Theistic evolutionists have a bumper crop of books to choose from this summer. I’ve already reviewed Ken Miller’s new book Only a Theory. Michael Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution! is on deck in my “To Read” pile. The subject for today, however, is Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Giberson is a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College.
The curious thing about the book is that Giberson actually says very little about how to be both a Christian and an evolutionist. Most of the book is given over to covering the standard topics in this area. He has a chapter on the legal battles over evolution from Scopes to Dover, a chapter on the emergence of flood geology from George McReady Price to Henry Morris, a chapter on the evidence for evolution, and so on. All of this is well done. It will be old hat for people steeped in this issue, but a person looking for a quick introduction could do a lot worse.
Also admirable are Giberson’s forthright descriptions of the state of play between science and religion. Not for him any breezy statements about how the vast majority of Christians have made their peace with evolution or how anti-evolutionism is the exclusive purview of a small number of die-hard extremists. For example, he writes:
From a purely theological perspective there is much in evolution to interest Christians, and if controversy had not driven discourse so quickly off the rails, the voices of reason might today be speaking from the center of American Christianity, rather than the fringes. (p. 215)
Giberson opens the book with a chapter describing his own spiritual development. As a teenager he was a practicing fundamentalist and young-Earth creationist. That changed when he started studying science in a serious way in college. He came to realize that the young-Earth arguments ranged from wrong to ridiculous, and changed his views accordingly.
I find this highly significant. Spend any time addressing creationist arguments and you will find yourself lectured about how people are impervious to arguments on this issue. It’s all just emotionalism and deep spiritual cravings and not the sort of thing that can be dealt with by logic and evidence alone. There is some truth to that, certainly, but the fact remains that some people are swayed by evidence. Giberson is one. I am another. The fact is that a great many youthful creationists hold the views they do simply because they have never been exposed to any alternative. Someone had better take the time to present that alternative.
That’s the good news about Giberson’s book. I’m afraid there is quite a bit of bad news too.
Giberson, like many theistic evolutionists, seems genuinely baffled that his views are not more popular among Christians. He writes:
Their fear is understandable. Almost everyone who talks about evolution insists that we must make a choice between evolution or creation, materialism or God, naturalism or supernaturalism. Dawkins and Dennett believe this and say, “Choose evolution” ; Johnson and Moriis believe this and say, “Choose creation.&rdquo The four of them are grand evangelisrts for the positions they have chosen. Just as significantly, all four of them are champions of a false dichotomy.
This dichotomy plays well in the press. It’s controversial, combative, and simple. There are good guys and bad guys, no matter where you stand. But this dichotomy is wrong. These are not the only two options. These are not even the most reasonable options. (pp. 215-216) (Emphasis in original)
The cracks in Giberson’s argument begin with his understanding of the history of fundamentalism. As he tells the story Christianity has a long and happy history of making peace with evolution. In several places in the book he notes that there were a number of evolutionists among the authors of “The Fundamentals,” the influential series of early twentieth century essays laying out the core committments of the Christian faith. He further notes that these essays were far more concerned with topics other than origins.
Then came Morris and Whitcomb with The Genesis Flood in 1961. Giberson describes the success of this book as “intellectually disastrous” for Christianity, and it’s pretty hard to disagree. He sees this success as a break in the tradition of good relations between Christianity and science. But Giberson does not explain why Morris and Whitcomb found such fertile ground for their ideas. He seems to think that large numbers of Christians were simply persuaded by their arguments to switch from a stance of reconciliation with science, to one of antagonism instead.
Perhaps. But a more plausible explanation is that the relationship between evolution and Christianity was never as cozy as Giberson makes out. The authors of The Fundamentals were responding primarily to the “higher criticism” of the Bible that emerged during the nineteenth century to challenge certain aspects of traditional Christian belief. That is why they focused more on points of doctrine and the interpretation of scripture than on origins. That they devoted little space to the minutiae of Genesis does not imply they found the issue unimportant.
