Ducking the God Question

Darwin’s Gift: To Science and Religion

The Creation-Evolution Debate

As often happens when a topic lands in the eye of a media hurricane, Darwinian evolution is now being examined from a sensationalistic extreme. “Creation science” serves as the reliable bogeyman lurking on the outskirts of reason. Also known as “intelligent design,” this account of life’s origins seriously propounds that the world is only a few thousand years old, God directly created it, and the biblical flood was a real event that mercifully left standing a pair of each animal species.

The most legitimate justification for the media’s decision to approach the theory of evolution through creationism is that creationists have been threatening to infect biology classrooms in public schools across the country. That’s bad for everybody. But, perhaps less justifiably, the view from the extreme has the added benefit of piquing a sense of intellectual superiority among the rational masses. In the face of such utter booboisie pap, reasonable people are cued to roll their eyes at biblical literalists speaking in tongues, frequenting mega-churches, and blathering nonsense at school board meetings. When Judge John E. Jones, in the 2004 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, declared that it took “breathtaking inanity” for the Dover school board to include ID as a viable alternative to Darwinian evolution, members of the “reality-based” community indulged the pleasure of kicking a stupid idea while it was down. This, of course, was fun.

But creationism is a cheap, intellectually facile framework for placing the theory of evolution in context. For all their potentially disproportionate impact, creationists are a remarkably whacked-out minority, a deliciously fat and juicy target for our contempt. Most devout believers on the broad western spectrum of religiosity have effectively (in their minds, at least) reconciled the potentially competing demands of religious belief and scientific knowledge. Even the National Academy of Sciences argues that “within the Judeo-Christian religions, many people believe that God works through the process of evolution” and that “God has created both a world that is ever changing and a mechanism through which creatures can adapt to environmental change over time.” Few really submit this wishy-washy idea to serious scientific testing, but it’s much more common than fundamentalism, not to mention a staple of rational believers.

It would be far more challenging intellectually (and it might even generate as much media buzz) if the reality-based rationalists grappled with an issue that Darwin himself urged us to consider: that the human capacity for morality does not have a basis in religion at all, but rather in the behavior of our animal precursors. In other words, what if the public debate over Darwin moved away from “creationism versus evolution” (which confirms what rational Judeo-Christians already believe) to “God and evolution” versus “no God and evolution” (which scares the bejesus out of many right-thinking people who underlay the liberality of enlightenment with the security of a God)?

A recent spate of “Down with God” books suggests the forms this debate might take. Richard Dawkins, the most convincing of the recent atheist flame throwers, has employed his status as an Oxford University molecular biologist to systematically illuminate the thesis of his most recent book, The God Delusion. With prose as sassy as it is informed, Dawkins lambastes Darwinian rationalists who believe in God as intellectual chubbies failing to acknowledge what he sees as the improbability of God’s existence. Whereas many prominent scientists drop their well-honed investigative tools at the imposing door of the metaphysical, Dawkins subjects the question of a creative super-intelligence to scientific scrutiny and finds-no surprise here-the probability of proving God’s existence is about the same as proving the existence of a flying spaghetti machine. “Faith!!!” the believers will insist. But Dawkins, like an attack dog going after a chew toy, will have none of it.

Joining the “Down with God” books are a series of “Up with the Apes” volumes, including Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. De Waal and others have found the roots of morality in our animal nature and, in so doing, embraced Darwin’s view that humans have an innate capacity for morality that has evolved alongside other such useful devices as the eye, brain, and opposable thumb. Books on Darwinian evolution are a dime a dozen these days, but on the whole they go flabby in the “Down with God/Up with Apes” context. Creationists, after all, are so much easier to cast as idiots.

The Creation-Evolution Debate

To better appreciate just how difficult it can be for even the most devout intellectuals to confront the godless implications of Darwinism, one need look no further than Francisco Ayala’s Darwin’s Gift: To Science and Religion and Edward Larson’s The Creation-Evolution Debate. These books are bound to be relatively peripheral volumes among the spate now dropping down the publishing chute-Ayala’s is more of a textbook than a punchy defense of Darwin, while Larson’s is a reprint of a few talks he gave for a lecture series and, as such, is responsible for more than the occasional yawn. The books stand out for many excellent qualities, but in the end they impress most for their hesitation to hold Darwin’s feet to the fire of Dawkins’ and de Waal’s (not to mention Darwin’s) God question. Nietzsche famously called Darwin’s work “the calm annihilation of the fairy-tale fable of the Creation of the World.” These authors seem to have forgotten that charge, or at least-to return to the metaphor-dropped their luggage at the metaphysical threshold.

