Don’t Fear The Designer

by Tom Bethell

Competing philosophies and beliefs.

My new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, addresses many topics, ranging from endangered species to the alleged warfare of religion and science. But two in particular have repeatedly come up in radio interviews: global warming and intelligent design (I have chapters on both).

Most on the Right are agreed on global warming: It’s mostly politics dressed up as science. But what about intelligent design?

On this, conservatives are divided. Many–dare I call them the rank and file?–are skeptical about evolution and, I sense, are willing to throw it overboard. Others–I’ll call them the chattering class–think things have gone too far, and that when it comes to evolution we should show Harvard and Yale a little more respect.

George Will recently said that the Kansas Board of Education (which on Election Day voted to amend science standards in favor of intelligent design) is controlled “by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people.” Charles Krauthammer, too, wants to read evolution skeptics out of polite society.

But more than snobbish disdain will be needed to deal with the facts and arguments put forward by the proponents of intelligent design.

George Will tells us that evolution is a fact. Is it? It depends on what you mean by evolution. Add an antibiotic to a dish of bacteria, so that some die and some survive, and bacterial resistance may be seen. This is said to illustrate natural selection–Charles Darwin’s great discovery and claim to fame–and, therefore, evolution in action. Charles Krauthammer is pleased to tell us that the advocates of intelligent design “admit” that natural selection “explains such things as the development of drug resistance.”

Petri Politics

But what actually happens in the Petri dish? Some of the bacteria are naturally equipped with enzymes that give them immunity to the antibiotic. So they survive, while most of the bacteria die. Nutrients remain in the dish, and the resistant strain now has an ample food supply and multiplies. Before, it could hardly compete with the far more abundant strain, now wiped out. So the (pre-existing) resistant strain becomes more numerous. There is a multiplication of something that already existed. But as the famous geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan said about 100 years ago–he spent years studying fruit flies at Columbia University and was rewarded with the Nobel Prize–evolution means making new things, not more of what already exists.

Nonetheless, if you define evolution as a change of gene ratios, well, yes, there has been such a change of ratios in the population of bacteria. So, if your definition of evolution is sufficiently modest, then you can call evolution a fact. Others define evolution as “change over time.” That’s a fact, too.

But we know perfectly well that, to its devotees, evolution means something much more than that.

We are expected to believe–and I do mean believe–that evolution answers the important question: How did life, in all its abundance, appear on Earth? By the slow, successive modification of pre-existing forms, Darwin said. Go back far enough, to one of those warm little ponds Darwinians assume must have existed, and we would find that life started of its own accord from nothing in particular. Over the eons, atoms and molecules whirled themselves into ever more complicated structures. Eventually the best and brightest acquired consciousness, and started to ask: “How did we get here?” The usual answer was: “We seem to have been intelligently designed.” Then others replied: “Oh, no, no, no, we all started in a warm little pond, way back.”

Just the Facts

Whom to believe? Or maybe we should approach it more scientifically: What are the facts?

If we discount trivial examples like bacterial resistance or “change over time” or small changes in beak size among the finches of the Galapagos Islands, we don’t know very much about evolution at all. We don’t see it happening around us, or in the rocks.

In my book, I quote Colin Patterson, a senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, telling a professional audience at the American Museum in New York that there was “not one thing” he knew about evolution. He had asked the evolutionary-morphology seminar at the University of Chicago if there was anything they knew about it, and, he said: “The only answer I got was silence.”

Patterson, who died a few years ago, was an atheist and once told me that he regarded the Bible as “a pack of lies.” There was no way he could be accused of Biblical primitivism. People would ask him, with a note of alarm, “Well, you do believe in evolution, don’t you?” He would respond that science wasn’t supposed to be a system of belief.

So let’s look at the evidence adduced for evolution. The fossil record is sparse. Bats, for example–the only mammals capable of powered flight–appear suddenly in the fossil record, with their sonar systems already fully developed. “There are no half bats,” as a world expert on bats once said. The experts have no idea what animal gave rise to the first bat.

