Debating Darwin



You have given in First Things almost twelve pages to Phillip E. Johnson (“Evolution as Dogma: The Establishment of Naturalism,” October 1990 and “A Reply to My Critics,” November 1990) and less than four pages to his critics (“Responses to Phillip Johnson,” October). This is not a level playing field.

Johnson’s rebuttal shows that he is impenetrable. He says that “the molecular comparisons tell us nothing about how one kind of creature (e.g., a rodent) can change into another (e.g., a whale).” William Provine and I laboriously explained to Johnson that living organisms descend from a common ancestor, not from each other. This is central to evolution and is buttressed by the molecular comparisons.

Evolution is one of the greatest intellectual adventures in history, and it is proceeding apace, illuminated by the human genome project. I am afraid that you are leading your readers into a cultural morass by giving them a second dose of the vaporings of a lawyer who is trying to make a name for himself by holding forth on a subject he doesn’t understand. Johnson complains that “Darwinists” try to prevent “critics” from getting a fair hearing, because Provine and I say that his essay should not have been published. But critics should do their homework before they are given a hearing; otherwise, the literature becomes cluttered with nonsense. We have to spend much time fighting the creationist challenge to science, including geology and astronomy as well as evolution.

Matthew Berke’s response begins by alluding to Johnson’s allegation about a “trade secret of paleontology.” Evidently he either did not read or did not believe me when I pointed out that there are no such secrets in science.

Thomas H. Jukes
Berkeley, CA


Matthew Berke, in his response to Phillip E. Johnson’s essay on evolution, trots out an old war horse of Christian apologetics. He argues that, whatever may be the case about the formation of human physiognomy, the human capacity for objective knowledge could not have been formed “without a creative act by some transcendent agency, the God of the Bible being the prime suspect.” The inconceivability of any other, naturalistic explanation for this intellectual capacity puts the natural sciences, including evolutionary biology, in their place once and for all. A Darwinian account of the human intellectual capacity, for example, cannot even be formulated without denying the very thing that places any such account in the realm of objective knowledge claims, the ability to transcend the processes of nature. “To deny, in the name of science, the freedom that transcends nature [says Berke] is thus to destroy the implicit foundation of scientific as well as religious truth.“

This argument works only if you happen to think that the natural sciences are in the business of approximating a God’s-eye view of things. Then, of course, a theory about human beings that has no place in it for that God-like capacity has no standing as a piece of natural science.

But, if you happen to think that the natural sciences are in the business of enhancing our security in the world by improving our ability to predict and control things, then the matter is quite different. In this case, the fact that a theory about human beings has no place in it for a Godlike transcendence of nature is neither here nor there so far as its standing as a piece of science is concerned.

Such a theory might, for example, explain the natural sciences as special cases of the human ability to manipulate sounds and marks and, by so doing, come up with vocabularies that facilitate prediction and control. The explanation of this linguistic ability, in turn, is no more mysterious in its own way than that of the ability of birds to manipulate twigs. Both are treated as behavioral characteristics the formation of which is explicable in Darwinian terms.

Such a Darwinian naturalistic account of our intellectual capabilities is neither self-refuting nor does it fly in the face of any obvious or self-evident facts about ourselves. It does conflict with loaded self-descriptions, like those of Berke, that make our intellectual capabilities out to be supernatural in character by definition. But, unless you take the truth of biblical Christianity to be a matter of intuitive certainty, this latter conflict is by no means as decisive as Berke makes it out to be.

Berke’s argument is one old war horse that should be put out to pasture, the sooner the better.

J. Wesley Robbins
Indiana University at South Bend


Professor Phillip E. Johnson will undoubtedly defend himself against William B. Provine and Thomas Jukes. However, we readers who subscribe to your publication in order to be enlightened on matters of religion and public life must come to your defense against the charges of editorial dereliction.

When Provine says that only “an uncritical or uninformed editorial process” permitted the article to be published, and when Jukes states that nothing in the article “makes it worth publishing,” they exhibit precisely the kind of “scientific” arrogance that Johnson finds fault with in his informative article.

Richard M. Harnett
San Francisco, CA


As I read Phillip E. Johnson’s article, I at first wondered why First Things was devoting space to the old “Monkey Trial” debate. Then I read the responses and was struck by the intense rage of his critics. William Provine and Thomas Jukes apparently want to silence Johnson and they are willing to attack the intelligence and judgment of publishers and editors in order to do it. Provine says, “Only an uncritical or uninformed editorial process could allow this sham to be published.” Jukes adds, “There is nothing in this article that makes it worth publishing.” This is harsh stuff!

