Science in Christian Perspective



The Straw God of Stephen Gould
Raymond G. Boblin and Kerby Anderson

Probe Ministries
Dallas, Texas 75251

From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 42-44.

Most scientists are very familiar with the writing of Stephen Jay Gould. His monthly column in Natural History ranks him among the best of natural history writers, and his collection of these essays in Ever Since Darwin and Panda's Thumb have sold well as science books. Stephen Gould's face has graced the cover of Newsweek magazine, placing him in league with the few scientists who have become media stars (Carl Sagan being the most notable).

The skilled pen of Gould tackles subjects few other science writers would consider. Most recently, his writings have focused on the question of design in nature. How, he wonders, can Christians believe in the existence of a Designer when there is no true evidence of design? He is especially critical of creationists who use the argument from design to support their theories.

In his essay on "Organic Wisdom," Gould begins by noting that "Since man created God in his own image, the doctrine of special creation has never failed to explain those adaptations that we understand intuitively."1 The problem, says Gould, is that creationists neglect the role of natural selection in bringing about perfection. He feels that the presence of animals that are exquisitely designed for their appointed roles argues as easily for evolution as for creation. Gould therefore sets out to demolish certain arguments which "rank high in the arsenal of modern creationists."2

The Design Argument

The crux of Gould's attack is on the design argument. While not the most persuasive argument for the existence of God, it nevertheless is an appealing one. Experientially, we all are compelled by its logic. When we happen upon a constructed object that shows design (such as a building), do we not immediately conclude there was a designer? Thus, when we observe the world with its intricate designs, do we not have strong evidence for a Cosmic Designer?

An arrowhead, for example, found lying in a rock quarry, would immediately raise certain questions about its origins--questions different from those raised by the ordinary rocks. The rocks display beautiful patterns or design that point to geological processes. But the arrowhead is different. Although it is made from the same material as the ordinary rocks, its design shows that it was consciously formed for a specific purpose. Likewise, when Christians come upon living organisms with intricate designs and DNA chains composed of as many as six billion nucleotides, isn't this evidence of a Designer? Skeptics aren't so sure.

How do we know that what we call design isn't a result of intrinsic properties in nature? Can't other forces besides an intelligent Designer bring them about? How do we know whether there really is design inherent in nature? Perhaps the arrowhead is really only a chipped rock that someone learned to use as a too]. That would mean that it has no design or purpose-only the purpose we have given it by the way we use it. Similarly, the argument goes, perhaps we see in nature a design that isn't really there. These arc just a few questions that are left unanswered in discussions about the design argument. Thus, few are truly convinced by this argument alone.

Although the design argument is not compelling to many, Christians have used it if for no other reason than the fact that the Bible clearly states that the creation shows evidence of God. Psalm 19 begins by stating that "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Romans 1:20 states that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Clearly, the Bible states that God reveals Himself in the creation. We can see God's hand, even if we seen in a limited way. Gould, however, will have none of this and therefore rejects the proposition that nature reflects the action of a benevolent Creator-God.

Gould's Arguments Against A Creator-God

Stephen Gould's arguments against a Creator-God can be summarized into three basic arguments. First, Gould argues that imperfection is evidence of evolution. Mutation and natural selection do not necessarily result in the best form or mechanism, They merely give you one that works. He suggests that a Creator would not and could not create an imperfect world; He would have done better.

One example that Gould uses became the title of his book: Panda's Thumb. The panda, unlike our North American bears, possesses a thumb that it uses to strip bamboo leaves off the shoots. This thumb is actually an extra digit made by the extension of the radial sesamoid bone in the wrist. Because this is not the typical way a thumb is formed, Gould concludes that, "the panda must use parts on hand.... The sesamoid thumb wins no prize in an engineer's derby" but is the best solution evolution can find since the "true thumb is committed to another role."' Gould therefore argues that this imperfect solution shows evolution at work, not a Creator.

Second, he argues that the useless, the odd, and the peculiar adaptation speak of evolutionary history. Gould says "you cannot demonstrate evolution with perfection because perfection need not have a history.... But, Darwin reasoned, if organisms have a history, then ancestral stages should leave remnants behind. Remnants of the past don't make sense in present terms-the useless, the odd, the peculiar, the incongruous-are signs of history."4

Yet if God exists, Gould argues, He would have used more efficient or conventional methods rather than odd and peculiar mechanisms. For example, he reminds us that Charles Darwin wrote an entire book on the subject of orchids in order to show that their fertilization structures must have evolved from parts used by their ancestors for other purposes. Gould concludes that "Orchids are Rube Goldberg machines; a perfect engineer would certainly have come up with something better."5

Third, he says that cruelty in nature argues against the idea of a benevolent God. In his Natural History column, Gould cites William Buckland's (England's first official academic geologist) discussion of natural theology. Buckland wondered, "if God is benevolent and the Creation displays his 'power, wisdom and goodness,' then why are we surrounded with pain, suffering, and apparently senseless cruelty in the animal world?"6 Gould gleefully states that Buckland's only answer was to argue that God used carnivores to prevent further pain and senility by swiftly killing their prey and thereby sparing them of their inevitable fate.

Analysis of Gould's Arguments

In looking at these arguments by Gould, it is fairly easy to see the "straw man" nature of them. He creates his own "straw god" and then pulls him apart. Gould's first argument-that imperfection implies evolution, not a Creator-makes sense only if you reject the doctrine of the Fall. The Bible teaches that God created this world as ,'very good" (Gen. 1:3 1), but it subsequently fell into corruption and decay (Gen. 3:17-18, Rom. 8:19-22). Gould makes the error of looking at the present world and assuming that this is exactly what God created.

