The Contest Between Evolution and Christianity is a Duel to the Death

Editor’s note: Peter Blair is editor of Fare Forward, one of the best new sites to hit the interwebs in a while.  I’m on record saying that it’s like us at Mere-O, only better.  I’m thrilled to steal him away for the day.  Subscribe to Fare Forward and support the excellent work they are doing.  – MLA

I have a theory that much of the modern evolution battle stems from the fact that of the two possible anti-evolutionary narratives the church could have adopted—the scientific and the moral—the scientific critique eventually and unfortunately triumphed.

I first developed this theory while studying the famous Scopes/Monkey trial as an undergraduate.  The narrative about the trial I had previously absorbed from the culture and Inherit the Wind proved highly tendentious.  People often think of the Scopes trial as one of those classic moments of science/religion conflict, in which the forces of ignorance, cruelty, and superstition squared off against the enlightened, progressive force of science. William Jennings Bryan and his fundamentalist allies sought to squash Scopes’ heroic efforts in the cause of scientific advancement.

Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor pro...

Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. [2 of 4 photos] (Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution)

Yet the facts are much more complicated, even bizarre. The trial was deliberately staged in order to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act, which forbid the teaching of evolution. Scopes was unsure whether he had even ever taught evolution in class, but he was willing to claim he did to give the planned trial a defendant.

Even more interesting, however, was Bryan’s role in the proceedings. The Scopes trial pitted Bryan against the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and Darrow’s questioning of Bryan about evolution and Biblical literalism during the trial has been immortalized as a glorious moment of triumph for science. It’s widely held that Darrow made Bryan’s fundamentalist position look silly and absurd.

But what’s been left out of our historical memory is the fact that Bryan’s primarily opposition to evolution was moral, not scientific. In Bryan’s time, the scientific theory of evolution was mixed up with all sorts of social Darwinist ideologies that favored eugenics and sterilization, advocated racism, and held that the poor deserved to be poor and should not be helped out of their poverty. The textbook Scopes was accused of teaching from itself advocated for the removal of  “feeble-mindedness” from the population through eugenics.

Bryan was a politician who spent his life campaigning for the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, for the “common man.”* He was horrified by the ideological and moral uses to which evolution was being put in his time. He was disgusted, in general, by the way the scientific technology refused to be constrained by proper moral boundaries.  He wrote up some closing remarks for the Scopes trial, but he was never allowed to deliver them. They contain this remarkable passage: Continue reading


Modernity and Medieval Science

Like Matt Milliner, I’m impressed by David Schaengold’s post over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, wherein he relates observation decks, science, and the joy of observation:

Being happy merely to see and to understand, as scientists are, is the feeling responsible for observation decks, whose most intellectually incurious and aesthetically stolid visitors thrill with joy as they marvel at the works of Man and discover how familiar neighborhoods tessellate. Though surmise about the psychology of ages past is hazardous, I’ll venture to guess that the civilization of the modern West has privileged and encouraged joy in the way the universe works more than any civilization in history.

Schaengold’s point is well made, which is why I find his criticism of medieval science unfortunate and unnecessary:

Nothing like the scientific method was found in antiquity, and what glimmers of it appeared in the Middle Ages were feeble. The systematic use of the method, institutionalized in journals and laboratories, is characteristically modern, but the psychology of the scientists who employ it represents a Christian ideal.

There are, of course, some differences between the moderns and the medievals with respect to science.  But Schaengold’s dismissal of the medieval understanding of the scientific method as “pretty feeble” is an injustice to the work that went on during that period  Most famously, the work of Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon were using experiments to do remarkable work in optics (motivated as they might have been by the medieval emphasis on the notion that God is light), and in the case of Bacon advocating for something that very closely resembles the contemporary “scientific method.”

In fact, while the relationship between the medievals and the moderns with respect to science was contentious in the 20th century, the bulk of scholarly opinion seems to have moved toward thinking that the scientific revolution wasn’t a revolution at all, but rather a modification of what they inherited from the medievals.

Consider the judgment of David Lindberg, a leading historians of medieval science, on the matter:  “The underlying source of revolutionary novelty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…was metaphysical and cosmological, not methodological.”  Lindberg’s work even challenges Schaengold’s claim that “nothing like a scientific method was found in antiquity,” at least if we’re discussing the actual practices of experimentation and not its rhetoric.  In fact, his entire chapter really is worth reading.

One way of telling the story of science in the late-modern period, then, is that these metaphysical changes eventually dislocate science from its proper position in our understanding of the world and (ironically) begin to impinge upon the scientific method itself by calling into question the rational basis of the universe.  But that moves toward the source problem of (as Schaengold aptly puts it) the alienation of man from himself in the late modern world.

