The orthodox explanation of what is wrong with creationism goes something like this:
Science has accumulated overwhelming evidence for evolution. Although there are controversies among scientists regarding the precise mechanism of evolution, and Darwin’s particular theory of natural selection may have to be modified or at least supplemented, there is no doubt whatsoever about the fact of evolution. All of today’s living organisms including humans are the product of descent with modification from common ancestors, and ultimately in all likelihood from a single microorganism that itself evolved from nonliving chemicals. The only persons who reject the fact of evolution are biblical fundamentalists, who say that each species was separately created by God about 6,000 years ago, and that all the fossils are the products of Noah’s Flood. The fundamentalists claim to be able to make a scientific case for their position, but “scientific creationism” is a contradiction in terms. Creation is inherently a religious doctrine, and there is no scientific evidence for it. This does not mean that science and religion are necessarily incompatible, because science limits itself to facts, hypotheses, and theories and does not intrude into questions of value, such as whether the universe or mankind has a purpose. Reasonable persons need have no fear that scientific knowledge conflicts with religious belief.
Like many other official stories, the preceding description contains just enough truth to mislead persuasively. In fact, there is a great deal more to the creation-evolution controversy than meets the eye, or rather than meets the carefully cultivated media stereotype of “creationists” as Bible-quoting know-nothings who refuse to face up to the scientific evidence. The creationists may be wrong about many things, but they have at least one very important point to argue, a point that has been thoroughly obscured by all the attention paid to Noah’s Flood and other side issues. What the science educators propose to teach as “evolution,” and label as fact, is based not upon any incontrovertible empirical evidence, but upon a highly controversial philosophical presupposition. The controversy over evolution is therefore not going to go away as people become better educated on the subject. On the contrary, the more people learn about the philosophical content of what scientists are calling the “fact of evolution,” the less they are going to like it.
To understand why this is so, we have to define the issue properly, which means that we will have to redefine some terms. Nobody doubts that evolution occurs, in the narrow sense that certain changes happen naturally. The most famous piece of evidence for Darwinism is a study of an English peppered-moth population consisting of both dark and light-colored moths. When industrial smoke darkened the trees, the percentage of dark moths increased, due to their relative advantage in hiding from predators. When the air pollution was reduced, the trees became lighter and more light moths survived. Both colors were present throughout, and so no new characteristics emerged, but the percentage of dark moths in the population went up and down as changing conditions affected their relative ability to survive and produce offspring.
Examples of this kind allow Darwinists to assert as beyond question that “evolution is a fact,” and that natural selection is an important directing force in evolution. If they mean only that evolution of a sort has been known to occur, and that natural selection has observable effects upon the distribution of characteristics in a population, then there really is nothing to dispute. The important claim of “evolution,” however, is not that limited changes occur in populations due to differences in survival rates. It is that we can extrapolate from the very modest amount of evolution that can actually be observed to a grand theory that explains how moths, trees, and scientific observers came to exist in the first place.
Orthodox science insists that we can make the extrapolation. The “neo-Darwinian synthesis” (hereafter Darwinism) begins with the assumption that small random genetic changes (mutations) occasionally have positive survival value. Organisms possessing these favorable variations should have a relative advantage in survival and reproduction, and they will tend to pass their characteristics on to their descendants. By differential survival a favorable characteristic spreads through a population, and the population becomes different from what it was. If sufficient favorable mutations show up when and where they are needed, and if natural selection allows them to accumulate in a population, then it is conceivable that by tiny steps over vast amounts of time a bacterial ancestor might produce descendants as complex and varied as trees, moths, and human beings.
That is only a rough description of the theory, of course, and there are all sorts of arguments about the details. Some Darwinists, such as Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould, say that new mechanisms are about to be discovered that will produce a more complicated theory, in which strictly Darwinian selection of individual organisms will play a reduced role. There is also a continuing debate about whether it is necessary to “decouple macroevolution from microevolution.” Some experts do not believe that major changes and the appearance of new forms (i.e., macroevolution) can be explained as the products of an accumulation of tiny mutations through natural selection of individual organisms (microevolution). If classical Darwinism isn’t the explanation for macroevolution, however, there is only speculation as to what sort of alternative mechanisms might have been responsible. In science, as in other fields, you can’t heat something with nothing, and so the Darwinist paradigm remains in place.
For all the controversies over these issues, however, there is a basic philosophical point on which the evolutionary biologists all agree. Some say new mechanisms have to be introduced and others say the old mechanisms are adequate, but nobody with a reputation to lose proposes to invoke a supernatural creator or a mystical “life force” to help out with the difficulties. The theory in question is a theory of naturalistic evolution, which means that it absolutely rules out any miraculous or supernatural intervention at any point. Everything is conclusively presumed to have happened through purely material mechanisms that are in principle accessible to scientific investigation, whether they have yet been discovered or not.
That there is a controversy over how macroevolution could have occurred is largely due to the increasing awareness in scientific circles that the fossil evidence is very difficult to reconcile with the Darwinist scenario. If all living species descended from common ancestors by an accumulation of tiny steps, then there once must have existed a veritable universe of transitional intermediate forms linking the vastly different organisms of today (e.g., moths, trees, and humans) with their hypothetical common ancestors. From Darwin’s time to the present, paleontologists have hoped to find the ancestors and transitional intermediates and trace the course of macroevolution. Despite claims of success in some areas, however, the results have been on the whole disappointing. That the fossil record is in important respects hostile to a Darwinist interpretation has long been known to insiders as the “trade secret of paleontology,” and the secret is now coming out in the open. New forms of life tend to be fully formed at their first appearance as fossils in the rocks. If these new forms actually evolved in gradual steps from pre-existing forms, as Darwinist science insists, the numerous intermediate forms that once must have existed have not been preserved.
To illustrate the fossil problem, here is what a particularly vigorous advocate of Darwinism, Oxford Zoology Professor (and popular author) Richard Dawkins, says in The Blind Watchmaker about the “Cambrian explosion,” i.e., the apparently sudden appearance of the major animal forms at the beginning of the Cambrian era:
The Cambrian strata of rocks, vintage about 600 million years, are the oldest ones in which we find most of the major invertebrate groups. And we find many of them in an advanced state of evolution, the very first time they appear. It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history. Needless to say, this appearance of sudden planting has delighted creationists. Evolutionists of all stripes believe, however, that this really does represent a very large gap in the fossil record, a gap that is simply due to the fact that, for some reason, very few fossils have lasted from periods before about 600 million years ago.
The “appearance of sudden planting” in this important instance is not exceptional. There is a general pattern in the fossil record of sudden appearance of new forms followed by “stasis” (i.e., absence of basic evolutionary change). The fossil evidence in Darwin’s time was so discouraging to his theory that he ruefully conceded: “Nature may almost be said to have guarded against the frequent discovery of her transitional or linking forms.” Leading contemporary paleontologists such as David Raup and Niles Eldredge say that the fossil problem is as serious now as it was then, despite the most determined efforts of scientists to find the missing links. This situation (along with other problems I am passing over) explains why many scientists would dearly love to confirm the existence of natural mechanisms that can produce basically new forms of life from earlier and simpler organisms without going through all the hypothetical intermediate steps that classical Darwinism requires.
