Science in Christian Perspective


The Doctrine of Special Creation Part I. The Design Argument
Department of Natural Science 
Loyola University of Chicago 
Chicago, Illinois 60611


From: JASA 27 (March 1975): 8-11.
A slightly revised reprint from the April and May 1972 American Biology Teacher, this article will appear in four parts during 1975.

This study examines the anti-evolutionary views that are promulgated in the high school biology text recently published by the Creation Research Society. Three main features of the doctrine of special creation-the design argument, catastrophism, and the ideal type-are examined in a historical context. It is argued that this creationist model, here distinguished from the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of creation, is essentially non-Biblical in character.
The creationist model in the textbook is very similar to the interpretation of similarity and variability that prevailed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Moreover, with its emphasis on fixitij, creationism represents in large measure an extension of Greek philosophy. It was part of the biology that, until the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, was strongly influenced by the thought of Plato and Aristotle. By contrast, the them,, of evolution could only arise where, in the West, the antecedent ideas of progress, origin, linear time, and future fulfillment were part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation and the theory of evolution may be complementary, but they can never he alternative views of organic nature.

The handsome textbook Biology: a Search for Order in Complexity (Moore and Slusher, eds., 1970) will startle all ASA members who have been taking the teaching of evolution for granted. (See other reviews in the American Biology Teacher 33 [71: 438-442; and Journal ASA 23 [4]: 150-152.) The authors assert that 'special creation is as reasonable and scientific an account of origins as the theory of evolution and that it should he given equal time in high school biology classes. This book therefore raises anew the entire question between religion and science.

Actually, the special-creation doctrine, as presented in this textbook, is quite old. It was widely held during the first half of the 19th century. In order to assess the implications of the doctrine for our time-whether we agree or disagree-we need to see what it was in the past. The antecedent views will be discussed in the course of examining the doctrine's main points.

The Book and Its Sponsors 

This book was produced by the Creation Research Society, which holds that "science should he realigned within the framework of Biblical creationism, according to a recent CBS leaflet.

Although the CBS textbook is attractive, its publication has disipleased those who had hoped the evolution controversy was at last over in American education. The care and expense that have been invested in this apologia for a 19th-century view are astonishing: 20 writers, all with graduate degrees many in the sciences), contributed to its development, Yet although the hook is an anachronism, it may he welcomed by some church-related schools and by school hoard members who are worried about atheism among the voting. And there may even he readers of this journal to whom the arguments may appeal as an alternative to the theory of evolution. They may say to themselves: surely if so many qualified people-not a preacher in the lot-have gone to all this trouble, there most he something to what they say. Thus, this book may well rekindle an old controversy.

If so, let us hope that decorum may prevail. In the history of biology, different investigators often have interpreted the same data from opposite points of view. Those investigators who argued with calm, goodwill, and reason, now seem the more dignified, even though their interpretations were later replaced. By contrast, those who resorted to invective and exaggeration, even when in the right, in retrospect seem only entertaining. In any case, let us be calm.

We have here a splendid opportunity to note the strong historical antecedents of the "special creation" doctrine-stronger, perhaps, than the authors imagine. What, after all, is "creationism? May it be viewed as a scientific theory, as distinguished from a theologic doctrine? We may also appreciate the complex factors involved in resistance to change.
The older high school biology textbooks differed widely from the approach ushered in by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in 1960. The CRS text carries a strong resemblance to the former; that is, biology is presented as an established body of knowledge rather than a method of inquiry into organic nature. Nor dues the book reflect the major innovations in teaching methods-process and inquiry-that revolutionized high school biology in the 1960s an( are now penetrating the new elementary-school science curricula.

Nevertheless, except for the sections on creationism and on evolution, together with certain factual errors and questionable emphases, the book is a well-organized source of information on what is traditionally called biology. Moreover, the authors have achieved a style that writers of texts may well envy. It is interesting to read.
The major arguments for creationism appear for the most part in unit 9, "Theories of Biological Change," and this section is read first by those who want to know what the fuss is all about. Elsewhere the authors' views obtrude from time to time; some of these passages I shall examine below.

