Michael Shermer: WHY DARWIN MATTERS: The Case Against Intelligent Design (2006)

This is a middle-period Shermer book, from the range that begins with WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS in 1997 (and omitting some earlier and middle-period books on extraneous topics), and the 6th of 12 Shermer books I have on my shelves.

It recycles some material from previous books, especially HOW WE BELIEVE (2000), but has two distinctive themes. First, Shermer sets the book against his own background as a creationist himself, having become a born-again-Christian in high school, and explains how once he got out of that bubble “The scales fell from my eyes! It turned out that the creationist literature I was reading presented a Darwinian cardboard cutout that a child could knock down.” Second, he focuses on the then-current (and still active) dispute between evolution and “intelligent design,” describing the evidence for and against respectively, and why he debates creationists and how such events go.

The book overlaps at least the one Shermer book just mentioned, and his summaries of evidence for evolution (and against ID) are familiar too from other books; how could they not be? Still, Shermer’s book is admirably concise, so I’ll go ahead and post a full summary, below. But I will extract some key points.

Key Points

  • Chapter 1 summarizes the facts of evolution, of which the key is that so many lines of evidence — geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, herpetology, entomology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics and population genetics, and others — converge on the same idea.
  • Most people (when asked) resist the idea because of a perceived threat to human morality and meaning — not because of any dispute about the evidence.
  • Except for creationists, who nitpick evolution and present flawed arguments for Intelligent Design (ID). Author describes debating creationists, and one by one rebuts the creationist’s 10 best arguments (chapter 4).
  • More broadly, the subject is about science under attack, and how creationists think they can win via court cases, not the evidence; i.e. they are not scientists.
  • The object agenda of creationists is religious; they are explicit about it, and admit they have no actual theory for ID.
  • Author considers the three ways to resolve the conflict between science and religion. His solution: place God outside time and space, beyond nature.
  • Christians and conservatives should accept evolution because it explains families and social harmony, and justifies the free market. (Good summary of evolutionary psychology here.)
  • There remain unanswered problems in evolution, but science is not a closed club; anyone can join. Science is “the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”



(As always, with personal comments [[ in double brackets ]])

Prologue: Why Evolution Matters

  • About his and Frank Sulloway’s trip to the Galapagos Islands. When Darwin went there, he was still a creationist; his ideas took a while to take hole.
  • The evolution-creationism debate is entirely cultural; scientists give ID not a second thought. ID has a grip in the US, especially the south. But science is not determined by the public. A theory depends on the evidence.
  • Author began as a creationist (as already mentioned).
  • Why does this all matter? We live in the age of Darwin. His was “arguably the most culturally jarring theory in history.” It changed our understanding of our place in nature. Of the three intellectual giants of that epoch – Darwin, Marx, and Freud—only Darwin is still relevant, because his theory was right.

Ch1, The Facts of Evolution, p1

  • A theory follows from the facts – not from political or philosophical beliefs.
  • Darwin’s theory was a reaction against William Paley’s book about “natural theology” in 1802, which tried to rationalize nature with the Bible. His famous example involved the watch found on the beach. The designer must be God. Thus we have had ID before we had the idea of evolution. Darwin began his career by studying Paley.
  • Among many definitions of evolution is Ernst Mayr’s. Creationists nitpick, asking for this or that piece of evidence, missing the point that the evidence of evolution is that so many lines of evidence converge on the same idea. Page 13t.
  • Brief survey of those lines of evidence: we deduce the evolution of wolves to dogs not through fossils but through mDNA,; dating techniques converge; fossils themselves show intermediate stages of design; the geological strata show the same sequence of fossils. We see stages of development of the human eye; we see evidence of natural, but not intelligent, design. We see vestigial structures as evidence of mistakes and misstarts – examples p18-19, male nipples, appendix etc. etc.

Ch2, Why People Do Not Accept Evolution, p23

  • Recalls the trial in Dayton TN: Wm Jennings Bryan spoke. His argument was that evolution implies there is no God; without God, there is no morality or meaning; thus no basis for a civil society; so we will all live like brute animals. [[ Each point easily dismissed based on ordinary evidence, of course; his understanding of such things was extremely thin, and parochial. ]] This is what bothers people about evolutionary theory.
  • Yet the theory is thought one of the greatest of all time. Why don’t people accept it? (It’s not about ‘believing.’) Five reasons:
  1. general resistance to science;
  2. belief that evolution is a threat to religious tenets;
  3. the fear that evolution degrades our humanity;
  4. the equation of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration;
  5. the fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature. (a worry on the left [[ it does only superficially ]])
  • These fears are nothing about the evidence for evolution; they are merely conjectures about its effects on human behavior.
  • A greater threat is those who misunderstand evolution, as a result of its not being taught; and these people are susceptible to arguments about it being ‘only a theory.’ Why shouldn’t life have been intelligently designed?

Ch3, In Search of the Designer, p34.

  • (As in earlier book) author asks people why they believe in god, and why they think other people believe in god; the reasons don’t match.
  • ID taps into an intuitive understanding of the world. But, why wouldn’t the intelligent designer have been designed? And so on.

