The Philosophy Page



The Religion of the Blind Watchmaker


Jefferson E. Peyser Professor of Law
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2499

From: PSCF 49 (March 1993):49

Stephen Jay Gould published a four page book review which was highly critical of Phillip E. Johnson and his book Darwin on Trial in the July 1992 issue of Scientific American. Editor Jonathan Piel has refused to publish this response.

"Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose."1 So writes Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker. As a Darwinist, Dawkins maintains that the appearance is deceptive, and that living organisms are actually the product of purposeless material forces- random genetic variation and natural selection. This "blind watchmaker thesis" is the most important claim of evolutionary biology. If scientists were able to say only that primitive fish "somehow" became amphibians, and then mammals, and finally humans, nobody would be very impressed. Absent a credible mechanism, the transformation of a fish into a human being is nearly as miraculous as the creation of man from the dust of the earth. What makes the story of evolution impressive is that Darwinist scientists think that they know how such transformations occurred, through natural processes requiring no divine guidance or non-material orienting force.

The blind watchmaker thesis has enormous religious significance because it purports to explain the history of life without leaving any role to a supernatural Creator. "Before Darwin," writes Stephen Jay Gould, "we thought that a benevolent God had created us."2 After the acceptance of Darwinism, that belief became intellectually untenable. According to Gould,

No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature (though Newton's clock-winding god might have set up the machinery at the beginning of time and then let it run). No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.3

God as a remote First Cause remains a possibility, but God as an active creator is absolutely ruled out by the blind watchmaker thesis. That is why Richard Dawkins exults that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."4 That doesn't, however, mean that Darwin made it impossible to be anything but an atheist. For example, Darwinism and theism can easily be reconciled by those who, like Asa Gray and Charles D. Walcott, misunderstand Darwinian evolution as a benevolent process divinely ordained for the purpose of creating humans. (Gould himself has been particularly emphatic in correcting that sort of misunderstanding.) On the other hand, Darwinism does give atheists and agnostics a decisive advantage to the extent that belief in God's existence is a matter of logic and evidence. Those who really understand Darwinism, but still have spiritual inclinations, now have the option of making a religion out of evolution. Theodosius Dobzhansky- Gould's prime example of a Christian evolutionist- actually exemplified the religious dimension of Darwinism. Dobzhansky discarded the traditional Christian conception of God, spiritualized the evolutionary process, and worshipped the glorious future of evolution.5

Gould writes that religion and science should not conflict, "because science treats factual reality, while religion struggles with human morality." But this statement implies a distinction between morality and reality which does not exist, and which Gould himself would never observe in practice. Does the morality of racial discrimination, for example, have nothing to do with the factual reality of human equality? The author of The Mismeasure of Man (Norton, 1981) didn't seem to think so. And what gives Gould the authority to proclaim that religion may not concern itself with the factual reality of God? God can't have any moral authority unless he really exists, and if God really exists he might take a hand in creation. When a scientific elite claims exclusive authority to decide what is "real," it is asserting control over science, religion, philosophy, and every other area of thought.

Religion, like science, starts with assumptions or conclusions about reality. If we were created by God for a purpose, that is one starting point. If we are the accidental product of blind natural forces, that is a very different starting point. In the former case we try to learn the will of our creator, and in the latter case we discard that "intervening spirit" as an illusion and proceed to chart our own course. Thus Gould himself, in the concluding sentence of Wonderful Life, proceeds directly from a Darwinist starting point to the religious conclusion that we are morally autonomous beings who create our own values:

We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes- one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.6

The author of all those statements castigated me for suggesting that Darwinism is tied to naturalistic philosophy and opposed to any meaningful theism. David Hull, reviewing Darwin on Trial for Nature, was equally severe with me for refusing to concede that Darwinism has finished off theistic religion for good. Hull emphatically proclaimed a Darwinist doctrine of God:

What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomized by the species on Darwin's Galpagos Islands? The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror.... The God of the Galpagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.7

So much for Darwinism's religious neutrality. Now to the more important question: Is the blind watchmaker thesis true? To put the question another way, does natural selection really have the fantastic creative power which Darwinists claim for it? That seems an appropriate question, but persons like Gould, Dawkins, and Hull insist that the very definition of "science" rules the question out of order. They say that science is inherently committed to naturalistic premises, that Darwinian evolution is the best scientific (i.e. naturalistic) theory of biological creation that we have, and even that Darwinism possesses a virtue called "consilience of induction"- meaning that it explains a lot if we assume that it is true. One way or another, Darwinists meet the question, "Is Darwinism true?" with an answer that amounts to an assertion of power: "Well, it is science, as we define science, and you will have to be content with that."

Some of us are not content with that, because we know that the empirical evidence for the creative power of natural selection is somewhere between weak and non-existent. Artificial selection of fruit flies or domestic animals produces limited change within the species, but tells us nothing about how insects and mammals came into existence in the first place. In any case, whatever artificial selection achieves is due to the employment of human intelligence consciously pursuing a goal. The whole point of the blind watchmaker thesis, however, is to establish what material processes can do in the absence of purpose and intelligence. That Darwinist authorities continually overlook this crucial distinction gives us little confidence in their objectivity.

