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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Book Review: Behe's Edge of Evolution: A turning point in the evolution vs. intelligent design controversy?

Look at Darwin. My God, what a powerful theory. Incidentally, I give that one about 40 more years, and it will go down in flames.

(Tom Wolfe, interview with George Neumayr, “Mummy Wrap,” The American Spectator January 10, 2005)

Before dealing with Edge of Evolution, which I see as a turning point in the debate between Darwinism and intelligent design, permit me to briefly sketch the cultural landscape in which it has just appeared:

Predicting the end of Darwinism became an electronic cottage industry in the last two decades. Hence I called this blog, which keeps track of the controversy, the Post-Darwinist.

However, two factors have protected Darwin as he approaches his 200th birthday - his friends and his enemies.

Darwin's friends

A high proportion of Darwin's most devoted friends are atheists. I am certainly not the only person to notice that Darwinism is in fact their religion. Indeed, the hagiography around Darwin himself seems to be copied from the adoration offered to Catholic saints. Indeed, zeal for Darwin's house hath eaten them up. (John 2:17) For them, Darwinism is and must be true, and opposition arises only among the wicked of the earth. They have mastered the art of certainty in an uncertain age.

Darwin's enemies

Darwin is likewise fortunate in his enemies. While his friends unite around materialist atheism - a grim creed but a clear and comprehensive one - his enemies are divided by several creeds.

Darwin's theory requires three things:

- an ancient Earth (to allow time for evolution),
- common ancestry of living things from a single primordial cell (to allow opportunity for evolution), and
- enormous creative power arising from survival of the fittest (natural selection acting on random mutations), to provide a force for evolution

But on these three points, Darwin's enemies go separate ways.

An ancient Earth: Some scientists (young earth creationists) believe that evolution did not really occur because the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Darwin is thereby obviated. But their critiques have little impact on other scientists.

Common ancestry: Most scientists who doubt Darwin accept the evidence for an ancient Earth. But some of them doubt common ancestry. Usually, they are particularly troubled by the common ancestry of the human and the chimpanzee.

Because they don't think common ancestry is true anyway, relatively few in this group of anti-Darwinists ask the following critical question: What if common ancestry is right, but Darwinism is wrong? Put another way, if Ronald Reagan and Bonzo are indeed descended from a common ancestor, it does not follow that Darwinism (natural selection acting on random mutations) explains the event correctly.

Opponents of Darwinism as a creative force: Lehigh University biochemist Mike Behe, author of Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, thinks that the great antiquity of the earth and common ancestry are right but Darwinism is wrong. In his new book, he cites powerful evidence that Darwinism cannot do what its proponents hope.

His first book Darwin's Black Box, which set forth his argument for irreducible complexity (structures within the cell that could not be created by Darwinian evolution), was greeted by howls of genuine outrage. Hordes of scientists attempted to test and falsify his thesis, all the while claiming that it could not be tested or falsified, and that it was not science. Like Tom Wolfe, the culture critic quoted above, I began to pay close attention to the controversy around Darwinism, because it clearly signalled profound changes afoot.

Now, with The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Behe develops his case further. He takes it into the lab.

Next: The Edge of Evolution: What exactly does Behe say about Darwinism?

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?, or my book of essays on faith and science topics, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001). You can read excerpts as well.

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