Ch4, Debating Intelligent Design, p45 (44p)

  • Author describes reasons, pro and con, for debating creationists. He describes a 2004 UC Irvine even debating Kent Hovind, “the fastest talker I have ever met.”
  • He describes six principles of skepticism that apply to arguments for ID.
  • Then summarizes ID’s 10 best arguments, with scientific rebuttals.
    • 1, The anthropic principles: the universe is fine tuned for life. Perhaps the best argument. Responses: most of the universe *isn’t* suitable for life; we are tuned for the universe, not vice versa; there may be vastly more other universes; we may live in a multiverse; and it’s arrogant to think the entire cosmos was created for the sake of one species on one tiny planet.
    • 2, The design inference: there’s a difference between object naturally designed and those intelligently designed. But there are lots of natural things that *look* designed because we detect design where none exists; cf Voltaire.
    • 3, Explanatory filter: this principle supposedly shows that only intelligent design can account for complex information and design. Yet it presumes that if necessity and chance fail, then design follows; this is a negative argument, not positive evidence. (Burden of proof and either/or). Rather, we have a theory of natural design that accounts the complexity of life and the universe: the science of complexity, with self-organization and emergent principles. Examples are water, consciousness, language, law, economy, and life 64-65, all of which arose from simpler parts without any conscious design or intent.
    • 4, Irreducible complexity. That would be any organ that could not have evolved through numerous successive steps. The eye is the favorite ID example. Bacteria flagellum. But these arguments commit bait-and-switch logic; in fact biologists have deduced successive pathways to the eye (which evolved independently several times) and for blood clotting. Darwin answered the issue of ‘exaptation’, how an organ that served one function might be co-opted to several a different function. E.g. wings. About the eye, p70t. The ID arguments are disingenuous.
    • [[ this is the “argument from personal incredulity”. I can’t imagine how this could have evolved! Therefore god. ]]
    • [[ another note: if the human eye was intelligently designed, why do so many of us need eyeglasses? Not very good design. ]]
    • 5, Conservation of information: evolution cannot increase information. Dembski’s “no free lunch.” First, no other field, like info science, contains such a principle; second, information does in fact increase in the natural world. Dawkins answers this problem with a reconstruction of the evolution of hemoglobin, complete with a prediction later confirmed. There is also the point that much of DNA appears to go unused, hardly ‘intelligently’ designed.
    • [[ isn’t this just a variation of the argument about the 2nd law of thermodynamics? ]]
    • 6, We cannot observe evolution. Of course the example scientists point to are dismissed as ‘not evolution’ by the IDers. But diseases evolve—AIDS (and now Covid) in real time, as we watch. Other examples.
    • 7, Micro- vs Macroevolution. IDers argue that evolution cannot generate new species, but that the IDer must step in to do this. But where is the dividing line? Anyway the science of evolutionary developmental biology is addressing these issues. Examples. Again, just because IDers can’t imagine how something evolved doesn’t mean that scientists can’t. ID “is a remarkably uncreative theory that abandons the search for understanding at the very point where it is most needed.”
    • 8, The 2nd law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible. But the entire universe does not progress from simple to complex, as the IDers accuse. And the 2nd law applies to closed systems… And systems slip in and out of equilibrium; “Evolution no more breaks the [2nd law] than one breaks the law of gravity by leaping into the air.”
    • 9, Evolution in random, and randomness cannot produce complex design. But evolution is not “random.” Examples, including the monkeys typing Hamlet.
    • 10, The icons of evolution of fakes or frauds. One particular ID book lists 10 “icons” that he claims are mistakes or frauds. P83-84. Yes, science makes mistakes; but scientists have corrected them (not IDers). IDers go searching for such “mistakes.” In most of these cases, ID offers no explanation for the data; ID simply dismisses evolutionary explanations as wrong.
  • That’s the best ID has to offer.
  • Hovind began his debate: “I am here to win you over to Christ” thereby losing the debate immediately. He wasn’t there to argue evidence. With his standard list of accusations. P88. It’s all about religion, not science. They are not the ones to determine what science is. (Asimov quote.)

[[ the bottom line always has been: why do the IDers so desperately want to disprove evolution? And not, say, geology or cosmology? Because it offends their sense of feeling special in the world? ]]

Ch5, Science Under Attack, p89, 17p

  • Author discusses the nature of science, and how IDs think they can win by appealing to the government. They aren’t convincing real scientists.
  • Science is conservative; it takes a long time for scientific discoveries to make it into school textbooks. Example Lynn Margulies. How “creation science” is not science.
  • Recalls the 1981 Arkansas trial, and 2005 case in Dover, and how the ID book Of Pandas and People was merely a revision of an earlier book; the revision simply replaced the word “creationism” with the words “intelligent design”; so obviously the motives in the case were explicitly Christian.
  • The judge struck back. “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

Ch6, The Real Agenda, p106, 10p

  • The agenda is to shift the discussion to talking about God and Jesus. The ID proponents are all evangelical Christians (not scientists); the ID is the God of Abraham. Their ‘wedge’ is to gradually discredit both naturalism and materialism. A religious war against all of science.
  • And they admit they put politics ahead of the science, p111.2. They don’t actually have a theory of ID yet.
  • Follow the Money, p112: The Discovery Institute and similar are funded by wealthy conservative individuals or groups. Conservatives; not scientists. Politics, not science. Even the Templeton Foundation has withdrawn its support for the Discovery Institute.

