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The Evolution Controversy:
A New Book in the Making

By Ted Peters and Marty Hewlett

Some of the faculty and students associated with CTNS have begun an ambitious research projectTed Peters and Marty Hewletttitled, Theodicy, Evolution, and Genocide. During Spring semester 2003, Bob Russell and Ted Peters have been team teaching a GTU doctoral seminar with this title. The long range goal of this project is to reflect upon the implications for theology of dispositions toward suffering and even the perpetration of violence which may have been programmed into the human race by the history of evolution and genetic influence.

During phase one of this proposed project, Ted Peters along with Marty Hewlett [Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at University of Arizona and co-author of Basic Virology (Blackwell, rev. ed., 2003)] have been researching what will become a new book, Evolution from Creation to New Creation, with Abingdon Press, scheduled for publication in November 2003.

Aimed at theologians, pastors, seminarians, as well as science educators at all levels, this new book tells who's who in the controversy: the biblical creationists, scientific creationists, intelligent design (ID) advocates, Darwinists, neo-Darwinists, sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and theistic evolutionists. Peters and Hewlett fit themselves into the last group, the theistic evolutionists, who take the science of evolution seriously as they formulate Christian commitments to creation, human nature, and redemption. The authors argue that what happens in the science of evolutionary theory regarding the history of natural selection is of particular interest to Christian faith; and this should be sharply distinguished from the philosophical or ethical forms of Darwinism such as we find in social Darwinism, eugenics, Nazism, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. It is the science that is important to faith, not the social philosophies.

At the eye of the storm is the conflict between evolution and creationism. The conflict between evolutionary biology and scientific creationism, to be more precise, appears on the surface to be a conflict between science and religion. To read the newspapers would lead one to interpret it this way. But, to Peters and Hewlett, this is a false impression. No conflict exists between science and religion, at least between genuine scientific research and the Christian faith. What appears to be a warfare between laboratory and altar is actually a battle within the vision of what science should be, and also within our understanding of what religion should be.

So, this team of a scientist and a theologian decided to approach the issue together, stereoptically. In addition to going to the library to read the same books everyone else does, they visited and spoke with many of the principals in the controversy. What became increasingly clear is that both the scientific creationists and the intelligent design advocates see themselves as pursuing science, as trying to purify science. Whether their science meets the standards of establishment science is another question, and one well worth asking. Nevertheless, one cannot accurately understand the controversy unless one recognizes and acknowledges their self-understanding..

Two elements in the controversy obscure this. First, in the popular mind and in the mind of many scholars who write about this subject, the controversy is described as one more tedious battle in the ongoing warfare between science and religion. Science becomes stereotyped as the modern martyr innocently and valiantly pursuing truth while religion is stereotyped as atavistic and authoritarian and willing to burn truth at the stake. Science is modern; religion is pre-modern, so it is assumed. Even though creationists claim to be pursuing science, they are dismissed as allegedly advocating fundamentalism and biblical authority against empirical evidence and open scientific reasoning. Both the press and the scholarly community engage in unwarranted simplicity here, as if to dismiss a complex phenomenon without taking the time to understand it.

Second, the scholarly community stubbornly insists that scientific creationism and intelligent design are the same thing. Why? This is puzzling. Both the creationists and ID'ers disavow this conflation. One difference is enormous: creationists hold that evolution has never taken place, whereas ID grants the history of evolution while providing an alternative explanation for it. This is a decisive difference. Yet, ID opponents have coined the term "Intelligent Design Creationism" (IDC) over against the objections of both groups just to insist that they be locked in the same category together. Other opponents describe ID in terms of episodic creationism, again to force them to marry in a shotgun wedding. Why? If these two groups want to be seen as separate, and if the difference is so decisive, why do their opponents insist that they are the same thing?

It became clear to the book's authors while studying scientific creationism that the actual arguments put forth against evolutionary theory are intended to be scientific refutations. Even though creationism shares a history with fundamentalism, the method employed is not an appeal to biblical authority. It is not simply an appeal to the Genesis account over against a scientific account. Rather, the central creationist argument is that insufficient evidence exists to demonstrate speciation-that is, macroevolution from one species to another is not confirmed by either fossil or laboratory evidence. This opens the door, then, to a theory of a single creation at the beginning when God created all "kinds" or species nearly as we have them today. It also opens the door to thinking of our planet as being young, perhaps only ten thousand years old.

Key here is that creationists intend their arguments to be considered scientific, not theological or biblical. An honest public response should be to present counter evidence on behalf of a Darwinian account, not to dismiss creationists because of their religion. The authors of Evolution from Creation to New Creation believe that an honest evaluation of the evidence will show that the Darwinian theory provides greater explanatory adequacy and a progressive research program that will yield new knowledge in time. They hold that the physical evidence is sufficient to support the fact of evolutionary history; and they believe the Darwinian model is superior science. Creationists ask for this kind of evaluation. They don't want to be dismissed because of their theology.
Similarly with intelligent design. ID does not share a history with fundamentalism; nor does it deny the history of speciation. Yet, it claims that the standard Darwinian model for explaining speciation through descent with modification in the natural selection process is inadequate. The increase in complexity that new life forms instantiate can not be explained by gradualism. Interventions by an intelligent designer are required. Regardless of their personal theological points of view, representatives of intelligent design intend this to be a scientific argument and not a theological argument.

Here the scientific community has been a bit better at attempting to refute ID by mustering evidence on behalf of gradualism. Even Harvard's colorful Stephen Jay Gould, who advocated punctuated equilibrium, offers an argument that supports Darwinian gradualism over against what ID proposes. This is how the debate should proceed. It need not be spiced up by dismissing ID as just one more disguised voice for creationism.

