Volume 15, Number 1

The Whole Question of Metaphysics

Report on the AAAS 1993 Boston meeting discussing "The New Anti-Evolutionism" and Professor Michael Ruse's surprising remarks.

On February 11-16, 1993, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) met in Boston for its 159th National Meeting. While several sessions addressed topics of great interest, one in particular -- "The New Anti-evolutionism" -- focused on issues which have long been featured in OR publications and correspondence.1 This report concentrates on that section.

Transcript of Michael Ruse's 1993 Speech to the AAAS
(transcript added 5.98)

Paul Nelson

The Case of the Missing Speaker

Michael Ruse, a philosopher and biology historian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, was probably the best-known speaker featured at the session, "The New Anti-evolutionism." As session organizer Eugenie Scott remarked before Ruse spoke, "He is almost a person who needs no introduction in this context." Yet a recent article describing the session in the London Times Higher Education Supplement omits Ruse entirely.2 Although the Times provides the identities and views of all the other speakers in some detail, they make no mention--even in passing--of Ruse nor his talk.

Why the glaring omission? Was Ruse's talk so commonplace or forgettable that it warranted no mention? Hardly: indeed, the opposite is the case. Ruse is often controversial, but he is rarely boring, and his talk entitled "Nonliteralist anti-evolution as in the case of Phillip Johnson" was true to form; it was (for this correspondent) easily the most memorable and surprising of the meeting. Thus I speculate that Ruse's conspicuous absence from the Times article may be due to a certain uneasiness about his main point, which, Ruse argued (and I agree) "is an important one."

This eyewitness report may help to repair the Times complete neglect of Professor Ruse. Let's begin by reviewing the other speakers' remarks.

Eugenie Scott: Introductory Comments

Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), opened the session with some familiar themes. She noted that, while the courts have consistently rejected teaching creationism, the general position still retains "surprising strength" at the local level. Creationists have simply modified their arguments--"hunkering down"-- to avoid First Ammendment challenges. By employing terms such as "intelligent design" or "abrupt appearance," Scott argued, creationists hope to avoid the constitutional obstacles that seem invariably to spring up around what Scott calls "the 'C' word," namely, creation. But scientists and educators should not be deceived. "The proximate cause" of notions such as intelligent design remains "the increased activity of the religious right."

William Thwaites: "'Abrupt Appearance Theory' Replaces Creation 'Science'"

Next William Thwaites, a geneticist at San Diego State University and a well-known creation/evolution writer, presented a freewheeling critique of Wendell Bird's concept of "abrupt appearance" outlined in The Origin of Species Revisited. Thwaites began by popping up from behind the lectern to laughter from the audience. "That's about the extent of abrupt appearance as far as its scientific value," he quipped. After summarizing the poor knowledge of evolutionary theory exhibited by first-year students at San Diego State (one wonders what they know about any biological theory, much less evolution) and telling a joke about the difficulty of teaching "intelligent design" without becoming entangled in theology, Thwaites came at last to Bird's theory of "abrupt appearance." Calling this concept "a thinly veiled attempt to disguise scientific creationism," Thwaites accused Bird of employing "a hilarious quote" from Michael Denton's book Evolution, A Theory in Crisis. The passage regarding the difficulty of assessing evolutinary relationships strictly from fossilized skeletal or hard tissues turns out, Thwaites claimed, to be "a mixed-up quote from Henry Morris" who had "painted himself into a corner" with a similar argument in the book Scientific Creationism. According to Thwaites, Bird simply "amplifies ...a little bit more" on Denton--who was, in turn, quoting Morris.3

After examining the sources in question I could find no evidence for thwaites's claim. Denton cites not Henry Morris but the paleontological literature, where the problem of inferring the details of soft tissues from fossilized hard parts (and inferring fossil relationships more generally) is well known.4 In fact, there are no references to Henry Morris anywhere in Evolution, A Theory in Crisis. Thwaites's claim was groundless.

