[asa] Rejoinder 2 from Timaeus: to David Opderbeck, with a Question for All

From: Ted Davis <TDavis@messiah.edu>
Date: Fri Sep 26 2008 - 09:29:28 EDT

A very detailed, provocative post from our pseudonymous interlocutor. I would like to reply to half a dozen points, but it might not be possible with the responsibilities of my day job. :-)

Timaeus is really getting into the heart of the matter for us, and I hope that many will take up the challenges and respond thoughtfully. Let me note only that Timaeus' analysis of Darwin's overall attitude is very accurate, IMO. Darwin suffered from "physics envy," insofar as he wanted to extend into natural history the same general lawlikeness already found in astronomy and physics: the famous final paragraph in the "Origin of Species" has a strong hint of this. How one is to understand that, metaphysically, is of course a very important question that many here may want to engage.



Mr. Opderbeck has written two excellent replies to my rejoinders. He’s trying to drive to the heart of things, so I will try to repay his close attention to my writing by continuing his drive. I’ll deal with his last two replies in the order of appearance.

The core of his first reply is to try to show me that Phillip Johnson rejects common descent, by the use of actual passages of Johnson’s writing. I’ll take up those passages in a minute, but I think I should make some general remarks about my terminology first.

By “evolution” I mean a process which is alleged to have taken place, during which or through which species turn into other species. In its fullest modern form, it asserts that all living things, including man, have descended genetically from very simple beings which first appeared billions of years ago. I have already indicated that I provisionally accept this process as a fact, and I’ve already implied that I don’t find it spiritually shocking or revolting or automatically un-Christian, and that it isn’t a bone of contention for me in relation to the claims of theistic evolutionists.

However, I must stress that by “evolution” I do not mean “Darwinism” or “Darwinian evolution” or “neo-Darwinian evolution”, or “the theory of evolution” (which usually means Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution). “Evolution” to me is a label for a process, making no reference to any causal explanation for the process. When I want to associate a causal explanation with the fact of evolution, I stick an adjective in front of the word. Thus, you can have Lamarckian evolution (long maligned by biologists, though I read somewhere that it may be making a limited comeback), which asserts that adaptive changes can be inherited; you can have Bergsonian evolution, which asserts that evolution results from the attempt by the “life force” to organize recalcitrant matter to suit its needs; and you can have “Darwinian evolution”, which in its modern, neo-Darwinian form (pruned of the occasional Lamarckian expression which slips into Darwin’s writing), !
 asserts that random mutations shaped by natural selection are competent to produce all the species existing on earth.

This brings me to a point raised by Mr. Arago, i.e., that “evolutionary biology”, as employed today, is something of a misnomer. We should expect that any field which calls itself “evolutionary biology” will start from the tentative assumption that evolution is a fact (otherwise, the field of study would have no reason for existing), but we should also expect that it will explore ALL the theoretical options, consistent with what we know of the behaviour of nature, to explain this fact. But in fact, for the last several decades, “evolutionary biology” has meant “neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology”. Theories that stray far from the central assertions of neo-Darwinism are ruled out. You won’t get a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, or grant money, or promotions, if you say you don’t believe in neo-Darwinism. Even Gould, who criticized Darwinian gradualism in light of the fossil record (quite rightly in my view), still in the end saw himself as within a m!
 odified Darwinian or broadly Darwinian approach. Now if Michael Behe were to apply to do a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, and if he were to tell his prospective supervisor that he wanted to study evolutionary biology with a view to supplementing the typical set mutation/selection explanations with higher-level design explanations, he would be rejected as a graduate student at probably every graduate program in the world. Yet what he would be researching would certainly be “evolutionary biology”; it would be biological study aimed at understanding the causes of evolution. And given his publication of 35 peer-reviewed papers in biochemistry, there would be no doubt about his ability to handle graduate-level scientific work. So why would he be rejected? He would be rejected because he doesn’t share the core beliefs of the ruling regime in evolutionary biology. What we have in modern evolutionary biology is, in effect, a one-party state, so that “evolutionary biol!
 ogy” has been identified with “Darwinian evolutionary biol!
 And just as in the old U.S.S.R., “all” citizens could hold high higher office, as long as they were members of the Communist Party, so in evolutionary biology, “all” comers can get a Ph.D. or tenure or a huge research grant, as long as they kowtow to the neo-Darwinian scheme. But perhaps I have digressed.

