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Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design

Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design

4.3 17
by Michael Shermer

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A creationist-turned-scientist demonstrates the facts of evolution and exposes Intelligent Design's real agenda

Science is on the defensive. Half of Americans reject the theory of evolution and "Intelligent Design" campaigns are gaining ground. Classroom by classroom, creationism is overthrowing biology.

In Why Darwin Matters, bestselling


A creationist-turned-scientist demonstrates the facts of evolution and exposes Intelligent Design's real agenda

Science is on the defensive. Half of Americans reject the theory of evolution and "Intelligent Design" campaigns are gaining ground. Classroom by classroom, creationism is overthrowing biology.

In Why Darwin Matters, bestselling author Michael Shermer explains how the newest brand of creationism appeals to our predisposition to look for a designer behind life's complexity. Shermer decodes the scientific evidence to show that evolution is not "just a theory" and illustrates how it achieves the design of life through the bottom-up process of natural selection. Shermer, once an evangelical Christian and a creationist, argues that Intelligent Design proponents are invoking a combination of bad science, political antipathy, and flawed theology. He refutes their pseudoscientific arguments and then demonstrates why conservatives and people of faith can and should embrace evolution. He then appraises the evolutionary questions that truly need to be settled, building a powerful argument for science itself.

Cutting the politics away from the facts, Why Darwin Matters is an incisive examination of what is at stake in the debate over evolution.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Shermer has seen the evolution vs. intelligent design argument from both sides. Formerly a fundamentalist and creationist, the Scientific American columnist now regards arguments for I.D. as faulty both scientifically and theologically. In Why Darwin Matters, he cuts through the rancor of this raging debate to examine the reasoning behind each position. He explains why evolution is not "just a theory" but, indeed, the cornerstone of modern science. A spirited defense of 21st-century evolution theory.
Publishers Weekly
Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil), founding editor of the Skeptic and Scientific American columnist, thoughtfully explains why intelligent design is both bad science and poor religion, how a wealth of scientific data from varied fields support evolution, and why religion and science need not be in conflict. Science and religion are two distinct realms, he argues: the natural and supernatural, respectively, and he cites Pope John Paul II in support of their possible coexistence. Shermer takes the "ten most cogent" arguments for intelligent design and refutes each in turn. While on the mark, the arguments' brevity may hamper their usefulness to all but those well versed in the debate. Looking for converts, Shermer offers a short chapter entitled "Why Christians and Conservatives Should Accept Evolution" (i.e., it "provides a scientific foundation" for their core values). His overall message is best summarized when he writes, "Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from and where we are going." Although there's not much new here, Shermer's wit and passion will appeal to many but won't convince believers. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A leading skeptic takes on the religious right. Skeptic magazine publisher Shermer (Science Friction, 2005) begins with his own discovery of how robust a theory evolution is. An evangelical Christian through his high-school and college years, he learned in a statistics class that the search for scientific truth is guided by probabilities and logic, not rhetoric and persuasion. Evolution is supported not by rigid doctrine (as creationists often claim) but by converging lines of evidence from various independent disciplines: geology, botany, genetics, paleontology, comparative anatomy, etc. After a brief history of the controversy aroused by Darwin's theories, Shermer offers a detailed list of creationists' favorite "refutations" of evolution. Perhaps the strongest is the much-touted anthropic principle, which argues that several critical values of physics are so fine-tuned for the development of life that the universe must have been designed specifically for that purpose. Shermer notes that the universe is not, as far as we can see, teeming with life, let alone intelligent life; a careful observer might question the efficacy of the implied design. It's more likely that we are predisposed to see design where there is none than that such an enormous structure has been reared to bring about so little. Other arguments against evolution also fall short: When creationists demand "missing links" that demonstrate historical evolution and are answered with a fossil fulfilling its criteria, they typically demand still more linking forms. In short, they reject the rules by which science plays, while demanding that their own claims be afforded the status of science. Shermer offers calm,generally civil answers to the major questions about evolution, squarely faces controversy, generally forgoes cheap shots at the opposition, and provides a cogent blueprint for rationalists faced with debate against creation science or intelligent design. A valuable, clearly presented tool in a key modern controversy.
From the Publisher
“The idea that evolution and God should be at odds is among the strangest of doctrines, an attempt to make the divine follow our particular notions of how He should operate. Michael Shermer explains what really happened, in terms that should be accessible to any faithful reader.” —Bill McKibben

