Origin of the Specious: A Controversy Reconsidered

Abstract: 

The contention is specious that maintains that the theory of evolution is inherently antithetical to the biblical account of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This essay asserts that the two approaches are complementary and address the same physical reality with different goals and tools. The origin of the conflict is fear and mistrust. The recommendation of the American Scientific Affiliation is indeed a middle ground that calls for a clear presentation of well-established scientific data and conclusions with a distinction drawn between evidence and inference. They also incorporate a forthright and candid discussion of unsolved problems and open questions.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    Science education in the United States, especially in the public sector, is engulfed in controversy. Dr. Eugenie Scott has been at the battlefront for decades, a participant in a struggle between those who support and those who oppose the teaching of the theory of evolution as the accepted scientific explanation of the origin and development of life on Earth. Dr. Scott has given a clear and penetrating discussion of the conflict in her keynote address. This essay is styled a “response” as opposed to a rebuttal to her remarks. While I am neither a biologist nor the son of a theologian, I say—with apologies to Sir John Polkinghorne—“These matters are too important to be left to the philosophers” or to the professional paleontologists.

    I am convinced that the contention is specious that insists that the conflict between the theory of evolution and the biblical account of the Judeo-Christian tradition is inevitable. While both of these representations of origins address the same physical reality, they are no more intrinsically antagonistic than are the questions how and why or what and who. The approaches are complementary. A scientific theory is concerned with mechanisms and proximal causes that can be tested against evidence found in nature. Theology-philosophy, on the other hand, focuses on the examination of the purpose and ultimate causes (the ontology) and the understanding (epistemology) of the physical universe based on exegesis or hermeneutics (scriptural interpretation) and scholarship. These activities, however, do not function in hermetically sealed arenas and must be consistent when discussing the same phenomena if they are both to be regarded as true.

    Without doubt, some readings of the Judeo-Christian canon (called the Bereshith in the Hebrew Tanakh or in translation called Genesis in the Christian Bible) are at odds with a gradual biological descent with modifications from a common ancestor, the central thesis of the theory of evolution. Yet the adherents of the Judeo-Christian faiths have faced a similar crisis of apparent contradiction in the past and have come to a more nuanced understanding over time, namely the sixteenth-century controversy over the heliocentric universe. Few of even the most devoted will argue today that Earth is the center of the solar system, even if the scriptures were read 400 years ago to declare precisely that. Currently, most theologians and interpreters read as beautiful culturally transcendent language rather than scientific description such references as “In the heavens he [God] has pitched a tent for the sun,/which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,/like a champion rejoicing to run his course./It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other;/nothing is hidden from its heat” (emphasis added) (Psalm 19:4–6). It is clearly unscientific for one to attempt to make a case from this literature regarding celestial mechanics. Conversely, the beautiful and evocative language of this ancient Hebrew poetry makes a point that science cannot address, for the work affirms that the “heavens declare the glory of God,” a profound but theological assertion. The inference is clear: Perhaps we would do well to treat as tentative our interpretations of other contentious passages.

    Theology and Science

    Theology is the study of “God.” Science, in contradistinction, is at its base as God-neutral as bricklaying. As a bricklayer, one may build a cathedral or a cathouse, a basilica or a brothel with the same bricks and the same techniques—running bond, mortar, and trowel. When Napoleon asked Laplace whether he had found God in his celestial mechanics, Laplace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” (Boyer, 1968, p. 538). Yet in reply, another of his contemporaries, Lagrange, remarked that God is a very beautiful and useful hypothesis indeed (DeMorgan, 1872). As a discipline, science is merely the description of the world as we find it using its special tools. Thus, an atheist, a Buddhist, or a Baptist all could and often do arrive at the same description.