Thwaites made an equally groundless claim made moments later. Bird, he contended, "is talking about abrupt appearance in a 10,000-year context," wheras the authors Bird cites have a much longer, 4.6-billion-year context in mind. In fact, early in his book Bird takes pains to emphasize that "the theory of abrupt appearance does not rquire any particular time frame."5 Not surprisingly, therefore, one will not find a defense in the Origin of Species Revisited of a young earth, nor of any particular cosmological time scale.

Thinking that perhaps Thwaites was privy to other information, I called him and said that I could not substantiate his claims. After some discussion Thwaites acknowledged that both satements were errors. On the Bird/Denton/Morris matter he said he had assumed that Denton was quoting Morris but did not check to see whether this was the case. Regarding Bird's alleged defense of a young earth, Thwaites said he had imputed the 10,000-year figure to Bird on the basis of Bird's longstanding association with the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).

The reader should weigh Thwates's explanation for his statements, since much of what he said in his AAAS talk was false.

Kenneth Miller: "Evolution and the Argument from Design"

Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and editor of the Journal of Cell Science, has debated Henry Morris and contributed to the creation/evolution literature. He responded from an evolutionary perspective to classical and more recent formulations of the argument from design. Although the design argument is easily stated and emotionally appealing, it is, Miller contended, badly flawed. The problem is not with the premise that organisms are fantastically complex objects. "Nature is a lot more intricate and a lot more complex," said Miller, "than anything yet fashioned by the mind or the hand of man." Rather, the argument assumes that evolutionary theory explains the origin of complex organisms solely "by mechanisms of chance," and chance alone, of course, could produce nothing. While this assumption is correct, Miller noted, it is not what evolutionary theory teaches. He argued that the "most misunderstood" statement about evolution "is that evolution is driven by random chance." Mutations are generally unpredicatable and thus appear random, "but the net result" when sifted by selection "is not random."

Furthermore, biological structures are built by selection incrementally, not all at once. And this, Miller urged, "introduces a rather interesting artifact," namely, the frequent imperfection of adaptations. If natural selection, but not an intelligent designer, created organisms, we should observe "organs and systems ...that have obvious flaws, mistakes, and redundancies" as holdovers from earlier, different functions of the organ or system. Miller illustrates this point with several examples: the "backwards" retina of the human eye (with its photoreceptors facing the "wrong way round"), the "yolk sac" in mammals, human pseudogenes and the apparent expression of quiescent genes for teeth in chickens. These structures, Miller concluded, refute intelligent design. They are not what "a competent designer would produce, starting from scratch with a blank sheet of paper." Evolution, however--"the master tinkerer"--explains them "perfectly."

Miller spoke with verve, and his talk was well-illustrated. Moreover, he raised significant challenges for the theory of intelligent design. Why, to take one of his examples, would an intelligent designer build a retina with photoreceptors facing away from the incoming light? Note that I have not said facing "the wrong way"--for, of course, that remains to be established. Despite Miller's assertion (repeated during the question period in response to my persistent queries) that the human retina is suboptimal, it is far from obvious that a retina with forward-facing receptors would be optimal. Indeed, objectively determining optimality itself in this or other situations is far from obvious. Theorists employing optimality theory in evolution know that determining optima is difficult--yet few realize how the added theological (or intentional) dimension entailed by intelligent design vastly magnifies the problem.6

More troubling was Miller's rather too sanguine attitude towards the theory of natural selection. Since the time of Darwin, many evolutionists have lived unhappily with the theory, perceiving that the real business of evolution is logically and empirically prior to the process of selection. In his book Natural Selection in the Wild John Endler notes:

Natural selection cannot explain the origin of new variants and adaptations, only their spread.7

The fundamental mechanisms of evolution are the molecular mechanisms leading to new genetic variants, the expression of those variants through the genetic and developmental systems, and constraints to the appearance and function of those variants. Natural selection and genetic drift are mechanisms that cause only frequency changes in populations.8

Miller may well agree with this, yet nothing in his talk revealed any misgivings about the creative sufficiency of selection. Indeed, he argued that "the notion that natural selection can produce a complex structure is well supported." Yet this statement wants--in the eyes of many of his evolutionary colleagues--far more evidence than he provided.

