A Proposal for a Concordat
Blessed are the peacemakers, which is why I am writing this essay, in the hope of reconciling the irreconcilable, and to bring harmony where it has not hitherto been heard. My goal is to provide a rational basis for a concordat between fundamentalist Christians, on the one hand, and neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, on the other. My hope is to put an end forever to all the senseless bickering that has gone on for so long on both sides of this question; and my technique for achieving my quest is to use common sense to explain to both parties that the other fellow's point of view should be taken seriously, because both points of view in this perennial metaphysical battle contain a truth, and because neither one of them, taken alone, contains the whole truth.
Is my hope quixotic? Obviously, but it is part of a quest that I began forty-three years ago on a Sunday morning in spring, which, with the reader's kind indulgence, I will relate as a way of presenting the uniquely existential dimensions of this particular scientific controversy, and why it affects so many people so deeply, unlike most other scientific controversies.
The Story of My Monkey Trial
The Sunday in question came toward the end of the school year, when I was finishing the ninth grade. I had already gotten into trouble with my Sunday School teacher, and with my class, for asserting the heretical proposition that the Bible contained passages of poetry.
Poetry in the Bible? My classmate exclaimed with the zeal of outraged Pharisees. What unexampled impiety. The Bible was all prose, from one end to the other; and not only that, it was non-fiction prose, since, if you think about it, what is fiction but a fancy way of lying, and the Bible obviously contained no lies in it, because it was the Word of God.
On the morning of what I have come to think of as my Scopes trial, however, the issue wasn't poetry; it was Darwin. No sooner had I sat down in the little cubicle where my Sunday School class met than a number of boys pounced on me with a question that had clearly been carefully premeditated. "What were you doing last night?"
Their tone was that of a sharp cross-examiner in a trial where I sat as the accused, and where I knew perfectly that my guilt or innocence would be inferred from the answer I gave to the question before me. Nonetheless, I answered it candidly. I told them (just as they expected!) that I had watched the TV premier of the classic 1955 film, Inherit the Wind, a thinly fictionalized version of the Scopes trial that had been held in the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tennessee in the early nineteen twenties.
The actual trial, as some of us might recall, attracted worldwide attention because it pitted Clarence Darrow, the most famous American trial lawyer against William Jennings Bryan, the Peerless Leader of the populist and agrarian wing of the Democratic Party, and thrice the candidate of his party for the highest office of the land. (In the stage and movie version, the names of the antagonists are, somewhat pointlessly, changed; but I will ignore the pseudonyms and call the Bryan figure "Bryan" and the Darrow figure "Darrow.")
Despite his wife's urgent advice to steer clear of the trial, Bryan had volunteered to represent the farmers of Dayton for free. Indeed, he also offered to pay Scopes' fine when the trial reached a verdict against him. This small humanizing detail is omitted in the film, along with Bryan's own remarkably cogent political justification of the position he took in defending the right of the farmers of Dayton to decide what kind of things could be taught, at their expense, to their own children.
The film makes no mention of Bryan's political objections, but concentrates exclusively on his Biblical literalism. It pictures the clever Darrow torturing the slow-witted Bryan with the classic conundrums that have always been used to confound those who subscribe to the doctrine that every word in the Bible is literally true. Did the sun literally stand still upon Gibeon, did the Red Sea literally part to allow the escape of the children of Israel, and, most important of all in light of the subject of the trial, did God literally create the world in six days, did he literally fashion Adam out of the dust of the earth, and did he literally create Eve from drawing a rib from her mate?
In the movie, Bryan is so hard pressed that he has a heart attack on the stand-something that didn't happen at the actual trial, though the physical breakdown is clearly meant to symbolize Bryan's spiritual breakdown under Darrow's ruthless cross-examination of his deepest and most cherished illusions.
Left unmentioned in the movie, however, is Bryan's actual motive for coming to Dayton. He came not to defend his own theological creed, but his political creed. He believed that the people of a community should be permitted to control what their children were taught; he believed it was wrong for an elite outside of a community to come into that community and to commandeer the education of the children for its own purposes and to promote its own agenda; he believed that human beings had a fundamental right to imagine the world as they saw fit, and to teach their children to imagine it in the same way.
Before we scoff at this position, let us make a thought experiment. Suppose that tomorrow aliens of a vastly superior intelligence were to land all over the world. Because they have mastered technology that is far beyond our ken, and because their science is (literally) light years ahead of ours, there is no one on the planet who is in a position to evaluate or assess their enormous fund of knowledge. Would we, the human community, be willing to turn over our schools to this alien elite, and let them decide what to tell our children about the universe and our place in it? Would we say to ourselves, "Look at their superior knowledge-it makes ours look shabby and pathetic. Let's abandon our scientific tradition and simply adopt theirs, lock, stock, and barrel. So what if we don't understand it. So what if we can't even begin to understand it-at least, by taking it on blind faith, we will be able to believe the right things, even if we cannot hope to know them for ourselves."
But even this analogy is not strict enough. Because the alien elite in my thought experiment would also have to tell the leading authorities in our scientific community, "What you think you know is all wrong. Your so called scientific tradition is a joke, and should not be treated with seriousness or dignity-it just needs to be junked."
If an elite group of men enter into a community and claim to possess a truth that no one in the community can judge for himself, by the standards of common sense that the community normally falls back upon to make judgment calls about the ordinary questions, then this elite group may be said to possess a gnosis-a Greek word that we shall use to indicate a special source of knowledge that gives cognitive authority to those who have it, and where those who lack this knowledge are in no position to be able to evaluate it. For example, if you tell me that a long series of numbers add up to 123, and if I can check your addition by adding these numbers for myself, either in my head, or on paper, or by means of a calculator, then we are not dealing with gnosis, because we each are capable of adding the sum, and because we both recognize the legitimacy of the other's method: if our tallies conflict, we both agree that one of us has made a simple error in our calculations, and we will redo them until we find the error and are thus able to come to an agreement.
This, however, is not how gnosis works. With gnosis, one party claims to have a method for discovering truth that the other party lacks. It may be because the party claiming gnosis has received divine revelation whereas the other party has not. Or it may be because the privileged party has keener intuitions than the less privileged. The influential English literary critic F.R.Leavis, for example, argued that certain persons, like himself, have a special faculty for identifying great works of literature which normal people lack. Leavis could intuit the greatness of the novels of D.H.Lawrence by a process that is frankly a mystery to less gifted mortals such as myself, who would rather have an important appendage removed than to read another monstrosity like Women in Love. Or the elite claiming gnosis may base their cognitive superiority on their access to secret traditions and esoteric lore, passed down from generation to generation, and forever guarded from the undiscriminating eyes of the vulgar, in which case the cognitive elite approximates the sociological entity called a priestly caste.
When we discuss a priestly caste, the assumption is often made that the priests have deliberately chosen to make their knowledge inaccessible to the ordinary person. For example, the Chinese literati spared no efforts to keep a monopoly of reading and writing to themselves; and a similar tendency can be found in virtually every priestly caste. From this perspective, any claim about esoteric knowledge that cannot be shared with the general public is viewed as hogwash; if anything, the priestly caste has gone to trouble to make their pretended secret knowledge appear to be far more difficult to access than it really is-a device dubbed obscurantism.
Yet what about quantum physicists? Where do they fit sociologically? Their knowledge is inaccessible to the average person, at least without elaborate initiation into the mysteries. Yet do we wish to accuse quantum physicists of engaging in esoteric hocus-pocus in order to baffle and bewitch the masses into accepting their cognitive authority over them? That is going too far-and yet, what happens to a society where so much of what constitutes science is no longer comprehensible to the average layman, and where questions that touch very close to home can only be decided by an intellectual elite whose process of inference cannot be checked and verified by the man in the street?
Unlike Darwin's theory of evolution, the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle, though shocking to common sense, has never caused much of an uproar, no doubt because it does not touch most people very close to home. But Darwin's theory does hit close to home, and especially when his theory is used, as it was used in Inherit the Wind, as a vehicle for discrediting the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, and indeed to call into question that whole concept of God, not to mention a Divine Providence that keeps an eye on the sparrow, and knows when each one falls.
How close to home Darwin's theory hits people was made clear to me that morning in Sunday School many decades ago. Because when I was asked about my opinion of Inherit the Wind, and when I tried to give my honest answer to their question, I immediately found myself under a state of siege that went on for several months-a siege in which I found myself pitted against not only my Sunday School class, but all the other Sunday School classes as well, not to mention the deacons, the preacher's wife, and the preacher himself.
My position was that a person could believe in Darwin's theory of evolution and still believe in God. I did not see a necessary conflict between the two ideas, nor why they could not be combined together in some way-or indeed, in a variety of different ways.
This position we will call the Reconciliation Thesis for short; yet my endorsement of it did not reconcile me to the Southern Baptist Church in which I had been brought up and into which I had been baptized only two years before. Yet, I am proud to say, I stuck by my guns, and did not recant my position-not even when the preacher was brought in to confront me, face to face, much as the Emperor Charles the Fifth was brought in at the Diet of Worms to deal with that troublesome Martin Luther fellow. (Well, perhaps not exactly like that.)
The preacher, in our confrontation, tried to make a joke of the whole affair, and told one. A man comes across a monkey coming down the steps of the library and under his arms he is carrying two books. One is Darwin; the other is the Bible. "What are you doing with those books," the man quizzed the monkey, to which the latter replies, "I am trying to figure out if I am my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."
Yet, oddly enough, what I remember most vividly is the prayer with which my Southern Baptist auto-de-fe began. It was delivered by my own Sunday School teacher, a man who bragged often that he had never gotten beyond the third grade-a boast that no one who knew him could doubt. It was sharply directed at me as I well knew at the time, though I was not then aware of how much it would come to haunt me later in life. It referred to Jesus's remark in the gospels that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and cast into the sea than to lead his little ones astray.
My Sunday School teacher was right: We all have the ethical responsibility to consider the consequences of our ideas on the behavior of other people. If I can persuade a child to imagine the world in a certain way, and to imagine it this way automatically and unthinkingly, then I have, in a sense, constructed the world that the child will inhabit for the rest of his life. The Jesuit motto, "Give me a child until the age of seven, and he is mine for life," is evidence of this truth-and it is the reason the Protestant tradition has always insisted that only the parents of a child have the ultimate right to teach him how he is to imagine the world-a right that can be delegated, but never abolished.
The Protestant tradition does not trust gnosis in any form, be it based on theological expertise or scientific pedigree. If an elite claims esoteric knowledge that I cannot verify in my own experience, then that elite automatically falls under suspicion in the eyes of the Protestant. If every man is a priest, according to the famous Lutheran maxim, then everyman is a cosmologist and metaphysician as well. If men I don't personally know make claims about the world that I am unable to check out for myself, why should I trust them? And what happens, politically speaking, to any community in which more and more decisions about their life are left in the hands of a cognitive elite whose claims to knowledge become increasingly difficult for the average person to verify with the instruments of common sense that are at hand? Again, the farmer can always check the addition of the grocer who sells him his supplies; but how can he check Darwin's theory of evolution or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics?