Assuming I have been clear about definitions and that everyone can follow me, I am going to state my position. My position is that someone can believe in the fact of evolution, even to the point of believing that a bacterium was his or her great-great-great-...grandparent, and STILL believe that the Darwinian explanation for evolution (RM + NS) is ludicrously wrong, or at best woefully incomplete. An early great example of this position was Henri Bergson, one of the greatest philosophers of the early 20th century, who specialized in the philosophy of biology and psychology, and whose critique of Darwinism in Creative Evolution has never, in my view, been adequately answered. Ninety years later, another example of an anti-Darwinian form of evolutionary biology is provided by Michael Denton. Denton, as firm a believer in “molecules to man” as you will ever find, rips the Darwinian mechanism to shreds, armed with thousands of references to the latest knowledge in bioche!
 mistry, genetics, embryology, physiology, comparative anatomy, etc. I see myself as something like Bergson or Denton: a Darwin-dissenter, but not an evolution-dissenter.

Now, on to Johnson.

I have zero knowledge of Johnson’s private or publically expressed views regarding the truth or falsehood of common descent. So I will limit myself to interpreting the passages Mr. Opderbeck has provided, which read:

“There is an immense gap between the creative feats that Darwin's mechanism
is supposed to have accomplished in taking life from a unicellular starting
point up to the highly complex plants and animals of today, including
humans, and the modest temporary variations that it has actually been
observed to produce in nature. My hope was that the scientific community
would agree that it is legitimate to question whether known natural
(unintelligent) mechanisms can produce the immense quantities of genetic
information that would be needed to generate complex new kinds of organisms,
provided that the questioning was based upon scientific evidence rather than
religious doctrine or scripture.”

“Nowadays I rarely see any attempt to prove that the Darwinian mechanism
actually has the power to create major new biological innovations. Instead, the museums and magazines prefer just to tell the story of common descent,
assuming that random variation with natural selection (differential
reproduction) must have been adequate to perform whatever designing had to
be done. At the same time, mainstream science, although guided by Darwinian
assumptions, keeps providing more and more evidence of the enormous
information content of living structures. Even the core assumption that
genetic similarities are necessarily inherited from common ancestors is
contradicted almost daily by invocations of something called "lateral gene
transfer" to explain genetic similarities between organisms which are not
believed to share a recent common ancestor.”

I am straining to find a spot where these passages directly deny the fact of common descent, or even imply a denial of it. What I see in these passages is a constant discussion of Darwinian mechanism. Johnson says that the Darwinian mechanism purports to be able to explain “creative feats” but that its observed powers are “modest”. He asks “whether known natural (unintelligent) mechanisms can produce ... immense quantities of genetic information”. He sees, in the scientific literature, a dearth of attempts to prove that “the Darwinian mechanism actually has the power to create major new biological innovations”. He says that museums and magazines “tell the story of common descent”, and does not deny that the story of common descent is true, but questions only the assumption that “random variation with natural selection ... must have been adequate to perform whatever designing had to be done”. Even the last sentence, the only one which looks as !
 if it might imply a denial of common descent, when read carefully, is not doing so, or at least, not necessarily. In that sentence Johnson is merely pointing out that, in some cases, there is a discrepancy between the genetic evidence and the presumed tree of common ancestry, and that “lateral gene transfer” is being called in to explain this discrepancy, thus rescuing Darwinian theory from embarrassment. This certainly implies that Johnson thinks that the relationship between common descent and the Darwinian mechanism is sometimes an intellectual mess; it does not imply that Johnson rejects common ancestry.

Now I don’t want to make too much of this, because it may be that Johnson DOES reject common ancestry, very clearly, somewhere else. But I’ve discussed it at some length because it illustrates a point I think needs to be made, and that is that foes of ID, whether they are malignant neo-Darwinians like P.Z. Myers, or gentlemanly and likeable theistic evolutionists like Mr. Opderbeck, don’t always read ID writers carefully. There is a very pronounced tendency to READ INTO the statements of ID writers, and to argue against positions that the ID writer has not taken. I would beg Mr. Opderbeck, whose good will is apparent, and all others here, whom I also believe to be open-minded, to guard against this tendency. I don’t mind if a TE critic slashes ID to pieces, intellectually speaking, as long as the argument is based on WHAT THE ID PROPONENT ACTUALLY HAS SAID. But over half of the time and energy of ID proponents, maybe even three-quarters or four-fifths of their t!
 ime and energy, seems to be devoted, to responding to criticisms of things they have not said and positions they have not taken. How many thousands of times have we objected when Eugenie Scott or New York Times journalists or bloggers or others call us “creationists”, calling up images in the public mind (Biblical literalism, religious obscurantism, Duane Gish, Henry Morris, etc.) which are no part of ID theory? The ID position deserves careful reading and accurate representation before it is subject to criticism.

