Doubt, deity and design

Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons

December 14, 2007

Peter Bowler, past president of the British Society for the History of Science, has spent most of his career demystifying Darwin's significance without also debunking the idea of biological evolution. This gives him just the right critical distance to do a history of the various evolution- creation controversies in the English-speaking world. This book, which includes a brief discussion of the recent US dispute over intelligent design theory, achieves its stated goal well. In terms of fairness, comprehensiveness and clarity, it is to be preferred over, say, Michael Ruse's several books covering similar ground.

Perhaps the book's most interesting feature is its sense of the argumentative field. Bowler's narrative is biased towards showing how liberal Christians have historically accommodated their own liberalised version of Darwinism to include some redemptive sense of human progress. Like many, Bowler bemoans the extent to which the science-religion controversy has come to be dominated by extremists on both sides, Bible Belt fundamentalists and Richard Dawkins-style atheists. Bowler offers history as a source of guidance in forging satisfactory middle positions.

Unfortunately things are never so cut and dried. Contrary to the impression given by Bowler and most popular science literature, the history of biology is much more than the history of evolution. Bowler follows the standard practice of not saying what happened to genetics once it was absorbed by the nascent Darwinian paradigm in the early 20th century. One would never know from reading Bowler that a revolution had taken place in molecular biology in the 1950s that paved the way for the current era of biotechnology that dominates the research agenda of biology. This is because the people behind these developments were closer to Newton than Darwin in scientific sensibility, often having migrated from physics and chemistry to biology.

Whereas Darwin doubted our ability to intervene in fundamental life processes successfully and deemed design in nature to be illusory, molecular biologists have understood design as something to be fathomed and, where possible, controlled and manipulated. This is relevant to Bowler's topic because many of these people never underwent anything like Darwin's personal conversion from faith to doubt about the presence of intelligent design in nature. Instead of tracing a trail of inevitable extinction in the fossil record, these scientists envisaged a "biophysics" in which the laboratory - later the computer - served as the crucible of creation. Though hardly Biblical literalists, many were still mindful of humanity's Biblical privilege, often as devotees of Unitarian Christianity.

Had Bowler taken more notice of the leading edge of 20th-century biology, he would have run across Warren Weaver, who as programme director for the natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation was probably most responsible for seeding the revolution in molecular biology. Weaver is perhaps best known today as co-author, with Claude Shannon, of the mathematical theory of communication that underwrites modern information science. But whether as scientist or funder, Weaver was driven by intelligent design concerns that presage the work of, say, William Dembski and Michael Behe.

Readers interested in this still largely untold side of the continuing constructive influence of Christianity in biology might begin with its unflattering portrayal in David Noble's The Religion of Technology (Penguin, 1997).

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at Warwick University. His latest book, Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution , is published by Polity, £15.99.

Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design

Author - Peter J. Bowler
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 2
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 9780674026155

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