Some readers may wonder why the scientists won’t admit that there are mysteries beyond our comprehension, and that one of them may be how those complex animal groups could have evolved directly from preexisting bacteria and algae without leaving any evidence of the transition. The reason that such an admission is out of the question is that it would open the door to creationism, which in this context means not simply biblical fundamentalism, but any invocation of a creative intelligence or purpose outside the natural order. Scientists committed to philosophical naturalism do not claim to have found the precise answer to every problem, but they characteristically insist that they have the important problems sufficiently well in hand that they can narrow the field of possibilities to a set of naturalistic alternatives. Absent that insistence, they would have to concede that their commitment to naturalism is based upon faith rather than proof. Such a concession could be exploited by promoters of rival sources of knowledge, such as philosophy and religion, who would be quick to point out that faith in naturalism is no more “scientific” (i.e., empirically based) than any other kind of faith.
Immediately after the passage above about the Cambrian explosion, Dawkins adds the remark that, whatever their disagreements about the tempo and mechanism of evolution, scientific evolutionists all “despise” the creationists who take delight in pointing out the absence of fossil transitional intermediates. That word “despise” is well chosen. Darwinists do not regard creationists as sincere doubters but as dishonest propagandists, persons who probably only pretend to disbelieve what they must know in their hearts to be the truth of naturalistic evolution. The greater their apparent intelligence and education, the greater their fault in refusing to acknowledge the truth that is staring them in the face. These are “dark times,” Dawkins noted last year in the New York Times, because nearly half of the American people, including many “who should know better,” refuse to believe in evolution. That such people have any rational basis for their skepticism is out of the question, of course, and Dawkins tells us exactly what to think of them: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”
Darwinists disagree with creationists as a matter of definition, of course, but the degree of contempt that they express for creationism in principle requires some explanation beyond the fact that certain creationists have used unfair tactics such as quoting scientists out of context. It is not just the particular things that creationists do that infuriate the Darwinists; the creationists’ very existence is infuriating. To understand why this is so, we must understand the powerful assumptions that mainstream scientists find it necessary to make, and the enormous frustration they feel when they are asked to take seriously persons who refuse to accept those assumptions.
What Darwinists like Dawkins despise as “creationism” is something much broader than biblical fundamentalism or even Christianity, and what they proclaim as “evolution” is something much narrower than what the word means in common usage. All persons who affirm that “God creates” are in an important sense creationists, even if they believe that the Genesis story is a myth and that God created gradually through evolution over billions of years. This follows from the fact that the theory of evolution in question is naturalistic evolution, meaning evolution that involves no intervention or guidance by a creator outside the world of nature.
Naturalistic evolution is consistent with the existence of “God” only if by that term we mean no more than a first cause which retires from further activity after establishing the laws of nature and setting the natural mechanism in motion. Persons who say they believe in evolution, but who have in mind a process guided by an active God who purposely intervenes or controls the process to accomplish some end, are using the same term that the Darwinists use, but they mean something very different by it. For example, here is what Douglas Futuyma, the author of a leading college evolutionary biology textbook, finds to be the most important conflict between the theory of evolution and what he thinks of as the “fundamentalist” perspective:
Perhaps most importantly, if the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal. The fundamentalist, in contrast, believes that everything in the world, every species and every characteristic of every species, was designed by an intelligent, purposeful artificer, and that it was made for a purpose. Nowhere does this contrast apply with more force than to the human species. Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere material mechanisms—but this seems to be the message of evolution. (Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution)
It is not only “fundamentalists,” of course, but theists of any description who believe that an intelligent artificer made humanity for a purpose, whether through evolution or otherwise. Futuyma’s doctrinaire naturalism is not just some superfluous philosophical addition to Darwinism that can be discarded without affecting the real “science” of the matter. If some powerful conscious being exists outside the natural order, it might use its power to intervene in nature to accomplish some purpose, such as the production of beings having consciousness and free will. If the possibility of an “outside” intervention is allowed in nature at any point, however, the whole naturalistic worldview quickly unravels.
Occasionally, a scientist discouraged by the consistent failure of theories purporting to explain some problem like the first appearance of life will suggest that perhaps supernatural creation is a tenable hypothesis in this one instance. Sophisticated naturalists instantly recoil with horror, because they know that there is no way to tell God when he has to stop. If God created the first organism, then how do we know he didn’t do the same thing to produce all those animal groups that appear so suddenly in the Cambrian rocks? Given the existence of a designer ready and willing to do the work, why should we suppose that random mutations and natural selection are responsible for such marvels of engineering as the eye and the wing?
Because the claims of Darwinism are presented to the public as “science,” most people are under the impression that they are supported by direct evidence such as experiments and fossil record studies. This impression is seriously misleading. Scientists cannot observe complex biological structures being created by random mutations and selection in a laboratory or elsewhere. The fossil record, as we have seen, is so unhelpful that the important steps in evolution must be assumed to have occurred within its “gaps.” Darwinists believe that the mutation-selection mechanism accomplishes wonders of creativity not because the wonders can be demonstrated, but because they cannot think of a more plausible explanation for the existence of wonders that does not involve an unacceptable creator, i.e., a being or force outside the world of nature. According to Gareth Nelson, “evidence, or proof, of origins—of the universe, of life, of all the major groups of life, of all the minor groups of life, indeed of all the species is weak or nonexistent when measured on an absolute scale.” Nelson, a senior zoologist at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote that statement in the preface to a recent book by Wendell Bird, the leading attorney for the creationist organizations. Nelson himself is no creationist, but he is sufficiently disgusted with Darwinist dogmatism that he looks benignly upon unorthodox challengers.
Philosophical naturalism is so deeply ingrained in the thinking of many educated people today, including theologians, that they find it difficult even to imagine any other way of looking at things. To such people, Darwinism seems so logically appealing that only a modest amount of confirming evidence is needed to prove the whole system, and so they point to the peppered-moth example as virtually conclusive. Even if they do develop doubts about whether such modest forces can account for large-scale change, their naturalism is undisturbed. Since there is nothing outside of nature, and since something must have produced all the kinds of organisms that exist, a satisfactory naturalistic mechanism must be waiting to be discovered.
The same situation looks quite different to people who accept the possibility of a creator outside the natural order. To such people, the peppered-moth observations and similar evidence seem absurdly inadequate to prove that natural selection can make a wing, an eye, or a brain. From their more skeptical perspective, the consistent pattern in the fossil record of sudden appearance followed by stasis tends to prove that there is something wrong with Darwinism, not that there is something wrong with the fossil record. The absence of proof “when measured on an absolute scale” is unimportant to a thoroughgoing naturalist, who feels that science is doing well enough if it has a plausible explanation that maintains the naturalistic worldview. The same absence of proof is highly significant to any person who thinks it possible that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in naturalistic philosophy.
