Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Judging Intelligent Design, Thinking About the Universe

John Bedell

I ought to be celebrating the new verdict on intelligent design.  It enrages me to think that somebody might teach my children that evolution is a "flawed theory" and encourage them to believe that an intelligent designer is a better explanation for the complexity of life.  I have read Judge Jones's decision and I agree with every word of it.  I was especially impressed by his expose of the plot hatched in Christian think tanks to use Intelligent Design as at trojan horse for introducing religion into the schools.  He has done his work brilliantly, the Constitution has been defended, and reason has prevailed for the day.

Except I don't feel like cheering.  I think Judge Jones's decision, although brilliant law, misses the philosophical point.  His argument about the core issue can be boiled down as follows:

ID posits supernatural events;
science only deals with natural phenomena;
therefore, ID is not science.

From the point of view of Constitutional education, that pretty much settles it.  ID is religion, therefore public schools can't teach it in biology class.  But is that really the question?  I don't think so.  Only philosophers of science and constitutional lawyers care whether ID is science; what the rest of us want to know is, how did we get here?  If you think we should approach this question scientifically, then evolution by natural selection is the only serious answer.  But if this is primarily a religious question, then why should we rule out the possibility of a supernatural explanation?  I imagine a creationist reading Judge Jones's decision would say, "but you're missing the point!  ID may not be science in your narrow view, but it is the truth, and shouldn't our schools be teaching the truth?"

A few weeks ago James Watson and Edmund Wilson, two of the most eminent living evolutionists, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show to talk about Charles Darwin.  Watson said that Darwin was the greatest man in history, because he was the first to "see it."  The "it" that he saw was a godless vision of the history of life.  Darwin explained how we could have gotten here without supernatural intervention, and to Watson that makes him the greatest man who ever lived.  Nor is Watson having any of the soft Christian evolutionary line peddled by the Pope, that God guided evolution toward the point that he could put souls in us.  He called the idea that any being could have interfered with the inexorable workings of DNA "preposterous" (or maybe it was "ridiculous") and I imagine he feels the same way about souls.  Watching Watson and Wilson I did not see cool observers of nature, but prophets of a secular religion with its own beliefs and its own moral imperatives, foremost among which is the commandment to understand the universe in scientific terms.

I mention Watson and Wilson because I think both they and the creationists know something that most of America is doing its best to conceal: Darwinism is not compatible with most forms of religion.  Modern evolutionary thought imagines a violent universe governed by probability, in which chance determines much of what happens and implacable laws of physics the rest.  Everything about us either evolved because it helped our ancestors survive and breed or came to us by chance.  We are not designed to reach for God but to pass on our DNA.  Since, as I said, Darwinism is the only serious way to explain how we got here in scientific terms, I think science and religion do clash, and in a fundamental way.

My own spiritual thinking is deeply informed by my scientific understanding.  I think the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.  Why is it that the further we dig down through layers of rock, the less the fossils we find look like modern life?  Why are living things arranged in the hierarchies of relatedness that we codify as species, genus, family, and so on?  Why, if not by common descent?  Why are we so much like apes, unless we share ancestors?  It seems obvious to me that we are big-brained primates, part of a vast pageant of animal life that reaches back to the weird Ediacara fauna of 700 million years ago, and that any other view is delusional.

I cannot accept a God who takes much interest in what happens to individual organisms or even whole species, because so far as I can see the cosmos is indifferent to such things.  The universe is violent on an unimaginable scale, and much of that violence seems to be random.  One of the key events that made our evolution possible was the extinction of the dinosaurs, and we are now pretty sure that their demise was caused by the impact of an asteroid that wiped out most multicellular life on earth.  If that was part of someone's plan, why did the planner let evolution run along the path of giant lizards for 200 million years before stepping in to wipe the slate and start over?  As we learn more and more about our DNA, we are coming to appreciate the long series of genetic accidents that built us.  One of the genes that controls the size of our heads was recently identified, and it exists in several different variants.  The gene seems to be one of those "hot spots" where DNA, once broken, breaks more easily in the future, suggesting that the rapid increase in the size of our brains was made possible by one mutation in the egg cell of some early hominid, millions of years ago.

The creative power of random violence works on a far greater scale than the accidents that led to human evolution.  Our blood can only carry oxygen because of the iron atom in the center of each hemoglobin molecule, and chlorophyll can only capture energy from light because of an atom of manganese.  Neither iron nor manganese was, we think, part of the early universe; both are made in massive stars.  They are scattered across the universe because many of those stars have exploded, spewing the metals of their cores into space where they could be made into planets and incorporated in living things.  But when a giant star explodes, who knows how many worlds it wipes out?  That is my view of the universe: it is violent on a vast scale because violence is somehow part of the creative process that makes complex life possible.  I accept that the universe seems to be set up to make the evolution of intelligent life inevitable, but I think that the design, if it is a design, works at the deepest and simplest levels of physics.  I can accept the possibility that there is some sort of purpose to the universe, and some sort of God, but a God who could work on this scale would have a coldness unimaginable to me.  In the universe as I see it, life is death, change is destruction, and new forms of existence only arise when old forms have been wiped out in cosmic cataclysms.  Such a God would be more like an experimenter with 100 trillion petri dishes than a loving father; what loving father could shrug off the loss of 100 million worlds when galaxies collide, as our universe seems to?

I see the universe through the instruments of science, including Darwin's great theory.  I do not believe that the universe science reveals can be the kingdom of a God who loves us.  If there is a plan, it is on such an enormous scale that our species, our planet, and even our galaxy are tiny parts of it, not the apple of God's eye.  Because my spiritual thinking is based on what I think science tells us about the universe, I think all talk of the separate spheres of science and religion is evasion. I don't think mine is the only understanding one can arrive at by considering the universe in the light of science; obviously it can't be, given the number of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu scientists.  I have no interest in foisting my beliefs on others, or in fighting about them.  But I see what I see.

And what does all this have to do with Judge Jones's verdict on Intelligent Design?  I do believe that our tradition of religious tolerance is the only possible solution for our society, and I think Judge Jones has done a brilliant job of upholding that tradition.  Our government must, indeed, strive to be neutral on religious questions. My doubt comes from my sense that maybe rigorous instruction in science isn't religiously neutral at all.  Maybe some students who fully understand Darwin's godless vision of life and the rest of the rational, spiritless worldview of modern science will come to think, as Watson and Wilson have, and as I have, that the God of the Bible cannot be the God of the universe that science shows us.  What we should do about this I have no idea, except to continue what we are doing: to pretend that there is no conflict and hope the problem will go away.

December 27, 2005


From the 
Commonplace Book

With respect to the theological view of the question:  This is always painful to me.  I am bewildered.  I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.  There seems to me too much misery in the world.  I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice....  On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force.  I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.

--Charles Darwin


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us


Night Train to Lisbon
Science Enchants the World
Intelligent Design
Turning 40

Gulliver's Travels
Spiritual Testament
Gender and Children
For Common Things
Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age
Knowing People
Having Children