[Ed note: The documentary Expelled, starring Ben Stein, premiers today. It purports to show that views on the origins of life and species that dissent from orthodox evolutionary theory have been systematically, well, expelled from the academy. Sahotra Sarkar, Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Biology at the University of Texas, finds the film unpersuasive. His piece is presented as a counterpoint to Discovery Institute Fellow David Klinghoffer's interpretation of the lessons of Expelled, available through the link at right.]
If you can’t argue for your position on intellectual grounds, try politics. If you can’t succeed with legitimate political argument, resort to ad hominem attacks. That’s what the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has been reduced to, especially in Expelled. ID creationists have produced no credible argument against the theory of evolution, let alone positive evidence for design, a point to which I’ll return. Politically their fortunes have been devastated ever since the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania court decision in which a George W. Bush-appointed Church-going judge found ID to be religious dogma that cannot legally be introduced in public school science classes. So now we are presented with a new line of attack: because natural selection was invoked by the Nazis in support of genocide, the theory of evolution must be false. To this, David Klinghoffer adds a new twist: if you believe in the theory of evolution, you are an anti-Semite.
That evolutionary theory, especially natural selection, has been abused by various groups for nefarious political ends is old and well-worn history. In the United States it inspired Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century which was used to justify the greed of the robber barons and the appalling conditions in which the poor were forced to live. In many regions of the world it was used to promote eugenics, including the involuntary sterilization of the “unfit.” In the United States, such sterilization continued until 1981. And, yes, natural selection was invoked by the Nazis.
What this history tells us is that science does not occur in a socio-political vacuum. The results of science may be abused, just as they may be used to benefit society. Biology is particularly prone to such use and abuse because its domain includes humans. Scientists should recognize their moral responsibility to guard against the misuse of their work. By and large, biologists have acted responsibly in this respect. In the 1930s, the great British evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane exposed the fallacies of eugenics and anti-Semitism in his brilliantly argued Heredity and Politics. In the 1980s, Not in Our Genes, by Dick Lewontin, Steve Rose, and Leon Kamin, played the same role after illegitimate political claims began to be reintroduced in the name of behavioral genetics and sociobiology. When the Human Genome Project was initiated in the early 1990s, biologists took care to ensure that adequate resources were deployed to address its ethical, legal, and social implications.
Returning to the theory of evolution, there is no “inner logic” of natural selection that leads to any moral or political implication. It is value-neutral. We have evolved a mind and, with it, culture as well as moral capacities and what we think of as free will. Some biologists think that this was all due to natural selection. Others suspect that a variety of natural mechanisms were involved in mental evolution. This is one of the exciting unresolved issues in evolutionary biology, and the subject of ongoing research. Biology may constrain our physical and mental capacities but, in normal individuals (those whom the courts would consider as “legally competent”), biology has never been shown to determine moral choices. We are responsible for our actions. For instance, if we choose to use our religious or political dogmas to harm science education for children, we must bear the moral responsibility that entails.
Note, moreover, there was antisemitism before Darwin and it persists today in many religious fundamentalist circles which are entirely hostile to the idea of evolution. The theory of evolution is thus obviously not the source of antisemitism. Given the long history of Christian antisemitism, is particularly odd that apologists for Christianity, as most ID creationists are, should try to use disgust with antisemitism for their own rhetorical and political purposes. Note, also, that what inspired Hitler in Mein Kampf as much as biology was the example of the United States. By Klinghoffer’s logic, we should also reject much of our own heritage simply because it inspired Hitler.
The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and available from a wide variety of sources including the National Center for Science Education. ID creationism has presented no viable alternative. Its main argument has been that complex life forms could not have evolved. In response, biologists such as Jerry Coyne, Richard Lenski, Ken Miller, H. Allen Orr, and many others have routinely pointed out the variety of mundane mechanisms by which complex systems can emerge through natural selection. I have recently summarized these arguments in Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution. In fact, what has surprised most of us is how rapidly complexity can evolve: For instance, it took less than seventy years for bacteria to evolve resistance to some pesticides even though it required concerted changes in several different enzymes.
Worse, ID creationists have never laid out what their theory is supposed to be, besides vague mystical invocations of “design.” We have never been given an exact definition of design, or the laws it is supposed to obey. These creationists have not even been able to generate a research program. This is one of the reasons why the Templeton Foundation stopped funding the Discovery Institute.
Let us return one last time to the logic of Expelled (and Klinghoffer). Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the theory of evolution really led to some undesirable political consequence, which, as we have seen, is simply not true. From this assumption, it is supposed to follow that evolutionary theory is false and we should replace it with ID. Let us see where this takes us. From the usual rules of chemistry many nations, including the United States, have designed chemical weapons. From this, should we conclude that chemistry is false and we should replace it with Intelligent Alchemy? From the principles of molecular genetics, many of these same nations have designed biological weapons. Should we declare molecular genetics false and replace it with Intelligent Pangenesis? From quantum mechanics came the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore, quantum mechanics is false and should be replaced by Intelligent Ether Theory?
Sahotra Sarkar is a Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Biology at the University of Texas, Austin