Selected Minor Works: The Heresy of Intelligent Design

Justin E. H. Smith

I would like to explain why, in the matter of the origins of species, there can be no compromise position, no accommodation by one side of the principle tenets of the other.  There can be no way of conceding the basic mechanisms through which evolution works while holding onto an anthropocentric view of the cosmos or a conception of human beings as unique among creatures in their likeness to the creator.  It is time, in short, for evolutionists to be clear: you are either with us, or you are against us.

Last year, Christoph Schönborn, an Austrian cardinal with close ties to “Benedict,” brought the Catholic church a step backwards by calling into question the earlier moderate view on evolution put forth by John Paul II.  In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Schönborn downplayed a 1996 letter in which the former Pope described evolution as “more than a hypothesis.”  The cardinal held forth with the view that “[e]volution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense –an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection– is not.”

The cardinal is not, evidently, denying that random variation and natural selection are the basic mechanisms of evolution.  He is only denying that these proceed without guidance and planning.  For the cardinal, every transformation in animal species prior to the emergence of homo sapiens must have been rigged in such a way as to guarantee this eventual outcome, since human beings, in traditional Christian theology, are the very reason God bothered creating all that cosmic dust and hydrogen and mud, all those supernovae and humble worms, in the first place.  It is all for us.  Things could not have unfolded in any other way.

This account of evolution has become quite common over the past years among conservatives trying to take a moderate stance in the debate.  They argue that there is nothing impious about the view that God may have worked through evolution in order to arrive at his crowning achievement, homo sapiens.  Thus George Will, in a recent article on the woes of the House Republicans, begins with a telling comparison: “Before evolution produced creatures of our perfection,” he writes, “there was a 3-ton dinosaur, the stegosaurus, so neurologically sluggish that when its tail was injured, significant time elapsed before news of the trauma meandered up its long spine to its walnut-size brain” (“How to Evict the ‘Rent-Seekers’,” January 11, 2006).  The implication is that God worked through such earlier rough drafts until he arrived at his final goal, namely, us (overlooking the obvious fact that there still are plenty of neurologically sluggish species lumbering around, and that in the Jurassic there were plenty of species that did not suffer from this shortcoming).  The Christians can hold onto their anthropocentric cosmology, while nonetheless taking good scientific evidence about shared ancestry into account.  It’s the best of both worlds!

But is such a compromise tenable?  Let us review some of the basics of the Darwinian account of how exactly “higher forms” (this is Darwin’s own misleading language) are thought to arise from lower ones.

The supreme virtue of an organism, in an evolutionary sense, is fitness to its environment, and fitness does not admit of non-relative degrees.  Thus, when it comes to getting one’s oxygen supply underwater, a fish is fitter than I, and thus, I suppose, better.  To the extent that we can talk about “better” and “worse”, we must make clear what sort of environmental circumstances we have in mind before we can say whether an organism is better or worse able to live in them.  Beyond this, it makes no sense to speak of an organism’s place in some non-relative, hierarchical chain of being.  The image of the chain is a vestige of a world-view that is hopelessly at odds with the theory of evolution.  (One thing its latter-day supporters frequently leave out is that, traditionally, human beings were not the highest placed on the catena rerum.  This spot was reserved for the angels–purely spiritual beings with nothing of the animal in them.)

But even with this circumscribed conception of betterness as fitness, could we not still go along with Schönborn and say that human beings are still God’s best work, moving from the comparative to the superlative on the grounds that, say, human beings are well-adapted not just to some tiny ecosystem, but to the entire globe, and eventually, perhaps, to outer space as well; or on the grounds that they cannot just live in any ecosystem, but can also dominate all of them, and all their inhabitants, by use of reason?  And is it not in virtue of the possession of reason that we are justified in speaking of human beings as the image of God?

The problem here is that, as Schönborn worries, the mechanism of adaptation that ensures the greater fitness of some organisms in some particular environment –whether this fitness involves the evolution of gills, bipedalism, or language– is one that can be better understood in terms of randomness than in terms of intelligent guidance.  In any population, there are variable traits.  Some organisms have them, some don’t, and the reasons for this variation are random mutations at the genetic level.  If Schönborn wants to deny this, he will also have to deny a whole host of elementary facts about genetics that he probably never even noticed were offensive– facts that have nothing to do directly with evolution, and facts the knowledge of which he probably benefits from on a regular basis in his reliance on modern medicine.

Some of the traits will prove more useful in response to certain environmental features, and the subset of individuals in a population that have these traits will be more likely to survive to  reproductive age and pass them on.  If God is working through evolution, then, as Schönborn and Will believe, he will have to be actively rigging not just all genetic mutations, but also all of the environmental changes to which the organisms, in which these genetic mutations occur, prove to be well or poorly equipped to respond.

Let us consider an example, one that is very close to home for us human beings.  Paleoanthropologists suggest that a significant moment in our becoming human arrived when our ancestors transitioned from arboreal swinging as their primary form of locomotion to bipedalism  This new and handsome way of getting about is thought to have brought in its wake a number of other adaptive consequences, including, some speculate, the evolution of a vastly larger cranium than those of our ancestors.  This, in turn, is what ultimately facilitated the performance of complicated mental feats, including those we today think of as “rational”.

