Darwinism seems to occupy a special place at the intersection of science, philosophy, and religion. One result is that evolution gets featured in controversies as different as those over theism versus materialism and nature versus nurture, to mention just two. In America, any discussion of evolution typically turns to the subject of creationism, the idea that an intelligent agent played a part in designing life. (According to this definition, creationism includes, but is not restricted to, the biblical account of life’s origins.) Though some of us doubt that creationism provides an ideal vehicle for serious discussion of science and religion, the topic won’t go away. In his latest book, Living with Darwin, Philip Kitcher considers creationist claims and uses them as a springboard for discussing subtler issues.
Kitcher, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, is a leading philosopher of science. His work concentrates on problems raised by biological, and especially evolutionary, research. His previous books, including Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (1982) and Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature (1985), have been read widely by both philosophers and scientists. Abusing Science was arguably Kitcher’s most important book to date. A critical examination of the so-called scientific creationism prominent in America in the 1970s and 1980s, Kitcher’s study deftly deflated the creationist balloon, pointing out its many absurdities as well as its disingenuous use of the scientific literature. “Scientific creationists,” he showed, offered dubious geological and physical objections to the dating of fossils, among other things. They also had a habit of quoting biologists out of context, thereby manufacturing false crises within evolutionary biology. There seems little doubt that Abusing Science played a part in the demise of scientific creationism.
Kitcher now tells us that, given the rise of the movement claiming that “intelligent design” is revealed in nature, colleagues convinced him the time was right for another look at creationism. Though short, the resulting book is authoritative. It is also finely written. As Kitcher emphasizes, though, Living with Darwin is no mere update of Abusing Science. It’s a different kind of book, with different goals.
Kitcher hopes to accomplish two things in Living with Darwin. One is to survey various versions of creationism and to recount the arguments against them. In doing so, he hopes to present a positive case for Darwinism and “to formulate it in a way that people with no great training in science, history, or philosophy could appreciate.” Kitcher’s other goal is more ambitious and—given the current noisy debate over science and religion—perhaps more important. He hopes to get at just what it is about Darwinism that’s so threatening to religion. Why is it that of all intellectual enterprises, this one “particular piece of science provokes such passions, requires such continual scrutiny, demands such constant reenactment of old battles?” Kitcher believes that unless this question is answered, we are destined to repeat the wars between evolution and creation. In the …