Starting a Conversation about Evolution

A review of The Battle of the Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate by Del Ratzsch


Phillip E. Johnson

Del Ratzsch, professor of philosophy of science at Calvin College, has written a flawed but thoughtful book that encourages me to hope that, despite some unfortunate resentments and misunderstandings, the Christian intellectual response to evolutionary naturalism may be converging on a common set of principles. I am afraid that many readers may miss Ratzsch's most significant points, however, because they are presented in a context that tends to conceal their importance.

It appears that Ratzsch started out to write a critical analysis of the conflict between neo-Darwinism and creation- science -- as exemplified on the one hand by the British zoologist and fervent atheist Richard Dawkins, and on the other hand by the young-earth fundamentalist Henry Morris and his creation-science movement. Ratzsch's original aim seems to have been to show that some bad arguments have been made by both sides in this polarized conflict, and then to defend the compromise position called "theistic evolution" from the charge that it is no more than a vacuous attempt to split the difference between theism and naturalism. That doesn't sound very new or exciting, but somewhere along the way Ratzsch seems to have recognized that the old creation/evolution debate is getting redefined, and he makes some constructive points to help that process along.

Ratzsch's subtitle says that "neither side is winning" the battle between the neo-Darwinists and the Biblical creationists. I cannot imagine what gives him that impression, since the Darwinian position dominates not only science, but government, the universities, the public schools, and the media. Most people I meet in the secular university world have gained what little information they have about creationism from the writings of its principal enemies, such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Isaac Asimov. They take for granted that evolutionary science has explained or soon will have explained the entire history of life on naturalistic principles. To the extent that they take any notice of either creation-science or theistic evolution, they consign both to the subjective realm of "religion," which has nothing to do with an objective science like biology.

Given this state of affairs, it is difficult to see what Ratzsch could expect to accomplish by his concluding recommendation that "maybe the various sides [to the creation/evolution debate] should talk. Not debate--talk. It is just possible, neither side being omniscient, that both sides could gain something from serious contact with competent practicioners on the other."

If Ratzsch is proposing a serious, mutually respectful conversation between the neo-Darwinists and the Biblical creationists, he is in need of a reality check. The position of just about everyone with any influence in evolutionary science is that creationism is not science, and its practicioners by definition cannot be competent. This is the case not only because creationists are deemed to be prejudiced by their belief that the Bible has authority over scientific questions, but even more fundamentally because they reject naturalism, which is the philosophical basis of contemporary science.

Theistic evolutionists fare little better. Most theistic evolutionists do not challenge either the conclusions of evolutionary biology or its naturalistic methodology, but argue merely that evolution by natural processes is compatible with theistic religion. To the extent that they go farther, and postulate a supernatural directing force in evolution, they violate the rules of methodological naturalism and are no more welcome in scientific discussions than outright creationists. In either case, what scientific topic is there to talk about?

For a productive scientific conversation to be even conceivable there would have to be a new force in the picture, one which is capable of entering the debate with arguments which the naturalists cannot easily refuse to take seriously. Almost halfway through his book Ratzsch discloses that a potential force of that kind has in fact emerged, a new phenomenon which he mysteriously refers to as an "upper tier" of creationists. He explains that this group consists of persons with doctorates from first-class universities, who are performing serious scientific and philosophical work to advance concepts like "intelligent design" and "irreducible complexity" as legitimate descriptions of biological reality. Although Ratzsch does not name any of the members of this "upper tier" in his text (a few references are provided in the Notes), or discuss their work in any detail, he apparently sympathizes with their objectives and endorses some important principles that are essential to gain them a fair hearing.

In particular, Ratzsch rejects the argument that science is defined by its adherence to naturalism, pointing out that such a dogmatic standard potentially conflicts with the principle that science should be a "no holds barred" search for truth. Unless we have a priori knowledge that naturalism is true, then we cannot rule out the possibility that supernatural action may have affected the history of life, and that evidence of that action may exist. Ratzsch similarly rejects Richard Dawkins' argument that reference to a creator in science as the source of biological complexity is logically pernicious because it leaves the creator unexplained. Every explanation has an unexplained starting point. A theistic science starts with an uncreated creator; a naturalistic science starts with something like particles and natural laws, and goes on from there. If living organisms -- up to and including human minds -- can be created by unintelligent material processes, then the need for a creator (at least after the ultimate beginning) is greatly lessened if not eliminated. But the "if" that begins that sentence can be satisfied only by evidence, not by defining "science" to exclude any other possibility.

