This year contains two notable scientific anniversaries. The one most widely mentioned is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s three trailblazing papers in the German scientific journal Annalen der Physik on the nature of matter, energy, and motion. Those papers opened up broad new territories for exploration by physicists. The discoveries that followed, and the technology that flowed from those discoveries, helped shape the whole 20th century. Radiation therapy and nuclear weapons, the laser and the personal computer, global positioning satellites and fiber-optic cables — all trace at least part of their lineage to Einstein’s papers. The 20th century was the Age of Physics. The first quarter of that century — when dramatic discoveries in the field were coming thick and fast, with theory racing to keep up — was a wonderfully exciting time to be a young physicist.
It seems to me that we are passing from the Age of Physics to the Age of Biology. It is not quite the case that nothing is happening in physics, but certainly there is nothing like the excitement of the early 20th century. Physics seems, in fact, to have got itself into a cul-de-sac, obsessing over theories so mathematically abstruse that nobody even knows how to test them.
The life sciences, by contrast, are blooming, with major new results coming in all the time from genetics, zoology, demography, biochemistry, neuroscience, psychometrics, and other “hot” disciplines. The physics building may be hushed and dark while its inhabitants mentally wrestle with 26-dimensional manifolds, but over at biology the joint is jumpin’. A gifted and ambitious young person of scientific inclination would be well advised to try for a career researching in the life sciences. There is, as one such youngster said to me recently, a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked. Charles Murray, in his elegant New York Times op-ed piece on the Larry Summers flap (for more on which, see Christina Hoff Sommers elsewhere in this issue), wrote of the “vibrancy and excitement” of scholarship about innate male-female differences, in contrast to the stale, repetitive nature of research seeking environmental sources for those differences. Sell sociology, buy biology.
This fizzing vitality in the life sciences is, as Larry Summers learned, very unsettling to the guardians of political correctness. It is at least as disturbing to some Biblical fundamentalists, which brings me to this year’s second scientific anniversary. The famous “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tenn., happened 80 years ago this summer. John Scopes, a young schoolteacher, was found guilty of violating a state statute forbidding the teaching of evolution theory. Well, well, the wheel turns, and the other day I found myself looking at a newspaper headline that read: “Pa. School Board at the Center of Evolution Debate.” The story concerned the town of Dover, Pa., which was sued by the ACLU in federal court at the end of last year over its incorporation of “intelligent design” (I.D.) arguments in the public-school biology curriculum.
It is odd to be reminded that I.D. is still around. I had written it off as a 1990s fad infecting religious and metaphysical circles, not really touching on science at all, since it framed no hypotheses that could be tested experimentally. The greater part of I.D. is just negative, a critique of the standard model of evolution by natural selection, in which random mutations that add to an organism’s chances of survival and reproduction lead to divergences of form and function and eventually to new species. This theory, said I.D. proponents such as Phillip E. Johnson (Darwin on Trial, 1991), Michael J. Behe (Darwin’s Black Box, 1996), and William A. Dembski (The Design Inference, 1998), is full of conundrums and unexplained gaps — the mechanisms of mutation, for instance, are poorly understood.
Biologists are not much impressed with this critique, since conundrums and gaps are normal features of scientific theories. Atomic theory was in considerably worse shape in this regard when Einstein published his three great papers. A few decades of research clarified matters to the point where the theory’s practical applicability and predictive value could revolutionize human existence. Nor are scientists much impressed by the facts of Behe’s being a biochemist and Dembski’s having done postgraduate work in math and physics. (Johnson is a lawyer.) This just recalls Newton’s fascination with alchemy and Kepler’s work on the Music of the Spheres. Scientists have all sorts of quirky off-duty obsessions.
And I.D. was always off-duty. Scientifically credentialed I.D.-ers have been reluctant to submit their theories to peer review. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a critic of I.D., wonders why Behe has never presented his ideas to the annual conference of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as is his right as a member. As Miller explained, “If I thought I had an idea that would completely revolutionize cell biology in the same way that Professor Behe thinks he has an idea that would revolutionize biochemistry, I would be talking about that idea at every single meeting of my peers I could possibly get to.” Dembski likewise declines to publicize his research through peer-review conferences and journals. His explanation: “I find I can actually get the turnaround faster by writing a book and getting the ideas expressed there. My books sell well. I get a royalty. And the material gets read more.” Ah.
It is not surprising that most working scientists turn away from I.D. with a smile and a shrug. Phillip Johnson, in a 1992 lecture, predicted that Darwinism would “soon” be thoroughly discredited, leading to a “paradigm shift” and a whole new view of biology. Thirteen years later there is not the faintest trace of a sign that anything like this is going to happen. To the contrary, the fired-up young biologists who will revolutionize our lives in these coming decades take the standard evolutionary model for granted, not only because it is an elegant and parsimonious theory, but because I.D. promises them nothing — no reproducible results, no research leads, no fortune-making discoveries in genomics or neuroscience.
If the science of I.D. is a joke, the theology is little better. Its principal characteristic is a flat-footed poverty of imagination. “Don’t eff the Ineffable,” went the sergeant-major’s injunction against blasphemy. With a different reading having nothing to do with blasphemy, effing the Ineffable — what A. N. Whitehead called “misplaced concreteness” — is exactly what the I.D.-ers are up to. Their God is a science-fiction God, a high-I.Q. space alien plodding along a decade or two ahead of our understanding. The God of Judaism and Christianity is infinitely vaster and stranger than that, and far above our poking, groping inquiries into the furniture of our rocky little daytime cosmos. His nature and deeds are as remote from our comprehension as, to quote Darwin himself on this precise point, Newton’s laws are from a dog’s. The prophet Isaiah held the same opinion: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I.D. had its little hour in the spotlight of public curiosity, and will linger on for a while among those who cannot bear the thought that living tissue might be a part of the natural universe, under natural laws. Neither science nor religion ever had much use for I.D. Both will proceed happily on their ways without it.