Furthermore, the evolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a different beast from the evolution of today. Darwin convinced everyone of common descent, but natural selection was mostly dismissed as a plausible mechanism. Common descent was a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s the idea of natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution that really causes problems. Consider, for example, the contribution to The Fundamentals by James Orr, entitled, “Science and Christian Faith.”
Much of the difficulty on this subject has arisen from the unwarrantable confusion or identification of evolution with Darwinism. Darwinism is a theory of the process of evolution, and both on account of the skill with which it was presented, and of the singular eminence of its propounder, obtained for a time a very remarkable prestige. In these later days, as may be seen by consulting a book like R. Otto’s “Naturalism and Religion,” published in “The Crown Library,” that prestige has greatly declined. A newer evolution has arisen which breaks with Darwin on the three points most essential to his theory: 1. The fortuitous character of the variations on which “natural selection” works. Variations are now felt to be along definite lines, and to be guided to definite ends. 2. The insufficiency of “natural selection” (on which Darwin almost wholly relied) to accomplish the tasks Darwin assigned to it. 3. The slow and insensible rate of the changes by which new species were supposed to be produced. Instead of this the newer tendency is to seek the origin of new species in rapid and sudden changes, the causes of which lie within the organism — in “mutations,” as they are coming to be called — so that the process may be as brief as formerly it was supposed to belong. “Evolution,” in short, is coming to be recognized as but a new name for “creation,” only that the creative power now works from within, instead of, as in the old conception, in an external, plastic fashion. It is, however, creation none the less.
Orr goes on for several more paragraphs in this vein. He is perfectly clear that he will accept only the most limited sort of evolution, one that is a far cry from the way any scientist views the subject today. He even makes clear his preference for a young-Earth view of things, even though he does not take an explicit stance on the subject. And he is quite unambiguous that an evolutionary process driven primarily by natural selection is not compatible with Christianity. But that is precisely the view that triumphed with the Neo-Darwinian synthesis of the thirties and forties, and it remains the dominant view today.
Morris and Whitcomb were so successful, I believe, because they were tapping into a deep well of popular support for their views. It wasn’t primarily that the strength of their arguments fundamentally changed the way Christians viewed the matter. Rather, they were giving voice to widely held beliefs that most people lacked the education and eloquence to express themselves.
After all, it is not hard to see why Christians would be uncomfortable with a modern understanding of evolution. Biologist George Williams expressed the basic problem well in his book Plan and Purpose in Nature:
With what other than condemnation is a person with any moral sense supposed to respond to a system in which the ultimate purpose in life is to be better than your neighbor at getting genes into future generations, in which those successful genes provide the message that instructs the development of the next generation, in which that message is always “exploit your environment, including your friends and relatives, so as to maximize our (genes’) success,” in which the closest thing to a golden rule is “don’t cheat, unless it is likely to provide a net benefit.”
This, for me, is the fundamental difficulty that a theology of evolution must address. It’s hardly the only difficulty, but it’s an especially big one. A resolution to this problem is always what I am looking for in books by theistic evolutionists.
Giberson does not provide one. He acknowledges the problem. At one point he even offers an analogy between the evolutionary process and a newspaper photograph. Zoom in too close to the photograph and all you see are a lot of meaningless dots. But pull back and those dots resolve themselves into a picture. Likewise for evolution. Zoom in too close and all you see is suffering, pain, bloodshed, death and extinction. But pull back a ways and you see a grand story of a biosphere creating itself as if by the unfolding of a grand plan.
It’s nice that you can see beauty in the process if you pull back far enough, but that hardly changes the nastiness of the facts on the ground. It doesn’t change the fact that a God of love and justice nonetheless chose to do his creating through a singularly awful process. Why did He do that?
Perhaps Giberson is content to leave this as a mystery. He writes:
God’s creative activity must not be confined to a six-day period “in the beginning” or the occasional intervention along the evolutionary path. God’s role in creation must be more universal — so universal it cannot be circumscribed by the contours of individual phenomena or events. We must resist the temptation to make God a “superengineer” or “master craftsman” or “grand artist.” God may indeed have all of these attributes, but we ought not to suppose that any of them capture more than the tiniest intuition about God’s role in creation. It seems to me a more hopeful perspective to step back as far as we can and examine the biggest possible picture in the hopes of getting a glimpse of what it means to say that God created the world. (p. 216-217).
