So, last night, the BBC’s Horizon tackled the debate over Intelligent Design. It wasn’t quite as bad as I feared, but I felt that the programme makers still held back from plunging the wooden stake into ID’s heart, where it so surely belongs.
The programme gave a good slice – the first 25 minutes – to the proponents of creationism and ID to set out their stall. Fair enough.
The first response was then from Richard Dawkins, who clearly is as tired as I am of IDers. His response, while heartfelt and accurate, probably was somewhat counterproductive in trying to neutralise the poison of ID, when viewed from the perspective of joe public. His words were: "Physicists don’t have to fight a kind of rearguard action against the yapping terriers of ignorance, the way biologists do". A wonderful soundbite, and spot on, but unfortunately, I fear that perception is reality for most people. Many of those who do not understand the issues would have thought that Dawkins was being arrogant in his dismissal, and hence may have thought that, at bottom, there might be something in ID.
While Dawkins is then allowed to set out the reasons for refusing to engage with IDers (the debate format gives the false impression that there are two sides to the case – in agreeing to a "debate" the scientist hands to the ID side the propaganda victory that there is something worth debating), the programme voiceover then makes an odd statement: "but the proponents of intelligent design were more than ready to defend their claims". Well of course they would be, but what is being said here? It almost sounds as though the programme makers are rooting for the underdog because they have a case. And then immediately we cut to William Dembski claiming "this is a spirited scientific discussion… the problem is the other side does not want to admit that is is a scientific discussion, because as soon as they do, then we have a place at the table and then the critique of evolutionary theory that we have offered has to be taken seriously". This is clearly disingenuous of Dembski (but heaven forfend that the makers of Horizon would deign to point it out). For a thorough fisking of ID, one only has to read the material at TalkDesign.org.
We then move on to Dr. Stephen Meyer at the Discovery Institute. Whilst acknowledging the fact that the institute is funded to the tune of "multi-million dollars", Horizon says nothing further about the sources of funding (a story that I feel would be an interesting one), and does not challenge Meyer’s "we have over 450 scientists who have signed a list to say that they doubt that Natural Selection can produce the complexity of life". This is a complete canard, and Horizon really should have allowed a response.
Still, things were not all passed by. The central flaw of ID – that the designer creates, outside of nature, things by means that are undetectable – was pinned down by Prof. Miller, and the question of who creates the designer was voiced by Dawkins.
It was also interesting to see father George Coyne – a Jesuit astrophysicist – dismiss the view that Darwin’s theory of evolution is not compatible with Catholic doctrine, followed by the observation that cardinal Schonborn’s criticism of evolution was prompted rather more by the zeal of the Discovery Institute’s Public Relations department, and not by any religious Truth.
And the final word was left to David Attenborough; his quiet dismissal of ID from his perspective as a zoologist: "We would be wrong to suppose that evolution is the ultimate answer to everything… if you find something that you don’t understand, then of course you can say that it was created by a divine spirit. But that of course answers nothing really; that simply says we don’t know". And that for me is more naturally right, than the blind insistence that Goddidit.