Williams, Robyn - Unintelligent Design

  (22 February 09)

Unintelligent Design
 


Greg Spearritt reviews Unintelligent Design: Why God isn't as smart as she thinks she is  
by Robyn Williams (Allen & Unwin 2006).

Reviewed November 2006


The purpose of Williams’ latest book is to ‘out’ Intelligent Design (ID) as an insidious example of “proud ignorance” which threatens to distract both religion and science from doing important work. The author describes the book as a primer which he hopes will send readers in search of works by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan and others.

 

Unintelligent Design does incorporate a refutation of ID, but it’s by no means comprehensive or systematic. Rather, in a humorous way and with digressions into anecdotes drawn from the author’s life, many about science and scientists, it draws attention to some ID ‘howlers’.

 

So Williams asks: if a habitable Earth is no mere cosmic coincidence, and humanity is the pinnacle of creation, why was God so profligate in creating the rest of our unimaginably vast (and overwhelmingly uninhabitable) universe? Why are cave fish born with eyes, men with nipples and all humans with appendices? How might we explain stuffed-up sinuses, piles, hernias and bad backs? And what does the enormous range of sexual variation in human behaviour say about the Designer?

 

Williams goes on to persuade us of the seriousness of the threat that ID poses. It’s not a ‘loony fringe’ movement with few adherents or resources. At least in the US, it’s organised and active – as the recent court cases involving the Dover school board demonstrate – and it has a “vast ocean of American ignorance” upon which to draw for support.

 

Interestingly for SoFers, in the context of ID Williams cites Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, written only 8 years after Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published. Arnold is concerned about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith in God and sees us languishing “on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night”.

 

While Williams notes that this isn’t how the majority of us see secular existence, it seems to me the poem does rather speak to an uncertain world newly racked with threats of chaos from terrorism and climate change.

 

What of Australia? Regrettably, here in Oz the state funds religious and private schools which implicitly support ID and in many cases actually include it in the science curriculum. Thus, if I may be permitted my own 2 cents’ worth, the mantra of ‘choice’ from the political right is compromising the right of every child to a decent science education. That ID is bad science – and poor religion – appears to count for very little in the eyes of our George Bush-enamoured Coalition government with its woefully low spending on education, science and scientific research. Pardon the soapbox.

 

However, things are not too bad in Australia, says Williams – as yet. But the potential is there, particularly because of our ever closer ties to the Religious Right as embodied by Bush and Co.

 

Williams concludes with an attack on organised, authoritarian religion. His chief point is that while religion may once have had evolutionary benefits in unifying small groups, and has had a role to play in developing human creativity, the dogmatic ‘Us and Them’ thinking that is/was integral to religion is downright dangerous nowadays. Credulousness and obedience have no place in a successful human future:

 

The badges of ideology and dogma [must] fade as we contemplate sheer, enormous needs of humanity. That is the future. The alternative is catastrophe. (150)

 

Williams advocates – I think wisely – separating the two domains, so that those who fancy religion can happily pursue the ‘why’ questions, but the ‘what and how’ are properly the preserve of science. On a personal level, he clearly doesn’t fancy religion, but is pleased for those who find it fulfilling, providing they don’t mandate it for others.

 

I agree with him that meaning and morality can be adequately dealt with in secular terms, though I would want to question whether there isn’t something intrinsically ‘religious’ in his ‘secular’ approach to life, with its awe of the natural world and faith in life-enhancing human values.

 

I’m afraid, however, that I don’t quite share his faith in the civilising power of knowledge. In the first place, I know of many well-educated people – from Pol Pot to John Howard – with weird views and a strong authoritarian bent. And second, I’m much too pessimistic to think we’ll ever have the “free flow of knowledge” which could allow the democratic process to find solutions to the troubles of our world. Knowledge is, unhappily, mediated by the powerful, and this is likely to be even more so as the new media laws play out in Australia.

 

The publicity blurb for Unintelligent Design says this is a book to “infuriate the forces of darkness, and anger and amuse the rest of us”. Amusement there is, and exposure of some of the tactics of ID proponents is at times enough to prompt anger. However, I suspect the ‘forces of darkness’ that Williams’ publishers have in mind will probably never get to see, much less read this book. To do more than preach to the converted, they’ll have to come up with a better title than “Unintelligent Design”. 

 

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