All that aside, Schaengold’s basic point about the joy of observation is well made, and clearly a point of contact between the later modern scientists and their medieval forerunners.  While I doubt Schaengold’s point that our modern period empahsizes that joy more than any period before, I for one am glad that Schaengold has found it, and even more glad that he is intent on spreading it.

An Evolutionary Defense of Dogma and Religion

Criticizing organized religion is easy to do. In fact, it is a favored pastime for many evangelical and post-evangelical Christians who can only see institutionalized religion as “dead.” George Valliant is providing such critics some scientific firepower to go along with their theological arsenal in his new book, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith.

In his book (which I have not read), Dr. Valliant “lays out a brilliant defense not of organized religion but of man’s inherent spirituality. Our spirituality, he shows, resides in our uniquely human brain design and in our innate capacity for emotions like love, hope, joy, forgiveness, and compassion, which are selected for by evolution and located in a different part of the brain than dogmatic religious belief. Evolution has made us spiritual creatures over time, he argues, and we are destined to become even more so. Spiritual Evolution makes the scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution, and he predicts for our species an even more loving future.”

Dr. Valliant clearly thinks that the emotions are the only valuable aspect to religion, which he made very clear in his On Point interview today. Such emotions reside in the limbic system, which is the more primitive section of the brain. The dogma and institutionalized religion stem from the neocortex, which is the purported rational section of the human brain and which evolved later.

Dr. Valliant wants to defend faith. But he wants faith without dogma, spirituality without religion. Thoughts, apparently, are only appropriate for scientists. I presume, after all, it was with the neocortex that Dr. Valliant made his (important and interesting!) discoveries. And I presume he made his discoveries within the context and systems of the scientific establishment (which has been brought to you, once again, by the neocortex–a neocortex he has declared disruptive and harmful in matters of faith).

In short, it seems Dr. Valliant has a priori ruled out dogma and religion as sources of positive good, and has built his science around that presupposition. Yet such a move seems counterintuitive given the process of evolution, wherein humans ostensibly reach higher and higher planes. On issues of faith and religion, Dr. Valliant would have us reject the higher evolution of the neocortex in favor of the limbic, a reversal of the evolutionary process. If anything, the evolution has pushed us toward dogma and religion; as with all of society, as we attain higher levels (if such a thing is possible), deeper evils will be possible (think the nuclear bomb), a principal as true of organized religion as it is of technology.
Dr. Valliant’s error is not because he is too firmly committed to the principles of evolution. It is because he is not committed enough.

Evolution does not apply to evolutionists

In a recent comment, the formidable Mr. Falk said, “The noteworthy thing about the universe is that everything appears to be explainable by immutable laws. As Einstein said, ‘the miracle is that there are no miracles’”

Everything indeed appears to be explainable by immutable laws… Except for people. Psychology, that blessed pseudo-science, and sociology, its ugly step-sister, sometimes have very interesting and even surprisingly explanatory hypotheses, but nothing as of yet near the level of “immutable laws.” Nor is there much hope of finding them via experimental research.
The “laws of human thought and behavior” insofar as they are put forth, are anything but empirical (much though they would like to be!) Insofar as they exist in any universal and agreed-upon form, are they not more intuitive, observational, introspective, and well… psychological?(I know, I know, you’ll say “Neuroscience is still young and developing.” Well, in the meantime, then, we have a lot of certain knowledge about science, and a lot of certain ignorance about scientists…. Unless of course we begrudingly step outside the monarchical realm of ‘immutable laws’ and start talking about relationships, persons, goals, virtues, values, happiness, and the deep demanding desire for knowledge. These are no less real than quarks and supernovas, but are much more mysterious.)

This is a glaring gap in the knowledge acquired by empirical scientific methods. Evolutionists have lots to say about lower life forms. Do they have anything authoritative to say about evolutionists?

Goodness, Evil, and Darwinian Science

Noah Millman, in commenting upon the Derbyshire dust-up, writes:

I continue to believe that both sides of the Darwin vs. Christianity battle are missing the most telling point. We should all agree that religious dogma has no bearing on the truth or falsity of a scientific theory. Heliocentrism is true; geocentrism is false. There is an enormous weight of evidence behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. There is going to be more and more evidence behind new theories about the workings of the human mind, and the interactions of the human genome and human personality. All religion can do is react to these discoveries and, as part of that reaction, caution us about drawing unwarranted conclusions (political, moral, what-have-you) from the evidence. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story, because I think science does have implications for the persuasiveness of specific religious doctrines, simply as a psychological matter. And I think evolution through natural selection is extremely uncongenial to the central Christian story about the nature of sin and evil in the world. Why? Because the Christian story has the entry of strife into the world come about as the result of human sin, whereas the core idea behind evolution by natural selection is that our existence – and the consciousness and ability to sin that comes with it – is a product of strife. Put bluntly: natural selection is not the mechanism that the Christian deity would use to create man in His image. Or, if it is, I’d like to see the explanation. I think that natural selection poses similar but less-acute problems for Judaism and Islam; it poses the fewest problems, I suspect, for Hinduism. Again: I’m not speaking of science refuting religion. I’m speaking of scientific results making certain core religious claims less persuasive.

