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The Wars Over Evolution

One of the most-cited results in evolutionary biology is the study by the University of Chicago biologist Leigh Van Valen of the longevity of Tennyson’s “types.” Van Valen reasoned that if there is a general increase in the fitness of organisms then the length of time between the first appearance of a kind of organism in the fossil record and its eventual extinction should increase over the long run of geological time. But that is not what has happened. He found that the average length of time from origin to extinction of an invertebrate, as measured in the fossil record, has not changed over evolutionary time. We have no evidence that this is not true for species in general. So despite natural selection, things are not getting any better over the long run. Van Valen called this phenomenon the evolutionary “Red Queen,” after the character in Through the Looking Glass who found it necessary to run constantly just to keep up with a world that was constantly moving beneath her. Unfortunately, in real life, the Queen inevitably will tire, stumble, and be swept away.

If we accept that evolutionary biology is not, in fact, committed to progress, then we cannot accept Ruse’s central contention that

in both evolution and creation we have rival religious responses to a crisis of faith—rival stories of origins, rival judgements about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates and, above all, rival eschatologies [i.e., premillenarian vs. postmillenarian].

Flowing from his view that scientific evolutionary biology can be turned into a kind of religion, Ruse is worried that the commitment to using only natural phenomena in the attempt to explain the history and variety of organisms is a “slippery slope” down which evolutionists may glide from the firm surface of hard-minded methodology, of which Ruse approves, into the slough of unreflective metaphysical naturalism. We demand that our scientific work be framed with reference only to material mechanisms that can, at least in principle, be observed in nature because any other method would lead us into a hopeless morass of uncheckable speculation that would be the end of science. But we should not, in Ruse’s view, confuse that rule of conduct with a revelation of how the world really works. Maybe God is lurking out there somewhere but He doesn’t leave any residue in our test tube, so we will be tempted to assume He doesn’t exist.

This is a philosopher’s worry that does not, as far as I can tell, correspond to the way people really acquire their views of reality. Some may have had mountaintop conversions at some point in their lives, while others experience a crisis of faith as they mature. Theodosius Dobzhansky, the leading empirical evolutionary geneticist of the twentieth century, who spent most of his life staring down a microscope at chromosomes, vacillated between deism, gnosticism, and membership in the Russian Orthodox Church. He could not understand how anyone on his or her deathbed could remain an unrepentant materialist. I, his student and scientific epigone, ingested my unwavering atheism and a priori materialism along with the spinach at the parental dinner table.


The present struggle over evolution is often seen by defenders of Darwinism as a culture war in which creationism is a part of a general right-wing ideology that justifies an authoritarian, traditionalist society, protecting “traditional values” against assaults from social revolutionaries intent on overturning long-held moral values. It is certainly true that creationism is far more popular in the rural South, the Midwest, and the Southwest among supporters of the present Republican administration than among urban Northern Democrats. But the evolution/creation struggle has a complex history. Before World War II the science of evolution was virtually absent from school curricula everywhere in America, although explicit creationism was characteristic largely of the rural South and West. Then the atomic bomb and, later, an immense increase in the public funding of science as a response to the alarm raised by Sputnik resulted in a revolution in teaching science. With support from the National Science Foundation, evolution became a regular part of biology textbooks and science instruction in the public schools and remains so in most places.

In response, among those who had never lost their traditional fundamentalism, an active creationist reaction began, slowly accelerating to its present prominence. According to a series of polls taken over the last twenty-five years, about 50 percent of Americans believe that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”5 There have been repeated recent attempts in Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and Kansas to make the study of challenges to evolutionary biology part of the mandated public school science curriculum. These have so far not succeeded, but Kansas seems on the verge of passing a statewide requirement that a new variant of the Creation myth, “intelligent design,” be part of the discussion of evolution in public secondary schools. Intelligent design (ID) has itself been intelligently designed to circumvent legal challenges to the teaching of biblical creationism, challenges based on the constitutional requirement of a separation of church and state.

God, the Bible, and religion in general are not mentioned in the doctrine of ID. Rather, it is claimed that an objective examination of the facts of life makes it clear that organisms are too complex to have arisen by a process of the accumulation of naturally selected chance mutations and so must have been purposefully created by an unspecified intelligent designer. An alien from outer space? But the theory of ID is a transparent subterfuge. The problem is that if the living world is too complex to have arisen without an intelligent designer, then where did the intelligent designer come from? After all, she must have been as complex as the things she designed. If not, then we have evolution! Otherwise we must postulate an intelligent designer who designed the intelligent designer who…, back to the original one who must have been around forever. And who might that be? Like the ancient Hebrews the ID designers fear to pronounce Her name lest they be destroyed, but Her initials are clearly YWH.

