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Book Review - Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design
Thomas Woodward
Baker Books 2003
303 pages, $19.99

In the opening paragraphs of his work "Modern Times," Paul Johnson wrote how the introduction of Einstein's Theory of Relativity shook the western world. Assumptions held for centuries were overthrown. Ways of looking at the world changed overnight. It showed the power that scientific ideas have on the larger culture.

Thomas Woodward reveals in "Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design" that we stand at the threshold of another revolutionary paradigm shift. For the past three decades, an intense battle has been fought in the academy about the veracity of Darwinian evolution. At stake is the complete discrediting of Darwin's theory.

The movement challenging Darwinism is called "Intelligent Design" (Design). Design proponents argue that the empirical evidence that ostensibly proves that evolution is true is sketchy at best and outright false at worst. They assert that Darwinism is not science at all, but a cosmology built on the foundation of nineteenth century philosophical materialism.

The facts marshaled against evolution are startling. For example, there is less probability of a single cell emerging from inert matter than a tornado blowing through a factory and assembling a Boeing 747. There is no fossil evidence for macroevolution, the claim that life developed through the selection of random mutations. Irreducible complexity, the discovery that subatomic systems are so complex that to take away one element causes their complete collapse, rules out the possibility that Darwin's evolutionary pathways (where complex systems emerge from simple systems) even exist.

Woodward is sympathetic toward the critics of Darwinian evolution, a position he makes clear in the forward of his book. It's not a disqualifying bias however, since his purpose is not to defend Design thinkers, but to examine why they have had such remarkable success in such a short amount of time.

Woodward evaluates the work of Design thinkers in terms of cultural narrative. If Darwinism is indeed a cosmology (a premise Woodward accepts), then the social and cultural dynamics that contributed to its ascendancy are valid objects of study and analysis. For Woodward, the larger conflict about Darwinian evolution is not only a debate about evidence, but about how the culture assimilates and organizes knowledge to create a coherent world view, a vision of how the world is ordered.

Woodward argues that the larger culture assimilates knowledge through story. A story organizes ideas in ways that make the ideas comprehensible by referencing them to, and incorporating them within, a larger cultural narrative. When the story deals with cosmology (like Darwinism or Design) and thus employing ideas crucial to self-awareness and self-identity such as human origins and purpose, the story can acquire an explanatory power capable of reshaping the larger narrative that it references.

In concrete terms Woodward writes that there are four brute facts that undermine Darwinian evolution and play powerfully into the hands of Design advocates. They are: 1) the Cambrian explosion, underscored and heightened in the recent discoveries in China; 2) the general absence of fossils between the higher taxonomic categories outside of the Cambrian; 3) the cell's molecular systems of breathtaking complexity; and 4) the quiet experiment driven collapse of the collapse of the confidence in "chemical soup" scenarios of the origin of life.

These brute facts mean nothing in themselves. They may surprise and confound. They may even heighten the sense of mystery and unknowing. Their ultimate power however, is released when they "are interpreted and woven by rhetorical skill into some explanatory scheme." Design proponents have managed to weave that narrative so that these facts "have become the turf on which the fiercest battles are being fought."

Design advocates are brilliant tacticians, Woodward argues. They shape their objections in response to the dominant cultural narrative with a precision and foresight that threatens to overturn that narrative in short order. Woodward's particular contribution is isolating and defining the components that constitute the narrative, and illustrating how Design proponents have crafted their story so effectively.

The power of this new and emerging narrative should not be underestimated, Woodward warns. It represents a radical paradigm change, a revolutionary shift that will reshape culture. Woodward quotes Philip Johnson, a leading Design proponent, who likens Darwinism to a battle ship loaded with every bit of conceivable armor to protect it against rhetorical attack. Yet, that great ship has sprung a metaphysical leak and is in imminent danger of sinking.

"Doubting Darwin" provides a comprehensive history of the Design movement woven into lucid, informative, and engaging discussion about the role of narrative in shaping culture. This book holds great value for anyone who wants to understand the Design movement in greater detail, and who wants to learn how ideas flow through and shape the culture. It will also cause the ship to take on more water.

Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest. This review was published on the TownHall.com website.

Posted: 12/22/03

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