Millman captures the philosophical tension between Darwinism and Christianity well.

But it is not a tension that is limited to the explanation for evil.  If natural selection erodes the Christian concept of ‘sin,’ then it does so only by virtue of its own inability to explain goodness, the concept upon which the Christian notion of sin depends.  On the one hand, the Christian teaching of the imago dei is that human nature is fundamentally good.  On the other hand, the Darwinian narrative implies that human nature is born in strife and grows out of strife.  At best, its goodness and the goodness it creates is ancillary to its nature, rather than inherent to it like Christianity teaches.
There are, of course, attempts by evolutionary ethicists to ground ethics in the evolutionary process, just as there are attempts to Christians to incorporate the notion of the fall into evolutionary theory.  I am, in fact, not arguing against those attempts.

My aim is simply to point out that in addition to being an astute observation of the effects of Darwinian science on Christian theology, Millman’s point implicates Darwinian ethics.  I think Chesterton got it exactly right when he said the doctrine of sin is the only doctrine of Christianity that can be empirically proved.  The existence of sin makes the burden for evolutionary ethics tht much heavier and the plausibility of Darwinian science’s presuppositions much less persuasive.

Fasting For Joy

There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.

Crystal Clarity

We are lutes, no more, no less.

If the soundboxes stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting,

every moment a new song comes out of the fire.


The benefits of fasting are empirical. They must be verified by each individual person, like scientists double- and triple-check the results of fellow scientists. Do not take anyone’s word for you. “I too am a painter.”

They also fundamentally incommunicable, like the content of a dream, or the taste of a strawberry, or a vision of the Grand Canyon. Each of these phenomena may be described in prose, or simulated in poetry, but they cannot be fully re-presented to one who has not taken the time to imagine, taste, see for themselves.

Fasting brings joy, and a burning clarity. There, I have stated it. My friend had a dream she walked with her husband John who was actually Jesus, along the beach. He asked her, “Why do you love being near the ocean so much?” She said, “I don’t know.” There. Strawberries taste like mangoes, but sweeter. There. The Grand Canyon is beautiful, and big. There.

The Possibility of Dogmatism

Over on Mere-O Abridged (the sidebar), where I highlight interesting articles by attempting a pithy line about them, I highlighted a review of the recently released research indicating that homosexuals can, in fact, change their behavior.

The main thrust of the research calls into question this rather dogmatic position by the American Psychological Association:

Can Therapy Change Sexual Orientation?

No. Even though most homosexuals live successful, happy lives, some homosexual or bisexual people may seek to change their sexual orientation through therapy, sometimes pressured by the influence of family members or religious groups to try and do so. The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable.

What’s more, the APA expresses its concern that therapy may harm those homosexuals who do seek treatment.

In a response, my brother highlighted the shortcomings of the study’s sample group, shortcomings about which the authors seem quite candid.  He concludes:

So people who really, really, really want to change can change–somewhat.


To borrow the phrase, sexuality is indeed “meaningful and complicated.” Dogmatism about its biological nature, its ethical import, and its psychological malleability isn’t warranted on any side. Fundamentally, though, the moral question comes first. Even if we could, through patience and therapy, make gays turn straight–or straights turn gay–it wouldn’t make it right.

I am happy to acknowledge the tendentious and limited nature of the study.  But Jim seems to confuse things when he says that “Dogmatism about…[sexuality's] ethical import…isn’t warranted.”  In making the claim in this context, it seems Jim thinks that dogmatism about ethics is derived from the conclusions of the social scientists.*  While this may be a plausible position to hold, it puts Jim in some unexpected (and perhaps undesirable?) company:  that of natural law theorists.  Using inconclusive scientific results to justify agnosticism about the moral status of what is being observed is another form of deriving the “ought” from the “is.”

Jim and I probably admit different categories into the “is” that we consider to be reality (in this case, at least), but in our ethical reasoning we may share more common ground than we have yet realized.
*I feel quite free to make this claim because I know Jim will correct me if I’m wrong!

A Unified Knowledge: Science and Theology

When modern science approaches the world, it asks two questions of it: what is the nature and arrangement of the matter under consideration, and how did that arrangement come to be? If one is a methodological naturalist, then the only valid answers to the second question are physical.

In Aristotelian terms, modern science is interested in two causes: the material (what is it made of?) and the efficient (how was it made?). The formal cause–what is it?–and the final cause–what is its purpose?–have no bearing on scientific inquiry.

In the epilogue to his extraordinary The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis points out, “But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not elicit falsehoods from an honest witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness’s mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest.”

