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Review of Michael Ruse's Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (2001)

Keith M. Parsons

Book coverReview: Michael Ruse. 2000. Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship Between Science and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press. 254 pp.

This article was originally published in Philosophical Inquiry, Vol. XXIII, No. 3-4 (Summer-Fall 2001). Reprinted with permission.

Michael Ruse's answer to the question posed in the title of his book is "yes." This answer concurs with the conclusions recently reached by Kenneth Miller (1999) and Stephen Jay Gould (1999) and opposes the claims of antievolution activist Phillip Johnson (1991) and philosopher Alvin Plantinga (1997). In the ongoing battles between evolutionary science and creationism (most recently manifested in the controversy over "intelligent design"), evolutionists gain a great tactical advantage if they can give an affirmative answer to Ruse's question. If, as Ruse aims to show, a robust Darwinism is compatible with traditional Christian doctrine, the wind is taken out of the creationist's sail. Why all the fuss if Darwinism poses no threat to religion?

Ruse defines a Darwinian (p. 28) as one who accepts three claims: (1) the fact of evolution, i.e., that organisms originated through a natural process of descent with modification from earlier forms, (2) that the path of evolution forms a branching, tree-like pattern, and (3) that natural selection is the most important evolutionary mechanism. The subsequent discussion takes each of these claims for granted.

For Ruse, Christianity essentially is a view of ultimate reality and the role of humans therein (p. 33). It is also a social structure which places moral obligations on its members and promises certain rewards and punishments. Crucially, Christians have certain views about the nature, life, death, and purported resurrection of Jesus Christ. In particular, Christians view Christ as God incarnate and regard his death on the cross as essential for salvation (p. 34). Salvation means life in heaven for the redeemed. Ruse's view of heaven is likely to appeal to academics: "...something like life on earth, only better. I like to think of it as a new Mozart opera every night, with lots of fish and chips at intermission, and no student papers waiting to be marked when I get home (p. 35)."

With Christianity and Darwinism so defined, Ruse focuses on particular areas of potential conflict. Most obviously, Darwinism and Christianity apparently conflict over issues of origins. Christian scripture, particularly the Book of Genesis, gives an account of the origin of the earth, humans, and other living things that seems at odds with a number of scientific claims, including those of evolutionary theory. Ruse admits that, taken literally, the Genesis account is incompatible with science, but he asks whether Christians must take those stories literally (p. 50). He correctly notes that both Catholic and Protestant traditions have permitted considerable latitude in the interpretation of scripture. Augustine and Calvin both argued that Moses (by tradition the author of Genesis) spoke in language appropriate for his time and place and in terms adapted to the understanding of his readers (pp. 51-53). Therefore, Genesis may be taken as metaphorical when it conflicts with the findings of science.

Having given this background, Ruse considers the strange case of Alvin Plantinga, who contends that Christians, based upon their reading of Genesis, might reasonably reject scientific claims about evolution and the age of the earth (Plantinga, 1991, p. 15). Ruse rightly notes (p. 59) that some scientific claims are really beyond reasonable doubt (that the earth is far older than the 6000 or so years indicated by a literal reading of Genesis is a case in point). He declares that if Christianity says that it is reasonable to reject the best established science because it conflicts with a literal reading of scripture, then Christianity must be rejected (p. 59). Again, though, he notes that such a wooden literalism is not part of either Catholic or Protestant tradition, and that Plantinga's fundamentalism is a twentieth century aberration.

Plantinga also dismisses all hypotheses of the naturalistic origin of life as "arrogant bluster" (Plantinga, 1991, p. 20). Ruse responds by reviewing some of the very considerable body of scientific work on the origin of life. This work has been conducted by outstanding scientists and has unquestionably advanced our knowledge of how life could have begun. There is every indication that origin of life studies are a progressive research program (Fry, 1999). Though Ruse's review is far too cursory to do justice to such inquiries, he does show that Plantinga's dismissive attitude is itself mere arrogant bluster.