    This fact is due to the nature of the scientific enterprise: Whatever its practitioner’s personal philosophy, he must act as a methodological materialist if he is to deduce the mechanisms of reality, a point well made by Dr. Scott in her remarks. This modus operandi makes science more universal and more objective, but it also limits the questions that it can answer. Science is limited to “How?” questions rather than fundamental questions of purpose, meaning, or value. Yet these later questions are and have been important to humans for ages. At this point one encounters, I am persuaded, the source of the conflict between adherents of evolutionary biology and the “Creationists.” Just as many biologists suspect that “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design” are attempts to surreptitiously slip theology or religion into biology, many theists suspect that “Darwinism” is a campaign to insinuate a philosophical-religious atheistic worldview into the science curriculum. Indeed, no lesser light than the distinguished philosopher Mortimer J. Adler has declared, “The conflict is not with scientific knowledge of the physical world but with the dogmatic materialism of a great many scientists and with the materialistic monism that has been frequently asserted in modern philosophy” (Adler, 1990, p. 35).

    This “materialistic monism” is well exemplified in Carl Sagan’s prologue to the book and serialized Cosmos where he declares, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be…” (Sagan, 1960, p. 1). This is a credo, a statement of faith, and a philosophical manifesto, not a statement of scientific fact. Nor is this monism an isolated phenomenon; Professor Richard Dawkins has been most outspoken in his advocacy of an atheistic agenda that is coupled to a presentation of the theory of evolution. “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world,” he is quoted as declaring. “Certainly I see the scientific view of the world as incompatible with religion” (Dawkins, 2005). I would counter, however, in agreement to what I have heard Dr. Robert Doyle, limnologist and professor of biological science at Baylor University, remark on more than one occasion: “The opposite of a Creationist is not an Evolutionist. The opposite of a Creationist is an Atheist.” The controversy is not about science, but about philosophy and theology, valid areas of inquiry and discussion but disciplines that are quite distinct from biological science.

    Conclusion

    Therefore, I would propose as prudent that teachers and proponents of science education make every effort to teach the theory of evolution as science, not as philosophy. Although a scientific “theory” is much more than a guess, it is still subject to modification. Although the descriptive power and validation of the process of adaptation by natural selection is more than a conjecture, the complete story of the natural history of all life on Earth has not yet been ferreted out. Where data are sketchy or missing, we all gain from a candid statement of the facts and their limitations. Where inferences are drawn, they should be done with clarity. If a cherished example is ultimately shown to be of marginal validity, or to have a checked history as some claim the famous “Peppered Moth Adaptation” has, then I advise caution. No matter how well an example teaches a principle, if its validity is suspect, one does well to avoid its use.

    Finally, I concur with and share in part the recommendations of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), an organization of several thousand scientists who have identified themselves as “Christian,” that over a decade ago resolved “to make classroom instruction more stimulating while guarding it against the instruction of extra-scientific beliefs, the teaching of any scientific subject, including evolutionary biology, should include (1) forceful presentation of well-established scientific data and conclusions; (2) clear distinction between evidence and interference; and (3) candid discussion of unsolved problems and open question” (Executive Council of the ASA, 1992, p. 252).

    Anti-science critics and philosophical materialists have indeed squared off, but the conflict in the minds of most of the public does not, in truth, exist between evolutionary biology and biblical faith; rather the contention is between the fearful advocates and their imagined adversary. The resolution to the intellectual warfare, as is most often the case, will lie in building mutual respect, understanding, and trust. I commend Dr. Eugenie Scott’s efforts to increase understanding by shining light on the issues and by her call for people to come together to make sensible, civil decisions that are in the best interest of our children and their education.

    References

    • Adler, M.J. (1990). Truth in Religion, The Plurality of Religions, and the Unity of Truth. New York: MacMillan.
    • Boyer, C.B. (1968). A History of Mathematics, 2nd Ed. New York: Wiley.
    • Dawkins, R. Retrieved August 3, 2005 from www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/dawkins.htm.
    • DeMorgan, (1872). Budget of Paradoxes. Retrieved August 31, 2005 from http://math.furman.edu/~mwoodard/data.html.
    • Executive Council of the American Scientific Affiliation. (1992) Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44, 252.
    • Psalm 19:4–6. (1985). The New International Version Study Bible. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.
    • Sagan, C. (1960). Cosmos, New York: Simon & Schuster.