As for whether a blend of design and common descent would “satisfy ... most of the ID leadership”, I cannot speak for the ID leaders (of whom I am not one), but it certainly seems to satisfy Behe, and I have a strong impression, from occasional e-mail correspondence with some of them, and from what they have published, that common descent is not at the heart of their objection to Darwinism. There may be one or two of the leaders who are, in the privacy of their souls or in their churches, die-hard seven-day literalists who reject common descent on the grounds that it is incompatible with a direct, naive reading of Genesis, but I have the impression that most of the leadership has a flexible enough attitude towards scripture that they would allow for longer “days” or use some other literary stratagem to make room for evolutionary change, if they thought the evidence for common descent was strong. So they don’t want to make war over common descent as such. (Among !
 the rank-and-file ID supporters, opposition to common descent may be greater; I cannot say because I have taken no surveys of grassroots ID opinion.)

The ID leaders, and many of their intelligent followers on blog sites, etc., have said, over and over again, and I think we should take their word for it, that common descent is of secondary importance to them, in relation to the question of the reality of design and the question of the possibility of design detection. Their main objection to the neo-Darwinists is not that the neo-Darwinists assert common descent, but that neo-Darwinism (in pure form) is incompatible with any role whatsoever for design. And their main objection to the theistic evolutionists is not that TEs assert common descent, but that TEs, or many of the prominent ones, have said, or seem to have said, that design detection is ruled out of science automatically, and that it is blasphemous Christian theology automatically. In other words, ID people resent being told that a serious, methodologically rigorous attempt to apply the established scientific methods (used in forensics, archaeology, code-breaki!
 ng, etc.) to biological systems is bad science or non-science, and they resent being told that even contemplating the possibility that the heavens (or the proteins) may declare the glory of God in a very precise mathematical way is wicked theology.

If I may raise a more general question to everybody here: Why it is so important for TE supporters to hear ID shout loudly that it is solidly behind common descent? Since ID is focused on whether or not there is design in nature and whether or not it can be detected by scientific methods, and is formally indifferent to the question whether the design was instantiated in six days or through an evolutionary process lasting billions of years, why do TE people care what ID people think on this point? What would irritate at TE person if an ID person did NOT believe in common descent? And would the irritation be for scientific or theological reasons?

I move now to Mr. Opderbeck’s second post. On his second point in that post, which occupies the last long section of his post, I have no serious disagreement. On a Dentonesque understanding, naturalistic explanations are not incompatible with design explanations. And from a theistic point of view, one can imagine God expressing his design in a seamless garment of natural causes. At that point, one form of ID and one form of TE overlap without contradiction.

On his first point, protesting against my argument for the incompatibility of Christian theism with pure Darwinism, he writes:

The first is the definitional problem mentioned above. You are defining
"Darwinism" differently than any TE I've ever met. Obviously, if
"Darwinism" by definition means "no God allowed," then the game is over. I
cannot understand why ID advocates don't seem to believe TE advocates when
the TE folks say "that's NOT what we mean by 'evolution'."

I answer: that may not be what TE folks mean by “evolution”, but I was speaking not of “evolution” (which is an ambiguous term in discourse on this subject), but of “Darwinism”. By “Darwinism”, I mean “Darwinian evolution”, i.e., evolution driven by the Darwinian mechanisms. Darwinism, not merely the fact of evolution, is what Darwin and his later supporters have taught. Darwin certainly makes crystal-clear in the Origin that if even one tiny violation of natural law is allowed into his system, in order to explain an evolutionary change, then his system fails as science and is no better than an appeal to miracles. (I can dig up a passage or two if no one believes me, but as people here purport to know what Darwin said, I don’t think they will contest this.) What this means is that, for Darwin, it is precisely true that “no god is allowed” into the process that produces new species.