Jonathon Marks and Laurie Godfrey: "Non-Darwinism and Anti-Darwinism"

Jonathon Marks of the Yale Anthropology Department stood next to the podium; his co-author, Laurie Godfrey of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Anthropology Department, sat in the audience. Unlike the preceeding speakers, who were occupied almost entirely with criticizing creationists, these biologists turned their artillery on errant evolutionists--but not, to be sure, out of any sympathy for creationism. "There is plenty of blame to be spread around for the popularity of anti-evolutionism," Marks said, "and some of it can be laid at the feet of the scientific community itself." The figure of Darwin, Marks began, has become an icon, which "evolutionary biologists feel obliged to invoke"--or repudiate. The adjective "Darwinian" and the noun "Darwinism" are standard markers of orthodoxy, against which many biologists contrast their novel views of evolution. Marks contended that this practice plays into the hands of creationists, for whom all evolutionists are "Darwinists" and who regard rejecting real or supposed Darwinian tenets as tantamount to rejecting evolution itself.

But the richest succor unwittingly given to creationists, Marks continued, comes from "those biologists who promote social theories, using Darwinism to validate them." As examples he cited the social Darwinism of the late nineteeth century, the twentieth century's eugenics movement and, most recently, sociobiology. These views, tied to evolution through the "use of rhetorical tricks by zealots for particular programs," only serve to make the theory "unpalatable" for much of the American public. "It can hardly be bewildering," Marks observed, "that many Americans reject evolution when you stop and ponder what is being said in its name." No less bothersome is the "idiosyncratic social philosophy" of hereditarianism or "the primacy of the genes in human affairs."

Genetic comparisons between humans and other primates are misleading, Marks warned, if other biological information is ignored. "If the overall biology of the animals tells you that they are very different, and the genetics tells you that they are nearly identical, it follows that the genetic comparison is telling you something relatively trivial about the overall biology." Placing one's evolutionary eggs in the basket of hereditarianism is therefore to credit a "perverse variant of Darwinism." Evolutionists would do well, Marks concluded, to think "clearly or critically about evolutionary biology and what is being presented in its name."

Marks and Godfrey argue that "idiosyncratic Darwinian ideas" should be identified as such, and rejected as culturally or socially motivated accretions on the otherwise sound edifice of evolutionary theory. They claim this will help restore "the good name of Darwin and evolution." But as Phillip Johnson has argued in Darwin on Trial, if the foundation of evolution is the philosophy of naturalism, then--at least for many theists--no amount of buffing or scraping will remove the offending doctrine. Naturalism undergirds the Darwinian outlook at every point.9

That naturalism might offend theists is not hard to see. Although Marks and Godfrey decry hereditariansim, they would (I think) surely argue that phenomena such as religious beliefs or practices are ultimately the consequences of evolution, and hence, wholly natural in their origins. "Humans, after all, are idea machines," said Marks in the talk. "That's what we evolved for." The evolutionary picture shows that 20 million years ago, no organisms believed in the existence of "God." Today some organisms do believe in such an entity. How did this idea "God" come to be, and to what does it refer? The standard Darwinian account explains the origin of theological ideas from the "bottom up," by appealing to various natural causes. Howard Gruber, author of Darwin on Man, writes:

Darwin's treatment of the origins of religious belief was ...entirely naturalistic. He likens primitive interest in the inexplicable to a dog's disturbance at some unfamiliar event; he assumes that sophisticated human theologies evolve from a general belief in "spiritual agencies" to account for inexplicable events; he repeatedly emphasizes the continuity of human religious beliefs with tendencies to be found in other animals, citing one author who claimed that "a dog looks on his master as on a god."10

Other concepts central to Christianity and Judaism, such as revelation or sin, simply find no groundings (on their own terms) within the naturalistic ontology of orthodox Darwinism. On the standard evolutionary account each will turn out to be really something else--that is, something natural. Thus, for theists, debates about the merits of this or that putatively Darwinian tenet are finally insignificant. For those standing outside the naturalistic paradigm, the reality of spiritual experience cannot be cashed out in naturalistic terms.11

They contend that they want a philosophical reformation going to the very foundations of evolution. If naturalism is abandoned, however, there are good reasons to think a theory not at all resembling evolution would do a vastly better job of explaining the origin of living things. In a strong sense, therefore, the truth or falsity of naturalism is the whole game. However salutary Marks and Godfrey's exhortations to right thinking, evolution is in trouble with many theists for different and deeper reasons.