On similar grounds Ratzsch rejects the argument, frequently made by theistic evolutionists, that to posit action by a creator anywhere in the history of life is to invoke a futile "god of the gaps," who will inevitably be expelled from reality as science advances to fill the gaps with naturalistic explanations. Ratzsch sensibly retorts that "If there are no gaps in the fabric of natural explanation, then obviously appeal to divine activity will get us off track. On the other hand, if there are such gaps, refusing in principle to recognize them will equally get us off the track." That is particularly cogent reasoning if the so- called "gaps" involve not minor details but such fundamental problems as accounting for the existence of irreducibly complex genetic information.

In all these instances Ratzsch insists upon a principle I heartily endorse; he will not permit either side to win its case by controlling the definition of terms. Either organisms show evidence of design or they do not; either mindless processes like mutation and selection can make complex biological organisms or they can not. The determination should be made by a fair assessment of the evidence and not by defining "science" as an enterprise that inherently assumes the one possibility and excludes the other.

This endorsement of a level playing field is more radical than readers may suppose. The view that science and methodological naturalism are inseparable is widespread among many scientists and philosophers, including theistic evolutionists, and makes it impossible for them to take seriously the possibility that the creation of genetic information might require intelligence. Show them a computer program and they will never question the need for a programmer. Show them a much more impressive example of design in nature, and they will never doubt that unintelligent material processes must have been responsible for the appearance of design. Even if they give lip service to the possibility that a designer might exist, they will insist on standards of evaluation that ensure that a putative example of design can never be more than a problem that naturalistic science has not yet solved.

Ratzsch is aware that the appeal of evolutionary naturalism owes as much to moral and spiritual factors as to scientific evidence. He says in his preface that he was raised a Christian fundamentalist, and taught to respect science but to distrust Darwinism. At first he wanted to reconcile Genesis, religion, and evolution, but at some point along the way I think I ceased to want them to be reconcilable. Evolution, along with the new cosmologies and backed by the undentable prestige of science, became part of a gratifyingly sophisticated excuse for unbelief -- a ticket out of an oppressive universe with a God who set boundaries and made demands, into one where we set the rules and the cosmos itself was the only limit. (It was this personal experience as much as anything that has convinced me that creation-evolution issues frequently run much deeper than mere scientific theory.)

I was raised as a nominal Christian, not a fundamentalist, but otherwise my story would be similar. My own realization that there is a profound relationship between naturalistic philosophy and Darwinian science led to my writing two books and many articles on this subject. It also led to my forming a rewarding colleagueship with a group of scholars and scientists whom I judge capable of holding their own in a serious conversation with the scientific naturalists. This group is the "upper tier" of professors and researchers whose existence Ratzsch so tentatively acknowledges as the new factor in the debate.

My colleagues and I speak of "theistic realism" -- or sometimes, "mere creation" --as the defining concept of our movement. This means that we affirm that God is objectively real as Creator, and that the reality of God is tangibly recorded in evidence accessible to science, particularly in biology. We avoid the tangled arguments about how or whether to reconcile the Biblical account with the present state of scientific knowledge, because we think these issues can be much more constructively engaged when we have a scientific picture that is not distorted by naturalistic prejudice. If life is not simply matter evolving by natural selection, but is something that had to be designed by a creator who is real, then the nature of that creator, and the possibility of revelation, will become a matter of widespread interest among thoughtful people who are currently being taught that evolutionary science has show God to be a product of the human imagination.

Our movement is something of a scandal in some sections of the Christian academic world for the same reason that it is exciting: we propose actually to engage in a serious conversation with the mainstream scientific culture on fundamental principles, rather than to submit to its demand that naturalism be conceded as the basis for all scientific discussion. That raises the alarming possibility, as one of Ratzsch's colleagues put it in criticizing me, that "the gulf between the academy and the sanctuary will only grow wider." The bitter feeling that has been spawned in some quarters by that possibility may explain why Ratzsch discusses our group so tentatively, but no matter. What matters for the present is to open up the discussion, and to that end Del Ratzsch has made a positive contribution.