- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2003

By Larry Witham
Encounter, $24.95, 248 pages

The contemporary interaction between science and religion is one of almost bewildering complexity. This is never more apparent than when the two confront each other over the perennial problem of design. Is the cosmos in thrall to a transcendent order, an ulterior purpose, even a pre-ordained divine plan? The question is at the gravitational center of a whirling system, its influence drawing science, religion, politics, morality, and personal spirituality into dizzying, tangled orbits.
Unfortunately, recent popular accounts of the issue most centered on the apparently interminable controversy over biological evolution have all too often glossed over its startling intricacy, and sacrificed historical accuracy and fairness of treatment for narratives that convey preconceived ideological agendas. Not surprisingly, such depictions typically polarize debates rather than encourage mutual understanding. It is uncommon for a book to emerge that provides readers with the resources required to move beyond the oftensimplistic and over-politicized public disputes and into the more sophisticated dialogue that lies beneath.
Larry Witham provided such a book in last year's "Where Darwin Meets the Bible," proving himself a welcome guide through chaotic territory. "By Design," Mr. Witham's newest offering, is meant in part as a popular introduction to the broader associations between science and religion in the past half-century. As such, it ranges beyond evolutionary biology and into such disciplines as astrophysics, cosmology, and neurophysiology.
Mr. Witham unfolds the conversation between atheistic naturalists, theistically minded scientists, and scientifically astute theists through a series of brief biographical sketches and historical vignettes.
As expected, his research is impressively wide-ranging; in the past decade Mr. Witham has interviewed scores of the most prominent figures standing at the nexus of science and religion. The ensuing biographical approach has much to recommend it.
Ad hominem attacks have become regrettably common rhetorical devices in the more contentious moments of the science and religion dialogue, with charges of dogmatic atheism and religious fundamentalism bandied back and forth with little concern for biographical accuracy. Mr. Witham's practice of introducing us to the personalities behind the debates provides a much-needed curative. Perhaps even more importantly, this focus on individuals allows exploration of the behind-the-scenes forces that drive the conversation.
Mr. Witham provides a vivid example in his examination of the roles played by Pope John Paul II and mutual fund guru John Templeton in forging the nascent discipline of science and religion studies. Here we see how the unusual convergence of ecclesiastical authority and financial opportunity has underwritten a proliferation of programs, conferences, and course offerings, ultimately ushering the science and religion dialogue to the brink of becoming a full-fledged field of academic inquiry.
The lesson is an important one: This is not a purely intellectual exercise, but one impelled by charismatic personalities, political and social influence, and money. Throughout the book, Mr. Witham's exploration of the relationship between science and religion subserves a larger aim. "By Design" is intended primarily as an investigation of a single question: Is there room in contemporary science for the notion of design? The author acquaints us with the variety of scientific evidence forwarded as indication that nature reveals beyond itself a transcendent order or purposeful intelligence.
One focal point is the anthropic principle, which (in its strongest form) argues from the remarkable fine-tuning of universal physical constants to the conclusion that life is built into the cosmic plan from the beginning. Similarly prominent are those argumentsbolstered by recent developments in information theory and popularized by proponents of the Intelligent Design movement that the complexity of certain biological forms is beyond the creative capacity of unintelligent natural processes.
Mr. Witham performs an important service in showcasing this breadth of evidence; the arguments for design range far beyond the narrow but highly publicized confines of anti-evolution advocacy, and supporters and detractors alike will benefit from this awareness.
Mr. Witham's biographical approach is not, however, without its drawbacks, and he has mixed success in avoiding them. In the book, he often renders history only impressionistically; chapter 11, for instance, opens with a whirlwind tour of the development of modern philosophy of mind, condensing roughly three and a half centuries from Descartes to B. F. Skinner into barely over a page. The episodic nature of Mr. Witham's account can leave the reader with little sense of chronological continuity, and the historical development of ideas is an occasional casualty.
There are also sporadic indications that the author has had some difficulty managing the embarrassment of riches born of his comprehensive research. Character sketches occasionally appear in peculiar contexts, upsetting the coherence of the text.
One striking example is the story of Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer who utilizes the extraordinary coincidence of habitability (the fact that the earth's place in the universe seems to make it distinctively suited to the emergence life) and measurability (the fact that the earth also seems to be a peculiarly well situated place for the observation of certain physical phenomena) to bolster the claim that there is design and purpose behind our presence in the cosmos.
Mr. Gonzalez finds himself sandwiched awkwardly within a chapter otherwise devoted to challenges against naturalistic biological evolution; his argument, aside from being a relatively idiosyncratic defense of the design hypothesis, seems curiously out of place in this setting.
But perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the book is its failure to maintain the impartiality for which its author has previously been so widely (and rightly) praised. Rather than being a dispassionate exploration of both sides of the debate, "By Design" is meant to be a case for design. The balanced treatment that characterized "Where Darwin Meets the Bible" is largely absent here; proponents of design are allowed a disproportionate voice in interpreting the findings of contemporary science, arguments for design are too often treated uncritically, and the book ultimately portrays design (intelligent or not) as a virtually ineluctable conclusion.
There are exceptions to this pattern; a segment on the PBS Evolution television series gives us glimpses of Mr. Witham at his best, weaving a gripping dramatic narrative while revealing both parties to be equally capable of insightful criticism, intellectual missteps, and underhanded political maneuvering. In the end, however, "By Design" draws an incomplete map of a tortuous landscape; there is one clearly marked trail, but the surrounding terrain is only roughly sketched, and there is little opportunity for the reader to seek her own path.
The popular literature on design is overwhelmingly partisan, and generally inhospitable to inquisitive readers seeking scrupulous, evenhanded accounts; the situation cries out for the kind of thorough, unbiased journalism exemplified in Larry Witham's earlier work. His newest book has much of value, at times effectively conveying the nuance and complexity of the relationship between science and religion. But, ultimately, "By Design" disappoints, and fails to deliver on the promise of its predecessor.

John Darling holds a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Science, Philosophy, and Religion at Boston University.

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