Victory in the creation-evolution dispute therefore belongs to the party with the cultural authority to establish the ground rules that govern the discourse. If creation is admitted as a serious possibility, Darwinism cannot win, and if it is excluded a priori Darwinism cannot lose. The point is illustrated by the logic which the National Academy of Sciences employed to persuade the Supreme Court that “creation-scientists” should not be given an opportunity to present their case against the theory of evolution in science classes. Creation-Science is not science, said the Academy, because
it fails to display the most basic characteristic of science: reliance upon naturalistic explanations. Instead, proponents of “creation-science” hold that the creation of the universe, the earth, living things, and man was accomplished through supernatural means inaccessible to human understanding.
Besides, the Academy’s brief continued, creationists do not perform scientific research to establish the mechanism of supernatural creation, that being by definition impossible. Instead, they seek to discredit the scientific theory of evolution by amassing evidence that is allegedly consistent with the relatively recent, abrupt appearance of the universe, the earth, living things, and man in substantially the same form as they now have.
“Creation-science” is thus manifestly a device designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution. The dualistic mode of analysis and the negative argumentation employed to accomplish this dilution is, moreover, antithetical to the scientific method.
The Academy’s brief went on to cite evidence for evolution, but evidence was unnecessary. Creationists are disqualified from making a positive case, because science by definition is based upon naturalism. The rules of science also disqualify any purely negative argumentation designed to dilute the persuasiveness of the theory of evolution. Creationism is thus out of court—and out of the classroom—before any consideration of evidence. Put yourself in the place of a creationist who has been silenced by that logic, and you may feel like a criminal defendant who has just been told that the law does not recognize so absurd a concept as “innocence.”
With creationist explanations disqualified at the outset, it follows that the evidence will always support the naturalistic alternative. We can be absolutely certain that the Academy will not say, “The evidence on the whole supports the theory of evolution, although we concede that the apparent abrupt appearance of many fully formed animal groups in the Cambrian rocks is in itself a point in favor of the creationists.” There are no scientific points in favor of creation and there never will be any as long as naturalists control the definition of science, because creationist explanations by definition violate the fundamental commitment of science to naturalism. When the fossil record does not provide the evidence that naturalism would like to see, it is the fossil record, and not the naturalistic explanation, that is judged to be inadequate.
When pressed about the unfairness of disqualifying their opponents a priori, naturalists sometimes portray themselves as merely insisting upon a proper definition of “science,” and not as making any absolute claims about “truth.” By this interpretation, the National Academy of Sciences did not say that it is untrue that “the creation of the universe, the earth, living things, and man was accomplished through supernatural means inaccessible to human understanding,” but only that this statement is unscientific. Scientific naturalists who take this line sometimes add that they do not necessarily object to the study of creationism in the public schools, provided it occurs in literature and social science classes rather than in science class.
This naturalist version of balanced treatment is not a genuine attempt at a fair accommodation of competing worldviews, but a rhetorical maneuver. It enables naturalists effectively to label their own product as fact and its rival as fantasy, without having to back up the decision with evidence. The dominant culture assumes that science provides knowledge, and so in natural science classes fundamental propositions can be proclaimed as objectively true, regardless of how many dissenters believe them to be false. That is the powerful philosophical meaning of the claim that “evolution is a fact.” By contrast, in literature class we read poetry and fiction, and in social science we study the subjective beliefs of various cultures from a naturalistic perspective. If you have difficulty seeing just how loaded this knowledge-belief distinction is, try to imagine the reaction of Darwinists to the suggestion that their theory should be removed from the college biology curriculum and studied instead in a course devoted to nineteenth-century intellectual history.
By skillful manipulation of categories and definitions, the Darwinists have established philosophical naturalism as educational orthodoxy in a nation in which the overwhelming majority of people express some form of theistic belief inconsistent with naturalism. According to a 1982 Gallup poll aimed at measuring nationwide opinion, 44 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” That would seem to mark those respondents as creationists in a relatively narrow sense. Another 38 percent accepted evolution as a process guided by God. Only 9 percent identified themselves as believers in a naturalistic evolutionary process not guided by God. The philosophy of the 9 percent is now to be taught in the schools as unchallengeable truth.
Cornell University Professor William Provine, a leading historian of Darwinism, concluded from Gallup’s figures that the American public simply does not understand what the scientists mean by evolution. As Provine summarized the matter, “The destructive implications of evolutionary biology extend far beyond the assumptions of organized religion to a much deeper and more pervasive belief, held by the vast majority of people, that non-mechanistic organizing designs or forces are somehow responsible for the visible order of the physical universe, biological organisms, and human moral order.” Provine blamed the scientific establishment itself for misleading the public about the absolute incompatibility of contemporary Darwinism with any belief in God, designing forces, or absolute standards of good and evil. Scientific leaders have obscured the conflict for fear of jeopardizing public support for their funding, and also because some of them believe that religion may still play a useful role in maintaining public morality. According to Provine, “These rationalizations are politic but intellectually dishonest.”
The organizations that speak officially for science continue to deny that there is a conflict between Darwinism and “religion.” This denial is another example of the skillful manipulation of definitions, because there are evolution-based religions that embrace naturalism with enthusiasm. Stephen Jay Gould holds up the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “the greatest evolutionist of our century and a lifelong Russian Orthodox,” as proof that evolution and religion are compatible. The example is instructive, because Dobzhansky made a religion out of evolution. According to a eulogy by Francisco Ayala, “Dobzhansky was a religious man, although he apparently rejected fundamental beliefs of traditional religion, such as the existence of God and of life beyond physical death. His religiosity was grounded on the conviction that there is meaning in the universe. He saw that meaning in the fact that evolution has produced the stupendous diversity of the living world and has progressed from primitive forms of life to mankind. . . . He believed that somehow mankind would eventually evolve into higher levels of harmony and creativity.” In short, Dobzhansky was what we would today call a New Age pantheist. Of course evolution is not incompatible with religion when the religion is evolution.
Dobzhansky was one of the principal founders of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Another was Julian Huxley, who promoted a religion of “evolutionary humanism.” A third was the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson. Simpson explained in his book The Meaning of Evolution that “there are some beliefs still current, labeled as religious and involved with religious emotions, that conflict with evolution and are therefore intellectually untenable in spite of their emotional appeal.” Simpson added that it is nonetheless “self-evident... that evolution and true religion are compatible.” By true religion he meant naturalistic religion, which accepts that “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” Because efforts have been made to obscure the point, it should be emphasized that Simpson’s view is not some personal opinion extraneous to the real “science” of Darwinism. It is an expression of the same naturalism that gives Darwinists confidence that mutation and natural selection, Darwinism’s “blind watchmaker,” can do all the work of a creator.
