Science in Christian Perspective
What Christians Should Think
KENNETH W. KEMP
Department of Philosophy
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX
From: PSCF 40 (December 1988): 223-228.
This article is part of a search for a modus vivendi between evolutionary scientists and those Christians who oppose it on theological grounds. I believe that this modus vivendi does not include the current "creation science" program. The argument has three parts.
My first claim is that even a Christian who accepts the principle of literalism in interpretation does not thereby have a sufficient reason to be sympathetic to creation science as it is currently practiced.
My second argument is that the view of science which the creation scientists use in their critique of evolution is flawed, and that creation science, despite what is sometimes claimed by its friends, does not have good scientific credentials.
Third, I reject the claim that evolutionary science is, in any sense, a new or non-Christian religion.
Not long ago, I published an article titled "Discussing Creation Science."1 One of my arguments in that article was that widely held beliefs should not simply be ignored. In this article, I want to do what I can to make that argument obsolete. My thesis here is that Christians, even biblical literalists, have good reason to reject creation science. In defense of this thesis, I want to discuss, in turn, three questions: (1) Does evolution contradict the Bible?, (2) Is evolution good science?, and (3) Is evolution a religion?
Does Evolution Contradict the Bible? The Theological Case Against Creation Science
Let us begin by separating two questions which are fundamentally different from one another, but are often confused. These two questions are: (1) How did the world (i.e., the universe) get to be here at all?, and (2) How did it get to be the way it is?
With respect to the first question, the Christian answer is fairly clear-the world was created by God. This claim, along with the claim that God is our Father, forms the opening sentence of the Apostles' Creed. The doctrine is usually understood to include the following points2:
(1) That God made all things.
(2) That He made them from nothing.
(3) That He did so at the beginning of time.
In other words, all orthodox Christians are creationists-they reject such alternatives as the eternity of the world (the answer of Aristotle, among others) and spontaneous exnihilation. But this is fundamentally a metaphysical or theological question; it is not a scientific question, and does not admit of a scientific answer.3
The second question is very different from the first. It is a scientific question, in the sense that it can be subjected to empirical inquiry, and we can come up with more or less plausible answers on the basis of natural reason and ordinary experience. The logically possible answers to this second question include that the world always existed in more or less its present state (Aristotle, again) and that it developed into its present state from earlier, and in some sense simpler, states. It is on this question that modern evolutionary science and contemporary creation science differ.
The importance of distinguishing these two questions cannot be overemphasized. The taxonomy of possible responses to them, which is most commonly found in recent creation science literature, confuses the two questions by suggesting that the two basic positions in the current controversy are creationism and evolutionism. They do concede that there are "theistic evolutionists" as well, but usually insist that these are just a type of evolutionist. Henry Morris, for example, at one point referred to these middle-ground positions as "a quicksand of pseudo-creationist evolutionism,"4 and elsewhere said that, after the Scopes trial , multitudes of nominal Christians capitulated to theistic evolution, and even those who retained their belief in creation retreated from the area of conflict. . . . "5
Modern evolutionary scientists have done their part to further the confusion. Frustrated at creation scientists' attempts to pass their work off as good science, they balk at using the term "creation science" at all and usually refer simply to "creationism."
But creation and evolution are not even answers to the same questions. All mainline Christians are creationists, as I suggested earlier. Many are evolutionary creationists. Those who call themselves "creation scientists" might better be called static creationists,6 though one could be a static creationist without being a scientific creationist, a distinction which I will make clearer presently.7
Is there good reason to be a static creationist? Two kinds of reason are commonly offered-theological arguments (based on the alleged content of divine revelation) and scientific arguments (based on observation of the natural world). Let us first consider the possibility of theological arguments for static creationism.
There are, of course, Christians who assert that the Bible does have something to say about how the world got to be the way it is. But let us be clear about bow much one has to accept in the way of bermeneutical premises before one could assert static creationism on the basis of theological argument. Defenders of the thesis often emphasize their adherence to the principles of inspiration or inerrancy, but these are clearly not enough. The former might be characterized as maintaining that:
The books of both the Old and New Testament ... [were] written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit [and] have God as their author.8
And the latter that:
The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching ... without error that truth which God wanted to put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.9
Any attempt to get static creationism out of the Bible requires something stronger than either of these claims, something like:
When all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences.10
Or even, given the term "correctly interpreted" still needs spelling out:
The Bible is to be interpreted with strict exactness of word and meaning ... by focussing upon the author's words in their plain, most obvious sense.... There is no room for special consideration for figurative literary forms such as poetry or metaphor.11
There are, of course, Christians who accept this strongest claim. The Creation Research Society, for example, maintains an institutional commitment to the claim that "all of [the Bible's] assertions are historically and scientifically true in all of the original autographs ... [and] that the account of origins in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths."12 1 must confess that I am impressed with the insight into Scripture available from (and to) those who do not accept this last principles.13 Literalists, I fear, are in danger of doing to the Bible just what "the American woman" did to Macbeth in James Thurber's sketch, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery."14 In that piece, the woman tries to read Macbeth as a whodunit. She asks all the wrong questions, and ends up entirely missing the point. But I do not want to argue that literalism is false here. For to argue only that Christians should not be literalists and that, having given up literalism, they should abandon static creationism as well would not be to say anything particularly profound.
