and proprietor of the website Conservapedia
; and Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. At one point Dr. Dawkins reproduces the text of a television exchange he had with Mrs. Wright, apparently thinking that he, the retired Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, came out pretty well in the encounter.
This is a disgrace. Many a father has warned his young, rambunctious son that if he’s going to bother or fight with other kids at school, at least let it be a boy who’s older and bigger. Richard Dawkins is the cowardly school boy who elects to harass girls and littler kids exclusively, while steering a safe course well away from boys his own size or bigger.
With a tin ear for Americanisms, Dawkins doesn’t know what an ironic title he has chosen for his book. The phrase “Greatest Show on Earth” was first applied to the circus run by Dan Rice, the 19th-century clown and showman, decades before P.T. Barnum scooped up the slogan for his own. Rice prided himself on his honesty. He strove to keep his circus free of the fraudulent entertainments he disdained in other circuses — men dressed up as bears performing stunts, fake pythons stuffed with sawdust, “strong men” lifting phony weights, and the like.
This book’s defense of Darwin, which ignores the weightiest critics that evolution has and deflects the reader’s attention from the main problems that Darwinism faces, is a swindle. Its hucksterism would not be allowed under Dan Rice’s circus tent.