The farmers in Dayton, Tennessee who did not want their children being taught Darwin's theory of evolution, were questioning authority, unlike those people who have accepted the theory simply because it was what educated people of the time happened to think they ought to believe. This, after all, is a theory complicated enough in its implications that a philosopher of the stature of Daniel Dennett could attack a paleontologist of the stature of Stephen Jay Gould over its correct interpretation-and the farmers of Dayton were expected to be able to make up their own minds about it? On what possible basis? Should they have collected funds to take an excursion of the Galapagos Islands and seen the finches with their own eyes?
The Protestant farmers quite correctly detected that here was an issue over which they should refuse to accept the word of other men. They rightly recognized that they were being pushed into accepting a view of the world that had been concocted and disseminated by men who, like Thomas Huxley, Clarence Darrow, and Richard Dawkins, did not believe in God and who wanted others not to believe in God as well. In which case, why trust anything they say? When men have such an axe to grind as this, who is naïve enough to think they will not use it to chop other people's beliefs to pieces?
Our cognitive elite says, "How terrible! The Dayton farmers refuse to accept modern science." But why should anyone be morally obliged to accept modern science? How important on a man's list of values is being right about the theory of the development of species? If you are a biologist, it might matter to you passionately; but if you are a farmer trying to raise your kids to be good people, it will matter far more to you what their basic metaphors about the universe will be.
To say that the human species is the result of random processes, and that we are here as the consequence of a huge explosion sixteen billion years ago, may well be true; but it isn't very reassuring. Nor is it in any way, shape, or form, provable. It is itself a metaphor of the world, and one that is clearly drawn from our own experience of random events within a very small potion of this world. We close our eyes and reach into a basket holding lottery tickets and we chose one at random. That is a sense of random that the farmer can understand. But to say that his own existence is random, or that the planet he is on is random, or that the existence of the whole cosmos is random-then the clear common sense meaning of the world begins to fall apart. If everything is random, then what meaning can random have?
Furthermore, when the Dayton farmers looked around them, what they saw was not randomness, but purpose and significance. They believed that they were special, and that their children were special. They believed that they were among God's elect. They believed that God is a good father who will look after those who remain faithful to him, and that he loves us just the way we ought to love our own children.
This was also how my third-grade dropout Sunday School teacher saw the world, and it was the way he wanted his children to see it as well. Was he wrong to want to perpetuate the illusions that had made his rough life bearable?
Thus the deep reason the very mention of this topic riles up the blood on both sides of the question. It matters-it has, in the words of William James, a "cash value" for ordinary men and women that the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle lacks. It makes a difference in our basic orientation with the world whether we believe that we are the result of random and accidental processes or whether we believe that there is a God who watches over us every moment of our lives, and who takes a personal interest in our fate.
What of Creationism?
Should my defense of the right of the Dayton farmers to reject Darwin's theory of evolution be taken as an implicit defense of what is called the doctrine of creationism, and which is currently being advertised as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution? Not at all.
Like my Sunday School teacher, the farmers in Dayton, Tennessee who did not want their children taught Darwin's theory of evolution were emphatically not creationists, in the contemporary sense of this word. They did not pose as scientists advocating what they considered to be a scientific position; rather they were simple men who had accepted the poetry of a simple creed that made all of the universe the product of an incomprehensible act of grace. Nor did they ever believe that science could produce evidence in favor of their convictions, because science had nothing to do with it. Their way of knowing their truth did not require statistics or quantitative analysis, nor any of the trappings of the scientific method. What they knew they knew with all their hearts and all their being.
The Dayton farmers were too smart to be gulled by the snake oil of creationism; they had no need for pseudo-science because they had no need of real science. It didn't matter in the least to them; and thus there was no desire to dress up their heart-felt faith in the fancy dress of scientific jargon and terminology. Adam and Eve were as real to them as their neighbors. They were persons, just as God was a person; for the farmers lived, like most of humanity has lived, in a world in which the dominating metaphor has been drawn from the human personality, and not from the domain of intellectual abstractions known as laws. Personality explained as much of the universe as they felt needed explaining, and it explained it to them pretty satisfactorily. The theory of evolution, Darwin's or anyone's, was not something that had any cash value to them. By learning it, it didn't make their corn grow taller or their kids work harder. And by just looking around them and observing the world real close, where could they see it? It was like being told that the land you had farmed all your life had once been at the bottom of the ocean and had been heaved up to be a mountain, only to be worn down by the gradual erosion of rock-who could take such craziness seriously?
The Dayton farmers believed that God created the world in six days; but they did not believe in creationism. For them it was enough that the Bible had told them so; they did not go seeking for scientific evidence to support the clear as day Word of God.
Today many fundamentalist Christians are dissatisfied with the argument that "The Bible tells us so," and are seeking to establish the notion that there is a scientific alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution, which they have dubbed creationism. Others, not necessarily fundamentalist Christians, have agreed that Darwin doesn't have the definitive answer, and have put forth, again as a rival scientific theory, a position known as intelligent design theory. Though the two positions differ in many ways, what they both have in common is that they reject the simple "The Bible told us so" attitude of the Dayton farmers, and are attempts to prove the inadequacy of Darwin's theory on purely scientific grounds. The Dayton farmers didn't want Darwin taught at all; the modern proponents of creationism and intelligent design theory want these to be taught alongside of Darwinism-and this is the source of much of the contemporary political controversy over the teaching of evolution.
In order to avoid getting bogged down in biology, I will not discuss any of the ponderous evidence, pro or con, that has been put forward between in the ongoing debate between the Darwinists and the anti-Darwinists. I will not inspect the evidence offered at the recently opened Creationist Museum, nor will I challenge Dawkins to explain again the origin of the eye, nor bring up the subject of fossil lacunae. Instead, I will assume that every possible objection that has been raised to Darwin is sound, and that all the flaws that the theory is alleged to have are really there.
The Darwinists will howl that I already betrayed their trust; but they will howl (I hope) only until I have been able to explain why I have afford such generous terms to their enemy: it is in order for me to attack their opponents from the highest possible ground and one upon which we can all stand fairly equally-the ordinary soil of common sense.
But first of all we must examine the meaning of the all important term "science," and it is to this task we must now turn.
What makes a certain human activity science?
There are two basic ways of approaching this question. We can debate about how to define science, and wander far and wide into questions of epistemology and metaphysics; or we can take a vulgarly common sense approach and define science as whatever scientists do, defining a scientist as anyone who is recognized by the scientific community to be a scientist like themselves.
The first approach attempts to find an objective standard by which we can distinguish science proper from non-science. In the philosophy of science this is known as the Demarcation Problem-that is, what is it that marks off real science from pseudo-science? The naïve response is that science is about what you can prove, whereas pseudo-science is about what you can't prove.
The problem here is, What constitutes a proof?
In Aristotle's physics, a rock, when dropped, falls to the earth because like attracts like: rock is like the earth, and is therefore attracted to it. Similarly, a fire ascends upwards, because it wishes to return to the heavenly source of fire, the empyreum-the suns and the stars. Rain drops that fall on a hillside likewise seek out their own element, the water that is collected together in lakes and rivers.
Now the curious thing about Aristotle's physics is that any fool can "prove" that it is true. Drop a rock and see it fall; light a fire and see it rise; spill some water near a lake and see it hasten to it.
Now compare this with Newton's First Law that a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion remains in motion, unless acted on by another force. Could anyone in Newton's time prove that a body in motion, when not acted upon by an outside force, would remain in motion forever? Can anyone prove it today? After all, even if we could show that a body in motion continued to move at the same speed for several trillion years, would that prove that Newton was right? Not at all-because his law doesn't say that the body will remain in motion for a long long time, but that it will remain in motion forever and forever. Can we prove that ghosts, demons, and fairies do not exist? Can we prove that the Big Bang occurred?
We can present evidence for and against-but at what point does this evidence amount to a proof? When the evidence convinces everyone? But does this mean, Everyone who is now alive, or everyone who will ever live in the future? For example, the evidence for Aristotle's physics convinced everyone for thousands of years, yet it convinces almost no one today.
The matter is no different if we argue that scientific proof exists when a select group of experts are all convinced that a theory has been proven, since those who have been taught and trained by this group of experts may in fact decide to overturn the theory that their teachers have taken to have been proven beyond a shadow of doubt-an event known as a scientific revolution.
Popper, Science and Pseudo-Science
A well-known attempt to evade this issue was provided by Sir Karl Popper. He suggested that what distinguished science from pseudo-science was that a scientific theory could be falsified, whereas pseudo-science could not be. For example, if I claim that a heavy cannon ball will fall to the earth much faster than a light golf ball, I have devised a scientific theory. Why? Because someone can climb up to the top of the Empire State Building and drop both balls, while someone at the bottom can see if the heavier ball lands way before the lighter one. Now since my theory will be clearly falsified by this experiment, then, according to Sir Karl Popper, I have clearly devised a theory that deserves the honorific title of being a genuine scientific theory.
Indeed, by this standard, it becomes remarkably easy to generate a multitude of genuine scientific theories. For example, I can claim that human beings can fly from the Empire State Building to the Chrysler Building by flapping their arms wildly, and here again we have another scientific theory. Or else I can claim that human beings can swim from California to Japan while holding their breathe under water, so long as they are reciting the Lord's Prayer to themselves, and voila! here again we have a genuine scientific theory.
The historical background to Popper's attempted solution of the demarcation problem was his intense hatred of the "theories" of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, and his desire to show that their elaborate conceptual schemes were examples of pseudo-sciences, and were undeserving of the honorific title of a genuine scientific theory. What bothered Popper most about both Marxists and Freudians was their insistence that their theories were definitive and final-each group believed that they possessed the key to explaining all phenomena, and both refused to entertain the notion that their pet theory could be proven false.
Let us take an actual example. Freud once had a patient who violently disagreed with his theory of dreams. According to Freud's theory, dreams were always the fulfillment of an unconscious wish, often a wish that was too shocking for our conscious mind to openly confess. One night the patient who disagreed with Freud's theory had a dream that Freud was unable to interpret according to his theory-the dream did not appear to represent the fulfillment of the patient's unconscious mind at all. Puzzled by this anomaly Freud pondered for several days whether he needed to challenge his own theory-to declare that it had been falsified. But then he had an "Ah ha" experience. The patient had wished to falsify Freud's theory of dreams, and so he had dreamed a dream that would appear to do precisely that-but why had he had this dream? Because he wished to challenge Freud's authority-to rebel against the father figure. Hence, instead of falsifying Freud's theory, the patient's dream had been yet another confirmation of it-at least, in Freud's own mind.
The Marxists behaved in the same irritating way. For example, when capitalism did not collapse around the end of the nineteenth century, as earlier Marxists had anticipated, Lenin devised an explanation of this failed prediction-capitalism had hit upon a ruse by which it could postpone its inevitable fate for several decades longer, namely through imperialism. Capitalism was still doomed, and would have already collapsed, just as Marx argued, except for this new and unexpected development.
This refusal to admit that their theory had been falsified, or even to envision the possibility of falsification, was, according to Popper, what marked out Marxism and Freudianism as pseudo-science.
