Southern Baptist Voices: Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral? Part 2

| By William A. Dembski

Note: Today we continue the second installment in our ongoing Southern Baptist Voices series–a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series here. We hope and pray that this dialogue will bring greater clarity to the issues at hand, charity towards those with whom we disagree, and glory to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In part one of his essay, William Dembski laid out his assessment of the “non-negotiables” of both Christianity and Darwinism as follows:

Non-Negotiables of Christianity
(C1) Divine Creation: God by wisdom created the world out of nothing.
(C2) Reflected Glory: The world reflects God’s glory, a fact that ought to be evident to humanity.
(C3) Human Exceptionalism: Humans alone among the creatures on earth are made in the image of God.
(C4) Christ’s Resurrection: God, in contravention of nature’s ordinary powers, raised Jesus bodily from the dead.

Non-Negotiables of Darwinism:
(D1) Common Descent: All organisms are related by descent with modification from a common ancestor.
(D2) Natural Selection: Natural selection operating on random variations is the principal mechanism responsible for biological adaptations.
(D3) Human Continuity: Humans are continuous with other animals, exhibiting no fundamental difference in kind but only differences in degree.
(D4) Methodological Naturalism: The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law.

In this second part of his Essay, he discusses the tensions between the two lists and explains his belief that Darwinism undercuts Christianity

Let’s start with (D1), Common Descent, the claim that all organisms trace their lineage to a common ancestor. This claim seems unproblematic for (C1)-(C4). Indeed, (C1)-(C4) allow that God might have used an evolutionary process of some form or other to bring about the organisms on planet earth. To be sure, one might want to bring in further theological reasons for rejecting Common Descent (such as that large-scale evolution implied by (D1) is wasteful and unworthy of a good God), but (C1)-(C4) don’t address how God implemented his plan to create living forms. By themselves, (C1)-(C4) allow that God might have specially created living forms or brought them about via an evolutionary process. As an aside, it may be noted that a minority of intelligent design proponents, notably Michael Behe, accepts Common Descent but rejects much of the rest of Darwinism (in particular, he rejects (D2)-(D4)).

In contrast to Common Descent, Natural Selection, (D2), does raise some tensions with (C1)-(C4). Natural selection, as Darwin defined it, is non-teleological. Nature, unlike human artificial selection, is not trying to build certain structures or functions according to a design plan. Natural selection is an instant-gratification mechanism that capitalizes on any advantage accruing to the organism in the present generation, not in future generations. Moreover, any such advantage results from variations that are random. Darwin did not use the word “random,” but he did reject that God or any teleological force was somehow guiding variations with an eye to future function (cf. Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray, who thought God might guide the variations, a view Darwin rejected). Variations for Darwin were not correlated with any future benefit to the organism.

Natural Selection, or (D2), is therefore in tension with both (C1) and (C2). (D2) implies that biological evolution does not give, and indeed cannot give, any scientific evidence of teleology in nature. We see this denial of teleology in Darwin’s own writings and we find it among his contemporary disciples, even among theistic evolutionists. For instance, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller, who calls himself an orthodox Catholic and an orthodox Darwinian, writes in Finding Darwin’s God that design (or teleology) in biology is “scientifically undetectable.” Now to say that something is scientifically undetectable isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist. Hence there’s no strict contradiction between (D2) and (C1)-(C2). God might, as a master of stealth, wipe away all fingerprints of his activity. He might be guiding evolution in ways that to us look like chance (e.g., random variation) and necessity (e.g., natural selection).

But if so, how could we know? The most controversial claim of intelligent design is that compelling scientific evidence exists for design in biology, from which it would follow that Darwinian evolution is on its own terms a failed explanation of the complexity and diversity of life. But leaving aside intelligent design, it seems odd, given (C1), that God would create by Darwinian processes, which suggest that unguided forces can do all the work necessary for biological evolution. As Phillip Johnson noted in Darwin on Trial, Darwinism doesn’t so much say that God doesn’t exist as that God need not exist. Sure, God’s ways are higher than ours and he might have good reasons for occluding his purposeful activity in nature. But if God does occlude his purposeful activity in nature, that raises a tension with (C2), which states that the world clearly reflects God’s glory (Psalm 19) and that this fact should be evident to all humanity (Romans 1).