Pages 3-13, on the scientific method, is a thoughtful introduction to the text. But how would the authors document the view on p. 9 (reasserted on pp. 4, 12, 61) that "the Greeks did no extensive experimentation because of a prejudice against work? Can they be referring to Galen, whose vivisection experiments, as described in his Natural Faculties (book 2) and Anatomical Procedures (books 7, 12, 14), were far reaching in their impact on later biology? Contempt for manual labor does not necessarily imply disregard for experiments. That the Greeks placed less emphasis on experiments, in the sense in which we use the term, has more to do with the questions they asked of nature than with any notion that experimentation was "degrading work," as we are told on p. 4. Moreover the Greeks did not find regularity and pattern in nature "through a study of cause and effect relationships" (p. 12). Their scientific method-as represented, for example, in Aristotle's Generation of Animals (book 1) and Parts of Animals (book 1) -was quite different 

What is "creationism"? May it be viewed as a scientific theory, as distinguished from a theologic doctrine?

from the modern scientific method, now associated with the phrase "cause and effect," that began to emerge during the Renaissance.

This section on zoology deals with animals "with backbones" and "without backbones"-a surprising division, in view of the creationist presuppositions. This was the division made by Jean Baptiste Lamarek (1744-1829), who was an "evolutionist.

                                                                THE DESIGN ARGUMENT

In at least nine passages the CRS authors assert that providential design may he discerned in nature. Examples are the purpose of the Creator as observed in the direction of plant growth (p. 12) ; the apparently purposive behavior of the amoeba (p. 65); the variability of flowers, birds, songs, and animal behavior (p. 147); the taxonomic categories of plants (p. 183); the marvels of human vision (p. 281, 443); the sexual reproduction of bacteria and the life cycles of algae (p. 173-174, 396); and particular adaptations of plants and animals (p. 476). 

Because teleology is anathema to modern biology, these passages will be taken as marks of an unscientific attitude. In the context of the book, however, the authors do not argue that design is always a substitute for scientific research or a full explanation of biologic phenomena. They do include a considerable fund of chemic, physiologic, and genetic information concerning organic processes that once were given a teleologic explanation. Nevertheless, their teleologic passages perhaps represent the core of the long controversy over special creation. They illustrate why it is so easy to misunderstand the theologic problem of design in nature. High school students may now conclude that if God created Spirogyra with its own special life-cycle (p. 396), then natural processes did not, for the two interpretations are mutually exclusive.

Definition of Design

These passages express the traditional view of design, which implies that the end precedes the means. According to this view, the preordained end is executed in the form of a structure or process by (i) an immaterial agency-that is, some vitalistic force residing in the organism; or (ii) an intelligence, or God, external to the organism, as therefore an expression of divine providence. The CBS authors advocate the latter version. In the former version, and sometimes in the latter, the importance of secondary causation is reduced. (Vitalists are not necessarily theists, and vice versa.) Design is often suggested when the observer experiences a feeling of wonder as he contemplates the exquisite and intricate character of a particular adaptation.

The design argument is even older and more prestigious than the doctrine of special creation. For example, the vitalistie version is a unifying theme in Galen's On the Usefulness of the Pans of the Body, in which he approved the Aristotelian view that "nature does nothing in vain (May, 1968, II, p. 501). Galaeo argued that the forethought exhibited by the skillful way in which the structures of the eye are joined together sorely expresses the "wisdom of the Creator," which he ascribed never to an external intelligence, for he was not a theist in the usual sense, but sometimes to a beneficent "Nature" (May 1968, II, p. 463-502). Modern biology has rendered unnecessary this vitalistic version of design, but it cannot rule out divine providence, as Darwin recognized in his own discussion of the eye (Origin, 1st ed., p. 188, 189).
But to affirm that biology cannot rule out divine providence is not the same as saying, as the CRS authors seem to say, that providential design is an a posteriori conclusion one draws from observing events in nature. We do not observe design in nature. Rather, our minds seem to he so constructed that we can perceive regularities to which, if we have religious presuppositions, we apply the concept of design. Furthermore, to make of design a biologic principle, as in these passages in the CBS book, is to reduce the need to interpret biologic processes as precursors of the adaptation that evokes wonder. Modern biology is then in jeopardy. The CBS position must lead inevitably to the view (although the authors do not go this far) that biologic processes cannot express cause-and-effect relationships; that is, they must he merely a series of discrete and unrelated events. If design is a sufficient and exclusive explanation of how an amoeba moves (p. 65), then it is all right to study its environmental conditions but we can never be sure that they are causal agencies that influence such behavior.

By contrast, biology cannot say that such causal agencies, whether operating within the lifespan of a single organism or joining together many different organisms over long periods of time, as in evolution, do not themselves, from the theologie point-of-view, represent the expression of divine providence in design. While the CBS authors reject the latter-the evolutionary process-their position cannot sustain the former, as they hope, because they apparently hold that the argument for design is a posteriori. That is, they argue from observed effects to design, a wholly conjectural procedure that can never be theologically satisfying.

