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By David Warren   
Wednesday, 12 September 2012

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At age twelve, I was blessed with a wonderful biology teacher. Let us call him Mr. Henry, for that was his surname. (There were no first names in Bangkok Patana School.) He was a middle-aged, middle-western American, in a rather British school, aloof from his environment.

There were about fifteen in the class, but only four of us seriously interested, so he entirely ignored the others, even when they made rude sounds. He spoke, himself, only in a whisper. Mostly he would draw, the most elaborate and beautiful images and diagrams on the chalkboard, then pass out similar, mimeographed pages. (How I wish that I still had them!)

Mr. Henry also took us on field trips. The first was to the “klong,” or canal, that passed nearly under our building; the most memorable, to a pond within a tiny tropical-urban woodlot. There, equipped with microscope and slides, he came fully into his own. For there was not only the revelation of looking through the lens, but his enthralling descriptions, training our eyes to detail.

To this strange and very gentle man, all of nature was miraculous, and all of it bound together, in a dramatic narrative that he could supply. To him, even the tiniest microscopic creatures were endowed with personality.

From Mr. Henry I acquired the habit of empathetic reasoning. If you want to understand something, inhabit it with your mind. Feed into your imagination every objective fact that can be acquired about it. Remember, always, that the creature is alive. Or if it is inanimate, still feel your way into the structure of the thing, and into the elemental physical forces that are operating upon it. (Later, I learned from a very accomplished architect, Ron Thom, that this is just what he did when contemplating a building.)

Mr. Henry’s knowledge was dazzling, not only of biological fact, but of the history of biological reasoning. And he delighted in stupid questions, constantly reminding that, “The most useful questions are usually stupid ones.” (Conversely, clever questions are often just for display.)

I believe he was fired at the end of the year, for incompetence. He’d flunked most of the class.

In the meantime, he had communicated reverence, for nature. From what I’ve since learned of the practice of biology, I can easily understand why he did not get ahead.

While I have never had the least trouble in accepting the evolutionary “paradigm” – the descent of species by one course or another – I have never been a Darwinist, or neo-Darwinist. No, not even in the days of my youth, when I was a proselytizing atheist, but also proselytized against Darwinism, which I held to be simply wrong and impossible. The explanation of natural selection from random mutation (and all attempts to truncate the randomness) made no sense to me.

Perhaps I should blame Mr. Henry for this, for he stressed the complexity not only of every creature, but every part of every creature; and held that, “the fossil record is not a smudge.” Everywhere we look, we find sharp particularity, and if you will, “design.”

Nor am I a water-carrier for the “theory of intelligent design.” At least, it does not strike me as anything like a theory. It is instead a statement of the blindingly obvious. Wherever we look in nature, we find design, and the closer we look, the more intelligent it appears; until looking into the very chromosomes we pass beyond our powers of intellection. “As the radius of knowledge extends, the circumference of ignorance increases,” the Japanese say.

Western science, as educated people should be aware, is founded upon, and sustained by, a profound theological insight. This is the belief that God is reasonable, that He does not contradict himself, that His creation must make sense. The edifice of modern science was built with the assurance that we will find reason in nature herself – not just sometimes, but invariably.

In the discoveries of the Encode consortium, published last week, we saw a classic exposition of Western science, based on sound theology. Overnight, the proportion of human DNA known to have some biochemical function, went from around 2 percent to around 80 percent. To be sure, many of these functions are modest – for mere replication may count as a function.

But the whole notion of “junk DNA” has been overthrown. And note, it was at the front line of the war between the atheist materialists and the proponents of intelligent design. Richard Dawkins and many others had used “junk DNA” to ridicule the “IDers” – who in turn persisted in predicting that we would find a world of purpose encoded in it.

I am appalled by the malice with which the IDers continue to be attacked. It is asserted that those who “posit” God – whether Biblical literalists or credentialed biologists – are thereby disqualified from practicing science. This is a standard that would eliminate most of the greatest empirical scientists throughout history.

Ad hominem attacks are commonplace, compounded by vicious sarcasm and smears. Those with any “ID” affiliation are blackballed from publicly funded science (and projects like Encode require huge public funding) – then mocked for not having participated.

I think of what they would have done to Mr. Henry, had his head ever showed above the trenches.

“And yet,” as Galileo said, “it moves.” And yet we are looking into a genomic structure of truly incredible complexity, with every prospect of discovering more and more intricate, interdependent purpose. And where we have found a single function, we may return to find more – for we are looking into a “machine” that dimensionally exceeds our own most sophisticated mechanical contrivances, and then is capable of adaptation.