Yet what about Einstein's General Theory of Relativity? When Einstein and the Polish mathematician Herman Minkowski had worked out the implications of this theory, it was found to have a puzzling and disturbing consequence that Einstein had not foreseen and could not accept. It predicted that the universe was expanding! To Einstein, in 1917, this was a frankly embarrassing aspect of this otherwise beautiful explanation of the nature of gravity, and he felt that something had to be done about it.
Einstein's solution was to come up with an ad hoc device that would cancel out his predicted expanding universe and that would render the universe static and stationary, as he (and everyone else in 1917) thought it ought to be-a device that Einstein called the cosmological constant, a constant whose sole purpose was to make the General Theory "fit" the static picture of the universe that physicists held in 1917.
In 1929, however, this picture of a non-expanding universe was dramatically altered when Edwin Hubble made his observation that the universe is expanding and is not static, at which time Einstein repudiated his cosmological constant and called his ad hoc introduction of it into the General Theory "his greatest mistake."
Were Einstein's ad hoc efforts to make the General Theory fit the facts any different from Lenin's ad hoc efforts to make Marxism fit the facts, or Freud's? Was Einstein's psychological unwillingness to see his beautiful theory falsified any different from theirs-and if so, should we reject Einstein's claims to be a genuine scientist, along with Marx's and Freud's?
This question is made even more intriguing by the fact that, according to Roger Penrose in his book, The Path to Reality, "Very recently, observations of distant supernovae have led most theorists to re-introduce ? [i.e., Einstein's cosmological constant], or something very similar, referred to as 'dark energy', as a way of making these observations consistent with other perceived requirements."
The introduction of ad hoc devices to save a theory from clashing with the "perceived requirements" founded on the observed facts of the time has always been and will always be part and parcel of the development of scientific theory, and to argue that Einstein was not behaving like a bona fide scientist because he introduced such a device into the General Theory is patently absurd, though no more absurd than the idea that a man should be regarded as a genuine scientist for postulating the clearly falsifiable theory that all human babies are born with eight arms.
In short, Sir Karl Popper's attempt to distinguish science from pseudo-science by reference to his doctrine of falsifiability ends up by condemning immensely fruitful and illuminating theories as pseudo-science and by elevating the most absurd nonsense to the honorific position of being genuine scientific theory. If all you need to make a scientific theory is to come up with a prediction that can be falsified, then any idiot can devise thousands of such scientific theories out of the most bizarre rubbish imaginable.
In fact, if you look at the historical development of any of those scientific theories that are universally regarded as real science, such as the Copernican heliocentric theory, or Darwin's theory of evolution, or Einstein's General Theory, you will see the enormous role played in the development of these theories by their authors' keen determination to stand by their essential vision despite all the obstacles that were thrown in the way. Great scientific theories are not the product of the faint of heart or the easily dissuaded. It is not the willingness to set aside one's theory that demarcates the true scientist, but a fanatical commitment to hang on to a theory despite the mounting evidence against it.
The Darwin Example
There is no better example of this truth than Charles Darwin's adherence to his theory despite the crushing attacks made against it toward the end of his life, when many of the world's leading scientists, such as Lord Kelvin, came to regard Darwin's theory as nothing more than a pseudo-science because it could not be reconciled with "the perceived requirements" imposed by the theory of thermodynamics as it had been developed toward the end of the nineteenth century. For Lord Kelvin, it was obvious that the sun could not have been burning for anywhere near the length of time required for the evolution of tadpoles, not to mention that of man. A fire can only burn so long as it has fuel, and he calculated that the fire of our sun could only have been ablaze for, at most, several hundred thousand years-far short of the virtual eternity that Darwin had calculated into his theory of evolution.
Of course, Lord Kelvin did not know what was coming next in the development of physics, namely the discovery of the enormous energy that was contained in the atom. He did not realize that the fire of our sun was the result of millions of thermonuclear explosions, and so he failed to realize that the sun was much older than his calculation appeared to show. But then Charles Darwin did not know about nuclear fusion either-and this meant that the only way he could continue to hang on to his theory was for him to bet that the physics of his time was not the last word on the subject.
In short, Darwin could only continue to uphold his ideas by stubbornly refusing to admit defeat. He had to go on believing that he was right, and that the leading physicists of his time were wrong-an attitude that, according to Popper's theory, should have marked him as merely another quack, oblivious to the evidence that clearly marked out his own pet theory as false.
The strongest objection to Popper's theory is that it all boils down to the psychological attitude of the scientist. One who is willing to let his theory be falsified is, according to Popper, a scientist; one who isn't willing is a pseudo-scientist. Yet, as we have seen, if the test of science is simply the psychological resistance to abandoning one's own theory, then all the great scientists would automatically fall into the category of pseudo-scientists, since the mark of a great scientist is his intense reluctance to abandon his theory at precisely the moment when the faint of heart would begin to doubt it.
It is for this reason that some philosophers of science have fallen back on sociological analysis in order to distinguish between real science and junk science-and it is this approach that I will take in what follows. Here the issue is not one of defining science, but rather one of defining the scientific community, that is, those who do what their society regards as science. This approach is nominalist, rather than essentialist, pragmatic, rather than dogmatic. It deals, in short, with the messy world of flesh-and-blood and not with the spotless world of Platonic ideals.
By the scientific community, I mean something quite concrete and easily recognizable. It includes professors who teach in science departments of universities, and those who do scientific research for the government or for private businesses; it is a clearly apprehended sociological category, the most critical component of which is that a scientist is paid a salary by responsible men, like university administrators and CEO's. Scientists are people who get paid to do science and to teach it-and paid by reasonable people, and not kooky billionaires looking for an illicit elixir of eternal youth.
To use a comparison drawn from Christian theology, the scientific community is the visible church, such as the Roman Catholic Church, so that you know at a glance whether a scientist is a member of it. It is not like that mysterious invisible church in which it is not always clear who the saints are. In principle, by the sociological criterion to which I am appealing, someone could sit down and make a list of all the members of the world scientific community, though it would certainly be arranged in accordance with proximity to positions of power and influence within the community, so that Richard Dawkins, for example, would be near the pinnacle, while a man who taught seventh grade biology in Wilbur, New Mexico, population 400, would be much much further down on the totem pole.
Needless to say, the beliefs and views of those who are at the apex of this cognitive pyramid will tend to control and determine the beliefs and views of those who are lower down on it. Select cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, can tell a priest what counts as orthodoxy; but the priest cannot take this liberty with the cardinal. Nor should he be able to-after all, those at the top of the cognitive pyramid have usually gotten there for a good reason, and one of the best of these reasons is the mastery of the cognitive tradition whose pyramid you are at the top of. If it is Catholic theology, then you had better be able to talk sensibly about St. Thomas Aquinas; if it is physics, then you better know the ins and outs of the Maxwell field equations.
Those at the apex of the cognitive pyramid of the scientific community have the presumptive right to decide whether a certain activity should be honored with the term "scientific," just as those at the apex of the Roman Catholic hierarchy have the presumptive right to decide whether a certain belief is orthodox or heresy--an analogy that underlies the metaphor of scientific heresy that is used by the most respectable scientists in regard to ideas that simply clash too deeply with scientific orthodoxy. The notion of "junk science," for example, in scientific circles approximates to the notion of heresy in religious ones. It establishes a demarcation line between ideas that are safe, and those that are dangerous-and yet this is a line that, as we have already seen, can only be defined (and defended) by those who are already regarded as the custodians of right-thinking or orthodoxy perched at the apex of the cognitive pyramid. No Platonic standard can be useful in a world in which everyone thinks they alone possess it. What good would the Paris meter be, if everyone had one of their own at home?
There is no Platonic solution to the Demarcation Problem, but there is a practical one, and that is the establishment of scientific orthodoxy through the creation of privileged institutions and a privileged elite. This elite decides who gets money to do research; but it also decides what will be taught in public schools. For example, no one believes that the public schools should be forced to present the hollow earth theory as an alternative to the orthodox solid earth theory as taught by all reputable geologists. Nor has anyone proposed that physics teachers should present an alternative theory to Copernicus' heliocentric system, in order to explain how the sun could stand still upon Gibeon. Those who accept Joshua's miracle accept it as a miracle, and don't worry themselves overmuch about its implications on the various theories of modern cosmology.
To associate scientific consensus with the concept of ecclesiastical orthodoxy is offensive to the Platonist, but a truism to the sociologist. For example, consider the following remarks made by the American economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen.
"Platonism is to the individual what revelation is to the community."
Yet the project of science could not exist without some notion of scientific orthodoxy; and this orthodoxy has to be determined by a scientific elite, i.e., those at the top of the cognitive pyramid. It would be ridiculous to treat the views of the world's leading biologists or physicists as if they were on par with the ideas of a lowly gym coach who happens to be stuck teaching physics to his football team, not to mention the lone crank working feverishly in his spare moments, trying to prove that scientific orthodoxy is all wrong, and that perpetual motion machines really can work.
Yet what if the lone crank is Albert Einstein? When he published his special theory of relativity, his status as a scientist was not even at the base of the cognitive pyramid: he was a patent clerk, and hence he fell more properly into the class of cranks working in their basement. Only this crank actually succeeded in overthrowing the scientific orthodoxy not only of his time, but of the entire period of modern physics, going back to Isaac Newton's publication of his Principia.
Though, when it comes to revolutionary lone cranks, it is hard to beat Charles Darwin, whose father once said to him, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." The son of an immensely wealthy family, who never had to worry about money a moment of his life, nor about much of anything else, whose pursuits were those of the garden variety dim-bulb English playboy, a typical Trollope young twit-was it possible that such a ridiculous figure would provide an entirely new paradigm for understanding the natural order?
As we all know, the answer is Yes. But Darwin's feat, like Einstein's, throws a monkey wrench into the theory of scientific orthodoxy we have just now been proposing. For scientific orthodoxy after Einstein and Darwin was radically different from scientific orthodoxy before them-but how can an orthodoxy change without raising the indelicate question in the mind of those who ascribe to the "new" orthodoxy that there may not be, waiting in the wings, an even newer orthodoxy to replace the current one-in which case, what sense does it make to call it an orthodoxy? Wouldn't it be wiser, and intellectually more honest, to announce plainly that all scientific theories are inherently susceptible to being overthrown and replaced with a wholly new paradigm? Shouldn't there be warning stickers on scientific textbooks advising: Caution-theories herein contained are all subject to future replacement by entirely different theories?
Kuhn and Scientific Revolutions
The American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, addressed these issues in his influential theory of scientific revolution, and two of his terms may be of service for our purposes. The first is the idea of normal science. This is whatever the scientific community, especially at its apex, happens to be doing. It is what I called orthodoxy earlier, but, after examining the case of Einstein and Darwin, we have been forced to find another way of indicating what is taken by a specific scientific community to be the standard and proper way of doing science, and this activity we will now call normal science.
Now outside the domain of normal science there is bound to be a great deal of abnormal science-some of which is exceedingly abnormal, and frankly "junk science," like the hollow earth folk. Yet, as we have seen, there is also the possibility that one of these abnormal scientific pursuits might come to overthrow and supercede the normal science of its time-the process by which this comes about being called by Thomas Kuhn a paradigm shift.