The question of design worried Asa Gray (181088), the American friend of Charles Darwin (1809-82), even more than did the new questions concerning the Genesis account of creation. When he found out, in 1857, what Darwin was up to (F. Darwin, 1887, I, p. 477-482), he hurried off a letter to ask whether natural selection were now to become a substitute for divine providence. Darwin assured him that natural selection was not such an agent; it only described various actions in nature, much as a geologist uses the term "denudation" (F. Darwin, 1903, I, p. 126; Dupree, 1968, p. 247; Greene, 1961, p. 296, 297). If design were to explain variation, Darwin went on, then the number and direction of Fantail feathers would have been created to suit some pigeon-fancier (F. Darwin, 1887, II, p. 146).


There was a striking parallel in the 1860s between the religious objections first raised against natural selection and those formerly raised against the idea of gravity, which was feared in the time of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) as unfriendly to religion. Gray saw at once the parallel between Darwin and Newton but had to agree, in his review of the Origin, that gravity was no longer a religious question concerning design (Dupree, 1963, p. 44).

In this respect the CBS authors apparently are not worried about any threat to theism posed by a physical agency. It may he pertinent to inquire why. If natural selection, which is a biologic process, is a threat to theism, why should not gravity, a physical process, also he considered a threat, particularly since it is more universal in its applications? After all, if gravity holds the planets in orbit, then the Almighty is not on the job. Why not simply say that Mars was "designed" to travel in an elliptical orbit?

Darwin pointed out in the first edition of his Origin that using the term "design" is not an explanation but a restatement of the fact (p. 185, 186, 452). lie wondered whether those who argued for special creation really believed that at "innumerable periods in the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissue" (p. 483). Darwin was trying to suggest that merely using the term "design," however appropriate it might be as an expression of faith, leaves unanswered the question of method. In the third edition (Ch. 4) he complained that, since no one objected to gravity, his critics should not erroneously interpret natural selection as an "active power or Deity."

Gray soon came to terms with Darwin and became one of his staunchest supporters. He maintained his religious orthodoxy, although the question of design continued to fascinate him. He examined in depth this most complex question in two essays-"Design versus Necessity" and "Natural Selection and Natural Theology"-in which he seemed to conclude that Darwin had eliminated only an inherent, finalistic version of the design argument (Dupree, 1963). This argument states that it is possible for us to observe in nature the only, the final, and the ultimate purpose of the Creator, such as beauty in flowers. In other words, one could just look at a plant and decide what the Almighty had in mind. moreover, this purpose is the essence and meaning of each organism and structure. If so, then what Darwin had done was to eliminate from biology not the Biblical view of divine providence but Aristotelian final causation as a sufficient and exclusive explanation of biologic events.

We do not observe design in nature. Our minds seem to be so constructed that we can perceive regularities to which, if we have religious presuppositions, we apply the concept of design.

Value of Religious Thought

While teleology may he at times a useful and even a necessary accompaniment of a full interpretation of a biologic event, it cannot be, as the CBS implies, a sufficient condition for such an explanation. Today we try to eliminate teleology from a scientific description of a biologic event. But we should not gainsay the power of the design argument in the history of biology, even though it is fashionable in our age to ignore the contributions that religious ideas have made to science in the past. We are more aware of how biology has changed religion (Greene, 1963). Beginning in the 17th century and continuing as late as the opening decades of the 19th century a strong trend in biology, with prominent themes from the Greek past, saw the study of the handiwork of God as a religious responsibility. The works of the Rev. John Ray (1627-1705), the Rev. William Paley (1743-1805), and the Rev. William Buckland (1784-1856) are prototypes of this trend. Whatever its negative aspects-the strong tendency to propaganda and the dubious analogy between nature and revelation-it was an energizing force that helped to set in motion the scientific enterprise.

When we interpret animal behavior in terms of design (p. 147) we may only be following a habit we have inherited from Aristotle And when we add that an animal behaves in such and such a way so as to fulfill the Creator's wish we are imposing on nature an a priori view we have derived from religion. Both are legitimate expressions of the sensitive mind.

Let us give the ancients their due. They remind us that the model of nature put together by modern science may not represent ultimate reality. But we must render to science, also, its due, which is to determine the material connections among contingent events. The trick is to disentangle these components Aristotelian, religious, and scientific; but this, I think, has not been done in the context of the CRS text. I question whether religious truth is served by implying that anthropomorphic final causes, themselves Aristotelian in conceptual origin, may he observed in the

If natural selection, which is a biologic process, is a threat to theism, why should not gravity, a physical process, also be considered a threat?

operations of nature.

                                                                               (To he continued)


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