This essay is based on a lecture delivered by MRB at a 1998 conference.
The title “The Fossils Don’t Speak!” is intended to evoke curiosity from those familiar with creationist literature. It is, of course, a reversal of the title of a book written by Dr. Duane Gish. However, the contradiction may or may not actually be a corrective to the work of Dr. Gish or his creation-science colleagues, as we will see.
The thesis I will argue for is that the debate between Christianity and Darwinism is conducted at the wrong level. The level that it is commonly carried out on is what we can call the evidential or factual level. One side puts forth evidence in support of Darwinian evolution while the other proffers evidence against it. The debate, then, is to be resolved by judging which side possesses the preponderance of the evidence. Obviously the Darwinists think the weight of evidence leans on the side of evolutionary theory while creationists think the scale is tipped in the other direction.
I do not maintain that scientific evidence is irrelevant to the creation-evolution debate – such a claim would be patently absurd. Nevertheless, scientific evidence in itself is insufficient to decide the issue either way. By this I do not mean that I think the evidence is ambiguous. I firmly believe that the scientific research that has been done clearly indicates that every living (and non-living) thing in the universe is the result of direct act of creation by God and not the product of an evolutionary process.
However, I also believe that a debate of this issue on purely scientific evidence will get nowhere. The debate must take place on a different level before any resolution is possible. Thus my present objective is not to refute Darwinism and vindicate creationism. Instead I will endeavor to realign the terms of the debate between these two rival positions. Before I begin my argument for realignment, however, a few preliminary remarks are necessary.
During the course of this lecture I will be using a few terms that I will define in a particular way.
First, by the term ‘creationism’ I shall mean the view that world was created by the God of the Bible, that the world is relatively young and that the life on earth today is basically the same as life on earth at the time of creation. Of course there are others who call themselves creationists whose views do not fit within this definition (Muslims, for example). I will thus not defend a generic view of creation that is compatible with various religious outlooks.
Second, I define the term ‘Darwinism’ as the theory of evolution by means of naturalistic processes. This definition is intentionally broad enough to cover classical Darwinism, neo-Darwinism and even such theories as punctuated equilibrium. The purpose of this definition is to cover all theories of evolution that are naturalistic in nature.
This brings us to the third term, ‘naturalism.’ For purposes that shall become obvious later, I break down ‘naturalism’ into two species or kinds (I use ‘species’ for the Darwinian readers and ‘kinds’ for creationists). ‘Methodological naturalism’ is the view that the only way to obtain knowledge of the world is to study natural processes. The corollary of this is that knowledge of the world is not obtainable by means of divine revelation. ‘Metaphysical naturalism’ is the view that only nature exists. Thus it stands against supernaturalism.
A final preliminary remark is necessary at this point. In what follows I will discussing the debate between Darwinism and creationism. I realize that these two views do not exhaust the field. It is not uncommon for a man to embrace both a traditional religious outlook and evolution. Perhaps the most familiar position of this type is what has come to be known as theistic evolution – a hybrid of Christianity and evolutionary theory. Others have already demonstrated that this position is untenable for the Christian on biblical grounds. The Bible’s consistent and unambiguous teaching is that God created the world in the space of six days and all very good. The world is fundamentally the same today as it was at the time of creation – the plants, animals and man are not the result of process that has been guided by that hand of God.
A Brief History of the Debate
The debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution has been going on since the publication of Origin of Species in 1859. There have been many facets to the debate.
For instance, the ethical implications of the theory has been a point of much controversy. Creationists have argued that Darwinism necessarily leads to relativism – there are no moral absolutes except perhaps survival and reproduction. Given that the world is red in tooth in claw, the only legitimate ethical theory – if one could call it an ethical theory – is one that promotes an individual’s and its offspring’s survival. Many Darwinians counter that ethics and biology are distinct areas of study and so evolutionary theory has no implications for ethical theory one way or the other. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins takes this line.
I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case.
The irony of this statement is that creationists contend the precise opposite. If Darwinism is the case, then there could be no ought.
Darwinists often counter-punch by arguing that religion in general and Christianity in particular with its rigid moral code is an offense to the sensibilities of modern man and should be dismissed as nothing more than a crude and primitive compilation of early man’s myths and taboos. From this point on the debate often degenerates into name-calling. This is the verbal equivalent to the bumper-sticker wars that are waged on our freeways. First there was the fish, then the fish will legs, then a big fish eating the fish with legs and so on.
