The Frontal Cortex

ID and Dawkins

As PZ Myers has already pointed out, Francis Collins has been busy spreading the gospel. Myers has already dismantled Collins squishy theism better than I ever could, so I thought I would focus on one particular Collins’ claim in particular. It’s a theme that consistently gets rehashed in his interviews:

Q: Why do you say those arguments have been started by scientists? Because some of these scientists — like Dawkins — have said the theory of evolution leads to atheism?

A: That’s been a very scary statement coming back towards the religious community, where people have felt they can’t just leave that hanging in the air. There has to be a response. If you look at the history of the intelligent design movement, which is now only 15 or 16 years old, you will see that it was a direct response to claims coming from people like Dawkins. They could not leave this claim unchallenged — that evolution alone can explain all of life’s complexity. It sounded like a godless outcome.

I’m no fan of Dawkins’ atheistic diatribes – his godless ideology can be just as intemperate as a bad religious sermon – but I think Collins’ charge is completely inaccurate. ID isn’t a rejection of neo-Darwinian materialism. Behe and his cohorts didn’t read The Selfish Gene and decide, as Collins claims, that evolution was incomplete and biology needed God. Instead, they read The Selfish Gene and decided that Dawkins was on to something. His pan-adaptationist program, in which the omnipotent force of natural selection finetunes our DNA, could easily be translated into the vague terms of the divine. IDers cunningly realized all it took was a single substitution: the efficiencies of adaptation became the invisible hand of God.

Of course, the neutral theory, junk DNA, transcriptional noise, epi-genetic selection, prions, neural plasticity, etc., have all undermined Dawkins’ gene-centric view of the world. The Selfish Gene now reads like reductionism run amok, an elegant story of cause and effect that is vastly oversimplified. It is a magnificent irony that the last people to believe in pan-adaptionism (or the divine perfection of our parts) are the creationists and IDers. After all, God would never make a mistake, or waste millions of nucleotides on non-coding nonsense, or put our fate in the hands of random stoichiometry. As the Panda’s Thumb observes, “With time, however, the accumulating evidence for selective neutrality of large parts of the genome convinced even the more strict Darwinians, and only Creationists and ID supporters have remained to argue the ultra-Darwinian pan-adaptationist position.”

What biology now knows is that no single force – be it natural selection or the incarnate – is responsible for the vast loveliness of life. As Karl Popper once said, life is not a clock, it is a cloud. Like a cloud, life is “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” We are messy chains of carbon that assemble ourselves, a loose collection of cells trying to hold itself together. While there is grandeur in this view of life, there are no easy answers. It is the deafening disorder of the natural world that both pan-adapationism and ID try to deny. Alas, even if God exists, he most definitely plays dice.


  1. #1 somnilista, FCD
    August 8, 2006

    Behe and his cohorts didn’t read The Selfish Gene and decide, as Collins claims, that evolution was incomplete and biology needed God. Instead, they read The Selfish Gene and decided that Dawkins was on to something…

    I think you are ginving Dawkins too much credit. I think Behe and cohorts read the Edwards v. Aguillard decision and realized that “Creation Science” was done for, so they had to come up with a new name. If you followed the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial or read Barbars Forrest’s work (especially the Of Pandas and People manuscripts), you know there is plenty of evidence to substantiate that view.

  2. #2 somnilista, FCD
    August 8, 2006

    As Karl Popper once said, life is not a clock, it is a cloud.



    Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?


    By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.


    Methinks it is like a weasel.


    It is backed like a weasel.


    Or like a whale?


    Very like a whale.

  3. #3 Jonah
    August 8, 2006

    Thanks for the great Hamlet quote. And I have no doubt that Behe was having silly creationist dreams long before he heard of Dawkins. But I do think that the pan-adaptionist program was an important intellectual influence on the IDers. If nothing else, it showed them how to repackage their lame theology. After all, if our genes were perfectly engineered, then perhaps the blind watchmaker wasn’t really blind…

  4. #4 Andrea Bottaro
    August 8, 2006

    To be fair to Dawkins, he is no pan-adaptationist, nor he was, almost certainly, at the time of The Selfish Gene. Pan-adaptionism reached its apex with the New Synthesis, but started declining already in the ’60s with the progressive – if variegated – acceptance of neutralism, as well as a better understanding of molecular genetics. Perhaps you are confusing pan-adaptationism and gene-selectionism, which was indeed championed by Dawkins in TSG.

    (Also, my view of TSG’s endurance is far less negative than yours, but the book does tend to generate thought and strong reactions, so regardless of final opinion, I think it is certainly still worth reading.)

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