In other words, asking some questions of nature and not others will inevitably lead to an incomplete–and in that respect, inaccurate–model.
What this means, however, is that the notion that we can understand the material composition of a thing abstracted from its form or purpose is questionable. We will certainly learn a lot about the material composition–we may even be able to manipulate that object in interesting and “productive” ways. But we will not understand that which we are manipulating. The formal and final causes–the “what is it” and “what is it for”–relate to the material and efficient causes. To see them as isolated divides reality from itself, giving us a stunted impression of both the material and efficient causes on the one hand, and the formal and final causes on the other. (This may be the difference between modern and medieval science: the medievals wanted understanding, leaving the control to the magicians, whereas moderns more often allow the desire for control to motivate their scientific endeavors).*

For this reason, the relationship between science and theology must be maintained. Each impinges upon the other–if we wish to understand the physical reality of creation, then we must understand it as creation. If we wish to understand the mind of God, we must study the text(s) He has written. Ultimately, reality is unified and so our approach to reality must be as well. We ignore form and purpose to our own peril.**

* This is a really tendentious thought that has, I think, Leon Kass’s book on technology lurking in the background..

**I have two pieces in my mind as I write this, but I am unsure of how to relate them: 1) Joe Carter’s post on Romans 1, and 2) Avery Cardinal Dulles recent piece in First Things. I commend them both to you.

You know what you get with an assumption, don’t you?

“In a nonmetaphysical age there is probably more metaphysics, in the common sense (ie a priori assumptions) than in any other, because there is more complete unconsciousness that we are resting on our own ideas, while we please ourselves with the conviction that we are resting on facts.”

Benjamin Jowett*JP Moreland (of recent Kingdom Triangle fame) wisely pointed out in his book “Christianity and the Nature of Science,” that our modern scientific worldview has achieved such wide-ranging acceptance and agreement that it has begun to masquerade as a Given, as “Fact.” Though pure Scientism (the belief that only propositions empirically verifiable may be judged to be true or false) has failed for an obvious lack of internal coherency (At which lab was that belief itself empirically proven to be true?), its modern idealogical brother, what Moreland calls Scientific Naturalism, has somehow escaped the same level of critical examination and so enjoys an unjustified imperial authority in the minds and hearts not only of specialists (scientists, philosophers, psychologists, news media, the writers at the Discovery Channel) but of the average American layperson as well.

The modern scientific endeavors that flow out of Scientific Naturalism are mostly good. The scientific methods (as Moreland argues is a more proper name for them) work. They produce new information, new technologies, new airplanes, bigger, better, and faster than the ones before. They produce discoveries and insights into a limited scope of the knowable universe. But this success is partial.

Continue reading

Human Exceptionalism Undermined? (Updated)

While my brother and Wesley Smith discuss this brief analysis of the importance to human exceptionalism by Leon Kass at his place, this provocatively titled piece of news has started to make the rounds: Chimps are More Evolved than Humans.

Of course, what they mean by “evolution” is itself interesting:

The results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were surprising. Chimps had 233 positively selected genes while humans had just 154, implying that chimps have adapted more to their environment than humans have to theirs.

“It’s human egotism to put us on a pedestal,” says molecular anthropologist Morris Goodman of Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. “I was attracted to the paper because it seemed to be chipping away at this desire to make us all that extra-special. At the molecular level, humans are not necessarily exceptional in terms of the adaptive changes.”

The conclusion that Zhang’s team draws–that chimps are more evolved than humans–are debatable, of course:

Not everyone is convinced that Zhang’s team has drawn the correct conclusion from the gene analysis. Humans and chimps are so similar that it is difficult to determine whether the genes are the product of positive selection, says Bruce Lahn, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago who studies the genetic basis of brain evolution.

“It is very rare that there will be enough changes in such a short lineage to tell us there is positive selection,” says Lahn. “I’m very surprised that they claim these are positively selected genes. I would guess if they tried to publish each of these genes as an example of positive selection, there wouldn’t be enough supporting data for the majority of them.”

The idea that having more “positively selected genes” erodes human exceptionalism is itself dubious. The idea that human exceptionalism stands or falls on the structure or development of the species’ DNA seems overly reductionist. Why should we privilege the structure of the gene over the creation of the Mona Lisa? We must admit both (the latter of which has clearly not been approached by the best of chimps).

One thought: the attempt to undercut human exceptionalism by appeals to genetics seems driven by a desire to place humans and chimps on the same level. This would purportedly raise the status of the chimp. But if the doctrine of creation is right, such a distortion of the natural hierarchy of beings could only end up devaluing the role of chimps by giving them a purpose in the structure of creation that they do not have. What would this look like in practice? I have no idea, but it’s an intriguing thought that I’m going to continue to consider.
One thing is clear: it’s time to move How the Leopard Changed its Spots to the top of my reading list.