Since I find nothing either obscene or treasonous in Phillip Johnson’s article, I can only conclude that he must be saying something important (maybe even something close to the truth) in order to evoke such hostile rebuttals. I do know the problem does not lie with the editors of First Things . Thank you for bringing your readers up to date on the current state of the evolution/ creationism struggle. I will now pay more attention to what I previously thought was an outdated issue.

Phillip H. Harris
Alexandria, VA


I do not know if Phillip Johnson’s arguments against “evolution as dogma” are correct. But the “naturalism” arguments of William B. Provine against those of Johnson present a problem that is even more puzzling than those found in the evolution debate.

The problem is this: If Provine is correct in asserting that there is no free will and that everything can be explained by a philosophy of naturalism, then every phenomenon in the universe, from the Big Bang to Provine’s own thought processes, exists as a natural phenomenon and only as a natural phenomenon, i.e., something with no value. All that can be said is: what is, is.

If this is the case, however, then why is Provine critical of Johnson for reaching certain conclusions about evolution? If Provine’s naturalism is correct, Johnson was no more “free” in reaching those conclusions than an apple is from falling off a tree, and Provine was no more free in espousing naturalism than water is from boiling at a certain temperature.

Gareth Nelson points out in his response to Johnson that “human judgment is the only source of error on this planet.” But Provine tells us that “free will,” i.e., the ability to choose, is one of those “lofty desires” that are “hopeless,” in a category with the existence of God, meaning in life, and life after death. Yet somehow”they do not tell us how”the naturalists, in expressing their thoughts, stand above the processes of nature, because they tell us that the movements of matter and anti-matter that make up their thought processes have value (they are “correct”) above and beyond the various material processes that form them. Provine believes “modern evolutionary biology is true.” In what sense can it be “true” if naturalism tells us that choosing between true and false is a hopeless desire?

Dr. Provine may say”indeed, must say, as a naturalist”that I am fooling myself in believing that what I am writing is a product of my “free will.” Perhaps he is right”but if he is, why is his illusion “better” than mine, since, if all that can be said ultimately is “What is, is,” there can be no value, only the movement of matter in various forms, over which neither he nor I have control?

The fact that he believes he “prefers” his view can theoretically be traced to further movements of matter and anti-matter (the peculiarities of sub-atomic phenomena do not change the structure of the naturalist argument in the least), to which he must apply another “value” judgment, in an infinite regression, because that judgment is once again matter in motion, and nothing more.

If Provine’s theory of naturalism is wrong, then it is wrong. But if it is right, it is neither right nor wrong”it just is. The only way the naturalists can win the game is by sneaking in a ghost of transcendent “meaning” into their material thought-machines”exactly what they have been accusing believers of for years.

William F Gavin
McLean, VA


Phillip Johnson’s argument concerning Darwinian evolution ignores an important consideration: the (enormously) small probability that a system of higher order will slowly evolve from a system of lower order (second law of thermodynamics). This is not to say that higher order cannot spontaneously arise from lower order, only that the likelihood is vanishingly small unless the system is far from equilibrium in a thermodynamic sense. However, Darwinian evolution with its small incremental steps must be very close to equilibrium, which seems to violate the second law.

Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” in which marked changes occur over short time spans may be consistent with highly nonequilibrium physical systems (Ilia Prigogine’s theories of self-organization and the closely related “chaos theory” popularized by James Gleick may be applicable to the “evolutionary” process). One possibility is that gene systems may pass into some sort of short-lived “chaotic” pattern. When the chaos dies out, whatever gene systems that are left are “frozen” and we have the new life forms. Those poorly adapted then die out and the rest survive until the next period of chaos. Although Johnson refers to Gould as a Darwinist, I dispute the claim. Darwinians are “equilibrium people”; Darwin himself was severely limited by the state of scientific knowledge of his day. The second law had not yet been completely formulated nor do I know of any evidence that he was more than cursorily conversant in the physical science that existed at the time.

I have ignored “creation science” because, as several of the critics have pointed out, it isn’t science . . . . On the other hand, a number of scientists including some of Johnson’s critics have invited the intrusion of the “creationists” by wrongly suggesting or implying that science can find an answer to every question that arises in nature. Why do people who pride themselves on their dedication to scientific practices”and by implication intellectual honesty”cling so tightly to dogma such as classical Darwinism which is so highly suspect? I submit that it stems from two sources, heavy intellectual investment in the status quo and reluctance to admit that “I don’t know.” It was once thought that the methods of the physical and biological sciences could be extended to the social realm (e.g., “scientific Marxism”). Now that the proponents of this thesis have been humbled, maybe the physical and biological scientists should learn some humility.

Robert C. Whitten
Cupertino, CA


Phillip Johnson’s assertion that philosophical naturalism has been smuggled into the definition of “science” to assist the acceptance of evolution is quite correct. The scientific methodology for discovering and verifying knowledge is limited to that which arrives through our natural senses, but the scientific spirit should be friendly toward knowledge from any source. Science is incapable of peering into the supernatural realm, but neither can it rule it out a priori. Therefore, science should not arrogantly say that all correct hypotheses must be natural.

