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The Wars Over Evolution


The development of evolutionary biology has induced two opposite reactions, both of which threaten its legitimacy as a natural scientific explana-tion. One, based on religious convictions, rejects the science of evolution in a fit of hostility, attempting to destroy it by challenging its sufficiency as the mechanism that explains the history of life in general and of the material nature of human beings in particular. One demand of those who hold such views is that their competing theories be taught in the schools.

The other reaction, from academics in search of a universal theory of human society and history, embraces Darwinism in a fit of enthusiasm, threatening its status as a natural science by forcing its explanatory scheme to account not simply for the shape of brains but for the shape of ideas. The Evolution–Creation Struggle is concerned with the first challenge, Not By Genes Alone with the second.

It is no surprise that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has recently chosen the Op-Ed page of The New York Times to enunciate the doctrine on evolution of the new Benedictine papacy.1 Political and cultural struggle over the origin of life and of the human species in particular has been a characteristically American phenomenon for a century, providing Europeans (the French in particular) with yet another example of la folie des Anglo-Saxons. In his essay, Cardinal Schönborn accepts that human and other organisms have a common ancestry and, by implication, that the species on earth today have evolved over a long period from other species no longer extant. That is, he accepts the historical fact that life has evolved. He distinguishes this acceptable fact of evolution from what he characterizes as the unacceptable “neo-Darwinian” theory that, in the words of the offi-cial 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church of which he was an editor, evolution is “reducible to pure chance and necessity.” He rejects, as he must, the Newtonian notion of first cause, that at the beginning God only created a material mechanism with a few basic molecular laws and that the rest of history has simply been the consequence of this mechanism.

In the evolutionary process, he writes, there must have been “an internal finality,” the Divine plan. He calls attention to the fact that John Paul II, who endorsed the science of evolution in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, nevertheless insisted in his other writings that there must also be such a principle of finality and direction built into the material process. Such internal finality and direction cannot be omitted from the minimal Christian position. For if evolution is only the consequence of random mutations, none of which needs to have occurred, and if the subsequent fate of those mutations is subject only to the relative ability of their carriers to reproduce and to survive catastrophes of the environment that eliminate species and make room for new ones, then rational beings capable of moral choices might never have come into existence. But without such beings the concept of Redemption is unintelligible. Christianity demands, at the very least, the inevitable emergence of creatures capable of sin. Without a history of human sin, there is no Christ.

Everything else is up for grabs. Neither the Vatican nor much of quite conventional Protestant theology demands that one take the story in Genesis 1 literally. Even William Jennings Bryan, famous as the prosecutor in the Scopes trial in 1925, when called as a witness for the defense, confessed that he did not much care whether God took six days or six hundred million years to create the world. Moreover, even the minimalist Christian position does not require the abandonment of the neo-Darwinian view of the mechanism of evolution. It is quite possible to argue, as some of my believing religious colleagues do, that God set the stage for evolution by natural selection of undirected mutations, but that He reserved the ancestral line destined to become human for special preservation and guidance.

What, then, is the source of the repeated episodes of active political and social agitation against the assertions of evolutionary science? One apparent answer is that it is the expected product of fundamentalist belief, which rejects the easy compromises of liberal exegesis and insists that every word in Genesis means exactly what it says. Days are days, not eons. But there’s the rub. A literal reading of Genesis tells us that it took God only three days to make the physical universe as it now exists, yet nuclear physics and astrophysics claim a very old stellar system and provide the instruments for the dating of bits and pieces of the earth and of fossils spanning hundreds of millions of years. So why aren’t Kansas schools under extreme pressure to change the curriculum in physical science courses? Why should physicists be allowed to propagate, unopposed, their godless accounts of the evolution of the physical universe? Something more is at stake than a disagreement over the literal truth of biblical metaphors.

One way to understand the particular vulnerability of the science of biological evolution to religious attack is to blame it on the biologists. That is the message of Michael Ruse’s The Evolution–Creation Struggle. Ruse, a well-known philosopher of science, is not a creationist and is careful to align himself with the Darwinian explanation of the origin and evolution of species. He identifies his position on the existence of a higher power as “somewhere between deist…and agnosticism.” That is, he is committed to giving natural explanations of natural phenomena as a methodological principle, but he is not absolutely sure that every aspect of the world is, in fact, nothing but the interactions of matter according to natural laws.