What I want to argue here is rather that there is a difference between static creationism15 and creation science and that, though literalists may feel themselves to be committed by the logic of their position to the former, they are by no means committed to the latter. In other words, even literalists (1) need not, and (2) should not associate themselves with creation science.
Given the appropriateness of literalism as a principle of biblical interpretation, there is nothing unreasonable about accepting static creationism. Scientific arguments lead at best to the probable truth of their conclusions. If one had the word of God that the contrary were true, it would indeed be irrational to prefer the merely probable scientific argument to the overwhelming appeal to a reliable authority.
All orthodox Christians are creationists . . .
But creation science does not assert merely that static creationism is true. The whole point of calling it "creation science" is to emphasize the claim that this work is centered on "the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences." And whatever the Bible may say about bow the world was created, it surely does not say anything about whether we ever had, now have, or ever will have scientific (i.e., empirical) evidence of how this creation occurred.
And whatever the Bible may say about how the world was created, it surely does not say anything about whether we ever had, now have, or ever will have scientific (i.e., empirical) evidence of how this creation occurred.
Literalism, then, is silent about whether the arguments of the creation scientists are good ones. To answer that question we need to look at the scientific evidence.
Is Evolution Good Science? The Scientific Case Against Creation Science
The scientific problems with creation science can be divided into two parts-problems with their critique of evolution and problems with their constructive case for static creationism.
The creation science critique of evolution suffers from three problems. First, many creation scientists do not seem to understand evolutionary science. Evolution is, in one sense, not so much a particular theory as it is an approach to questions (note the plural) of origins. Since there are a number of distinct questions of origins that might arise (about the central features of the universe or of the solar system, about life, about the diversity of species, or even about the diversity of human languages), there are a number of distinct, supplementary, and even logically independent evolutionary theories. Evolutionary biology, for example, has nothing to say about the origin of life. It was developed in answer to the quite distinct question of the origin of (i.e., the diversity of) species, as Darwin's title indicates. The question of the origin of life is the subject of another evolutionary theory, one on which, though much work has been done, much remains still to do.16 Much of the creation science critique of evolution suffers from the unwillingness of the critics to sort these theories out.
That they do not understand particular evolutionary theories is also clear. Henry Morris, for example, argues that discovery of the coelacanth posed a serious problem for Darwinian theories of evolution:
The chief candidate for such a transitional form [sc., between fishes and amphibians] was long supposed to have been the coelacanth.... The coelacanth was believed to have finished this transition sometime in the Mesozoic.... Evolutionists were embarrassed when it was discovered in 1938 that these fishes are still alive and well, living in the waters near Madagascar.17
But discovery of the coelacanth presents no problem for Darwinism. Morris overlooks the fact that Darwinian evolution suggests the diversification of species by branching-at one point in their history, some coelacanths, under environmental pressure, diverged from the hitherto prevalent form. These coelacanths became amphibians, while others, not subjected to the same environmental pressures, remained in the pretransitional state. Similarly, Walter T. Brown argues that "Natural selection cannot produce new genes; it only selects among preexisting characteristics," which is true enough, but irrelevant, as no modern evolutionary theory denies this.18 Unfortunately, these misunderstandings are not isolated cases; they are typical of what one can find in creation science literature.
There are a number of distinct, supplementary, and even logically independent evolutionary theories.
Second, creation scientists tend to misrepresent the character of disputes among evolutionary theorists. There is, for example, currently a dispute over whether the evolution of species occurs at a steady rate over time. Some paleontologists argue that biological equilibria are punctuated by (geologically) brief periods of fairly rapid change. Many biologists deny this. Somehow many of the defenders of punctuationalism have found their conclusions cited by creation scientists as though they denied the fact of evolution, when in fact they have only challenged certain details of how evolution occurs.