“Michael Shermer is one of America's necessary minds. A reformed fundamentalist who is now an experienced foe of pseudo-science and superstition, he does us the double favor of explaining exactly what creationists believe, and then of demonstrating that they have no case. With his forensic and polemical skill, he could have left them for dead: instead he generously urges them to stop wasting their time (and ours) and do some real work.” —Christopher Hitchens

“A readable and well-researched book on what is perhaps the most vital scientific topic of our age. Anyone who has been snowed into thinking that there is a real scientific controversy over evolution by natural selection will be enlightened by Why Darwin Matters, which is both genial and intellectually uncompromising.” —Steven Pinker

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Why Darwin Matters

By Michael Shermer

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2006 Michael Shermer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0090-4



The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

The theory of evolution has been under attack since Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859. From the start, its critics have seized on the theory of evolution to try to undermine its facts. But all great works of science are written in support of some particular view. In 1861, shortly after he published his new theory, Darwin wrote a letter to his colleague, Henry Fawcett, who had just attended a special meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science during which Darwin's book was debated. One of the naturalists had argued that On the Origin of Species was too theoretical, that Darwin should have just "put his facts before us and let them rest." In response, Darwin reflected that science, to be of any service, required more than list-making; it needed larger ideas that could make sense of piles of data. Otherwise, Darwin said, a geologist "might as well go into a gravelpit and count the pebbles and describe the colours." Data without generalizations are useless; facts without explanatory principles are meaningless. A "theory" is not just someone's opinion or a wild guess made by some scientist. A theory is a well-supported and well-tested generalization that explains a set of observations. Science without theory is useless.

The process of science is fueled by what I call Darwin's Dictum, defined by Darwin himself in his letter to Fawcett: "all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service."

Darwin's casual comment nearly a hundred and fifty years ago encapsulates a serious debate about the relative roles of data and theory, or observations and conclusions, in science. In a science like evolution, in which inferences about the past must be made from scant data in the present, this debate has been exploded to encompass a fight between religion and science.

Prediction and Observation

Most essentially, evolution is a historical science. Darwin valued above all else prediction and verification by subsequent observation. In an act of brilliant historical science, for example, Darwin correctly developed a theory of coral reef evolution years before he developed his theory of biological evolution. He had never seen a coral reef, but during the Beagle's famous voyage to the Galápagos, he had studied the types of coral reefs Charles Lyell described in Principles of Geology. Darwin reasoned that the different examples of coral reefs did not represent different types, each of which needed a different causal explanation; rather, the different examples represented different stages of development of coral reefs, for which only a single cause was needed. Darwin considered this a triumph of theory in driving scientific investigation: Theoretical prediction was followed by observational verification, whereby "I had therefore only to verify and extend my views by a careful examination of coral reefs." In this case, the theory came first, then the data.

The publication of the Origin of Species triggered a roaring debate about the relative roles of data and theory in science. Darwin's "bulldog" defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, erupted in a paroxysm against those who pontificated on science but had never practiced it themselves: "There cannot be a doubt that the method of inquiry which Mr. Darwin has adopted is not only rigorously in accord with the canons of scientific logic, but that it is the only adequate method," Huxley wrote. Those "critics exclusively trained in classics or in mathematics, who have never determined a scientific fact in their lives by induction from experiment or observation, prate learnedly about Mr. Darwin's method," he bellowed, "which is not inductive enough, not Baconian enough, forsooth for them."

Darwin insisted that theory comes to and from the facts, not from political or philosophical beliefs, whether from God or the godfather of scientific empiricism. It is a point he voiced succinctly in his cautions to a young scientist. The facts speak for themselves, he said, advising "the advantage, at present, of being very sparing in introducing theory in your papers; let theory guide your observations, but till your reputation is well established, be sparing of publishing theory. It makes persons doubt your observations." Once Darwin's reputation was well established, he published his book that so well demonstrated the power of theory. As he noted in his autobiography, "some of my critics have said, 'Oh, he is a good observer, but has no power of reasoning.' I do not think that this can be true, for the Origin of Species is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men."

