George Johnson in the New York Times; Steve Meyer at the Chabad of Snohomish County
Last night Stephen Meyer spoke to a Jewish group in Lynnwood, Snohomish County, about his book Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, which comes out in paperback next month. Lynnwood is a half hour north of Seattle, and for the ride up there, our friend Diane Medved carpooled with my wife Nika and me. Diane brought along an article from yesterday's New York Times, and Nika read it aloud to us as I drove. It turned out to be very appropriate.
Science writer George Johnson was mulling over "Creation, in the Eye of the Beholder," a typically complaisant reflection on what Johnson sees as the foolishness of perceiving design in nature. One thing's for sure: It's not possible to detect any familiarity on the part of this veteran Times reporter with the evidence or arguments that Meyer or other leading intelligent-design advocates offer.
Johnson writes about his wonderment 27 years ago on seeing an artistically rendered schematic drawing of the AIDS virus. He makes a lot of that. Intricately beautiful yet unspeakably cruel, HIV for him embodies what's wrong with the design argument.
When we see such intricate symmetry, our brains automatically assume there was an inventor. Overcoming that instinct took centuries, and it was only then that the living world began to make sense.
The designer of the AIDS virus, of course, was evolution working through endless iterations of random variation and selection.
Johnson goes on to compare "creationists" (by which he means ID advocates) to conspiracy buffs:
What creationists and conspiracy theorists share is a deep disbelief in accidents like the ones that drive evolution, and a certainty that everything that happens was somehow intended.
As far as he is aware, the case for design has not advanced one word beyond William Paley writing in 1802. We only conceive our "image of God the machinist" because it is a "reflection of ourselves." And so on.
It's Johnson, though, who can't see past his own reflection. He's incredulous that anyone could attribute design to nature when nature includes cruel things. Johnson wouldn't allow such in his world if he were God.
But that's a theological objection to design. Why is it that Darwin defenders always answer science with theology? The theory of intelligent design is not theology. It leaves such valid doubts to religious thinkers, restricting itself to science -- explaining the origin of the genetic and epigenetic information needed to build animal forms, the "explosive origin" of animal life in the Cambrian event, and much more -- letting the chips fall where they may.
It was interesting to compare the incuriousness on the part of a reporter for a world-class newspaper with Steve Meyer's audience in Lynnwood. Steve was speaking to Chabad of Snohomish County, not a mega-synagogue by any stretch. Basically a storefront, the room was packed out with what looked like a little more than thirty people.
If you're familiar with Chabad, they were just what you'd expect: an assortment of Jews from very diverse backgrounds, by no means all "religious." There were engineers, doctors -- and a former kosher-restaurant owner from New York who recognized me as a customer when I lived on the Upper West Side in the 1990s!
Unlike George Johnson, these folks were aware of the Darwin debate, and intensely curious about it. Steve didn't hold back on the scientific details. He was as "on," as wired, and funny and engaging, as he is when talking to an audience of thousands.
The group was tracking it all fixedly, peppering him with queries throughout, not entirely on Steve's side but turning it over and over with him -- down to and including the clash with Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall in Science over developmental gene regulatory networks. After two hours, the rabbi had to call a halt to it. Otherwise it seemed they would have kept asking questions, and Steve would have kept answering them, indefinitely.
How does it happen? A reporter for the New York Times tosses off a column mocking the design argument as "creationism," reflecting no knowledge of what design theorists say more than two centuries after Paley. Yet gather together a random group of Jews in a random town in Washington State and you get an intense, serious and illuminating discussion exploring the cutting edge of ID.
Guys like Mr. Johnson should get out a bit more. Read a book perhaps. Here's one.
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Photo credit: Andrew McDiarmid.