Designer Science At a High Price

 Lionel Tiger
Dr Tiger is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University 
Dr Tiger's web site can be found

This essay first appeared in the New York Sun of Sept 13, 2004

The estimable German sociologist Max Weber wrote some of the most thorough and responsible studies of the major religions. But he described himself as "religiously unmusical". Lots of people are. Lots of people are not. The contest between those who believe and those who are indifferent or hostile to religion has maintained its grip on public discourse for nearly all literate history, from Copernicus to the recent ruling from the Supreme Court that the phrase "one nation under God" is not (exactly) a violation of the church/state divide.

Indeed, this ecclesiastical contest continues to roil countless conversations. Not only conversations but also legal matters of sharp and extensive consequence - for example about abortion, stem-cell research, and the rules of marriage - from the Scopes trial to up-to-now. A major focus is still the role of religion in determining the legitimacy of teaching about evolution in schools - a traditional and banal battle that has once again assumed a practical importance because of the skillful, well-funded, and persistent scholastic efforts to undermine the intellectual validity of evolutionary work.

In the hands of a few professors and lay "experts" who adhere to Biblical notions of from where our species came, and when, and why, the complex arguments against evolution have been flattened into a platform to aggressively challenge an array of in situations from local school boards to national textbook publishers. The gaps or questions in the theory - for a scientist, a program for investigation - are instead presented as a list of charges. Galileo and Copernicus would be familiar with the aria.

Yet the ante keeps going up. Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross recently have, in response to the anti-evolution program, produced a work, "Creationism's Trojan Horse" of extensive and detailed exposition of the sources of the creationist movement, its financial supporters, and its variegated and skillful campaign to influence public opinion and change public policy. On the other side, William Dembski, who has degrees in mathematics and philosophy, has published "Uncommon Dissent" (ISI Books, 368 pages, $18), a collection of very smart essays written by leading anti-evolutionists. These men and women make their case with high quality intellection and argument.

Sad to say, any contemplation of the quality of work in these books and the energy involved in their production is mightily depressing. Not because the work is poor, but because it is so skillful and avid. To my mind, they are also a heartbreaking waste of time. Somehow the core issue - are you a believer? are you religiously musical or not? - has been lost in the web of brilliant sociotheology and investigative reportage by talented people. The simple and central question has been lost in hightoned exegesis.

The Dembski team produces quite skillful critiques of various arguments of their evolutionist opponents. But they fail to deal with the core question about Creationism, which is where God came from, and why and when.

Creationists may abhor the notion that we are relatives of chimps and bonobos. They may dispute that nontrivial aspects of our cortical and endocrinological processes are comparable to those of mice, dogs, and sheep. But they are obliged to answer the almost aesthetic question that countless pet owners and zoo-goers tacitly pose: Can creationists kindly supply a plausible explanation for the graphic arc of genomic identity between species without invoking a specialized form of causality - Divinity - which is itself not logically (or biologically) subject to such causality?

This is the core of the controversy, and has been ever since Darwin. His work changed the rules of discourse, placing the burden of evidence on the creationists rather than the evolutionists. He produced a mechanism for evolution that has been tested robustly by geneticists and biologists. Now it promises to provide an additional and sophisticated basis for medical practice by identifying how individuals respond to drugs and other treatments. The essence of modern biology is scrutiny of the normal curve of response, and this applies as much to the effects of Lipitor or Prozac as to height or foot speed or colorblindness. And here is an intriguing twist: The Dembski program uses the fact of variation as proof of evolution's nonexistence. If everything varies, then where is the genetic fixity? If the genome is so coercive, how come fingerprints and eyebrows differ? How come in some religions guys cover their heads in prayer and in others gals do? This is interesting, yes, but sophistry. Variation is the core principle that governs evolution: This was precisely Darwin's enabling insight and it cannot be dismissed.

Ms Forrest and Mr Gross present a mighty and punctilious catalog of the manner in which those who challenge evolutionary theory have leveraged their assertions with a well-funded (and variegated!) campaign to use political and public communications. The creationist effort to erode public acceptance of one of the most durable explanations of why and how complicated social life proceeds is nontrivial politically, and it has had effects on not only local issues like schools but planetary issues such as international family planning and AIDS-treatment policies.

What remains puzzling is why religiously musical people insist everyone else has to sing their hymn. We are currently faced with toxic jihadists, who are convinced that the final extermination of infidels - o what a mighty chore! - delivers such a complete obeisance to Allah that Paradise is at the next interstate off-ramp. These maniacs are our mortal enemies because we are theirs.

But there is little to be gained by suggesting that their religiosity is just an other version of the piety process. Theirs is a similar perception different only in degree, not kind - though the difference is large - from the creationist who wants children in Kansas to miss the lessons that deal with their own roots in the implacable story of a species changing over millions of years. What Ms Forrest and Mr Gross describe as "The Wedge" of the Dembski adventure is nothing less than a lavishly funded program to embargo a lot of books because they challenge the assertions in one book, the Bible. This is just silly.

Positions on such matters are often associated with what has been called the Christian Right, but that is too simple. There is a broad simmering issue in contemporary politics, especially American, and that is with the privileged status of religion. Announce that something you are doing is religious, and unless it is outright criminal or physically dangerous to others, you are more likely to be given a pass on it than in most other sectors of society.

That privilege extends also to international politics. It has been torture for Americans to understand that Saudi style Wahabism is not simply a religion but in fact a predicate for lethal religious warfare. It is irresponsible to ignore the portmanteau peril of that lesson and, now, its consequences. Some Washington wonk should run a spreadsheet on whether actively religious or largely atheist countries are our better friends in the crisis we face.

Nearly all human societies have some form of religion, and Darwinists should agree that religion is "natural" by all statistical standards. (Last year nearly as much money was donated by Americans to religious causes as to all others combined.) Evidently people cannot bear too much reality.

They want an exit strategy - be it Bahai, the lottery, or bewildering reveries about reincarnation. And there may be deep good sense when people elect officials who admit to vulnerability to a higher power than their own vanity or confidence - unlike Napoleon, who placed the imperial Crown on his own head while the Pope, who had traveled to Paris for the occasion, was at his side.

Religions parse huge populations into knowable small units, and there is often startlingly good architecture and music to enjoy as well.

But that all such belief should stimulate some people to try to coerce what other people believe is not only bizarre but unnecessary. Believe and let believe - why not?