Against Some View

Darwin's "one long argument" was with the theologian William Paley and the theory Paley posited in his 1802 book, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Sound eerily familiar? The scholarly agenda of this first brand of Intelligent Design was to correlate the works of God (nature) with the words of God (the Bible). Natural theology kicked off with John Ray's 1691 Wisdom of God Manifested in Works of the Creation, which itself was inspired by Psalms 19:11: "The Heavens declare the Glory of the Lord and the Firmament sheweth his handy work." John Ray, in what still stands as a playbook for creationism, explains the analogy between human and divine creations: If a "curious Edifice or machine" leads us to "infer the being and operation of some intelligent Architect or Engineer," shouldn't the same be said of "the Works of nature, that Grandeur and magnificence, that excellent contrivance for Beauty, Order, use, &c. which is observable in them, wherein they do as much transcend the Efforts of human Art and infinite Power and Wisdom exceeds finite" to make us "infer the existence and efficiency of an Omnipotent and All- wise Creator?"

Paley advanced Ray's work through the accumulated knowledge of a century of scientific exploration. The opening passage of Paley's Natural Theology has become annealed into our culture as the winningly accessible and thus appealing "watchmaker" argument:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there. I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be enquired how the watch happened to be in that place. The inference, we think, is inevitable; that the watch must have had a maker; that there must have existed, at some time and in some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

But life is far more complex than a watch — so the design inference is even stronger!

There cannot be design without a designer; contrivance without a contriver.... The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.

For longer than we have had the theory of evolution, we have had theologians arguing for Intelligent Design.

From Natural Theology to Natural Selection

After abandoning medical studies at Edinburgh University, Charles Darwin entered the University of Cambridge to study theology with the goal of becoming a Church of England cleric. Natural theology provided him with a socially acceptable excuse to study natural history, his true passion. It also educated Darwin in the arguments on design popularized by Paley and others. His intimacy with their ideas was respectful, not combative. For example, in November 1859, the same month that the Origin of Species was published, Darwin wrote his friend John Lubbock, "I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's 'Natural Theology.' I could almost formerly have said it by heart." Both Paley and Darwin addressed a problem in nature: the origin of the design of life. Paley's answer was to posit a top-down designer — God. Darwin's answer was to posit a bottom-up designer — natural selection. Natural theologians took this to mean that evolution was an attack on God, without giving much thought to what evolution is.

Ever since Darwin, much has been written about what, exactly, evolution is. Ernst Mayr, arguably the greatest evolutionary theorist since Darwin, offers a subtly technical definition: "evolution is change in the adaptation and in the diversity of populations of organisms." He notes that evolution has a dual nature, a "'vertical' phenomenon of adaptive change," which describes how a species responds to its environment over time, and a "'horizontal' phenomenon of populations, incipient species, and new species," which describes adaptations that break through the genetic divide. And I'll never forget Mayr's definition of a species, because I had to memorize it in my first course on evolutionary biology: "A species is a group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations reproductively isolated from other such populations."

Mayr outlines five general tenets of evolutionary theory that have been discovered in the years since Darwin published his revolutionary book:

1. Evolution: Organisms change through time. Both the fossil record of life's history and nature today document and reveal this change.

2. Descent with modification: Evolution proceeds through the branching of common descent. As every parent and child knows, offspring are similar to but not exact replicas of their parents, producing the necessary variation that allows adaptation to the ever-changing environment.

3. Gradualism: All this change is slow, steady, and stately. Given enough time, small changes within a species can accumulate into large changes that create new species; that is, macroevolution is the cumulative effect of microevolution.

4. Multiplication: Evolution does not just produce new species; it produces an increasing number of new species.

And, of course,

5. Natural selection: Evolutionary change is not haphazard and random; it follows a selective process. Codiscovered by Darwin and the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, natural selection operates under five rules:

A. Populations tend to increase indefinitely in a geometric ratio: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 ...

B. In a natural environment, however, population numbers must stabilize at a certain level. The population cannot increase to infinity — the earth is just not big enough.

