walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: August 8, 2012
Darwin's Ghost

Charles Darwin published his culture-shaking Origin of Species in 1859. It immediately provoked a passionate controversy. This is hardly surprising. The Darwinian culture shock can be compared to an earlier one: the Copernican one. Copernicus made people see the earth as one of several planets circling the sun, rather than as the center of the universe. Darwin placed humanity squarely within the animal kingdom rather than outside it as its master. Both radical changes in worldview upset everyone, but the more recent one more directly challenged the traditional understanding of the Bible, especially the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis. The Copernican view of the solar system makes it difficult, for example, to accept a Biblical story in which the sun stood still. However, there are not too many such stories. The Darwinian account of evolution radically questioned the Biblical story of the creation of Adam and Eve just a few thousand years ago. The Victorians argued about all this to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond. Today, more than 150 years later, Darwin’s ghost is still rattling in the attics of the culture, especially in those attics inhabited by Evangelicals. Liberal Protestants quite early came to terms with evolution, except for its application to society by so-called Social Darwinism, which used the notion of the survival of the fittest to justify the most ruthless capitalism—in direct opposition to the Social Gospel favored by many if not most liberals. Catholics have been less bothered by evolution—their, as it were, cognitive anxieties circle around the Church rather than the Bible.

The July-August issue of Christianity Today offers palpable evidence of the continuing controversy among American Evangelicals. The cover story is about two scientists, both fervently Evangelical, but one a “young earth creationist” (I love this very lyrical term—it means that the age of the creation must be dated in literal adherence to the Biblical chronology), the other an “ancient earth creationist” (less lyrically inspiring term—it means that the age of the earth and of the human species is dated in accordance with conventional science, which also means that creation is seen as a gradual process). The two scientists are, respectively, Tom Wood and Darrell Falk.

Tom Wood grew up in a rural community in Michigan, where his family attended a small Baptist church. He first came across biology as an undergraduate at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia (the “largest Evangelical university in the world”, founded by Jerry Falwell). He went on to study biochemistry at the University of Virginia. At no time did he doubt the six-day creation story of Genesis, and his entire career as a scientist was devoted to finding empirical evidence for it. For example, he argued that the genetic similarities between species are due to common descent from Noah’s ark. He explained in a memorable sentence: “I want to understand what God is thinking. Why did he make chimps almost the same as humans?”.

Darrell Falk grew up in British Columbia, near Vancouver. His family attended a Nazarene church. (The Nazarenes were an offshoot from Methodism, their distinguishing belief asserting that perfection can be attained in this world. The belief is shared by the larger Holiness community.)  At age 10 he experienced the “second work of grace”, the spiritual baptism of the Holiness tradition. He read a textbook of biology in junior high school and was troubled in his faith by the theory of evolution. However, as he read more biology in college his reaction changed: “I had known the beauty of Christianity. Now I discovered the beauty of genetics. When I saw how the cell worked, it was unbelievably beautiful”. He went on to study genetics at the University of Alberta, where he joined a less fundamentalist Nazarene church (the denomination contains a spectrum of theological positions). His mission has been to reconcile evolution with the Christian view of God as creator, broadly speaking in sympathy with the co-called “intelligent design” movement. He went on to teach at Point Loma Nazarene University in California, then at Bryan University in Los Angeles; he also heads the BioLogos organization, which advocates a belief in God’s creation as continuing over millions of years. Falk’s book Coming to Peace with Science has become a defining text for the Intelligent Design movement.

The ongoing debate over evolution is a particularly interesting case of the relation between modernity and religion. I have been arguing (I cannot develop this argument more fully here) that modernity is not necessarily secularizing (in the sense of bringing about a decline of religion). Modernity does (I think, necessarily) lead to pluralization—the co-existence of diverse worldviews and moralities in the same society. This pluralization occurs in the institutional order, but also in the consciousness of individuals. There is a secular discourse which is the lingua franca of most people in a modern society; science has powerfully shaped this discourse. But in much of the world, very much so in America, this discourse has not done away with various discourses deriving from religion. To be a modern person holding religious beliefs means to be able to switch between these discourses in different spheres of one’s life. This process has been brilliantly described in two recent books: by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, in When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Experience with God, and by the sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. The balancing act is by no means limited to Americans or Christians. What makes it very interesting here is that the United States is the most religious western country, and that Evangelicals are the most dynamic religious community in the country.