Which is what we expected, working from our old theological insight. Which is what those who claim to have moved beyond it, did not expect.

 
 
 
David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and, until recently, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East.
 
 
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 12, 2012
I cannot rid myself of the suspicion that Intelligent Design is an "empty" concept, incapable of distinguishing any conceivable sequence of events from any other.
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written by Jack,CT, September 12, 2012
thanks for a informative read!, Jack
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written by Nick Kangas, September 12, 2012
Speaking about the relation between theology and philosophy before Aquinas, Etienne Gilson makes a statement to the effect that Christians knew there was something wrong with philosophy since it was saying things which contradicted the Faith. However, the Christian would have to wait for the philosophers to figure it out. Wouldn't this be an appropriate attitude to take toward some of science's 'findings' today?
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written by Joe, September 12, 2012
Antony Flew took up Aquinas' premises that "Everything in nature ... is directed to its goal by someone with understanding, and this we call God." ...Flew wrote, "this to conclude, on the basis of evidence largely if not exclusively contrary, that always and absolutely everywhere. even where there seems to be no human or other natural direction, all development is nevertheless always completely subordinate to and dependent upon supernatural control. This argument constitutes a most gigantic begging of the question, and a begging of it in defiance of the evidence actually offered in support of the conclusion thus illicitly attained. Such a performance by the goy Aquinas demands a Yiddish-type response: "And that you call an argument?"
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written by Howard Kainz, September 12, 2012
@Joe: As you may know, Anthony Flew later changed his mind about teleology in nature and became a deist. He was particularly impressed by discoveries concerning the DNA master codes.
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written by Graham Combs, September 12, 2012
Mr. Warren reminded me of my own 7th grade science teacher who had an enduring impact on me. How many good teachers have been driven out of schools by mediocrity, complacency, and envy? I was also fascinated by the Encode news story last week. I was reminded of the late 19th and early 20th century eugenicists who believed in "junk people." Defective people without a purpose or meaning or even basic "use" and therefore ignorable or worse disposible. H.G. Wells and others were unwitting and unknowing useful idiots for Hitler and his kind. No junk DNA; no Junk People was one thought I had after reading the story. Probably too much of a simplification I'm sure.

I wish Mr. Warren would write more often here. He's obviously had an interesting life with interesting responses to it.
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written by Joe, September 12, 2012
@Howard, Flew's alleged latter day "conversion" is murky at best. According to some of his last quotes, he remained atheistic to the end. However, how can anyone know what is in someone else's heart?
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written by Chris in Maryland, September 12, 2012
This article recalls to mind the contemporary effort among "progressives" in the "academy" to suffocate scientfic skepticism and force academic conformity to the phony "consensus" of "scientists" about "global warming."

The author Michael Chrichton (Jurassic Park) wrote in the WSJ a year or so before he died warning us to watch out when so-called scientists start talking about "consensus" - they're trying to pick your pocket.
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written by BOB, September 12, 2012
Joe, "how can anyone know what is in someone else's heart?" And that you call an argument?
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written by David Warren, September 12, 2012
Antony Flew, whom I admired when an Atheist, not least for his patience in hearing out contrary arguments, became a deist late in life specifically because he thought developments in the vastly more complex realm of biology were confirming intimations in advanced physics, that the universe is no accident. He did not change position lightly, & was wrestling with details to the end, with characteristic candour & honesty.

As he said in an interview, "It now seems to me that the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design."

He was trashed by Richard Dawkins & his outriders, who repeatedly suggested he was senile, & being used & confused by born-again whackos. Flew nevertheless answered for himself quite coherently & intelligently in a voice with which this reader at least was long familiar.

We cannot know what is in another man's heart, but we can often follow what he says, & Flew said he had converted from Atheism to Deism, not Christianity. But he did add a nearly Chaucerian retraction: "As people have certainly been influenced by me, I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done."

It was a very impressive man who said that.
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written by jason taylor, September 12, 2012
BOB, he did not call that an argument. Did you read the words "this is an argument?"
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written by G.K. Thursday, September 12, 2012
Flew's conversion is only murky if you discount almost all of what he said and wrote in the last three years of his life. Now suppose we did the same for our commenter, Joe. I suppose we could make his opposition to orthodox Roman Catholicism to be unreliably murky. Just don't count anything he says or writes contrary to our already fixed position about him. How can we know his heart? Certainly not from anything he writes or says! He may actually be a very well known Roman Catholic by the name of Joe ... Namely, the Pope!

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