To be sure, Darwin allows that God created the laws of nature, and that God created the first life (though don’t forget his speculation about the warm pool); but Darwin’s whole point was to make biology like the other successful natural sciences. No physicist of Darwin’s day supposed that natural laws kept the moon in orbit only most of the time, and that occasionally God had to step in to nudge it back on course. It was conceived that there was no break in the natural laws, and that, once established by God, they would not need his direct supervision at any future moment to do what they did. Darwin wanted to put biology on the same footing. He wanted to establish that natural laws could not only keep planets in orbit without incidental assistance from God, but could also generate all the species on this planet without incidental assistance from God. In other words, his view of the workings of nature was essentially Deistic, except that he conceived of nature as h!
 aving a capacity for self-development, rather than being static after the moment of creation as in traditional Deism. But that capacity for self-development was itself expressed through biological laws, and excluded the direct involvement of God.

(And by the way, to anticipate a topic I would like to broach in depth later: some TEs (Ken Miller, and others whose views are summarized by Polkinghorne in his article in Uncommon Dissent), have suggested that God actually DOES involve himself in the evolutionary process, subtly guiding it at the sub-microsopic level, hidden behind the “chance” effects of “quantum indeterminacy”. Thus, God acts upon nature in direct and specific ways within the realm of time, but because his action is indetectible and appears to human observation only as a “chance” event or a “random” mutation, science can proceed without worrying about God, and neo-Darwinian evolution is “true” on the scientific level. Darwin would vehemently and unequivocally reject this TE suggestion. He would say that it is a dishonest way of invoking miracles, and is utterly outside the spirit of scientific explanation. For him, if nature did not have the power of creating all the species by it!
 self, without the slightest help from God, his entire theory was of no scientific worth. And it seems to me that he is right. After all, no TE theorist suggests that God subtly intervenes “on a quantum level” to keep the moon in orbit, or to make sure that stars keep burning. TE theorists do not believe that God needs to intervene in such cases, because they believe that God’s pre-established natural laws are always operative and reliable. So why try to give God an active role in nature ONLY in the evolutionary process? Such a proposal indicates that TEs, for all their alleged commitment to naturalism, don’t really have faith that Darwinian processes, unaided, could produce all the species. In other words, it indicates that TEs agree with ID about the shortcomings of the Darwinian mechanism! If someone would like to write a post, explaining in detail the “God hides behind quantum indeterminacy to guide evolution” form of TE, and inform me which TE writers!
  hold to this, and whether there is debate between TEs about i!
 t, I wou
ld be very grateful.)

Now what of Darwin’s most authoritative successors? What of (to name just a few) Julian Huxley, Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Nicholas Hotton (former vertebrate curator at the Smithsonian, author of many books on dinosaurs and evolution), Jerry Coyne, Paul Gross, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Eugenie Scott? These and others, not the theistic evolutionists, are the people who have defined and shaped Darwinism and “neo-Darwinism” on both the scientific side and in popular perception over the last 150 years. And these people grant even less hands-on activity to God than Darwin did. Some of them are outright atheists; others are agnostics; others admit to the existence of a distant God who sets the universe rolling and then steps aside. But almost all of these people have argued not only that new species are formed without any direct help from God, but that life itself came to be without any direct help from God. The unguided chemical evolution of life itself is taken!
  for granted by these people as something that will eventually be established (though they are nowhere near proving it), whereas in Darwin’s thought that was only a vague possibility, and God was still necessary to create the first simple life forms. Thus, the trend in evolutionary biology since Darwin’s day has been to push God’s involvement in nature back, ever back, to the time before there was life at all. And this is not surprising: something like 90% of all those holding chairs in “evolutionary biology” identify themselves as agnostics or atheists. No IDers, and precious few TEs, hold chairs in evolutionary biology anywhere in the world. It’s pretty much an infidel’s club. And they are the official academic guardians of Darwinian evolution. So it’s indeed true that for Darwinian evolution, in the strict sense, the rule is: “no God allowed”.

Thus, “Darwinism”, or “Darwinian evolution”, as its authoritative practitioners understand it, is the doctrine that random mutations plus natural selection are exhaustively competent to produce all the species that we see. It is the doctrine that God was not involved in the creation of species, not even a tiny bit, unless by “involvement” you mean establishing the general laws of nature within which evolution takes place. It is the doctrine that God (if he exists) may have created nature, but nature created the species completely out of its own resources. Darwinism, in this strict, proper sense, is not by definition atheistic, but it is compatible only with forms of theism that tend towards Deism, and perhaps also with pantheism. It is almost certainly incompatible with any recognizably orthodox form of historical Christianity.