Christianity Today follows up the story about the two scientists with a useful overview of the positions in the current debate over the Darwinian heritage:

  1. Creationism: The creation account in the Book of Genesis, is literally true, and scientific evidence supports it.
  2. Intelligent Design: Evolution is true, but science requires an external intelligence to explain the diversity of life.
  3. Theistic evolution: God created diversity through the evolutionary process.
  4. Scientism: No divine creator is responsible for life and its diversity.

Each of these positions has its problems. Creationism flies in the face of the scientific evidence (all those fossils!), and a very imaginative legerdemain is needed to re-interpret the evidence so as to fit the religious presuppositions.

Intelligent design reflects an intuition shared by religious believers, at least in the three monotheistic faiths—William Blake’s “fearful symmetry” of the universe pointing to its creator; the trouble here is the claim that this intuition can be based on science. It cannot. It is not falsifiable by any scientific methodology.

Theistic evolution, if I understand it correctly, shares the ID intuition, but does not claim that it results from science; this position, I think, is best suited to enable the balance between the discourse of science and the discourse of faith. It does not help to address the problem of theodicy raised by evolution—the enormous mountain of suffering and death incurred by all living beings in the process of natural selection—“designed” or tolerated by a compassionate creator? If that problem can be addressed at all, it cannot be on the basis of a “theistic evolution” alone.

As to scientism, I doubt whether this is a position held by any believing Christian (or Jew or Muslim)—unless the term means that science and faith are two sharply discrete ways of looking at reality that should not be mixed. The term does apply to the so-called “new atheists”, among others, who make of science a quasi-religion—a fundamentalist faith of its own.

Survey data show that large numbers of Americans are creationists of the most robust sort. This kind of religion tends to wither or at least be modified with the spread of higher education. Barring some dramatic catastrophies falling on American society, one would not predict a rosy future for creationism (quite apart from the fact that the federal courts are barring it from the schools). But I think it would be a mistake to simply attribute its prevalence to lack of education. Underlying it is another intuition, which has nothing to do with evolution or the age of the earth: The perception of the distinctive and sacred dignity of every human being. In the famous debate between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at the “monkey trial” of 1925 (which humiliated Bryan and traumatized American Evangelicals for decades), Darrow was right in showing up the implausibility of a literal reading of the Bible. But on a deeper and finally more important level, Bryan was right—and it is a good thing that Evangelicals are getting over the trauma.

show comments
  • John Barker

    I wonder what current speculations in cosmology about the existence of multiple universes existing in parallel will have on religious belief?

  • Bill Baar

    @John Barker Or read some of the recent and not so recent work on the nature of time. Consider Einstein’s Besso Letter: “…for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

    Makes me wonder who has a better sense of Science: the creationists or these Science dogmatists.

  • Jeff Jones

    A typical anti-God article with no supportable facts but with copious quantities of cliche factoids that are totally unsupportable. The truth is Darwinian evolution has been disproved many times over by the same scientists who doggedly cling to it. There is NO evidence of the progression of one species into another one. Not one. The Cambrian life explosion is unexplainable. Recent genome discoveries yield the likelihood of spontaneous generation of genetic material to 1 chance in 10^5-figure possibility. Absolutely impossible. The author patronizingly implies any bible believing person must believe the earth was created in 6 days, 6000 years ago. The Bible says nothing of the kind. It says the earth preexisted Genesis 1:1 but there was 6 days of recreation of the earth including human life. The fossil record does support that, Cro-Magnon man and other similar hoaxes and wild speculations notwithstanding.

    In short, Darwinian evolution is a religion, not a science. Any amount of brow beating and character assassination by ‘experts’ can’t change that fact.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I have found two books to be helpful with the debate of science versus religion without deteriorating into mysticism or gnosticism and without avoiding the theodicy problem.

    One is Divine Hiddenness: New Essays edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser (Cambridge U. Press). The article “Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding” by Paul Moser is particularly relevant. Moser writes that devout theism and scientism can both be idolatrous.

    Another book is Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality – a Western Perspective by physicst Shimon Malin (Oxford U. Press).

    As to the Neo-Darwinian theory of sociobiology expounded by Edward O. Wilson and others, I am uninterested about how ants or the “ant-world” can inform us about meaning or ethics or human origins. As sociologist Max Weber pointed out the “rationalization” and “scientization” of the world that accompanies modernization can lead to scientists telling us we are mere animals or machines. But this is not the only way of knowing reality. I am reminded of the concept of the “lifeworld” discussed by philosopher Edmund Husserl and sociologist Alfred Schutz. We are human and we live in a humanly created world. This world may also reflect the divine.

  • Hominid

    Bona fide scientists AND rational atheists reject Creationism, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution, and Scientism because all four are delusional and unsupported by empirical evidence.

