April 2005

Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.  By Paul Farmer. University of California Press. 402 pages. $15.95.

Paul Farmer is an interesting man. The subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, and a winner of a MacArthur Foundation grant, he lavishes his education, talent, and energies on the poor. Despite a schedule that includes teaching at the Harvard School of Medicine and running a clinic in rural Haiti, he finds the time to consult internationally on infectious disease control.

In his spare hours he also writes books. And the topic is always the same: health care (or the lack thereof) and diseases and how they affect the poor. Now he has a special plea. He would like an understanding of human rights that includes not just food and shelter but also health, pointing out that political rights can mean very little if people are too poor or too sick to care. To this end, he relates his experiences in Russia, rural Mexico, and Haiti -- places where the failure to honor basic rights compounds illness and often leads to premature death.

Along the way he asks: When we say everyone is entitled to health care, do we really mean everyone? Or just the people whom we can serve conveniently and cost-effectively? Is it possible that a preferential option for the poor might mean that the impoverished get the best care, that experimental studies on them involve the highest ethical standards? Dr. Farmer suggests that by following the organizing standard of "observe, judge, act," it is possible to effect real change, to end the needless mortality from preventable diseases.

It is hard to know if Dr. Farmer's interpretation of international economic systems is correct. He draws on many sources and claims not to favor any one. Certainly his continuing love affair with Cuba invites caution. His indictment of the current and recent American administrations seems too harsh; Americans are not responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world. And, in fact, Farmer points out that many European societies with much-touted government-financed universal health care stringently require full citizenship to qualify. Nor can personal responsibility be overlooked, although in the case of AIDS, for instance, one wonders if the sexual encounters of uneducated and impoverished women in Haiti or Africa can always be assumed to be fully consensual. Gender inequality actually means something in these contexts. Should being arrested for nonviolent crimes and being held interminably before trial lead to fatal tuberculosis, as it often does in Russia?

Are these crimes or sins greater than those of powerful, sometimes corrupt governments and multinational corporations? As he quotes Wendell Berry at the beginning of this remarkable book, "Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of humans to live under the laws of justice and mercy."

- Elizabeth Hanink

The Design Revolution.  By William A. Dembski. InterVarsity Press. 325 pages. $22.

The Design Revolution is an update on a movement that challenges dogmatic Darwinism in the sciences and, indirectly, the pervasive secularism of modern life.

Dembski is a mathematician and philosopher who is a leading spokesman for the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, which he describes this way: "There are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence."

ID proponents believe that they can scientifically make the case that at least some aspects of nature were crafted for a purpose -- that they were designed.

Human beings have long thought that the world around them had, at least, the fingerprints of a larger order. Christianity long held that the ordered cosmos provided evidence of a Creator. That view came under attack from the philosopher David Hume. The most sustained attack, however, has come from Darwinists, who reject utterly the idea that there is a designer of or purpose to the cosmos.

The ID movement aims to show where this naturalistic view falls short, and how Intelligent Design can be better science than dogmatic Darwinism.

The Design Revolution reviews specific areas where, ID proponents say, Darwinism falls short scientifically. The book also sketches out an alternative pathway for science.

The Design Revolution provides new insights into how Darwinism and its associated secularism have shaped many current debates, and, in some cases, misshapen them. Dembski outlines how many modern theological trends are in effect compromises with Darwinism, or appeasements of it, or outright surrenders to it.

Dembski insists that ID is a scientific project, not necessarily a Christian or even theological one (though he admits that it does have theological implications), and that it will rise or fall on whether it is fruitful for scientific research. Of course, the authentically scientific is always tentative and temporary. Stephen Hawking, the famed physicist, recently made headlines when he recanted a long-held theory on black holes in the cosmos. Science must always be ready to reverse field. A faith based on science, as Kierkegaard and other thinkers have shown, is walking on thin ice.

People living in an era when materialistic naturalism is the overwhelming presence in public life may well have trouble conceiving of a transcendent, personal God. The ID movement at least may be useful in giving us a broader and more profound way of looking at the world.

And, perhaps, ID may be the first crack in dogmatic Darwinism, and could be a harbinger of a major change in the Western secular worldview.

The Design Revolution's structure of 48 short chapters has its advantages and disadvantages. It is a worthwhile appetizer for a reader interested in learning about the ID debate. It is also a good update for someone who has been following the debate, though in most places it's clearly written for non-scientists.

But someone new to the subject might want more sustained focus on the key issues. Dembski's book Intelligent Design (also from InterVarsity) might be a better place for such a person to start.

- Jim Tynen

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