C. Therefore, there must be a "struggle for existence." Not all of the organisms produced can survive.

D. There is variation in every species.

E. Therefore, in the struggle for existence, those individuals with variations that are better adapted to the environment leave behind more offspring than individuals that are less well adapted. This is known as differential reproductive success.

As Darwin said, "as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life."

The process of natural selection, when carried out over countless generations, gradually leads varieties of species to develop into new species. Darwin explained:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.

The time frame is long and the changes from generation to generation are subtle. This may be one of the most important and difficult points to grasp about the theory of evolution. It is tempting to see species as they exist today as a living monument to evolution, to condense evolution into the incorrect but provocative shorthand that humans descended from chimpanzees — a shorthand that undercuts the facts of evolution.

Natural selection is the process of organisms struggling to survive and reproduce, with the result of propagating their genes into the next generation. As such, it operates primarily at the local level. The Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins elegantly described the process as "random mutation plus non-random cumulative selection," emphasizing the non-random. Evolution is not the equivalent of a warehouse full of parts randomly assorting themselves into a jumbo jet, as the creationists like to argue. If evolution were truly random there would be no biological jumbo jets. Genetic mutations and the mixing of parental genes in offspring may be random, but the selection of genes through the survival of their hosts is anything but random. Out of this process of self-organized directional selection emerge complexity and diversity.

Natural selection is a description of a process, not a force. No one is "selecting" organisms for survival or extinction, in the benign sense of dog breeders selecting for desirable traits in show breeds, or in the malignant sense of Nazis selecting prisoners at Auschwitz- Birkenau. Natural selection, and thus evolution, is unconscious and nonprescient — it cannot look forward to anticipate what changes are going to be needed for survival. The evolutionary watchmaker is blind, says Dawkins, pace Paley.

By way of example, once when my young daughter asked how evolution works, I used the polar bear as an example of a "transitional species" between land mammals and marine mammals, because although they are land mammals they spend so much time in the water that they have acquired many adaptations to an aquatic life. But this is not correct. It implies that polar bears are on their way (in transition) to becoming marine mammals. They aren't. Polar bears are not "becoming" anything. Polar bears are well adapted for their lifestyle. That's all. If global warming continues, perhaps polar bears will adapt to a full-time aquatic existence, or perhaps they will move south and become smaller brown bears, or perhaps they will go extinct. Who knows? No one.

Where Are All the Fossils?

Evolution is a historical science, and historical data — fossils — are often the evidence most cited for and against it. In the creationist textbook, Of Pandas and People — one of the bones of contention in the 2005 Intelligent Design trial of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, in Dover, Pennsylvania — the authors state: "Design theories suggest that various forms of life began with their distinctive features already intact: fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers and wings, mammals with fur and mammary glands.... Might not gaps exist ... not because large numbers of transitional forms mysteriously failed to fossilize, but because they never existed?"

Darwin himself commented on this lack of transitional fossils, asking, "Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links?" In contemplating the answer, he turned to the data and noted that "geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the gravest objection which can be urged against my theory." So where are all the fossils?

One answer to Darwin's dilemma is the exceptionally low probability of any dead animal's escaping the jaws and stomachs of predators, scavengers, and detritus feeders, reaching the stage of fossilization, and then somehow finding its way back to the surface through geological forces and unpredictable events to be discovered millions of years later by the handful of paleontologists looking for its traces. Given this reality, it is remarkable that we have as many fossils as we do.


Excerpted from Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer. Copyright © 2006 Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.

Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and nine other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.