  • Anthony

    Mr Berger, I use your site to record inability to post after 9:00 A.M. on Mead’s Quick Take (8-8-12). I ask both your indulgence and forgiveness of my liberty. I (speaking of Darwin’s ghost) commented on Norquist weltanschauung – good and evil as narrative; I asked for amplification vis-a-vis comment concerning white man burden – no shibboleths and catechisms or Darwinisms; I proffered that given external freedom municipal citizens contiue to make wrong choice – relative to cost of debt; and finally, I contexually utilized Darwinian ideas while commenting on housing market – not noticing your subject matter until afterwards.

    Mr. Berger, I trust your colleague, WRM, appreciates the balanced editing and open commentary Via Meadia affords and that while enjoying India his absence is noted. It is my hope that Quick Take ommissions are attributable to technical problems not tendentiousness.

    Thanks for the forebearance.

  • Harold Seneker

    The debate about Creation is based on a false premise. It assumes there is an irreconcilable conflict between Scripture and Science. There is not, It is an illusion, albeit one embraced by both sides.

    If, for example, an omnipotent Being did create the universe around 5,000 BC (the approximate date you come up with if you count back the generations in Genesis), then all Science has proven is that this Being created the universe to appear as though it has existed for 13.7 billion years, fossils, multimillion-light-year distances and all.

    Voila! Contradiction resolved.

    Granted, this leaves unanswered the question why the universe was created in this fashion. But the question of why the universe was created at all is unanswered both by Scripture and by Science. Neither has an answer to that question at all.

    I think fundamentalist Christians would do well to drop this debate, and devote the time and energy spent on it to more useful projects that would advance their cause.

  • Anthony

    “Darwin placed humanity squarely within the animal kingdom rather than outside as its master” – challenging traditional Bible understanding. The legacy is lingua franca (secular discourse) attempting to balance science and faith in both a modern and plural society. Therein, Western societies though seeking truth in religion must endure ongoing process of reconciling incompatible propositions (Creationism, Intelligent Design, Theistic evolution, etc.) while expressing “Faith and Being Reasonable.”

  • jbay

    “It does not help to address the problem of theodicy raised by evolution—the enormous mountain of suffering and death incurred by all living beings in the process of natural selection—“designed” or tolerated by a compassionate creator?”

    ~ To often is God’s ambivalence to our supposed suffering quoted as reason to denounce belief or faith but how often is such suffering, rightly called into question? Let’s talk about ants and bees. Both insects are important to the environment. They serve a purpose that directly benefits all other living things. Thus a rational being should be concerned about their lot. If we’re concerned about the ants and the bees for no other reason than they benefit us than should we not be concerned for the individual bee that suffers?

    Yet just as one who is concerned about the mass die offs of bees will just ask quickly fumigate a colony that strays to close to our homes we must also ask the question of what compassion really is. Is it compassionate to overcrowd a region beyond its carrying capacity or is it more compassionate to, thin the herd? Is compassion acknowledge someone else’s pain or is it help that individual at the expense of an entire group?

    When one speaks of an uncompassionate God for not saving their relative one throws out the belief in life after death. When one speaks of a lack of compassion for not relinquish suffering one confuses compassion with something else entirely. All being exist at the expense of others. All who live must eat and thus all that live kill. So what then is just?

  • J. Alagood

    Another thought shift ought to be occuring regarding race. Genetic studies reveal migration patterns out of Africa around the globe. Humans who moved away from the equator survived who had lighter skin..thus enabling them to absorb more Vitamin D.

    “Race” is a function of time..

  • bonniebrae

    “so called social darwinism” did not lead to any more ruthless capitalism than already existed in the late 1800’s. It did however, lead to eugenics and racist organizations like Planned Parenthood, that got their start trying to eliminate the “inferior” races from breeding. This culminated with the great Nazi genocides in Europe. Darwin’s theory will always lead to this logical end. If man is a beast, and some beasts are more fit than others to live, are not some men more fit than others to live? There can be no morality here.

  • JJ

    The publication of The Origin of Species caused almost no stir, much to Darwin’s surprise. It was The Descent of Man that started a robust and acrimonious debate.

  • Peter Barlow

    The division of views concerning the origins of the universe and man into the four categories: Creationism; Intelligent Design; Theistic evolution; and Scientism is a gross oversimplification.
    Creationism has its young-age and old-age adherents; creationists differ in kind as well as in degree. Some would argue for a universe only a few thousand years old, while others would accommodate a very old universe, but insist that all things visible and invisible were created — that is, deliberately made. Whether they were made directly, or were enabled through a series of changes is not really the question. The point is that nothing is random or outside the creative will of God.
    Intelligent design simply states that some things in nature seem to be so complex that their coming into being by accident (because that is what natural selection implies, if it does not exactly state) is so improbable as to be impossible.

