He didn’t get the reaction he wanted. Celeste tells me she and the other kids in the class shrugged. What’s the big deal? My own experience was similar. I learned about the spectacular power of Darwinian evolution at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque grade school and Bishop McDevitt high school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We were told that God could make life in any way He saw fit, and if He wanted to use secondary causes like natural selection rather than some special action, well, who were we to tell Him otherwise? It arguably shows even more power, the lesson went, for God to create relatively simple matter and laws which in the fullness of time would give rise to living creatures, including men and women who could respond with a free will to His love. It sounded fine to me.
My wife’s classmates, and mine, didn’t know it, but our indifference to evolution was shaped by our religious upbringing. Catholics have always been rather blasé about evolution. In our living room we have a copy of the 1907 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia (which Celeste rescued from the shredder at a local library’s discarded book sale)”complete with the imprimatur of John Cardinal Farley of New York, and published under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus Catholic Truth Committee. The encyclopedia carries a scholarly twenty-thousand-word article on evolution written by two Jesuits, one of whom was a professor of biology.
What is to be thought of the theory of evolution? Is it to be rejected as unfounded and inimical to Christianity, or is it to be accepted as an established theory altogether compatible with the principles of a Christian conception of the universe? the encyclopedia article asks. And it answers, We must carefully distinguish between the different meanings of the words theory of evolution in order to give a clear and correct answer to this question. Distinctions abound, but the gist of the article is that Christians should be thoughtful and follow the evidence where it leads, confident that the truth of nature does not contradict the truth of God. Reading the old Encyclopedia entry reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s observations in Orthodoxy that The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Unlike materialists, Christians can serenely evaluate the physical evidence. If the universe unfolded completely through the regularities of God’s laws, fine. If it unfolded mostly by law but also by irregularities or special actions of some sort, that’s fine too.
Unfortunately, there’s a large obstacle in the path of Christians who want to exercise their freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Christians may have more freedom than materialists in deciding on the best explanation for nature, but overwhelmingly it is materialists”or practical materialists”who tell Christians the story of nature. So information about the way the universe works almost invariably passes through a rigid materialistic filter before it reaches the general public.
Although the good brother at Mount Carmel undoubtedly thought he was giving his seventh-grade students the straight dope about the evidence for evolution, the picture of vertebrate embryos he flaunted was utterly bogus. As has been widely reported in the past few years, Ernst Haeckel, the nineteenth-century embryologist and Darwin booster who first drew the embryos, took extensive liberties with the representations, apparently to make them meet evolutionary expectations more closely. The drawings were widely featured in high-school biology textbooks for most of the twentieth century.
The false drawings had the full weight of the scientific magisterium behind them, explicitly endorsed by such luminaries as Nobel laureate James Watson and Bruce Alberts, a recent president of the elite National Academy of Sciences, 90 percent of whose self-selected members are avowed materialists. Watson, Alberts, or others of that company surely could have discovered the drawings’ doubtful provenance if they’d cared to. Yet there’s no reason to think the scientific elite was actively conspiring to mislead the public about evidence for evolution. Rather, the embryos drawn by Haeckel were what materialists expected Darwinian evolution to show.
Of course, the problem isn’t usually fake evidence being passed off as fact. But when the evidence vouched for by experts is skewed or pre-filtered through an alien philosophy, in what sense is a Christian free to follow the evidence of nature? I was told in Catholic high school that it looked strongly as though God must have used natural law to begin life”because scientists were making substantial progress in understanding how simple chemicals could combine to make the molecules of life. What they had in mind was the work of the chemist Stanley Miller, who back in the 1950s sparked a mixture of gases and saw that some chemicals were made that also occur in life.
Looking back, I don’t recall what evidence was presented in our high-school textbook, other than a picture of Miller standing beside his distillation apparatus. But I wrote the conclusion in my notebook without a second thought. Today, when I’m in a much better position to render a judgment, this claim based on Miller’s evidence strikes me as ludicrously inadequate. Now it looks to me”from the physical evidence”that God did something rather unusual to bring about the first life. Yet with the formation I received in science classes in Catholic schools, it didn’t surprise me at the secular universities I later attended that the topic of how life started was not even a subject for discussion. Of course it was by simple physical laws of some sort”everybody knew that. The only question was by what route material processes produced life.