Against this background readers may perceive the cruel irony in Justice Brennan’s opinion for the Supreme Court majority, holding the Louisiana “balanced treatment” statute unconstitutional because the creationists who promoted it had a “religious purpose.” Of course they had a religious purpose, if by that we mean a purpose to try to do something to counter the highly successful efforts of proponents of naturalism to have their philosophy established in the public schools as “fact.” If creationists object to naturalistic evolution on religious grounds, they are admonished that it is inappropriate for religion to meddle with science. If they try to state scientific objections, they are disqualified instantly by definitions devised for that purpose by their adversaries. Sisyphus himself, eternally rolling his stone up that hill in Hades, must pity their frustration.
The Darwinists are also frustrated, however, because they find the resurgence of creationism baffling. Why can’t these people learn that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming? Why do they persist in denying the obvious? Above all, how can they be so dishonest as to claim that scientific evidence supports their absurd position? Writing the introduction to a collection of polemics titled Scientists Confront Creationism, Richard Lewontin attempted to explain why creationism is doomed by its very nature. Because he is a dedicated Marxist as well as a famous geneticist, Lewontin saw the conflict between creation and evolution as a class struggle, with history inevitably awarding the victory to the naturalistic class. The triumph of evolution in the schools in the post-Sputnik era signaled that “the culture of the dominant class had triumphed, and traditional religious values, the only vestige of control that rural people had over their own lives and the lives of their families, had been taken from them.” In fact, many creationists are urban professionals who make their living from technology, but Lewontin’s basic point is valid. The “fact of evolution” is an instrument of cultural domination, and it is only to be expected that people who are being consigned to the dustbin of history should make some protest.
Lewontin was satisfied that creationism cannot survive because its acceptance of miracles puts it at odds with the more rational perception of the world as a place where all events have natural causes. Even a creationist “crosses seas not on foot but in machines, finds the pitcher empty when he has poured out its contents, and the cupboard bare when he has eaten the last of the loaf.” Lewontin thus saw creationism as falsified not so much by any discoveries of modern science as by universal human experience, a thesis that does little to explain either why so absurd a notion has attracted so many adherents or why we should expect it to lose ground in the near future.
Once again we see how the power to define can be used to distort, especially when the critical definition is implicit rather than exposed to view. (I remind the reader that to Lewontin and myself, a “creationist” is not necessarily a biblical literalist, but rather any person who believes that God creates.) If creationists really were people who live in an imaginary world of continual miracles, there would be very few of them. On the contrary, from a creationist point of view, the very fact that the universe is on the whole orderly, in a manner comprehensible to our intellect, is evidence that we and it were fashioned by a common intelligence. What is truly a miracle, in the pejorative sense of an event having no rational connection with what has gone before, is the emergence of a being with consciousness, free will, and a capacity to understand the laws of nature in a universe which in the beginning contained only matter in mindless motion.
Once we understand that biologists like Lewontin are employing their scientific prestige in support of a philosophical platform, there is no longer any reason to be intimidated by their claims to scientific expertise. On the contrary, the inability of most biologists to make any sense out of creationist criticisms of their presuppositions is evidence of their own philosophical naiveté. The “overwhelming evidence for naturalistic evolution” no longer overwhelms when the naturalistic worldview is itself called into question, and that worldview is as problematical as any other set of metaphysical assumptions when it is placed on the table for examination rather than being taken for granted as “the way we think today.”
The problem with scientific naturalism as a worldview is that it takes a sound methodological premise of natural science and transforms it into a dogmatic statement about the nature of the universe. Science is committed by definition to empiricism, by which I mean that scientists seek to find truth by observation, experiment, and calculation rather than by studying sacred books or achieving mystical states of mind. It may well be, however, that there are certain questions—important questions, ones to which we desperately want to know the answers—that cannot be answered by the methods available to our science. These may include not only broad philosophical issues such as whether the universe has a purpose, but also questions we have become accustomed to think of as empirical, such as bow life first began or bow complex biological systems were put together.
Suppose, however, that some people find it intolerable either to be without answers to these questions or to allow the answers to come from anyone but scientists. In that case science must provide answers, but to do this, it must invoke scientism, a philosophical doctrine which asserts arbitrarily that knowledge comes only through the methods of investigation available to the natural sciences. The Soviet Cosmonaut who announced upon landing that he had been to the heavens and had not seen God was expressing crudely the basic philosophical premise that underlies Darwinism. Because we cannot examine God in our telescopes or under our microscopes, God is unreal. It is meaningless to say that some entity exists if in principle we can never have knowledge of that entity.
With the methodology of scientism in mind, we can understand what it means to contrast scientific “knowledge” with religious “belief,” and what follows from the premise that natural science is not suitable for investigating whether the universe has a purpose. Belief is inherently subjective, and includes elements such as fantasy and preference. Knowledge is in principle objective, and includes elements such as facts and laws. If science does not investigate the purpose of the universe, then the universe effectively has no purpose, because a purpose of which we can have no knowledge is meaningless to us. On the other band, the universe does exist, and all its features must be explicable in terms of forces and causes accessible to scientific investigation. It follows that the best naturalistic explanation available is effectively true, with the proviso that it may eventually be supplanted by a better or more inclusive theory. Thus naturalistic evolution is a fact, and the fact implies a critical guiding role for natural selection.
Scientism itself is not a fact, however, nor is it attractive as a philosophy once its elements and consequences are made explicit. Persons who want naturalistic evolution to be accepted as unquestioned fact must therefore use their cultural authority to enact rules of discourse that protect the purported fact from the attacks of unbelievers. First, they can identify science with naturalism, which means that they insist as a matter of first principle that no consideration whatever be given to the possibility that mind or spirit preceded matter. Second, they can impose a rule of procedure that disqualifies purely negative argument, so that a theory which obtains some very modest degree of empirical support can become immune to disproof until and unless it is supplanted by a better naturalistic theory. With these rules in place, Darwinists can claim to have proved that natural selection crafted moths, trees, and people, and point to the peppered-moth observation as proof.
The assumption of naturalism is in the realm of speculative philosophy, and the rule against negative argument is arbitrary. It is as if a judge were to tell a defendant that he may not establish his innocence unless be can produce a suitable substitute to be charged with the crime. Such vulnerable rules of discourse need protection from criticism, and two distinct rhetorical strategies have been pursued to provide it. First, we have already seen that the direct conflict between Darwinism and theism has been blurred, so that theists who are not committed to biblical inerrancy are led to believe that they have no reason to be suspicious of Darwinism. The remaining objectors can be marginalized as fundamentalists, whose purportedly scientific objections need not be taken seriously because “everybody knows” that people like that will believe, and say, anything.
The second strategy is to take advantage of the prestige that science enjoys in an age of technology, by asserting that anyone who disputes Darwinism must be an enemy of science, and hence of rationality itself. This argument gains a certain plausibility from the fact that Darwinism is not the only area within the vast realm of science where such practices as extravagant extrapolation, arbitrary assumptions, and metaphysical speculation have been tolerated. The history of scientific efforts to explain human behavior provides many examples, and some aspects of cosmology, such as its Anthropic Principle, invite the label “cosmo-theology.” What makes the strategy effective, however, is not the association of Darwinism with the more speculative aspects of cosmology, but its purported link with technology. Donald Johanson put the point effectively, if crudely: “You can’t accept one part of science because it brings you good things like electricity and penicillin and throw away another part because it brings you some things you don’t like about the origin of life.”