    Theistic evolution is a cop-out: assuming that God created some things deliberately and then allowed genetic mutation to take its course depends on an understanding of God that runs counter to the God of the New and Old Testaments — a God involved in, and committed to His creation out of love (presumably committed to all parts of the creation, with Man as the special creature).

    As always, the word “evolution” is not defined. If by “evolution” we mean simply coming into being from a source that is different in degree (colour, shape, etc) from what comes after it, nobody, not even young-earth creationists would argue with it. That definition would accommodate what every gardener, farmer and parent knows: children are not identical to their parents.

    If, however, we mean the random, directionless effect of random genetic mutations and the death of unfit species, then we have something utterly different. This is not a theory, because obviously one cannot predict from it; it is anecdotal rather than scientific; it is not falsifiable.

    A good place to start in discussing evolution and Darwin would be to define what “evolution” and “natural selection” mean. If God made the genes mutate to get rabbits from fish and dogs from bugs, then he created the rabbits and dogs. And He may have done this. Nobody was there at the time. However, if that is what evolution means, it is nothing like what Darwin and his disciples meant.

  • Darrell

    Back to the 1st comment, while one can believe in life on other planets or solar systems, there is no actual proof. And while there is certainly room for legitimate interpretation in the Biblical creation timespan, there may be room for a less certain age of the earth or the universe in spite of what we think we “know”. In the end, I’ll go with God’s wisdom over man’s. There’s more we don’t know than know, and it will always be that way (until the eternal).

  • rogerdoger

    “It does not help to address the problem of theodicy raised by evolution—the enormous mountain of suffering and death incurred by all living beings in the process of natural selection—“designed” or tolerated by a compassionate creator?”

    This supposed question is continuously raised and constantly answered. I wonder why the answer is always ignored?

    I believe the general response given is that pain and suffering is temporary, a result of the fall (for the Abrahamic faiths), and often necessary (Indeed suffering is central to most Christian and Buddhist doctrines).

    In the monotheistic traditions, God forbids evil, hates death and suffering, and one day will get very apocalyptic over it. But the time when he puts a very strong, sharp stop to it all has not arrived yet.
    Seeing as all three major monotheistic traditions prophesize a new creation and a resurrection of the dead afterwards, suffering then is seen as temporary.
    In 200 trillion years what happened to you in the first seventy-eight is hardly going to matter they believe, although how you initially responded may.

  • mere citizen

    May I suggest you read “The rich man and the Kingdom” a book about John Rockefeller and all the “good” done which was informed by his very liberal, non theological based faith. The fact that his faith was was not particularly biblically based is seen as a plus and lauded by this book. It can’t be avoided that Rockefeller foundation also funded eugenics reseach in both this country and Germany, in Germany through the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, anyone who refuses to see the connection between eugenics and Darwinism has simply done either no research or is someone so steeped in the religion of Darwinism they refuse to consider available evidence. It also must be noted that those great social gospel folks endorsed eugenics as well. In 2008 the Methodist Church apologized for its very early support of euginics, a function of the churches non biblical belief in perfectionability. It was routinely “progressive ” churches that embraced eugenics. Read “Preaching Eugenics, “, a book that details this quite well.

    Christians who hold to Orthodoxcy were not involved with the Darwin inspired eugenics but those who did jot were in large part. The information is easily found but one must put aside prejudices and actually do some research instead of parroting the party line.

  • Gerald A

    Evolution is founded on circular reasoning. It’s assumed to have occurred and then observations are fit into an evolutionary scenario.

    Per Dr. David Berlinski:

    “Suspicions about Darwin’s theory arise for two reasons. The first: the theory makes little sense. The second: it is supported by little evidence.”

    Here Berlinski says that there is a general lack of empirical evidence for Neo-Darwinian evolution. Furthermore, the theory lacks predictive power.

  • Anthony

    Darwin’s Ghost

  • Anthony

    Mistake at @9, sorry.

  • Lavaux

    Why doesn’t faith through grace dissolve the boundary between ID and theistic evolution? One can use scientific methods to establish ID as a counterpoint to Darwinism to neutralize both, but only faith can incite the effort. And grace is extended to all but in unequal amounts, thereby neutralizing theodicy (if death and suffering are inevitable to all only in differing quantities and qualities among individuals, then why isn’t every man’s complaint against God at least as great as or less than Job’s and hence already adjudicated?).

