Friday, December 29, 2006

Intelligent Design and "12 Angry Men"

Inherit the Wind” is a famous film that was made at the end of the 1950's, supposedly about the Scopes Monkey Trial. In actual fact, it was really about McCarthyism rather than evolution, and takes substantial liberties with the history of the Scopes Trial.

But that's not important right now. A contemporary film, “12 Angry Men”, gives us more insight into the debate between Intelligent Design, creationism and darwinism. In this film, a jury gather in a jury room to consider their verdict after a trial. The evidence seems overwhelming that the defendant should be found guilty – and just one of the jurors dissents from this. And yet, by the end of the film, the defendant is unanimously acquitted.

What does this have to do with Intelligent Design?

The Discovery Institute have co-ordinated a list of scientists – currently numbering over 600 – who are prepared to say: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

Opponents of ID are scathing. “That's nothing,” they say. “Why, we have nearly 800 scientists on our list supporting evolution. And we've restricted our list just to those people called Steve, or something derived from Steve.”

But this misses the point that ought to be obvious to anybody who has watched “12 Angry Men”. At issue isn't the number of dissenters, or the size of the majority. It's the fact that dissent exists, and won't go away. (In actual fact, of course, even if dissent doesn't exist, this has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of a proposition. It is of course possible for something to be false and believed in by 100% of people. This bears ultimately on both sides of the debate.) When Einstein first suggested relativity, how many people really dissented from the Newtonian understanding of the universe? There were one or two loose ends, but I don't think there was anything that would really have shown that it needed a fundamental rewrite. The fact that a relatively small number of scientists have “issues” with darwinism doesn't mean their dissent is irrelevant.

In the early 1980's, as a teenager, I was unhappy with the idea of what darwinism did to biblical interpretation, but the most substantial case against it was found in Sylvia Baker's creationist pamphlet, “Bones of Contention” - a booklet that doesn't look terribly substantial as a challege these days. I assumed that the case for darwinism would get stronger as time went on – they just needed to tie up the loose ends. But instead, the challenges have got stronger, and more scientifically substantial. Rather than the detail of observations showing that darwinian mechanisms “obviously” work, they show that either darwinian mechanisms are far more powerful than was ever conceived by Darwin, or that there is a designer. In all sorts of areas, holes have appeared in the naturalistic understanding of the universe, when a big picture overview previously would have suggested that the show was all over except for the final curtain.

Those 600+ scientists – and the others who haven't appended their names, and those of us who aren't doctors, but understand enough about science to be intelligently informed about the debate, and the general population who simply don't accept the modernist, reductionist analysis of what it means to be human – need to be convinced of the case for darwinism – not by bullying into silence, or by pointing out that there aren't many of us, or by being ridiculed, or by being criminalised, but by the scientific case being made. We speak the same language. We can read scientific papers. We can interpret evidence.

Bring it on!