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Saturday, September 10, 2005

Intelligent design in pop culture: Movie review muffs design theory

In a review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, yet another pitchfork opera, reviewer A.O. Scott weighs in on the question of whether Emily Rose could in fact have been dancing with the devil, so to speak, prior to her death during an exorcism:

[Exorcist] Father Moore insists that Emily was in the grip of the Devil's minions, even as the prosecution presents an array of expert witnesses arguing that she suffered from a medical rather than a spiritual condition. Erin, in turn, unearths an anthropologist (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who studies demonic possession and is studiously noncommital as to whether it really exists.

The movie pretends to take the same tolerant, anything's-possible position. While not especially good - judged strictly on its cinematic merits, it ranges from O.K. to god-awful - it is still a fascinating cultural document in the age of intelligent design. Its point of view suggests an improbable alliance of postmodern relativism and absolute religious faith against the supposed tyranny of scientific empiricism, which is depicted as narrow and dogmatic.

The sincerity of a believer - Father Moore, in this case - is conflated with the plausibility of his beliefs. The doctors, meanwhile, seem so sure of themselves. But of course, the movie says, no one can ever be completely sure, and thus superstition becomes a matter of reasonable doubt. Meanwhile the clocks stop, the wind howls, and we are encouraged to believe - or at least not to disbelieve - our own eyes. Father Moore knows what he saw. So do I: propaganda disguised as entertainment.

Scott is clearly seriously confused about the nature of the intelligent design hypothesis. The ID theorists do not see design as a form of supernaturalism but simply as part of the nature of the existing universe. In other words, design is not a mere illusion, as materialists and naturalists would insist.

In fact, the universe could be intelligently designed without exhibiting any supernatural or spiritual forces at all. Obviously, the source of the design must be outside the universe in that case, but a design model without supernaturalism within the universe is quite plausible. A person who accepted such a model would be in conflict with the teachings of most Western religions, because they insist that some truly supernatural events have occurred. But the conflict is not with ID theory.

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Just-so stories from evolutionary psychology: Why kids don’t eat their vegetables

A friend brought this one to my attention from Better Homes & Gardens ( January 2004, 111):

DARWIN'S FUSSY EATERS. The next time the kids are fussing about eating anything other than Mac and cheese, bear in mind that they may be hardwired to be picky. British scientists recently theorized that young children shun many vegetables and strange meats because of an evolutionary safeguard that protected them from toxic plants and food poisoning. Knowing this won't convince them to eat broccoli, but you can at least take comfort in the fact that it's not your cooking.

Wow. Evolutionary safeguards are pretty awesome. Not only did natural selection discourage kids from eating many nutritious vegetables and meats (or so we are told) but it actually managed the feat before macaroni and cheese had evolved.

Actually, I have nothing against evolutionary psychology because I like folk tales as well as anyone. But calling it a science discipline is another matter. Actually, it’s part of the reason the public is skeptical of Darwinism. Read enough of this stuff and the same thoughts will occur to you as occurred to me and to Jerry Coyne, a Darwinist who would likely disagree with me on just about everything else:

In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to tube B and noting the color of the mixture. The latest deadweight dragging us closer to phrenology is "evolutionary psychology," or the science formerly known as sociobiology, which studies the evolutionary roots of human behavior. There is nothing inherently wrong with this enterprise, and it has proposed some intriguing theories, particularly about the evolution of language. The problem is that evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In this view, evolution becomes the key--the only key-- that can unlock our humanity. (Jerry A. Coyne, [Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago], “The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology.” Review of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Randy Thornhill & Craig T. Palmer, MIT Press, 2000. The New Republic, March 4, 2000.).

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
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