But why can’t you do exactly that? That scientists can learn a good deal about the behavior of electrons and bacteria does not prove that they know bow electrons or bacteria came into existence in the first place. It is also possible that contemporary scientists are insightful upon some matters and, like their predecessors, thoroughly confused about others. Twentieth-century experience demonstrates that scientific technology can work wonders, of course. It also demonstrates that dubious doctrines based upon philosophy can achieve an undeserved respectability by cloaking themselves in the mystique of science. Whether Darwinism is another example of pseudoscience is the question, and this question cannot be answered by a vague appeal to the authority of science.
For now, things are going well for Darwinism in America. The Supreme Court has dealt the creationists a crushing blow, and state boards of education are beginning to adopt “science frameworks.” These policy statements are designed to encourage textbook publishers to proclaim boldly the fact of evolution— and therefore the naturalistic philosophy that underlies the fact—instead of minimizing the subject to avoid controversy. Efforts are also under way to bring under control any individual teachers who express creationist sentiments in the classroom, especially if they make use of unapproved materials. As ideological authority collapses in other parts of the world, the Darwinists are successfully swimming against the current.
There will be harder times ahead, however. The Darwinist strategy depends upon a certain blurring of the issues, and in particular upon maintaining the fiction that what is being promoted is an inoffensive “fact of evolution,” which is opposed only by a discredited minority of religious fanatics. As the Darwinists move out to convert the nation’s schoolchildren to a naturalistic outlook, it may become more and more difficult to conceal the religious implications of their system. Plenty of people within the Darwinist camp know what is being concealed, and cannot be relied upon to maintain a discreet silence. William Provine, for example, has been on a crusade to persuade the public that it has to discard either Darwinism or God, and not only God but also such non-materialistic concepts as free will and objective standards of morality. Provine offers this choice in the serene confidence that the biologists have enough evidence to persuade the public to choose Darwinism, and to accept its philosophical consequences.
The establishment of naturalism in the schools is supposedly essential to the improvement of science education, which is in such a dismal state in America that national leaders are truly worried. It is not likely, however, that science education can be improved in the long run by identifying science with a worldview abhorred by a large section of the population, and then hoping that the public never finds out what is being implied. The project requires that the scientific establishment commit itself to a strategy of indoctrination, in which the teachers first tell students what they are supposed to believe and then inform them about any difficulties only later, when it is deemed safe to do so. The weakness that requires such dogmatism is evident in Philip Kitcber’s explanation of why it is “insidious” to propose that the creationists be allowed to present their negative case in the classroom:
There will be . . . much dredging up of misguided objections to evolutionary theory. The objections are spurious—but how is the teacher to reveal their errors to students who are at the beginning of their science studies? . . . What Creationists really propose is a situation in which people without scientific training—fourteen-year-old students, for example—are asked to decide a complex issue on partial evidence.
A few centuries ago, the defenders of orthodoxy used the same logic to explain why the common people needed to be protected from exposure to the spurious heresies of Galileo. In fairness, the creationists Kitcher had in mind are biblical fundamentalists who want to attack orthodox scientific doctrine on a broad front. I do not myself think that such advocacy groups should be given a platform in the classroom. In my experience, however, Darwinists apply the same contemptuous dismissal to any suggestion, however well-informed and modestly stated, that in constructing their huge theoretical edifice upon a blind commitment to naturalism, they may have been building upon the sand. As long as the media and the courts are quiescent, they may retain the power to marginalize dissent and establish their philosophy as orthodoxy. What they do not have the power to do is to make it true.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Darwinism.
Responses to Phillip Johnson
William B. Provine
An appropriate subtitle for Phillip Johnson’s article would be, Why my fear and loathing of evolution prevent me from believing it is true despite the overwhelming evidence for it.
Evolution produces two results that cry out for explanation: adaptation and diversity. Sonar in bats, eyesight in eagles, sunlight energy capture in plants, and adaptations in general had only one kind of explanation before Darwin: the argument from design. The same argument explained the vast diversity of kinds of animals and plants. The greatest minds in the history of Western Civilization, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Boyle, all believed that the argument from design was the only reasonable explanation for adaptations in animals and plants. When they were alive, they were right.
As a young man, Charles Darwin was a creationist deeply impressed with William Paley’s version of the argument from design. But after returning from the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, reconsideration of what he had seen on the voyage convinced him that evolution had occurred. A short time later, when be deduced the theory of natural selection to explain the adaptations in which he had previously seen the handiwork of God, Darwin knew that be was committing cultural murder. He understood immediately that if natural selection explained adaptations, and evolution by descent were true, then the argument from design was dead and all that went with it, namely the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life. The immediate reactions to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species exhibit, in addition to favorable and admiring responses from a relatively few scientists, an understandable fear and disgust that has never disappeared from Western culture.
Johnson has excellent reasons for fearing and despising modern scientific conceptions of the evolutionary process. He clearly wants animals and plants (humans in particular—he says nothing about disgusting parasites) to have been designed by divine purpose. He wants to have free will and divinely inspired moral laws that last forever unchanged, and I suspect that be wants to have some kind of ultimate meaning in life coupled with life after death. If modern evolutionary biology is true, then all these lofty desires are hopeless.
In this article Johnson provides what he calls a “rough description” of modern evolutionary biology, raises a series of arguments against evolution, and finally proposes a creationist view of the origin of species. I will address each in turn.
Johnson’s “rough description” of what be calls Darwinism is actually a crude caricature. He gives only one example of evolution of any kind, a change in gene frequencies in a locus controlling melanism in the peppered-moth Biston betularia, and argues that this is “the most famous piece of evidence for Darwinism” and that “examples of this kind allow Darwinists to assert as beyond question that ‘evolution is a fact.’”
No evolutionary biologist would assert that the case of industrial melanism is the best evidence that evolution by descent is true. Darwin knew nothing of Mendelian heredity of industrial melanism, but be had three very powerful arguments and sets of evidence for evolution sufficient to convince himself and, by the end of his life, a great number of others who were initially skeptical. First, Darwin says that the unmistakable similarity of fossil species to living species in any one district (living species were clearly different from the fossil species, yet also clearly related) strongly suggested evolution by descent. Second, going around the coast of South America, Darwin observed that the same ecological niche was occupied by similar but clearly different species. And third, be noticed that despite deep similarity of physical features in the Galapagos and Cape Verde Islands, the Galapagos Islands were filled with species different from but related to those on the west coast of South America, whereas the Cape Verde Islands were filled with species different from but related to those on the west coast of Africa. Evolution by descent from mainland species was a compelling hypothesis.
