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Countering the crusaders
on 25 December 2004
It is a strange paradox that the nation producing the most Nobel Prize winners also has spawned the loudest voices denouncing science and its revelations. Unlike those who object to weapons research or who claim science doesn't address life's daily problems, the objections are even more fundamental. The disaffection is a reaction to science's exposure of humanity being an integral part of Nature - "Darwinism". The active American crusaders in this assault can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but they have been prolific and boisterous in their assertions. And they are declaring war on education. They want changes based on religious grounds. Shanks' counterattack on these destructive forces carefully examines and dissects the arguments asserting life has supernatural origins.
The campaign, which has gone through several aliases - "Christian creationism" and "creation science" are but two - has settled on the bizarre cognomen of "Intelligent Design". This concept rests on a view of today's life. It is then projected back in time and found too difficult to explain. According to ID, we can't get there from here. Life is too complex to have built up from simple beginnings and must be the work of an anonymous "designer", which, of course, means something spiritual. Shanks is direct in his condemnation of this notion. Quite apart from the vapid logic of ID's idea is the failure of its adherents to provide a shred of evidence for their thesis. It is a shambles of inconsistent views, he demonstrates, often contradictory and its adherents often at cross-purposes. Shanks' granting it the status of a "theory" is the one shortcoming in this book.
After a brief outline of ID's ancient roots and its proponents in the Muslim world - a novel point overlooked by most scholars - Shanks outlines his themes. He divides his topics into the realms of biological and cosmological ID views. The biological is, of course, ID's challenge to Darwin's natural selection concept. It's difficult to comprehend how anyone could reject the mass of evidence supporting Darwin's idea that have accumulated since "Origin" was published, but Shanks demonstrates how ID publicists attempt to refute or ignore it. ID has used the laws of thermodynamics as a bludgeon against natural selection, but Shanks explains the flaws in its arguments. He deftly exposes the inconsistencies and self-contradictions that ID spokesmen have produced. Michael Behe's circular debates with Shanks and his colleague Karl Joplin are revealed to be as mistaken as they were in his sadly best selling book. The works of Behe's cohorts Phillip Johnson and William Dembski are carefully dissected and their mistakes exposed in raw vividness. They engage in much special pleading, but Shanks counters with gifted eloquence.
Perhaps the most far-reaching attempt to project ID is what has become known as the "anthropic principle". This idea has caught the imagination of those who recognise evolution has produced the human species. However, as any cognitive scientist will concede, humans have a unique place in nature. Our level of consciousness and linguistic abilities lead us to view ourselves in ways different from other animals. Frank Tipler and John Barrow have proposed that human evolution, unlike any other species, isn't destined to go extinct. Instead we will continue to evolve indefinitely. Shanks, who describes this idea as a "grotesque science fantasy", is understandably dismissive of something so counter to biological reality.
The main thrust of ID has always been the introduction of the supernatural as the driving force of life. Shanks repeated theme is the failure to provide supportive evidence for this claim. While there are those who contend deities aren't discernible, Shanks nods to their concerns, but demonstates lucidly that the processes of the universe and life are measureable. It is these very topics which the ID clique is attempting to overthrow in American public schools, a tactic Shanks seeks to block. ID's thesis that "materialism" erodes "moral values" are exposed in Shanks' conclusion. This device is no more than a scare tactic that characterises Darwin and all evolutionary biologists, paleoanthropologists, cosmologists and other researchers as "agents of Satan" in Henry Morris' terms. It is hoped that this book will provide an effective counter to such depictions. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]