Michael Ruse, the next speaker, focused on naturalism as his theme. But if the reader will allow me to tinker with the order of the speakers, I shall treat Ruse last and examine Howard Van Till's remarks next.

Howard Van Till: "Anti-Evolution as a Reaction to Scientism"

Howard Van Till of Calvin College's Physics Department and author of The Fourth Day and Science Held Hostage (with two co-authors) also explained anti-evolution's popularity. He began by expressing his unhappiness with the term "anti-evolutionism," which seemed to him ambiguous. "Anti-evolution," his preferred term for opposing evolution, should be distinguished, he said, from the position of "anti-evolutionism." Evolutionism can be regarded as a contradiction of "evolutionary naturalism," a view which "excludes God as a reality." Plainly, unlike the theory of evolution narrowly conceived, Van Till said, all theists oppose evolutionism.

What motivates anti-evolution? In both its old and new varieties, Van Till argued, it does not spring from "a disciplined and informed scientific judgment of evidence" because "the most vocal critics" of evolution are not trained in science but in other fields. "Hence, my judgment is that factors other than scientific theory evaluation per se are fueling the resolve to discredit evolution." Anti-evolution, Van Till continued, is in large measure a reaction to scientism, "an epistemological stance that proceeds from a materialistic world view," where "empirical science provides the only means of obtaining knowledge of reality." Scientism, he said, "continues to function as a remarkably powerful irritant."

Citing several recent examples of what he called "the rhetoric of triumphalist scientism," Van Till argued that anti-evolutionists have "bought the story" of scientism and evolutionism, namely, that evolution refutes God's existence or creative action. Seeing the "haystack" of atheistic evolutionism as "inextricable from the barn of evolution," he said, anti-evolutionists have simply "razed the barn," harming science in the process.

Any irony pervades this debate, Van Till concluded. The same flawed premise about God's creative role motivates both the forces of scientism/evolutionism and their anti-evolution opponents. The premise holds that unless God performs extraordinary, "irruptive" creative acts to repair or overcome "built-in barriers and deficiencies" in nature's economy, we have no evidence for His existence. But natural economy without gaps, characterized by "functional integrity," may equally be a created one, Van Till argued (citing Basil and Augustine for theological support). This view has been lost or forgotten in the polemics: "Our progress seems impeded by our forgetfulness."

Van Till's stern rebuke of scientism and evolutionism is the type of message the AAAS hears too frequently, and I commend him for delivering it without equivocation. Yet the sharp boundary he wants to establish between evolutionism, which he says all theists oppose, and evolution, which he says is good science, is an indistinct impression drawn in rapidly shifting sands. Like it or not, evolution does bear on what Van Till elsewhere calls "questions concerning transcendent relationships."12 Van Till keeps the theory out of those areas by erecting an epistemological fence as a boundary marker--a move that will, I think, strike most evolutionists as quite arbitrary.

Consider again the question of human moral and religious behavior origins. Our species has words for, and strongly proscribes, such actions as wantonly killing other members of the species (murder), having sexual relations by force (rape), harming animals for our own amusement (cruelty), or saying particular names with particular intentions (blasphemy).

Blasphemy? Now why should that be proscribed? One evolutionary explanation might hold that the behavior "do not blaspheme" is an exaptation, originally a directly selected behavior--such as, say, allegiance to the alpha male--which in some hominid populations, later evolved a "religious" significance.13 Other hominid populations, perhaps under other selective pressures, lost or never acquired the behavior "do not blaspheme." Thus, blasphemy is "wrong" in some human populations, but not others (and so on).