Modern biogeography combined with plate tectonics demonstrates dramatically the relatedness of species that originated in the same area but later spread on continental plates to different places on the earth’s surface. Most creationists avoid the evidence from biogeography because construction of elaborate and implausible myths is required to explain it away.
From modern molecular biology comes additional evidence for evolution by descent. DNA sequence data shows that closely related but biologically wholly isolated species share a huge proportion of their DNA, often more than 99 percent (humans and chimpanzees share about 99 percent of their genomes). This measurement of relatedness is strong evidence of shared descent, especially because many of the DNA sequences are junk that codes for nothing, but are still shared because of common descent.
Yet Johnson totally ignores all this evidence for evolution, arguing instead that he has adequately covered the evidence by mentioning and ridiculing the case of industrial melanism. Johnson’s presentation of evidence for evolution is a sham. Only an uncritical or uninformed editorial process could allow this sham to be published.
Now to his critique of evolution. Evolution, he says, is based upon a “highly controversial philosophical presupposition,” naturalism, which holds that natural phenomena have natural explanations, not supernatural explanations. “Faith in naturalism,” he claims, “is no more ‘scientific’ (i.e., empirically based) than any other kind of faith.” The only reason why naturalistic explanations of the origins of humans dominate the science classes of high schools and colleges is because of the “cultural authority” of scientists, and their “skillful manipulation of categories and definitions.”
The reason that naturalism is preferred by scientists is because it works. Many phenomena thought in earlier times to have no natural explanation have indeed been explained by natural science. Examples from biology include heredity, viral diseases, and adaptations.
Johnson is wrong that all leaps of faith are somehow equal, a favorite assertion of creationists. I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning and the day will become light at dawn. This is a naturalistic faith based upon many lifetimes of observation. This leap of faith is much smaller than the leap of faith required to believe that some unobserved god laid known immutable moral rules for humans it designed. In Newton’s time it was a lesser leap of faith to believe that adaptations were produced by purposive forces of some kind, but now the lesser leap is to believe that natural selection produces adaptations.
There is no evidence against evolution in Johnson’s essay. He claims that the fossil evidence is very difficult to reconcile with evolution, or that the fossil record is hostile to Darwinism. This tired assertion is based only upon the gaps in the fossil record. Evolutionists have two convincing lines of counterevidence. The first is that fossils are formed only under a small set of very special circumstances, and that fossils formed are often obliterated by a variety of well-verified mechanisms, including subduction of continental plates under the earth’s crust, the fate of most pre-Cambrian fossils. Second, we have no reason to think, as Johnson asserts, that intermediate forms should be found everywhere in the fossil record. A new species generally becomes distinct in a relatively small area, then perhaps spreads widely. The chances of finding the transitional forms in the fossil record are extremely small. A great many books have been written by evolutionists to show that the fossil record is not hostile to evolution. Only this year, fossil ancestors of whales having small but functioning legs have been uncovered, thus bridging one of the most notorious gaps in the fossil record.
I waited expectantly for Johnson’s positive evidence for supernatural intervention in the origin of species, knowing that it would be some version of the argument from design. Sure enough: “From a creationist point of view, the very fact that the universe is on the whole orderly, in a manner comprehensive to our intellect, is evidence that we and it were fashioned by a common intelligence.” No, that the universe has order is not evidence that it was fashioned by Johnson’s god. Naturalistic explanations have already been successful enough in explaining natural order to conclude with assurance that the argument from design simply does not carry much weight any more. That is why most theologians have given it up. One wonders why Johnson trots it out again in such simple and uncritical form as his only positive argument for purposive origin of species, as if merely stating it was reason enough to take the argument seriously. Natural selection is a far better explanation for adaptations than purposive forces, especially considering that the better adapted a species is to its environment, the more certain becomes its extinction should the environment change (or in other words, natural selection is blind to the future).
I agree with Johnson on one major issue. We both think the evidence is good that prominent evolutionists have joined with equally prominent theologians and religious leaders to sweep under the rug the incompatibilities of evolution and religion, and we both deplore this strategy.
William B. Provine is Professor of the History of Science at Cornell University with a joint appointment in the Division of Biological Sciences, Section of Ecology and Systematics, and the Department of History.
I agree with Phillip Johnson that the creation/evolution controversy is complex. I agree with many of his specific points. In reading of his concern that evolution “is based not upon any incontrovertible empirical evidence, but upon a highly controversial philosophical presupposition,” I am reminded of events in Paris that transpired in the early part of 1751, after publication of volume one of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, which contained his Theory of the Earth. The Deputies and Syndic of the Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne wrote to Buffon in order that he respond satisfactorily to their findings—that certain propositions in his book “contain principles and maxims that do not conform with those of the Religion.” Buffon’s response, which was “accepted and approved” at the general assembly of the Faculty, April 1, 1751, was in the form of a declaration, which he began thus:
I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe very firmly everything there reported on the creation, be it the temporal order, be it the circumstances of the facts; and that I abandon that which in my book concerns the formation of the earth, and in general everything that might be contrary to the narrative of Moses, having presented my hypothesis on the formation of planets only as a purely philosophical supposition.
In this instance, the Sorbonne Faculty “accepted and approved” scientific knowledge, even knowledge contrary to Scripture, for it was but “philosophical supposition.” Johnson’s contrast is different: his is not supposition vs. Scripture, but supposition vs. incontrovertible evidence.
My problem is that all facts, so far as I know, are capable of alternative interpretation. Facts, or evidence, seem incontrovertible only in the light, or dark as the case may be, of human judgment, which is the only source of error on this planet. In my experience, error is most severe in relation to fact judged incontrovertible. Johnson’s contrast, then, seems meaningless except in terms consistent with the action of the Sorbonne Deputies. Only historical circumstance and use of language differentiate “Scripture” and “incontrovertible evidence.”
Lack of a defined standard of faith disquiets human souls. Among them is the evolutionist who makes of his “science” a religion, as Johnson rightly perceives. Such an evolutionist is as justified in his disquiet today, I suppose, as were the Sorbonne Deputies some 240 years ago. This equivalence seems the basis of Johnson’s concern, as if the evolutionist were today’s censorial deputy—as if the science classroom of today were the equivalent of the theological classroom of the past and the boot of authority were now on the other foot.
There is a difference between then and now, in society if not in basic human motivation. No evolutionist of today, at least in the United States, has any legal authority to intimidate other persons who might publicly disagree. Creationists might feel that their children are persecuted by “naturalism in the schools.” Yet an overzealous evolutionist has no legal power to force anyone publicly to avow that his beliefs are mere “philosophical supposition.” The evolutionist enjoys similar protection under the law. What is supposition and what is truth are matters for human, not legal, judgment.
Gareth Nelson is Chairman and Curator of the Department of Herpetology and Ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
I find myself very sympathetic to Phillip Johnson’s critique of Darwinism, neo-Darwinism, and other “naturalistic” theories of evolution. On the other hand, I find myself out of sympathy with his cryptic references to “creationism” as an alternative to these theories.
