Darwinism & Christian Belief

October 1991By Michael E. Smith

Michael E. Smith is Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.

Darwin on Trial.  By Philip E. Johnson. Regnery Gateway. 195 pages. $19.95.

Strictly speaking, this book puts Darwinism on trial, not Darwin personally. In any case, Phillip E. Johnson, a noted criminal law scholar, is the prosecutor. He charges not merely that Darwinism is fallacious but that, in important respects, it verges on dishonesty. He asks, if not for the death penalty, then for a long period of incapacitation of the doctrine while its supporters try to rehabilitate it. Like most advocates, Johnson is sometimes overly combative. But all in all, his book is far more entertaining and enlightening than it is irksome. I recommend it highly to anyone whose views of Darwinism are not already fixed.

Johnson makes at least two important points. First, he asserts that as a matter of scientific theory and evidence, the case for Darwinism is extremely weak. Second, he attempts to answer the question of cultural history -- then why are so many esteemed biologists Darwinists? Because, he says, they are convinced materialists, and Darwinism suits their materialism. Johnson has useful things to say on the latter point, but as a piece of cultural history the book is somewhat sketchy. On the other hand, his discussion of the scientific issues is, as far as I can tell, thorough and compelling.

I assume that NOR readers learned Darwinism as I did. According to my biology teacher, all living things, right up to mankind, have evolved gradually from microscopic ancestors. This has occurred through a purely material process called natural selection, the so-called survival of the fittest. An individual creature may be born with a small, random genetic mutation. The mutation gives the creature a slight advantage in survival and reproduction. In the course of generations, the mutation is inherited by the entire population to which the creature belonged. The process is repeated, and an accumulation of such random mutations eventually produces a new living thing.

My biology teacher would have pointed to a number of types of evidence in support of Darwinism. (A) Changes in creatures by human intervention: Breeders have produced new kinds of sheep and corn, laboratory scientists have created new species of fruit flies, and so forth. (B) Observed changes in the wild: Insect populations become immune to insecticides, moth populations adjust to the color of their environment, and the like. (C) The fossil record: It shows a continuous chain of creatures, ending with remnants of the evolution of mankind from ape-like forebears. (D) Relationships among living things: Dogs are more like cats than they are like lobsters, etc.; on the analogy of human family relationships, this suggests different degrees of common ancestry.

Since my school days, Darwinism itself has evolved somewhat. There are Darwinists who now contend that not all changes in living things have been gradual; some may have occurred relatively suddenly, due to mutations in key genetic elements. Other Darwinists assert that the inheritance of mutations randomly, rather than by natural selection, may account for many changes, at least ones that are functionless. The first of these contentions is controversial among Darwinists; the second is not. Finally, molecular biologists now know quite a lot about the cellular makeup of living things. Their evidence is said to confirm, in various ways, the Darwinist thesis of the gradual transformation and differentiation of creatures through genetic mutations.

Johnson assails both the theory and evidence of Darwinism. He asserts that the supposed mechanism of large-scale evolution -- random mutation plus natural selection -- is implausible. On the one hand, almost all Darwinists agree that a major change in creatures, such as the development of the eye, could not occur by a few genetic mutations, but only by a large number. On the other hand, mathematicians have found it improbable in the extreme that random processes could provide a sufficient number of these mutations, at the right time and place, each preserved because it slightly favors survival and reproduction, all within a fitting period of time. Note that the great majority of mutations known by observation to biologists are harmful.

As for the evidence said to support Darwinism, Johnson argues that our direct observations of changes in living creatures are largely irrelevant. Darwinism is based on random processes, whereas the achievements of breeders and laboratory scientists are highly purposeful. Moreover, the changes caused by human manipulation, as well as those in the wild, are all within narrow limits. We observe variations among fruit flies, moths, and so forth; we never see the development of quite different creatures. It is as if a category of creatures has a defined range of possible variants, which mutation and natural selection may exploit but cannot exceed.

The fossil record, according to Johnson, is even less helpful to Darwinism. Some leading Darwinists now acknowledge that new creatures appear suddenly in the record; with a few possible exceptions, they are not preceded by transitional creatures. Moreover, once they appear, they remain unchanged, except for variations within narrow limits, until they become extinct. Thus there are so-called "living fossils" on earth today, such as the horseshoe crab, that have apparently not altered significantly for hundreds of millions of years. As for the ape-man fossils in particular, Johnson points out that the evidence is highly ambiguous. The remains may just as well be divided between the ape-like and the human, with a major gap in between, as at least one leading Darwinist suggests.