For a considerable period of time, normal science of the Western scientific community has assumed Darwin's theory of evolution to be roughly true, even if there is a divergence of opinion on how it should be interpreted. As noted earlier, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett argued in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea that Stephen Jay Gould did not get Darwin right; yet both regarded themselves as Darwinists. Furthermore, Darwin's own original theory, as is well-known, was profoundly modified by the inclusion of Mendel's genetics, providing the foundation of what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Yet none of this alters the critical role of Darwin's original insights.
Now where the Darwinists are obviously correct is in arguing that Darwin's theory is the normal science of our epoch. As an historical assertion, this is something that the most adamant creationists must be willing to acknowledge as a fact, even if it is only to lament it.
But that is where the creationists are wrong. If there is to be science at all, there must be a body of normal science that is what the scientific community generally accepts. Science, if it is to be socially valuable to us, must display consensus about certain basic principles-if no two scientists agreed on anything, what would be the point of appealing to it to settle questions that otherwise divide us? Furthermore, despite the historical phenomena known as Kuhnian paradigm shifts, it is desirable that science appear to be relatively settled and fixed-you do not want to push too far the idea that every question is still up in the air, since if that occurs, the project of science lapses back into the classical skepticism of the Greeks and Romans-and no fate could possibly be worse. Science, if it is to be socially beneficial, must assume a dogmatic quality about some things: there must be certain truths that are axiomatic, and that we must accept, in order to proceed with the tasks of normal science.
Admittedly, there is a paradoxical air about what I am proposing here. Yet the paradox disappears if we distinguish between science as a mode of discovering new truths about the universe, on the one hand, and science as a traditional fund of reliable knowledge, on the other.
It is the scientific tradition that modern education is concerned with passing on. We did not require students to pass through all the stages of scientific development in order to catch up with contemporary science. We do not teach the Ptolemaic system in elementary school, only to have it replaced by the Copernican system in middle schools. Indeed, the way we teach chemistry and physics is, for the most part, the way the Roman Catholic Church teaches its dogma-through the form of catechisms. True, there are those adventures called science lab; but the whole point of the experiments undertaken in science lab is to prove to the student what the scientific community has already long known and propagated. Otherwise we would be rewriting scientific textbooks every time a student experiment failed to prove what it was supposed to. Boyle's law is not going to be repealed because thirteen year old Bobby McHiggins' experiment meant to prove it mysteriously went awry. We are far more apt to blame Bobby than Boyle. And are we wrong?
Seen in this light, there is nothing inappropriate about scientists treating certain subjects dogmatically. And just as keeping an open mind does not mean revising Boyle's law in light of Bobby McHiggins' experiment, so too an open mind does not entail entertaining, as a scientific proposition, the idea that God created the universe in the year 4004 B.C. If there is to be a tradition of science that is to be passed on and preserved, there must be a core of scientific orthodoxy, which, to use Kuhn's terminology, constitutes the normal science of an epoch. And in our epoch, Darwin's theory of evolution is normal science.
Science is an essential pillar of the Western tradition, and has aided immeasurably in chasing the bogeymen and demons from their natural place in the ordinary human imagination. We are born -- and, as if already programmed -- to be fearful of the evil eye, of witches, of ghosts and of ghouls, of things that go bump in the night. The higher religions, at their very best, offer a radiant alternative to the pandemonium of evil spirits that has plagued the night side of the human imagination for most of our history, and in many parts of the world, still continues to infect it; but the unthinking and automatic acceptance of science by people who don't really have an inkling how it works has proven to be, far and away, the most reliable method for ridding the world of goblins that need to be placated and spooks that must be appeased. An irrational faith in the power of science to explain the inexplicable has proven a boon for mankind far in excess of science's contribution to the development of modern technology.
The social and political importance of this de-demonizing function was one of the key ingredients to the success of Roman civilization. In Livy we read that each year the various reports of spooks and freaks and prodigies were required to be carried to the appropriate authorities in the city of Rome whose official capacity was the interpretation of such signs and portents. What better way to control outbreaks of panic and insane rumor has ever been devised? A goat is born with two-heads in Capua-what does it signify? Send someone to Rome to find out.
The centralization of the authority to interpret the preternatural anomalies that occur all around us is an inestimable blessing to a society that can accomplish this task. The Greeks did it, to a degree, with their oracles; the Romans with their priests; the Roman Catholic Church with their priests; and modern science with its priests.
It is good to believe that somewhere there are people who understand all the strange inexplicable things that happen to us humans; it is immeasurably reassuring solace in a world that sometimes appears to be so terrifically irrational in its workings.
This, of course, does not exhaust the value of science; but it explains why it is important for scientists not to feud too much or too publicly. It lessens the non-scientist's confidence in the world's rationality.
Yet science as a tradition is distinct from science as an ongoing project; otherwise there could be no scientific progress. But, to draw on Kuhn's useful distinction once again, the history of science shows that progress can be made in two quite different ways. First, there is the accumulation of new insights and the gathering of new facts brought about by those scientists who are engaged in the normal science of their period-this is in fact the overwhelming bulk of what real scientists actually do with their time. But there is also the paradigm shift that is characteristic of a genuine scientific revolution; and in this case there is a bold leap of the imagination that lands the scientist who is making this leap into completely unknown territory, often far from the boundaries of normal science.
What is noteworthy about this leap is that it is in no way forced upon the leaper by the data. The thinkers who have been responsible for the great paradigm shifts have not arrived at their conclusions by the patient accumulation of observations, or by working through the scientific methods of their time. Instead, the inspiration came from elsewhere.
Consider the origin of one of the great paradigm shifts of all time: Newton's first law. This asserts that, unless acted on by an outside force, a body in motion remains in motion, and a body at rest remains at rest. Has there ever been a proposition easier to be skeptical of? Who says that a body in motion remains in motion perpetually? And how could you possibly prove such an assertion? On the contrary, all around us we see bodies in motion that do not remain in motion for very long, let alone for all eternity.
Yet without this fundamental axiom, there can be no Newtonian physics. But where did it come from? Not from induction, but from a wild hypothesis-the famous apple-bouncing-on-the-heard flash of illumination that came to Newton while he was pondering what makes the moon revolve around the earth: Why it must be falling toward us, he suddenly concluded, pulled by the forces of gravity downward, and yet never cascading into us by virtue of Newton's first law. The first law explained the mystery-the moon was trying to go in a straight line, at the same speed that he had been given by its own impetus; but due to the earth's gravity, this straight line was constantly being bent into a curve around the earth.
Newton's first law explained the mystery of the moon's orbit; but what explained the mystery of the first law? Whose law was it? And why did Newton insist on its fundamental significance for understanding the universe, despite the natural skepticism that common sense should have made him doubt such an apparently absurd tenet: Everyone knows that bodies in motion do not stay in motion without a great deal help in the way of pushing and shoving, steam engines, internal combustion engines, and batteries.
In short, Newton did not arrive at his first law, or any of his laws, by being a skeptic; on the contrary, he arrived at them by jumping to a conclusion that lay far beyond the power of empirical observation. They came to him in an act of creative speculation-in precisely the same way Darwin's theory came to him.
Skepticism or Genius?
Perhaps there is no greater mischaracterization of science than to see it as an exercise in skepticism, and no where is this clearer than when we turn to look at the psychological origins of those men who have been responsible for creating the new paradigm shifts that have revolutionized our understanding of the world since Copernicus displaced the earth and sent us swirling dizzily around the sun.
The creative genius that produces a paradigm shift is like an inventor who is suddenly fired with ideas of something to invent. He doesn't want to hear arguments why it can't be done; he only wants to figure out a way it can be done, because he wants to do it. He is easily excited by a new idea and it sets him aflame.
Charles Darwin, at the end of his brief and charming Autobiography, reveals the psychological traits of the paradigm-shifting genius.
"As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it....On the other hand, I am not very skeptical,--a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science." (Italics added.)
The ancient skeptic insisted on doubting everything. But how could such a skeptic ever develop a fruitful hypothesis? Too preoccupied with the objections against it, he would never explore the avenues that his hypothesis opened up for him-and for the world as well.
"A good deal of skepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid much loss of time, [but] I have met with not a few men, who, I feel sure, have often thus been deterred from experiment or observations, which would have proved directly or indirectly serviceable."
In short, the paradigm shifter is the kind of man who, like Darwin, cannot resist forming an hypothesis on every subject that comes before him. He asks, "How does this work?" Or he wonders, "What explains that?" Whereupon, out of the blue, he will hit upon an angle, a hunch, an inspiration.
Of course, in certain cases, there will be no one sudden inspiration, but a series of them. In Darwin's case, the first spark of his theory came from his observation that many of the animals that he came into contact with in England were in fact the undoubted product of intelligent design-a type of intelligent design that even the most ardent Dawkinsian would not think to dispute, namely the intelligent design that went into creating artificial breeds of dogs.
Darwin loved dogs, as his father's contemptuous comment about him suggested; but dogs were unnatural creatures. They had been bred by human beings over the course of many generations. Dogs, cats, and other breeds of domesticated animals, like sheep and horses-they had not come from the hand of God, but they were the handiwork of men. They had been shaped and molded after God's initial creation of life on earth. Adam and Eve made them, and not God.
The fact that animals could be made to change their characteristics over time by human breeding was evidence of astonishing plasticity in the nature of biological life. Forms were not fixed and immutable; they could be changed over time, and there were Cocker Spaniels enough in England to prove this by setting them beside (or inside) one of the many wolves that still remained.
This plasticity haunted him. After all, Darwin had been born in a geologically and biologically static world; or rather, into a world in which most people believed that world they saw about them-the landscape and the flora and fauna that filled it-had always been as it now was. Some might argue that things had always been that way since God had created the world in seven days early in the year 4004 B.C., as Bishop Ussher had meticulously calculated from adding up all the life spans of the various patriarchs. Others, following the Roman poet Lucretius, would argue that the world had always been the same way: it was fixed and eternal. England has always been England; the meadows in which our sheep roamed had always been meadows, and had always contained sheep in them.
The landscape was the first thing to go. The study of geology had revealed evidence that the English country side in which Darwin grew up had not always been what it now appeared to be. Glaciers had once filled England, and their traces still remained; but even more profound geological upheavals had been pointed out by the British geologist Lyell, whose book Principles of Geology Darwin took along with him on his famous voyage on the Beagle - a voyage that he later described as being "by far the most important event in my life" and the one that "has determined my whole career...."
As Darwin traveled from the tip of South America upward to the Galapagos Islands, he observed "great fossil animals covered with armour like that on the existing armadillo." In addition, he had been struck "by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent." And, finally, Darwin had been "deeply impressed...by the South American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos Archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differed slightly on each island of the group...."
In short, Darwin had been fascinated by the fact that the same basic design of animal turned out, in differing locations, to possess slightly different features-variations that showed up between different parts of a huge continent like South America, as well as between different islands in the same archipelago. Had they each been specially designed that way? Did each represent a completely different act of creation?