The efforts of biologists, paleontologists, etc. to come up with a “naturalist” theory of evolution that will fit the facts embedded in the historical record has by now an air of desperation. Environmental changes seem clearly inadequate to explain the origin of species, and so do theories based on genetic mutation. If there is a “natural” mechanism at work—using “natural” to mean “causal” in strictly scientific terms—we have not yet discovered it. Indeed, we are no closer to such an explanation today than when Darwin wrote his Origin of Species—a great work in scientific biology but one that tells us nothing credible about how species originate.
So it is objectionable that in our schools the origin of species (as distinct from intra-species evolution) is taught dogmatically as a “fact” that Darwin and modern geneticists have firmly established beyond dispute. Scientific integrity would seem to require that the origin of species be taught as an intriguing puzzle, to which we do not as yet have a scientific answer. We do this with cosmogony and cosmology—the best teachers, at least, do it—and we seem not to be the worse for it. It has always been in the finest traditions of scientific inquiry to emphasize how our increasing knowledge of natural processes always reveals new limits to what we do know.
Why don’t we approach the origin of species in the same spirit? The answer is a fear of encouraging “creationism” as a pseudo-scientific alternative explanation. Biologists are still very much engaged in the warfare between science and theology, largely because theologians cannot, in good conscience, declare an armistice. None of the “naturalistic” theories of the origin of the universe is radically subversive of the biblical doctrine of creation, since science cannot pretend to know the origin of origins (e.g., what came before the “Big Bang”?). But a purely “naturalistic” theory of life and of human origins and of the evolution of animate species is another matter entirely. It reduces humanity to nothing more than a highly complex organism with the odd capability of imagining itself as having a soul. The implications for morality, and not just theology, are enormous. Such a view of humanity is utterly incompatible with any religion and is a standing invitation to nihilism.
It remains to be said, however, that what passes for “creationism” today is in truth a pseudo-scientific doctrine and has no place in scientific instruction. The Bible “tells a story” of human origins in the language of myth, not science, and the power of this “story” derives from the way it strikes a chord in our unique humanity, enlightens us about our unique human status. Animals do not tell each other such a story—only humans do. Nor have humans ever existed who were not in possession of such a story. So one can say that it is “natural” for human beings to “believe” this story—only it is not a scientific belief. Its truth was (and is) supra-literal, transcendental and not scientific.
It is worth noting, too, that scientific “naturalism” and “creationism” do not exhaust the possibilities of explanation. Any “teleological” explanation, in purely philosophical terms, that sees the origin of species as an inevitable movement from “lower” to “higher” can be made to fit the facts very plausibly. Such explanations are irreconcilable with scientific “naturalism” which rejects teleology, but can be made to fit rather neatly into a religious view, which would then posit a claim to being able to explain the source of this teleological dynamic. There are some quite distinguished German and French “phenomenological biologists” who think along these teleological lines, and they ought to receive some attention.
In short, I think our goal should be to have biology and evolution taught in a way that points to what we don’t know as well as what we do. That is enough. “Creationism,” in the sense of literal biblical faith, has no place in scientific instruction.
Irving Kristol is Editor of The Public Interest.
Thomas H. Jukes
The “first things” needed by an author are some acquaintance with the matters to be discussed. Phillip Johnson displays very little knowledge of either creationism or evolution. Johnson’s approach is one used by creationists in debate: make so many misstatements in one minute that it will take half an hour of rebuttal to deal with them. I have space to mention only a few of his.
Early on, he recites the familiar creationist nonargument that Darwinist science insists that “the numerous intermediate forms that once must have existed have not been preserved,” which Johnson alleges is “the trade secret of paleontology.” But no sciences have “trade secrets.” Plenty of fossils of intermediate forms have been found. Intermediate forms are also studied today by molecular evolution, which shows that all organisms may be “intermediate forms.” Johnson further says that “scientists won’t admit there are mysteries beyond our comprehension”—itself an incorrect charge—and that “one of them may be how those complex animal groups could have evolved directly from pre-existing bacteria and algae without leaving any evidence of the transition.” There is no such “direct” evolution: animals, bacteria, and algae have a common ancestor from which they have diverged, as can be shown by aligning and comparing amino acid sequences of proteins and nucleotide sequences of homologous ribosomal RNA molecules that are found in both bacteria and vertebrates. Unambiguous similarities in these sequences show descent from a common origin.
Johnson says that creationists do things that “infuriate the Darwinists,” but nowhere does he tell us what these things are. Evolutionists don’t worry about astrologers or the Flat Earth Society; such groups do not harass school teachers and intimidate publishers of school science textbooks. In contrast, a leading creationist demanded that the State of California withhold funds from the San Diego School District because of use of an “illegal [!] book” (shades of totalitarianism), Biology by Helena Curtis. Creationists, through years of intellectual and economic terrorism, have forced the removal of evolution as a topic from school science textbooks, even to the point where the word “evolution” is often excluded from indexes.
Johnson notes that in a Gallup poll, 44 percent of respondents agree that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” He contrasts this 44 percent with the mere 9 percent who believe in a “naturalistic evolutionary process not guided by God,” and goes on to say that “the philosophy [sic] of the 9 percent is now to be taught in the schools as unchallengeable truth” (again, incorrect—science is not presented as unchallengeable truth). Johnson says that “philosophical naturalism,” by which he means conventional science, has been imposed on this nation “by skillful manipulation of categories and definitions.” (Such manipulation sounds more like the tortuous procedures of the legal profession than the open forum of science.) So he wants scientific education to be decided by popular vote. Bring on the flying saucers, astrology, and extrasensory perception. How sad that a professor of law should argue on behalf of a degradation of the intellect.
Johnson shows his pro-creationist prejudice when he says that the book Scientists Confront Creationism is a “collection of polemics.” Actually, it is a compilation of fifteen scientific articles, including four on fossils and intermediate forms, such as “Creationism and Gaps in the Fossil Record” by Laurie Godfrey.
Johnson says that “a creationist is not necessarily a biblical literalist, but rather anyone who believes at God creates.” Wrong. The creationists who confront us are biblical literalists and, contrary to Johnson, there are many people who believe that God creates and who also accept evolution. Johnson says that Darwinists (his coined term for all who believe in evolution) are having difficulty concealing “the religious implications of their system.” His implication that evolution is a form of religion is a myth originating in the creationist literature.
Johnson’s opening discussion incorrectly states that “the most famous piece of evidence for Darwinism is a study of an English peppered-moth population. . . .” He uses the peppered-moth example three times. The phenomenon shows fluctuations of populations rather than evolution, and even creationists have pointed this out (Kofahl and Segraves, The Creation Explanation, 1975).
