The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design Review: Why Should Words Have Meanings? (Chapter 1)

Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon

Read the entire series.

By titling his first chapter “Wars and Rumors”, Jonathan Wells invokes a snippet of scripture in which Jesus describes the end times

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all [these things] must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Matt 24:6

Wells uses such dramatic quotations and general martial language because the struggle between “intelligent design” and science is very much a culture war, at least to him and other creationists. In order to advance his thesis, Wells has to convey the idea that “Darwinism” pits itself against traditional Christianity: to allow pupils to learn it is to give them up to atheism, decadence, liberalism and to lose the culture war.

Note that Wells does not wage war against evolution. In fact, he is at pains to make it (somewhat) clear that he wages war against “Darwinism”, which in context might sound like the sort of thing any sensible Christian would want to guard against. Unfortunately, Wells isn’t exactly clear what he means by Darwinism as opposed to evolution. In this chapter and chapter fifteen, “Darwinism’s War on Traditional Christianity”, we find many references to “Darwinism”. Assuming that even creationist words have meaning, let us set those invocations in series while adjusting the language only to merge them syntactically. Presumably there is consistency of meaning, and this will hopefully help us gain a greater understanding of what this nasty Darwinism thing is.

”[There] is a fundamental conflict here [but] it is not between religion and science, or even between Christianity and evolution, but between traditional Christianity and Darwinism. Although the latter may allow for the existence of a deity, [that deity would not be] the God of traditional Christianity” (p. 173). Darwinism differs from evolution because it explains “the origin of not just one or a few species, but all species after the first—in short, all the diversity of life on Earth” (p. 3). Wells does not disagree with evolution itself or even its attendant conclusions of descent with modification or even perhaps common descent; his objection is that scientists haven’t found any direction to evolution (pp. 2,3,5). It is this failure to perceive direction in evolution that defines Darwinism, which might be considered unguided or undirected evolution (p. 6). This distinction between evolution and “Darwinism” is quite important because at some point after Darwin published his work, “Darwinism declared war on traditional Christianity” (p. 170).

But Wells also writes, “[Intelligent] design is compatible with some aspects of Darwinian evolution” (p. 8). Note that he did not write “evolution” but “Darwinian evolution”, presumably “Darwinism”. According to the stated definition on page six, Darwinism requires a component of undirectedness or unguidedness—the idea that any apparent design must be illusory—to distinguish itself from mere evolution. So intelligent design, a philosophical perspective that makes evolution compatible with “Traditional Christianity” by imputing design and direction to its inputs or outcomes, is compatible with perspectives of evolution that declared war on “Traditional Christianity” and considers any perceived design in the outcomes of evolution illusory.

Confused yet?

One gets the distinct impression that, despite the time Wells spent pondering the material in his book, a better working definition for Darwinism would have been, “everything about evolution to which creationists like me object”. This definition, unlike the one Wells offers, at least would have made sense in context.

Easily, one of the prominent faults of Wells’s screed is a pervasive confusion between terms. Words, like “Darwinism” and “Traditional Christianity”, seem to mean whatever Wells wants them to mean for that specific sentence. In many cases words are used without regard for his own stated definitions and usually without regard to usage elsewhere in his book. There are several possible reasons for this confusion in terms. First, Wells confusion may be by design. I have argued elsewhere that creationists intend to confuse their audiences when they argue. Second, if you review the acknowledgements page, you’ll read how Wells used many authors to help him prepare this text. It is possible that Wells’s editorship was so insufficient that he allowed a term that makes up part of the book’s very title to have a flexible meaning. My suspicion is that there was both disparity between the understanding of key terms by different authors as well as an intention to confuse.

Wells doesn’t spend a great deal of time defining intelligent design. This is in keeping with creationist strategy. As federal Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania noted:

ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

Wells does not actually define “intelligent design” and thus does not lock “intelligent design” down into a form that could actually be scrutinized. Instead he chooses to list to list a few things “worth noting” about “intelligent design”. Throughout chapters one and fifteen, Wells defends ID creationism as the sort of thing that “traditional Christians” should support. But in this section, presumably in an effort to accommodate the obvious imperfections in biological structures or the lack of justice or beneficence in competing organisms, Wells writes, “ID does not claim that the design must be optimal; something may be designed, even if it is flawed. When automobile manufacturers recall defective vehicles, they are showing that those vehicles were badly designed, not that they were undesigned” (p. 8). We here at the Thumb support Wells’s freedom to believe in a God or gods of his choosing, but we aren’t so sure that the consideration of God as incompetent is a feature of “Traditional Christian” beliefs. This is yet another example of words meaning whatever Wells wants them to mean.

The real meaning of “intelligent design”, for the most part, is left unclear. Again, this is likely by design, since it is in keeping with creationist strategy:

One consistency among the Dover School Board members’ testimony, which was marked by selective memories and outright lies under oath, as will be discussed in more detail below, is that they did not think they needed to be knowledgeable about ID because it was not being taught to the students.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District

Indeed a popular talking point by creationists is that they need not necessarily have an alternative to “Darwinism” in order to know that “Darwinism” is wrong. (c.f. Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Ann Coulter around 2:00: “I can be a restaurant critic without opening up a restaurant.”)

Darwin considered that the evolution that he was noting in organisms affected humans as well and that man had a phylogenetic history just like the beetles he was studying. It is instructive that this is likely Wells’s biggest objection against Darwin. Wells quotes Darwin as writing,

There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the winds blow. [Although] I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed design of any kind, in the details.

The reader will recall Darwin’s previous intention to become a country pastor and his schooling in the ministry (short as it was) and impute sorrow to the words Darwin wrote above. Darwin mourned the lack of evidence of design in the evolution he discovered. Like all scientists with the courage to discard a favored hypothesis, Darwin had to admit to himself that which he would have preferred to not: there was no evidence of design in the world he was observing and measuring with the tools of science and what happened to the beetles and orchids was happening and had happened to humans and to our progenitor species as well.

The idea that man is an animal must be offensive to Wells, who appears not to tolerate any view of our specie’s emergence other than an immaculate conception. What was Darwin’s fault according to Wells? “He set out to explain the origin of not just one or a few species, but all the species after the first.” What a scoundrel that Darwin was! One can almost hear Wells saying to himself, “Had Darwin simply stopped at beetles or orchids, that would have been one thing. But to suggest that even humans share a deep kinship with all the living things on the planet or that man is an animal as well? That’s just beyond the pale.”

Perhaps instead of reading Genesis 1 so much, Wells should have read Ecclesiastes 3.

Tune in tomorrow, when PZ Myers deals a mortal blow to Jonathan Wells’s thoughts on embryos and development. (How may mortal blows can one hack take?) Those who visit Pharyngula know that PZ has already posted this portion of the review over there and the Thumb is poised to simply re-air his essay. Now you know what life is like on the West Coast.