Here was the point where Darwin's familiarity with Lyell's geology forced a biological conclusion on him. The animals of Galapagos had a South American character to them; and yet the islands did not appear "to be very ancient in the geological sense." But if the islands were not very ancient, then obviously critters that lived on the island could not have been created at the same time all the other animals had been created. Yet because they were different species, though of a similar type, they could not be explained simply by the straightforward geographical migration of the original South American prototype: you do not alter the physiological characteristics of a cat by carrying him off to another continent. Something else, therefore, had to have been involved.
It was as if the original prototype had been retooled in some profound way by its new location; but the problem was, How?
Darwin tells us that the question "haunted" him-a term that had a powerful meaning for a man who credited himself with "unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject."
The greatest challenge to Darwin was to explain how the retooling of the original animal always turned out to be a retooling which made sense, given the new environment in which the animal found itself. The retooling was useful and beneficial to the animal that had been retooled. In short, it seemed to be an intelligent retooling.
For example, consider the case of the famous finches on the Galapagos Island-each species of finch had been equipped with a different style of beak that permitted the members of this particular species to sustain itself by a different food source. Intelligent design? Obviously-but if so, what agent was responsible for the design? Did the finches design their own beaks? Of course not. But did it make any more sense to argue that the environment had designed the different beaks? Or to go back to Darwin's own words,
"it was...evident that neither the action of the surrounding conditions, nor the will of the organisms (especially in the case of plants), could account for the innumerable case in which organisms of every kind are beautifully adapted to their habits of life - for instance, a woodpecker or a tree-frog to climb trees, or a seed for dispersal by hooks or plumes."
How to account for all these beautiful adaptations-or, if you will, for all this intelligent-seeming design?
Darwin might never have been able to answer this question if he had been less infatuated with dogs. For whenever Darwin looked at one of his favorite dogs, he knew that he was looking at an animal whose appearance and whose behavioral characteristics had been deliberately and intelligently selected by a long line of dog breeders, whose fund of experience and whose powers of close observation had yielded, over a multitude of generations, a dog whose characteristics matched the design ideal at which all the previous breeders had been aiming. In reference to sheep breeding, Darwin quotes with approval a remark by Lord Somerville: "It would seem as if [the sheep breeders] had chalked out upon a wall a form perfect itself, and then had given it existence."
The deliberate breeding of animals to a certain almost Platonic ideal was a process of intelligent design that took place gradually over long periods of time. Intelligent design, in short, did not equate to making a finished product at a single stroke.
"We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them: indeed, in many cases, we know that this has not been their history. The key is man's power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions, useful to him. In this sense he may be said to have made for himself useful breeds."
At point, Darwin is clearly rejecting the notion that the various breeds of domestic animals were fixed once and for all at the moment of creation. Just go through any English barnyard of Darwin's time (or ours) and you would be greeted by animals whose basic characteristics were the result of a long process of artificial selection-animals who were, in the strictest sense of the word possible, the products of intelligent designers, namely the men who bred them.
It was while musing over these rather obvious facts that Darwin chanced to read Thomas Malthus' famous essay on population; and it was here that Darwin had his "Eureka" experience. Human breeders design breeds by culling defective animals-that is, animals that do not show the desired characteristics that are being artificially selected for. But, due to the struggle for existence, Darwin realized that nature herself engages in a culling process. Indeed, he realized that nature had to do this.
"There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that, if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair."
What Darwin realized is that there were two ways by which an animal could be bred to acquire a certain desirable characteristic, such as swiftness. A dog breeder, for example, could match his dogs in a number of different racing matches. Those who ran the fastest he would allow to propagate; those who run the slowest he would cull. Yet the exact same effect could be achieved in another way. For example, make the dogs have to run to catch their food, and then limit their possible range of prey only to extremely swift animals, like deer and gazelle. In this case, the culling of the slower dogs would be an automatic process; unable to catch his food, the slower moving dogs would die of starvation, while the faster moving ones would flourish, and produce offspring who carried forward the same characteristics that allowed their parents to survive. Furthermore, so long as the ecological conditions did not change, the same automatic culling process would be repeated in each new generation.
A human breeder who used this last method to produce swifter dogs would certainly qualify as an intelligent designer of the breed. But what of a natural catastrophe that had achieved by accident exactly the same ecological conditions that the breeder had brought about deliberately? For example, consider the fate of the slower moving dogs if, for some reason, all their slower moving prey happened to die out, leaving them with only the swifter prey as a possible food source.
In both cases, we have the exact same process yielding the exact same results. Yet can we say that they are both examples of intelligent design? When there is a human breeder deliberately aiming at a result, we have no hesitation in saying that, "Yes, this is a case of intelligent design." But when there is no human agent, when it is nature herself who is doing the breeding, is it still possible to talk of an intelligent design?
We are uneasy about this last question, because intelligent design to us would appear to imply an intelligent designer, and while we often personify nature and speak of her as if she were an intelligent designer, we regard this kind of language as metaphoric only. But our own uneasiness was shared by Darwin himself. "It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity....Everyone knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature...." Darwin then goes on to explain what underlies this personified Nature, namely "the aggregate action and product of many natural laws...."
If it was difficult for Darwin "to avoid personifying the word Nature," should we complain when Christian fundamentalists insist on seeing the universe as the result of a personal decision on the part of a transcendent creator? Is that simply a more emphatic personification? Indeed, once we have accepted the idea that the world is an example of an intelligent design, haven't we reverted back to the Christian view that God created the heavens and the earth?
Or, to put this another way, if you believe in intelligent design, does that make you a creationist?
Intelligent Design and Creationism
In an article in the London Times, entitled "Creationism: God's Gift to the Ignorant," Richard Dawkins has argued that the concept of intelligent design is just a sneaky way of talking about creationism. But before we can evaluate this contention, we must first make a clear what we mean when we talk about creationism. Creationism is not the belief that God created Heaven and Earth; it is the belief that there is a science, in the proper sense of this word, whose proper subject matter is God's creation of the world, and that this science should be considered an alternative scientific theory to the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Logically expressed it is the difference between:
I believe that God created the universe.
I believe that "God created the universe" is a scientific proposition, as opposed to, say, an article of faith.
In short, there is a chasm that separates those who hold that God created the universe, in their simple and unelaborated faith, and those who subscribe to the pseudo-science that currently goes under the name of creationism.
Neither my Sunday School teacher nor the Dayton farmers were creationists in our modern sense; but neither did they puzzle themselves about intelligent design-something that had always been the concern of philosophers, theologians, and, if I may coin a word, biologians, like Richard Dawkins. (N.B. A biologian is someone who believes that biology can answer the ultimate questions about human destiny with complete satisfaction.)
In fact, the concept of intelligent design precedes the junk science of creationism by thousands of years. It is first hinted at by one of the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, who wrote the simple words: "The world is mind." It receives its first elaborate formulation, however, in one of the books that has most influenced the world, Plato's dialogue The Timaeus.
There were two things about the cosmos that struck Plato-its high degree of order, accompanied by much that was shockingly less orderly, much that appeared to be frankly irrational. Just look around you to see what he meant. Much of life goes on quite routinely, but every now and then there is some shocking piece of chaos that erupts out of nowhere. For decade after decade, the citizens of Lisbon go about their normal business, then, out of the blue, an earthquake devastates them, and, quite literally, turns their familiar world upside down.
Plato's explanation was that God would have made the world much better if he could have; but he couldn't, and Plato explains why in an arresting metaphor. God-or to use Plato's own language, the demiurge-did not create the material with which he had to work. Like a potter whose clay is full of gravel and difficult to shape with precision, the demiurge, despite all his skill, can only do the best he can with the matter in hand. Smooth away the blemishes as diligently as he will, it is hopeless for him to pursue perfection in the making of his wares. He must be satisfied with having done his best; and we likewise.
Plato's theory is immensely satisfying at the level of our ordinary human experience. God does His best; but because of the deep irrationality at the bottom of things, he is severely limited in how rational he can make the universe in which we find ourselves.
A remarkably sensible religious creed; but one that, if it had been accepted, would have proven fatal to the grand project of modern science, which started, we must all remember, as the attempt of intelligent men to uncover and disclose the inner workings of the mind of God-a God who not only does not play dice, but who is not compelled to work with refractory material over which he had no control.
A humble example may make my point clearer. Suppose that you are given a message that appears to be in cipher, and you are asked to decipher it. You begin to work on the project, but after many hours you begin to wonder if there is really a message to be decoded. You have tried every trick in the cryptographer's book, and yet nothing works. In despair, you go to the person who presented you with the puzzle and you ask, "Are you sure there is really a message here?"
Now imagine your reaction if the person testing you were to say, "To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not really sure. You see we were given two kinds of messages-one that was really in a code, and the other that was simply a string of utterly random letters thrown together arbitrarily."
What would be your response? Certainly, it would come out as something like, "Why in hell didn't you tell me that before I wasted all my time?" And, after all, what is the point of trying to decipher a code that isn't a code at all, but simply a mishmash of random symbols, devoid of any intelligent organizational principle, and hence, by definition, impossible to decode?
And after you discovered that you may well have been given a pointless task, how diligently would you continue to work at deciphering it. Wouldn't it be natural for your determination to flag on learning that even the best college try would yield no results, because no results could be yielded?
Yet that is how Plato viewed the problem of deciphering the code of the universe. There were some parts that made sense; but there were many other parts that didn't, and never could be forced to make sense. They were simply the irrational, and it was pointless for a man of any intelligence to waste his time trying to make sense of this vast domain of irreducible insignificance. Shit happens, and when it does, the pursuer of knowledge stops, and humbly confesses complete ignorance.
The Christian cosmology, founded on the outrageous absurdity of creation out of nothing, asserted that shit doesn't happen and that God doesn't play dice. He made everything-hence everything is rational and designed in accordance with an intelligible plan. What appears on the surface to be irrational is, if examined in sufficient detail, full of hidden reasons. Everything makes sense because everything is the result of intelligent design.
Who could believe such twaddle?
Luckily a vast number of brilliant European scientists could, and because they believed in intelligent design they were able to devise models of the universe that assumed the existence of an intelligent designer. To use our metaphor from a bit earlier, they were all convinced that there was an intelligible code at the basis of the cosmos. They were persuaded that there was nothing irrational about our universe and that every last detail had been prearranged and planned from the beginning of time. They believed that every event that occurred had been ordered in accordance with a divine plan.
The notion that there was an intelligent designer who created absolutely everything from scratch and in accordance with a rational plan is the psychological precondition of the willingness to look for patterns that are hidden to the ordinary gaze. Unless we believe that there is a code to be deciphered, we are psychologically reluctant to devote hours of our life, let alone our life itself, to the pursuit of deciphering it. We think, "Oh well, it may be all meaningless garbage," and decline the challenge of explicating the possibly inexplicable.
In short, the belief, or illusion, if you will, that the world is the result of intelligent design has been the necessary condition for the construction of Western science, and it explains the otherwise mysterious fact that science, in any genuine sense of this world, arose only in countries that were part of Christendom.
