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1 December 2008 Not So Innocent: Methodology And Metaphysics Of Evolution
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Sahotra Sarkar has set a difficult task for himself: to assess intelligent design (ID) creationism as a science without consideration of political motivations. What makes this task so difficult is that ID creationism is predominantly politically motivated, and it is just those motivations that explain, in large part, why ID creationism is such lousy science and lousy philosophy. Sarkar, a professor of philosophy and integrative biology at the University of Texas, is well suited for the job. Technically sound in both philosophy of science and evolutionary theory, he also appreciates the social responsibility of his position. Indeed, Sarkar cut his philosophical teeth visiting southern African refugee camps in the Frontline States in the early 1980s to lecture on and debate political and economic philosophy in the struggle against apartheid. He is not afraid to wade into a charged political atmosphere.

The power of the ID creationist arguments is not that they are convincing, coherent, or compelling; it is that they are presented with a veneer of complexity that is taken as a sign of authority—namely, scientific authority. Dismantling these arguments requires a certain level of technical proficiency, but it is not altogether effective. The risk of providing ID creationists with the cover of legitimacy is often greater than any payoff would be in confronting the arguments directly. It is, after all, legitimacy that they are typically after. Politically, it can be more valuable simply to air your ideas in debate without much regard as to how such debates play out. Nonetheless, exposing the absurdity of the seemingly technical ID creationist claims is a vital component in the push back against creationism. For as much as what is at stake concerns a political or ideological debate, it must be underwritten by good science.

Sarkar accepts the ID creationist gambit for the sake of argument, taking seriously the claim that ID creationism should be considered on scientific grounds as a credible scientific alternative to evolutionary theory. He is even gracious enough to provide an argument for this where the ID creationists have not, by providing historical examples of cases where new theories replacing old ones entailed major shifts in our metaphysical assumptions (e.g., Newton's mechanics required acceptance of action-at-a-distance). Drawing on these examples, Sarkar identifies criteria by which to judge such proposed adoptions and then proceeds to demonstrate why ID creationism fails badly by every measure. He includes a useful history of conceptual debates within evolutionary theory, culminating in a nice encapsulation of the modern framework of evolutionary theory and current controversies. This is coupled with technically sound dismantlings of ID creationist arguments concerning design, complexity, and information. My favorite chapter title makes for a nice rejoinder: “Complexity Is Complicated” (chapter 6).

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Sarkar argues that the adoption of ID creationism would include the acceptance of a worldview that is radically different from our current scientific theories, namely, the rejection of methodological naturalism—the claim that scientific inquiry is limited to those facts accessible by naturalistic methods (i.e., through logic and our senses). A metaphysical strain of naturalism beyond the epistemological claim asserts that the world consists of only what we can experience through naturalistic methods. A common line of argument proffered by ID creationism critics is that these two lines of reasoning are independent; the former does not entail the latter. (Sarkar cites Michael Ruse as an example.) Sarkar rejects this characterization of metaphysical naturalism, instead agreeing with the 19th-century physicist and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem, believing that “science is never innocent of metaphysics.”

By demanding a broadly naturalistic methodological framework, Sarkar establishes criteria that ID creationism will not meet.

At first glance, it may seem that this characterization of naturalism plays right into ID creationist hands by acknowledging that accepting evolutionary theory does carry metaphysical weight. Yet Sarkar's characterization carries both greater and fewer commitments than many ID creationists and critics suppose. Yes, one must make certain metaphysical commitments in accepting methodological naturalism and evolutionary theory, but they are not as broad as those characterized by Ruse. We are merely to accept the metaphysics implicit in the theory: biological variation arises by chance, natural selection is lawlike in operation, design in nature is not teleological, and other general principles of physical science, including the principle that all such commitments are revisable in light of experience. These commitments are simply silent regarding what might exist beyond the scope of methodological naturalism; however, what is included (the natural) or excluded (the supernatural) from that scope is itself revisable.

Strategically, this defense of naturalism is very clever. By demanding a broadly naturalistic methodological framework, Sarkar establishes criteria that ID creationism will not meet. Satisfying such a framework would entail revisions so radical as to either be unpalatable to proponents of ID creationism or render a completely neutered (and thus harmless) version of ID creationism. ID creationists must either argue that the designer is accessible by naturalistic means or reject methodological naturalism altogether. Sarkar has effectively taken just what ID creationists identify as being distinctive of their work and rendered it unscientific—all the while rejecting a hard line of demarcation. Creationists may object that excluding the possibility of the supernatural directing evolution is itself a roadblock to progress in science—if they were to be so forthright in front of school boards and responsible media, then Sarkar will have accomplished his goal.

Although Sarkar's book overall is extremely well written and carefully rendered, I found some shortcomings. If his goal is to reach an interested lay public, a primer on assigning probabilities would be helpful. This is especially the case given how much of Sarkar's criticism of Dembski turns on the incoherence of trying to assign probabilities without a reference class. These are technical arguments, and more help should be offered to the reader. Sarkar can also get a bit carried away in rhetorical flourish, producing fuel for the fire. Describing Alfred Wallace's panselectionism as “heresy,” for example, plays into the ID creationist ploy to characterize evolutionary theory simply as Darwinism, and is all too easily exploited or misunderstood. That this occurs a page after Sarkar (rightfully) argues, “ID creationists misrepresent the practice of evolutionary biology when they present it as Darwinism, as if it were a doctrine based on a prophet like their own theologies of revelation,” is that much more striking (p. 29).

I would strongly recommend Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution to anyone interested in why biologists find ID creationism objectionable. It would make a wonderful textbook for an undergraduate course in either biology or philosophy, and could also be effectively used as a jumping-off point into a deeper exploration of a host of topics. My copy will be close at hand on my bookshelf when ID creationists present themselves at my door.

Matt Haber "Not So Innocent: Methodology And Metaphysics Of Evolution," BioScience 58(11), 1088-1089, (1 December 2008). https://doi.org/10.1641/B581113
Published: 1 December 2008
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