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?

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  • B L

    Malcolm Gladwell is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Where do I begin?

    Oh how about with his misguided comment about music.

    He says evangelical Christian rock bands are playing music “indistinguishable in terms of the sound of the music from the rock culture that came out of a very different, irreligious secular tradition.”

    What rock music is he talking about?

    Rock music in this country is directly linked to blues music from the American south.
    American blues music – Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Ray “Genius” Charles – they’re directly linked to black gospel music.

    He’s also wrong about intelligent design and creationism, but is it any surprise that if you can’t get the music right, everything else falls apart.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    He’s dead on right. On the ID part, Evangelical critics of ID have said similar things.

    CT editorial a few years ago:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/008/3.42.html

    “Like so much of the Eastern intellectual establishment, some at Pew were troubled by the conservative politics and demagogic character of popular evangelical leaders. But they knew that evangelicalism was a movement of many moods. They saw its scholars as more moderate, better behaved, and less threatening to the status quo than the movement’s populist leaders. So for some at Pew, strengthening evangelical scholarship was a way to housetrain an unruly arrival in the public square by encouraging its better instincts.”

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  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    BL–rock music came from the blues that didn’t get played in church, so Gladwell’s right.

    So, according to Dyson, the good thing about evolution is that it makes aborting Down’s syndrome baby’s moral. Yikes.

  • Libertine

    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.

    Yeah. Except Christian “rock-’n’-roll” SUCKS BALLS.

    BL—rock music came from the blues that didn’t get played in church, so Gladwell’s right.

    Right! Rock just evolved from all those blues songs about God and Jesus that didn’t get any play at church!

    ??????????????????

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/ holmegm

    A sort of weird mix of prophecy and triumphalism here … like some sixties lefty predicting that the only thing we’ll be debating in 2005 is *how* collectivized the farms will be …

  • tmatt

    If we ever start a GetReligion podcast, I had already decided that the theme song would be Clapton performing “Crossroads.”

    Do you think the TIME crew has a clue that the whole ID fight is over getting to talk MORE about evolution, not less? The debate is about philosophy and the interpretation of data, not lab work.

    But you can see where the philosophy goes, can’t you? On both sides.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Libertine

    Rock came (in part) from the blue songs you couldn’t play in church–

  • ceemac

    tmatt:

    If we ever start a GetReligion podcast, I had already decided that the theme song would be Clapton performing “Crossroads.”

    Seems like someome from the Orthodox tradition would choose the ancient Robert Johnson version. Are you turning into a modernist or something?

    written with a VBG.

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  • B L

    This is silly, I know, but it’s just so clear to me.

    Forgive me for talking about evolution and familial relations but the blues song you couldn’t play/sing in church directly involved from those that you could.
    They also cross-fertilized continuously.
    Listen to the most recent Blind Boys of Alabama cds. And close your eyes.
    You could be in church or you could even be in a juke joint.
    After all, in many of these songs they’re covering songs by Prince, Ben Harper and others.

    Ah, but this gets away from the topic of how the media gets or doesn’t get religion.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Ignoring the argument over evolution (because we’ve had it, what, four times already?), it looks to me like Gladwell’s talking about cultural markers, and how the markers that alow you to distinguish between evanglical and mainstream cultures (I’m elliding over the fact that there’s more then one culture I’m bundling under “mainstream”) are getting more subtle.

    Used to be, the evanglicals would react to mainstream cultural markers — like the driving beat of rock music — as markers of a non-Christian lifestyle, like 17-century Puritans recoiling from a stained glass window. Gladwell points out that the modern evangelicals aren’t doing that as much, they’re adopting the forms of modern mainstream cultural expression to their own messages.

  • Mark

    Libertine:
    Bob’s right, mostly. Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters’ music was not church music; it was seen as being diametrically opposed to church music (read Greil Marcus). On the other hand, artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Elvis, etc. were heavily influenced by a church background. So we had this interesting church (but usually some sort of rebellion within the structures of church)/anti-church thing going on.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    B L writes:

    {Ah, but this gets away from the topic of how the media gets or doesn’t get religion.}

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care that a comment strays from the mission of this blog.

    Staying on message is the job of this blog’s authors. On posts I have written, comments are comments, and straying off-topic is perfectly welcome. You folks are offering me your comments and responses, not your homework assignments.

  • http://guildedlilies.tripod.com/index.html Steve Nicoloso

    Yep. Gladwell is dead-on. Sadly, evangelicalism has gotten paper-trained… and once it forgets utterly how to piss on the couch, it will have lost all of what value it ever had.

  • Tom Breen

    I think it’s interesting that a smart writer like Gladwell seems to be drawing his own conclusions from his own reporting and observation, while the two people who disagreed with him on ID sound like ideologues, arguing more from bias than anything else. It would be nice to see more commentators like Gladwell talking about religion; after all, although the material he draws from is hardly new (Christian rock concerts? Stop the presses!) it’s certainly a fresh take to say that we won’t be arguing as much about religion in the future.

    I couldn’t resist jumping into the music thing either:

    Rock and roll is based on more than just the blues. It’s based on country, bluegrass, gospel, and mid-century pop music, too. Don’t forget, one of Elvis Presley’s favorite singers was Dean Martin. Let’s not reduce one of America’s most vital art forms to pop sociology.


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