I am surprised at Irving Kristol’s rebuttal. He calls creationism a “pseudo-scientific doctrine” and “literal biblical faith” that has no place in scientific instruction. Other responders also cited this unremitting ACLU and media falsehood, but Kristol should know better since his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has written so brilliantly on Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. He fails to make the distinction between biblical creationism (which is legitimate in its sphere) and scientific creationism, which is that body of scientific evidence that militates against the evolutionary hypothesis and should be welcome in any scientific arena, including the classroom.

Scientific creationism is what we creationists sought to restore to our public school classrooms in recent state laws. As things stand now, evolution is the only scientific hypothesis since the Ptolomaic cosmology that has been protected from scientific criticism through force of court edict. This is glaringly contrary to the spirit of science.

Frank Vosler
Creation Research,
Science Education Foundation
Columbus, OH


Phillip E. Johnson’s article raised some important issues but missed a major irony: Those who worship at the temple of scientism share assumptions with biblical fundamentalists. Biblical fundamentalists claim that they are able to read scriptural texts without interpreting them. Scriptural texts supposedly “say” something independent of interpretive acts.

Scientistic fundamentalists claim that empirical data “say” something independent of the interpreter’s art. These data, they aver, support the doctrine of naturalistic evolution, the dogma that naturalistic evolution is a fact and not an inference.

Fundamentalists of either stripe carefully avoid any consideration of philosophical hermeneutics. Whatever is understood is understood in terms of interpretive acts. In each interpretive act something of the interpreter’s subjectivity is cast into the texts or data that are interpreted. Jimmy Swaggart and Stephen Jay Gould reach different conclusions about evolution not only on rational grounds but also on the basis of who they are and what beliefs they bring to their interpretive acts . . . .

To be a fundamentalist, in the pejorative sense, a person must be ready to pronounce ipse dixits that portray interpreted reality as uninterpreted and free from any taint of the values underlying inferential processes. The basis of such a readiness, of course, is located not in intellectual error but in a flaw of moral character.

All that I have written above, naturally, is by way of interpretation.

Leon McKenzie
Indianapolis, IN


Several years ago, my young daughter was watching a PBS show on evolution. When I started to interject a little religious footnote, she said, “Be quiet, I want to see how God did this.”

One can get quite tangled up for nothing over the idea that evolution is in conflict with creationism. In Genesis, God reveals that creation was sequential and not all at once. God’s “day” is not our day. His could be a billion years, or an instant. He is not limited by the finite values that men place on the sun coming up and going down.

I find it comforting knowing that I am created. One has a certain kinship with trees and sunsets. Yet [that knowledge] also imposes certain limitations and responsibilities. [It is strange that] for some people it is easier to believe that they slithered into existence unassisted.

Nancy E. Hanel
Ijamsville, MD


I found Phillip Johnson’s “Evolution as Dogma” most instructive. I am not a master in science or theology, but a run-of-the-mill Jesuit. .

Science says there is no doubt whatsoever about the fact of evolution. I agree. The dictionary defines evolution as any process of formation or growth. The fact is obvious to everyone that the infant evolves into the adult. What science defines as evolution is a continuous genetic adaptation of organisms or species to the environment by selection, hybridization, inbreeding, and mutation by which process the amoeba eventually becomes an elephant. That fact is not yet established by evidence anywhere.

Theology says that God is the sole source and creator of all that has been, is now, or ever will be. For this also there is no empirical evidence. It is inherently a religious doctrine, a belief based on historical testimony of prophets claiming inspiration from God.

Both science and religion are dealing with the same subject, the phenomena of nature. They disagree because they have differing metaphysical principles. Science says everything proceeds from a cause, a continuous genetic adaptation of the amoeba or other primary organism. Religion says that God is that cause, the first and absolute cause.

Both answers are hypothetical in trying to fit evidence to reality in accord with primary assumptions: nothing is if God is not, or, nature is automatic. Science deduces its conclusion from curious material data; religion accepts its explanation from spiritual sources. The religious hypothesis says that the Creator has endowed all things according to their natures with the potentials for growth, change, and modification in the various environments of this earth through successive generations.

This is the evidence of reality everyone experienced and accepted”pagans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Christians”until Darwin returned from the Galapagos with another hypothesis that begat modern reliance upon physical science to explain (hypothetically) who we are and why we’re here. Take your choice.

John J. Barrett, S.J.
Brooklyn, NY


Religious Freedom Imperiled


Many thanks for “Polygamy, Peyote, and the Public Peace” (The Public Square, October 1990). It confirms what I’ve gradually come to suspect: Justice Antonin Scalia is a scary sort of guy.