Fair enough. Perhaps we just have to accept a big heaping of mystery in our religion. The trouble is that Giberson is perfectly happy to employ “Why would God do this?” style arguments against the ID proponents. His primary argument against ID is theological, not scientific. He believes that ID founders on the problem of bad design. Indeed it does. But if it’s reasonable to ask ID folks how they reconcile God’s benificence with his bad design, it is also reasonable to ask theistic evolutionists how they reconcile God’s benificence with his setting in motion a process that inevitably leads to suffering, cruelty and bad design.
Instead of answering that question, Giberson writes things like this:
We can agree, perhaps, that the inspection of natural history per se provides no certain indication that we are the “expected results” of some hidden patterns. However, there is another way to look at this. As a believer in God, I am convinced in advance that the world is not an accident and that, in some mysterious way, our existence is an “expected”result. Thus, I do not look at natural history as a source of data to determine whether or not the world has purpose. Rather, my approach is to anticipate that the facts of natural history will be compatible with the purpose and meaning I have encountered elsewhere. And my understanding of science does nothing to dissuade me from this conviction. (p. 213)
Giberson, of course, can believe whatever he likes. But I find it a bit rich that a person who believes that his view represents the voice of reason, who criticizes Dawkins, Dennett, Morris and Johnson for holding to unreasonable extremes while ignoring a more reasonable middle ground, then boasts of his willingness to declare by fiat that God exists. It is hard to imagine anything more literally “unreasonable” (that is, not based on reason) than what Giberson presents in this paragraph.
Those are my primary philosophical objections to Giberson’s argument. In the end I think a great many Christians will not recognize their religion in the view that he presents.
In addition to these difficulties, I fear there are some other places where Giberson gets some pretty big things wrong. Since this review is already getting quite long, I will only mention one of them. In discussing the Santorum amendment (an attempted amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act offered by Rick Santorum to force schools to “teach the controversy”) he writes:
Because creationists hailed the language as something of a victory, the champions of evolution became alarmed. Anything that makes creationists happy must be bad. (p. 170)
Giberson, you see, thinks the Santorum amendment was perfectly reasonable. He thinks that in part because this is his view of the controversies being referred to:
In contrast, evolution is vibrant and challenging, with tremendous activity and daily breakthroughs. And although it is technically true that the scientific community is reasonably united behind evolutionary theory, there are significant controversies within the field about details. Two of its leading theorists, Dawkins and Gould, both penned massive works within the past few years defending very different explanations of how evolution works. Conway Morris thinks they both got it wrong. Evolution contains plenty of controversy. The combatants agree that evolution is true, but that is not the same as agreeing on how it occurred. But we don’t want students to know this, of course, lest it make them vulnerable to creationism. Never mind that the controversy about how evolution works is the single most interesting topic in all of science. (p. 171)
Right. Evolution defenders were angry about the Santorum amendment because they were worried students would learn about the arcane disputes among Gould, Dawkins and Conway Morris. Makes perfect sense.
The Santorum amendment was exiled to the conference committee attached to the report, where it had no force of law. This did not stop Ohio representatives John Boehner and Steve Chabot from using the amendment to try to pressure the Ohio Board of Education to teach the controversy (code for ID) in science classes. Sample lesson plans for that purpose were drawn up and, oddly enough, they didn’t discuss Gould, Dawkins and Conway Morris.
That’s why evolution defenders were angered by the amendment. It was strictly a trojan horse for getting creationism into the classroom. Giberson seems to have missed that point.
I have often commented that it is theistic evolutionists, not fundamentalists, who have convinced me that evolution and Christianity can not be reconciled in any reasonable way. Giberson’s view of the matter requires us to view scripture as a complex cipher that cannot be properly understood without the benefits of some college-level science courses. He has no explanation to offer for why God employs such a savage method of creation. He offers little beyond a declaration of blind faith and his awe at the mystery of it all for why we should believe in anything beyond the physical world.
I don’t think that those of us who reject his arguments are the ones being unreasonable.