Science in Christian Perspective

Essay Review


Donald E. DeGraaf*

Professor of Physics
University of Michigan-Flint
Flint, MI 48504

THE BATTLE OF BEGINNINGS: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate by Del Ratzsch. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 272 pages, bibliography, no index. Paperback; $14.99.

Del Ratzsch is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, specializing in the philosophy of science. He is the author of Philosophy of Science in IVP's Contours of Christian Philosophy series.

This book is devoted to a careful examination of a multitude of arguments launched from both sides in the war between creationists and evolutionists. Ratzsch does not evaluate scientific evidence or the soundness of various interpretations of Scripture. Rather, he focuses on the logic and the soundness of arguments and criticisms of opposing views. He shows that the creation-evolution dispute abounds with misunderstandings, inaccurate representations of opponents' views, and illogical arguments. He writes to expose these errors, and especially to aid lay Christians in sorting through these confusions. It is not his aim to convince readers to accept any particular point of view, but to point out those things that should not be persuasive.

Summary of Contents

Chapter 1, a brief introduction to the book, spells out the very specific ways in which Ratzsch uses the terms creationist and evolutionist. He adopts the present popular usage of the term creationist as one who holds the following:

Whether or not God could have built evolutionary potentials into the creation, or could have brought about life and all its diversity by evolutionary means, he did not in fact do so. There are thus discontinuities in nature e.g. non-life/life, reptile/mammal, animal/human which cannot be crossed by purely natural means, each such discontinuity requiring separate supernatural creative action.

He uses the term "evolutionist to include all who accept a broad evolutionary picture of the origin of life and its diversity. That will include both theists and naturalists." However, naturalistic evolutionists are frequently the focus of discussion concerning evolutionist objections to creationism.

These definitions exclude theistic evolutionists from the creationist camp; most theistic evolutionists, I expect, would object to this exclusion. Theistic evolutionists hold to a theistic worldview, but would reject the tight characterization of this worldview held by some prominent creationists. Some, in fact, prefer to label their position as evolutionary creationism.

Chapter 2 is a descriptive history of the interwoven development of biology and geology from about 1700 to 1850, prior to Darwin's work. In geology during this period, most theorizing shifted from catastrophism to an early concept of uniformitarianism. Among the concerns of biology were the classification of organisms, and a growing awareness of progression in the fossil record.

Chapter 3 surveys Darwin's work and the stages in the development of his theory of biological evolution through natural selection. Ratzsch then describes the reactions to the theory from the religious, philosophical, and scientific communities. Despite questions raised from all sides, "the result of the publication of The Origin of Species was the nearly immediate conversion of most of the scientific community to biological evolution to some kind of descent with modification." Early in the 1900s, the "`synthetic theory' of evolution combining contemporary genetics and Darwinian natural selection quickly rose to near absolute dominance in the scientific community."

Chapter 4 examines several popular creationist misunderstandings of Darwin's theory, and shows how resulting creationist attacks on evolution are targeted on "positions that no one actually holds." These misunderstandings include the notions that (1) evolutionary descent is only linear, not branching; (2) every step of natural or artificial selection is beneficial in some absolute sense; (3) uniformitarianism in geology allows only geological processes that proceed at constant rates, and rejects the possibility of rapid processes and catastrophic events; and others.

Ratzsch concludes that these misunderstandings are seriously counterproductive because creationist arguments based on them stifle dialogue with opponents. Furthermore, they have tainted the image of creationism so that serious and professionally competent creationists have not been accorded a serious hearing.

Chapter 5 traces the historical background and development of the modern creationist movement from the late 1800s to the present, an expansion intertwined with the growth of Christian fundamentalism. After World War I, "fundamentalists came to believe nearly universally that evolution was inherently, ineradicably materialistic and naturalistic fundamentalist Christians would eventually settle on evolution as a deep enemy." After the Scopes trial in 1925, a "fundamentalist disaster," there was a deep need for creationist heroes who could claim genuine scientific expertise, and speak out as fearless defenders of creationism. To the fore in the 1920s came Harry Rimmer and George McCready Price. Later came Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and others. For them, "a straightforward reading of Scripture set the framework, the boundaries and the agenda for any scientific theorizing."