As a postdoctoral associate at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1980s, I shared a lab with a woman named Joanne, a fellow postdoc and a serious Catholic. One slow afternoon she and I were gabbing about the Big Questions, including the origin of life. What would be needed to get the first cell? she asked. You’d need a membrane for sure, I said. And metabolism. Can’t do without a genetic code, she added, and proteins. We stopped, stared at each other, and both shouted, Naaaaahh! Then we laughed and got back to work. Even though we quickly realized that there were brick walls everywhere one looked, our only reaction was to chuckle. What we didn’t do was to question seriously whether the unfolding of physical laws could adequately explain the very start of life. I guess we vaguely thought that even if we didn’t know, somebody else must. Or, even if no one knew, somebody would figure it out soon. Or eventually. There we were, two young, well-educated Catholic scientists, as free as the wind to come to our own conclusions, and we punted.
I hate to imagine what Chesterton would say about such fine specimens of free Christian thinking as Joanne and me. Yet a practical problem arises from a Christian’s freedom to find a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in nature: In a scientific culture dominated by materialism, social pressure will push Christians to concede whatever is possible to concede as inevitable. At first, the concession might simply be irenic, to avoid conflict with materialists in areas that are cloudy and are thought to be unimportant. But as science progresses and claims more questions as legitimate fields of inquiry, the habit of not making waves can become dangerous, as the precedent of conceding the interpretation of material reality to materialists becomes firmly established. In the end, the ability of a Christian to see the hand of God in nature”not in some gauzy, emotional sense, but as a deduction from the physical data”is finally considered illegitimate. One day it was just the evolution of species that was unapproachable. The next day, the origin of life and the universe. Today even the origin of the mind falls under the materialist program.
Worse, Christian schools that pass on the latest materialistic thinking in science without clear warnings risk quashing the freedom of their students. It was in Catholic schools that Joanne and I had both been taught the scientifically correct attitude that the National Academy of Sciences later described in its 1999 booklet Science and Creationism . Although admitting the problem of the origin of life was seemingly intractable (in other words, no one has a clue), the academy chirpily kept the discussion firmly within a materialistic framework: For those who are studying the origin of life, the question is no longer whether life could have originated by chemical processes involving nonbiological components. The question instead has become which of many pathways might have been followed to produce the first cells. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the evidence is”the only conceivable conclusion is a materialistic one. Christians who unconsciously acquiesce in this line of thought have lost a significant chunk of their freedom.
As it happens, materialist scientists themselves are often as clueless as I was about the narrowness of their vision of reality. In a recent book titled Lessons From the Living Cell , a California biologist named Stephen Rothman demonstrates, both intentionally and unintentionally, the consequences of an impoverished metaphysics on even brilliant minds. He claims that for decades scientists laboring in Rothman’s own abstruse field of cellular protein transport ignored data that didn’t square with a favored hypothesis called vesicle theory. Whether they thought the evidence convincing or weak, or were ignorant of it, many biologists soon came to believe that the vesicle model was not a model at all, but a description of an actual mechanism, Rothman notes.
The scientific literature reflected this sense of understanding. Papers commonly talked about the model, either in general or regarding particular aspects of it, as known and secure events of nature. Textbooks followed suit by communicating this comprehension to students. Such descriptions did not highlight, or commonly even mention, the immense lacunae of ignorance, the unanswered questions about the model’s fidelity to nature. Instead they gave the impression that it was all known, or at least almost all known, a certified product of laboratory research . . . . When evidence was reported that did not seem to fit the theory, it, not the theory, became suspect.
As with any other group, when a bevy of scientists gets a bee in its collective bonnet, the buzz can be hard to silence. And, as Rothman writes, the factors that decide which theories will be taken for granted can be decidedly non-rational: Prejudice about ideas and people; personality; the power of authority and prior belief; raw political power; who controlled journals, organizations, and funds; the depth of commitment to an idea; and any and every other human and social attribute and foible that one can imagine are also at play.
As a longtime skeptic of Darwinian evolution, I was buoyed by Rothman’s analysis. This guy gets it. He knows the difference between a theory and evidence, knows that in science popularity doesn’t determine truth. Surely he’d also understand that if scientists can be influenced by non-rational factors in a recondite area such as cellular protein transport, they can be even more strongly influenced on deeply controversial topics such as evolution.