I hadn’t paid that much attention to the Smith case. As a former narcotics agent, my initial sympathies were with the state. After all, you can’t justify everything via “free exercise” of religion, e.g., satanic child sacrifice or abortion. How would prolifers like me feel if, following a legal resolution of prenatal personhood, members of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) tried to claim an “abortion right” rooted in the First Amendment? They’d be hooted out of court, I hope.

Nonetheless, what’s disturbing about this case is Scalia’s determination that a state need not provide a credibly overriding reason to encroach upon religious practice. Richard John Neuhaus is right: Scalia is a strict majoritarian. (Witness his finding in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that abortion may be asserted as “a liberty interest”) As such, he basically doesn’t want to do what he’s supposed to he doing as a justice of the Supreme Court, i.e.. defending individual rights and (legitimate) liberties as fundamental to our law.

Evidence indicates that Scalia is every bit as opposed to the doctrine of natural law and fundamental rights as was (is?) Robert Bork. Bork maintained that our judicial system “can have nothing to do with any absolute set of truths existing independently and depending on God or the nature of the universe.”

Stephen Settle
New Holstein, WI


I wholeheartedly agree with Richard John Neuhaus that Employment Division v. Smith is a shockingly bad decision. Since Neuhaus raises a comparison with the Dred Scott decision, however, it is worth noting one important difference. Dred Scott held that the Constitution forbade any government attempt to limit slavery in the territories”and by foreclosing any such action, the Court helped precipitate the Civil War. By contrast, the recent peyote decision, although it rejected the Native Americans’ claim of constitutional right, permits states and the federal government to pass laws protecting religious conduct.

Such a measure has been introduced in Congress: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, sponsored by Congressmen Stephen Solarz and Paul Henry, would reinstate the requirement that the government prove a “compelling” interest in order to justify criminalizing conduct that is religiously motivated. Although the peyote decision is bad, the Court would have done far worse to hold (as some on the secular left have urged) that any attempt to exempt religious conduct from the law is unconstitutional advancement of religion. Unlike the peyote decision, such folly could not be corrected legislatively.

Thomas C. Berg
Chicago, IL



The main point made by Richard John Neuhaus, and the one that is most disturbing to me, because it is so unfounded, is that the Smith decision makes the free exercise clause “null and void” and leaves religious rights “stripped of their constitutional status” and “naked in the face of state power.”

The trouble with such an argument is that it assumes that the free exercise clause guarantees a right to religion-based exemptions. Such an assumption, however, is simply not warranted. It overlooks two basic facts. First, it was not until 1963, in Sherbert v. Verner, that the Supreme Court declared that such a right existed, and even then, its declaration was ambiguous in nature because the law involved in that case from which an exemption was sought was not religion-neutral. (It allowed unemployment compensation to be given to persons who refused for religious reasons to work on Sunday but denied it to persons who refused for religious reasons to work on Saturday.)

Moreover, although Justice Scalia can perhaps be criticized for saying, “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate” (emphasis added), and for distorting some of the Court’s free exercise decisions after Sherbert, such as Wisconsin v. Yoder iW2), the fact remains that the doctrine that persons have a constitutional right to religion-based exemptions has had a very tenuous existence. Aside from Yoder and a few unemployment compensation cases, the Court has refused to use the doctrine to protect religious practices that conflicted with valid laws. I ask you, therefore, if it is so obvious that the free exercise clause guarantees a right to religion-based exemptions, then why did it take so long and why has it been so difficult for the Supreme Court to see the obvious?

The second basic fact that Neuhaus overlooks in assuming that the free exercise clause guarantees a right to religion-based exemptions is that there is no clear direct historical evidence”at least none that I have been able to find after years of searching”that that clause was originally intended to create such a right. In fact, what is abundantly clear is that many of the early Americans most identified with the cause of religious freedom, namely, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, John Leiand, and Thomas Jefferson, explicitly denied that the idea of religious freedom entailed a right, natural or constitutional, to be excused from having to obey valid laws that other persons were required to obey. They may have believed that Christians and other religious persons were morally bound to disobey laws that conflicted with the demands of their religion or conscience, hut they did not believe that the government was required to let them disobey with impunity.

One passage by James Madison, taken out of context, is simply not enough to make your case. It must be read in light of other passages, for example, his proposed draft of the article dealing with religious freedom at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1776. It reads in part as follows: “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it [religion], according to the dictates of conscience; and therefore . . . no man or class of men, ought, on account of religion to be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges, nor subjected to any penalties or disabilities, unless, under color of religion, the preservation of equal liberty and the existence of the State be manifestly endangered.” (emphasis added)

Ellis M. West
University of Richmond
Richmond, VA

Articles by Austin Stone

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