Chapter 6 examines the development of popular creationist positions since 1960 by outlining the central themes of three pivotal books: The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry Morris (1961), Scientific Creationism by Henry Morris (1974), and What is Creation Science? by Henry Morris and Gary Parker (rev. ed. 1987). In The Genesis Flood Whitcomb and Morris openly based their main argument and their conclusions on the presupposition that the Scriptures are true. But in Scientific Creationism it was claimed that the conclusions "could stand completely independently of Scripture." Scientific Creationism describes the "two models" associated with creationism and evolution. "The two models are not scientific theories but are in effect, worldviews. Unfortunately, many popular creationists use the term evolution to refer both to the larger philosophical worldview model and to the more restricted biological theory" (p. 77). This usage has created confusion among creationists and also among their opponents. More confusion stemmed from "creationist empirical arguments [that] frequently rested on broad generalities that often exhibited an ignoring of technical details and data. Trying to deal with technical details and painfully precise data is what in fact often makes science such a ... difficult business" (p. 79).

Ratzsch observes that "there is beginning to emerge a new generation of creationists... who are undertaking to actually do some of the painstaking [work] that underlies any genuinely live scientific program." Among this "upper-tier" of creationists Ratzsch apparently includes scholars like the authors of The Mystery of Life's Origins (Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olsen), Darwin on Trial (Phillip Johnson), and the contributors to The Creation Hypothesis (J. P. Moreland, ed.).

Chapter 7 examines several popular evolutionist misunderstandings of creationist theory, which lead to irrelevant criticisms of creationism. Among these misunderstandings are the notions that creationists (1) deny microevolution, (2) believe in the direct creation of all species, (3) believe that all current species were present on the originally created earth, (4) believe in fixity of species, and (5) use the Second Law of Thermodynamics to deny the possibility of biological evolution. Some of these misunderstandings arise from creationists' ambiguous and confusing statements about the Second Law, documented on pp. 92-96. It is also a misunderstanding to claim that the creationist assumption that the universe as created was fully functioning is in error because some parts of the new creation would have an appearance of age, making God a deceiver.

The next two chapters offer a short course in the philosophy of science with applications to the creation-evolution conflict. They lay a foundation for understanding the nature of science as it is actually done, in contrast to Baconian and positivist conceptions which are often assumed by participants on both sides of the contest. Chapter 8 surveys changes in the conceptions of science from the 1300s to the 1960s, concluding with an assessment of the impact of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his comments on Popper's emphasis that a truly scientific result must be capable of being falsified by empirical data, Ratzsch shows why "it is impossible to conclusively falsify any scientific theory by means of empirical data." And in relating Kuhn's conception of the role of paradigms in science, Ratzsch observes that "even if two scientists in different paradigms could all share the same observational data, they might be unable to agree on the proper explanation or interpretation of that data." The implications for the creation-evolution conflict are obvious.

Chapter 9 presents a contemporary perspective on the nature of science, and states that most scientists and philosophers of science today operate from philosophical realism. Ratzsch develops the notion that science involves three basic components: data, theories, and what he calls shaping principles, all of which interact with and influence each other. Shaping principles involve "philosophical positions concerning the nature of data, of proper theory, of acceptable explanation and of legitimate interpretation of data." Since every theory faces some nonconforming data, "to demand that a theory be given up merely because one can cite some, or even a lot of, apparently contrary data is to mistake how science works." Chapter 9 concludes with consideration of criteria for identifying correct theories, and applies them to issues in the creation-evolution debate.

Chapter 10 applies this understanding of science to expose some logical errors of creationist arguments. Creationists are mistaken when they claim, for any of the following reasons, that evolution cannot be true: (1) evolution violates some formal definition of science; (2) evolution is mere theory, not fact; (3) evolution has not been or cannot be proven; (4) there are some scientific facts that cannot be accounted for by evolution theory; (5) the data cited to support evolution can also be interpreted in alternative ways; (6) evolutionary processes and events are unobservable or unreproducible; or (7) evolutionists build their theory on a prior commitment to the worldview of naturalism. The chapter concludes with some helpful comments on a proper scientific approach to investigating origins.

In Chapter 11 a similar analysis exposes some logical errors of anticreationist arguments. Anticreationists are mistaken when they claim, for any of the following reasons, that creationism (or creation science) cannot be true: (1) creation science is not science, by the definition of science; (2) proper science with its empirical methods has no way of dealing with the supernatural or anything of that sort; (3) the failure of empirical methods to apprehend a supernatural reality shows that such a reality does not exist, or that it does not affect the operation of the cosmos; (4) creation science is really just disguised religion; (5) creationists never change their views regardless of the advance of data; or (6) the claim that things came into existence suddenly at one time is itself an inherently religious claim. Chapter 11 includes an evaluation of empirical philosophy.

