Written in the genre of Henry David Thoreaus travel-thinking essays, Rick Kennedy's Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion is the story of a three-day climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierra mountains of California (click here to see a map of the mountains). Mount Darwin stands among other near-14,000-foot-high mountains that are named after promoters of religious versions of evolutionary thinking. Using the trek as its framing narrative, the book branches off to explore the complex and at times even murky spaces at the intersection of Christian faith, ancient and natural history, and observational science. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting excerpts from the book.
In part four (see side bar for the link), he reflected on our need for humility both in our reflections about God as revealed in God's Word, and about nature as revealed through physics and astronomy. Today, reflecting on Mount Darwin and Evolution Ridge, he explores the "provability" of Darwin's theory and looks at two types of thinkers: Totalizers and Tentative Investigators
Of Trails and Trees
The car gave us trouble in the morning. The parking area for the trailhead was a little over a mile away but up another thousand feet. My twenty-year-old diesel motor needed much coaxing to start, and the transmission would not shift out of first gear. We chugged and faltered our way to a parking spot where I pointed the thing downhill and turned off the engine. The car doesn’t lock, so we made it look locked, then headed up the road to the trailhead at Lake Sabrina.
Small groves of Aspen trees were brilliantly golden, but most of the trees around us were Douglas Fir. The Redwoods on the coast are more romantic. The Giant Sequoia are more impressive, but they are only found in relatively small groves between 4,000 and 8,000 feet on the western slope of the Sierra. The oldest trees in the world, the Bristlecone Pine, are scraggly little things and can be found on the other side of the Owens Valley. The Douglas Fir all around us were pushing a hundred feet tall, but something about these trees makes them neither romantic nor impressive.
The diversity of tree life is the kind of intellectual problem Darwin tried to solve. The problem was two-sided for Darwin. On the one hand, there seemed to be too much diversity for his conception of God as efficient creator. Would a God of good order have created the world with so much diversity? Darwin did not think so. On the other hand, there wasn’t enough diversity if species simply multiplied randomly. There must be a natural law or mechanism at work.
His book, On the Origin of Species, proposed a two-stage mechanism that both encourages and limits the diversity of species: first random variation, then natural selection. The power of the book was not that it compels assent by collecting lots of facts that prove its central tenets; rather, the book’s power is that it pointed to a hidden mechanism in the system of nature that historically accounts for the not-too-much-but-not-too-little diversity of species.
The book has increased in influence since Darwin wrote it, but not because his speculative model has been fully tested. The existence of a mechanism wholly “random” and wholly “natural” cannot be completely observed or tested. The existence of a variation and selection mechanism in nature has been proven in certain situations; however, the overall package of assumptions should be understood as a “time tested” biological “best explanation.” Darwin’s speculation that an unseen two-stage mechanism has been at work throughout history without divine intervention keeps working and even serves biologists better now than it did a hundred years ago. Even with the discovery of genetics, DNA, and the most recent molecular observations, Darwin’s theory keeps offering the best explanation for what is happening. Darwin’s mechanism has gained so much credibility that there are now university disciplines such as sociobiology that use natural selection as the foundation for inquiry and explanation.
Darwin’s theory has legs. It has vast explanatory power. In many cases it even predicts what later will be discovered. Although there are big mysteries still out there, “black boxes” where Darwin’s theory is seriously strained, Darwin’s theory is one of the hardest working theories in science and continues to be more successful than not.
Darwin’s two-stage mechanism cannot be proven true in the strictest sense because it depends on unprovable assumptions of randomness and naturalness. What we have are lots of observations in laboratory settings and fossil remains that point to the near absolute certainty that variation and selection are happening in regularly all around us. But being unprovable is not a deal breaker for a hard-working theory like Darwin’s. Variation and selection not only is observably at work; the assumptions of randomness and naturalness make sense.
Many sciences make grand historical statements about natural history. Cosmology, geology, astronomy, and evolutionary biology are full of assumptions and speculations about the past. Such sciences seek credibility and authority rather than proof. Credibility and authority goes to theories with incrementally accumulated corroborating evidence that serves increasingly to generate more confidence. When genetics was discovered, it fit perfectly with Darwin’s theory and, therefore, increased the credibility of the theory.
The academic world is very practical. University research focuses on what works. Few professors live in ivory towers. All university disciplines are looking for explanations that work in the sense that members of the academic community can use them to connect to related theories or use them to find new information. The “best explanations” do the most work. In the pragmatic world of academics, what works gains credibility and authority as truth.
This is one of the reasons I am on a trail headed into the Evolution Range. I know Darwin’s theory works within the boundaries of credibility that are standard to natural history. I just don’t think it is true to the extent that it should undermine the ancient history of Christianity. The trouble with the Evolution Range of the Sierra Nevada looming in front of us is that it honors many progressive men who embraced Darwinism as true to the extreme extent of then insisting that Christianity, therefore, could not be true—that some new version of spirituality or a new conception of God needed to be created to fit Darwinism. These academic-minded men insisted that reasonable people with the courage to be honest with the facts will see that Darwin removed humanity’s need for a creator God who is actively involved with and give purpose to creation. The namesakes of Mounts Darwin, Haeckel, Spencer, Huxley, and Fiske believed that Psalm 104 is good poetry but there is nothing factually true in lines such as:
He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate. . . .
The trees of the Lord are well watered, the Cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
Trudging up to Mount Darwin, I think the grass and trees around me actually are given purpose by God. I believe he picked Cedars for Lebanon and aspen for Lake Sabrina. But I also know that a mechanism of variation and selection is in the creative mix too. We are trudging into a wilderness designated on maps to honor people who would think me, at best, superstitious and, at worst, dishonest. I came here to be among them out of a sense of obligation as a Christian loyal to university life and thought. I want to be reasonable. I want to be honest with the facts. I need evidence in order to enter academic discussions. If my Christianity is to stand strong in universities, strong enough to stand unchanged beside Darwinian natural history, I need to remind myself of the meaning and methods of being reasonable in a university.
Totalizers and Tentative Investigators
Darwinism’s most adamant proponents have tended to insist that their discipline has produced a simple Truth to which any rational person must submit. “Darwin’s bulldog,” the namesake of Mount Huxley, harped about a unified simple rationality that, he insisted, obviously supported Darwin and not the Bible. Huxley, as a member of the London School Board, wrote: “As our race approaches its maturity it discovers, as I believe it will, that there is but one kind of knowledge and but one method of acquiring it.” Richard Dawkins, one of Darwin’s modern bulldogs, praises the “Anglo-Saxon simplicity” that “all questions about life have the same answer (although it may not always be a helpful one): natural selection.”
One way to categorize college professors—an overgeneralization but a useful one—is to split them into Totalizers and Tentative Investigators. There are Darwinist and Christian professors of both types.
Totalizers use their classrooms to preach that if all people are perfectly rational they will all ultimately agree. Usually there is some sort of declaration that the progress of knowledge has one glorious end: light and magnetism will be understood, democracy and capitalism will prove to be the best systems for all situations, and natural selection will answer all questions about life. All rational people ride one train of progress together. Tentative Investigators, in comparison, are wimpy. Ask them a question and they give you at least two answers joined by “on the other hand.” The Totalizers are the more popular teachers, their books are easier to read, and the news media finds them easier to interview. Tentative Investigators are like cats. They can’t be herded and can rest easy in the midst of household chaos. Tentative Investigators don’t disagree with the notion that knowledge is progressing; however, they are pretty sure that progress is uneven, experiencing fits and starts, and that we can never be sure at any one point whether we are taking one step backward or two steps forward. Totalizers are often scared that someone—especially some religious or political authority—is going to block progress. Tentative Investigators are less worried that progress can be stopped.
Richard Dawkins is a Totalizer. Among the Greeks, Plato was a Totalizer. Plato preached a triumphal, Dawkins-style, one-size-fits-all rationalism. Socrates, Plato’s hero, in over a thousand pages of Dialogues, never finds himself to be wrong. Socrates is rational and never has to apologize. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have a long tradition of waxing poetic about some ultimate simplicity that is supposed to exist in nature and/or God. Simplicity, especially in an aesthetic of “elegance,” is supposed to be guidepost to truths.
Me? I believe God is Truth, but my life and my Bible don’t give me any evidence of an ultimate simplicity. God, the personal God, the triune God, is Truth; however Isaiah warns: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” I certainly find no evidence for unity and simplicity in real-life churches or universities. The roots of the institutional name “church” are political and democratic while the roots for “university” are legal and contractual. Sure there is traditional aspiration to one truth depicted in church steeples and university towers, but those steeples and towers do not reflect the actual complexity of what goes on underneath or above them.
University classrooms are glorious spaces for information and inquiry, but they have no single purpose or destination. In my classrooms I try to promote the values of tentative investigation. We are looking for best explanations and reasonable traditions that may point to possible truths and maybe even to the Truth. Students should experience the confusions in intellectual life and then learn the skills of trying to make sense, plausible sense, maybe even persuasive sense, out of available information. I am not afraid to let my classroom ponder what the Truth might be, but I warn them that overconfidence is dangerous. I enjoy the diversity of trees, but the diversity does not make me insist that God did not make the diversity happen. “Who can straighten,” says the preacher, “what God has made crooked?” My model in the classroom is not Socrates; it is Aristotle.