Evolution, Myths and Reconciliation: A Review of “Why Evolution is True”

on May 4, 2011

In this article, Robert C. Bishop provides a helpful review for Evangelicals of the book Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. He first debunks many outdated ideas and myths about the theory of evolution and its implications. He then goes on to critique Coyne’s conclusions about God as a “bad designer.” He further addresses how Christianity and science overlap as well as how to have a meaningful discussion between two individuals with radically different views.


#A Review of “Why Evolution is True” (Part 1)

Jerry Coyne, a well-known biologist at the University of Chicago, is also one of the outspoken militant atheists (more on that later), and his book Why Evolution Is True is a title likely to raise your blood pressure, with a name seemingly smacking of propaganda more than science. Here, one needs to understand the scientist’s conception of truth: “All scientific truth is provisional, subject to modification in the light of new evidence. There is no alarm bell that goes off to tell scientists that they’ve finally hit on the ultimate, unchangeable truths about nature” (p. 16). Coyne explores the evidence currently supporting the scientific judgment that evolution is a provisionally true framework for understanding the natural history of organisms. Indeed, the history of evolutionary theory is no different than that of any other major scientific theoretical framework–one of constant modification and refinement as we learn new things.

The breadth and clarity of Coyne’s explanation and discussion of the evidence supporting evolution is impressive. Christians who have even a passing interest in science should give what he has to say careful, prayerful reflection. However, the significant level of Christian misunderstanding of evolution makes reflection on the theory difficult. Coyne’s book is helpful for addressing the distorting myths so characteristic of Christian discussions of evolution. In Part 1 of this review, I want to lay out some of the key myths and indicate how Coyne’s discussion can help Christians get a more accurate understanding of what evolution says and does not say. In the remaining parts, I’ll explore Coyne’s problematic approach to science and faith.

Myth: Random Variations Are Uncaused

Christians (and most atheists) often characterize evolution as excluding God because the variations at the heart of evolutionary theory are “random” or “unguided.” They take such terms to imply that genetic variations are uncaused or ungoverned. However, as Coyne explains, “The term ‘random’ here has a specific meaning that is often misunderstood, even by biologists. What this means is that mutations occur regardless of whether they would be useful to the individual” (p. 118).

Consider an analogy with games of chance. Dice don’t land snake eyes because that would benefit the gambler. Yet there is an underlying set of causes as to why the dice landed snake eyes on that particular roll (even though we refer to the outcome as random or undirected). Similarly, there are underlying causes as to why particular offspring in a population of organisms received the particular genetic variations they did.

Moreover, the biological notion of random or unguided mutations doesn’t even rule out God as the possible cause of the variations. All biologists mean by such terms is that the underlying causes are left open by evolutionary theory because mechanisms like natural selection can work with any variations handed to them, whether those variations are due to genetic copying, cosmic rays or God. Consider the dice analogy again. That the dice landed snake eyes on this 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 increasing their likelihood of surviving and reproducing is fully consistent with there being an underlying law governing genetics (a reflection of the regular, ongoing activity of God), or that God somehow determined the particular variation through supernatural intervention.

Myth: Everything in Evolution Happens by Chance

It’s typical of Christian discussions to attribute everything in evolution as due to chance. In contrast, as Coyne points out, although there is a technical sense in which a variation in an organism is random, “the filtering of that variation by natural selection that produces adaptations…is manifestly not random” (p. 119). Variations received by organisms are indifferent to the needs of the organism, but the filtering out of harmful variations is anything but random. That filtering–natural selection–promotes survival and reproduction, a clearly nonrandom outcome.

Myth: Evolution Works Solely Through Natural Selection and Random Variations

Most all Christian discussions of evolution assume that the theory only uses natural selection acting on random variations to explain biological change. I suspect this overly narrow view of evolution is largely inspired by Richard Dawkins, who early in his career described evolution as working through only natural selection. Although Coyne focuses primarily on natural selection, he helpfully points out that there is much more to evolution than natural selection acting on random variations (e.g., pp. 3, 13, 122-124, 170, 177).

Darwin thought that natural selection was the most important evolutionary mechanism, but stressed that there were other mechanism as well (e.g., sexual selection). Contemporary evolutionary biologists also explore components of evolution beyond natural selection. Genetic drift, for example is an important component in evolutionary theory (particularly at the molecular level). Exaptation is another important component in the production of new structures with new functions. It occurs when a feature that was originally adapted by natural selection to perform a particular function is co-opted for a different function and then modified by natural selection with respect to this new function. Consider feathers. It’s now known that most all of the carnivorous theropod dinosaurs (e.g., Deinonychus, Velociraptor, T. rex) were covered with feathers. Feathers probably arose under natural selection for thermal regulation of body temperature (the fossil record reveals feathered, nonflying dinosaurs appearing long before feathered flying creatures arise). It is likely that feathers then were co-opted for flight (probably gliding first with powered flight coming later), a completely different function than their original natural selection history of development. Natural selection would then have begun to refine the feathers of flying organisms for improved flight capabilities.