  • Robert F

    There are forms of theistic evolution that can account for the amount of suffering that has occurred in the history and pre-history of the world. The primary issue is whether there was spiritual evil present in the world before the human race came into existence, and I would affirm that there was. Even a literal reading of the Garden of Eden story indicates that the serpent was there in the garden, and so spiritual evil already existed, and that there was death at least among the plants that were given to Adam and Eve to consume. I contend that prior to human existence, the Creation was already in the grip of fallen angelic beings, the powers and principalities, and that God’s initial act of Creation (and every subsequent act of divine creation, for God never stops creating),which included giving authority to angelic beings over Creation BEFORE any angels had rebelled, has been twisted and malformed by the influence of those angels that did rebel. From the demonic side (the fallen angels), natural selection, which on the face of it seems a brutal and malicious manifestation of demonic dominance, is a frustration because within it God has graciously and mysteriously kept open a space where he has continued to shape and form his own purposes, which include altruism, love, self-sacrifice, etc., which found their most complete expression in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in the life and death he undertook for the redemption not only of human beings but of the entire Creation. And God does this sovereignly without violating the freedom that he imparted to the Creation, including the angels, at the beginning, and without violating the freedom that he continues to impart in each creative act that he has made since the initial Creation.

  • Joe Eagar

    As for #3, theistic evolution, Mormons, at least, have official doctrine on the “evolution causes so much suffering” concern: free will. Basically, God chose to give living creatures free will and to respect their free agency, and thus the responsibility for making good moral choices lies with His children.

    I actually think human evolution will turn out to be very compatible with Mormonism, given the recent emphasis on the importance of cooperation as opposed to “survival of the fittest,” and the way recent advances of epigenetics naturally fits into our theology.

  • Rob

    I think this debate has gotten out of hand personally…with an understanding of biblical analysis in a literary sense and an actual understanding of current positions of evolutionary biology, and throw in the big bang and ‘mitochondrial eve’ and the ‘out of africa’ work from anthropologists and geneticits, I see Christian faith having a deeper relevance and more all inclusive beauty for the devout as well as the agnostic and cynic. These findings (and remember, we will surely see many more great scientific discoveries) give an actual narrative in history and science that shows we are all God’s children, undivided by race or nation, and the most complex and only spiritual and truly self-aware form of life which no genetic superior! As well as the fact that an event so cosmically mindblowing and amazing where all existence, even different elements blow into existence in a godlike show of power! Is it not reasonable to place God as the architect and the force, beyond our comprehension, beyond time and space (as they could not exist without post-big bang physics) ? Keep your faith in Jesus as a way for God to ‘check in’ and remind us our brotherhood and unity is expressed through love and compassion, and you have a unified, modern, but very scientific framework to be faithful, intellectual, scientific and even traditional ( with a little reform ). I think this should be very acceptable to Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Mormons, and easily Unitarians. Is this really so hard to accept still? It’s poetic, scientific, historical and theologically acceptable.

  • Rob

    Compassion, art, love, creativity, innovation, and more than any other thing, the ability to coherently understand the universe are beyond amazing and enough to convince me that there is something very special and mysterious about human beings.
    DNA, RNA, genome…this are something like a divine blueprint to me, the complexity doesn’t prove evolution wrong, it proves it right and to a believer, that God is so much more complex than we can even imagine! The mystery is not killed by scientism, it’s only reinforced! The nature of God is likely far beyond some of our more dogmatic understandings, and the problem of evil, etc have little argument against a God so superior to us, as I expect we all agree God is.
    Do we really need another political, ‘culture war’ topic? Or can we have some nuance between one another as our minds all understand things a little different, and those ideas change and grow with age. As Christians, I suggest we stick to living inspired by his words as spiritual revelations and let science reveal the nature of God’s creation without causing such a resistance, which historically does nothing but undermine the credibility of religious institution.

  • Jim.

    “In the famous debate between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at the “monkey trial” of 1925 (which humiliated Bryan and traumatized American Evangelicals for decades), Darrow was right in showing up the implausibility of a literal reading of the Bible.”

    Bryan should have read from the biology textbook in question — the text clearly advocates Eugenics.

    “Inherit the Wind” would have a completely different twist if the biology book had been put on trial, rather than the Bible.

  • Paul Prescod

    Wayne Lusvardi: There is nothing more hilarious than a creationist who uses the word “religion” as an insult to hurl at atheists.

    I can only imply that when you hear the word “religion” you have association such as “blind faith”, “ridiculous ideas” and “illogical”. How you can hold these negative views of religion at the same time that you yourself *are religious* is a bit of a head-scratcher for me, but at least we have some common ground. So that much is good news.

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