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Why Darwin Matters:
The Case Against Intelligent Design

by Michael Shermer

Times Books, 2006

189 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

As a former creationist and evangelical Christian, Michael Shermer understands the reason why a few religiously and politically motivated Christian leaders have misinformed millions of American Christians about the origins of life and why they believe in Creationism, a movement now called Intelligent Design.

This book should appeal to Christians who want to understand evolution but who do not want to feel offended by the anti-religious tone of some evolutionary scientists. Shermer carefully explains, in a non-threatening manner, how evolution and natural selection works while also explaining why Intelligent Design theory cannot explain the diversity of life on the planet earth.

In the Facts of Evolution, Shermer provides a historical view of evolution theory from Darwin to Ernst Mayr and then explains the basic theory of natural selection and how various tests for evolution have established natural selection as a fact.

I especially liked the chapter on Debating Intelligent Design. Here he explains why self-organization comes as an emergent property from simple to complex adaptive systems. Shermer patiently explains the favorite myths about evolution, including the anthropic principle, the so called, violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, irreducible complexity, and the illusive "missing link." He understands the appeal to design theory but explains that evolutionary design comes from the bottom-up, not top-down as creationists believe.

Finally, Shermer explains why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution since evolution does not contradict theology but can encompass it (god of the gaps, if  you ask me). In actuality Creationists demean Christianity by ignoring science and making themselves look ignorant. As Shermer says, "Evolution provides a scientific foundation for the core values shared by most Christians and conservatives, and by accepting-- and embracing-- the theory of evolution."

A few quotes from the book:

It does not matter whether 99 percent or just 1 percent of the public (or politicians) accepts a scientific theory -- the theory stands or falls on the evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution.

What I discovered was that the preponderance of evidence from numerous converging lines of scientific inquiry -- geology, paleontology, zoology, botany, comparative anatomy, molecular biology, population genetics, biogeography, embryology, and others -- all independently converge to the same conclusion: Evolution happened.

The theory of top-down intelligent design of all life by or through a supernatural power was replaced with the theory of bottom-up natural design through natural forces.

Data without generalizations are useless; facts without explanatory principles are meaningless. A "theory" is not just someone's opinion or a wild guess made by some scientist. A theory is a well-supported and well-tested generalization that explains a set of observations. Science without theory is useless.

Darwin insisted that theory comes to and from the facts, not from political or philosophical beliefs, whether from God or the godfather of scientific empiricism.

In human evolution, there are at least a dozen  known intermediate fossil stages since hominids branched off from the great apes six million years ago.

The anatomy of the human eye, in fact, shows anything but "intelligence" in its design. It is built upside down and backwards, requiring photons of light to travel through the cornea, lens, aqueous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells before they reach the light-sensitive rods and cones that transduce the light signal into neural impulses-- which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns.

I use the verb "accept" instead of the more common expression "believe in" because evolution is not a religious tenet, to which one swears allegiance or belief as a matter of faith. It is a factual reality of the empirical world. Just as one would not say "I believe in gravity," one should not proclaim "I believe in evolution." But getting hung up on the idea that one is supposed to "believe in" evolution just as you "believe in" God is just one brand of resistance to evolution.

First, the universe is not so finely tuned for life. The vast majority of the universe is empty space, and the vast majority of what little matter there is, is completely inhospitable to life, including most planets. . . .Second, our universe is not finely tuned for us (the strong anthropic principle), we are finely tuned for it (the weak anthropic principle).

Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us?

The design inference comes naturally. The reason people think that a Designer created the world is because it looks designed. I think we should quit tiptoeing around this inference and admit that life looks designed because it was: from the bottom up, by evolution.

This solution is called exaptation, in which a feature that originally evolved for  one purpose is coopted for a different purpose.

Rather than being intelligently designed, the human genome looks more and more like a mosaic of mutations, fragment copies, borrowed sequences, and discarded strings of DNA that were jerry-built over millions of years of evolution.

We see evolution at work in nature today, isolating populations and creating new species, that is, new populations reproductively isolated from other such populations. As the new isolated populations drift genetically away from the parent population, they eventually can no longer interbreed, making new species. If evolution can do this, why can't it also create higher order categories of organisms?

Intelligent Design is a remarkably uncreative theory that abandons the search for understanding at the very point where it is most needed.

Evolution no more breaks the Second Law of Thermodynamics than one breaks the law of gravity by leaping into the air.

[T]he old creationist's saw that mistakes in science are a sign of weakness is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of science which is constantly building upon both the mistakes and the successes of the past. Science does not just change, it builds cumulatively on the past. Scientists makes mistakes aplenty, and in fact this is how science progresses. The self-correcting feature of the scientific method is one of its most powerful assets.

Design theorists push their way into science lesson plans. In the free marketplace of ideas, turning to the government to force your theory on others--particularly children--goes against every principle of liberty upon which modern Western democracies are founded.

If I were a religious believer, I would be embarrassed by the latest round of attempts to legislate these beliefs into the public schools.

There is no more science in Intelligent Design theory than there is in creation-science; but the point of the movement is not to expand scientific understanding--it is to shut it down.


Prologue: Why Evolution Matters

1.  The Facts of Evolution

2.  Why People Do Not Accept Evolution

3.  In Search of the Designer

4.  Debating Intelligent Design

5.  Science under Attack

6.  The Real Agenda

7.  Why Science Cannot Contradict Religion

8.  Why Christians and Conservatives Should Accept Evolution

9.  The Real Unsolved Problems of Evolution

Epilogue: Why Science Matters

Coda: Genesis Revisited

Appendix: Equal Time for Whom?


Selected Bibliography



To obtain this book, click below:

Why Darwin Matters

Other books by Michael Shermer:

Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown (hardback)

The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (hardback)

How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, 1999 (hardback) (cassette [abridged])

Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997 (hardback), (cassette [abridged])

Teach Your Child Science : Making Science Fun for the Both of You, 1995 (paperback)