The Scientific Contrarian
By George Scialabba
a frequent contributor to Book World, the Boston Globe and other publications
Washington Post, Thursday, June 2, 2005; Page C03
Where the Known Meets the Unknown
By Michael Shermer
Times. 296 pp. $26
Shermer is less patiently evenhanded on the subject of intelligent design. It rouses the full-throated skeptic in him. His chapter called “The New New Creationism” aims to blow intelligent design theory out of the water, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, it succeeds. With the exception of Pope John Paul II’s 1996 encyclical “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth,” conservative Christians’ hostility to evolution has been unremitting. They have therefore championed (Shermer would say concocted) intelligent-design theory, according to which evolution’s chief explanatory mechanism, natural selection, is unable in principle to account for irreducibly complex phenomena. (An irreducibly complex phenomenon, like the eye, is a system of interacting parts, every one of which is essential to successful functioning.) Very few scientists, Christian or non-Christian, have been persuaded by this argument. Shermer thoroughly explains why and offers a more tentative but still useful account of scientists’ best current answer to the question of how life originated. “The answer can be found in the properties of self-organization and emergence that arise out of what are known as complex adaptive systems. . . . As a complex adaptive system the cosmos intelligently designs itself. It is one giant autocatalytic (self-driving) feedback loop that generates emergent properties, one of which is life.” That may not be immediately intelligible, but non-scientists who want to understand the natural or social world had better get used to hearing about complex adaptive systems.
(1) Has science demonstrated how such systems are brought about without the participation of intelligence?
(2) Does explaining the evolution of complex adaptive powers invariably presuppose that such systems have complex adaptive powers, thereby begging the question?
(3) “Self-organization,” “autocatalysis,” and “laws of complexity” — in the context of chemical and biological evolution, how are these anything but misleading labels, suggesting understanding but really cloaking ignorance?