Third, creation scientists seem to misunderstand the force of anomalous facts, those that cannot readily be explained by the current theory. Though, of course, in some sense scientists should be (and are in fact) disturbed by facts that seem inconsistent with theory, such facts never have, and indeed should not, be taken as requiring immediate abandonment of the theory. Newton's theory of gravitation was never completely successful in predicting the locations of the planets, First it was the orbit of the moon that created the problems. By the time that was solved, Uranus had been discovered, and its orbit remained seriously anomalous until the discovery of Neptune. In the mid-nineteenth century the problem was Mercury, whose orbit was only reconciled with theory on Einstein's development of the general theory of relativity. Even now, there remain problems with the orbits of the outer planets. To adapt a phrase from Imre Lakatos, theories not only come to birth, but they lead their lives, in a sea of anomalies. Theories must be judged then, not on the basis of whether they are free of any anomalous facts, but on the basis of whether they continue to make progress in the solution of the problems that face them, and whether they tend to lead to new insights into the natural world. Evolutionary theories have a good track record here; creation science does not. indeed, creation science literature rarely contains more than (often misguided) criticisms of evolution.
The main thrust of the constructive case for static creationism is based on combining the critique of evolution discussed above with the assertion that the static creationist account of origins and (implicitly non-theistic) evolution are the only alternatives.19 But clearly these do not exhaust the possibilities. Critiques of evolution, even if they were decisive, would not help us decide between the creation scientists' static model and others (say, the Aristotelian one, in which the world has not evolved, but was not created either).
And as for positive evidence in favor of a static world (or a young world, or a worldwide flood), there is very little to be had. Some of the more candid of the creation scientists tacitly admit this.20 They emphasize the kind of work that remains to be done. But in general it can be said that creation science is very different from ordinary science. Unlike evolutionary scientists, creation scientists do not accept their theory on the basis of its broad explanatory power. They do not make any efforts to extend its scope or deepen its reach. They do not take their theory's problems seriously. Their work does not lead to new discoveries. Rather, they spend their time and effort fighting a rear-guard action against evolutionary theories.
Theories must be judged ... on the basis of whether they continue to make progress in the solution of the problems that face them.
Much more could of course be said on this question. Indeed, the literature is already extensive. 21 Literalism might lead its adherents to hope that science will someday uncover evidence of a static world, but in the interim literalists should take care to avoid any rash claims about what evidence is already to hand. As St. Augustine writes:
[If those who are not bound by the authority of the Scriptures] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him base foolish opinions on the Scriptures, how are they going to believe the Scriptures regarding the resurrection of the dead ... when they think that the pages of Scripture are full of falsehoods regarding facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and light of reason?22
A full appreciation of this point might indeed tell against static creationism itself. But even those whose understanding of the Bible commits them to static creationism can lessen the scandal by acknowledging the tension between their theological beliefs and contemporary science. They do nothing for the cause of Christianity by pretending to have scientific arguments when they do not.
Is Evolution a Religion?
Evolution is often presented by its opponents as though it were an alternative to the Christian religion. Henry Morris, for example, defined evolutionism as "worshipping the forces and systems of nature instead of their Creator,"23 and once wrote that:
The issue of Biblical creationism is the most urgent issue confronting Christianity today. The evolutionary system is at the root of most of the spiritual and moral problems that have arisen to hinder the gospel and its proclamation today.24
And Duane Gish says, "creationists have repeatedly stated that neither creation nor evolution is a scientific theory (and each is equally religious)."25
The criterion of religion on which Gish seems to be relying is that evolution rests on assumptions that cannot be proven. If by "unproven" Gish means "not deducible from premises known to be true," then he is right that evolution rest on unproven assumptions. But then so does all of the rest of science, and so probably do most of our everyday beliefs as well. But if by "unproven" he means only "untested," as would be more appropriate in a discussion of scientific knowledge, then it is just not the case that evolutionary theories are unproven.
But unprovenness is in any case not the test of whether a belief is a religious one. A better understanding of religion can be found in a list of "religion-making characteristics" offered by William Alston.26 He suggested that religion is characterized by the following kinds of things:
1. A belief in supernatural beings;
2. A distinction between sacred & profane objects;
3. Ritual acts focussed on sacred objects;
4. A moral code with supernatural sanction;
5. Religious feelings (e.g., awe) aroused by sacred objects or ritual;
7. A view of the world as a whole and the individual's place in it;
8. Organization of one's life based on that world view;
9. A social group bound together by these traits.
Do these features characterize evolutionary science? It seems clear to me that they do not. Some people might, of course, try to make a religion centered on evolution, as Carl Sagan seems almost wont to do for science in general, but that is not an essential feature of evolutionary biology, and it is certainly not a feature of evolutionary theories of explanation as they are understood and accepted by most natural scientists. Although some atheists may have turned to evolution as a basis for an account of man's place in the world (criterion #7), many Christians have been equally able to incorporate evolutionary insights into a very Christian view of the world.27 Indeed, Charles Kingsley, an Anglican theologian contemporary with Darwin, wrote in a letter:
I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.28
[Creation scientists] spend their time and efforts fighting a rear-guard action against evolutionary theories.