Turning to our latest source of evidence, molecular analysis, Johnson argues that in fact it strengthens some of the objections to traditional Darwinism, such as the absence of transitional creatures. Otherwise, it does little more than to confirm the teaching of taxonomists, that living creatures are like each other in differing degrees. The question remains whether one may infer that different degrees of similarity result from different degrees of common ancestry. Here Johnson says little more than that the pertinence of the analogy of human family relationships is not self-evident. At the risk of seeming facetious, he might have invoked the alternative analogy of human artifacts. We know that purposeful intelligence, not random material processes, caused the word processor on which I am working to be more like a calculator than either is like a fungo bat.

Not all of Johnson's arguments convince me as strongly as they do him, but taken as a whole I think his book establishes that the empirical case for Darwinism is dismayingly weak.

Johnson argues further that the great majority of biologists are Darwinists, not for empirical reasons, but because of their philosophical predilections. They are materialists. That is, they believe that the world is governed by blind, material processes. Nothing impinges on it from the outside. Most assuredly it has not been designed and sustained by an intelligent, purposeful creator.

Johnson does not attempt to demonstrate systematically, as a cultural historian, that materialism accounts for the widespread acceptance of Darwinism. He does, however, quote leading Darwinists who are outspoken materialists. It also appears that most Darwinists would hypothesize no purely materialistic account other than Darwinism of the origin of living things. So there is reason to suppose that materialism has had something important to do with persuading people of the validity of Darwinism.

My main problem with Johnson's argument is not that it is fallacious but that it is incomplete. He observes that we all have our predilections concerning reality, but he applies the dictum almost exclusively to materialist Darwinists. First, there are certain kinds of Christians who are almost surely "biased" against Darwinism. I have in mind, not just the biblical literalists, from whom Johnson distances himself, but other ardent proponents of faith against reason. I associate them, although not exclusively, with the Protestant Reformation. They emphasize the greatness of God and the concomitant feebleness and corruption of mankind since the Fall. From this premise they infer that God's ways are quite incomprehensible to us, except through direct revelation. It is presumptuous, and denigrating to God, for us to attempt to understand his workings by means of scientific or any other kind of natural reason. In this view, Darwinism and all similar doctrines are futile and perhaps even sinful.

Second, there are Christians who may be predisposed toward Darwinism, or some other naturalistic explanation of the origin of living things. These I associate mainly with Thomist Catholicism, against which the Protestant reformers were rebelling. Proponents of this outlook agree that God created and sustains the world for providential purposes. But they are inclined to see him more as a law-giver who governs through regular, natural processes than as a miracle-worker. Moreover, even since the Fall, the natural reason with which he has endowed us is sufficient for us to understand at least a part of the workings of his world. Indeed, to seek to comprehend them is a kind of worship. In this view, Darwinism is a fitting human enterprise, and if it is erroneous we should persist in trying to improve on it.

Between these two versions of creationism, Johnson explicitly and repeatedly disavows a preference. Yet I have reason to think that he is more nearly a child of the Reformation than of Catholicism. Thus, when he writes of Christians who are also Darwinists, he adopts a somewhat disparaging tone. I, on the other hand, accept the teaching of the Catholic Church, which greatly prefers Thomism to fideism.

Yet there is another outlook that needs to be taken into account. Thomist Catholicism is rooted in part in ancient Greek philosophy, but Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, have a nearer ancestor, ancient Judaism. The Hebrews of the Bible were by no means unfriendly to human reason; they struggled incessantly and without qualms to understand God's ways by any means at their disposal. Yet they also were convinced of God's sovereign incalculability. He plagued the Egyptians, divided the Red Sea, struck water from the rock, and rained manna from Heaven. He thunders and flashes out of dense smoke and makes the mountains skip like lambs (C.S. Lewis). And Christians would add, he was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. This God might well create living things, not by regular, natural processes, but by a series of marvelous strokes.

So granting that our assumptions have a great deal to do with whether we accept naturalistic explanations of living things such as Darwinism, still, Christians may be at a loss to know what we should assume about God's ways.

Incidentally, leading Darwinists make one other argument that I have not yet recited. If there were a creator god, they say, he would be a good engineer. But a good engineer would not make the peacock's tail, wire the eye so clumsily, and so forth. Therefore no god created living things.

Now the same might be argued of their preferred mechanism, natural selection, but let that point pass. What matters more for present purposes is that these Darwinists are reenacting the story of Job -- except that many of them are atheists. They are in effect insisting that God govern the world according to their own best understanding of what is fitting. To which God responds, out of the whirlwind, as he did to Job: Were you there when I created the world? Could you have even imagined the hippopotamus and the crocodile? Then stop trying to put yourselves in the right by putting me in the wrong.

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