Sunday, October 02, 2005

Be careful what you say, or you'll give yourself away

Intelligent Design (ID) shows some signs of being, well, intelligent. Instead of rejecting proven science in favor of charming though improbable myth, ID seeks to find a method in the otherwise logical but seemingly random process that guides evolution. (Note my clever use of "seeming random" and "guides"-more on this later)

From the German Daily Der Spiegel we find this fascinating article about the rigorous exploration of scientific fact carried out by IDers in their quest to prove their version of scientific fact:

Intelligent Design presents itself as a middle way between Creationism and Darwinism. But is it? Turns out, the road to ID, while it may profess to be open to all, is riddled with Biblical detours.

. . .

But Dembski is also a leading name in Intelligent Design, a young movement of scientists who want to question Darwinism and prove, if they can, that the universe shows evidence of creation by some transcendent mind.

Whose mind? They won't say. Dembski gives whole lectures without using the "G-word." His field is math and logic; all he wants to do (he says) is distinguish design from randomness in nature. His book "The Design Inference" offers a test for telling a random system, like weather, from systems that couldn't logically develop without a master plan. The basic idea is to prove that a bird's wing, or even a bacterial flagellum -- never mind a human being -- is too complex to evolve at random, the way Darwin proposed. Dembski and "Design" scholars in other fields, like the biochemist Michael Behe, accept that the universe is millions of years old; they're Christians but not fundamentalists; they don't think the earth was formed in a week. But they do believe Darwinism is a kind of liberal-humanist religion, with its share of orthodoxies, shibboleths, and myths.

This actually makes sense so far, doesn't it? It seems so rational, so...well, just wait and see.
The universe, in this model, is a projection, which we can fully untangle only with information that (like God) lies off our empirical map. Maybe Dembski had something to contribute in this direction. I was charged with curiosity. So on the morning of his speech, I boarded a plane for San Diego.

. . .

A few miles east, in the near-desert town of Santee, a long, white, stucco building called the Institute for Creation Research squats along a barren frontage road. This is the North American headquarters of fundamentalist Creationism. Its faculty of Ph.D.-laden scientists and mathematicians all believe literally and cheerfully in Genesis and every other book of the Bible. They teach and promote Creation Science, which is not really science but an odd project to chop and reassemble scientific evidence until it agrees with the Bible. Job lived during the Ice Age, in the Institute's view. Noah's flood wiped out the dinosaurs. The scholars at ICR give weak support for these claims in a series of little fliers. They publish new research in non-peer-reviewed journals and invite school groups to tour their Creation Museum.

Non-peer reviewed journals; not the most compelling of references. But still...

Dembski and his Intelligent-Design friends reject young-earth Creationism. So many critics have accused the I.D. movement of being Creationism in disguise (including the late Stephen Jay Gould) that Dembski and Behe and members of the IDEA Club have to repeat, over and over, that they're not fundamentalists. "I do not regard Genesis as a scientific text," writes Dembski, in what amounts to a position paper. "I have no vested theological interest in the age of the earth or the universe." He agrees the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe about 14 billion. "Even so, I refuse to be dogmatic here. I'm willing to listen to arguments to the contrary." Again, that open mind.

I'd arranged to meet both Dembski and the IDEA Club's president at a campus café before the speech. The club president was an enthusiastic earth-sciences student named Casey Luskin, with short dark hair, heavy eyebrows, and a nervous beaming smile. He seemed pleased to meet me but a little put out. Dembski couldn't make the interview. He'd been sidetracked to Santee for a casual talk with a group that was curious about his ideas. Did I have any extra time? Could I drive out there with him? Sure I could. We climbed into Casey's clean white Jeep and headed east, toward the Institute for Creation Research.

Casey talked, and drove, in energetic bursts. I wanted to know why my alma mater had the distinction of being the only school in the nation to host an I.D. club, and Casey gave me the story. He and two friends had founded IDEA in May 1999 after Phillip Johnson, a father of the movement, came to speak on campus. The fierce emotion Casey saw in other students after the speech and during a parallel seminar called "Creation and Evolution" had convinced him the school needed a club. He said IDEA had already tangled, awkwardly, with a prominent UCSD evolutionist named David Woodruff.

"Really?" I said. Woodruff had been a professor of mine. "What happened?"

Sore question. He hesitated.

"I need to think if I want this to be out in the open. It's nothing like -- I feel like we did nothing wrong, in that whole situation, at all ... But if this could turn into something against my professor, I don't want that."

I promised not to turn it into a new scandal. I was just curious. Woodruff was a formidable man. "I'll probably talk to him," I said.

"About this situation?"

"No, just about Intelligent Design." I still had no idea what situation he meant. "What happened, though?"

He started to breathe heavily.

"Could you turn off the recorder for a sec?"

Now it starts sounding like an episode of "Mission Impossible," or for those of us old enough to remember, "I Led Three Lives."
A year or so earlier IDEA had pamphleted Woodruff's final Evolution lecture with a list of sharp questions about Darwinism. Woodruff took the list home and dismissed each question in a brief, brusque paragraph in a flyer of his own, which he handed out after an exam and also gave (later) to me. It was Woodruff's only encounter with IDEA. He didn't care who wrote the questions, although he knew who'd founded the club. Still, Casey was skittish about connecting his name to an exchange of ideological cannon fire with a distinguished professor. So he clammed up in the Jeep. IDEA's free-debate ethic had its limits.

Look, let's face it. For those of us who believe in an invisible cloud being of any kind, whether it's God, G-d, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that's fine. Frankly, I do. And I have no idea of it's shape, size, or appearance. Maybe it's the rolling Karmic rhythm of Hinduism, with it's many Dieties. Maybe it's the quixotic humor of Zen. There's a small (perhaps chidlike) part of me that really is happy believing that somehow when I discorporate my life energy will merge in some unknowable yet magnificent way with the universe and all other souls.

But I still have no trouble understand Darwin, Natural Selection, and Scientific Method. Survival of the Fittest, at least as an evolutionary strategy, really seems to work.

Except, it seems, in politics.