Both creationism and ID complain that evolutionary theory is bad for society, that the ideological values that accompany evolution are corrupting young people's minds and hence our wider culture. Today's liberal community finds it easy to dismiss such complaints as vituperations of cranky right wingers who support bigotry and all other conservative prejudices. Again, this rush to simplicity hides its own enormous intellectual blindness if not dishonesty.

What this book makes clear is that never was there a time when evolutionary theory could distinguish the pure research science from social ideology. Even before Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species in 1859, Adam Smith's version of capitalism was providing a scheme for understanding economic competition that Darwin used to frame his descriptions of competition between species. Also, in 1851 Herbert Spencer promulgated a vision of evolution that applied to both nature and society. Once Darwin had entered the academic scene, Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and Darwin adopted it as the equivalent of "natural selection." For the social Darwinism that followed, it meant government should encourage the rich and powerful to survive while letting the weak and unfit fall by the wayside. Thomas Huxley, who held a more egalitarian ethic than Spencer, still capitalized on Darwinian biology in his campaign to support materialism and to get the church out of the British university. It was Huxley who declared war against religion in the name of Darwinian science. Huxley, Darwin's contemporary, paved the way for Richard Dawkins more than a century later to remark in The Blind Watchmaker (p.6), "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

What this means is that the Western religious community has never had access to evolution as simply science. Evolution first came already shrink wrapped as a capitalist ideology that supports the rich over against the poor and as a materialism that assaults the beliefs of the traditional church. In addition, late nineteenth century Darwinism was accompanied by a theory of racial hierarchy-that is, white English society was said to be more fully evolved than other races. So, when social Darwinism went to Germany it offered justification for the will-to-power, militarism leading to World War I, post-war eugenics, Rassenhygiene, death camps, and World War II. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler directly lifts up Darwinian evolution in his appeal to nature to justify what would become the Nazi ideology backing Aryan racism. So, when creationists and others trumpet that social values are at stake, they appeal to an ominous history. If our society is to honor Christian inspired values such as the responsibility of the rich toward the poor, love and care for those deemed unfit, or racial equality-creationists are not supporters of bigotry despite what is said of them-these values are incommensurate with those deriving from social Darwinism.

Because of this checkered history, theologians should try to distinguish between Darwinism [or Neo-Darwinism] as science and as philosophy. Materialist ideology and social Darwinism should be distinguished from the history of our planet's biology. The science should be separated out from the larger Darwinian complex. If religious thought in general and Christian faith in particular is to take up a working relationship with science, then it must discriminate between evolutionary biology with its accompanying disciplines such as molecular biology from its philosophical siblings such as social Darwinism and ontological materialism. Theologians must also distinguish the research science from Darwinism's contemporary progeny such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. This book recommends that a healthy dialogue between science and religion should focus first on the biology and related laboratory research areas; and it should avoid blessing or baptizing the various forms of social Darwinism that are subject to such a values critique.

Peters and Hewlett side with the theistic evolutionists. What distinguishes a theistic evolutionist? First, a commitment to theism-that is, a commitment to belief in one God who is active in the world. This contrasts with deism and panentheism, two other admirable positions. It also contrasts with naturalism, which is on the rise in popularity. Second, theistic evolutionists make an attempt to incorporate the truths gained from evolutionary biology into their worldview, into their doctrines of creation and anthropologies. Who belongs to this club? Well, as we look at the membership list we find colleagues such as Arthur Peacocke, Kenneth Miller, John Haught, Robert John Russell, Denis Edwards, Ian Barbour, Nancey Murphy, Wentzel van Huyssteen, Niels Henrik Gregersen, Howard van Till, B.B. Warfield, Francisco Ayala, and of course Teilhard de Chardin. Other respected scholars could be placed on this list as well.

Like many of these scientists and theologians, Hewlett and Peters hold science in high regard. Microscopes and telescopes and all the lenses through which science views the world provide a way of seeing nature that reveals intricacy, complexity, immensity, grandeur, and beauty. The glory of God shines through nature, and also through the human minds so constructed as to comprehend nature.

Theologically, Evolution from Creation to New Creation emphasizes that the God of the Bible is involved in the world; and this means that God shares in the experience of suffering. The natural world is replete with the competition between predator and prey, the extinction of species, and everywhere suffering and death. A social ethic based on the principle of survival of the fittest-in sociobiological language, reproductive fitness--is simply incompatible with the God of grace described in Scripture. Hewlett and Peters believe a theology of evolution must affirm that out of love God identifies with the victims of natural selection, with the suffering of the prey, with care for the unfit. They invoke the Theology of the Cross to perceive divine presence in feeling the feelings of nature's creatures. And, regardless of how nature behaves, divine empathy is the source of ethics as we see it.

The second item they emphasize is that the doctrine of creation is not big enough to include an adequate theological assessment of nature as evolutionary theory describes it. This is an important point pressed by Bob Russell in his essay in the Vatican book on Evolutionary and Molecular Biology. Yes, the concept of creatio continua or continuing creation should be invoked to include natural selection over deep time. Yet, theologians need more. Redemption needs to enter the picture. The eschatological vision of the Bible is that the lion will lie down with the lamb, which in God's kingdom there will be no more crying nor pain nor death. What this means is that for theological reasons we need to project a divine future in which the laws of nature then will differ from what they have been during evolutionary history. This is an audacious claim, to be sure; but nothing less than this is the biblical promise.

Evolution from Creation to New Creation: The Controversy in Laboratory, Church, and Society. By Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett
Abingdon Press; (November 2003) ISBN: 0687023742

 

 

 

 

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