"Have you seen the cover of the latest National Geographic issue?"
In recent weeks, this question came to me in countless phone messages and e-mails, not to mention a dozen personal encounters. A campus worker in Berlin sent an urgent e-mail after spotting the German edition. My friends and academic colleagues are curious what Ia speaker and writer on the debate between Darwinism and intelligent design theorythought about the magazine's provocative cover story, which boldly asks, "Was Darwin Wrong?"
Readers were jolted around the world that such a question should leap from the cover of National Geographic. Hopes surged for a few seconds among skeptics of evolution, until they turned to David Quammen's article, which answers with a loud, triumphal "No!" Quammen's piece unfolds as a glittering showcase for Darwinism, a reassuring mini-museum in print. Ten pages of textmore in the genre of high school cheerleading than sober analysisare embedded in a lush gallery of 22 pages of glossy pictures, including an amazing array of nine separate "sidebar" mini-articles.
If we imagine the "clash of two theories"the older notion of "separate creations" by a supremely wise designer, versus Darwin's "common ancestry" of all life, driven by natural selectionit appears here that the younger system has utterly crushed the older. Sketched in terms of a basketball tourney, Quammen paints a complete routa 118-0 shutout.
One triumphal paragraph, which serves as an opening sketch of Quammen's thrust, refers to Darwinian macroevolution as "deeply persuasivea theory you can take to the bank. The essential points are slightly more complicated than most people assume, but not so complicated that they can't be comprehended by any attentive person. Furthermore, the supporting evidence is abundant, various, ever increasing, solidly interconnected, and easily available in museums and a mountainous accumulation of peer-reviewed scientific studies."
The reader, leafing through dazzling color illustrations, tracing a series of arguments, evidences, and historical summaries, is led gently, but steadily, to one "overwhelming" conclusion: Only pitiful ignorance (or worse, religious bias and fear) could keep a normal-thinking adult from embracing Darwinian evolution as FACT.
My emphasis on the word "fact" is designed to convey the sense of brimming confidence which is the article's emotional subtext. The editor's purpose was, quite literally, to overwhelm the reader. In fact, the first page tells us of evolution's "overwhelming evidence"twice, in headline and text.
Several scholars have noted in recent weeks that throughout the article, small-scale or modest "variations" in animals are treated blithely as evidence for the origin of new organs or body structureswhat biologists call "macroevolution." Huge unsolved problems that plague the current gene-centered macroevolutionary theoryrevealed in such cutting-edge texts as MIT Press's Origination of Organismal Formare not mentioned.
Ignoring the opposition
Most significantly, there is no hint that intelligent, well-informed dissent exists anywhere in the university world. As I read Quammen's article, I kept looking in vain for his response to the telling critiques of the Intelligent Design Movement. This is puzzling, in light of the conundrum that is confronted in the article: Why so many Americans still doubt Darwinism?
In terms of specific evidences (and "evidence" is a key word for Quammen), major questions are unaddressed: Why not discuss the Cambrian Explosion? Or the mystery of how complex molecular wonders such as the blood clotting system or the flagellum could have possibly formed, step-by-Darwinian-step? Why not confront, at least briefly, the riddle of how the vast quantities of genetic information, sufficient to run even the simplest living system, arose? And most tellingly: Why not reveal the widespread questioning of the creative power of natural selectiona foundational problem now widely admitted even among evolutionary researchers?
In a nutshell: How can an article of this importance completely ignore the scholarly labors of a mushrooming network of scientists at leading universities who have held important university-based symposia, and published over fifty books in the last decade?
It appears that we can draw a significant conclusion about defensive tactics. This "silent treatment" is how defenders of a creaking paradigm will act when it comes to the task of persuading the undereducated. Quammen's pedagogical strategya "dumbing-down" of the question of originssimply sidesteps a half-dozen key flashpoints. Effectively, the ID Movement doesn't exist.
Quammen cannot be ignorant of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, or of his published responses to his critics. He probably is aware of Jonathan Wells' cogent criticism of the "classic proofs" of Darwinism in Icons of Evolution. Besides, the design-detection system, published by William Dembski in The Design Inference and other books, is now common knowledge among most evolutionary spokespersons, especially now that PBS stations across the US have aired the pro-ID documentary Unlocking the Mystery of Life.
Biologists may try to nurture the illusion that ID is fading, but publishing trends point the other way. Stephen Meyer published in August a pro-ID article in a refereed scientific journal (Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington), followed by a research article on proteins in another key journal by Behe and University of Pittsburgh physicist David Snoke. ID is not fading; it is advancing into crucial new territory: refereed technical journals.
Alas, National Geographic knows that it can never overwhelm the reader if such unsolved problems and blistering dissent are squarely faced. The late Stephen Jay Gould adopted the same approach in his tome, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, published shortly before his death in 2002. In the course of 1433 pages, he did not mention a single ID scholar or argument, even though he was familiar with ID, having attacked Phillip Johnson in print as early as 1992. It's the easiest strategy in facing scientific dissent: Act as if the dissenters do not exist.
Drawing a lesson
There is an important lesson to be drawn from Quammen's concluding recollection of his visit with Philip Gingerich, a University of Michigan paleontologist. Gingerich is described as a "reverent empiricist" who "grew up in a conservative church in the Midwest and was not taught anything about evolution."
"The subject was clearly skirted," said Gingerich, yet that background helps him "understand the people who are skeptical about [evolution]." Now he finds the experience of discovery a spiritual one. The factual answers to his questions are in the "rocks of the ages."
Gingerich's church experience of "skirting the subject" of evolution is a tragic misstep of church leadership that need not, and should not, be duplicated today. An explosion of resources in this area have made it much easier for any follower of Christ to evaluate the issues of Darwinism and Design from all sides, and not from National Geographic's perspective that simply assumes that natureall on its ownhas the ability to craft the diversity and complexity of life.
Paul identified the downward spiral in Romans chapter one as one where men deified dumb nature, imbuing it with powers and spiritual significance that can never be justified. The Christian, aware of this pitfall, and armed with the best arguments and evidence on both sides of the issue, can systematically compare and evaluate evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. For the philosophical naturalist, "nature is all there is." Thus, the question of origins leads quickly to a guaranteed result: Darwin wins, in a lopsided shutout.
Thomas Woodward is author of Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Baker), a 2004 Christianity TodayBook Award winner.
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National Geographic's website for its "Was Darwin Wrong" article includes an excerpt, but not the entire article.
The press release is available though.
More Christianity Today articles on ID from our Science & Health page includes:
Unintelligent Debate | It's time to cool the rhetoric in the Intelligent Design dispute. (Sept. 03, 2004)
The Dick Staub Interview: William Dembski's Revolution | The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote. (March 30, 2004)
'A Nuclear Bomb' For Evolution? | Critics of Darwinism say skull's discovery isn't all it's cracked up to be. (Aug. 14, 2002)
Design Interference | William Dembski fired from Baylor's Intelligent Design center. (Nov. 28, 2000)
Your Darwin Is Too Large | Evolution's significance for theology has been greatly exaggerated. (May 25, 2000)