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Is Theism Compatible with Darwinian Evolution?

Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it.

Jacques Monod

The truths of religion are unprovable; the facts of science are unproved. To this day this remains roughly true of all the relations between science and religion.

G. K. Chesterton

Is it reasonable for the atheist to regard Darwinian evolution as confirming evidence for atheism? Certainly. As an atheist he has a perfect right to place an atheistic interpretation on this particular theory of evolution (sometimes called adaptationism), an interpretation to which the simple—or apparently simple—algorithmic nature of the theory lends itself. By the same token it is entirely reasonable for the theist to regard The Big Bang as confirming evidence that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But while it is his right, as a theist, to infer that God created the universe with a big bang, he has no business as a scientist claiming that we have “scientific” evidence for a divine Creator. He must not say that science establishes some kind of theism. Similarly, atheists must not claim that science, in the form of Darwinian evolution, establishes the dogmas of metaphysical naturalism (materialism).

Although evolutionary theories of one form or another have an ancient pedigree, modern evolutionary biology has come to mean for all intents and purposes Darwinian evolution. However, there is also a non-Darwinian form of evolution which often goes unmentioned both in popular science and in the media. It is called “genetic drift,” and, as the term implies, it is completely random. While no scientist denies the phenomenon of genetic drift there is great variation in the importance or emphasis that different evolutionists place upon it. Thus, from the scientific perspective, there are at least two forces driving evolution, one “directed,” Darwinian natural selection, and one undirected, random genetic drift. As of yet, however, there is no agreement among evolutionists on their relative importance or their detailed interaction. Since any vagueness in the primary phenomena of a subject is a tremendous challenge to anything in the nature of a science, it appears to many that something as unpredictable as random genetic drift not only muddies the whole subject, but increases geometrically the difficulty of understanding the “how” of evolution, perhaps even putting a definitive scientific explanation beyond reach.

However that may be, one of the web pages at—an extensive website dedicated to the discussion and defense of evolutionary biology—is entitled “God and Evolution.” In answer to the question ‘Does evolution deny the existence of God?’ it states, ‘No. There is no reason to believe that God was not a guiding force behind evolution’ (see Q5). Unless I’ve mistaken the tone and intent of this statement, it implies something like this:

The evidence for a purely naturalistic explanation of the causes of evolution is not so coercive and unambiguous that the possibility of a supernatural cause can be ignored or ruled out.

It goes without saying, of course, that God can be ignored for strictly scientific purposes: but it is neither scientific nor logical to rule Him out once we start making metaphysical inferences. True science is never philosophically partisan. It is open to any new knowledge or understanding whatever the metaphysical implications. Indeed, scientists who are philosophically sophisticated know that metaphysical inferences are beyond the scope of science, and that it will always be possible to infer either theism or atheism from any scientific description of the universe. Not all scientists, however, are philosophically sophisticated.

With this in mind we will now consider one of the thorniest questions that can be asked in our intellectual culture, and one that continually arises: Is the prevailing scientific theory of evolution inherently atheistic, or merely capable of atheistic interpretation. That most people instinctively feel that Darwinian evolution (the better known and better understood part of the theory) is more compatible with materialism than it is with theism is hardly open to doubt. Is it then “gratuitous,” as some Darwinians assert, to bring God into any explanation of the evolutionary process? Those who insist on a designer-free interpretation of the theory would certainly say so. The passionate Darwinian and evangelical atheist, Richard Dawkins, goes so far as to say, ‘The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and towards atheism.’ Before attempting to show why there is no simple answer to our question, it is important to distinguish between what biologists call micro-evolution and macro-evolution.

Micro-evolution is as uncontroversial as macro-evolution (sometimes called descent with modification) is the reverse. When a virus mutates (or evolves) so as to become resistant to our present antibiotics, that is an example of micro-evolution. When finches on the Galapagos (known as Darwin’s finches) rapidly evolve longer or differently shaped beaks to take advantage of changing seeds types, that is another example of micro-evolution. Micro-evolution is restricted to changes or adaptations that occur within species, and few feel the need to invoke God to explain this phenomenon. Macro-evolution, on the other hand, refers to the origin of species, though not technically to the origin of life. The origin of life (abiogenesis) is admitted to be an enigma, and is usually regarded as a separate problem. Conceptually, however, the term macro-evolution includes the origin of life, and it would be natural to extend it technically should scientific theory make significant headway with this stage of evolution. And it is around macro-evolution, both in the technical and the broader sense, where almost all the controversy rages.

Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims deny macro-evolution because it conflicts with a literal interpretation of their sacred books. Non-fundamentalist theists admit the “fact” of macro-evolution, but dispute the adequacy of Darwinian theory to fully explain that fact. The strongest exponents of metaphysical naturalism (who are also called scientific naturalists and are almost invariably atheists) believe that despite its purposelessness the evolutionary process is responsible, not only for the origin of life and species, but also for intelligence, creativity and value. They believe that the explanatory mechanism involves Darwinian natural selection acting in combination with non-Darwinian genetic drift and perhaps other unknown evolutionary phenomena. But whatever the precise mechanism, they feel pretty sure that it is bound to be some kind of endlessly repeating algorithm that “designs” life forms through brute force of trial and error. (An algorithm is a set of one or more steps, or rules, or calculations that may be repeated over and over again. Counting is a simple example of such an algorithm.) Metaphysical naturalists are emphatically not of the view, ‘There is no reason to believe that God was not a guiding force behind evolution.’ On the contrary, in their opinion there is no reason to believe that God was a guiding force behind evolution.

I think it would be helpful at this point to attempt a brief description of Darwinian evolution that would satisfy the devout scientific (or metaphysical) naturalists, people such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson. The more explicit the description is about the naturalistic significance of Darwinism, the more I think it would correspond to their conception of the theory. Perhaps something along the following lines would suffice:

Random genetic mutations (the changing or damaging of the information coded into the DNA of all living creatures) are caused either by background radiation or errors in the chemical copying process. Most of these mutations are harmful (non-adaptive), some are neutral, and only a few are beneficial (adaptive). The slightly different reproductive potentials of individuals due to these accidental mutations—for example, an individual with an adaptive mutation will, together with its descendants which inherit the mutation, probably leave more offspring—is sufficient to account for the almost inconceivably rich history of life forms on planet Earth without any help whatsoever from an intelligent Designer.

Since, according to this conception of evolution, there is no room for an intelligent Designer, its exponents are predisposed to believe that the first reproducing cell emerged from a similar sort of blind algorithm.

Now whenever Darwinian evolution is treated in popular science or becomes the subject of media debate, it is usually presented in a manner which strikes theists as highly partisan. For example, in November 2009 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did a four part series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species. At the beginning of Part I, program host Paul Kennedy commented, “Darwin showed us . . . that over time all living things adapt and evolve or perish, and above all, [that] this is a natural process, not the result of divine intervention.” Near the beginning of Part III he remarks, “Darwin showed how and why [evolution] occurred, through a natural process and not the result of divine intervention.” Nowhere in the series is the possibility entertained that God might be an initiating or guiding force behind evolution given the sporadic nature of the process as evidenced by the paucity of transitional forms or, even more importantly, the absence of any explanation for the appearance of the first reproducing cell. There is, of course, no absence of optimistic conjecture that algorithmic, Darwinian-like processes were ultimately responsible for transforming inanimate into animate matter. But the source of the optimism is faith in the minor premise: i.e. the truth of naturalism—we all agree on the major premise: we’re here and we’re made of cells. A philosophical conviction is not the same thing as a scientific explanation. Nevertheless, in most popular presentations of evolutionary biology the unsupported and unjustified assumption that Darwinism dispenses with the need for an intelligent, purposeful Creator is implicit throughout.

Is it any wonder that the religious camp perennially objects that a designer-free interpretation of Darwinism is less science than philosophy in the guise of science? Doubtless the proponents of Darwinian evolution do not think of themselves as philosophically partisan, but as apostles of science and reason. Sometimes they will point to a Darwinian theist like Kenneth Miller to show that Darwinian evolution is not incompatible with religious convictions. In my experience, however, the crucially important matter of which interpretations of Darwinism and which religious convictions are compatible, and which are not, is never carefully examined. Nor is the metaphysical aspect of the theory addressed in an impartial and philosophically sophisticated manner.

This situation was well described by Cardinal Newman more than 150 years ago in his book, The Idea of a University:

...I do not mean to say that there need be in every case a resentful and virulent opposition made to Religion on the part of scientific men; but their emphatic silence or phlegmatic inadvertence as to its claims have implied, more eloquently than any words, that in their opinion it had no voice at all in the subject-matter, which they had appropriated to themselves.