Johnson doesn’t mention the new findings in molecular biology that permeate modern evolutionary science. Biochemists found out how to determine the sequences of amino acids in proteins. Hemoglobin molecules of human beings differ by about 15 percent from horse hemoglobin when the sequences of the two molecules are aligned and compared. Chimpanzee and human hemoglobins are identical. As more hemoglobin molecules became sequenced, the steady increase in divergence, calibrated from reference points in the fossil record, showed evidence of a so-called molecular evolutionary clock. The same evidence was found in another family of proteins, the cytochromes c, and this made it possible to conclude that the common ancestor of yeast, plants, and vertebrates lived about 1.2 billion years ago. So much for the creationist estimate of six to ten thousand years ago for the day of creation.
Evolution starts when a gene duplicates, and each duplicate replicates independently. Mutations take place at random, and the two duplicates accumulate mutations at different locations, so that divergence takes place. This divergence gives rise to two sets of phenotypic properties.
Johnson says that evolution
is based . . . upon a highly controversial philosophical presupposition. The controversy over evolution is therefore not going to go away as people become better educated in the subject. On the contrary, the more people learn about the philosophical content of what scientists are calling “the fact of evolution” the less they are going to like it.
Evolution was functioning for billions of years before the existence of philosophers. Where were Johnson and philosophy when the evolutionary divergence of the mammals took place about 100 million years ago?
In summary, lawyer Phillip Johnson is out of his field when he attempts to describe evolution. Worse, he says nothing about the real problem with creationism, which is the never-ending campaign by creationists to impose their ideas forcibly on other people. Instead of describing this, Johnson philosophizes irrelevantly about Darwinism and naturalism. There is nothing in his article that makes it worth publishing. The space could have been used for information on new findings in molecular evolution.
Thomas H. Jukes is Professor of Biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley.
I am not competent to judge the purely scientific arguments in Phillip Johnson’s essay—particularly his suggestion that paleontologists have suppressed evidence unfavorable to Darwinism, thus concealing a fossil gap. Such allegations I can only put in the category of “important, if true.”
It must be stressed, however, that it is not necessary to refute Darwinism on scientific grounds in order to maintain the religious truth claims expressed in the biblical account of history: e.g., God’s sovereignty and creative initiative, man’s free will, his unique dignity in the universe, and his supernatural end. Philosophy, rather than science, is the final battleground in the evolution debate, at least insofar as that debate becomes a struggle between naturalism and supernaturalism to have the final say on man’s status.
On this philosophical ground—which is really just a comprehensive application of common sense—the religious estimation of man’s stature prevails, no matter what is discovered, or not discovered, in the fossil record. Since Professor Johnson only hints at this fact in his article, I would like to present several points that merit greater consideration.
The real issue in the evolution controversy is not whether man in his purely physical aspect arrived in the world full-formed or whether he passed through successive evolutionary stages en route to his present state. Whatever the answer to this question, the real issue is whether a creature possessing human (or any other) physiognomy could, without supernatural aid, come to have the spiritual and intellectual characteristics that are associated with personhood in its fullest sense: an ability to survey and consider the whole of reality, including a consciousness of the self and the forces acting on the self; a sense of transcendence and free will; a deep, and apparently ineradicable, longing for a meaningful existence in this world and an eternal life beyond it.
Man is not in fact a mere link in the chain of natural causation, which is science’s sole principle for interpreting reality. That is to say, man is not, as pure naturalism would have it, merely an object in nature which is acted upon and reacts according to fixed general laws, a passive receiver of prior causes and a non-willing, non-responsible transmitter of future effects, whose consciousness and action are completely caught up in the causal nexus of matter and time. To be sure, he is a creature whose mental as well as physical states are conditioned by previous causes in nature and in his environment: chemical, biological, climatic, cultural, etc.
And yet human existence can never be fully explained in terms of nature or prior causes, because in its transcendence it rises above and surveys a chain of causes beyond the immediate circumstances, and in its freedom it inserts its own will into the causal flow, redirecting and reordering it. The human will is thus itself a cause, an uncaused cause, whose creative power points to a greater creative power beyond itself— in short, to God. A comprehensive view of human being is memorably expressed by Reinhold Niebuhr, in the opening chapter of The Nature and Destiny of Man:
The obvious fact is that man is a child of nature, subject to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven by its impulses, and confined within the brevity of years which nature permits its varied organic forms, allowing them some, but not too much latitude. The other less obvious fact is that man is a spirit who stands outside of nature, life, himself, his reason, and the world.
Human nature is an indissoluble compound of nature and spirit, comprised of one part that belongs to the natural world, and is susceptible to scientific analysis and description, and another part that belongs to a realm that transcends nature. Though human transcendence and freedom are clearly influenced, affected, and limited by the human body and its environment, they remain to some extent outside and above the world of nature, and thus also the province of science. It is a relatively minor matter whether God infused the transcendent capacity into a freshly made creature or an upwardly mobile hominid that had evolved through various transformations, from an amoeba to a tadpole to an assortment of amphibians and mammals until, as in the familiar diagrams and animations, it looks more or less like Carl Sagan.
In either case, the arrival of man—as distinguished from merely his carcass—necessarily involved a creative act and a power outside the realm of material nature where scientific knowledge is sovereign. While it is conceivable that the physical being of man might have developed through evolution, according to physical laws charted and explained by science, it is not conceivable that man in his total being could exist without a creative act by some transcendent agency, the God of the Bible being the prime suspect.
It might be said, indeed it often is said, that transcendence and freedom are illusions, that our sense of them can be accounted for solely in naturalistic terms. Yet there is an illogical, usually hidden, presupposition in this argument, since a creature completely submerged in the process of nature could have no certain knowledge of the processes of nature, let alone of himself. There would be only private, subjective knowledge based on the environmental influences acting on individuals and classes of individuals. The assertion of a completely naturalistic metaphysic would then represent the end point, rather than the starting point, of all inquiry and discussion. For scientists to presume any knowledge of regularities and causal relations in nature they must presuppose a measure of transcendence over its processes.
This point was well made by the nineteenth-century English philosopher T. H. Green in his Prolegomena to Ethics, where he asks “whether a being that was merely the result of natural forces could form a theory of those forces explaining himself?” His answer: No, it could not, since to be conscious of such forces “implies that there is something in him independent of those forces, which may determine the relationship in which he shall stand to them . . . however much this conclusion may be disguised. . . . If we were merely phenomena among phenomena we could not have knowledge of a world of phenomena. . . .” To deny, in the name of science, the freedom that transcends nature, is thus to destroy the implicit foundation of scientific as well as religious truth—much as the ancient philosopher of Crete negated his own proposition when he declared that “all Cretans are liars.”
Religious believers are dismayed by evolution theories because, by locating the origin of all things in the brute indifference of matter, these theories seem to destroy the eschatological hope for that perfection and perpetuity of life beyond the grave in which we are reunited with loved ones and freed from the curses of sin and death. But science cannot prove that we are no more than highly complex and evolved parcels of matter—indeed, as we have seen, it cannot even pose this as a theory without undermining itself. As Niebuhr says, we are both “children of nature” and transcendent spirits. The origin and current state of our humanity clearly partake of a transcendent miracle of creation. For our future hope we must rely on God’s power and lovingkindness to recreate the world and the human soul.
Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.
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