But why did our ancestors go peripatetic in the first place?  Unfortunately, this change cannot be accounted for in terms of any innate desire for self-improvement among hominids, nor can it plausibly be explained in terms of God’s plan for their kind.  The full story of the evolution of bipedalism will also have to take into account the way in which meteorological and geological events changed parts of the landscape of Africa from rain forest into savannah, and forced the hominids in those parts, at pain of extinction, to start moving about in new ways.  If you wish to assert that evolution is a guided process, you must not think only of God pushing his creatures to go down one path rather than another, you must also take into account God’s micromanagement of every single event in the physical world so as to ensure particular outcomes in the biological world.  The passing of meteors, landslides, volcanic eruptions in the Mid-Atlantic range, the dissolution of a cumulonimbus here and the emergence of a cumulus there, the decay of this atom as opposed to that one, all of this must be meticulously set up for the sake of desired results among one tiny subset of natural phenomena.

Indeed, what we end up with is a sort of neo-occasionalism, the view that the only true cause of any event in the universe is God, that there can be no talk of causality except in reference to the ultimate cause of everything.  In the 17th century, Gottfried Leibniz derided this view, held by his contemporary Nicolas Malebranche, as recourse to “perpetual miracle.”  Leibniz, like many fellow Christian thinkers of his era, understood that implicating God in the nuts-and-bolts of the universe’s daily maintenance is to assign to God a task that is beneath his dignity, and thus to lapse into impiety.  If miracles like the incarnation or the resurrection are going to count for anything, Leibniz saw, then they are going to have to be set apart from the ordinary flow of nature.  This is what occasionalism would preclude.  How much more Christian it would be to account for natural phenomena not by perpetual miracle or by divine micromanagement, but by appeal to a few simple and regular laws.

One can easily see why intelligent design cannot work as a compromise position.  Prima facie, it is much more plausible to suppose that, had God made the universe with human beings in mind as his ultimate goal, he would not have bothered coming up with such a meandering mechanism, and one that would require so much upkeep.  He would have seen rather to the simultaneous, instantaneous, once-and-for-all creation of all species in their present form, and would have shaved several billion years of build-up off the history of the universe, setting things into motion around, say, 5,000 BC, rather than circa 15,000,000,000 BC.  In other words, God would probably have done things more or less as Genesis would have us believe.  The creationist’s attempt to compromise with science, whether for honest or disingenuous reasons, by taking the middle road of “guided” or “managed” descent from lower forms, cannot fail to lapse into nonsense.  I would certainly prefer to debate a scriptural literalist who sticks to his guns, who only recognizes one source of truth, and is clear about what this is.

What Schönborn is worried about is not so much the proposition that human beings are the kin of “lesser” animals (elsewhere I have argued that it is precisely this worry that guides many creationists).  In line with traditional Christian theology –as opposed to the aberrant theology of many fundamentalist protestant sects– the cardinal recognizes that the proper understanding of a human being is as a creature that shares part of its nature, though not all, with the animal kingdom.  Rather, Schönborn is concerned that the best scientific theory of how we got here disconnects us from any divine purpose, leaves us to fend for ourselves metaphysically.  This is a worry that is not limited to the debate about human origins.  Indeed it is one that many were expressing long before the descent of man from lower forms became an issue.

While many early modern thinkers agreed with Leibniz that excusing God from the task of micromanaging the affairs of nature is the best way to exalt him, there were just as many who feared that, with diminished responsibilities, God runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.  Some early modern vitalists, such as Ralph Cudworth, the author of a 1686 treatise not-so-humbly entitled The True Intellectual System of the Universe, thought he had the perfect compromise solution: God dispatches a certain “plastick nature” that intelligently guides the unfolding of natural processes in the material world while allowing him to retreat and, I suppose, contemplate his own divine excellence, while this subordinate force “doth drudgingly execute” those tasks that are beneath God’s station.  What terrified Cudworth was the thought that the things of this world might be accounted for, to use Cicero’s compelling phrase, simply as “a fortunate clash of atoms,” yet he understood that the answer is not to make God himself take care of all the “operose, sollicitous, and distractious” affairs of this lowly world.  But this position prompted others to accuse Cudworth of reintroducing the pagan doctrine of the world soul. 

One might easily get the sense that, when it comes to characterizing God’s involvement with the world, you just can’t win.  There will always be reasons for denouncing any position as impious.  If I can hope to contribute anything to the unfortunate debate about intelligent design that has developed over the past few years, it is that ID theory is just as suitable a candidate for denunciation on the grounds of heresy as any other account of what God is up to.  The standard criticism of ID is that it is bad science.  I would like to propose that it is bad theology as well. 

But fortunately none of this has anything to do with the prospects of evolutionary biology.  Today we have at our disposal biochemistry, genetics, and numerous other promising fields of inquiry that are in a position to explain how atoms, in accord with a few simple laws, really can produce human beings.  And at just this promising moment, creationists want to throw in the towel in view of the “irreducible complexity” of it all.  This phrase had some resonance 300 years ago– vitalists had good reason to think that billiard-ball-style mechanical physics was inadequate to account for all the phenomena of nature.  Now, however, it is nothing more than the proclamation of a preference for ignorance.

Unlike Richard Dawkins and his bright friends, I find people who put too much faith in science obtuse, and I do not think my own life would be easily bearable if I were to abandon all hope for a perfect, eternal order beyond this shoddy, decaying one.  But let us keep our activities straight.  Let us not do interpretive dance in our trigonometry classes, and for God’s sake let us not complicate the teaching of a perfectly autonomous and rigorous science with the problem of finding meaning and purpose in the universe.