Whether this particular explanation is correct or even plausible is beside the point. On the received evolutionary view, we need to explain the origin of our moral and religious behavior. If we (thinking as evolutionists) hold, however, that they are not phenomena to be explained--that they go beyond the competence of evolutionary theory--then on what (non-question begging) epistemological grounds have they been left out of the causal story?

As Van Till noted, his conventional construal of evolution includes the common ancestry of all life and "the historical modification of life forms." That chimpanzees (for instance) exhibit one type of behavior, and humans another, is certainly a "historical modification of life forms" and as such should fall within the scientific purview of evolution. Since their most recent common ancestor, chimpanzees and humans have diverged behaviorally. Yet, presumably, when Van Till and nearly any paleoanthropologist come to explain the origin of the behavior "do not blaspheme," their scientific explanations will differ markedly.

For Van Till, the Person whose name is being taken in vain is unseen but nonetheless assuredly real. It is by God's revealed command, and for no other reason or cause, that blasphemy is wrong--for all (not some) human beings. Indeed, as a theological or transcendent matter, Van Till would argue, there can be no properly scientific (i.e., purely physical or material) explanation for the historical formation of the behavior "do not blaspheme." Strictly speaking, such an account would be a non sequitur.

For most evolutionists, however, science in general and evolutionary theory in particular are not incompetent to explain human behavioral evolution. Darwin's earliest notebooks recorded hypotheses about the natural origins of moral and religious behavior.14 As Daniel Dennett observes:

Darwin saw from the outset that his theory has to include an entirely naturalistic account of the origins of the "mind" and more particularly the "moral sense" of our species, for if Man were to be the golden exception to Darwin's rule, the whole theory would be dismissible.15

On the Darwinian view, questions such as the origins of morality are difficult but still within the reach of empirical methods. They are phenomena to be explained by science, in naturalistic terms.

Thus, I would argue that Van Till, like the creationists he criticizes, will come sooner or later to an impasses with the scientific theory of evolution. Van Till takes that theory to be a concept "whose scope is constrained by the categorically limited competence of natural science." But unless evolutionists assent to Van Till's epistemological fence--which places "transcendent" questions such as the origins of religious behaviors, beyond the competence of science--the naturalism-driven sands of evolution cannot help but overtake and bury much of what Van Till now reserves for theology.16

Michael Ruse: "Non-Literalist Anti-Evolution as in the Case of Phillip Johnson"

For over a decade Michael Ruse has been a prominent figure in the creation/evolution controversy. His philosophy of science testimony at the 1981 Arkansas "Balanced Treatment" trial influenced the late Judge William Overton's opinion in striking down the law requiring teaching creation alongside evolution. Among Ruse's many books, two (Darwinism Defended and But Is It Science?) address the creation/evolution controversy in detail, with Ruse strongly defending the orthodox Darwinian viewpoint. Many articles on the subject have flowed from his word processor. And Ruse has participated in numerous debates and symposia taking up one aspect or another of the topic.

It was at one such symposium, held at Southern Methodist University in March 1992, that Ruse met Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson. Each knew something about the other, of course. They had corresponded briefly, and Ruse had reviewed Johnson's book, Darwin on Trial (although the review never appeared in print; Ruse was so critical of the book, he said, that the editor assigning the review simply dropped it). The symposium centered on arguments for, against, or in some other way treating the proposition that:

Darwinism and neo-Darwinism as generally held and taught in our society carry with them an a priori commitment to metaphysical naturalism, which is essential to make a convincing case on their behalf.

Ruse and Johnson were scheduled to debate a narrower topic--namely, whether Darwinism can be reconciled with any meaningful form of theistic religion. By all accounts, they got along well. "As I always find when I meet creationists or non-evolutionists," Ruse said, "I find it a lot easier to hate them in print than I do in person." The debate came to focus on the symposium topic, which Ruse called "the whole question of metaphysics," and eventually waylaid his intended AAAS topic--a critique of Johnson's book--leaving in its place "the whole question of philosophical bases."

