Dennis Venema, the “heavy hitter” of Biologos when it comes to evolutionary theory — hands up, professors of evolutionary biology at Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, etc., if you have heard of Dennis Venema — has recently issued some remarks about ID in an interview. The remarks can be found on the website of Rachel Held Evans, a pleasant and personally engaging writer and former student of English who has in the past served as a sort of lay cheerleader for the Biologos project.
In the interview, Venema says:
‘The ID Movement is a “Big Tent” approach for all and sundry who reject at least some part of evolutionary biology. As such, there are Young-Earth Creationists, Old-Earth Creationists, and others within the movement. The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were “designed” – a word that functions as the equivalent of “created” within this group.’
There are errors and misleading statements in this paragraph which are bound to generate multiple confusions in the readers of the article.
Regarding the first sentence, it is true that ID is a “Big Tent” movement in the sense that it includes people of varying views on a number of issues. But the subsequent sentence is materially misleading because of what it omits. After mentioning two groups of “Creationists” it adds “and others” without specifying that some of those “others” are evolutionists, for example, one of the leaders of ID, Michael Behe. Richard Sternberg, an associate of ID and an ID theorist in the broad sense, is also an evolutionist, and former Discovery Fellow Michael Denton, clearly a design theorist even if he dislikes the label “ID,” is an evolutionist as well. Many of the commenters here on UD are also evolutionists — they just happen to be evolutionists who accept design. So right away, by failing to mention these people, Venema subtly perpetuates the error that ID is inherently “creationist” in the popular sense of excluding belief in evolution. This “omission” by a seasoned debater like Venema cannot have been accidental and is a shameless rhetorical tactic.
The third sentence makes more explicit the misdirection that is implicit in the second. “Some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution.” No ID theorist would have written that sentence. An ID theorist would have said: “Some features of life display an integrated complexity which would be difficult if not impossible to achieve via the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution.” Venema fails to “get” what ID theorists have told him scores of times, in their books and in comments on Biologos and elsewhere, that it is the Darwinian mechanism which is incompatible with ID, not “evolution.” One can believe in “evolution” while rejecting the Darwinian mechanism as evolution’s main driver.
To see this clearly, we have to ask: in the Darwinian model of evolution, where does novelty come from? It doesn’t come from natural selection. Natural selection can only prune. The novelty comes entirely from the supposedly random mutations. Random mutations are supposed to be able to accumulate gradually to produce not only tiny point changes that confer antibiotic resistance, but multiple changes which produce major alterations in the body plans of living creatures. This view, which was the view championed by Mayr, Dobzhansky, and others of the Modern Synthesis, is the view Venema was taught in school and the view which he accepts. But it has been heavily criticized by a number of evolutionary biologists who have much more special training in evolution than Venema has. Lynn Margulis, a major player in evolutionary theory, scoffs at the idea that major novelty emerges from gradual accumulation of random mutations. Numerous other cutting-edge evolutionary theorists, including most recently James Shapiro of the University of Chicago, have seriously criticized the Darwinian position. Thus, Venema does not realize (or at any rate fails to acknowledge) that the criticism of Darwinism made by many ID theorists is also made by many professional biologists who are completely committed to “evolution.” For him to speak and write publically about evolutionary theory without being aware of the mounting critique of Darwinian mechanism within the field is nothing less than intellectually irresponsible; and if he knows of this mounting critique, his suppression of it is nothing less than intellectually dishonest.
Venema says that “designed” functions as an equivalent of “created” in ID. This is not true. In ID theory “designed” means “caused by intelligence” as opposed to “produced by chance, or by a combination of chance and necessity, without any input from intelligence.” “Created” is another notion entirely, which identifies the designer with God. But the identification of the designer with God is not part of ID as such. Most ID proponents are Christians, and almost all ID proponents are theists, but when they identify the designer with the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, they are speaking as religious believers, not as design theorists.
Venema confuses “detecting that something is designed” with “believing that the designer is the Creator God.” I can believe that the layout of Stonehenge was designed without believing that it was created by God and without having the slightest idea who built it. I can believe that life on earth was designed without deciding whether it was manufactured technologically by alien biochemistry students or created by God. Of course, ID proponents have clarified this in hundreds of places in their books, on the internet and so on, but evidently Venema can’t be bothered to read what they write (which often seems to be the case with his Biologos colleagues, Falk, Giberson, and Collins), or he doesn’t read carefully, or he can’t comprehend what he has read, because he gets it wrong.
Venema has used the Biologos website, and now he uses Evans’s website, as a launching pad for attacks on ID, a movement whose nature he has not grasped. This has been a common practice among Biologos people. The “Leading Figures” page on Biologos for many months had an erroneous characterization of ID as essentially a “God of the gaps” view which required divine interventions. This mischaracterization was brought to the attention of Darrel Falk, head of Biologos, over a year ago, and for many months afterward it remained unchanged. Fortunately, the description of ID on that page has recently been modified, for which I give Biologos credit, but the tendency for individual Biologos columnists to employ that description remains. To give just one example, in the March 26, 2011 Biologos column where Giberson interviews Collins, Collins says this: “Again, the fundamental premise of intelligent design is that there were supernatural interventions to explain irreducible complexity. And how, from a scientific perspective, are you going to catch those in the act when they are, by definition, supernatural?” But of course, as already stated, ID does not require supernatural interventions, and it makes no attempt to catch supernatural interventions in the act. Collins does not grasp that one does not need to catch the sculptors of Mt. Rushmore in the act in order to prove that Mt. Rushmore is the product of design rather than chance. He might grasp it if he would take the time to read ID works instead of getting his picture of ID from hearsay.
If this is going to continue to be the way of Biologos, with figures like Venema and Collins misrepresenting ID in the face of easily available information about what ID actually asserts, one can only hope that Biologos’s funding sources will soon pull the plug on it, and put this ragtag band of carping ID critics out of its misery, and out of business. The moneybags who fund Biologos would be wiser to start a whole new theology/science project, one run by people who are much more cognizant of the very latest developments in biological science and the very latest developments in post-graduate-level theology. And, above all, one run by people who honor the basic academic principle that one should make sure one understands a theoretical position before one criticizes it.
See also: Cudworth, Dennis Venema’s Christian Darwinism is an alarming symptom – but only a symptom – of a much bigger problem
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