Book Review: The Not-So-Intelligent Designer, by Abby Hafer
Posted: Friday, May 20th, 2016
by Glenn Branch
As the title of The Not-So-Intelligent Designer suggests, Abby Hafer is ready to take intelligent design seriously. A zoologist who teaches human anatomy and physiology at Curry College, she invokes her specialty to argue that intelligent design is refuted by the quirks and kinks, the makeshift solutions and haywire failures, of human biology. Along the way, she offers a spirited assault on the promoters of intelligent design, accusing them of purveying uncertainty and doubt about evolution, peddling religion disguised as science, and engaging in propaganda reminiscent of the tobacco industry.
There is a lot to like about The Not-So-Intelligent Designer. The book is written with brio and it brims with examples and illustrations. The thirty-five short and punchy chapters alternate between explaining the science and exposing those who misinterpret or misrepresent the science, thus managing to alleviate any hint of tedium. And Hafer is sometimes quite splendidly indignant. Particularly noteworthy was her castigation of William Dembski’s bland comment that it would be “nice” for human birth to be easier; Hafer responds by explaining the gruesome results of obstetric fistula.
The central argument, however, is not convincing. Hafer usually proceeds on the assumption that intelligent design predicts that all biological structures and systems function optimally. Thus her various examples of the imperfections of the vertebrate retina, the human birth canal, and so on, constitute falsifications of intelligent design. But intelligent design is not officially committed to claims either of universality or optimality: it claims only that some biological structures and systems can be explained only with reference to intelligent, not necessarily perfect, agency.
Acknowledging the point, Hafer sometimes suggests that if it is not construed as predicting that all biological structures and systems function optimally, intelligent design becomes untestable and thus unscientific. She is right insofar as intelligent design is often presented in terms that render it untestable (or testable only with the addition of claims about the designer for which there is no independent evidence). But the necessity of presenting it thus is not obvious, and so there is a constant temptation to wonder if a version of intelligent design is capable of withstanding her arguments.
Creationists who, unlike the chief promoters of intelligent design, are willing to help themselves to overtly extrascientific claims are able to deflect arguments from imperfection such as Hafer’s—at least to their own satisfaction. Two popular strategies are to claim that the structures and systems in question are only apparently suboptimal but are in fact optimal considered in the context of the designer’s overall goals for life in general, as well as to concede that the structures and systems in question are suboptimal but attribute the fact to the deleterious consequences of the Fall described in Genesis 3.
To be sure, focusing on imperfections is a good way of understanding evolution. But it would have been better for Hafer to have emphasized how the imperfections of human anatomy and physiology display a phylogenetic pattern characteristic of descent with modification. For at the end of the day, it is the unquestionable explanatory success of evolution, rather than the explanatory failure of intelligent design, which demonstrates, in the words of the book’s subtitle, why evolution explains the human body and intelligent design does not.
Hafer covers a lot of ground in a short space, so there are various details that invite quibbles and nitpicks. Particularly problematic is her emphasis on experimental evidence as essential to science—she even castigates the promoters of intelligent design for not including the phrase “experimental evidence” in their definition of intelligent design, apparently without considering that it is not included in standard definitions of evolution. It is important to realize that evolutionary biology employs historical as well as experimental methods, a point obscured in Hafer’s treatment.
Science teachers are not going to want to use the book in the classroom or to recommend the book to students, in part because of the choice of examples—the discussion of testicles and scurvy are guaranteed to elicit giggles and grimaces—and in part because of the candid discussion of religion, which might be regarded as offensive, such as the characterization of the Designer as “the world’s biggest abortionist!” (p. 52, emphasis in original). In their own reading, though, they will find it a lively, opinionated, and provocative introduction to the topic.
Author: Abby Hafer
Published by: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers
Available from: http://wipfandstock.com/the-not-so-intelligent-designer.html
Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the integrity of science education against ideological interference.
Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…