Francis Collins and Karl Giberson have a new book out called The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, published by InterVarsity Press. It is yet another defense of theistic evolution.
I’m always a bit conflicted when I write about this topic. On the one hand I do not think theistic evolution is a reasonable view, and I think the arguments made on its behalf are very weak. On the other hand, if I am stuck with religious faith being a major force in society then far better that it be the faith of theistic evolutionists than that of young-Earth creationists. It’s why I tend to favor a multi-pronged approach to this issue. I’m all in favor of groups like the NCSE engaging in outreach to religious organizations, but I’m also in favor of atheists being vocal and outspoken.
I also found it interesting that InterVarsity Press published this book. In the past they have published books by William Dembski and Phillip Johnson, which led me to think they were in the can for ID. So it seems like progress that they would publish a book supportive of evolution.
I’m afraid, though, that this is not a good book. I don’t like theistic evolution to begin with, but this is a poor defense of it regardless. Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God is far better, in my opinion. As I waded through the authors’s frequently murky prose, I was struck by just how unserious they are on this issue.
The problems start in the book’s introduction:
More recently, advocates of creationism, intelligent design and even new atheism have claimed that accepting evolution (at least in some forms) is embracing atheism. They argue that evolution is incompatible with a theistic worldview. This argument is illogical and philosophically preposterous. It would be like a girl inferring that because her mother, and not her father, bought her a bike, her father must not exist. (p. 23)
The basis for the comparison escapes me. One assumes that the girl, prior to receiving the bicycle, already had strong evidence that her father exists. This is far different from the situation with God, where we simply do not have any good evidence that He exists at all. Evolution is menacing to a belief in God because it refutes the best argument ever devised for God’s existence. It also threatens certain specific religious views by challenging the goodness of God, the meaning of the soul, the importance of human beings in creation, and the accuracy of scripture. For all of that, the usual claim is not that evolution flatly disproves God, but simply that it makes belief in a traditional God seem very implausible. I fail to see the analogs of any of these points in the authors’ insipid analogy.
From here the book proceeds in question and answer format. The first two chapters are Do I Have to Believe in Evolution? and Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old? Even here there is a lot weirdness that weakens their arguments. For example, keen to downplay the significance of the infamous “Dissent From Darwin” list they offer up two main points in reply:
The “Dissent from Darwin” list includes philosophers, physicists, engineers, mathematicians and academics from other fields. Many of them never took even a single course in biology beyond high school. No doubt they are sincere in their views, but do we need to take their concerns about evolution seriously?
Many names on the list are of emeritus professors from various institutions. Emeritus is a recognition that institutions bestow on faculty when they retire, typically around age seventy to seventy-five. Seventy-five year old emeritus professors would have finished most of their education a half-century ago, before the developments of the past few decades provided so much support for evolution. (p. 32)
Truly, the term “tone-deaf” has now been taken to dizzying new heights. How delightful to be told that the concerns of people who lack degrees in biology are not to be taken seriously, or that older people must have stopped thinking about the subject a few decades ago. Let me suggest that such rhetoric is not the best way of communicating with lay people worried about evolution, especially since many such people already think academics are elitist and condescending.
Later in the chapter they address the question, “What is the Best Proof That Evolution Has Occurred?” They reply with a semi-coherent explanation of certain genetic and molecular comparisons. There is no mention of a consilience of inductions or the fallacy of thinking in terms of “the best evidence.” Worse, there is no mention of what I would think is the most compelling argument, especially to lay people, namely that evolution works in both the field and the lab. That is, evolution gets results when applied in practical situations. A good example is the discovery of the fossil Tiktaalik.
The next chapter is “How Do We Relate Science and Religion?” It contains gems like this:
Prior to the appearance of these books [by Draper and White], science and religion, except for the occasional skirmish like the Galileo affair, got along fine and were actually supportive of one another as recent scholarship has clearly shown. And even the infamous Galileo affair was nothing like its urban legend. Galileo was not tortured and his so-called imprisonment was confinement to his house. (p. 84)
Every word of this is nonsense. First of all, house arrest is not “so-called” imprisonment, it’s the real thing. And while Galileo was not actually tortured and imprisoned, he was actually threatened with those things and forced to recant in the most humiliating terms. This, mind you, because he poked fun at the Pope and suggested that science, not scripture, should be the tool for learning about nature. Moreover, to the extent that science and religion got along fine it was only because for the most part the Church controlled the purse strings, and science needed quite a few centuries to discover anything that was seriously disconcerting to theology. The view through most of European history was that science was the handmaiden of religion, useful for working out the calendar and other trivialities, but something which definitely needed to be kept servile and obsequious. Got along fine, indeed. Draper and White may have gone overboard with their polemicizing, but Collins and Giberson are no improvement.
After quite a few pages of the standard cliches (many scientists are religious! the Bible was never meant literally! science can’t teach us morality!) we come to this:
Divine action figured prominently in discussions of Darwin’s theory in the late nineteenth century. For some theologicans evolution was compatible with theism only if God acted supernaturally at some point in the evolutionary process … But while most theologians — and scientists, for that matter — were comfortable with evolution, most of them supplemented Darwin’s theory of natural selection with other processes like divine intervention or built-in teleological trajectories that unfolded God’s preordained creative intent. (p. 114)
Indeed. It is very misleading to say that most theologians were comfortable with evolution. Many were willing to accept common descent, but the verdict on natural selection was almost unanimously negative. The reason was that natural selection eliminated any reasonable notion of teleology from the evolutionary process. It was precisely this aspect of Darwinism that provoked Charles Hodge, for example, to equate it with atheism. Reconcilers of the time were endlessly carving out exceptions for human beings or placing God right in the middle of the process. They were saved from charges of obscurantism by the fact that there were many legitimate scientific objections to Darwinism at that time. Historian Frederick Gregory summarize the situation (from his contribution to the book God and Nature edited by Lindberg and Numbers:
Unquestionably, the attempt to reconcile evolution and Christianity depended on a rejection of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. A few writers, for example Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright, claimed that natural selection was not incompatible with a divinely ordered creation, but after Hodge, theologians for the most part abandoned the attempt to reconcile natural selection and design.