Intelligent design, in other words, was a constructive illusion. Who cares if an idea be true, if it has proven so fruitful in generating insights into the nature of things-a point that Immanuel Kant makes in his last great work, The Critique of Judgment, where he argues that in order to do science at all, scientists must begin by assuming that the universe has a far greater orderliness and intelligibility than these same scientists can ever hope to prove. Rather, they must begin by having a faith that the universe has been intelligently designed, in order to inspire them with the determination to discover this design, no matter how long it takes or however serious the obstacles to such a discovery prove to be. If, on the other hand, scientists began by assuming that the universe was simply a random, capricious, lawless hodge-podge of unconnected events, then who would ever be stirred to seek hidden patterns of regularity and veiled orders of significance?
It is a good thing that Richard Dawkins came toward the end of the period of modern science, because if he had come at the beginning, we would never have gotten started. Dawkins would have explained to Galileo and to Newton that it was pointless trying to find traces of intelligent design in the world around us. He would have lectured them on the purposelessness of the random universe in which we find ourselves. He would have mocked and scorned them for believing that it was possible to divine the mind of an entity that existed only in the imagination of thoroughly unenlightened bumpkins and boobs.
All that this proves is that intelligent design has proven to be a fruitful illusion. But now comes the critical question. Is the idea of intelligent design reconcilable with Darwin's theory of evolution?
This was how the Reconciliation Thesis first presented itself to my young mind. My father, who had been trained as an engineer, but who had read the Bible from the time he was a boy in Kentucky, had discussed this question with me, and he had clearly been inclined to the idea that Darwin and the Bible could be reconciled. After all, he argued, when the Book of Genesis speaks of days, who knows how long one of these primordial days may have lasted-the solution suggested by the notes of the Schonfeld Reference Bible that had been published around 1900.
The Reconciliation Thesis, in this form, made sense to me at the time; but, as I mentioned earlier, it did not make sense to my Sunday school teacher, the preacher's wife, the preacher, nor any of the other members of our church.
I have not changed my mind on this issue to this day, although I have thought over the matter from a variety of possible angles. But I no longer see the reconciliation thesis quite the same way now as I did then. For me, the reconciliation thesis is pure logic. There is nothing in Darwin's theory of evolution to force one to cease to believe that God intelligently planned the universe; but there is nothing in it that compels one to cease to believe that the world was created in the year 4004B.C., and that Adam and Eve were fashioned by the hand of God. There is nothing shocking about this-it is due to fact that Darwin's theory asserts nothing about how the evolution of life started, but only how it must proceed once it is started.
Here we have the difference between the biologist and the biologian. The former, if he wishes to avoid metaphysical controversy, will accept the reconciliation thesis, even in its most extreme form. For example, a pure fundamentalist could argue that while we were created six thousand years ago, all biological life will continue to evolve in accordance with Darwin's theory, even to the point of the emergence of new species.
The biologian, on the other hand, rejects the reconciliation thesis; for him, if you accept Darwin's theory of evolution, then your intellectual honesty (if you have any) must force you to abandon the idea that the universe is the result of the intelligent design, no matter how the designer may be defined, whether the Mormon President God, or Plato's Demiurge, or the Creator ex nihilo of Christian theology.
This was the position of Darwin's defender Huxley, and it would appear to be that of Richard Dawkins as well. It is well stated in the article on "Darwin" in The Encyclopedia Britannica.
"One of the most important results of Darwin's work has been the demonstration that the evolution of plants and animals, and of the adaptations which they show, provides no evidence of divine or providential guidance or purposive design, because the natural selection of fortuitous variations gives a scientifically satisfactory explanation of evolution without any necessity for miraculous interposition or supernatural interference with the ordinary laws of nature."
The problem with this position is that, while it repels the inference of an intelligent designer, it leaves untouched the psychological impression of intelligent-seeming design. If Darwin's theory is a scientific theory, as we understand the word, then it must establish a set of universal laws that govern phenomena. But how else will these laws show up in nature except through pattern and regularity-the essential features of what we call design. If Darwin's theory explains all biological phenomena, then, given the simplicity of its principles, the world becomes an astonishingly elegant piece of work. Suppose Darwin had said, "Hey, nothing here makes any sense. It's just one damn thing after another." In this case, would anyone be tempted to say, "Ah, proof of intelligent design?" No; they wouldn't.
But there is a further difficulty, and it has to do with the very concept of a law of nature. David Hume had attacked the concept of law by arguing that we could never know if something was the law, since all laws were universal, and applied to phenomena that we could never experience ourselves. But if laws of nature didn't come from empirical observation, where did they come from?
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer answered this question by saying in effect, The law of nature is a metaphor. It originally derives from the idea that God had created the world by decreeing the basic laws that would govern the operations of the world, just as a king decrees laws that govern the behavior of his subjects. Therefore, when we speak of nature's law, we are in fact simply personifying nature and treating her as if she were a goddess. But in either case, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that we can get rid of intelligent design by calling it nature: If nature has laws, who gave them to her? If she made them herself, then she is either god or the demiurge.
The more elegant the scientific theory the more it will look like the universe was the result of intelligent design. If, on the other hand, science were to begin to throw up its hands and say, "Good Lord, this is far too complicated for us to understand-in fact, it doesn't seem to make any sense at all, the more you look into it," then we would be less likely to feel that the world was the result of intelligent design, unless, of course, we were to suppose that the intelligent designer was deliberately trying to throw us off track, in order to make us atheists, so that we would stop bothering him with our prayers.
The biologian's rejection of the reconciliation thesis cannot be taken seriously. It is always possible to accept Darwin's theory of evolution as proof positive of an intelligent designer, without incurring the accusation of intellectual dishonesty.
At the same time, Richard Dawkins is absolutely correct in arguing, as a biologist and not a biologian, that intelligent design is not, and cannot be considered as an alternative to Darwin, considered as a scientific theory. It is a good bit worse than comparing apples to oranges; it is comparing a scientific theory to a metaphysical speculation. Intelligent design is only valid as a way of summing up the world; but not as a way of explaining the world.
It is scientifically impermissible to point to some biological datum and say, "Ah ha-this could not be the result of the natural selection of fortuitous, that is, random, variations. Ergo, we must assume that an intelligent agent was responsible for this particular characteristic, otherwise inexplicable by Darwinian science." Rather, the most that can be made of such Darwinian anomalies is to create a list of problems that challenge the normal science of evolutionary biology as it is currently understood by the scientific community; but no list of problems, however long and however perplexing, can, by itself, create a paradigm shift away from Darwin's theory to a new scientific paradigm. This list of problems may well make some scientists uneasy or uncomfortable with the explanatory power of Darwin's theory, but mere psychological dissatisfaction with a scientific paradigm can never create the kind of scientific revolution that is necessary to produce a Kuhnian paradigm shift.
The Copernican Shift
Take, for example, the transition from the system of Ptolemy to that of Copernicus. As Thomas Kuhn made clear in his book, The Copernican Revolution, the Ptolemaic paradigm that had constituted normal science for nearly two thousand years had been unceasingly challenged by observational data that didn't quite fit the paradigm. The solution, however, was not to abandon the paradigm, but to modify it-to tinker with it here and there, to add epicycles upon epicycles. To us, looking back on these efforts to patch up the doomed paradigm, it is easy to sneer and say, "Why didn't they just drop the Ptolemaic system at once-the moment it began to have problem saving the celestial appearances?"
We tend to forget that intelligent astronomers had a good reason to hang on to the Ptolemaic paradigm, despite its increasing failure to predict with accuracy the various astronomical phenomena that any such model of the universe was required to predict-the good reason was that to move the earth from the center of the universe, to make it move around the sun, instead of the other way around, was to outrage the collective common of mankind. How could anyone believe that the earth was moving at a staggering velocity around the sun?
This was not simply a difficulty for the masses; it was a difficulty every bit as much to the scientific elite. The Dane Tycho Brahe, reputed to be the greatest observational astronomer of his age, developed his own novel system of the universe to meet this problem. The earth remained stationary; the sun revolved around it, as in Ptolemy, but all the other planets revolved around this revolving sun, as in Copernicus. That way there was no need to explain why the earth could be moving without our having been long ago swept off its surface into cosmic oblivion.
To put this another way, it was pointless to abandon Ptolemy until an entirely new theory of physics had been developed, one that would explain how the earth could be moving at a rapid clip around the sun, and yet seem to those on its surface to be completely stationary-a feat of explanation that would require the genius of men like Galileo and Newton.
Now suppose a group of intelligent design advocates had appeared upon the scene, just when the Ptolemaic system was crumbling, and suppose they had said, "Look at all the things your theory can't account for. Isn't it obvious that all these eclipses that don't take place exactly on time, or all these transits of Mars that are inexplicably delayed-isn't it clear that in each case God has intervened in the laws of the universe, just to nudge this planet ahead a little bit, or to hold this one behind for a while?"
If this had appeared obvious to Copernicus, and others, then they would have simply been stuck forever with the Ptolemaic system. They could have continued to hold it forever, in fact, since whenever a predicted phenomenon failed to appear in a timely fashion, the astronomers could have shrugged and said to each other, "There God goes again!"
Thus, while the refusal to recognize intelligent design in the world would have kept science from ever getting off the ground, the willingness to resort to divine intervention in order to explain otherwise inexplicable anomalies in the universe would have quickly put a limit to its development. Men would have tired of looking for more deeply hidden patterns and regularity, and would have fallen back on appealing to divine intervention in order to keep from challenging themselves to ascend to a higher level of insight and understanding of the nature of things.
Darwin's theory of evolution represents the normal science of our day. The "holes" in the theory are not reason for adopting creationism or interventionism; they are, at best, reasons to try to find a deeper pattern behind the phenomenal world. Nor does the mere enumeration of holes in a normal science paradigm give us any reason to abandon the normal paradigm, especially when there simply isn't another paradigm to turn to at all.
Creationism is not a new paradigm; it is an old discarded one. So too is the Lamarckian paradigm, the notion that characteristics acquired by an organism through its own efforts can be passed on to an offspring. Divine interventionism is not a paradigm shift, but the worst possible thing-a way of preventing any future paradigm shift from occurring.
Recall our earlier example of the two people trying to figure out a puzzle, only to discover that one cannot be solved at all. Divine interventionism would have the same psychological effect; those who subscribe to this notion would become far less energized to get to the bottom of an anomaly that made no sense to their scientific theory. It would be chalked up to Divine Intervention which, in this case, would have precisely the same effect as Random Chance in the physics of Plato's Timaeus and indeed the ancient world in general. Much of the universe would obey rules and be rational; but the rest would be inherently unpredictable. Here and there the demiurge could produce design and regularity-but if you try to trace this design too deeply you will find a complete mess that operates by neither rhyme nor reason-like much of the subatomic world seems to at times.
Nonetheless, if you are determined to find intelligent design in the universe, you need not be dissuaded by Darwin's theory of evolution. All you need to do is to equate the course of evolution, as it had actually occurred, with God's grand design, and everything falls straightway into place. His eye is still always on the sparrow, and He knows the moment that each one falls, but there is nothing He can do about this particular sparrow's sad demise, because all that was predetermined by His own original set of eternal decrees. His hands, so to speak, are tied.