Gould is correct in assuming that imperfection can be evidence of random processes (i.e., mutations) but he limits the possibilities merely to that option, A perfect world that now "groans in travail" (Rom. 8:22) will also show a marked degree of imperfection. The creation was subjected to futility due to man's sin. The god Gould destroys is of his own creation. The true God-transcendent and eternal-cannot be destroyed by anything in the universe, much less by the arguments of a single scientist.

Further, Gould's god is not allowed to function through process. We know that the fertilization structures of orchids were divinely created; even so, it is possible that these have varied somewhat from their original design. The concept of God is not invalidated by events of natural selection or even speciation.

A good example is the wingless beetle Darwin discovered on Madeira Island in the Pacific, This beetle undoubtably once had wings that were lost by a degenerative mutation. In this case, the mutation was an advantage because Madeira is very windy. Beetles with wings get blown off the island and drown. Beetles with no wings stay on the ground and live. However, we must point out that even though this degenerative mutation was good for the beetles, it was still an instance of decay. Animals may lose certain organs to adapt to their surroundings, but we do not see them growing new ones.

When Gould argues (along with Darwin) that the useless, odd, peculiar, etc. are evolutionary remnants of history, he is questionbegging. By the very use of the word remnant, he assumes that adaptations like the Panda's thumb are simply by-products of the trial and error learning process of evolution. The fallacy here is that anything odd and peculiar appears to Gould as a remnant of history when in reality, an odd phenomenon may be a result of the Fall. A peculiarity of nature may represent the wisdom of God that we cannot grasp from our finite viewpoint. Had we His view of things, it might not seem peculiar at all. Oddly enough, Gould, who never claimed personal knowledge of God, does claim to have a phenomenal understanding of His ways by stating He would never create, say, a Panda's thumb. Few theologians would venture such imprudence of predicting what God will or will not do.

Gould is also incorrect when he implies that cruelty in nature argues against a benevolent God. Gould's citation of Buckland is of no help in this regard. Buckland sought to find God's benevolence in nature's cruelty. Although the creation shows His power and majesty (Rom. 1), it predominantly reveals the effects of sin. Cruelty in nature does not argue against God. Instead, it argues for the Fall. We err if we do not place the Fall as a real event in history.

One of the most interesting comments by Gould is his statement that perfection argues for both creation and evolution. While we can easily see how an omniscient, omnipotent creator can account for perfection, how can random mutations (biological mistakes) coupled with natural selection achieve perfection? This is, at best, difficult to demonstrate.

What is even more interesting is that Gould invests the process of nature with Divine attributes. Not only does nature evidence imperfection, but it also produces perfection indistinguishable from what one would expect from a Creator. Gould finds no difficulty in having his evolutionary cake and eating it too.

The recognition of beauty and order indicating intelligent design is inherent within man. Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos uses the same thought process to explain why many believed intelligent life might be present on Mars. From a distance, the geometrical patterns of the canals on Mars suggested they may have been constructed by intelligent beings. But as we got closer and our focus got sharper, what appeared to be patterns faded into randomness. By contrast, as one draws closer to earth from space, the ambiguous outline of continents gives way to precise geometrical patterns of roads, highways, farmlands, etc. We see squares, triangles, straight lines, and circles. As Sagan says, "These are, in fact, the engineering artifacts of intelligent beings."' Likewise, the closer we look at living systems, the clearer the indication of intelligent design: not only geometrical patterns but informational codes that are contained in DNA.

God and Man at Harvard

It seems that this Harvard professor has created a god with whom he is comfortable. In the Arkansas creation trial, Gould said that "evolutionary theory functions either with or without a creator, so long as the creator works by natural laws." In other words, god can exist if He doesn't use miracles.

The straw god of Stephen Gould is really no god at all; only nature with a capital "N." There is no way to distinguish between the two. Gould first creates a god that can easily be destroyed. Then Gould creates one he can easily live with. In essence, Gould will not allow God to be God. The god of Stephen Jay Gould is not the God of the Bible but rather a poor facsimile from Gould's fertile imagination.

The God of the Bible exercises sovereign choice. In fact, as created beings we can investigate His world and take joy in the intricacies of His work, but we really do not have the right nor the wisdom to question God's judgment in life or in creation.

But who are you, 0 man, to talk God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for nobie purposes and some for common use? Romans 9:20-21.

As Christians we often become frustrated at the evolutionist's lack of recognition of design in nature. It appears so obvious to us; why don't they see it as well? We must remember that our perspective is different. The purely naturalistic evolutionist does not see God in nature because he has rejected Him. His world view is different. All is matter and energy. There is neither need nor room for God in his universe. The Christian world view on the other hand recognizes that "For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things have been created through Him and for Him" (Col. 1:16).


1Stephen Jay Gould, "Organic Wisdom, or Why Should a Fly Eat Its Mother From Inside" in Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (New York, W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 91.

2Gould, "The Problem of Perfection, or How Can a Clam Mount a Fish on Its Rear End?" in Darwin, p. 104.

3Gould, "The Panda's Thumb," in The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), p. 25.

4Gould, "Senseless Signs of History," in Panda's Thumb, p. 28. 


6Gould, "Nonmoral Nature," Natural History, February 1982, p. 19. 

7Carl Sagan, Cosmos (NY: Random House, 1980), pp. 111-2.