'Darwin? That's just the party line'

We're all familiar with Queen Gertrude's dry observation in Act III of Hamlet that the Player Queen "doth protest too much." Gertrude's point, of course, is that the Player Queen's over-insistence of her love for her husband makes her declarations highly suspect.

I often think of Gertrude's line when I see how vehemently many A-list scientists and fellow-travelling literati lash out at anyone who does not embrace their insistence that no deity is behind either the creation of our universe or plant and animal origins on Earth.

For example, Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, says that anyone who doesn't believe in evolution "is ignorant, stupid or insane." Oxford professor Peter Atkins, another ardent atheist, recently denounced theology, poetry and philosophy and concluded that "scientists are at the summit of knowledge, beacons of rationality and intellectually honest." Geneticist Emile Zuckerkandl -- writing on whether biological facts suggest an intelligent designer -- terms the notion of intelligent design an "intellectual virus" and its advocates "an offensive little swarm of insects ... [who] feed like leeches on irrational beliefs."

That these gentlemen go on like this in the wake of, for example, biochemist Michael Behe's masterful Darwin's Black Box, in which he sets out a devastating case for the "irreducible complexity" of human systems, truly makes one wonder about the confidence they have in their own convictions.

And now comes along another tour de force -- David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism And Its Scientific Pretensions -- which, in 225 pages, delivers a formidable blow to the agreed-upon fictions that Darwin's theory and a deity-less cosmos increasingly appear to be.

I first read about The Devil's Delusion in the National Review. Just before his recent death, William F. Buckley found the book to be "everything desirable; it is idiomatic, profound, brilliantly polemical, amusing and of course vastly learned"; and when George Gilder, co-founder of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, declared it "the definitive book of the millennium," I was hooked in to read it.

And oh my, what an incendiary and provocative landmark it turns out to be.

With Baconian pithiness and singular authority, Berlinski -- a Princeton PhD who has taught mathematics and philosophy at universities in the United States and France -- pillories the intelligentsia's new-found faith in atheistic scientism as shallow and exclusionary. "Like any militant church," he says, "this one places a familiar demand before all others: Thou shall not have any other gods before me."

Writing as a highly respected member of the scientific elite, Berlinski nevertheless sets out to puncture the conceit that science is the single belief system that rational humans can place their faith in. Instead, he shows that it is a "narrow and oppressive orthodoxy" that regards religious belief with "frivolous contempt."

To interdict an I-know-where-this-is-coming-from reaction, Berlinsky sets down, on his first page, the "inconvenient fact" that he is "a secular Jew [whose] religious education did not take." He adds, however, that his book is a defence of religious thought and sentiment "because none has been forthcoming." Here, obviously, is a man given to a sense of fair play.

Needlessly, but understandably, Berlinski, the bestselling author of The Advent of the Algorithm, A Tour of the Calculus and Newton's Gift, hastens to acknowledge the stupendous advances that have been made in science -- "isolated miracles, great mountain peaks," as he calls them. But he repeatedly notes that the profound theories these giants of science have advanced in their respective areas of specialization have made the world and the universe more cryptic, not less.

In the process, he says, the current pantheon of scientists has become more than willing to believe in practically anything: that our universe evolved from an emptier, four-dimensional, mini-universe where space and time as we know it didn't exist; that a universe prior to ours "tunnelled through" to become our universe; that achieving ultimate knowledge of our world is best attempted by atomizing elementary particles into their smallest discoverable parts; that life sprang up "on the backs of crystals"; that Earthly beings may have been "seeded" by an alien race from another planet.

Anything, in other words, "that will allow physicists to say with quiet pride that they've gotten the thing to appear from nothing, and especially nothing that resembles a deity."

Why are the lab-coated elite so fervent in their New Atheism? Why so intemperate to anyone who strays from the received dogma? Isn't scientific inquiry supposed to be forever open to questioning and investigation? To answer these questions, one has to refer to unbecoming sides of human nature, such as pettiness, dogmatism, hubris and malice.

A sorry consequence of this closed-mindedness is that most scientists who harbour doubts about the accepted scientific truths are as fearful of going public as was any medieval scholar who questioned geocentrism.

For example, to avoid repercussions for not toeing the line, one biologist (rumoured to be an Ivy League professor) has taken on a pseudonym -- Mike Gene -- even though his book, The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues, neither denies evolution and common ancestry, nor claims to offer proof of intelligent design. He's just one of a number of scholars who cite peer-reviewed research to contend that a wholly random explanation for all of creation is, at best, implausible.

Berlinski, meanwhile, like a seasoned courtier scandalously declaring that the emperor has no clothes, audaciously asserts that scientific atheism "has only one stock character in its repertoire, and that is the God of the Gaps. Unlike the God of Old, who ruled irritably over everything, the God of the Gaps rules over gaps in argument or evidence."

It's Berlinski's commentary on the paucity of "argument or evidence" in support of classic Darwinism that constitutes the biggest atom bomb of the book.

"Suspicions about Darwin's theory arise for two reasons," he writes. "The first: The theory makes little sense. The second: It is supported by little evidence ... The theories that we do have do what they can do, and then they stop. They do not stop because a detail is missing; they stop because we cannot go on. Difficulties are accommodated by the magician's age-old tactic of misdirection."

Berlinski -- who argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail when they are honest and succeed only when they are not -- says the unpersuasiveness of the literature on the subject is well known. He tells how a Nobel laureate once said to him in a faculty lounge: "Darwin? That's just the party line."

In his dissection of Darwinists and Darwinism, Berlinski notes that "if biologists are wrong about Darwin, they are wrong about life, and if they are wrong about life, they are wrong about everything."

Little wonder, then, that so many of them do indeed protest so much.

Wayne Eyre is a retired journalist in Saskatchewan, Canada. This article was first published in Canada's National Post newspaper. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.


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