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A Plague On Both Their Houses

Mary Midgley thinks creationists and evolutionists need to overcome the bewitchment of their own thinking and learn how to talk to each other.

Intelligent Design Theory, which claims to provide a scientific rationale for Creationism, is now highly popular in the United States and is gaining ground in Britain. Considered as science it is apparently vacuous, yet its influence is growing rapidly. We surely need to try and understand this phenomenon.

The theory does not, as one might expect, merely aim to add a spiritual dimension to supplement accepted biological views, which would be quite unobjectionable. Intelligent Design (ID) is presented firmly as a scientific theory to displace existing ones. Its central point is that living things are so ‘irreducibly complex’ that they cannot have evolved gradually by natural selection. They must therefore have had a designer. He might not be supernatural – he might even be an alien being – but the special biological kind of complexity could not have arisen without him.

What makes the complexity irreducible is that a biological device is composed of parts which must all be present if it is to work. The comparison often given is to a mousetrap, which can’t work till all its parts are combined. Various integrated natural systems are also held to consist of parts which must have been brought together by some other agency before natural selection could begin working on them, since natural selection can only work on something that’s already functioning. Thus, their development cannot be explained without a designer.

Biologists have pointed out the feebleness of the mechanical analogy, of course. Organisms and their parts do not consist of separate items that must be put together deliberately in the workshop, but of continuous tissue, areas of which often have several different functions and can shift between them by what is called ‘co-option’. No helpful designer was needed in order to provide a cow with a fly-whisk: cows themselves acquired one merely by using a rather undifferentiated tail in a new way. But the public which is impressed by ID theory does not read these replies.

Facts and Meanings

The disturbing feature about ID theory is its open imperialism. It inserts a Creator not as a metaphysical background but as a necessary part of the physical process. Thus it tries to reactivate the old idea of a stark epistemological Cold War, a contest for dominance between science and religion.

During the last half-century, that military method of ‘progress in understanding’ has been going out of favour, because it plainly darkened counsel. Its competitiveness made it very hard for people to see the many less extreme positions that lay open to them. Sensible students have therefore increasingly agreed with the great evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky that science and religion cannot clash because their functions are different. Science, said Dobzhansky, deals in facts, while religion deals in meaning. And moreover, as Einstein put it, religion without science is lame, while science without religion is blind.

Any apparent clashes between the two must therefore arise either from faulty religion or faulty science, or both. They don’t call for war, but for a better understanding. For instance, believers celebrating God as Creator need not be trying to smuggle an illicit set of dubious variables into the realm of scientific facts. They may simply be trying to show the whole natural realm in a different light, as pervaded by the divine. Insights like this are, of course, somewhat mysterious, which is why (as William James pointed out) religious experiences vary widely and why different cultures express them through different visions. Some of those powerful visions do not use the concept of God at all; three of the world’s great religions, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, dispense with it. And those which do use it understand it in many different ways. Because of this variety, if the visions are taken crudely and literally, they can seem to clash. But all the great traditions have recognised that the visions, though necessary, are by their nature partial, tentative and incomplete. None of them ought to be seen as exclusive and final.

Mistaken Inclusions

The parties in today’s Cold War will, however, accept no such awestruck open-mindedness. Both opt for simple and final certainty. On the religious side, fundamentalists stand by the stark claim which they first made just over a century ago – that the Scriptures, literally read, are infallible. This attitude expresses a deep devotion to the Bible going far beyond what has been normal in Protestantism – a devotion that is characteristically American. This devotion probably arose at first because so many immigrants to the US had been persecuted for their religion before leaving Europe, and their religion was one of the few things they had to sustain them in their stressful new life. Thus it is not strange that they clung so hard to it, or that they resisted scientific doctrines which seemed to clash with it, such as discoveries about the age of the Earth and Darwin’s suggestions about evolution. So in the late nineteenth century, many American churches strongly opposed such doctrines, and since those churches had wide influence, this opposition resonated in politics as well.

Not surprisingly, this campaign provoked a response. Anti-scientific fundamentalism generated its mirror-image, the dogmatic ‘scientific atheism’ of sages like John Draper and Andrew Dickson White. And today this same stimulus is producing this same conditioned anti-religious response. Yet it is a response which distorts the whole controversy.

It should surely be obvious that there is nothing scientific about atheism. God’s existence is not a question for the tests of physical science; it belongs to metaphysics. What is wrong with fundamentalism is not its theism – theists do not need to take this line – but its sheer irrelevance. Fundamentalism is a perverse attempt to use a particular, bronze-age Hebrew vision of God to resolve factual questions in science and history. Opponents who answer fundamentalism on its own terms by arguing against this mixed project as a package-deal merely perpetuate its characteristic confusion between the realms of fact and meaning.

Ideological Misapplications

Today, that confusion is clearly doing actual harm. Enquiries about why people are now so willing to embrace Creationism tend to show that they accept it because they see it as the only alternative to something they call ‘scientific atheism’ or (still more misleadingly) ‘Darwinism’. This is an ideology that has indeed some roots in Social Darwinism (which Darwin himself always disowned), but it has been elaborated since Victorian times by the visions of several popular science writers which dramatize the notion of natural selection in new ways. Jacques Monod gave natural selection an existentialist flavour, exalting humans as heroic rebels in the cosmos, aliens mysteriously cut off from the rest of nature. Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson added a Thatcherite nuance by their rather strange choice of the term ‘selfish’ for the productivity of genes. Both writers, of course, claim that this was never more than an insignificant metaphor – yet both of them often use it quite naïvely in a literal sense (eg “we are born selfish”), and there is no doubt that this is how it is has reached the public. It accords too with their general one-sided emphasis on fierce competition rather than co-operation as the basic force of life – something drawn from T.H. Huxley rather than Darwin. These elements add up to a blankly individualistic ideology, strongly redolent of the 1980s. This may have its own point – but, to repeat, it is certainly not science.

Orthodox science thus becomes discredited by being falsely identified with something that is really quite irrelevant to it – a kind of ‘Darwinism’ which is not only anti-religious but starkly anti-humane. Undoubtedly this makes the Creation-peddlers’ work a great deal easier. They still, however, have a grave problem in trying to find an alternative view which will look sufficiently like science to evade the American Constitution’s ban on the teaching of religion in schools, but will still be unscientific enough to deliver their message. ID Theory is the latest item on this production-line, and it seems so flimsy that it is hard to see how it can impose itself on anyone. Yet it does, because without some firm understanding of the relation between facts and meaning, people have little defence against such impositions. Can somebody suggest a way to make that understanding easier? Could the people engaged in teaching these two crucial subjects somehow consult together to find better ways of explaining the relation between these two aspects of life? Unless something like this can be done, it seems to me that ID is going to give us a great deal of trouble.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2007

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Among her best known books are Beast and Man, Wickedness, The Ethical Primate and Science and Poetry.

• Mary Midgley expands on the themes in this article in a new pamphlet. Impact Pamphlet 15: Intelligent Design and Other Ideological Problems by Mary Midgley, ISBN 0-902227-17-3, is obtainable from Sarah Moore (

Intelligent Design Theorists
• M.J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, New York, The Free Press, 2003.
• W.A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, Cambridge University Press, 1998 and No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

• R.T. Pennock,‘The Pre-Modern Sins of Intelligent Design’, in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, ed. P. Clayton and Z. Simpson, 2006.
• Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Harvard University Press 2005, pp.250-287.


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