The New Republic recently published a survey of conservative journalists on the question of “Intelligent Design” (ID), the controversial critique of Darwinian evolution which argues that living creatures did not arise by an unaided, purely material process of evolution through random genetic variation but rather through the design of an intelligence transcending the material universe. To my surprise, it turned out that almost all those surveyed, including several NR editors and contributors, were doubters not of Darwinism but of Intelligent Design.
I realize with some trepidation that I am treading on the views of many of my old NR friends and colleagues, notably John Derbyshire who has written eloquently on the subject, but herewith a dissent on behalf of doubting Darwin.
A majority of biologists reject ID. But a minority of scientists, who are no fools, suggests that it is Darwinism that fails to explain the complexity of organisms. I don’t intend to wade into the details of the debate, but rather to ask how a layman like me, or Derbyshire, can hope to venture a responsible opinion. The question is not merely theoretical. The teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools is being challenged before local and state school boards across the country.
Some say that, for non-experts, the smartest thing would be to accede to the viewpoint of the majority of scientists. But wait. The point I want to draw out here is that Darwinism, in particular evolutionary psychology, itself undercuts the claim that ID may be safely dismissed.
Charles Darwin’s insight holds that people are simply animals and that, like all animals, we got to be the way we are because our ancestors beat out the evolutionary competition and survived to pass on their genes. Evolutionary psychology extends this idea. There are some behaviors that increase the chances that a given person will be able to pass on his genetic information. One, for instance, might be murder, often committed against rivals who give the appearance of seeking to diminish the odds of our raising viable offspring that will carry our DNA. A classic illustration is the crime of passion, where the angry husband shoots the sexual rival who has been having an affair with his wife.
From this perspective, a main evolutionary-psychological impulse that drives males in particular is the drive to fight off rivals. For rivals threaten to reduce our access to reproductive assets–namely, women–by lowering our status in a social hierarchy. In certain neighborhoods, all it takes is a disrespectful look or word, a “diss,” especially in front of women, to get a man killed.
In evolutionary psychology, as in common sense, it is apparent that males highly value whatever source of status or prestige they have managed to secure. We value status so much that some are willing to kill over it. Others are willing at least to wound, if only with words.
One prominent evolutionary psychologist, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, has written frankly about rivalry in academia, and the use of cutting rhetoric in the defense of established ideas: “Their champions are not always averse to helping the ideas along with tactics of verbal dominance, among them intimidation (‘Clearly…’), threat (‘It would be unscientific to…’), authority (‘As Popper showed…’), insult (‘This work lacks the necessary rigor for…’), and belittling (‘Few people today seriously believe that…’).”
I bring this up because Intelligent Design aggressively challenges the status of many professionals currently laboring in secular academia. And because one of the hallmarks of the defense of Darwinism is precisely the kind of rhetorical displays of intimidation, threat, authority, and insult that Pinker describes.
For instance in a section on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, entitled “Q&A on Evolution and Intelligent Design,” you will find numerous statements as if lifted almost verbatim from Pinker’s examples–ridiculing ID as “non-scientific,” an idea whose “advocates have yet to contribute in a scientifically rigorous manner,” who “may use the language of science, but [who] do not use its methodology.”
When you consider that ID theoreticians have published their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals, in formidable academic presses such as those of Cambridge University and the University of Chicago, such denunciations start to sound like a worried defense of status more than a disinterested search for truth.
If the Darwinian establishment is vexed, that’s understandable. A century and a half ago, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species with its materialistic implications signaled the overturning of Western society’s traditional matrix for the granting of status: namely religion. From Darwin forward, intellectual prestige was bestowed not by religious institutions but by secular ones, the universities.
It has remained so until today. Now, with many parents and school-board members signaling their impatience with the answers given by secular academia to ultimate questions–like, where did we humans come from–the secular hierarchy would be foolish not to be concerned. It would be perfectly in keeping with their own Darwinist views–about how men especially will fight to defend their source of status–to expect secularists to struggle violently against any challenge that may be raised against Darwinism, no matter where the truth of the matter may actually lie. Being the animals that we are, we are programmed through our genes to do just that.
In a wonderful irony, the only intellectual framework in which people can genuinely be expected to pursue truth dispassionately, even if that truth undermines our sense of personal prestige, happens to be the religious framework, in which people aren’t animals at all but rather beings created in the image of God.
In the case of ID versus Darwin, this observation may not tell us which side to embrace. It should signal, however, that when secularists insist that real science must lead to the view that life and intelligence arose through chance genetic events, we needn’t accept that view as gospel. I’ve offered a reason to doubt the Darwinian establishment, not necessarily to reject it. When laymen, including conservative journalists, follow the scientific majority on a question like this, rather than the dissenting minority, they should at least be aware that they are following guides who, while claiming to be disinterested, are anything but that.
–David Klinghoffer, a former NR literary editor, is a columnist for the Jewish Forward. His most recent book is Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History. His website is www.davidklinghoffer.com.