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Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
kimbakristin More than 1 year ago
Once an evangelical Christian, Michael Shermer made the journey from creationist to evolutionist, as did Darwin himself, when his foray into the natural sciences left him overwhelmed by evidence of evolution. In this book, Shermer (now the publisher of Skeptic magazine) details several specific arguments made by those who believe in Intelligent Design (such as the belief that only micro- and not macro-evolution occurs). Then, one by one, he shows how each of these arguments fall apart at the most crucial point. In each case, he then provides the explanation provided by science/evolution. He sheds light on how little those who champion Intelligent Design (many of whom are influencing textbook content) seem to understand about even something as basic as the scientific method or the definition of "theory" in science. After discrediting Intelligent Design, Shermer goes on to make one of the more elegant arguments I've heard about how one can both accept evolution and a creator (although not Intelligent Design), as many do. He makes attempts to explain why one might, but of course, must abandon intellectual rigor at this point. Still, the argument is eloquent and he does resolve the conflict. Proving the existence of gods, of course, is another matter, but that isn't his task.
random_skeptic More than 1 year ago
Once again Michael Shermer has done a superb job of exposing pseudoscience and explaining the importance of science in today's society. It is quite clear that evolution is solidly supported by the facts. Shermer does an excellent job of revealing what Intelligent Design really is-a dressed up version of creationism. It is clear that proponents of intelligent design are not interested in engaging in real science, but are more interested in perpetuating their religious agenda. It's important to remember that Science and Religion are two different things and one should not be passed off as the other. Truly a facinating read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Shermer knocks ID out with the evolution facts. The case against ID that lacks any scientific proof has been solved by reading this book. A book that anyone can read and understand, which is highly recommended. The thing best about this book is it's not out to attack any religion, just to stake the claim that Evolution should not be discarded, it's real, there's facts to prove it and it's not going anywhere anytime soon.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fine little book (less than 200 pages) that covers what evolution is how we know it's real why evolution matters and why so many people have a problem with accepting it. While some people may ask why another book about evolution is necessary, clearly it is needed because American's still aren't getting the message. About half of US citizens currently deny evolution. More than half say creationism should be taught in science classes. Something clearly is wrong. Shermer's book won't solve the problem but it should help. This book is not overly technical and can be read by just about anyone. Shermer shows in plain English that evolution is on very solid ground and creationism has no evidence or compelling arguments to back it up. Probably the most important point in the book that would benefit most well-meaning people is that creationists only have to do science if they want their ideas to be respected as science. They should not be spending time and energy in school board meetings and political campaigns. If they really believe their claims are true then they should be out in the field looking for supporting fossils and in the laboratory seeking clues in DNA. I highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Shermer's column in Scientific American is the first article I read when the latest issue arrives. This book did not dissapoint, and I learned a tremendous amount. I have recommended this to friends and am looking forward to re-reading it in the future. A must read for any fan of science.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Okay so I sound biased but Shermer is a favorite of mine. He's led me into the world of skepticism and this is a book that belongs in everyones knowledge arsenal. Short but great read!
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The first review is helpful to christians . Now, I believe in intelligent devolpment. Because God will Always be more intelligent than what he created, MAN. NASA can only WATCH the heavens, God makes the stars move on their paths. The first reviwer just makes me Want to read this book all the more. So thank you first reviewer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I teach a class covering evolution, creation, ID, and everything else related to this controversy. I had hoped this book would provide a good counterpoint to the pro-ID material available. It doesn't. First, the author never correctly defines Intelligent Design. I've read numerous books and articles on ID, and they're not talking about what he's arguing against. If the author wants to critique ID, he needs to understand what he's critiquing. Furthermore, he repeatedly calls it "Intelligent Design Creationism". This will come as a surprise to the many creationists who argue that ID is just a way to make evolution palatable to believers. He further muddles his argument by asserting that religious believers need not feel that their beliefs are threatened by evolution, because they can just accept evolution as the means that God used in his creative work. He includes believers in theistic evolution (the theory that God planned and/or guided the evolutionary process) among those who accept the scientific theory of evolution. What he entirely overlooks is that God is an intelligent agent, so if God played any meaningful part in the process of evolution, then we would be, in fact, the products of intelligent design. He can't have it both ways. As a third example, he decries what he calls "government of the gaps", the attempts by creationists and ID advocates to pass laws requiring the teaching of their positions in public schools. Fair enough, but what about the laws and court rulings that require only evolution to be taught? That, he explains, is the reasonable privilege of the taxpayers to determine what should be taught in the schools they pay for. Surely he realizes that ID theorists and creationists pay taxes, but apparently he thinks there are different rules for people who agree with him. There are numerous additional examples I could cite. In the end, all I can use this book for is to provide examples of straw-man argumentation, the vagueness fallacy, and special pleading. I'm still looking for a solid critique of ID.