His chief quarrel is not with evolutionary biology as a technical scientific discipline, or even with its claim that the evolution of species has been a purely material process, but rather with what he calls “evolutionism,” a commitment to a principle of universal long-term progress in the biological, social, cultural, and political worlds. He identifies evolutionism as a form of religion and portrays the conflict between creationism and evolutionism as a fight between two religious doctrines, a struggle between premillenialism, the doctrine that earthly perfection will only be achieved after, and as a consequence, of the Second Coming, and postmillenialism, the view that Christ will return, if at all, only after earthly paradise has been achieved. Ruse sees evolutionary biology as having been permeated by the idea of pro-gress and so, as a rhetorical device, iden-tifies it as “postmillenial,” but without any commitment to the Second Coming.

Ruse is certainly correct that notions of progress have recurred repeatedly in evolutionary biology, especially in the nineteenth century. However, it is not the ideology of progress that has characterized evolutionary theory, not even at its nineteenth-century origins. Rather it was change, ceaseless change, that was the ideological leitmotif of a revolutionary era. Ninety years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Denis Diderot had his dreaming philosopher d’Alembert ask,

Who knows what races of animals preceded ours? Who knows what races of animals will succeed ours? Everything changes, everything passes, only the totality remains.2

Nine years before the appearance of the Origin, Tennyson’s In Memoriam echoed Diderot. Is nature, while making individual death inevitable, at least careful of the type?

So careful of the type? But no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, “A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.”

Herbert Spencer in his Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857) argued for change as a general phenomenon, as a “beneficent necessity,” citing historical transformation in music, poetry, society, government, and language. But even Spencer defined progress in a way that accorded with contemporary changes in social and economic relations:

Leaving out of sight concomitants and beneficial consequences, let us ask what progress is in itself.

From the earliest traceable cosmical changes down to the latest results of civilization, we shall find that the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous is that in which progress consists.

What could have seemed more obvious to the mid-nineteenth-century observer than the transformation of a relatively “homogeneous” society, characterized by the “simple” agrarian life with the rural village its center, into one marked by the booming, buzzing “heterogeneous” confusion of life in industrial Manchester and London?

Darwin himself avoided implications of general progress or of directionality. It should be noted that his great work is unideologically titled On the Origin of Species, not On Evolution, and the word “evolution” nowhere appears in the first edition of that work, which thus neatly avoids, by intent or not, any implication of an unfolding of a progressive program. Equally revealing is the title of his work on human evolution, a field in which its more recent practitioners find notions of progress and directionality all too tempting. Darwin’s title is The Descent of Man.3 The theory of evolution was not a product of a commitment to progress but a reaction to a consciousness of the instability of the social structures that characterized the bourgeois revolutions and the radical changes in them. The Founding Fathers did not promise us all eventual happiness, but only the freedom to run in pursuit of it.

Despite Darwin’s caution, notions of progress and directionality have indeed reappeared from time to time in evolutionary theory, especially in discussions of human physical and cultural change. However, the modern empirical science of evolutionary biology and the mathematical apparatus that has been developed to make a coherent account of changes that result from the underlying biological processes of inheritance and natural selection do not make use of a priori ideas of progress. It is true, as Ruse points out, that two of the originators of the mathematical formulation of evolutionary dynamics were ideologically committed to some form of meliorism, if not perfection. Ronald Fisher in England was an advocate of eugenics, and both he and Sewall Wright in America formulated the principle of natural selection as a process of increasing, from generation to generation, the average fitness of members of a breeding population. Yet these formulations make no predictions about a general progress of species.

This may seem odd, since the process of natural selection is supposed to make organisms more fit for their environment. So why does evolution not result in a general increase of the fitness of life to the external world? Wouldn’t that be progress? The reason that there is no general progress is that the environments in which particular species live are themselves changing and, relative to the organisms, are usually getting worse. So most of natural selection is concerned with keeping up. Certainly quite new kinds of making a living have been occasionally exploited in evolution, but every species eventually becomes extinct (99.9 percent already have) and no way of making a living will be around forever.4 Judging from the fossil record a typical mammalian species lasts roughly ten million years, so we might expect to last another nine million unless, as a consequence of our immense ability to manipulate the physical world, we either extinguish ourselves a good deal sooner or invent some extraordinary way to significantly postpone the inevitable.

  1. 1

    Finding Design in Nature,” The New York Times, July 7, 2005.

  2. 2

    Qui sçait les races d’animaux qui nous ont précédé? Qui sçait les races d’animaux qui succèderont aux nôtres? Tout change, tout passe, il n’y a que le tout qui reste.Le Rêve de d’Alembert.

  3. 3

    As compared to the book of an eminent anthropologist of the last generation, Earnest A. Hooten, Up from the Ape (Macmillan, 1946).

  4. 4

    Indeed, life on earth is about half over. It has been around for about two billion years and from our knowledge of the changes that occur in stars, the sun will become a “red giant” destroying the earth and other planets in another two billion years or so.

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