Science in Christian Perspective



[On the Origin of Life]                      Response

From JASA 10 (December 1958):

Dear Professor Hearn:

I have read your article (The Formation of Living Organisms From Non-Living Systems-W.R.H.) in the June issue of the journal of the American Scien tific Affiliation. I wonder whether or not Darwin should be praised on the grounds which you suggest: that he was reluctant to extend his theory too far. Although he knew that science had thrown no light on the problem of the essence or origin of life, he yet believed that life had been spontaneously generated and would some day prove to be such, because it was involved in his hypothesis of uniformity. (More
Letters of Charles Darwin
, Vol. II. p. 171).

So far as I can tell by reading the Life and Letters of Darwin, he had settled on the doctrine of uni formity and was determined that everything must be explained naturally. His bias against God who cre ates was so great, that when reason led him to God he endeavored to destroy reason. (Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, p. 282) .

I wonder whether Oparin's book faced the problem fairly. Oparin is committed to the position that "life is nothing else but a special form of existence of matter." (Origin of Life. Moscow Foreign Lan guages Publishing House, 1955, p. 101). He is also committed to the position that Frederick Engels, Len in and Stalin were right in their dialectical material ism (pp. 14, 18, 19). A person who has this definite commitment which he will not allow to be shaken by anything, can hardly face squarely any problem that would tend to undermine his position.
With every good wish.
Cordially yours,
James D. Bales
Bible Department
Harding College
Searcy, Arkansas



  I appreciate Professor Bales' comments and especial ly his willingness to let them be published in the  Journal with my reply. I hope that this will stimulate other readers to continue this discussion or to raise other points by published exchange of correspondence. (Correspondents should keep in mind that the deadline for manuscripts is the first day of the month prior to the month of issue, or November 1 for the next-December-issue.)

Darwin's questions in his letters about whether or not man's mind can be trusted if it has been developed from the mind of lower animals have always struck me as being completely ridiculous. From a scientific standpoint we know nothing at all about relationships between the mode of origin of a mind and the validity of its conclusions. Why should a mind derived from a less complex mind be incapable of drawing valid conclusions.P Embryologically it is an observed fact that our brains develop from a single cell and it is obvious that we acquire the characteristics of a mature mind only gradually as individuals. If we can accept the idea that our ontogeny has involved biochemical processes, why should we recoil from the concept of processes in our phylogeny, or feel that we are any less the creatures of God when we begin to understand these processes? 1 am glad that Prof. Bales has pointed out that theism cannot be negated on this basis any more reasonably than can the theory of evolution. I agree that there is no reason to praise someone for committing that kind of non sequitur, but I still think Darwin was remarkably conservative in his statements about the origin of life. It should be remembered that he rejected on scientific grounds the results of Bastian's experiments even though he wanted to believe in Bastian's conclusions about "archebiosis"; this kind of objectivity with regard to one's own position seems praiseworthy to me, whether in a theist or an atheist. I am sorry that such objectivity is not always characteristic of Christian writing on evolution. 

I hope this problem of our attitude toward "uniformity" in nature and toward God's "intervention" in "natural" phenomena will be thoroughly discussed at our next joint meeting with the Evangelical Theological Society. Surely some concept of uniformity in nature is as essential to theism as it is to science. I do not see how a scientist can work as a scientist without being mechanistic, or materialistic in the sense of seeking to understand "immediate causes" while operationally disregarding "Ultimate Cause." Dr. John Baillie's 1951 address to the British Association, Natural Science and the Spiritual Life (Oxford University Press), deals with this problem in a scholarly manner. A shortened version is found in the pamphlet, Science and Faith Today (Lutterworth Press), available through Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and which I highly recommend to readers of our Journal. Baillie points out that modern science came into being as a result of a growing determination to banish purposive explanation from scientific procedure, quoting Bacon and Descartes, the first modern thinkers to devote themselves to the problem of scientific method. In their insistence that science be basically inductive rather than deductive, they did not mean that there are no final causes, but only that natural science has no business with them. This limitation "did not mean that there is no.purpose in nature, but only that this purpose is not discoverable by empirical methods." Ballie (Principal of New College, Edinburgh) goes on to say that the source of this un-Greek element in the development of scientific method can be traced to the Christian revelation, and more specifically to "the Christian doctrine of creation which teaches that the world is not itself divine but is contingent upon the divine Will."

An article entitled "The Relation Between Science and Religious Knowledge" in the March issue of The Christian Graduate, taken from the longer paper by Gordon E. Barnes to the Victoria Institute, analyzes four territories common to science and religion (the day-to-day control of the universe; the origin of the physical and biological worlds, the possibility or impossibility of miracles; the personality of man), and comes to this conclusion:

"In this rapid survey of the contact-points between science and religion it is apparent that the same relation between the two always holds. Where science and religion investigate common territory they do so from totally different standpoints. Religion is concerned with significance and purpose, while science is concerned with structure and mechanism. They, therefore give different accounts which are not mutually exclusive but complementary, and which, taken together, give a more nearly complete picture of the truth than either alone."

One A.S.A. member expressed concern over my discussion of the origin of life, saying that it sounded just like a materialist had written it. Of course it does, if it is trying to be a scientific account! If biology cannot be mechanistic, I cannot see how it can be a legitimate field for science. It may be that I do not fully appreciate the philosophical implications of a materialistic natural science, and it may also be that as a biochemist I am particularly conscious of the difficulties which have arisen from attributing biological phenomena to a non-physical "vital force"; at any rate, I would welcome further discussion of this problem.

With regard to the point raised by Prof. Bales about Oparin's fairness in facing the problem of the origin of life, reference should be made to my paper. I had quoted R. E. D. Clark (Darwin: Before and After) as saying that the problem had never been faced by a materialist, on whom falls the burden of explaining "how chemical molecules of gigantic complexity came into existence and have been able to arrange themselves in increasingly complicated ways," and added that I thought Oparin did face the problem fairly from a materialist viewpoint. He scrutinized the previously proposed theories of continuous spontaneous generation and of the continuity of life, and suggested possible mechanisms for a gradual transition from inanimate matter to living things on the basis of the small amount of empirical evidence available. Granted that Oparin's philos-ophical position may be atheistic, I do not think it follows that this philosophical commitment necessarily prevents 11im from an analysis of his own position, let alone of scientific theories, any more than my position as a committed Christian makes it impossible for me to make such critical judgments. I think Evangelicals should beware of implying that personal commitment makes it difficult for a person to be a good (i.e., objective) scientist. I am sure that many readers of this Journal have followed with interest the recent exchange of correspondence in Science and in Chemical Engineering News regarding the influence of religious conviction on the current competition for scientific achievement between the United States and the Soviet Union. Several correspondents suggested that the Soviet Union must inevitably win unless the United States could rid itself of its heritage of "supernaturalistic bias inimical to the development of materialistic science."

Must theism always be inimical to science? Surely not!

Walter R. Hearn
Department of Chemistry
Iowa State College, Ames, Iowa