But then, on page 78, I was brought up short. As an antidote for the strong microreductionism that he disdains (defined as the view that we can come to understand all phenomena completely from knowledge of their underlying structures, their constituent parts), Rothman prescribes not open-mindedness but orthodox Darwinism! In a long, charming dialogue between two archetypal characters, Rothman’s alter ego Eudoxus lectures the reductionist Epistemon:
What is missing, what you have ignored or forgotten, is nothing less than the fundamental driving force of evolution”natural selection. It was by means of natural selection that the molecules you talk of became the material embodiment of the life forms that populate this planet. It was natural selection that connected them to life; that took their steel and cement and constructed life’s edifice. And it is here that strong microreductionism ultimately fails. It is in natural selection that we see that the parts do not entail the whole.
Took their steel and cement? Why did we switch to the language of heroic mythology? Here is a fellow who has spent scores of pages scolding co-workers for reaching conclusions based on inadequate or imagined evidence, and now he suddenly begins to lead the parade. For his grand claim that natural selection explains all of evolution”and therefore all of life”Rothman fails to present the rigorous evidence he demands of the those simply trying to explain the workings of protein transport. In fact, he presents no evidence. With a shrug of their archetypal shoulders, Epistemon and Eudoxus simply agree to agree that unknown material processes must have started life and that natural selection must explain everything thereafter. Darwinism is not judged the winner among competing explanations”it’s the only conceivable answer.
In my experience most scientists are not even as aware as Rothman of how underlying philosophical assumptions shape their conclusions and limit their choices: Materialism is the water they swim in, the tenet whose falsity is literally unimaginable.
Yet there are some who are aware of the role materialism plays, and they actively embrace it. Several years ago, marking the death of astronomer Carl Sagan, the distinguished biologist Richard Lewontin wrote in the New York Review of Books : Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, . . . in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
Meanwhile, in the introduction to his 1996 book Vital Dust , the Belgian Nobelist Christian de Duve forthrightly declared, A warning: All through this book, I have tried to conform to the overriding rule that life be treated as a natural process, its origin, evolution, and manifestations, up to and including the human species, as governed by the same laws as nonliving processes. And even while acknowledging that Darwinian evolution has no answers, the biochemist Franklin Harold in his 2001 The Way of the Cell peremptorily bans the idea that intelligence is necessary to explain some aspects of life: We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity; but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.
Even more chilling are passages such as this: The greatest scientific advance of the last 1,000 years was providing the evidence to prove that human beings are independent agents whose lives on earth are neither conferred nor controlled by celestial forces. Although it may be more conventional to measure scientific progress in terms of specific technological developments, nothing was more important than providing the means to release men and women from the hegemony of the supernatural. This isn’t from a book or magazine article, or even from an editorial in a science journal. It’s the beginning of a review article in the journal Cell , concerning the regulation of molecules entering and exiting various compartments of the cell”a technical review of a technical topic in a technical journal. The fact that the hegemony of the supernatural is offhandedly denounced reflects not only on the authors, but on the mindset of the scientific community that would find it unremarkable.
Let me pull together a few threads to bring the dilemma into clear focus. In the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio , John Paul II points out: It is not too much to claim that the development of a good part of modern philosophy has seen it move further and further away from Christian Revelation, to the point of setting itself quite explicitly in opposition. A major tenet of the explicitly antagonistic philosophy, he observes, is scientism, which relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy. A big problem is that the undeniable triumphs of scientific research and contemporary technology have helped to propagate a scientistic outlook, which now seems boundless, given its inroads into different cultures and the radical changes it has brought. And here is the rub: There are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based?
Who indeed? Everyone, including scientists, relies on others for the overwhelming majority of information they accept about the way nature works. For just this reason, I had been surprised to find out Haeckel’s embryo drawings were false, surprised to discover what I was taught in high school about the origin of life and evolution didn’t square with the scientific literature I later read. Yet if for truths which are simply believed about the natural world Christians must rely on those with a scientistic outlook”who regard religious knowledge as mere fantasy, who are quite explicitly in opposition to Christian Revelation, who have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism, who will vouch for patent absurdity, and who want to release men and women from the hegemony of the supernatural”well, then, Christians are in a lot of trouble.
