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At First Things, Ferment over Intelligent Design

We've long enjoyed and admired the important ecumenical journal First Things, founded and still inspired by a great man, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. We note now, with interest, a bit of a dustup going on among editors and advisors of the magazine.

Over the years, FT's stance on the Darwin v. Design debate has undergone shifts and revisions. Father Neuhaus contributed a warmly approving jacket comment to Phil Johnson's Darwin on Trial and, in one of the last things he wrote for the magazine, tartly criticized organizers of a scholarly Vatican-led conference on the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species for dismissing proponents of intelligent design. It became clear that others on the staff felt differently. David P. Goldman, a senior editor who departed earlier this year to pursue other opportunities, has voiced the bizarre opinion that ID is no more than a "simple homily in honor of the Bible." An otherwise ferociously smart fellow, Goldman is evidently one of those who, when it comes to evolution, don blinders to keep from having to look too closely, or at all, at a challenging and dangerous subject.

After the lineup on FT's masthead appeared to settle down, we pulled up a chair to see what would happen next. Today the lead story on the First Things website caught our attention. In "Intelligent Design: Atheists to the Rescue," Marquette University philosopher Howard Kainz writes about three atheist authors who've written books either defending intelligent design or dismantling Darwinian theory. The piece is a good comeback to the standard Darwinist talking point that only religious fanatics doubt Darwin or sympathize with ID.

Comments Professor Kainz:

[Bradley] Monton's insistence that we should search for the truth, and not restrict our search to naturalistic scientific methods, is refreshing. And the arguments of [Jerry] Fodor and [Massimo] Piattelli-Palmarini, although they hold no brief for ID theory, in their criticism of "natural selection," unintentionally bring out examples that certainly sound like, well, design.
This produced a hissing response from physicist and ID critic Stephen Barr, who serves on the First Things advisory board. Right in the comments thread under the article, Barr criticized not only what Kainz said but the way he said it, nitpicking his prose for being "almost unintelligible in places" (it seemed clear enough to us). Professor Barr even assumed the role of copy editor, complaining that, in one sentence, Kainz should not have said "pointed out" but rather "argued" or "maintained." It was a strange comment for Barr to leave. Colleagues and collaborators on a journal don't normally throw fits at each other in public this way.

Another First Things editor, Joe Carter, joined in the discussion on the thread, smartly reprimanding commenters who thoughtlessly bash ID as "anti-science" and recommending Darwin-doubting molecular biologist James A. Shapiro's iconoclastic new book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century.

Kainz, meanwhile, responded gracefully to Barr, citing Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell, which "discusses numerous recent attempts to replicate prebiotic natural selection -- all of which seem to miss the important factor of leaving everything to chance. And this of course is Behe's approach with regard to the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum."

Of course it can be painful when thoughtful people who work together find themselves at odds and then, even worse, when the dispute breaks out into public visibility. But fermentation is a critical process not only in the production of food and drink but also, metaphorically, in the maturing and dissemination of ideas. For observers, all in all, it was an interesting day at First Things, evidence of intellectual ferment at one of our favorite magazines.