Book Review: Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (Times Books 2006). 201 pp.

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

Is evolution a fact of natural history?  Evidently.  Is intelligent design theory an incredible yet shrewd evangelical device valuable primarily if not only to monotheists?  Of course.  Interested and scrupulous persons have known as much for decades.  Why, then, do religionists and empirico-rationalists continue to battle over the issue?  Can either side prevail, and, if so, how?

Typically renowned as an uncompromising skeptic, Michael Shermer obviously believes that the conflict can be won, though, to my knowledge, he has never demonstrated adequate grounds for that conviction.  Perhaps more controversially, however, in Why Darwin Matters, Shermer implies that victory will spring from the eager assistance, if not candidly informed consent, of monotheists themselves.

On the one hand, the author proudly touts popular debate and education, evidently presuming the overwhelming power of untainted truth to change minds, which, to this point, have shown no dedication to such values.  Shermer carves the human turkey into three portions of unspecified dimensions.  “Fence Sitters,” he vies, comprise the succulent spoils for competing creationists and skeptics.  Having only “heard something” about the dispute, Fence Sitters actively “wonder what the explanation for it might be.”  Apparently, Fence Sitters can either resist humanity’s innate vulnerability to cultural corruption or prosper in an inaccessible hideaway beyond the reach of all print and electronic media.  In either case, these heroically disciplined or astoundingly deprived Fence Sitters will no doubt find inspiration in Shermer’s latest book—assuming, of course, that one of their order somehow manages to locate a copy and smuggle it past the guards and back into her cloud city, magical forest, or underground lair.

Consistent with all of the author’s full-length work, Why Darwin Matters is engaging throughout.  Most relevant to its subtitle, however, is the book’s longest chapter, “Debating Intelligent Design,” wherein Shermer presents and briefly refutes what he considers to be the opposition’s “ten most cogent—and most commonly presented—arguments.”

The discussion pertaining to the allegedly irreducible complexity of certain living systems is perhaps the most relatable.  According to prominent creationists like Michael Behe, evolution cannot account for the adaptive functionality of certain complex structures—human eyes, bird wings, and bacterial flagella, in particular—at every stage of their development.  Not so, Shermer answers.  The eye began as a mere collection of light-sensitive cells that eventually recessed into the organism’s skin, furnishing the organism with a more accurate means of distinguishing a light source’s direction.  At some point, a pin-hole camera eye materialized, eventually giving way to a lens eye.

The gradual development of propulsion devices like wings and flagella, by contrast, can be explained by exaptation, the process by which “a feature that originally evolved for one purpose is coopted for a different purpose.”  Both feathers and flightless wings might have developed originally for the purpose of thermoregulation rather than flight.  Similarly, bacterial flagella might have evolved from structures that were used for adhesion or secretion rather than propulsion.

On the other hand, Shermer appears to sacrifice frank discussion and education to fear and cynical politics.  Evolution, he warns, “is not under debate; it is under attack” in a “religious war against all science.”  And he might be right, given the character and temperament of his antagonists’ recent sermons.  Mathematician William Dembski has urged his cohorts to employ intelligent design “to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to . . . Christ.”  Phillip Johnson, a law professor, envisions hordes of belligerent creationists marching “into enemy territory, their very center, [to] blow up the ammunition dump.”  Reverend Sun Myung Moon has convinced author Jonathan Wells to devote his entire life to destroying Darwinism.  Shermer is surely justified as well in identifying right-wing religious groups as the most prolific financiers of the Wedge movement’s “hammer,” or the absurdly named and ravenously litigious Discovery Institute.

So what response to this attack, this devilish Christian ruse?  Should readers expect anything other than an equal and opposite reaction?  Rather than limiting himself to yet another straightforward yet ineffectual argument on the facts, though such argument is included if not featured, Shermer passionately assumes the offensive.  Christian readers, the author’s apparent target audience, should expect to feel patronized, condescended to and, finally, intimidated upon careful evaluations of the text.

Initially, the author urges religionists to “embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity.”  That Christian readers know Shermer as an atheist of one kind or another, is inconsequential.  That Shermer attempts to redefine the reader’s god into a foundationless, featureless, new-aged abstraction that purportedly stands for nothing and everything at the same time—supposedly whatever the reader needs, so long as she renounces science and politics—is more significant.  Theists should not care when or how their god created life, Shermer instructs.  Only scientists should ponder such questions because god does not really “exist” in any intelligible way; god is “being itself, not a being.”

Quoting favored theologians, former president and Christian evangelist Jimmy Carter, and, twice, Pope John Paul II, Shermer at times seems obsessed with the maintenance of a pleasantly innocuous Christianity.  Even Charles Darwin, the author emphasizes, never thought of himself as an atheist, and, for whatever reasons, declined to criticize or even discuss supernaturalism.  At that, readers are asked to choose one of three familiar attitudes toward the relationship between science and religion: the Conflicting Worlds, Same World, and Separate Worlds models.  For himself, Shermer has privately chosen the first attitude, the “warfare” approach where “religion [is] always a potential threat to science.”  Christian readers, however, are quite predictably directed to select the ever peace-loving and submissive option number three.

Thus, each party is allowed to have its cake and devour it too.  Scientists may test and debate reality amongst themselves, undistracted by the mental meanderings of common slobs.  Religionists may enjoy vague and occasional comfort in their “spiritual fitness” as they shuffle their children off to public schools where they will learn to dutifully add, subtract and memorize the Krebs cycle, but never confront issues the potential solution to which might improve if not preserve innumerable future lives.

But if religionists refuse to accept a watered-down deity and to leave well-enough alone, Shermer warns, they will suffer dearly.  Religion and science can be reconciled only through confession to “different realities,” because “if you push the science to its logical conclusion, you will end up naturalizing the deity.”  And nothing, of course, can be both natural and supernatural at once.  Christians must swear to the existence of a rigid yet unproven boundary between religion and science “or else, as the book of Proverbs (11:29) warned: ‘He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.’”  So, why does Darwin really matter?  Because, at the individual level, religion matters too much to risk.

Less erudite and stylistic than Dawkins, less technical and apolitical than Shanks, Michael Shermer’s latest text on evolution is both considerable as an educational endeavor and, as usual, entertaining to the point of betraying the author’s unique intellectual playfulness—a more Pigliucci-like contribution to the reasonably intelligent layperson’s continuing science education.  Notwithstanding its dubious premise, hideous dust-jacket, and arguably mischievous aim, Why Darwin Matters will prove a worthwhile experience for truly curious and, thus far, open-minded generalists, if such creatures really exist.

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