I feel almost ashamed to take on a target as easy as “intelligent design” (ID) theory, but it offers so excellent a demonstration of the power of the originary hypothesis that the mere mention of the subject produces in me a Pavlovian effect of mental salivation. But clearly the subject is in the air. The Winter 2004 Claremont Review of Books contains a review article that looks with favor upon no fewer than four recent books dealing with the question (Joseph Bessette, “Is God in the Details?”, p. 50-53). As an antidote, a few days after announcing this Chronicle, I read in the February 14, 2005 National Review an article (John Derbyshire, “But Is It Science?”, p. 32-33) dismissing ID as useless for either science or religion. I was reassured that Claremont’s (and Commentary’s) weakness for ID had not spread to all conservative publications. Yet the refutation expressed in the following passage avoids ID only by denying that our minds, at least, are made in God’s image:
This doctrine of absolute incommensurability gets God out of cosmology at the price of removing him altogether from anthropology. Dogs are incapable of formulating theories of their own origin, and if we are dogs to God, then we can never hope to understand how humanity came into being. By keeping religion and science on different planes, this attitude forecloses any attempt at a science of religion, and of representation in general, which begins with religious forms. A much more parsimonious set of assumptions can accomplish far more.
Creationism is often explained by the attachment of its partisans to a literal interpretation of the Bible, which can itself be understood in Durkheimian terms as reflecting the priority of communal solidarity over empirical truth. Before humans can engage in natural science, they must form communities, and Girard, if not Durkheim himself, has made clear the dependence of human communities on the sacrificial expulsion of violence and on the myths that sustain it. In distinction from creationism, ID does not take Genesis as its point of reference. Its fideism is abstract and therefore purportedly minimalist. Yet its presuppositions are maximal, not minimal; once you allow “intelligent design,” you can “explain” anything whatsoever. Why did that apple fall to the ground? An intelligent being designed it to happen. How did life emerge? It was designed by an intelligent being. Why did new life-forms appear in the Cambrian era? An intelligent being designed them. Why did it rain yesterday? An intelligent…
ID consists of two theses, which it claims are causally related: (1) “Darwinian” evolutionary theory fails to explain [the origin of life, the absence of transitional species, the human eye, etc.]; therefore (2) [the origin of life, the absence of transitional species, the human eye, etc.] can only be explained as the products of ID. To simplify: (1) we have no good explanation for X; therefore (2) X must be the product of an intelligent designer for which we have no direct evidence. But even if we stipulate that “Darwinism” is incapable of explaining anything at all, it is never admissible to reason from the inadequacy of a given theoretical model to the affirmation that no model is possible. An inadequate theory can only be superseded by a better theory. The claim that a “designer” created life, or Cambrian life-forms, or what have you, is an empty assertion if it is presumed to absolve us from formulating how the designer’s design was implemented. How did these new life-forms first appear? Did God deliberately put them into the sea? Did he command a concentration of organic chemicals cum genetic material to organize itself? Where? How? That ID advocates make no attempt to answer or even pose these obvious questions makes it clear that their purpose is entirely negative; ID is a denial of science masquerading as an alternative scientific model.
None of the above represents a new insight on my part; the National Review article makes much the same points. Yet although it is satisfying to repeat evident truths when they are irrationally contested, the repetition explains nothing about the contestation and therefore does nothing to resolve the underlying problem of which it is a symptom. From a strictly scientific standpoint, this is altogether proper; scientific method is not concerned with motives. But from a broader anthropological perspective, explaining why intelligent people are willing to expend such energy on absurdities is not mere intellectual pathology; perhaps there is indeed something that Darwinism cannot explain, even if it in no way requires the rejection of the theory of evolution and still less, the positing of an extra-worldly “intelligent designer.” And what if that something were our intelligence itself?
My thesis is that creationism in general and its “secular” avatar, ID, are motivated by what are ultimately anthropological considerations. As I like to say–and as Durkheim already said in his own way–theology is bad cosmology, but good anthropology. The germ of truth behind ID is that there is indeed a crucial moment of evolution that cannot be explained by evolutionary theory: the origin of the human. There is nothing fideistic or mystical about this assertion.
The originary hypothesis states that the origin of representation, including language, ritual, and “culture” in general, takes place as an event. Wherever else it may be, we know there is “intelligent design” in the universe because it contains the human mind. Whether or not we posit an extra-worldly or “supernatural” intelligent designer, we need to explain how our own less exalted capacity for intelligent design came into being. Because this birth takes us out of genetic evolution into history, it must take place as an event that inaugurates the history of the “intelligent design” exercised by the human mind in deferring mimetic violence through representation.
Biblical creationism has an event ready to play this inaugural role; that of Genesis. No doubt Genesis describes not only the creation of man but that of the heavens and the earth and everything upon the latter. But the attribution to God of the creation of the universe and the various forms of life is of a different kind from the creation of humanity “in his own image.” The creation of the earth or of life is something we can only take entirely on faith, whereas the creation of the human is an event of which we can claim to have retained a trace; it is the credibility of this claim of access to the event of human creation that lends justification to the fideistic account of creation as a whole. ID takes the originary event out of the parochial domain of the Bible, abandoning the reference to a specific, consecrated narrative of creation. The level of generality thus gained, however, only makes it more obvious that of the two minds alleged to preside over the birth of humanity, Ockham’s razor obliges us to limit ourselves to the one of whose presence we are absolutely certain.
Although the originary hypothesis cannot simply be extended to the other “mysteries” pointed to by ID, the monopoly heretofore held by religious discourses on evenemential originary anthropology is the originary basis for “secular” developments such as ID, which are not as far from Genesis literalism as their creators seem to think. The one thing that evolutionary theory fails to explain is the necessity for an originary hypothesis to account for the origin of the phenomenon of representation that distinguishes the human from all other life forms. It is this “one thing” that is at the bottom of anti-Darwinian doctrines. These should not, however, simply be dismissed as consequences of religious belief as though the latter were itself beyond anthropological explanation. The value of the originary hypothesis is that it makes it possible to extract from religious creation-discourse an anthropological truth inaccessible to Darwinism.
Yet even were the originary hypothesis universally accepted, no hypothetical event could ever be as “scenic” as “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” A religious narrative will always serve better than a minimal hypothesis as a reminder that the human originated in an event; rightly understood, providing us with this reminder is this narrative’s central function, from which all the others derive. The notion that the universe, or terrestrial life, or the origin of humanity is a product of “intelligent design” is a way of preserving the scenic nature of the originary event by claiming that it takes place already in a mind, the mind of God. Religious discourse has long been in retreat in the cosmological domain, obliged to find “God in the gaps” that remain in scientific explanations of the universe. These residual mysteries, despite our expectation that they will one day become explicable by empirical science, serve as supplementary reminders of the birth of the human and of the worldly presence of “intelligent design.” They are strategic positions scheduled to be abandoned as science advances, but by the time the abandon is necessary, new positions will already have been marked out. Since we will never know “everything,” there will always be enough mystery in the world to remind us that the representational freedom with which our species began was dependent on sacred certitude.
In their high-school biology class, students should learn the theory of evolution, not–save perhaps as a historical phenomenon–ID. But it would also be nice if they could learn of the originary hypothesis, so that they might one day be able to engage in a substantive dialogue between religious and scientific perspectives on human origin. There are few better illustrations of Gresham’s Law in the world of ideas than this “debate” as it is presently conducted.