Against such a position, Richard Dawkins, in either of his two roles as biologist and as biologian, can say not a word in protest. Why? Because, in the case under consideration, the idea of intelligent design is not being put forward as a rival explanation to Darwin's theory of evolution. It is not Intelligent Design versus Darwin's Theory of Evolution, because there is no "versus" here at all. On the contrary, the person who maintains this position accepts all the empirical facts and findings that a man like Dawkins accepts. What distinguishes him is that, after reviewing the scientific evidence, he makes a non-scientific inference to the effect that the biological world as revealed by Darwin's theory appears to him to display features of intelligent design. It is all designed through and through-and hence no unseemly divine intervention is called for. If some characteristic of an animal strikes us as peculiar, this is no reason to suspect divine intervention; rather, it is an incentive to make us look more closely at the mechanism of natural selection.
Now you may choose to regard this inference of intelligent design as nonsensical, or purely emotive, but you cannot criticize it for being bad science, as long as the person who makes such the inference does not put it forward as science in the first place. It may be simply his personal and subjective evaluation of the world, and nothing more. Or it may be his statement of faith, and mean everything.
The situation here is analogous to two biologists who have come across a new species of beetle. Their scientific observations concerning the beetle will agree precisely. They will both count the same number of legs, and will discover that the beetle is of a certain length, and that it has certain definite habits. Yet one of the scientists may say, "This beetle is unusually beautiful," whereas the other scientist may see nothing beautiful in it at all; he may even find it ghastly and repellant. Does this disagreement render their scientific observations invalid? No, of course not. Their measurements all agree; it is their subjective evaluation of the beetle's beauty, or lack thereof, that is in conflict. But as long as both biologists regard this conflict as simply as matter of taste or temperament, then neither of them will be inclined to regard their difference of opinion as the stuff of scientific controversy. The beetle admirer might suspect that his colleague simply lacks the faculty of aesthetic judgment, whereas the scientist who is indifferent to the beetle's beauty might suppose that his colleague was a dreamy-eyed romantic who perhaps should have gone into art history instead of biology.
The same principle holds equally if we are talking about the whole scheme of evolution, instead of merely discussing a new species of beetle. One scientist can look at the big picture and subjectively evaluate it as a beautiful and intelligently organized whole, whereas another scientist can look at the exact same picture, but refuse to evaluate in these terms-indeed, he may even regard such an evaluation as utterly fanciful and unworthy of an intelligent man. But what the skeptical scientist cannot do is to accuse his more romantic colleague of engaging in junk science so long as his colleague makes no effort to pass off his subjective evaluation as a scientific theory.
Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory, and it is the only one we have. Are there holes in it? I grant you everyone you can find. Are there enough holes that there will one day be a Kuhnian paradigm shift that will replace Darwin, the way in which quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics? Perhaps-but the challenge here is to imagine whence would come the paradigm, though this puzzlement comes with the territory when we are talking about future and hence unexpected paradigm shifts: they are often, as we have seen, the result of the compulsive hypothesizer.
Yet, on the other hand, it is quite possible that the scientific community might never get beyond Darwin; not because the theory is so invincible, but because it is not subject to the kind of correction that naturally occurs when an old paradigm of physics begins to unravel at the seams. In the case of the Ptolemaic system, celestial objects kept failing to appear at the time predicted by the most up-to-date revision of the system, with the latest epicycles attached. But Darwin's theory of evolution makes no predictions, and this has been attacked by some as its weakness.
In fact, it is completely unavoidable. Any theory that hopes to explain the biological diversity of life on this planet will invariably fail to generate testable propositions. This is because the random variations that become the beautiful adaptations to an organism's environment cannot, by definition, be predicted in advance. But neither could they be predicted in advance if God intervened in the creation of each new variation that appears in evolution of the organism. Thus, whether we assume that the variations come about by chance or by the hand of God, we are equally unable to predict them.
Those critics of Darwin who come from a more rigorous region of the scientific project, such as mathematicians and physicists, are often appalled at the leaps in logic made by the evolutionary biologist; but he can only work by such leaps. Like the cosmologist, he must make the most of every clue he can get. As Aristotle wisely said quite a long time ago, It is a mark of the educated man to know what degree of certainty he can expect from any particular domain of scientific or philosophic inquiry.
Thus Dawkins is correct to ridicule those who, looking at some particularly curious natural phenomenon, exclaim, "This cannot possibly have come about through the process of evolution as it is currently understood; therefore, this feature must have been specially designed by the direct intervention of God." Furthermore, Dawkins is right to insist that such a procedure would clearly mean the abandonment of the scientist's search for the kind of answers we have come to expect science to provide us. If every empirical question about why is answered, Because God willed it so, then the project of science is at an end.
Yet Dawkins is completely wrong to argue that belief in intelligent design is tantamount to a belief in the junk science of creationism. Yes, if intelligent design is put forth as a competing explanation to the theory of evolution, then Dawkins may deride it all he wants; but if intelligent design is put forth as a non-scientific inference from the theory of evolution, then Dawkins, as a biologist, has no grounds for attacking it whatsoever. He may, of course, assail the inference on non-scientific grounds, but this is something he can do only if he is willing to engage in metaphysical speculation himself. If Dawkins argues, "There is no God, so there can be no intelligent designer," then he is no longer speaking as a scientist, but as a philosopher, and the claim he is asserting is not a scientific claim, but a metaphysical one.
Needless to say, Dawkins, like every human being, has the right to address such ultimate questions as a philosopher; but when he does so he must relinquish all claims to authority owing to him as a biologist. When discussing such matters, we are all pretty much equal-both Dawkins and those that Dawkins so arrogantly dismisses as ignorant buffoons. About the ultimate things, we are all but seeing through a glass darkly.
Why Do Fundamentalists Reject Darwin?
Now, at last, we can approach our final question, Why do fundamentalist Christians have trouble with Darwin's theory of evolution? Why did the Southern Baptist Church refuse to accept the Reconciliation Thesis that I had offered them?
According to Richard Dawkins, there is a simple explanation-fundamentalist Christians are ignorant boobs. But this explanation, as tempting as it may be to some, simply won't do. Catholics, according to Dawkins, are also ignorant boobs, and yet they have never had much trouble accepting Darwin's theory of evolution. John Henry Newman, arguably the greatest Catholic thinker of the nineteenth century, remarked that if evolution was the method by which God decided to organize the details of creation, then Darwin's theory, far from casting doubt on God's existence, merely demonstrated the perfection of his providence. Or to use his words:
"It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of year ago, gave laws to matter."
Rather than micro-managing the adaptations of each organism, God had simply established certain fundamental laws by which these adaptations could be produced-all according to plan, needless to say, but in this case, a plan that was laid at the very foundations of the universe.
The great seventeenth century French philosopher and Catholic priest, Pierre Malebranche, believed that it was unseemly to suppose that God worried overmuch about the minutiae of the world's day-to-day operation. Better to conceive of God as establishing, by an unchangeable and eternal decree, a set of general laws in accordance with which all the actual events of our world would be regulated-so perfectly regulated that Malebranche even ruled out the possibility of miracles. God had decreed that gravity should swiftly move objects towards the center of the earth-hence, when a three year old child fell off a balcony eleven stories high, how absurd to expect God to overturn his immutable decree by permitting the child to survive his crash into the pavement below.
Many Christians of Darwin's time also felt the same way. Henry Ward Beecher preached that "Design by wholesale is grander than design by detail," and the leading American biologist Asa Gray accepted the Darwinian principle of natural selection, but interpreted it as the method God had chosen to implement his eternal design. According to this lofty point of view, God is no humble craftsman forced to carve, piece by piece, each and every specimen of life with his own two hands and by the sweat of his brow-a mortifying role for the supreme deity, considering the fact that even Santa Claus can avail himself of an army of industrious elves to do all the boring and tedious work for him. Rather, thanks to Darwin's theory of evolution, God was no longer seen as a lowly artisan, laboriously crafting each species; instead, he was the grand architect who worked from a set of elegant and simple principles-namely, those discovered and set forth by Charles Darwin in The Origins of Species.
But if a man can accept the theory of evolution and believe in intelligent design without any logical inconsistency, what can explain the failure of Christian fundamentalists to jump on the same bandwagon that has been graced with the presence of men like John Henry Newman, Henry Ward Beecher, Asa Gray, and, today, nearly all Catholics, not to mention the more intellectually respectable denominations of Protestants? Do Southern Baptists, and such, just have lower IQ? Or is there a deeper reason for the fact that Christian fundamentalists remain opposed to Darwin's theory of evolution?
I would like to suggest that there is a deeper reason than stupidity or ignorance. Furthermore, I want to argue that it is the same deeper reason that led Darwin to reject the efforts to reconcile the belief in intelligent design with the theory of evolution that he had developed.
The Book of the Devil's Chaplain
Charles Darwin, in his correspondence with Asa Gray, once came close to endorsing what, for brevity, we will call the reconciliation thesis. "I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance."
Here Darwin appears to be seeking a compromise a la Malebranche; the fundamental laws of evolution were the result of intelligent design, but once they were in place, then their working out in detail was left to chance. But here, as Darwin clearly saw, the devil was in the details, and not God.
In 1870, well after the publication of The Origins of Species, Darwin wrote: "My theology is a simple muddle. I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design of any kind, in the details." (Italics added.) Early in 1856, he had spoken a bit more plainly: "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature."
Darwin's reluctance to accept the reconciliation thesis was not based on a scientific or even a philosophic argument; it was based on a theological objection. Darwin was revolted by the image of a god who could create a planet full of life and then condemn it to an eternal struggle for existence, one in which billions of individual life forms must perish in order to produce the few fittest who go on to survive and reproduce. So what if there seemed to be a steady progression in nature, a gradual ascent from the lowest forms of life, upwards and onwards, unfolding finally in the supreme examples of animate existence, namely, dogs, horses, cats, and us? Just think of the price that the rest of creation had to pay for this achievement-if it really was an achievement. How or why could anyone worship a God whose intelligent design had turned out to be the intelligent design for a slaughter-house?
A good and just God would never have designed the world in which the struggle for existence dominated and ruled all of life. It was just too brutal and bloody, and no decent God would have had anything to do with it. In short, Darwin was too tenderhearted to imagine a deity ruthless enough to have designed the world as his theory revealed it.
Darwin's tender-heartedness is evident from his autobiography.
"I had a strong taste for angling, and would sit for any number of hours on the bank of a river or pond watching the float; when at Maer I was told that I could kill the worms with salt and water, and from that day I never spitted a living worm, though at the expense probably of some loss of success."
Then he goes on to confess the greatest act of cruelty in his life.
"Once as a very little boy...I acted cruelly, for I beat a puppy, I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power; but the beating could not have been severe, for the puppy did not howl....This act lay heavily on my conscience...."
Based on these incidents, it is easy to credit Darwin's assertion that "I can say in my own favor that I was as a boy humane," yet Darwin is at pains to explain that he owed his humanity "entirely to the instruction and example of my sisters," who, it so happened, were Evangelical Christians.