In 1998 Larson and Witham published a survey in the journal Nature of members of the National Academy of Sciences; it showed that, overall, 90 percent of the members were materialists (and therefore atheists), with the number rising to 95 percent for biologists. Although the figures are lower (around 60 percent) for ordinary scientists, and lower still for other scientifically knowledgeable groups such as physicians and engineers, the tone is set at the top. Might the academy members’ materialistic views color the data? Might the academy recommend that science be taught in ways that restrict a Christian student’s intellectual freedom?
Of course, people are allowed to be materialists if they choose. Thoughtful persons such as, say, Richard Lewontin, who consciously choose materialism over theism, are well within their rights. They are also within their rights to argue strongly for the correctness of their views. But the problem is not such explicit and deliberate materialism. The problem is rather socially contagious materialism, spread more by social pressure than by rational argument. The social pressure doesn’t have to be overt; it doesn’t have to involve ridicule or arm-twisting. It is often just an intellectual climate in which most people do not recognize that their theoretical options have been artificially limited.
Socially acquired materialism often manifests itself by an emotional reaction when challenged. When I lecture in favor of the idea that intelligence is explicitly needed to explain some aspects of biology, the response is not typically, Gee, that’s interesting, but I disagree. Instead, people become angry, denouncing the mildest of challenges to materialism as unspeakable heresy. Once after a lecture in Virginia a student declared she was going to dedicate her life to demonstrating I was wrong. In Canada an academic ran after me with a loaded rat trap, inviting me to stick my finger in it to see if it worked (I use a mousetrap as an example of the sort of system that can’t be made by Darwinian processes). After a lecture to the biochemistry department of a major west-coast university, a group of students I spoke with sullenly agreed that the evidence for Darwinism wasn’t there. Nevertheless, they viewed the alternative with contempt and passionately swore to seek a materialistic answer. At a debate before the Royal Society of Medicine in London, I argued for the incontestable position that science doesn’t yet objectively know whether Darwinian processes can explain the human mind, simply because philosophers and neurobiologists don’t yet even know what constitutes the human mind. After all, I said, one can’t contend that science knows how an undefined entity could be produced by an unspecified process. By a show of hands, about 95 percent of the assembled scientists disagreed. Of course science already knows natural selection can explain the human mind”because science already knows Darwinian processes explain everything.
With such a uniformity of prejudice in the scientific community, how can we ensure that children consciously realize from an early age the extent of their freedom to interpret nature? Should Christian scientists simply point out for Christian students and nonscientists where the data end and materialistic presumptions begin?
Unfortunately, Christian scientists suffer from the same baleful influences as everyone else, including the influence of materialistic presuppositions. As a young man I was happy as a clam with my theistic-Darwinian view of nature. As a Christian I was free to assume a considerable amount of settled order. In my mushy mind, this meant accepting claims that were based on materialism and scorning the benighted Christians who didn’t accept them. Even now, I am sometimes singled out by Darwinists as the most reasonable Intelligent Design proponent, because I’ve written that I think common descent is true. I’m embarrassed to admit that I derive some odd, involuntary pleasure from being thought the best of the lot. My reaction is especially irrational because some of my Intelligent Design colleagues who disagree with me on common descent have greater familiarity with the relevant science than I do.
We all desire to be admired as much, and scorned as little, as possible. So unless we have a stronger reason to anchor us, we tend to drift away from the contempt and toward the applause. In a profession dominated by materialism, social pressure pushes one to accept as many materialistic premises as one can. Since Christian intellectual freedom is compatible with near-complete agreement, that’s the boundary toward which one floats, whether it is true or not. Other things being equal, a Christian scientist is no more reliable than anyone else at drawing lines between evidence and speculation.
I think it is much more important for a Christian to be fully aware of his intellectual freedom than to be correct on any particular scientific matter. But in order to preserve that freedom, Christian students must be explicitly instructed in it. One way to make the topic more realistic to students might be to have them read excerpts of works by folks such as Richard Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, and other scientists who have consciously chosen materialism over against theism. Students should be told about polls showing that most top scientists are materialists. Most effective, I think, would be to teach them past examples, such as Haeckel’s embryo drawings, where materialistic presuppositions drove the acceptance of a false or questionable theory.
If more Christian students were so instructed, and if their mature thoughts eventually leavened the scientific community, maybe some future Holy Cross brother in the Bronx could hold up a drawing of a human embryo and announce to his science class with a flourish, You’re fearfully and wonderfully made. Get used to it.
Michael J. Behe is professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box .