Malcolm Gladwell on Intelligent Design

TimeOct24This week's issue of Time features a wide-ranging discussion that links to its cover theme of "What's Next?" The participants, identified by Time as "some of the smartest people we know," include author Malcolm Gladwell, techie lecturer Clay Shirky, New York Times columnist David Brooks and author Esther Dyson. On the opening page of this discussion, above a photo of Gladwell, comes this teasing callout: "In the future, we're not going to have the kinds of arguments about religion that we have today." Well, that certainly grabs the attention of people who enjoy arguing about religion (and I happily count myself among them).

Gladwell's broader context appears on the final page of the feature, under the subtitle -- wait for it -- "Getting Religion." (OK, folks, we enjoyed the phrase enough to choose it as the name of our blog, but please don't overdo it.)

Gladwell gets the segment rolling with a reference to how evangelicals are adapting to the surrounding culture, and suddenly the panel is discussing Intelligent Design, creationism, designer babies, Down syndrome babies, abortion -- in short, many of this blog's hobby horses.

Here is the spirited exchange:

GLADWELL: One of the big trends in American society is the transformation of the evangelical movement and the rise of a more mature, sophisticated, culturally open evangelical church. Ten years from now, I don't think we're going to have the kinds of arguments about religion that we have today. Even the fight over intelligent design, to me, is a harbinger of a trend, which is that the religious world is increasingly willing to put its issues on the table and discuss them in the context of the secular world. Let's argue about evolution vs. creation, using the framework that secular science has given us.

SHIRKY: That's wrong. Intelligent design is a stalking horse for creationism against a particular enemy, evolution.

GLADWELL: I disagree. This is part of an ongoing transformation. We will not continue to have this kind of divide between Evangelicals and the rest of society. I just went to an interesting evangelical conference, and throughout, rock bands were playing. The rock-’n'-roll culture within the evangelical world is indistinguishable in terms of the sound of the music from the rock culture that came out of a very different, irreligious secular tradition, except that the words are about Jesus -- love and all that. They're not resisting outside culture, they're embracing it and kind of making it their own. I think intelligent design and Christian rock are similar. It's about taking up form from the outside and trying to Christianize it. Does the debate over evolution matter? Isn't it really a nondebate?

SHIRKY: No. It matters a lot because medicine is starting to become evolutionary, and we want to continue to have doctors who understand that.

GLADWELL: But that's not being threatened. The intelligent-design debate is about what you teach 7-year-olds.

DYSON: What you teach 7-year-olds matters because they grow up.

GLADWELL: But we've already been talking about how great Google is. They can just Google evolution.

BROOKS: I think the debate is unimportant for a different reason, which is that 40% of people in the country don't believe in the theory of evolution, and yet we seem to march on regardless.

GLADWELL: None of this affects the way science is conducted in this century. Does it change you as a software salesman whether you believe in evolution or not? No -- no more than it changes you whether you believe in Einstein physics.

DYSON: You can't limit your concern to short-term economic impact. This attitude closes off inquiry. It creates an approach to science that I think is dangerous.

GLADWELL: But keep in mind the idea we've discussed of the multiplication of identity. We will have more debates and disputes, like the one over creationism. When you're having 100 arguments at once, no one of them matters the way it used to. It's important not to use a 19th century moral lens to evaluate the kind of debates we're going to have in the 21st century. We have to accept that the general noise level will increase, but that doesn't matter. You can be a creationist at night and go to work in the morning as a pediatrician and save lives.

DYSON: The real challenge is going to be for the next generation of pediatricians who have to design your baby. It's in the field of genetics and genetic engineering where faith and morality questions will play out. Is it immoral now to abort a Down syndrome baby? In the future, should you use technology to create a perfect baby, finding the right genes? And then you'll be responsible for what you have created in a way that you never were before. No more "will of God . . ."

The group also includes the musician Moby, who contributes -- this will shock you -- the roundtable's first reference to sex. Moby pronounces himself disconcerted about what he describes:

I have a friend whose Swedish mother -- she's in her mid-60s -- goes online to meet men. I was with my friend as he drove her to the Hilton to meet a Canadian doctor she'd encountered online, and I thought, How disconcerting. Because it was 10 at night and most likely she was going to meet this guy and stay in his hotel room. Go back 50 years, and she would have been in her Swedish village, depressed, a bit lonely and sad. Instead she's in midtown Manhattan, preparing to spend the night with a doctor, and her son is driving her to the hotel!

If only someone had thought to ask what Moby found disconcerting about this, because he sounds more impressed than troubled. Was it the horrifying thought of two elderly people who want to <Grandpa Simpson's voice>have sex? Or that her son serves as the chauffeur for this frisky encounter?

Please respect our Commenting Policy