This degree of tenderhearted humanity is bound to effect a person's concept of what God should be like. A man who cannot bring himself to inflict pain on a worm will have trouble worshipping a God who condemns all living things to a perpetual struggle for survival. Why adore a deity that is morally and ethically inferior to one's own standards of conduct? Why revere in a god what we would despise in a man?
If Darwin's sisters were responsible for his tenderheartedness, then this was ultimately due to their commitment to the theological ideas that were associated with Evangelical Christianity-a religion that had developed as a complete and total rejection of the harsh tenets and doctrines of Calvinism. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine two religions that more better exemplify the difference between the two fundamental "metaphysical temperaments" as described by the American philosopher William James in his book The Variety of Religious Experience, with Evangelical Christianity representing the religion of the tenderhearted, and orthodox Calvinism representing that of the tough-minded. Darwin was haunted through his life by having once beaten a puppy when he was a boy; Calvin, on the other hand, did not hesitate to burn at the stake a man whose only crime was to have a heretical theory about the trinity.
John Calvin was tough-minded to the point of fanaticism. According to his theology, as set out in his Institutions, the vast bulk of humanity had been created by God predestined from all eternity to burn forever in the endless fires of hell-intelligent design down to the tiniest detail, but of a revolting nature. So revolting, in fact, that the Evangelical Christians, inspired by the loving kindness of the Methodist movement, decided that they would go to the other extreme in their characterization of God. Instead of being an insensitive and malicious despot, they made him into a kind and benevolent father who kept his eye on the welfare of each and every one of his children, including the wretched Africans who had been dragged against their will into the hideous bondage of the slave trade. (It was from the Evangelical Christians, such as the Wilberforce family, that the momentum against both slavery and the slave trade came about.)
The Calvinists had huddled together in their fortress of Geneva, convinced that they alone were saved; the Evangelicals, on the other hand, had disseminated themselves from one end of the world to the other, sending out learned and devoted missionaries, like the great Arthur Livingston, whose first task in every new land was to master the language of the culture, and to translate the Bible into it. Why? Because God had willed the salvation of all men, and not just a few. He cared about all his children, and not just some. For him, no creature was disposable; all life is sacred.
Such a theology was bound to have an impact on how the Evangelical Christians thought men should live with each other, and the impact, by and large, was remarkably beneficial. Because of it, first the slave trade and then slavery was ended; wars of national self-aggrandizement were condemned; the social gospel of the brotherhood of man was preached and acted on. Humanity towards humans was extended to humanity toward the animal world. In short, Evangelical Christianity seemed to herald the triumph of tender-heartedness over the law of the jungle.
From the pragmatist's perspective, the Evangelical creed bore excellent fruit; but along with such an optimistic view of the deity came the dilemma for those who believed that the universe had been created by such a cosmic sweetheart: How could a loving father preside over the ghastly spectacle of the struggle for existence?
Yet Darwin's theory of evolution had not suddenly revealed to the world the struggle for existence. On the contrary, as we learn in Darwin's autobiography, the idea of the struggle for existence had come from his reading of Parson Malthus' essay on population, and it had been taken up as a theme in the thought of the English sociologist Herbert Spencer, who also coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest." So it wasn't really Darwin's theory that was incompatible with the Evangelical concept of God-it was the struggle for existence itself that was the source of the conflict. Evolution, if it did anything, actually made that hideous struggle appear to have some shred of purpose, namely, the production of human beings like Wilberforce and Darwin. Yet, even if we are willing to accept this as compensation for the bloody process of evolution, it still poses a challenge to those who wish to hold on to the idea that God is the intelligent designer of the world and that God is both good and just. How is it possible, given the struggle for existence that is wired into the biological world, for a good God to have designed such a pitiless process?
No wonder Darwin's theology was a muddle. For Darwin was like the modern Christian fundamentalists of today; for him, God had to be loving and just and merciful. He had to be at least as good as the men that Darwin had known in his life; and these men were, by all historical standards, among the kindest, gentlest, and best human beings who had ever lived-the men who ended slavery on this planet. If the universe was ruled by someone who was not as good a man as Wilberforce, then wouldn't it be better to worship Wilberforce instead-just as Christians have been taught to take the side of the crucified outcast in preference to that of brute force and despotic power.
Darwin's intellectual and moral honesty is an example for all human beings, whether they be scientists, ministers of the Lord, philosophers, or taxi cab drivers. He could not betray his ideal of what God must be like by making him the intelligent designer of a universe in which there was so much suffering.
Another way to put this is that Darwin, when he looked at the struggle for existence, saw it the way a Buddhist would. He felt that the essence of the universe was suffering. He could have been the devil's chaplain whose book would have told the pitiful tale of waste and pain.
But there was a profound reason for Darwin's Buddhism-he was raised as the Buddha himself was raised. Before his birth, the Buddha's father had been warned against letting his overly sensitive son catch a glimpse of all the suffering that abounded in the world of his time. Let him not see the beggars, the cripples, and the dead that littered the streets. Keep him away from the sight of affliction.
In the same way, Darwin had been spared the everyday cruelty of human existence thanks to the wealthy and humane surrounding in which he had the good fortune to be born; who, as evangelical Christians, refused to consider anyone as a Them-each person on the planet, the most wretched black slave in the most wretched hovel included, was a child of God and it was your duty as a Christian, indeed as a human being, to work for his or her welfare. You were enjoined to be benevolent; and those in Darwin's circle were.
Yet the ethics of Buddhism, predicated as it is on the pointlessness of all worldly attempts to escape from suffering, is not the religion of people who are caught up in the thick of the struggle for existence. Darwin writes in The Origins of Species that "nothing is harder than to keep the struggle for existence in mind."
Now this proposition was true for Darwin himself, and anyone who originally read those books, and we who read it today; but this is only because all of us are likely to have had pretty cushy lives when compared to those millions and millions of human beings who have had to fight tooth and nail in order to eke our their living while avoiding being eaten into someone else's.
Buddhism was a religion of the merchant class, who by definition were sheltered from nature red in tooth and claw. Evangelical Christianity was also a religion of the merchant, and they too were sheltered from the same grisly phenomena. Indeed, Charles Darwin himself, for all his powers of exact observation, had remained ignorant of the significance of the struggle for existence until he read a book about it. Only then did he realize, for the first time, what he later had pains to remember: that everything lives at the expense of something else-a fact that any beggar or warrior or hunter or farmer could have told him because a conviction of this truth would be wired deeply into them, into their moral fiber and into their visceral fiber as well.
But we educated moderns are hardly in a position to sneer at Darwin for his inbred naïveté, since it is ours as well. Be we liberal or conservative, believer, agnostic, or atheist, we all have been brought up in a world sheltered from the struggle for existence-a fact that has the unfortunate consequence of making us forgetful of the necessary conditions for living such a sheltered life.
On the other hand, those who are close to the struggle for existence, and who are desperately trying to stay afloat, do not need to be remindful about the difficulty of survival in such a pointlessly cruel and wanton world; instead they need to be told that their odds of surviving are far better than those of their enemies-and in the optimal case, it helps most to tell them that they are predestined to prosper; that they are God's own, the elect, the saints, the chosen.
Those who believe that they are the elect prosper in the struggle for existence. The Jews; the Dutch Calvinists; the Puritans; the Mormons; the Shakers-all these groups did wonders with what they had. It is the power of positive thinking raised to a physical force that can virtually be computed in the number of units of expended human labor. The work that no secular communist system has ever been able to get men and women to achieve has been effortlessly accomplished by the most absurd fanaticisms. Brigham Young took a desert and made it bloom by convincing the wretched of the earth that they were God's elect, though an elect, peculiarly enough, that everyone was free to join, and that everyone, in time, would join, since all in the end would be saved.
An evangelical elect was what the Mormons created, in contrast to the Closed Club of Calvinism-Seeking No New Member Currently or For All Eternity.
But you have the same principle of an evangelical elect in all forms of low church Protestantism. Indeed, low church almost means reaching out to the riffraff-to the unwashed, the uneducated, the urban poor, the farmers. The Baptists and Methodists were missionaries to the periphery, and because they appealed to the laboring class and those who got their hands dirty, it had to address them in metaphors that they could understand-and not in bloodless abstraction. Logical arguments felt them cold; but stories they could understand. And that was what the Bible was-a set of entrancing Arabian night tales that allowed a man to hover for a spell in another world that was still so much like his own. To ask whether the stories were true was like asking a fan whether professional wrestling is real-We'd rather not think about it, thank you just the same, because we are enjoying our willing suspension of disbelief to the max, and we'd prefer not to have anyone quiz us about where Cain got his wife. It is like having a brainy kid sitting next to you during a sci-fi movie, who every now and then whispers smugly, "You know, that can't really happen," in reference to some minor violation of the special theory of relativity.
If human freedom and dignity mean anything, they should mean allowing people to live in a world of preferred imaginings over living in one in which an elite had imposed their own imagination-or perhaps even worse, their own lack of imagination.
That is why I am willing to forgive my Southern Baptist Church for tossing me out on my ear. They were right to reject the reconciliation thesis. They were right to have no interest in the god of the philosopher, but to care only about the living God that amply filled their own imagination. They were right to insist that we live in a world created by a loving father who looks after us and who cares about us more than anything in creation. Not correct, mind you, but right. For right refers properly to an action; and an act of imagination is far more an action than it is a thought.
Leave the Christian fundamentalists alone. Don't take their children away from them for refusing to let them be taught Darwin's theory of evolution, as Daniel Dennett has suggested-I hope, in jest. We desperately need to get back to the good old American tradition of imagining the world in all sorts of exotic and crazy ways. We need desperately to re-enchant the world that diehard materialists are robbed of so much meaning by making people feel intellectually guilty because they sometimes catch themselves thinking that they are really thinking, as opposed to merely firing off synapses along neural pathways.
On the other hand, my advice to the Christian fundamentalists is: Keep Adam and Eve, but get rid of creationism. It betrays your cause in the worst possible way, because it violated one of the basic rules of survival, which is, Never play by another man's rules. If faith and imagination comes first in your life, then science must come somewhere else in the hierarchy, assuming that it appears at all.
Those who believe that other people must believe in science, and raise their children to believe in science, are mere fanatics, wishing to impose their own imagination on the world. If the happiness of man depended on a knowledge of Darwin's theory of evolution, it would be different. But human beings did remarkably well without it for quite a long time-whether we do as well with it, only time will tell.
This is a dangerous world in which to propagate a doctrine of cosmic nihilism, which, unfortunately, is what the modern interpretation of Darwin comes down to, especially in the hands of evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins. Indeed, it is almost beginning to appear as if Darwin's great work is no longer being treated by some of its more enthusiastic defenders as a scientific theory, but simply as a weapon in the culture war between those who wish to eradicate Christianity and all religion, like Dawkins, and those who want to resist the imposition on their children of the doctrine of cosmic nihilism under the guise of a biology lesson. How much better off both sides would be if they had the intellectual honesty to declare, as Darwin did, "my theology is a muddle," and that our science will always remain hopelessly hypothetical.