As Ruse describes it,

What Johnson was arguing was that, at a certain level, the kind of position of a person like myself, an evolutionist, is metaphysically based at some level, just as much as the kind of position of ...some creationist, somone like Gish or somebody like that. And to a certain extent, I must confess, in the 10 years since I performed or I appeared in the creationism trial in Arkansas, I must say that I've been coming to this kind of position myself.

It is now important, Ruse continued, that evolutionists admit--to themselves, if not "in a court of law"--that "the science side has certain metaphysical assumptions" which ground its view of origins, and that future discussions must take account of these assumptions. We cannot ignore them.

One problem is that the picture of science received from the "logical positivists" or "people like Popper and Hempel and Nagel" accords poorly with much historical evidence concerning evolution's role. "It's certainly been the case," Ruse said, "that evolution has functioned, if not as a religion as such, certainly with elements akin to a secular religion." As examples, he cited "the most famous family in the history of evolution, namely, the Huxleys," and, more recently, biologist Edward O. Wilson. About Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's "bulldog," Ruse noted:

Certainly, if you read Thomas Henry Huxley, when he's in full flight, there's no question but that for Huxley at some very important level, evolution and science generally, but certainly evolution in particular, is functioning a bit as a kind of secular religion.

Julian Huxley, Thomas's grandson, also stood in this tradition.

For many evolutionists, Ruse continued, things are much the same today: "Evolution in a way functions as a kind of secular religion." In his book On Human Nature, well-known Harvard systematist and sociobiologist E.O. Wilson "is quite categorical," he argued, "about wanting to see evolution as the new myth, and all sorts of language like this. That for him, at some level, it's functioning as a kind of metaphysical system."

The practical consequence of these historical facts, Ruse said, is that evolutionists should "look at evolution and science--in particular, biology--generally philosophically I think a lot more critically." Evolution emerges from or is grounded on certain metaphysical commitments:

It seems to me very clear that at some very basic level, evolution as a scientific theory makes a commitment to a kind of naturalism, namely, that at some level one is going to exclude miracles and these sorts of things, come what may.

This does not mean, Ruse quickly added, that evolution is "just a religious assumption" or "irrational." One can still justify the theory pragmatically, he said. "If certain things do work, you keep going with this, and ...you don't change in midstream." Ruse was not advising his listeners to jettison their views. "I'm not coming here and saying give up evolution or anything like that."

But he was counseling a measure of philosophical candor:

One should be sensitive to what I think history shows, namely, that evolution just as much as religion--or at least, leave "just as much," let me leave that phrase--evolution, akin to religion, involves making certain a priori or metaphysical assumptions, which at some level cannot be proven empirically. I guess we all knew that, but I think that we're all much more sensitive to these facts now. And I think that the way to deal with creationism, but the way to deal with evolution also, is not to deny these facts but to recognize them and to see where we can go, as we move on from there.

The significance of Ruse's remarks (as he notes) does not lie in their novelty. Consider the following, for instance, from evolutionary geneticist Walter Fitch:

By a metaphysical construct I mean any unproved or unprovable assumption that we all make and tend to take for granted. One example is the doctrine of uniformitarianism that asserts that the laws of nature ...have always been true in the past and will always be true in the future. It is the belief in that doctrine that permits scientists to demand repeatability in experiments. I like the word doctrine in this case because it makes clear that matters of faith are not restricted to creationists and that in the intellectual struggle for citizen enlightenment we need to be very clear just where the fundamental differences between science and theology lie. It is not, as many scientists would like to believe, in the absence of metaphysical underpinnings in science.17

Indeed, despite his saying that he has been "coming to this kind of position" over the past decade, Ruse himself has long held the view that science is properly grounded on or influnced by extra-scientific premises:

Call it what you like--"idealogy," "metaphysics," "philosophy"--there is a non-factual element in science which reflects scientists' hopes and desires. Moreover, this non-factual element is very important in the acceptability and acceptance of a science.18

The significance of Ruse's talk lies in the changing context of the creation/evolution debate. Since the early 1960s, in the wake of the publication of The Genesis Flood and the Creation Research Society's formation, most of the American debate concerning the scientific status of creation has centered on the "young earth" theory, with its concepts of apparent geological age, a global flood, created kinds, and so on.