Myth: Evolution Always Optimizes

Almost all Christian critiques of evolution are aimed at an extreme optimizing interpretation of evolution: Natural selection acts to optimize species traits for their particular environment. However, it’s been well known for a long time that this interpretation of evolution is seriously flawed (this is one reason why most all creationist and ID attacks on evolution are unconvincing). As Coyne explains, “Natural selection does not yield perfection–only improvements over what came before. It produces the fitter not the fittest” (p. 13).

Darwin argued that evolution doesn’t optimize the traits of organisms. Rather, he emphasized over and over again that evolution produces just-good-enough solutions for making a living in particular ecological niches. For instance, the key idea of natural selection is that some organisms have a slight differential advantage in reproduction due to some variation in a trait that they received at birth, and this slight advantage is all that may be needed to more deeply penetrate an ecological niche successfully with no further modifications needed.

Myth: Evolution Is Necessarily Always Improving Organisms

Another common misconception of evolution in Christian circles is that organisms are constantly improving under evolution. Coyne helpfully clarifies that evolution doesn’t necessarily imply organisms are constantly improving (e.g., pp. 4, 13, 131-136). Darwin argued that evolution’s just-good-enough solutions were sufficient for surviving well in an ecological niche.Furthermore, there is nothing about evolutionary theory implying a necessary progression from simple to complex life forms or from lower to higher life forms.

What evolution produces are different life forms, each shaped to survive and reproduce in its ecological niche. Therefore, one should expect to see stasis in ecological niches where evolutionary pressures are minimal (e.g., sharks haven’t changed much in 25 million years). In niches where evolutionary pressures are high, such as the human body’s immune system combined with our repertoire of antibiotics, one should expect to see changes in the microorganisms causing disease and this is exactly what we do see (e.g., pp. 130-132). Moreover, there is nothing in evolutionary theory implying that species cannot devolve from more complex to simpler forms if that’s what gives them a better purchase on penetrating deeper into a particular ecological niche (e.g., organisms slowly losing their eyes when they live for many generations in dark caves).

Similarly, there is nothing in the theory implying common ancestors in the past should be driven to extinction by evolved successor species (as far too many oversimplified Christian critiques of evolution maintain). That fate depends on whether the ancestor and successor species end up competing for the same resources in the same ecological niche. If the successor species gains abilities to exploit different resources within the same ecological niche, there is no reason to expect that the ancestor species would die out or be driven to extinction.

#A Review of “Why Evolution is True” (Part 2)

Earlier, 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 next section, I’ll address this problem of integration by offering an alternative approach to reconciliation.

#A Review of “Why Evolution is True” (Part 3)

As Coyne describes it, integration will not do as a way of harmonizing science and religion. Although integration seems to be the dominant model in science-religion discussions, this isn’t what we typically mean by reconciliation. In relational terms, reconciliation is something two conversation partners do attempting to come to a mutual understanding about some subject or problem they’re discussing. It takes sincere effort for me to listen to you, to come to understand your point of view, reflect on what that has to say to me and the way I see things, sort through my misunderstandings of your view, get clearer on my view and concerns, and so forth (and likewise for you to do so for me). Reconciliation is a much more demanding task than integration because it means an ongoing conversation between us and the unpredictability of how that ongoing conversation may affect each of us and our view of things.

This kind of reconciliation often isn’t done well. We see this in partners who let their own pride or needs get in the way of genuinely listening to and being affected by what the other is saying. In the science-religion discussions neither the creationist nor ID advocates, nor militant atheists like Dawkins do this very well. All of these folks seem to be too scared of what they might have to give up in terms of their own identities at least as much as their worries about what’s at stake for science or faith. However, the existence of several disingenuous conversation partners doesn’t prove that reconciliation is impossible. Rather, all it shows is that there are lots of people who are not up to the rigors of reconciliation and prefer to take easy or stubborn ways out.

Also just like there are tensions in relationships between people who are constantly growing in how to live with each other, there will be tensions between fields of knowledge that are growing in how to live with each other on their areas of overlap. Complete agreement is usually not the goal in reconciliation nor is it necessarily a realistic or healthy goal in a relationship (this is another way in which the integration model is deficient: It presupposes complete agreement among the two parties else the integration fails–think of a partially integrated circuit).