What does this mean for “theistic evolution”? It means that theistic evolution, while in my view an entirely reasonable position, cannot consistently accept pure, unadulterated Darwinism, because pure, unadulterated Darwinism is not compatible with Biblical or historical Christian theism. It is compatible only with Deism or pantheism. So theistic evolution must take only selected parts of Darwinism.

I think that theistic evolution, if it were wise, would accept only these elements from Darwinism:

1. Common descent (based on the evidence put forward for it by Darwin and others);
2. A carefully orchestrated role for natural selection;
3. A carefully orchestrated role for “random mutation” (which would be a misnomer in a proper TE scheme, since nothing is random in a world ruled by God).

I think TE should reject from Darwinism:

“Chance” as radically determinative of what will or will not be created by evolution.

And I think it should add, in the teeth of Darwinism, and in direct defiance of Darwinism:

Intelligent design. By this I don’t mean everything currently associated with “ID” as a movement, but just a role for intelligent design, in lower-case letters. Intelligent design can be instantiated in nature in a number of ways, one of which – front-loading – would be entirely naturalistic, abolishing miracles as completely as Darwin wished to do.

So a theistic evolutionist, in my view, would accept common descent, would accept that life is suffused with intelligent design, and would subordinate natural selection and chance events to the wider plan set forth by the intelligent design. Within that general framework, the theistic evolutionist would have the option of asserting an active or “Biblical” hands-on God, who occasionally intervenes in nature, or a more remote “Deistic” God who sets nature rolling and sits back as it does its thing. But either way, God’s plans are completely carried out and cannot be thwarted, not even by “chance” events or by “quantum indeterminacy”. The Biblical God, and any later mainstream version of the Christian God (Catholic, Calvinist, etc.), always gets the results that he wants, in the long run, anyway. “Chance” has no more ability to alter what evolution produces, in the long run, than Jonah has of NOT going to Nineveh. Chance can delay things and give loca!
 l colour, but it cannot alter the outcomes which in God’s mind are the most important ones. Man’s creation, for example, was for Gould by no means certain; if the tape were re-rolled, there might still be only dinosaurs. And Gould’s position must be true for any consistent neo-Darwinism. For a theist, on the other hand, man’s creation was certain.

Now here is where Mr. Opderbeck and others can help me. I do not understand the notion of God held by theistic evolutionists. It seems to me that there is no single, clear notion. I have read people who claim to be TEs say that ID has a sub-Christian view of God, because its God is a cold, distant engineer who builds the world and then retires, whereas the Christian God is actively involved in the world. (See, for example, Miller’s critique of the ID God in FDG.) But then, when certain ID proponents (e.g., George Hunter) stress very strongly the active character of the Biblical God and his constant interaction with the world, it seems to me that TE proponents backtrack on the “involved God”, and appear to come close to denying the historical reality of God’s most obvious forms of interaction with the world, i.e, his miracles. So ID gets bashed for having a God who is too remote and Deistic, on the one hand, and for believing in a superstitious, unscientific, mi!
 racle-doing sort of God, on the other. And in the meantime, I have no clue what sort of God is being used by TEs as the gold standard by which to trash ID notions of God.

Can people help me here? Is there a unified “TE” theology, which I am just not understanding? Or is my problem that there is a radical breadth of opinion within TE about the nature of God, about miracles, etc., so that there is no such unified theology? If that is the case, then TE is not that different from ID, whose proponents are “all over the map” on God, from a cool, distant front-loader, whom one cannot imagine as acting in the world, and to whom one cannot imagine praying, to a God who did everything written in the Bible exactly as it was written, and who intervenes in nature often, e.g., healing an incurable medical case in answer to prayer. If this is the situation, then it’s foolish for people from either side to say things like: “ID is bad theology”. or “TE is liberal, heretical theology”. What they should be saying, rather, is that in their opinion, Stephen Meyer has bad theology, or Francisco Ayala has bad theology. The simple act of re!
 moving the ID and TE labels, and speaking only of individual positions, might go a long way towards healing unnecessary rifts between Christians on both sides.

What are people’s thoughts here? If there is a “TE theology”, please spell it out for me, because, as an outsider, I don’t know where TE people are coming from. And if there is not one such theology, but many, would someone undertake to outline three or four of the major positions that TEs hold regarding the nature of God, and the relation of God to the natural world, and to the evolutionary process? And, matching these positions, the corresponding hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of the Bible?

To unsubscribe, send a message to majordomo@calvin.edu with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Fri Sep 26 09:30:35 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Fri Sep 26 2008 - 09:30:36 EDT