Let us briefly summarize the points made. Evolution and creation do not answer the same questions. Although all Christians are committed to creation (I want to say creationism, but at this point the confusion that would create is unavoidable), only biblical literalists are committed to the static world, young world, and other core beliefs of creation science. Even literalists have no theological warrant for believing that there is good scientific evidence for these beliefs and, therefore, have no reason to embrace creation science.
Some form of evolutionary theory is the best scientific account of the origins of the main features of the universe, of the diversity of species, etc., though that does not, of course, guarantee that evolutionary theories are correct. But at this point, creation science is not a viable alternative. It has not offered a serious critique of evolutionary theories, and it has not done any of the constructive work that is incumbent on any theory aspiring to scientific status.
Finally, evolution is not and does not claim to be a religious alternative to Christianity. It is a scientific theory (or, more precisely, a cluster of independent theories answering diverse questions, but united by a common pattern), and that is all. It could be wrong (though at this point there is no non-literalist reason to believe that it is), but it is not dangerous. There are many important battles for Christians to fight, but, even for literalists, a battle again evolution is not one of them.
Kenneth Kemp is currently a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. He wrote this article while teaching at the United States Air Force Academy. He has degrees from Georgetown University, The University of Texas at Austin, St. john's College, and the University of Notre Dame. His research interests include the history of the idea of evolution and the relation between science and religion.
1The American Biology Teacher 50 (1988): 78-81.
2See, for example, St. Thomas' account in the Summa Theologiae, la 11ae, Qq. 44-46.
3Even a world which, in James Hutton's phrase, shows "no vestige of a beginning,-no prospect of an end," would not necessarily be a world without a beginning.
4Henry M. Morris, History of Modern Creationism (San Diego: Master Books, 1984), p. 197.
5Ibid., p. 67.
6Actually, this term does not capture the full set of views which characterize creation science. For, if the definitions offered by the Arkansas and Louisiana creation science laws are to be considered authoritative, creation science is equally characterized by at least three other theses: namely, (1) a recent creation, (2) a creation that took only seven days, and (3) a worldwide flood. It is important to note that these are independent theses.
7Creation scientists make this same distinction. See, for example, Morris, op. cit., pp. 362-365.
8Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Vebum)" 3:11. Reprinted in Walter M. Abbott (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966).
10P.D. Feinberg, "Bible, inerrancy and Infallibility of," in Walter A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984).
11Adapted from J. J. Scott, Jr. "Literalism." In Elwell op. cit.
12Morris, op. cit., p. 339.
13Conrad Hyers'interpretation of Genesis 1 (in "Biblical Literalism: Constructing the Cosmic Dance," in Roland Mushat Frye (ed.), Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation Science (New York: Scribers, 1983), pp. 95-104, but especially pp. 101-102) is an especially good example for precisely the text at the heart of the current controversy.
14Reprinted in The Thurber Carnival (New York: Random House, 1957).
15I take this term, for the sake of simplicity but at the expense of precision, to include the Young World Thesis and Flood Geology.
16For an introduction to this work, see Richard E. Dickerson, "Chemical Evolution & the Origin of Life," Scientific American (September 1978); or Sidney W. Fox, "Creationism & Evolutionary Protobiogenesis," in Ashley Montagu (ed.), Science & Creationism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
17In Scientific Creationism (general edition) (San Diego: Creation-Life, 1974), pp. 82-83.
18The Scientific Case for Creation: 108 Categories of Evidence," In J. Peter Zetterberg (ed.), Evolution vs. Creationism: The Public School Controversy (Phoenix: Oryx, 1983). To be sure, Brown does later discuss mutations, which, according to the theory, do produce "new" genes, but his discussion of mutations is as flawed as is his discussion of natural selection.
19See, for example, Morris' comment that "if for whatever reasons, [men] did not want to believe God's revelation of special creation, then the only alternative was evolution" (History, p. 18).
20E.g., Wayne Frair & Percival Davis, A Case for Creation (Chicago: Moody, 1983).
21See for example, Laurie R. Godfrey (ed.), Scientists confront creationism (New York: Norton, 1983); Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982); Ashley Montagu (ed.), Science & Creationism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982); J. Peter Zetterberg (ed.), Evolution versus Creationism: The Public Education Controversy (Phoenix: Oryx, 1983); and others. The quality of these works, of course, differs not only from volume to volume, but from article to article within the anthologies. Some are excellent; some, unfortunately, are as intemperate and lacking in insight as are the works of the creation scientists they criticize.
22De Genesi ad Literam, 1.19. Translated as The Literary Meaning of Genesis (New York: Newman, 1982).
23Morris, op. cit., p. 19.
24Letter from Morris to Tim LaHaye, Febrary 12, 1970. Reprinted in Morris, op. cit., p. 352.
25Discovery, July 1981.
26"Religion," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan/Free Press, 1968).
27See, for example, some of the essays in E. McMullin (ed.), Evolution & Creation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).
28The Life & Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1898), Volume 11, p. 82.