The political identification of creationism with conservative politics is recent. Before World War II, rural populism in the Southwest and Midwest, motivated by resentment against politically and socially powerful Northern urban elites, included both creationism and socialism. In the election of 1912, the poorest rural counties of Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas gave more votes to Eugene Debs than did the urban populations of Chicago and New York. At the same time the best-selling weekly in America was the Appeal to Reason, a socialist periodical published in Girard, Kansas. So, what’s the matter with Kansas these days? The shift of American populism from the left to the right is part of the history of the disappearance of the American left as a serious political force.

We see then that Christian fundamentalists have been historically inconstant in their political preferences; and their demand for a public recognition of the literal truth of Genesis has not, at least so far, included agitation against the teachings of physical science. So the campaign against evolutionary biology must be neither an integral part of the politics of the right nor the consequence of a devotion in principle to a literal reading of the Bible. How then are we to explain the continued strength of the campaign against evolution? We can do no better than to listen to the Reverend Ron Carlson, a popular preacher, lecturer, and author. He presents to his audience two stories and asks them repeatedly whether it matters which one is true. In the secular story,

you are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach three and a half billion years ago. You are a mere grab-bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system… in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere.

By contrast, the Christian view is that

you are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation…. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind…. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that…He gave the life of His only Son that you might spend eternity with Him.6

What is at issue here is whether the experience of one’s family, social, and working life, with its share of angst, pain, fatigue, and failure, can provide meaning in the absence of a belief in an ordained higher purpose. The continued appeal of a story of a divine creation of human life is that it provides, for those for whom the ordinary experience of living does not, a seductive relief from what Eric Fromm called the Anxiety of Meaninglessness. The rest is commentary.


At the same time that religious forces have been attempting to destroy evolutionary biology by denying its truth, a movement within academia has been attempting to make Darwinism a universal model for an understanding of history and social dynamics. This movement has two roots in the traditions of intellectual life. In their intellectual formation, natural scientists have held up before them a model of scientific work that places a powerful value on general applicability and on inclusiveness. “Great” scientists are those who, like Newton, make laws that apply universally, while lesser ones spend their lives dissecting particular phenomena. If Darwinism is to satisfy the demand for generality then it must explain not only the evolution of the physical structure of the organism but of its individual and social behavior.

At the same time natural science has increasingly provided a source of academic legitimacy for inquiry that had previously been seen as a merely impressionistic endeavor. Surely there must be laws of history rather than just a narrative of one damned thing after another. Of course there is a long tradition of attempts to find laws of history. In his Muqaddimah, the fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun formulated quantitative laws of “universal” (i.e., Arab) history and five hundred years later Hegel lamented that the problem for the historian was not to write history but to find a general theoretical frame on which the facts can be hung. More recently the study of history and social structures has often become “social science,” with an apparatus of sample surveys and statistics. The searches for the general in the biological sciences and for legitimacy in explaining human social phenomena have converged in the creation of Darwinian models of human nature, of culture, and of history.

The first attempts at generalization, epitomized by E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: the Modern Synthesis, were simple extensions of evolutionary theory within biology to nonphysical characters. A universal human nature was described, including such properties as religiosity, aggression, entrepreneurship, and conformity. Genes for these traits were postulated, and adaptive stories were invented to explain why they were established by natural selection. The credibility of these models was eventually undermined by the lack of evidence of genetic determination of such traits and by the slipperiness of attempts at trying to define the “universal” characteristics of human nature. So when I once pointed out to a sociobiologist that sane and rational human beings were willing to go to prison rather than engage in armed struggle, he replied that their resistance to the state was a form of aggression. One need not be an orthodox follower of Karl Popper to see that a theory that allows things to appear in the form of their apparent opposites when convenient is not of much value.

  1. 5

    Otis Dudley Duncan and Claudia Geist, “The Creationists: How Many, Who, and Where?” Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Vol. 24, No. 5 (September–October 2004), pp. 26–33.

  2. 6

    Ron Carlson and Ed Decker, Fast Facts on False Teachings (Harvest House, 2003).

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