A closely related debate is that of the cultural and political implications of Darwinism. Opponents have argued that it logically entails either anarchy and the disintegration of society or to a totalitarian state. The individual is strictly out for himself and his offspring caring nothing for such an inconsequential abstraction as “society.” With altruism ruled out, any ethical justification for coercive power by the state becomes a mere pretext for some individuals to dominate others – totalitarianism. Darwinians counter that the theory of evolution need not rule out democratic or republican forms of government. Either the theory is neutral on cultural and political matters or cooperation may be grounded along contractarian lines.
Darwinians typically then go on the offensive by pointed out the political and cultural suppression that has gone on under the banner of religion. It is at this point that the tired examples of political suppression of science by organized religion is brought in. The Roman Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo is the favorite.
Though obviously important, the debates over ethics and society and other areas are mere sideshows to what has become the predominate issue – the scientific status of evolution. The initial debate was whether Darwin’s theory of natural selection was scientifically justified. When, for example, T. H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce squared off for their famous disputation on Darwin’s recently publicized theory during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860 it was the scientific merits of the theory that was at issue. Much intense debate followed. But as time passed it became obvious that the Darwinians were the winners – they controlled the scientific journals, they held the university appointments, they had access to the vast resources of the state. After the initial controversy Darwinism became the scientific view, while creationism was merely a religious dogma. Given this development, the debate degenerated into one of science (evolution) versus religion (creationism).
In America, the creationists faired little better. Gradually, it became apparent that the Darwinians had the better arguments. The nadir of the debate for creationists was reached at the Scopes trial in 1925. From that point forward, creationism was associated with backwards, uneducated country folk – or as H. L. Mencken referred to them, the simian faithful of Appalachia.
In the seventies, however, creationists began to change their strategy. No longer were the willing to debate the issue in terms of science versus religion. The new strategy was to play down the theological origin of creationism and stick to strictly scientific issue. Thus the advent of creation-science.
This was primarily Darwinian tactical move on the part of the creationists. Because the courts had ruled that the teaching of religion in public schools violates the establishment clause of the first amendment, creationism based on religious dogma would not be allowed in the classroom. Creationists reasoned that if creationism were divorced from religion it could be put forth as a scientific theory. And being a scientific theory, it had just a much right to be taught in public schools as the theory of evolution. Thus the inception of creation science and along with it the attempt to establish a “two-model” approach to biology in America’s schoolrooms.
This new tactic proved to be effective. Legislatures in Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws prescribing that a two-model approach of creation science and evolution science be taught in the classroom. These laws, however, were quickly challenged on constitutional grounds by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The Arkansas act, which mandated equal treatment of creation science and evolution science, was the first one to make it to the federal courts. At the heart of the plaintiffs’ case was the charge that creation science was simply religion masquerading as science and thus in violation of the establishment clause.
The court agreed. The religious nature of creationism was one of three reasons that Federal District Court Judge, William R. Overton, cited in ruling the 1981 “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act” unconstitutional. “[The Act] was simply and purely an effort to introduce the Biblical version of creation into the public school curricula. The only inference which can be drawn from these circumstances is that the Act was passed with the specific purpose by the General Assembly of advancing religion.”
This argument is often repeated in Darwinian literature. Philip Kitcher is representative: “Is there any evidence that might lead Creationists to amend their ‘scientific’ claims, so that they no longer consist simply of a censored version of a literal reading of the Genesis account? … If there is not, then Creation ‘science’ is, at bottom, a religious doctrine. In the pursuit of real science, no part of current theory is beyond question. Anything is potentially revisable. To demand that certain parts of ‘scientific’ Creationism must be kept fixed, whatever the evidence, is to drop even the pretense of doing science.”
According to the Darwinian, then, not only does the evidence repudiate creationism, but those engaged in attempting to bring forth evidence for creation are not even doing science. The oft-heard assertion is that creation science is really pseudo-science. It is religion, in this case Christian fundamentalism, parading under the banner of science. Indeed, the very term “creation science” is said to be an oxymoron.
Although extravagant, there is an important truth underlying the Darwinian’s rhetoric. He knows very well what is going on with the creationists. The creationists do not start out with objective, dispassionate mind-sets, ready to follow the evidence wherever it leads. The Darwinian understands that creationists already have the rabbit in the hat. They start with the conclusion that creationism is true and go on to find evidence to support this conclusion. This is the scientific equivalent to rationalization, the process whereby one starts by assuming the correctness of his view and concluding from this that there must thus be a good reason out there to support it. In a word, Darwinians see creation-science for what it is, religion.