But many in the debate have come to relaize that the question of the adequacy of young-earth creationism is really tangential to the main issue: can science infer a creator? If the answer to this question is "no," then it wouldn't really matter what else one said on behalf of any creation model--such a theory simply fails to qualify as a scientific explanation. On the other hand, if the answer is "yes," then the philosophically grounded objections to publishing creation hypotheses or teaching creation as a scientific theory tumble like so many straw men who have lost their supporting poles. The question then becomes not whether creation can be science, but whether creation theory best handles the evidence.

Thus, creation opponents have placed great weight on "in-principle" philosophical arguments against the theory. One wants (to borrow a military metaphor) an impregnable first line of defense: the notion of creation is categorically not scientific. Try again--with something naturalistic--if you want to be admitted to the arena of rational discourse.

Ruse has thrown light on the arbitrary metaphysical commitment in this argument, a point insisted upon by those who see the cultural authority of neo-Darwinism as deriving not from the thoery's empirical strength but from the deep preconception that science = naturalism. Naturalism, as Ruse notes, is a position that can be taken--or not. Naturalism is not forced on us by anything more basic. Now Ruse would insist that "evolutionary theory in various forms certainly seems to be the most reasonable position once one has taken a naturalistic position." But what if one has not taken a naturalistic position?

Suppose, indeed, that we take seriously the proposition that the world and its creatures might have been created. It would seem, then, that whatever philosophy of science we adopt, it must allow for this possibility. We must be permitted, that is, to employ historical inference methods that may generate the conclusion, "this biological object probably came to be through the action of an intelligence." Creationists are left to solve whether such methods of inference can be made empirically fruitful or robust. But the world of causal inquiry looks vastly different when creation enters as a genuine empirical possibility. Naturalism seen in that light looks not like a sound and necessary philosophical basis for science but as a stutlifying dogma.


1. Among the sessions of interest were "The End of Eve? Fossil Evidence from Africa," "What is Life? Origin and Evolution," "Biological Science in the Public Domain, "Scientific Resources for a Global Religious Myth," "The Religious Significance of Big Bang Cosmology," "The Age and Scale of the Universe," "Oil and Water? Institutional Reactions Between Science and Religion" and "The History and Philosophy of Cosmology." Tapes of these and other sessions are available from Nationwide Recording Service, 15385 S. 169 Highway, Olathe, KS 66062 (913-780-3307; FAX 913-780-5091). return to text

2. Martin Ince, "The Ascent of Man's Ignorance," London Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 April 1993, p. 17. return to text

3. As taken from the AAAS tape of the session, Thwaites claim runs as follows: "There's a hilarious quote from Michael Denton, who wrote Evolution, A Theory in Crisis. And he's quite famous in creation circles because he's supposedly non-religious. Which, when you read his book, it turns out not to be the case. But nevertheless, there's a quote in there that says that the soft parts of fossils are unreliable as to indicating whether the--or, at least, I guess the hard parts are unreliable--characteristically unreliable, to indicate as to which class a given fossil might fall into. And so it makes it look like the way you read the quote, as if from Denton, as if we evolutionists have been guilty of relying on the soft parts, or maybe just on the bones I can't remember which one it was--to classify organisms, and this is unreliable. But it turns out this is a mixed-up quote from Henry Morris, who wrote in Scientific Creationism that--he kind of painted himself into a corner, Morris did--when he said, yeah, a lot of these reptile to mammal fossils look intermediate. OK, you know, they're sort of halfway in between, and they kind of look like they destroy the whole idea of scientific creation and lend support to evolution, but that's only because we have just the bones, you see. And if we had, if we only found a fossil that had all the soft parts in it, we would know whether this was really a reptile or a mammal; there would be no question about it. And then Denton took this quote and said the bones are unreliable. And finally Wendell Bird comes back and amplifies that a little bit more and makes it seem like we've made a terrible goof in paleontology to rely on such unreliable data." return to text