This is hugely significant, because no one could hold such views today without being considered a creationist. The version of evolution feared by these late-nineteenth-century theologians, that of a blind, fully naturalistic process that did not have humans in mind, is precisely the one that has triumphed today. This makes it problematic to use them as talking points against modern creationists. Not only did they flatly reject evolution in the modern sense, but they did so for reasons having nothing to do with a literal interpretation of Genesis One.
Eventually we come to the two most serious issues, the problem of evil and the problem of human significance, and it is here that I believe Collins and Giberson really have not thought things through. Their basic replies are familiar: Evolution ameliorates the problem of evil by distancing God from the rottenness of nature, and evolutionary convergence shows that humans were inevitable.
Of course, there is an obvious reply to that first point. If you set in motion a process that you know will lead to a horrifying end, then you are as morally responsible as if you caused that horrifying end directly. If you drop an anvil onto someone’s head, you cannot absolve yourself by saying, “It wasn’t me! It was gravity!” We must explain, then, why God set in motion a process that he knew would lead to massive pain and suffering. Here is their answer:
That nature has freedom is highly provocative and theologically suggestive. God created the world with an inbuilt capacity to explore novelty and try new things, but within a framework of overall regularity. …
The key point here is that the gift of creativity that God bestowed on the creation is theologically analogous to the gift of freedom God bestowed on us. Both humans and all creation have freedom. Our freedom comes with a moral responsibility to use it properly. But that does not prevent us from doing terrible things. The freedom God gave humans was exercised in the construction of gas chambers at Auschwitz and Dachau, and in the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. But because humans have freedom, we do not say that God created those gas chambers. God is, so to speak, off the hook for that evil.
In exactly the same way, outside of the moral dimension, when nature’s freedom leads to the evolution of a pernicious killing machine like the black plague, God is off the hook. Unless God micromanages nature so as to destroy its autonomy, such things are going to occur. (p. 136-137).
This, I’m afraid, makes little sense. Their proviso “outside of the moral dimension” effectively kills their argument. As is clear from the discussion leading up to these paragraphs, nature is “free” only in the sense that it lacks causal determinism. That is not at all the sense in which humans can be said to be free. (Of course, there are thorny issues about the meaning of free will, but I think we can leave those aside for now.)
The reason the “free-will defense” has any force in this context (to the extent that it does, mind you. It is very debatable whether God is really off the hook for the holocaust), is because we all recognize it as a great good that humans are free to make their own decisions. We also recognize that the ability to choose righteousness loses its significance unless it comes with the possibility of choosing evil. There is nothing comparable to that in nature. When evolution produces the black plague, that is not an expression of choice or moral judgment. It is simply what happened. Moreover, the logic of the evolutionary process is such that whenever nature tries to explore true selflessness and altruism, it is immediately punished by natural selection. All of this talk about nature being free or autonomous or engaging in explorations is just a crass abuse of language. It is a category error; mindless nature is not the sort of thing that can be free or autonomous.
If Collins and Giberson want to defuse this problem they need to explain why God created through a lengthy process and did not simply create humans supernaturally precisely as the Bible says He did. Having explained why a process was desirable, they must then explain why it had to be a specifically Darwinian process. What great good, comparable to giving humans free will is made possible by letting evolution produce awful pain and suffering? Phillip Kitcher writes (in Living With Darwin):
When you consider the millions of years in which sentient creatures have suffered, the uncounted number of extended and agonizing deaths, it simply rings hollow to suppose that all this is needed so that, at the very tail end of history, our species can manifest the allegedly transcendent good of free and virtuous action. There is every reason to think that alternative processes for unfolding the history of life could have eliminated much of the agony, that the goal could have been achieved without so long and bloody a prelude.
Other philosophers and theologians have attempted to answer this objection, without much success in my opinion. But at least they understand the magnitude of the problem. I am afraid I cannot say the same for Collins and Giberson.
Things get even worse when you try to combine this argument with the notion of human inevitability. After gushing for so long about nature’s freedom and autonomy they then switch gears and tell us that, actually, things are so constrained that humans inevitably arise. What kind of freedom is that? The appearance of humans, it would seem, was not the result of free nature exploring higher and higher states of being. It was just something that happens inevitably. Evolution producing humanity is no more an expression of freedom than is the anvil falling to the ground when you drop it. This makes it all the more pressing to explain what great good was served by four billion years of evolution by bloodsport that could not have been obtained by “fast-forwarding the tape,” if you will, to the moment when humans appeared.
(Incidentally, we should also put it on the record that the argument that evolutionary convergence shows that humans were inevitable is very dubious, to put it kindly).
There is plenty more that is wrong with this book, but I think you get the idea. In the end there is not a single thought or example here that is original, and Collins and Giberson repeatedly fail to grapple with the real concerns people have about evolution. All is standard boilerplate, about how to read the Bible, or resolve the problem of evil, or preserve notions of human specialness, or to protect any meaningful role for religion in modern life. They will need to do better if they really want to persuade sincere Christians that their worries about evolution are unfounded.