In other words, what we have is a case of teaching by implication, the implication being that science, in the form of Darwinian evolution, is on the side of materialism. In the eyes of the religious camp evolutionary theory, as it is usually taught, is not the product of an innocent neutral piece of scientific investigation. It is a weapon forged by a philosophical faction to put down a rival philosophy, a faction that happens to be quite well represented within the scientific community.

The controversy over evolution is, in the main, a controversy over explanatory theories of evolution, and I believe that two closely related questions lie at the heart of that controversy. First, can the insistence on a designer-free interpretation of Darwinian theory be regarded as a “scientific” attitude? And second, does Darwinian theory rise to the dignity of scientific fact when the inference that it completely removes the need for an intelligent Designer is considered to be an inherent part of the theory? While pondering the second question it is worth keeping in mind the admirable words of Stephen Jay Gould: ‘In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.”’

I am far from being a Creationist. Nor do I support the notion that “intelligent design” ought to be considered a scientific rival to Darwinian theory—one can hardly question the scientific status of one theory on the grounds that it strengthens materialism and weakens theism, and then accord scientific status to another which does just the opposite. Nevertheless, I believe that we can answer both of the above questions in the negative. Here are the arguments: and please note that, unless the context indicates otherwise, the terms evolution, Darwinism or Darwinian evolution should be taken to mean “a designer-free interpretation of current scientific evolutionary theory.”

1)  In general it is logically difficult to prove a universal negative, especially when there are far-reaching metaphysical implications. For example, the argument “If evil exists, then it is probable that God does not” seems inconclusive, at least in logic. Inconclusiveness is incompatible with scientific knowledge, and the scientific method seeks to avoid it by refusing to make inferences that do not follow directly and cogently from the scientifically established data. To maintain that Darwinian evolution dispenses with the need for a purposeful Creator would seem to depart from the spirit of this approach, and thereby undermine the scientific status of the theory.

2)  It is widely accepted that it is beyond the capacity of science to advocate any particular philosophy. In fact, no attempt to demonstrate by purely rational processes the truth of one particular world view has been generally recognized to have succeeded. But if Darwinian evolution is admitted to be a purely scientific theory, then it would appear that science has given the nod to one particular philosophy, namely the philosophy that holds that all phenomena are material in origin. Hence, Darwinian evolution cannot be purely scientific.

3)  If the plausibility of the evidence for a theory varies with one’s metaphysical beliefs, then there is good reason for supposing that the theory is in some sense metaphysical. The plausibility of the evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution is notorious for varying with one’s metaphysical commitments. By contrast, the plausibility of the evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity, or the theory of quantum mechanics shows no such variation among theists and atheists. Unlike Darwinian theory, everyone accepts that Einstein’s theory and quantum theory give us reliable knowledge about the world. But some materialists strongly suggest that Darwinism gives us knowledge about the other world, namely that it probably doesn’t exist. Ergo, Darwinian evolution is not a strictly scientific theory.

4)  That Darwinian evolution has often been promoted with religious zeal rather than scientific detachment has been conceded by a number of committed evolutionists over the years. For example, Michael Ruse wrote in a May 13, 2000 article in the Toronto newspaper, The National Post, ‘Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.’ Problematically he goes on to say, ‘There is no need to make a religion of evolution. On its own merits, evolution as science is just that—good, tough, forward-looking science, which should be taught as a matter of course to all children, regardless of creed.’ The Anti-Darwinian naturally replies that the religious zeal—as evident as ever in the writings of Darwinians like Dawkins and Dennett—would not be forthcoming if the theory did not go beyond science. Bertrand Russell offers an explanation for zeal that, though consistent with, is wider than religious enthusiasm: ‘People are zealous for a cause when they are not quite positive that it is true.’ Approaching the matter from this angle it would be more appropriate to call Darwinian theory a “cause” than a religion. Either way, its claim to be strict science is suspect.

5)  It is hard to think of a more zealous defender of the scientific status of Darwinian evolution than Richard Dawkins. Thus, in a tone that is typical of many of his statements, he writes, ‘Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun.’ But when John Brockman, publisher of The Edge, a website devoted to science, threw out the question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” Dawkins responded as follows: “I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.”