Examples of natural selection in action, like Kettlewell's observation of population shifts in the peppered moth, actually illustrate cyclical variation within stable species that exhibit no directional change. The fossil record- characterized by sudden appearance and subsequent stasis- is notoriously reluctant to yield examples of Darwinian macroevolution. The therapsid reptiles and Archaeopteryx are rare exceptions to the general absence of plausible transitional intermediates between major groups, which is why it is important to understand that even these Darwinist trophies are inconclusive as evidence of macroevolution. No wonder that prominent authorities like Stephen Jay Gould and Lynn Margulis have yearned for a new theory, on the grounds that the evidence contradicts the neo-Darwinist claim that macroevolutionary innovation results from the accumulation of small genetic changes by natural selection.8

The point is not whether "evolution" in some vague sense is true. "Evolution" has certainly occurred, but the scientific importance of this statement is slight when evolution is defined vaguely as "change" or modestly as "shifts in gene frequencies." No doubt the pattern of relationships among plants and animals invites an inference that there was some process of development from a common source. But how much do we know about this process of development? Perhaps one day scientists will be able to test some macroevolutionary mechanism, involving changes in the rate genes or whatever, that will explain how a four-footed mammal can become a whale or a bat without going through impossible intermediate steps. The difficulties should be honestly acknowledged, however. What evolutionary theory needs is a reliable creative mechanism, capable of building highly complex structures like vision and breathing systems again and again in diverse lines. Speculation about how an occasional jump might occur won't do the job.

Readers who know the score will understand why I feel honored that Stephen Jay Gould could find no better response to my challenge in Darwin on Trial than a vitriolic attack that evades the main points and instead wanders through the book in search of something to complain about. (Compare what I wrote on page 16 of Darwin on Trial with Gould's complaint about "recombination," and you will see how hard he worked to find a nit to pick.) I welcome criticism on specific points; that is why I circulated preliminary drafts of the book to many distinguished scholars, including Gould. The subject of controversy, however, is my argument that the blind watchmaker thesis is not supported by the evidence- i.e., that science does not know how life could have evolved to its present complexity and diversity without the participation of preexisting intelligence. If Gould had a convincing answer to that argument, you may be sure that he would have stated the issues clearly and met the main line of reasoning head on.

Gould's review itself merits no further response, but what requires explanation is the hostility. What divides Gould and me has little to do with scientific evidence and everything to do with metaphysics. Gould approaches the question of evolution from the philosophical starting point of scientific naturalism, which denies a priori that a non-material being such as God could influence the course of nature. From that standpoint the blind watchmaker thesis is true in principle by definition. From this perspective, science may not know all the details yet, but something very much like Darwinian evolution simply has to be responsible for our existence because there is no acceptable alternative. If there are gaps or defects in the existing theory, the appropriate response is to supply additional naturalistic hypotheses. Critics who disparage Darwinism without offering a naturalistic alternative are seen as attacking science itself, probably in order to impose a religious straitjacket upon science and society. One does not reason with such persons; one employs any means at hand to discourage them.

But maybe Darwinism really is false- in principle, and not just in detail. Maybe mindless material processes can't create information-rich biological systems. That is a real possibility, no matter how offensive it is to scientific naturalists. How do Darwinists know that the blind watchmaker created the animal phyla, for example, since the process can't be demonstrated and all the historical evidence is missing? Darwinists may have the cultural power to suppress questions like that for a time, but eventually they are going to have to come to grips with them. There are a lot of theists in America, not to mention the rest of the world, and persons who promote naturalism in the name of science will not forever be able to deny them a fair hearing.

Scientific naturalists who think that Darwinism can be defended by waging ideological war against the critics are free to follow the example of Stephen Jay Gould. Others may prefer to take the path of Michael Ruse and the Darwinist scientists who participated in an academic symposium on the issues raised by Darwin on Trial in March 1992, at Southern Methodist University. These persons learned that it is possible to debate metaphysical differences in an academic setting in a fair-minded and mutually respectful manner. In the end, the entire scientific community will have to acknowledge that honest discussion- with assumptions identified and terms precisely defined- is the only method for resolving disagreement that is consistent with the best traditions of science itself. When scientists defend a cherished doctrine by obscuring the issues and intimidating the critics, it is a sure sign that what they are defending isn't science.


1 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Longman, England 1986), p. 1. (Hereafter Dawkins.)

2 Ever Since Darwin, p. 267.

3 Stephen Jay Gould, "In Praise of Charles Darwin," from Darwin's Legacy, pp. 6-7 (Charles L. Hamrum, Ed., Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1983). This essay appeared originally in Discover magazine, February, 1982.

4 Dawkins, supra note 1, p.6.

5 See Francisco Ayala, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution," The Journal of Heredity, vol. 68, pp. 3, 9 (Jan.-Feb. 1977). Ayala described his teacher's religion as follows: "Dobzhansky was a religious man, although he apparently rejected fundamental beliefs of traditional religion, such as the existence of a personal God and of life beyond physical death. His religiosity was grounded on the conviction that there is meaning in the universe. He saw [evidence of] that meaning in the fact that evolution has produced the stupendous diversity of the living world and has progressed from primitive forms of life to mankind. Dobzhansky held that, in man, biological evolution has transcended itself into the realm of self-awareness and culture. He believed that somehow mankind would eventually evolve into higher levels of harmony and creativity."

6 Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life (New York, Norton, 1989), p. 323.

7Nature, vol. 352, p. 485-86 (8 August 1991).

8 See S.J. Gould, "Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging?" in Evolution Now, pp. 129, 131 (Maynard Smith, Ed. 1982; Profile, "Lynn Margulis: Science's Unruly Earth Mother," Science, vol. 252, pp. 378, 379 (19 April 1991).