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A Good, Respectful(!) Survey of Ideas
on August 23, 2005
Dembski and Ruse's anthology grew out of a common desire to help clarify and understand the Intelligent Design (ID) debate; Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher, is one of the chief proponents of Intelligent Design, whereas Ruse, a prominent philosopher of biology, is a strong proponent of neo-Darwinism. This collection is noted for its balance and respectful tone among its many eminent contributors, both of which are generally lacking in one of the most hotly-debated topics in modern science.
Contributors from across the spectrum of positions regarding evolution, religion, and Intelligent Design were grouped into four main sections and an introductory session , which contains the editors' introduction and two brief essays on the history of the Intelligent Design movement. While those two essays are by opponents of ID, they do a good, respectful job of encapsulating some of the chief events and players in the movement.
Part I brings us to the meat of the debate, with several powerful critiques of ID. It begins with a historical piece on Darwinism's impact and development by AAAS president Francisco Ayala. Also notable is a critique of the ID movement's use of the bacterial flagellum, whose "irreducible complexity" the ID movement holds
cannot be explained by gradual evolution. This piece was written by a practicing Catholic named Kenneth Miller--I was gratified that the ID vs. Darwinism debate was not being cast a purely science v. religion debate, and that in fact that there are
religious believers represented in this collection with a broad spectrum of perspectives and positions.
Part II is on "Complex Self Organization", with good articles by physicist and scientific popularizer Paul Davies and historian of science Paul Barham. Stuart Kauffman's article, which begins this section, is actually the introductory chapter of his book "Investigations", and so mentions many things but never discusses
anything in depth, being just an introduction. While quite disappointing, the other contributors in this section develop Kauffman's ideas as they explore whether biochemistry can generate complex systems (such as proto-cells and metabolic
networks) without intelligent intervention. This may be, conceptually speaking, the richest chapter in the anthology.
Part III, "Theistic Evolution": Various religious contributors propose philosophies that reconcile evolution and religion. Many of these contributors are as critical of ID as they are with the ultra-Darwinists like Dawkins. Of particular note is Michael Roberts' critique of ID and the fossil record of life on Earth.
Part IV, "Intelligent Design": finally, the ID theorists themselves, including Dembski and Behe, get the floor. Dembski and Behe's articles didn't overwhelm me with their persuasiveness, but did help me get a clearer idea of what they have to say. The strongest piece here is probably Baylor's on entropy and biological polymers, and the problems such calculations raise for the emergence of early life.
If one is looking for polemics against either position in this debate, or a knock-down argument one way or another, this book will disappoint you, as it seems to have done with a couple other reviewers. As with many debates, the debaters seem to talk past each other at points, but the book is full of citations, and has given me a good springboard for investigating controversies in evolution and the philosophy of biology. The book also presents a range of opinions and directions for future inquiry, rather than some artificially polarized argument with no room for a middle ground. For those reasons, plus the very civil tone amongst the debaters regarding an issue that can get both sides so worked up, I can give this collection five stars. I do not see a better survey of this debate being publish for some time.