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Wells & Shermer at CATO

The CATO Institute event with Michael Shermer and our own Senior Fellow, Jonathan Wells, is now available online. Here are a few notes.

Dr. Shermer covered mostly philosophical arguments for Darwinism and against ID--the one exception being the co-option argument which Mike Behe and others have responded to repeatedly. I will only note here that critics continue to have it both ways: they say ID is not science, yet they also claim to have scientific objections to it. Or similarly, many say "ID is not testable or falsifiable...oh, and by the way, we've already tested it and shown it to be false."

Second, judging from Dr. Shermer's remarks yesterday, I do not believe that he really takes neo-Darwinism seriously in at least one key respect. What I mean is this: he said that nature "does look designed" but then went on to say that in fact it is designed--by evolution, that is. Okay fine. This is clever enough, and if he is saying that things appear designed but are in reality not designed, then this is nothing new. Richard Dawkins and others have said as much. But then Shermer goes on to say "eyes are designed to see" and "the wing is designed to fly" but in a bottom-up manner. He does not seem, however, to notice the conflict here. Natural selection has no foresight. It cannot plan ahead. Thus, if the magical powers of natural selection really did build the amazing vertebrate eye or a bird's wing, then the eye is not designed for seeing, and the wing is not designed for flying. Rather, they are both frozen accidents. Natural selection preserved a genetic accident. But Shermer wants to keep the teleological language when all he can truly say is that eyes see and wings help an organism fly. But by slight of hand he personifies "evolution," really a process of differential death and reproduction, and says these were "designed, as it were, by evolution." This may not at first seem very important, but I believe this clarification helps to underscore the radical claim of Darwinism. Something as amazingly complex as the vertebrate eye, according to Darwinism, was never really intended to see.

Third, Shermer thinks "a really important point" in this debate is the question of who designed the designer. Forgive me if I think this is a bit sophomoric. (I'm ashamed to admit that I was briefly impressed with this argument from Bertrand Russell when I was in high school.) As Dr. Wells noted in the question period, everyone comes to a point where they must posit something eternal. Theists claim it is God; and materialists like Shermer claim it is matter. (For more, see Jay Richards's response to this argument here.)

But the more important point to notice is that Shermer claims that we "must" search until we find a bottom-up material explanation for everything. Now Dr. Shermer is certainly entitled to his view that there in fact is such an explanation for everything, but what does this amount to? This amounts to defining science as philosophical materialism. What if the ancient Greek philosophers were right, and there is not a bottom up explanation for some features of the natural world? And what if there is empirical evidence of this, as ID scientists claim? Should we deny such evidence because the materialist presupposition says we must keep searching for a mindless cause for a given phenomenon? Or should we follow the evidence, even if it points to an intelligent cause?

When Dr. Wells spoke, he mainly focused on the science Shermer employs as evidence for Darwinism in Why Darwin Matters. Shermer rounds up the usual suspects: the shoddy whale transition, the supposed backward-wiring of the vertebrate eye, and the extrapolation from micro- to macro-evolution. Wells disputed them all. For more, see his new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism & Intelligent Design.

Watch and decide for yourself.

Many thanks to David Boaz of CATO for being a good moderator and a gracious host.