INTRO by Kathryn: Unfortunately most of us have had the experience of discovering that we’ve been misled about something. When it relates to the core of one’s deeply-held faith, the experience can be devastating, causing some to walk away entirely. What follows is Wheaton College professor Robert Bishop’s account of discovering that much of the young-earth creationist literature he read in his youth included quotes by scientists used in highly misleading ways. I’m thankful that in Dr. Bishop’s case, he didn’t walk away. Instead he became a prolific Christian scholar and teacher, fierce in his resolve to follow God’s truth wherever it leads—even if it leads to evolution. Let’s be worthy of Christ as we engage the ideas of those who think differently.
I often tell my students the following story about myself. Like many of them, I was a young-earth creationist in high school. Books such as Scientific Creationism, The Genesis Record, and The Scientific Case for Creation by Henry Morris were very influential for me. The case against evolution and for young-earth creationism (YEC) seemed overwhelming.
As I was preparing to go off to college, one of the things I was anticipating was reading the “evolutionists” Morris and other YEC advocates had quoted with such devastating effect. I found it exciting that supporters of evolution would be so bold as to write what they wrote apparently giving away the game that evolution was a godless philosophy rather than a scientific theory. At university, I would be able to read the actual articles from which these quotes came, and be affirmed in my beliefs against evolution. When I arrived on campus and started reading those articles, however, I was not prepared for what I found: both the quotations and their use by Morris and others bore little resemblance to what the evolutionist authors were actually saying.
Let me give two examples to illustrate what I mean. In Scientific Creationism, Morris quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky as “admitting” regarding evolution that
The applicability of the experimental method to the study of such unique historical processes is severely restricted before all else by the time intervals involved, which far exceed the lifetime of any human experimenter. And yet, it is just such impossibility that is demanded by anti-evolutionists when they ask for “proofs” of evolution.
Morris glosses this quotation, writing “Note the tacit admission that ‘the experimental method’ is an ‘impossibility’ when applied to evolution.” He clearly implies that Dobzhansky is admitting scientific methods cannot be used in evolution, building the case that evolution is philosophy or worldview rather than science.
The actual context of Dobzhansky’s statements reveal that he clearly has something very different in mind than what Morris attributes to him:
On the other hand, it is manifestly impossible to reproduce in the laboratory the evolution of man from the australopithecine, or of the modern horse from an Eohippus, or of a land vertebrate from a fish-like ancestor. These evolutionary happenings are unique, unrepeatable, and irreversible. It is as impossible to turn a land vertebrate into a fish as it is to effect the reverse transformation. The applicability of the experimental method to the study of such unique historical processes is severely restricted before all else by the time intervals involved, which far exceed the lifetime of any human experimenter. And yet, it is just such impossibility that is demanded by antievolutionists when they ask for “proofs” of evolution which they would magnanimously accept as satisfactory. This is about as reasonable a demand as it would be to ask an astronomer to recreate the planetary system, or to ask an historian to reenact the history of the world from Caesar to Eisenhower (Dobzhansky 1957, p. 388).
Clearly, the key form of impossibility Dobzhansky has in mind in this passage is the impossibility of experimentally observing or bringing about the evolutionary transformation of a fish-like ancestor into a land-dwelling tetrapod, say, because of both the time limitations and the contingency involved in such a transformation. There is no hint here that experimental methods cannot be applied to evolution as Morris suggests. Rather, the theme of Dobzhansky’s American Scientist article is that “The chief method of evolutionary biology is the experimental method” and he gives numerous examples of this.
In the next section of Scientific Creationism, devoted to establishing evolutionary theory as untestable, Morris writes, “Two leading modern biologists have pointed out the fact that, since evolution cannot in any conceivable way be disproved, therefore, neither can it be proved.” He then goes on to quote L.C. Birch and P.R. Ehrlich as follows:
Our theory of evolution has become...one which cannot be refuted by any possible observations. It is thus ‘outside of empirical science,’ but not necessarily false. No one can think of ways in which to test it...(Evolutionary ideas) have become part of an evolutionary dogma accepted by most of us as part of our training.
This certainly sounds like a devastating admission about evolutionary theory and its proponents. But what do Birch and Ehrlich (1967) actually say about evolution and testability?
