The Real Intelligent Designer

Does it matter? Who cares if a gold-medal-winning engineering breakthrough came from a young-earth creationist? When it comes to understanding our creation/evolution debates, I think it matters a lot, especially for those of us who want more and better evolution education in our public schools.

Here’s what we know: Recently, young-earth impresario Ken Ham has crowed about the accomplishments of Professor Stuart Burgess. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.

team-great-britian-olympic-bicycle-display

Reducible Complexity

SAGLRROILYBYGTH and others who share my obsession with all things creationist may wonder why we have to bring up this old chestnut yet again. We all know the script here. Young-earthers will trumpet the few engineers and doctors who hold young-earth beliefs. Mainstream scientists will point to the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve. If there are a few science-y creationists, there are bajillions more science-y non-creationists.

We’ve all been around and around this debate before, but I think it’s worth bringing up again. As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand American (and UK) creationism, we have to abandon the satisfying but false notion that creationism is a product of mere ignorance.

Or, to be more precise, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that there are vastly different forms of ignorance. In some cases, people simply don’t know things. In other cases, though, some types of knowledge are blocked by competing types of knowledge.

Creationists can certainly display both sorts of ignorance. Some of them might just have never heard the arguments of mainstream evolutionary science. But the fact that there are any young-earth creationists who have scored big successes in science-y fields helps prove that the real difficulty results from the second type of ignorance. Creationists can be very successful in society, even in science-related fields, even if they “know” that mainstream evolutionary theory is bogus. Even if we don’t want to admit it, Ken Ham is correct in boasting that “Professor Burgess is definitely both a real scientist and a creationist!”

We don’t need to tangle with the endless debate about whether creationism is real science, dead science, or zombie science. We don’t need to gnash our teeth and exclaim that Burgess’s scientific accomplishments happened in spite of, not because of, his creationist beliefs. The point here is different. The fact that engineers like Dr. Burgess are both successful mainstream practitioners and convinced young-earth creationists matters for different reasons.

Why does it matter? Because it reminds us that creationism is not simply the product of isolation from modern knowledge. Creationists aren’t people who simply haven’t heard about evolutionary theory or modern science. Since that’s the case, we won’t spread knowledge of evolutionary beliefs merely by making it available. We won’t successfully teach evolutionary theory to Americans unless and until we recognize the fact that creationism is more than a deficit hoping to be fixed, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a naïve lack of knowledge seeking the best modern knowledge.

As I’ve argued in my recent book (co-written with philosopher Harvey Siegel), if we really want to teach evolution in this creation nation, we need to start by understanding this central fact about American creationism.

The fact that creationist engineers like Dr. Burgess can have outstandingly successful technical careers serves as more proof that creationism is something other than a lack of knowledge about evolution. When we’re designing bike chains, it doesn’t really matter how old the earth is. It doesn’t matter that mainstream evolutionary theory offers by far the best current explanation of the ways species came to be different from one another.

What does matter—at least for those of us who are trying to understand creationism as it really is—is that creationism is not a leftover from hillbilly isolationism. Creationism isn’t the result of a lack of exposure to modern ideas. Creationism, rather, is a different way of being modern.

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Pro-Evolution I: Introduction

EVOLUTION: INTRODUCTION

In 1972, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky told the annual meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  The line stuck.  Not just because of Dobzhansky’s credentials.  An émigré from the Soviet Union in 1927, in the 1930s Dobzhansky’s work in genetics helped explain the
way Darwin’s idea of natural selection really worked.As evidence, Dobzhansky pointed to the fantastic diversity
of life forms.  A fungus which forms only on a certain part of a certain beetle that only lives in certain limestone
caves in France.  A fly whose larvae can only survive in seepages of crude oil. Each of these incredible and incredibly diverse forms of life evolved to fit an evolutionary niche.  They represented only those that have survived the ages; many other exotic and specialized forms of life also developed, flourished, and died off as conditions changed.  Dobzhansky argued that none of that made any sense—indeed, he called it blasphemous to think of—if such life forms had been created in all their specificity by an all-knowing God.  It would suggest a whimsical and cruel Creator; one who deliberately set up evidence that life had evolved in order to fool curious humans.  Plus, it would suggest a Creator who only created in order to destroy.  But it made perfect sense if life had evolved.

This is why Dobzhansky’s 1972 speech title immediately became a lasting favorite among those who sought to prove the importance of evolutionary thinking.  Dobzhansky summed up some of the reasons why evolutionists could not live without evolution.  Nothing they did made any sense if it was not unified by the idea that life forms had evolved to fit the diverse conditions of the planet.  Nothing made sense without the notion that each form had come into being as it took advantage of
niches within the diverse sphere of earthly life.  But all came into focus when understood as elaborations of the evolutionary process. All became clear when seen as the ways the process of natural selection allowed life to adapt to changing and diverse conditions.

Dobzhansky relied on the fact that such arguments had convinced every careful and honest student who had studied the evidence.  In these posts, I will not rely on that preponderance of agreement by academic scientists.  This is not because that evidence is not strong.  One of the best known projects that demonstrate the overwhelming agreement among scientists is the National Council for Science Education’s “Project Steve.”  In response to the lists compiled by anti-evolutionists of scientists who doubt the notion of evolution, NCSE compiled a much, much longer list just of scientists named Steve who do support evolution.

However, just as arguments from the Bible would never convince these evolutionists that evolution can’t be true, so such compilations will never convince those who do not believe in evolution.  The number of scientists who believe in evolution will not impress someone who assumes that such people have fallen into a lamentable intellectual trap. Just like a list of the number of healthy people who smoke will not convince me that smoking is healthy.  Just because many people do something can’t prove that it is right.

The purpose of these posts, as with all of the efforts on this blog, is more modest.  I will only attempt to make the arguments in favor of evolution that can demonstrate to a committed anti-evolutionist that one does not have to be deluded or ignorant in order to believe in evolution.  There are good reasons why people believe it.  As Dobzhansky argued forty years ago, once we understand this vision of life, nothing makes sense without it.  It becomes the key to unlocking life’s secrets.