What never occurs to the Darwinian is that he too has bees in his bonnet. The Darwinian views himself as objective and dispassionate. He views himself as scientific. He is willing to follow the facts wherever they go. He is tolerant, open-minded and has no ax to grind. Whereas the creation-scientist is religous and subjective, he is scientific and objective.
The Darwinian Faith
While this is the Darwinian’s view of himself, it does not reflect what actually is the case. As will be demonstrated, Darwinism is just as religious in nature as creationism. The religion of the Darwinian is not that of prayers, incense, and ritual; it is not what we would call a traditional religion. Yet it is religious nonetheless. What I mean by religion is a worldview or philosophy of life based not on science but on faith. In this sense a religion is an extra-scientific theory that is used to interpret physical facts and events but which itself is not testable by physical facts and events. That this is the case is easily shown in the literature of Darwinism by its anti-Christian bias, its dogmatism, its intolerance of opposing views and its philosophical assumptions.
First, Darwinism’s religious nature is shown in its anti-Christian nature. Below are just a few representative quotes. Professor J. Tyndall wrote in 1874: “. . . the basis of the doctrine of evolution consists, not in an experimental demonstration – for the subject is hardly accessible to this mode of proof – but in its general harmony with scientific thought … We claim and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory.”
Stephen J. Gould, a scientist who often claims that evolution is not hostile to religion, writes, “Before Darwin, we thought a benevolent God had created us.” But this is now not intellectually tenable: “No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature. No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.”
William Provine, a historian of science at Cornell, says that anybody who accepts evolutionary biology and yet holds to traditional Christian beliefs, “have to check [their] brains at the church-house door. . . [They] are either obtuse or compartmentalized in their thinking, or are effective atheists without realizing it.”
Julian Huxley makes similar remarks: “In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for supernaturalism. The earth was not created, it evolved. So did all the animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves mind and soul as well as brain and body. So did religion … Finally, the evolutionary vision is enabling us to discern, however incompletely, the lineaments of the new religion that we can be sure will arise to serve the needs of the coming era. ” In another place he writes: “We wanted not to pin our faith to that or any other speculation, but to get hold of clear and definite conceptions. The Origin provided us with the working hypothesis we sought. Moreover, it did us the immense service of freeing us forever from the dilemma: Refuse to accept the Christian hypothesis and what have you to propose that can be accepted by any cautious reasoner?”
These quotes in themselves do not prove that Darwinism is a religion. But they do show that there is a bias against the teaching of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Second, and more incriminating is the fact that the theory of evolution is held, despite protests to the contrary, dogmatically. Most will recall from high school that one of the virtues of science is that theories and hypotheses are held tentatively. Dogmatism is the hallmark of an unscientific attitude. Yet representative statements by the Darwinians express a dogmatism equaled only by religious devotees.
In a famous article claiming that evolution is a fact not a theory, Stephen J. Gould writes: “Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be identified.”
In 1959 Julian Huxley stated: “The first point to make about Darwin’s theory is that is that it is no longer a theory but a fact … Darwinianism has come of age so to speak. We are no longer having to bother about establishing the fact of evolution …” Richard Dawkins, Oxford zoologist, in his typical pithy manner, declares: “The theory [of evolution] is about as much in doubt as the earth goes round the sun.” And in his book, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, Jonathan Weiner pontificates that: “debating the reality of the process [evolution] seems as absurd as debating the existence of gravity.”
The dogmatic and religious nature of Darwinism is not a recent phenomenon. From the outset, Darwinians were dogmatic and used all means at their disposal to suppress creationist heretics. An illuminating example of this is recorded by historian Peter Bowler. Bowler explains T. H. Huxley’s role in the relatively quick acceptance of Darwinism with the British scientific community. “Huxley was typical of a new generation of scientists determined to wrest intellectual authority away from its traditional sources. Evolutionism was useful to them precisely because it demonstrated that science could now determine the truth in areas once claimed by theology. Huxley went on to become a leading public figure, serving as a scientific expert on numerous governmental commissions. He was also a member of the “X-club,” an informal but extremely influential group of men whose behind-the-scenes activity shaped much of late Victorian science. It was by exploiting their position within this network that Huxley and his fellow converts ensured that Darwinism had come to stay. They avoided open conflict in scientific journals but used their editorial influence to ensure that Darwinian values were incorporated gradually into the literature. The journal Nature was founded at least in part as a vehicle for promoting Darwinism. Academic appointments were also manipulated to favor younger scientists with Darwinian sympathies, who would ensure that the next generation was educated to take the theory for granted. So successful was this takeover of the British scientific community that by the 1880s, its remaining opponents were claiming that Darwinism had become a blindly accepted dogma carefully shielded from any serious challenge.”
