I just finished watching the documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus by marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson. As it turns out, less than 50% of Americans believe in evolution. The most vocal opponents come from the Intelligent Design camp, organized chiefly by the Discovery Institute, who basically believe in a modernized form of the old teleological argument for the existence of God (aka, the "argument from design"), only slightly modified by omitting the identity of the "Designer." There is, of course, lots to say about the conflict between these two camps and the cultural--not to mention educational--significance it has had over the last decade or so. Anyone who has ever stood on the authoritative side of a classroom is surely familiar with the perils of discussing evolution and creation, but these perils are not limited to the classroom. Last fall, we even saw this "debate" show itself in the Republican Presidential primaries. (I wrote about Mitt Romney's version of creationism on this blog in a post entitled The Trouble With Fossils.) My general impression is that the educated among us, largely, dismiss Intelligent Design as manifestly unscientific and driven by a religious/cultural/political agenda that is less concerned with truth and accuracy than it is with preserving the integrity of a particular cosmology.
However, lest we jump too quickly to the conclusion that Intelligent Design has cornered the market on "dodos," we may want to consider that some scientific evolutionists secretly adhere to their own version of rather reductive beliefs. In his new book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, developmental cognitive neuroscientist Gary Marcus argues against an overly-simplistic form of evolutionary adaptionism, which supposes that any trait of an organism must be doing something useful or else it wouldn't be there. In defiance of both the Intelligent Design lobby and the cheerleaders of evolution, Marcus proposes that the human mind is a "kluge" (a term he borrows from engineering, which refers to "a clumsy or inelegant--yet surprisingly effective--solution to a problem"). If natural selection does, in fact, tend toward the selection of "superlatively well-engineered functional designs" (in the words of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, founders of evolutionary psychology), then Marcus asks: why are our memories so bad? why is our language so ambiguous and vague? why are our wills so weak? why are we so gullible?
Because, according to Marcus, evolution does not tend toward perfection. The mind's fragility is most convincingly demonstrated by mental illness, which has no "adaptive" purpose. Although we humans certainly have developed higher mental functions, like the capacity to reason, the truth is that the lizard-parts of our brain still dominate. So it seems as if the human mind, far from being a "superlatively well-engineered functional design," is rather more like a McGyver-esque kluge that has enabled us to solve a few problems, but only at the expense of doing a lot of the mind's supposed work (like reasoning, communicating, remembering, and emoting) pretty badly.
What I appreciate about Marcus' argument is that it reveals the extent to which both evolutionists and believers in Intelligent Design share a common teleology. For both, the telos is "perfection." Whether that perfection is defined in terms of adaptive functionality or divine purpose, it still drives a kind of teleological thinking that needs to overlook the imperfections that we cannot explain.
For your amusement, here's a montage from the television series "Friends," in which (archeologist) Ross and (dim-witted blonde) Phoebe "debate" evolution.