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The Book That Deflated Darwin Day

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Winter 2015 - Digital


February 12 is Charles Darwin's 206th birthday. As secularists push for a worldwide celebration of “Darwin Day,” we’re featuring the following excerpt from John G. West’s acclaimed book Darwin Day in America, released today in an updated edition.

If someone prior to 2012 had predicted that Oxford University Press would publish a book with the title Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, one might have wondered about his sanity, or at least about how familiar he was with current discourse in elite academia. But Oxford did in fact publish the book, and the intellectual aftershocks have yet to subside.

The book’s author, philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a professor of long standing at New York University and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and election to such august bodies as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. It is a testament to Professor Nagel’s stature that his dissent from Darwinian theory was allowed to be published at all. But his stature has not prevented a flood of abuse and even occasional suggestions of creeping senility.

It’s not often that a book by a professional philosopher attracts the notice—let alone the ire—of the cultural powers-that-be. Mind and Cosmos has been denounced in The Nation and the Huffington Post, attacked by prominent academics including evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker at Harvard and biologist Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago, dubbed the “most despised science book of 2012” by the London Guardian, defended in the New Republic (where Nagel’s critics were blasted as “Darwinist dittoheads” and a “mob of materialists”), reported on in a feature story for the New York Times, and put on the cover of the Weekly Standard, which depicted poor Professor Nagel being burned alive while surrounded by a cabal of demonic-looking men in hoods.

Nagel attracted special displeasure for praising Darwin skeptics like mathematician David Berlinski and intelligent-design proponents like biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Times explained, many of Nagel’s fellow academics view him unfavorably “not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design.” Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to the pooh-poohing of pedophilia, have concluded that it is “dangerous” to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009 he selected Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. Written by my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer (whose ideas are discussed in the original conclusion to this book), Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in DNA. After being denounced by one scientist for praising Meyer’s book, Nagel dryly recommended that the scientist should “hold his nose and have a look at the book” before dismissing it.

Apparently unconcerned about being accused of consorting with the enemy, Nagel insisted in Mind and Cosmos that “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” Nagel added that he thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”—an intriguing comment considering that he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.

Nagel ultimately offered a simple but profound objection to Darwinism: “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself.” In other words, if our mind and morals are simply the accidental products of a blind material process like natural selection acting on random genetic mistakes, what confidence can we have in them as routes to truth?

The basic philosophical critique of Darwinian reductionism offered by Nagel had been made before, perhaps most notably by Sir Arthur Balfour, C. S. Lewis, and Alvin Plantinga. But around the same time as the publication of Nagel’s book came new scientific discoveries that undermined Darwinian materialism as well. In the fall of 2012, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project released results showing that much of so-called junk DNA actually performs biological functions. The ENCODE results overturned long-repeated claims by leading Darwinian biologists that most of the human genome is genetic garbage produced by a blind evolutionary process. At the same time, the results confirmed predictions made during the previous decade by scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

New scientific challenges to orthodox Darwinian theory have continued to proliferate. In 2013 Stephen Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, which threw down the gauntlet on the question of the origin of biological information required to build animal body plans in the history of life. The intriguing thing about Meyer’s book was not the criticism it unleashed from the usual suspects but the praise it attracted from impartial scientists. Harvard geneticist George Church lauded it as “an opportunity for bridge-building rather than dismissive polarization—bridges across cultural divides in great need of professional, respectful dialogue.” Paleontologist Mark McMenamin, coauthor of a major book from Columbia University Press on animal origins, called it “a game changer for the study of evolution” that “points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of animals.”

Even critics of Darwin’s Doubt found themselves at a loss to come up with a convincing answer to Meyer’s query about biological information. University of California at Berkeley biologist Charles Marshall, one of the world’s leading paleontologists, attempted to answer Meyer in the pages of the journal Science and in an extended debate on British radio. But as Meyer and others pointed out, Marshall tried to explain the needed information by simply presupposing the prior existence of even more unaccounted-for genetic information. “That is not solving the problem,” said Meyer. “That’s just begging the question.”

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C. S. Lewis perceptively observed in his final book that “nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.” Lewis’s point was that old paradigms often persist because they blind us from asking certain questions. They begin to disintegrate once we start asking the right questions. Scientific materialism continues to surge, but perhaps the right questions are finally beginning to be asked.

It remains to be seen whether as a society we will be content to let those questions be begged or whether we will embrace the injunction of Socrates to “follow the argument . . . wherever it may lead.” The answer to that question may determine our culture’s future.


John G. West, PhD, is vice president and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, where he also serves as associate director of the Center for Science and Culture. Dr. West is the author or editor of twelve books, including The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society and Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest. This excerpt comes from Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, now available as ISI’s Book of the Month.