This unabashed dogmatism is indicative of something deeper that a belief in the process of evolution based upon an analysis of the evidence. Even the secular philosopher W. T. Jones recognizes the type of commitment that Darwinians maintain. “The scientists have elevated Darwinism to the level of a religious dogma.”
Third, the religious nature of Darwinism comes out even more when their intolerance for any theory of origins is observed. Phillip Johnson relates the story that in 1981, the British Museum of Natural History celebrated its centennial with an exhibition on Darwin’s theory of evolution. A sign at the entrance read: “Have you ever wondered why there are so many different kinds of living things? One idea is that all the living things we see today have evolved from a distant ancestor by a process of gradual change. How could evolution have occurred? How could one species change into another? The exhibition in this hall looks at one possible explanation – the explanation of Charles Darwin.”
An adjacent sign read: “Another view is that God created all living things perfect and unchanging.” An accompanying brochure admitted, “the concept of evolution by natural selection is not, strictly speaking, scientific.”
The response from the scientific community was outrage. An editorial in the journal, Nature, asked rhetorically: “Can it be that the managers of the museum which is the nearest thing to a citadel of Darwinism have lost their nerve, not to mention their good sense? … Nobody disputes that, in the public presentation of science, it is proper whenever appropriate to say that disputed matters are in doubt. But is the theory of evolution still an open question among serious biologists? And if not, what purpose, except general confusion, can be served by these weasel words?”
Atheist philosopher Anthony Flew denounced the Museum’s scientists, whom he called “civil servants,” for their “abuse of the resources of a state institution to try to put [their pet theory] across to all the innocent and predominantly youthful laypersons who throng these public galleries, as if it were already part of the established consensus among all those best qualified to judge.”
The end result of the pressure is that the Museum capitulated and removed the “offensive” statements. Darwinians do not tolerate any dissent from evolutionary fundamentalism.
Evolution and Naturalism
It is not enough to leave the issue here. Yes, Darwinism is anti-Christian, yes it is held dogmatically, yes it is intolerant of any opposing view. But what is behind all of this? This is the question and the answer to this is the key to the whole creation-evolution controversy.
The Darwinian, like the creationist, brings into his scientific investigations a set of background assumptions. Where the creationists brings the Bible as an unquestioned authority, the Darwinism brings in his own unquestioned authority. He presupposes at the outset the truth of naturalism.
Recall, that I said at the outset, there are at least two types of naturalism – epistemological or methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. It is the contention of Darwinians (as well as most other scientists) that science must operate on the basis of the former, methodological naturalism.
The Darwinian, however (at least a sophisticated Darwinist, most Darwinian scientists would probably fail to make this distinction), says that this assumption is an innocent one. Science must assume this otherwise science would involve itself in all kinds of superstitions. They content that only metaphysical naturalism is an unwarranted assumption.
It is on the basis of this distinction that the claim is made by Darwinians that evolution does not disallow religious faith. Methodological naturalism is not a theory of ultimate reality; it does not rule out the possibility of the supernatural. Because of this it is an innocuous presupposition.
But is it? Is it the case that methodological naturalism is innocuous? A negative answer to this question will become readily apparent. The scientist who conducts his research with such a presupposition is going to interpret the facts of the world in light of them. Everything he studies will be observed through the spectacles of naturalism. Thus from the outset, the range of what he will discover has already been pre-determined. For the naturalist, there could not be anything that would count as evidence for creations since creation is not a natural process. Thus any alleged evidence for creation could not be, by definition, scientific evidence. This is why Darwinians consider evolution to be a fact not a mere theory. Some account must be given for the diversity of life. But since creation is not an option, it must be explained naturalistically. In as much as evolution seems to be the only credible naturalistic candidate, evolution must therefore be true. And so it is held to be true, come what may. It is, in the words of a contemporary philosopher, immune from revision.
This is not to say that natural selection must be the engine that drives evolutionary machine. Evolutionists are not committed to any particular mechanism. It may be that another mechanism (say random genetic drift) is the main driving force behind the evolutionary process. These theories of how evolution has taken place are debatable. What is not debatable is evolution itself.
So as it turns out, methodological naturalism is not at all innocuous. It is not innocuous for at least the following reasons.