Ayala’s Darwin’s Gift provides an admirably clear explanation of Darwinian evolution. It’s explicitly designed for laypeople rather than scientists and effectively serves the noble purpose of allowing the reality-based to enjoin its advocacy of evolution with a modicum of scientific literacy. Not sure about the mechanics of natural selection? Left a-stutter when some bozo says evolution is “only a theory”? Unable to counter the argument that the fossil record is full of gaps? Forgot how biological heredity actually works? Stumped when the ubiquitous Bible guy at the YMCA declares to the entire men’s locker room that humans were not the result of “a random process”? Ayala, an evolutionary geneticist at UC-Irvine, offers answers in a tone reminiscent of a wonderfully avuncular college professor who enjoys teaching things to clueless undergraduates. Ayala’s gift is one of seemingly effortless explication, and much of his work is a pleasure to read.

But Darwin’s precise gift comes off as a bit more ambiguous. While explaining the science of Darwinism, Ayala repeatedly uses it as a bludgeon to whack around the tenets of intelligent design. “I couldn’t find many saving graces in ID,” he assures us by way of understatement, and then goes on to dissect the “duplicity of ID proponents” such as Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson and the sociologist William Dembski. As an intellectual exercise, the deployment of Darwinism to do away with creationism is akin to showing off a steamroller’s power by rolling over a doodle bug. But Darwinism is not a steamroller. It’s a humanistic view of life rooted in scientifically verifiable principles. And what’s really the point of squashing a doodle bug when there are larger beasts with which to do battle-like God?

But Ayala won’t go there. Instead of confronting the God question, Ayala bows respectfully to it. In The God Delusion Dawkins roundly denounces “a widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts,” and that’s the idea that “religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect.” “The privileging of religion in public discussions,” he notes, reflects nothing less than “intellectual high treason.”

All of this might sound like rhetorical hot-dogging, but then here comes Ayala, as if on cue, following his impressively rock-ribbed defense of science with the limp remark that “Scientific knowledge cannot contradict religious beliefs, because science has nothing definitive to say for or against religious inspiration, religious realities, or religious values.” Huh? For those who didn’t get it the first time: “The point, once again, is that scientific conclusions and religious beliefs concern different sorts of issues, belong to different realms of knowledge; they do not stand in contradiction.” As I said, limp.

The 18 pages Ayala spends on religion and science put me in the mind of the great heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson used to beat and batter his opponents until, under the logic of his jabs and uppercuts, they collapsed in a heap. Then Patterson went all gooey. He helped them up, apologized, and wiped the effluvium of battle from their foreheads. Ayala, unable to appreciate the power of his ideas, is a lot like Patterson.

So is Edward Larson. The Creation-Evolution Debate is literally and figuratively thin. Larson, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history for Summer of the Gods, a brilliant work on the 1925 Scopes trial, has published a series of talks as a toss-off book, his umpteenth. Readers will enjoy a brief overview of the history of responses to Darwinism, the (relatively recent) rise of intelligent design in the United States, and-most interestingly-the religious views of American scientists. Although not nearly as technical as Ayala’s volume, Larson’s book does share with Darwin’s Gift the unfortunate quality of intellectual caution-again, he repeatedly juxtaposes evolution and creationism to the predictable benefit of evolution. The failure to embrace the thrill of a knockout punch against a worthy opponent and, like Muhammad Ali, prance around mocking the poor chump splayed on the canvas is evident in Larson’s concluding chapter.

Through considerable research, Larson has found that the nation’s most prominent scientists are overwhelmingly non-believers in a higher being. “Disbelief among NAS [National Academy of Sciences] members,” he writes, “exceeded 90 percent.” Larson quotes Ernst Mayr’s 1954 remark about scientists; he declared, “It turned out we were all atheists.” With this evidence, Larson has even more ammunition than Ayala to remove the Darwin question from the creationist context and resituate it in the God’s Existence context. Not only does he fail to challenge the stereotypical scientific response-“science is neutral” on the God question-but he ends the book with a plea to do away with the historical “conflict” model between science and religion. Surely, he implies, religion and science can find a way to coexist. It’s a good thing that the man who started this debate in the first place-Charles Darwin-was more willing to throw off the kid gloves.

James E. McWilliams is an Observer contributing writer.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST