Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: Part 2

| By Robert C. Bishop

Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: Part 2


In Part 1, I used Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True to clarify Christian misunderstandings regarding evolution. What about Coyne’s treatment of religion? This only comes up peripherally in the book. In a number of places he points out what he takes to be contrasts between evolutionary theory and the Intelligent Design thesis. For instance, we’ve discovered that extinct species represent over 99 percent of all species that have ever lived. Coyne thinks that this “poses an enormous problem for theories of intelligent design...It doesn’t seem so intelligent to design millions of species that are destined to go extinct, and then replace them with other, similar species, most of which will also vanish” (p. 13). Further examples would be cases of “imperfect design” such as kiwis’ useless wings, whales’ vestigial pelvis, mammals’ recurrent laryngeal nerve and the human male’s urethra (pp. 81-85). Even though it’s controversial to identify the intelligent agency of ID with God—ID advocates regularly deny that the designer they are seeking is God—Coyne clearly relishes this identification and intends for his remarks to reflect badly on God as the designer of nature.

Two brief comments: First, although Coyne doesn’t own up to it, all of his comments about a designer are theological rather than scientific. After all comments about what a good or bad designing god would do are statements about the character, wisdom and plans of such a god. Such comments don’t tell us anything about the existence of such a designer. If anything, they only tell us about how Coyne appraises the work of such a designing god.

Second, Coyne’s recurring fascination with designers and “bad design” illustrates how easily the metaphor of God as a designer distorts our thinking about God and His relationship to creation. The image of God as an engineer or designer is a creation of 18th century deism not a biblical image. Theologians and historians have discussed how disastrous the design metaphor has been for biblical Christianity.1

A more serious slide from science to theology occurs in Coyne’s discussion of human evolution. There he writes “Encouraged by the religious belief that humans were the special object of creation...we resist the evolutionary lesson that, like other animals, we are contingent products of the blind and mindless process of natural selection” (p. 192). Later, he claims “Darwinism tells us that, like all species, human beings arose from the working of blind, purposeless forces over eons of time” (p. 224). There are at least two problems with this line of argument. First, given what Coyne said earlier about evolution’s agnosticism regarding sources of variations in organisms (see Part 1), it’s rather striking that he so clearly rules God out as a possible source. What biologists mean by random variations is that the underlying causes are left open by the theory because mechanisms like natural selection can work with any variations handed to them, whether those variations are due to God’s activity through natural laws (e.g. genetic copying, cosmic rays) or God’s supernatural activity.. Consider the analogy with dice in Part 1 again. That the dice landed snake eyes on a particular throw is fully consistent with there being an underlying law governing the dice or that God somehow determined the particular outcome of the throw (the latter idea lies behind the Old Testament practice of casting lots). Similarly that some organisms in a particular population received a particular genetic variation that increases their likelihood of surviving and reproducing is fully consistent with there being an underlying law governing genetics or that God somehow determined the particular variation.

The second problem is that Coyne–along with many Christians–treats evolutionary explanations as competing withor replacing God’s activity in creation. However, that is a theological interpretation of evolutionary theory, an interpretation that presumes God can’t or wouldn’t be involved in evolution. That Coyne has added a theological interpretation that rules God out of the picture can be seen by comparing his claims with contrasting claims from philosopher of biology Elliott Sober and theologian Colin Gunton:

“Evolutionary theory is a scientific theory, not a philosophy. It says nothing about God, or materialism, or ethics, or free will, or life after death.”2

“The [threat of evolution] is if it can somehow demonstrate that the sole reason for the emergence of the human is impersonal evolution. It is clear that this cannot be done on merely scientific grounds. How could it be demonstrated that something happens only by virtue of natural forces rather than by those as directed by God’s providential guidance? It is clear that matters of world-view are also at work in the making of a decision about which interpretation is the more reasonable.”3

Clearly Coyne chooses an atheistic over a theistic interpretation. Readers need to realize that he is drawing on significant non-scientific assumptions in this choice and that nowhere in Why Evolution Is True does Coyne even pretend to off a defense of these extra-scientific assumptions.

This point leads us finally to the relationship between faith and science. Although in his book Coyne doesn’t address his view that this relationship is one of conflict, he has made his case for this conflict in other publications.4 He thinks the two necessarily conflict because “a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims” (“Seeing Is Believing,” p. 39). I have to confess I’m very sympathetic to the argument suggested here because it is a special case of the problem of integration. When speaking of integrating two fields of knowledge a specific problem repeatedly crops up: On what basis are we to achieve integration? The problem of integration is that we apparently must choose one of the two fields of knowledge as the basis on which to integrate the other. That looks more like conquest than reconciliation (think the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation).

In the case of science and religion, the problem of integration looks to be as serious as Coyne claims. Do we choose science as the basis of integration, in which event there can be nothing in religion other than what is empirically testable or explainable purely in scientific terms? This is not only a problem for Christians; it’s a problem for science as well because it’s an expression of scientism, the philosophical belief that science has the only ways of knowing that count. That looks to be a clear nonstarter as we have no scientifically acceptable means of establishing the truth of scientism (and simply assuming its truth as so many atheists do isn’t rationally compelling). Or do we choose religion as the basis of integration, in which event there are lots worries about how science is supposed to fit in with the supernatural (whatever that category is supposed to mean), along with possibly having to allow empirically inaccessible elements into its scientific ontology and methodologies. On top of all that, we can throw in the question of which religion is supposed to form the basis for integration?

In the final part, I’ll address this problem of integration by offering an alternative approach to reconciliation.


1. For example, see Colin Gunton’s The Triune Creation: A Historical and Systematic Study, Eerdmans (1998), and Jim Turner’s Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, Johns Hopkins University Press (1986).
2. Elliot Sober, “Darwin and ID,” presented at Wheaton College, 26 March 2009.
3. Gunton, The Triune Creator, p. 187.
4. For instance, “Seeing and Believing,” The New Republic, February 2, 2009, pp. 32-41.


About the Author

Robert C. Bishop

Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.