Imagine that Coyne and I engage in genuine conversation about science and Christianity. I try to understand more fully his view that there is no God at work in nature and that science has no need of countenancing a being who is neither necessary for scientific practices nor observable by scientific methods. He tries to understand my view that God is at work through natural processes so that everything that happens in nature is both fully natural and fully Divine (concurrence), and how that leaves everything in the theoretical and experimental practices of science unchanged from how we’ve conceived them since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution (in short, this is because the natural processes science studies are God’s typical mode of mediated action in creation). I get clearer on his worries about what he perceives as a threat to scientific explanations if there is a God who has the power to circumvent natural processes and their regularities. Coyne gets clearer on why the picture of concurrence doesn’t offer theological explanation as an alternative to science, but instead offers a theological interpretation of science.

In genuine dialogue where we are open to each other’s views and concerns, there is no way to predict the outcome of our conversations (the outcome is fully predictable if we both are determined to maintain our views no matter what). There is no guarantee that we will eventually come to agree on every point at issue. There is every likelihood, however, that we will both come away changed by genuinely listening to each other and seeking mutual understanding.

The historical proof that science and Christianity aren’t fundamentally incompatible is the Scientific Revolution itself. Its architects were both methodologically and theologically serious and were theistically rather than deistically inclined (deism in the European tradition arose in the 18th century). They saw no fundamental inconsistency between science (or reason) and a God who could intervene in the world if God so desired (e.g., Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton). Among their debates were three closely interlocking sets of questions: (1) In what way, if any, should the laws of nature be regarded as necessary? (2) What role does God play in ordaining laws and governing the world? (3) Is it possible for the laws of nature to be discovered otherwise than through observation and experiment? Since Descartes and others who formulated our modern notion of laws of nature grounded such laws in the idea of God as Divine Lawgiver, these three questions were naturally connected for them. Dialogue and critical reflection on these questions led to further refinements in our understanding of laws of nature as well as of God’s relationship to and activity in creation.

A more contemporary example can be found in 20th century debates about cosmology. In 1918, the astronomer William Duncan MacMillan was one of the first to introduce a steady-state model of the cosmos, where matter was continually being created and there was no temporal beginning to the universe. In the 1920s, Nobel laureate and physicist Robert Millikan followed suit. Their primary motivation for pursuing the steady-state model was to save the universe from the so-called heat death, where life would become impossible. As Christians, both MacMillan and Millikan believed one of God’s purposes in creation was for it to be populated with life.

On the other hand, mathematician and physicist Edmund Whittaker argued that Christianity was most consistent with a big-bang model of the cosmological history of the universe, where the universe had a sudden temporal beginning. In The Nature of the Universe, published in 1950, astronomer Fred Hoyle explicitly drew a connection between atheism and the steady-state model, on the one hand, and theism and the big-bang model on the other. Atheistic commitments were among the set of Hoyle’s reasons why the steady-state model was the best explanation of the cosmological history of the universe. Indeed, he feared that the big-bang model implied a “first miracle” requiring a creator (given the use some of his interlocutors made of big-bang cosmology, his fears were well founded).

The result of these conversations back and forth between science and religion–which did not take place in the professional journals–was not that religious faith settled the debate between these two models, nor that Christianity and cosmology should be separated from each other. Rather, these conversations clarified the extent to which many scientists saw religious reasons as playing a positive role in favor of adopting their preferred cosmological models as well as furthering serious reflection on the extent of God’s active role in the origin and history of the universe.

The examples of conversations I’ve cited were science promoters rather than science stoppers. The various interlocutors did not always see eye-to-eye on a number of details, but, then, they were not pursuing an “integration model.” The reconciliation they were experiencing looked much more like the kind we usually seek through conversation and relationship with all the deftness and foibles, joys and frustrations to which we are accustomed in such endeavors. Mutual understanding was fostered to some degree. As well, some of the interlocutors gained further insight and understanding into the nature of laws, the history of the cosmos and the relationship of God to the universe.

Reconciliation in human relationships involves both mutual understanding as well as achieving greater understanding about our point of mutual engagement and our related concerns. Integration suggests that once a harmonization has been achieved, it’s fixed for all time (after all, the integrated circuits in your computer aren’t constantly adjusting themselves). In contrast, relationships are ongoing conversations that never reach a fixed point. So again, integration fundamentally distorts the notion of a relationship between two people or two fields of knowledge. As long as Coyne and so many others continue to view the relationship between science and religion as a matter of integration rather than the reconciliation characteristic of actual relationships, acrimony will continue and we’ll miss out on the reconciliation science and faith already have in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20).


Notes & References



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Robert C. Bishop
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 Sciences (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism (Imprint Academic, 2007), and co-author of Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective (IVP Academic, 2018).