The gods must be crazy if they call this intelligence
Robyn Williams insists the intelligent design movement is as sinister as it is wrong, writes Deborah Smith.
ROBYN WILLIAMS’S heart sank this week when he listened to people from Toowoomba on the radio blithely rejecting the latest scientific evidence on the quality of recycled water in favour of the myths.
It was as if science was just another choice of product on a supermarket shelf they could ignore at will, says the ABC science broadcaster. “People simply say, ‘I don’t want to know that. It’s inconvenient’.”
The prevalence of this attitude has been playing on Williams’s mind as he ponders the way the intelligent design movement – creationism’s “belligerent teenage cousin” – has sprung up “like a boil on a bum”. One of its hallmarks, he says, is the arrogant dismissal of carefully weighed scientific evidence.
Until recently Williams had thought it unwise to give any more publicity to intelligent design – the notion that life is too complex to have evolved without some assistance from an intelligent designer, whom many adherents believe to be God.
But its well-resourced backing in the US, from the President, George Bush, down, and its spread here – it is taught in science classes in about 100 schools, he estimates – has finally forced him into print.
He pulls no punches. Intelligent design is a politically sinister movement, a form of terrorism focused on public education, he argues in a new book, Unintelligent Design – Why God Isn’t as Smart as She Thinks She Is. “The means are devious, the arguments deceitful and the consequences profound.”
Recent scientific findings about the evolution of life are far more fascinating than the intelligent design movement’s untestable Just So stories, he says. “I find it gobsmackingly outrageous that ID can be allowed to pretend our state of knowledge is inadequate. Incomplete, certainly, but expanding at a ferocious rate,” he says.
Williams wrote the first draft in three weeks at the beach house in Gerroa he shares with his partner, Jonica Newby. It is “the place in the universe we love being most”.
He was keenly aware that other authors, such as Richard Dawkins, had addressed every creationist chestnut, such as perfectly designed eyes, at length. But the publisher Richard Walsh convinced The Science Show’s presenter there was still a need for a well-known figure such as him to distil the evidence against intelligent design for a different audience, and give it an individual perspective.
“In many ways the book is a personal statement, a mini-polemic. I feel passionate about the subject,” says Williams, who reveals much about his formative years, including the episode when he stopped his “self-righteous pugilist” father, a staunch Communist Party believer, from beating his younger brother.
The universe is a spooky place. If the force of gravity, or any of a number of other factors in the cosmos, were slightly different, humankind would not be here. “With all these happy circumstances, it’s little wonder that a few conclude that someone’s been setting up a Wendy House for us and our friends,” he says. But if that was the case, that someone must have been very keen on astronomy. “Why wait 10 billion years before getting the whole Genesis yarn going?”
And the technique appears to have been slapdash or confused: “Halitosis, farting, vaginal discharge, reflux, snoring, rheumatism, warts, smelly armpits, varicose veins, menopause, brewer’s droop Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ these are not the marks of a designer at the top of his game.”
Koalas, Williams also notes, have a pouch that opens downwards. “Was God intending the babies to fall out and crash to the forest floor?”
As with many other examples of unintelligent design, there is a scientific explanation: koalas evolved from wombat-like marsupials that had a pouch turned backwards so that, when they dug, their baby’s eyes did not get sand-blasted with dirt.
An atheist, Williams fondly remembers when scientists and people of faith often discussed their viewpoints at length on the radio, reaching a friendly agreement that “science could look after most of the ‘how’ questions, while religion would handle the ‘why’ “.
The tactics of the intelligent design movement, however, remind him of the deviousness of Stalinist bullies he observed as a young man. In the US its power has been used to erase evolution from science textbooks, to undermine museums and to misrepresent science. And the public is falling for it.
In an age “dominated by powerful men causing misery in the name of God while insisting that theirs is the only way”, scientists and believers need to work hand-in-hand, says Williams.
While they may disagree about how the Earth was made, they can still agree that it, and all its wonders, need to be protected.