Ch7, Why Science Cannot contradict Religion, p116, 10p

  • Reflecting on Darwin’s thoughts about science and religion. How he began studying ‘natural theology’; little else was suitable for a gentleman of his station. He only lost his faith years later. Some of what he saw on his voyages convinced him that a beneficent God could not be involved. Pain and suffering in the world made him further doubt. He refrained from saying much about issues during his life, since his wife remained devoutly religious.
  • How to resolve the conflict? Conflict, harmony, or indifference? Author describes the three options… [[ from an earlier book ]] Then explains how theists won’t submit their hypotheses (god, prayer) to scientific testing. Are we left with the separate-worlds approach? Yet scientists want to know how things work; theists simply shrug and claim God is a causeless cause. A is A; nature cannot prove the supernatural. The Pope John Paul II said to keep body and soul apart. The solution is to place God outside time and space, beyond nature.

Ch8, Why Christians and Conservatives Should Accept Evolution, p126, 13p

  • So in fact many scientists (39%) claim to believe in God and accept evolution. So too many Christians, even evangelicals. The Pope said it’s OK. Still, many religious believe living beings have always existed in their present form.
  • So how can a Christian or conservative accept evolution?
  • Evolution makes good theology. It’s true. What difference does it make *how* God created life? ID reduces God to an artificer. Evolution explains family values and social harmony. And evil, original sin, and human nature. (What follows is nice thumbnail summary of evolution psychology.) Cooperation v competition; good and evil. Moral emotions, altruism; gossip; rituals promote trust; in-group and out-group morality. Adultery. Reproductive strategies. Truth telling and lying. Deception detection. Religion codified all these rules (it didn’t legislate them).
  • Conservative free market economics also parallels evolution, e.g. Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand. Smith posited that we are both altruistic and selfish. By letting individuals pursue their own goals, the whole system prospers. Compare Smith and Darwin, 137-8. [[ Shermer is a free-market fan—he wrote another whole book about it—but here at least he doesn’t address how the free market would rein in cheaters, or avoid the pain and death and extinction that is unavoidable in Darwin’s scheme. ]]

Ch9, The Real Unsolved Problems in Evolution, p139

  • Rumsfeld quote (about known unknowns, etc.). A 2005 conference discussed the unsolved mysteries of evolution. Rumsfeld’s notion does not imply there is some crisis in evolution. But there are some as yet unknowns:
    • How did life begin? What is the origin of DNA? We know details, p142, but not all of them. Which came first, cells or RNA? Cells.
    • What caused the Cambrian ‘explosion’? First, it’s still a period of 15-20 million years (not as abrupt as ‘explosion’ makes it sound). And there is plenty of evidence for how slow changes led up to the Cambrian.
    • What causes major shifts in evolution? Fortrey; Gould; many different varieties.
    • What is the origin of complex life? Examples; gene swapping; how simple cells became eukaryotic cells.
    • How many branches are there on the human evolutionary tree? There are plenty of branches of the human tree; more keep being discovered. It depends on how species are defined. There’s a bias for something novel. E.g. Homo floresensis.
    • Where did modern human evolve? Central Africa, followed by several migrations.
    • What direct evidence is there for natural selection and evolution? Continued study of Darwin’s finches. Rapid selection of beak sizes as weather shifted. [[ And for that matter, Covid variants ]]
    • What is the difference between natural selection and sexual selection? There are exceptions to Darwin’s theory.
  • What is right in evolutionary theory? Most of it. But there are a few more issues, p152.
  • Contrary to the IDers, science is not a closed club; and there are plenty of issues left to debate.

Epilogue: Why Science Matters, p154, 8p

  • Sagan quote from Demon-Haunted W.
  • About the Esalen Institute near Monterey. Author receives an invitation to speak. Then a workshop. He got a lot of weird, new-agey questions. Recalls Sagan’s lines about the cosmos; footnote about Contact. How to find spiritual meaning in the world. Unweaving the rainbow. Author stirred by views through telescopes. Mount Wilson. Visits there many times over the years. How parochial the idea that the cosmos was created just for us; rather, awe and humility arise from contemplating the vastness of space and time. Science matters “because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”

Coda: Genesis Revisited, p162

Author rewrites Genesis in the language of modern science…

Appendix: Equal Time for Whom?

  • A list of eight different types of ‘creationists’; which variety do the IDers want taught in school? [[ Analogous to the perennial “Do you believe in God?” “Which one?” ]]
  • And a list of creation theories of other cultures, p168. [[ Same again ]]
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