Another point of potential conflict arises from the thoroughgoing naturalism of Darwinism. Darwinism, like all branches of natural science, is committed to finding natural causes. Yet Darwinism is particularly threatening since it enters areas of vital human concern, offering explanations of human origins and, perhaps, of human psychology and behavior. Daniel Dennett (1995) calls Darwinism "universal acid" because it can corrode favored ideologies of both the left and the right--feminism as well as fundamentalism. Christianity seems particularly threatened since it necessarily opposes the naturalistic worldview which Darwinism ostensibly promotes. Christianity has also traditionally made certain claims about the unique status and role of humans, and Darwinism apparently undermines those claims.

Plantinga argues that Darwinism, and naturalistic science in general, are inimical to Christianity (Plantinga, 1997). He accuses Ruse and others of stipulatively defining science as naturalistic and so excluding God and miracles by fiat. Plantinga recommends the adoption of "Augustinian Science" which would admit both natural causes and miracles (1997). Ruse replies that his definition was lexical, not stipulative, and reflects the fact that since the scientific revolution professional scientists have been increasingly reluctant to consider supernatural hypotheses (p. 101). Therefore, it is Plantinga who is stipulating a definition. Further, Ruse thinks that by keeping firmly in mind that the naturalism of science is methodological and not metaphysical, conflicts between science and religion may be avoided.

Though Ruse makes his point, I do not think this is the best reply to Plantinga. Perhaps accepted usage has made "science" mean "natural science," but I can see no reason why, in principle, supernatural hypotheses might not be rigorously tested vis-à-vis natural ones (Schick, 2000). Darwin himself, in the concluding chapter of the Origin, directly contrasted natural selection with special creation. Time and again he showed that the facts supported his case over the creationist's. For instance, natural selection favors whatever works even if it involves vast waste, pain, or ugliness--of the sort actually found in the world. A Creator could and would have done much better (more on this below). Thus, Darwin did not define creationism out of science, but devastated it by repeatedly demonstrating its failure as an empirical hypothesis. Likewise, we should respond to Plantinga by showing the scientific worthlessness of the latest efforts to create a theistic science (Pennock, 1999, Miller, 1999, Fitelson, Stephens, and Sober, 1999, and Eldredge, 2000 have done so). Such hypotheses fail and have failed for centuries, which failure--rather than atheistic prejudice--justifies the refusal of scientists to take them seriously.

Surely one place where Darwinism and Christianity must conflict is over the issue of design. Christians must hold that the natural world is a product of God's design; God is "Maker of heaven and earth." Darwin showed that even the most design-like elements of the natural world can be explained in terms of the "blind watchmaker"--the mechanical, impersonal, undirected working of natural selection. Or has this been shown? Ruse considers Michael Behe's (1996) contention that there are irreducibly complex biochemical systems which cannot, in principle, be explained in terms of gradual selection processes. Ruse convincingly shows (pp. 116-122) that Behe's argument simply rests upon ignorance of work already done showing, e.g., how the Krebs cycle could have been built up by "molecular tinkering" with earlier, simpler processes. But if Behe is wrong, does this mean that Darwinism threatens to explain all biological phenomena, leaving no room for divine design?

Ruse gives the same answer that Asa Gray and Baden Powell gave in the nineteenth century: God's greatness is shown in the creation of the evolutionary process itself rather than in the special creation of particular organisms (p. 115). Gray claimed that God providentially arranges for certain beneficial variations to arise within populations (Gray, 1963b, p. 122). These are then selected, driving evolution in intended directions. This scheme, derisively called "creation on the installment plan," was recognized as problematic by Gray himself. He admitted that the advance of science could show (which it has) that variations themselves are caused by natural, undirected processes (Gray, 1963a, p. 62). His reply was that proponents of design could then step back and place God's creative action in a deeper, still unoccupied explanatory niche. But surely this would simply be a god-of-the-gaps maneuver. So, potential conflicts between Darwinism and design are not so easily avoided. The problem raised by Darwinism, and by natural science in general, is just where to place design; where is there a gap that cannot be filled? Some religious apologists have turned to the Big Bang as theism's last gap (Craig, 1994).