First, proving evolution while presupposing naturalism begs the question. It determines beforehand the type of answer that will be acceptable.
Second, the view that all knowledge of the world comes through observing natural phenomena is a presupposition not a conclusion. In order to establish its truth or even its likeliness, arguments must be presented. But far from providing arguments, Darwinians are not usually even aware that they are committed to a controversial epistemological theory. This being the case, modern scientists reveal that they posses just as much faith as the most ardent fundamentalist.
Third, methodological naturalism leads to metaphysical naturalism. If all that will be accepted as knowledge is that which comes from an inquiry that assumes methodological naturalism, there could be no possible ground for anything but metaphysical naturalism. Fourth, naturalism, in either form, cannot be demonstrated by scientific investigation. One cannot prove the truth of naturalism by doing empirical research.
The Debate Realigned
At this point it must be noted that the same objections may be directed against creation-science, mutatis mutandis. Both of these positions, Darwinism and creationism, are worldviews, and as such determine in advance what will and what will not count for evidence. Thus, no amount of evidence can confirm or disprove either position.
The point of all this is not to show that Darwinism is religious – that it presupposes certain things about the world – and is therefore false. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the nature of the case, all outlooks are ultimately religious in nature.
The point is rather that the debate between Darwinism and creationism has been fundamentally misconceived. Darwinians have couched the debate in terms of science versus religion. Creationists have taken the bait and tried to argue that creationism is not based on religion but is itself scientific. What need to be realized is that the debate cannot fruitfully be engaged at either of these levels.
Creationists should concede the point made by the Darwinian that his view is fundamentally religious. After all, the position that the earth was created by God less than 10,000 years ago is based upon the teachings of the Bible. After this concession creationists should then turn around and point out that Darwinism is also religious. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for that gander. And being religious, the debate cannot continue on the level of scientific inquiry.
Ultimately, the debate between creationism and Darwinism is not over scientific evidence, but over mutually exclusive world views. No side wins the debate because no can win the debate at this level. Thus to merely debate the evidence or the “facts” is futile.
This is not an agnostic conclusion, however. Just because there is no way to resolve this matter at the scientific level does not imply that there is no way to resolve it at any level. I am not suggesting that we are left with a relativism that says both sides are correct, given their differing perspectives. Nor am I suggesting that there is no way to determine which perspective (if either) is the correct one. The philosopher Wittgenstein said that when it comes to basic perspectives or world views (he used the term ‘indubitables’) there is no way to determine which is correct. Thus he said that proponents of opposing world views ultimately resort to name-calling, trading off the invectives “fool” and “heretic.” But Wittgenstein was too hasty.
Facts may not determine the fact of the matter. This is why the debate must take place at the worldview level. By means of transcendental reasoning, the answers to the following questions regarding world views should be sought: Is naturalism philosophically coherent? Can it account for human experience? What about Christianity? Is it coherent? Does it provide the necessary preconditions for human experience? Only at this level can the creation-evolution controversy proceed fruitfully.
Cornelius Van Til sums it up this way: “There is oftentimes the need for detailed apologetics, but detailed apologetics must always be fully conscious of its subordinate position. In the argument for and against organic evolution this is sometimes forgotten. The fight on this sector of the front is sometimes waged in such a manner as though the issue could be settled at this place alone and once for all. So also men sometimes fight about the trustworthiness of the Scripture as though the next move of someone’s spade in Palestine could determine everything. Facts, to be sure, are stubborn things, but facts must be interpreted. The philosophy assumed by evolutionists is a far more dangerous thing than the evidence that they bring. Now all facts are interpreted in either of two ways. Men are either Theists or Anti-theists. The whole battle about facts is a mad scramble between these two kinds of philosophies.”
In a future post, I will set out to do two ambitious things. First, I will try to show that the philosophical underpinning of Darwinism, naturalism (in both its methodological and metaphysical forms), is not merely implausible, but demonstrably false. Second, I shall further argue that Christianity provides the necessary preconditions for scientific inquiry. That is, only Christianity can account for physical laws, the uniformity of nature, the reliability of sense experience and other things that are assumed by science.
Before I conclude, one final qualification is in order. That the debate between creation and Darwinism is ultimately over world views and not over this or that piece of evidence does not mean that evidence is unimportant. The fossils don’t speak outside the context of a worldview. But since, as I will argue, the Christian worldview is the only worldview that can account for science, we must interpret the fossils and every other fact from a Christian perspective. This being the case, the fossils turn out to speak after all. What then do they say? At least this much: Evolution – the fossils say no.