Birch and Ehrlich’s point is that if ecology and taxonomy are based solely on inferences about untestable evolutionary histories, then ecology and taxonomy will be rendered unfalsifiable because the hypotheses generated by this scheme will be untestable. An example of an untestable evolutionary history would be an appeal to some vague notion of “competition” between two overlapping species of birds. “Competition” is too meaningless to test unless it “is specified, including the ways in which it produced selection pressures resulting in the restriction of one or both species.” Another example of how ecology and taxonomy could be rendered unfalsifiable would be if the investigation of the persistence of average clutch size of a given species of bird in a region that has been recently modified by human beings focused solely on the evolutionary history of that species for the pre-modified environment. The modified environment and the current adaptations of the bird population will have to be taken into account as well. Without taking this latter information into account, no meaningful hypotheses about the persistence of clutch size can be offered for testing.
Indeed, Birch and Ehrlich stress the need to focus on testable hypotheses in ecology and taxonomy. For instance, it certainly is possible to appeal to a history of interaction between species and the ecology of a particular location and what effect this had on evolutionary history. However, unless the historical ecologies of the area during the Cambrian, Triassic, and Pliocene and other time periods are known, no testable hypotheses about this history can be offered.
These are sufficient examples to demonstrate that Morris badly misread and misquoted Birch and Ehrlich’s article. He missed Birch and Ehrlich’s main point that if one constructs untestable historical hypotheses, then evolution and ecology are rendered untestable. However, it is quite possible to construct testable historical hypotheses and Birch and Ehrlich give several examples. There is no support here for the idea championed by Morris and other YEC advocates that evolution is untestable.
When I got to a university library and read these articles I was shocked to discover how badly such quotes had been mishandled in Morris’ books. I felt this way for two reasons: (1) Because of our commitment to truth, I believed Christians should quote anyone–opponents included–as fairly and accurately as possible in honor of Christ, and (2) if we really have the truth, Christians have no need to misquote anyone because truth will win out. I believed that Christ’s commandment to love our enemies meant we should be known as being generous and fair in how we treat our opponents. It was the discovery that evolution proponents were often misquoted and taken out of context—not treated generously and fairly—that raised the first red flags for me about YEC.
Over the next few years I critically examined YEC writings, articles and books by evolution proponents, and the Bible and came to the following conclusions:
- The mishandling of quotations on the part of YEC writers was fairly systemic rather than being an occasional, isolated incident.
- YEC proponents routinely misunderstood evolution perpetuating myths and arguing against a straw theory.
- The evidential base for evolution was much stronger than any YEC proponent seemed to realize (e.g., contrary to YEC claims, there are many examples of transitional fossils).
- Despite YEC advocates’ intentions of treating biblical texts with the utmost honor, their view rested on faulty hermeneutics that had more to do with Enlightenment conceptions of what it means to be a historical text than how the ancient biblical authors and communities conceived such texts.
- Sound theology–in particular the doctrine of creation–is consistent with God working in and through evolutionary processes.
A key problem with YEC authors’ treatment of evolution—and the sciences in general—is that they settle on the truth in advance and then read scientific literature hunting for ammunition supporting their pre-set conclusion. This way of reading scientific literature explains why YEC literature is littered with quotes from scientists that are pulled out of context and made to say the very opposite of what the scientists are actually saying. In contrast, seekers of truth read scientific literature mining for insight (not for ammunition!), insight that may support or may raise problems for their models and theories. It seems to me that Christian integrity means we read for insight rather than ammunition.
I was particularly impressed to discover B.B. Warfield. Here was a first-rate biblical scholar and theological thinker who not only gave us the modern evangelical articulation of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but also argued that evolution was consistent with Scripture and sound theology. Warfield made it clear how every event in creation (e.g., a speciation event) was both the product of God’s working and nature’s working together (the doctrine of concurrence). He helped me to see that whether or not evolution occurred—that is an empirical question that scientists can determine—it was consistent with an inspired, authoritative Bible and Christianity.
So as a Christian I do not have to sweat over evolution. Scientific descriptions of natural processes are fully compatible with God’s being at work in and through those processes. The materialist naturalism that people such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne strap on to evolution clearly is incompatible with Christianity. And it’s not scientific, either, as Colin Gunton pointed out so nicely:
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.
Christians should expose and oppose naturalist materialism for the bad philosophy that it is. And Morris was rightly concerned with such naturalism. Nevertheless, as I have grown as a Christian, I have realized how important it is to treat my opponents with respect and seriously consider what they have to say. It takes humility to learn something true about creation from them given our philosophical disagreements. I believe this kind of graciousness and humility offers compelling Christian witness.