Ruse thinks that Darwinism may actually help Christians over one traditional stumbling block. Reconciling the fact of animal pain with the existence of a benevolent Creator has long been a particularly intractable aspect of the problem of evil. Ruse notes that for Darwinism pain is inevitable since selection can only operate by the death and suffering of the less fit (p. 136). For many, a rational Creator would have made a rational universe--one directed by unbroken law rather than unpredictable miraculous irruptions. Perhaps in such a law-governed universe there just is no way for complex life to develop other than through a selection process which will entail pain and suffering. In this case, if God wanted there to be complex life capable of understanding an intelligible universe (which seems plausible), animal suffering would have been unavoidable even for omnipotence.

However, Paul Draper has recently argued (1997) that the commission of certain acts of special creation would not compromise God's rationality. He further claims that, since God would likely have created some complex creatures with nonphysical minds, it is probable that God would have performed some acts of special creation (Draper, 1997, p. 224). Bertrand Russell expressed with characteristic verve the opinion that God would create sentient beings directly rather than through such an extremely roundabout process as evolution:

If God really thinks well of the human race--an unplausible hypothesis, as it seems to me--why not proceed as in Genesis to create man at once? What was the point of the ichthyosaurs, dinosaurs, diplodochi, mastodons, and so on?... It is no answer to say that the laws of nature inevitably produce evil as well as good, for God decreed the laws of nature (Russell, 1997, p. 184).

The points made by Draper and Russell are intuitively cogent; it is hard to see what could require God to employ evolutionary processes, with all of their waste and pain, rather than special creation. Ruse needs to argue this point in greater detail.

Ruse considers a number of other issues, such as sociobiology, social Darwinism, and free will. As always, he writes with clarity, wit, and insight. Speaking personally, since several eminent philosophers--whom I had previously regarded with deepest respect--have jumped onto the creationist bandwagon, I am pleased to see Ruse's riposte. His replies to the philosophical creationists are cogent, and I would have liked a book more focused on such a critique. As for his larger aim, to show the compatibility of Darwinism and Christianity, he too often fails to acknowledge the very deep roots of potential discord. According to some biographers, Darwin's mysterious ailments may have been due to severe anguish over the conflict between his discoveries and the deepest convictions of those near and dear to him. I think that what agonized Darwin should not be passed over too lightly by his latter day admirers.

Works Cited

Behe, M.J. (1996), Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press.

Craig, W.L., (1994), Reasonable Faith, rev. ed., Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Dennett, D. (1995), Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Draper, P. "Evolution and the Problem of Evil" in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 3rd ed., L. Pojman, ed., Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Eldredge, N. (2000), The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Fitelson, B., Stephens, C., and Sober, E. (1999), "How Not to Detect Design--Critical Notice: William A. Dembski, The Design Inference," Philosophy of Science, Vol. 66, #3. 472-488.

Fry, I. (1999), The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Gould, S.J. (1999), Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine.

Gray, A. (1963a), "Design Versus Necessity" in Darwiniana, A.H. Dupree, Ed., Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

_____. (1963b), "Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology" in Darwiniana, A.H. Dupree, ed., Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Johnson, P.E. (1991), Darwin On Trial. Washington, D.C.: Regenery Gateway.

Miller, K. R. (1999), Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. New York: HarperCollins.

Pennock, R.T. (1999), Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Plantinga, A. (1991, "When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible." Christian Scholar's Review 21(8): 8-32.

_____. (1997), "Methodological Naturalism," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. 49(3): 143-154.

Russell, B. (1997), Religion and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schick, T. (2000), "Methodological Naturalism vs. Methodological Realism," Philo Vol. III, #2, pp. 30-37.

Copyright ©2001 by Philosophical Inquiry. This electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.