4. See, e.g., Colin Patterson, "Significance of Fossils in Determining Evolutionary Relationships," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 12 (1981):195-223. "The information available from fossils," Patterson argues, "is always vastly inferior to that in Recent organisms; the relationships of fossils are therefore harder to test or specify. Since relationships can best be assessed among Recent organisms, and since fossils can be properly interpreted only after they have been assigned to Recent monophyletic groups, the Recent biota must be the starting point in work on relationships" (p. 209). In general, Patterson notes, "the paucity of characters" in fossils "may severely limit the precision with which relationships may be proposed and tested" (p. 219). return to text

5. Wendell Bird, The Origin of Species Revisited, Volume 1 (New York: Philosophical Library, 1987, 1988, 1989) p. 27. return to text

6. For an insightful critique of optimality theory, see Richard Lewontin, "The Shape of Optimality," in The Latest on the Best, ed. John Dupre (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), pp. 151-59. My essay, "The Role of Theological Arguments in Current Evolutionary Theory," forthcoming in Proceedings of the Pascal Centre International Conference on Science and Belief, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer, discusses the problem of assessing the optimality of created objects. return to text

7. John Endler, Natural Selection in the Wild (Princeton University Press, 1986) p. 51. return to text

8. Ibid., p. 248. return to text

9. For our purposes this definition of naturalism should suffice: "A view of the world, and of man's relation to it, in which only the operation of natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces is admitted or assumed" ("Naturalism," The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 1899. It is hard to put much stock in the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. Scientific inquiry supposedly necessitates the former, whereas the latter is held as a philosophical position transcending the empirical. But the putatively more modest doctrine of methodological naturalism excludes the possibility of creation and inference to a creator, as surely as does its more thoroughgoing metaphysical cousin. It is thus no less burdensome to those who think that living things may have been created or designed. For all practical or scientific purposes the adjectives "methodological" and "metaphysical," when attached to "naturalism," set up a distinction without difference. return to text

10. Howard Gruber, Darwin on Man, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) p. 208. return to text

11. For many theists of my acquaintance, naturalism is refuted first (and perhaps above all) by their own spiritual experience. "Man is man," writes T.S. Eliot in "Second Thoughts About Humanism," "because he can recognize supernatural realities, not because he can invent them. Either everything in man can be traced as a develpment from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist" (Selected Essays [London: Faber and Faber, 1951], p. 485). return to text

12. Howard J. Van Till, Davis A. Young, and Clarence Menninga, Science Held Hostage (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988) p. 19. return to text

13. "We suggest that such characters, evolved for other usages (or for no function at all) and later 'coopted' for their current role, be called exaptations. ...They are all fit for their current role, hence aptus, but they were not designed for it, and are therefore not ad aptus, or pushed towards fitness. They owe their fitness to features present for other reasons and are therefore fit (aptus) by reason of (ex) their form, or ex aptus." (Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth C. Vrba, "Exaptation--a missing term in the science of form," Paleobiology 8[1982]: 6. return to text

14. See Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.) return to text

15. Daniel C. Dennett, Review of Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, by Robert J. Richards, Philosophy of Science 56 (1989): 541. return to text

16. It is noteworthy that early in their book Science on Trial, Van Till and his co-authors lay the sciences of human behavior to one side, writing that "to limit the scope of our discussion we choose not to consider the social sciences or other disciplines concerned with human personal behavior" (p. 11). But, of course, it is just there that the claims of evolution become most deeply problematical for theists. return to text

17. Walter M. Fitch, "The Challenges to Darwinism Since the Last Centennial and the Impact of Molecular Studies," Evolution 36 (1982): pp. 1138-39. Emphasis added. return to text

18. Michael Ruse, "The Ideology of Darwinism" (appended discussion) in Darwin Today: The 8th Kuhlungsborn Colloquium on Philosophical and Ethical Problems of Biosciences, eds. E. Geissler and W. Scheler (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1983), p. 254. return to text

Copyright © 1997 Paul Nelson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.3.97