All in the Pairing: John Derbyshire v. Stephen Meyer in The American Spectator
There's an art to the pairing of food with wine and food with food. The idea isn't just to avoid combinations that don't work -- salmon and red wine, which leaves a fishy aftertaste -- but to find pairs that actually bring out qualities in each other that might not otherwise be apparent.
So it is with editing. Someone at The American Spectator was inspired, I think, in matching Stephen Meyer with John Derbyshire in a confrontation over the theory of ID. Their subject: "Does intelligent design provide a plausible account of life’s origins?"
It's not a debate since while the two writers are paired, with Meyer going first followed Derbyshire, they do not come directly to blows. Meyer gives a really nice précis of the argument in Darwin's Doubt to which, however, Derbyshire doesn't respond. He makes no pretense of having read the book or being in the least bit familiar with it, or with any of Meyer's writing, much less the research of other ID scientists and scholars.
Derbyshire, formerly of National Review, has long had a bee in his bonnet about ID. He connects it to religious belief, which he also doesn't like. His contribution to the Spectator is a lively read. Derb is always amusing. It's on the substance that he falls wildly short. In this outing, which is simply lunatic, he informs readers of ID's close cousinly relationship with -- are you sitting down? -- "fundamentalist Islam." The connection is by way of "occasionalism," a medieval Muslim theological doctrine that later found some Christian support, attributing all causation in nature to God. Go ahead and read the Wikipedia article, of which I guess Derbyshire has also made a study.
In a nutshell, Derbyshire says that Muslims don't do science well because of their occasionalist baggage. He counts the number of Nobel laureates in science from the Islamic world. Occasionalism puts scientists out of a job, since it gives them nothing to study or explain in nature. The answer to every question in science is simply, "God did it." That's also ID's answer to every question -- a view sustainable, however, only if you have never actually read anything by ID advocates like Meyer, Axe, Sternberg, Wells, Denton, Dembski, Behe, Gauger, Nelson, etc. Ergo, because of the close ID-Muslim relationship, intelligent design isn't science.
Yes, it's really that crazy. So why is this an inspired matchup?
The occasion for the "debate" is, obviously, the publication of Darwin's Doubt. Meyer's book has inspired a diversity of responses from his critics. These range from the substantive and respectful -- UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall in the journal Science and in Marshall's extended radio debate with Meyer -- to the weasel-like John Farrell in National Review hanging his dismissal of the book on Meyer's use of a single ellipsis in a quotation.
There's something both refreshing and revealing about the way Derbyshire refuses to touch the science, about which he knows nothing. Because most critics of ID in fact have studiously avoided grappling with the scientific arguments. They only make a show of having done so -- Gareth Cook, for example, reviewing Meyer's book in The New Yorker and hanging his own view on what he had read in Nick Matzke's bogus critique at Panda's Thumb. Derbyshire's nakedly uninformed article is, as I take it, an admission by AmSpec's editors about some other critics -- Jerry "Yes, baby Jesus made the phyla!" Coyne, for instance -- with their pretense of having solid scientific, as opposed to ideological, reasons for rejecting the evidence Meyer presents.
Beyond this, there's Derbyshire himself. The last time I wrote about him he had been dismissed by National Review for refusing to back down from racist slurs in his columns. About the same time, NR purged another writer, Robert Weissberg, for white nationalist associations. Weissberg had lent his name to an ugly group with racialist and Darwinian eugenicist interests. Derbyshire and Weissberg have since both turned up as columnists for the online Taki's Magazine, where racialist and anti-Semitic writing is smiled upon. Derbyshire designates himself as the magazine's "race reporter."
What more is there to say? The debate about Darwinism is about the origin of biological information but it has implications, no one denies this, about the nature of man -- whether spiritual being or racial animal. The editors of the Spectator seem to be presenting readers with, if not a debate, then a choice. On the one hand there is Stephen Meyer serenely laying out the scientific case for design in nature. On the other hand there is "race reporter" John Derbyshire, spinning mad theories about subterranean Muslim influences.
It's all in the pairing. A reasonable reader will draw his own conclusions.