The creatures that evolution purports to explain are fantastically complex. The cell, thought at the time of Darwin to be a “simple little lump of protoplasm,” is as complicated as a high-tech factory. We have no actual evidence that it evolved–and yet we are asked, indeed obliged, to believe that it did.

In the human body, there are 300 trillion cells, and each “knows” what part it must play in the growing organism. To this day, embryologists have no idea how this happens–even though they have been trying to figure it out for 150 years.

Imagine an automobile company that came out with a new model that could do the remarkable things that living creatures do. How amazed we would be! The car would be able to repair itself, if not damaged too badly. Dent it and, in a few days, the dent is gone. It needs to rest for a few hours every day but it can keep going for 80 years on bread and water, with perhaps vegetables thrown in. And it can hook up with another version of the same automobile, and produce in a few months’ time new, tiny versions of itself, which will then grow up to full-size autos with the ability to reproduce in turn.

We have been unable to do anything remotely like this in the lab. Yet we are surrounded by lowly creatures that do these things every day–and we express no amazement. We have been trained to be blasé about the marvels of creation. “Oh, evolution did that,” we say. “It was just a matter of random mutation; nothing surprising there.” “These things arose by accident and were selected for.”

That phrase–”it was selected for”–is regarded as a sufficient explanation for . . . everything. The same mundane phrase is given as the explanation for everything under the sun. How did the bats get sonar? “It arose by an accidental mutation of the genes and was selected for. Next question?” How did the eye develop? “Piecemeal. There was a random mutation and it conferred an advantage so it was selected for. Then the same thing happened over and over again. Next question?” How did the camel get its hump? “Random mutations conferred some advantage and so they were selected for. Next question?”

This is the science before which all knees must bend? These explanations are no better than “Just-So stories” (as one or two Harvard professors have rightly said). No actual digging in the dirt is needed: The theorist merely contemplates the trait in question and makes up a plausible story as to how it might have been advantageous.

We fear questioning the evolutionist dogma. Someone might call us fanatical. “Intemperate” was the word George Will used. So we go along with the dogmas of materialism, lest we be considered ignorant or uneducated or driven by a religious agenda.

Charles Krauthammer tells us that Isaac Newton was religious and if he saw no conflict between science and religion, why can’t we take our thin gruel of evolutionary science like good children and be satisfied, without dragging a Designer into the picture?

Because it isn’t real science, Charles. Newton, in fact, thought that the “most beautiful system” of sun, planets, and comets could “only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” But the laws of physics that govern these motions are simplicity itself compared with the immense complexity of the biological machinery that governs the development, proliferation, growth, and aging of millions of reproductive species. These mechanisms have yet to be discovered or described. To believe that the feeble tautology of natural selection–laissez-faire political economy from the 1830s imported into biology–constitutes a sufficient explanation of the marvels of nature is to display a credulity that makes our fundamentalists seem sagacious by comparison.

George Will has made one accurate criticism of the idea he so dislikes: “The problem with intelligent design is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis.” This is true; but he should have added that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is not falsifiable either. Darwin’s claim to fame was his discovery of a mechanism of evolution; he accepted “survival of the fittest” as a good summary of his natural-selection theory. But which ones are the fittest? The ones that survive. There is no criterion of fitness that is independent of survival. Whatever happens, it is the “fittest” that survive–by definition. This, just like intelligent design, is not a testable hypothesis. As the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper said, after discussing this problem that natural selection cannot escape: “There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this.” Popper was the first to propose falsification as the line of demarcation between theories that are scientific and those that are not; both intelligent design and natural selection fall by this standard.

The underlying problem, rarely discussed, is that the conclusions of evolutionism are based not on science, but on a philosophy: the philosophy of materialism, or naturalism. Living creatures, including human beings, are here on Earth, and we got here somehow. If atoms and molecules in motion are all that exist, then their random interactions must account for everything that exists, including us. That is the true underpinning of Darwinism. What needs to be examined in detail is not so much the religion behind intelligent design as the philosophy behind evolution.

But that is a sermon for another day.

Tom Bethell is a contributor to National Review. His first magazine article on evolution appeared in Harper’s in 1976. His new book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science.