The world, as a matter of general revelation, testifies to the divine glory, and failure by humans to acknowledge this fact results not from a dearth of evidence but from human wickedness, which willfully suppresses the truth of God’s revelation in creation (Romans 1:20). Now the theistic evolutionist might reply that creation does indeed testify to the divine glory, only this testimony looks not to scientific evidence. But in that case, how is the creation providing a general revelation of God and what exactly is it saying? Given that science is widely regarded as our most reliable universal form of knowledge, the failure of science to provide evidence of God, and in particular Darwin’s exclusion of design from biological origins, undercuts (C2).

The most difficult tension to resolve in our present discussion is the one between Human Exceptionalism, (C3), and Human Continuity, (D3). In The Descent of Man, Darwin drew out the implications for the human species that followed from his general account of evolution as presented in his Origin of Species. As he wrote in the Descent,

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

Years earlier, in his notebooks, Darwin explicitly distanced human exceptionalism from God’s care and concern: “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity.” The implication is clear: if this is what man thinks of himself in his arrogance, a more sober assessment regards man as a mediocre work, not worthy of special divine attention, and with no prerogatives above the rest of the animal world.

Some theistic evolutionists are ready to follow Darwin here, such as Karl Giberson (see his Saving Darwin), and abandon Human Exceptionalism as conceived within orthodox theology. Others, desiring to stay within orthodoxy, punt. Take Francis Collins, who denies that our moral capacities represent the natural development of the same essential capacities in other primates. Yet to say that our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented in the rest of the animal world flies in the face of Darwinian evolution, certainly as Darwin conceived it. Darwinism’s logic is inexorable. Evolution works by borrowing, taking existing capacities and reworking them. But if our moral or cognitive or linguistic capacities are unprecedented, then they are, for all intents and purposes, miracles.

And this brings us to the last non-negotiable on our list, Methodological Naturalism, or (D4). According to this claim, science treats the world as autonomous, regulated by natural laws that allow no exceptions. Accordingly, Darwinism, in embracing (D4), rules out miracles and, more generally, any teleology external to the material world. Now granted, Darwinism so characterized limits this prohibition against miracles/teleology to the study of nature. But the problem for Christians is that salvation history occurs against the backdrop of nature. In particular, Christ’s Resurrection, or (C4), occurs against this backdrop. To tie God’s hands by saying that God can act only one way in natural history (i.e., in accord with natural law) but has a freer rein in salvation history (i.e., can there perform miracles) seems arbitrary.

Christians who embrace Darwin therefore find themselves pulled in two directions. On the one hand, if committed to miracles such as the Resurrection, they have to confront why God doesn’t likewise do miracles in natural history. On the other hand, if committed to Methodological Naturalism, or (D4), they have to confront why this naturalism shouldn’t extend to salvation history as well (compare Michael Ruse above, who explains away the Resurrection as a trance or wish fulfillment of Jesus’ disciples). Trying to maintain (C4) and (D4) together constitutes an unstable equilibrium. People tend to jettison one or the other. For instance, Howard Van Till gave up on (C4) whereas Michael Behe gave up on (D4).

To sum up, Darwinism and Christianity, even when generously construed, exhibit significant tensions. Are these tensions so serious that Darwinism may rightly be regarded as not theologically neutral? I would say the tensions are indeed that serious. Such a conclusion, however, ultimately becomes a matter of personal judgment. Just as marriages can exist with serious tensions, some Christians are willing to tolerate the wedding of Darwinism and Christianity despite the tensions. That said, it’s worth asking why anyone would want this wedding in the first place. If Darwinism were incredibly well established – if the evidence for it were indeed as “overwhelming” as its advocates endlessly proclaim – then Christians might feel some compulsion for maintaining their union. But the evidence for common descent is mixed and the evidence for the creative power of natural selection to build complex biological forms is nil (see, for instance, my book The Design of Life, co-authored with Jonathan Wells). So the theological neutrality of Darwinism aside, there’s a prior question that needs to be asked, namely, is the evidence for Darwinism sufficient that one should even be concerned whether it is theologically neutral?

In the next post, BioLogos President Darrel Falk begins his response to Dembski’s essay.


About the Author

William A. Dembski

William A. Dembski is Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and directs the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design. A mathematician and philosopher, Dembski is one of the leading figures in the intelligent design movement and a proponent of the idea of “irreducible complexity” as proof of intelligent design in nature. He has published many books and journal articles critiquing evolution and offering arguments from a design perspective for an intelligent creator.