Now if a physicist were to say, “I believe, but I cannot prove, that gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time,” or “I believe, but I cannot prove, that quantum equations correctly predict the probabilities of quantum events down to the last decimal,” we would all feel that the word “believe” was not the right word. The correct word would be “know.” But if the physicist were to say, “I believe, but I cannot prove, that without a Supreme Being to initiate and sustain the evolutionary process, planet earth would be devoid of life,” or “I believe, but cannot prove, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” then we would all feel that “believe” was the appropriate word. Consequently there seems to be good reason to suppose that Dawkins’ statement is to some extent religious in character. Indeed, the headline for the May 1, 2005 news story on John Brockman’s challenge was, ‘Science’s scourge of believers declares his faith in Darwin.’ Dawkins himself has said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Surely that suggests that the atheist gets something out of this particular theory he cannot get out of science alone, namely, a metaphysical belief about the ultimate origin and destiny of man.

6)  For a theory to be scientific it must be capable not only of being confirmed by empirical evidence, it must also be capable of being disconfirmed: in other words it must be falsifiable. Now it is not easy to see how Darwinism could be falsified to the satisfaction of its proponents, especially in light of what has happened since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. The strongest supporting evidence would have been the discovery of a vast number of transitional species in the fossil record, as the theory would lead one to expect. Darwin, himself, recognized that the gaps in the record constituted “the gravest objection to my theory” and staked everything on the bet that future digging would uncover the missing evidence. But to this day the fossil record does not indisputably demonstrate a single transition from one species to another. According to palaeontologist N. Herbert Nilsson, ‘The fossil material is now so complete that the lack of transitional series cannot be explained by the scarcity of the material. The deficiencies are real, they will never be filled.’

Perhaps the next best evidence would be to observe the evolution of species in breeding experiments. Thomas Henry Huxley, who championed Darwin’s theory from the outset, always insisted on ‘the logical incompleteness of the theory so long as it was not backed by experimental proof.’ Although breeding experiments would not prove that a purposeless algorithmic process could bring to pass what purposeful human experimenters had achieved, it would at least show that evolution of species was theoretically possible. However, despite a long history of such experiments on rapidly breeding fruit flies, the evolution of species has never been conclusively observed.

What the fossil evidence does show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is descent with modification. Evolution of species is a fact, whatever be the explanation of that fact. The fossil record also shows something which was not fully appreciated in Darwin’s day. About 530 million years ago there was a brief (in geological terms) period of dramatic evolutionary development that is significantly known as the “Cambrian explosion.” During this period, lasting anywhere from five to forty million years, the basic body plans for many of the major life forms suddenly arose. This discovery, along with others, seemed to undermine the gradualism which was always assumed to be at the heart of the theory. In response to this challenge Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould proposed, in 1971, a theory which attempted to account for these sudden evolutionary spurts. It is known as the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

The real hurdle, however, for a designer-free explanation of evolution is not the origin of species, but the appearance of the first living cell. So far, no scientist claims that we know how inanimate matter could transform itself by a process of trial and error into the simplest organism. Even with the awe inspiring power of modern biology at our disposal, scientific effort has so far been incapable of creating any living thing out of non-living ingredients. Yet, some in the scientific community (usually biologists), along with the prevailing secular culture, would have us believe that science is served by embracing Darwinian evolution as the only intellectually respectable explanation of that “miracle.” Darwinians like to quote what is called Orgel’s Second Rule: ‘Evolution is cleverer than you are.’ Perhaps.

It is easy to see how invincible Darwin’s theory looks to the scientific naturalist. The failures of the theory to attain the high standards of evidence and proof that science normally demands, failures which loom large for the theist, make little impression on him. Convinced as he is that religious convictions are rationally indefensible, he will always be tempted to argue, “Well, we’re here, aren’t we! And we have only one explanation that has any claim to being called scientific: Darwinian evolution.” To which the theist, convinced that reason can make a very good case for God’s existence, for His occasional interference with the regularities of nature, and for His divine revelations, replies, “You have scientific evidence that evolution occurred, but your case for how and why it happened grows out of your metaphysical naturalism, and depends on ‘proof by hypothesis.’ Conjecture is an integral part of your argument.”

No one expressed the attitude of the true scientist better than Darwin’s great champion, Thomas Henry Huxley. He wrote, ‘Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’ Despite the scientific ideal of humble submission to fact and patient meticulousness in the pursuit of knowledge, Darwin’s elder brother Erasmus, after reading his copy of The Origin, expressed himself in a letter as follows: ‘The a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won’t fit in, why so much the worse for the facts is my feeling’ (Darwin’s Life and Letters, ii, 223). Such faith inspired acceptance has never gone out of fashion where Darwinism is concerned, and it offers yet another proof that man is an incurably metaphysical animal; and that the Darwinian, no less than the theist, cannot bear metaphysical uncertainty.

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