After thus exposing errors in a multitude of arguments used by creationists and evolutionists (as defined in Chapter 1) to attack one another, in Chapter 12 Ratzsch looks at arguments coming from both sides which attack theistic evolution (or, to use a preferable term, evolutionary creationism). The "two models" postulated by Henry Morris et al. are assumed by them to be mutually exclusive, with no overlap. Morris seems to assume that God works on nature only by supernatural processes. Ratzsch counters:

Many creationists note the logical incompatibility of the theistic creation model and the naturalistic evolution model, then apparently on that basis conclude that theism and biological evolutionary theory must be similarly incompatible But the fact that the evolution model is inherently contrary to the creation model and that biological evolutionary theory is perhaps absolutely indispensable to the evolution model does not by itself suggest in the slightest that there is any logical tension between theism and the biological theory of evolution (p. 182).

After dealing with other creationist objections to theistic evolution, Ratzsch concludes by exposing logical flaws in some evolutionist challenges to theistic evolution. He considers especially arguments regarding evidences for intelligent design in nature. He concludes that "one cannot simply rule considerations of design out of scientific bounds, either arbitrarily or definitionally."

The final chapter encourages both sides to think clearly, present their cases with sound arguments, listen to each other, and try to understand each other's views.

Evaluation and Comments

In this book, Ratzsch has made a unique contribution to the creation-evolution war, with the potential to motivate both camps toward more logical, more honest and more civil communication. A major strength is that it does not espouse any one position. It will be of benefit to every combatant who heeds its call to raise the level of debate, and to every thoughtful observer who uses it as a guide to separating valid arguments from faulty ones.

The book is clearly, carefully, and tightly written, touches on a multitude of topics, and calls for thoughtful reading. It follows a sequential "story line," outlined on pp. 10-11, but many readers will want to look for Ratzsch's treatment of specific topics. For them, an index would greatly increase the book's value; for this reviewer, the lack of an index is its chief weakness. The extensive bibliography and very extensive endnotes are helpful.

Among those who agree in holding to a theistic worldview and thus see nature as a product of divine creation, there is a wide range of specific opinions regarding the how and when of God's creative work. Many labels have been pinned on these various positions. It seems unfortunate that Ratzsch chose to define the term creationism in a way that excludes evolutionary creationists (more widely known as theistic evolutionists). It would be preferable to define creationism in a way that includes them, thus recognizing the unity of all who acknowledge God as Creator. Then the term special creationism would more accurately label the view that Ratzsch calls creationism.

I recommend this book for careful reading by everyone who pays attention to the creation-evolution conflict. Conscientious scientists and scholars are used to examining data with care, evaluating details, and trying to get their science right. Opinion leaders have a special responsibility to be honest, cordial, civil, to use clear definitions, and clarify issues. Ratzsch can help them to get their arguments right.

The issues in the conflict are so complex that one wonders how to communicate accurately to the nonspecialist, to give her or him a truthful picture without simplifying to the point of distortion. As Ratzsch points out, vagueness (rather than precision) in stating an argument can easily lead to misrepresentation and misunderstanding. The average person who is interested in these issues is not accustomed to weighing every detail or to following complex arguments. He or she is satisfied with answers that make sense only in a general way.

I see three quite different agendas of those who are engaged in or watching the creation-evolution conflict:

1.To learn the truth: to gain a correct understanding of origins issues, so far as one can, and to integrate this understanding into one's worldview.

2.To persuade others, through civil discussion and sound arguments. Some persuaders want to work out an effective apologetics linked to science.

3.To win a fight, to protect oneself against one's enemies, and defeat them. When this goal is a priority, it can foster shabby "research," fuzzy thought, dishonest arguments. Those with this agenda may ask themselves: Are we captives of the prevalent sports mentality of our society? In the contentious creation-evolution arena, even scholars may tend to develop an emotional commitment to their position, and then attack those who disagree whenever they find a detail out of place.

Have popular advocates of creationism (or evolutionism) who speak with flair, enthusiasm, and a tone of authority become entertainers? Do audiences listen to their presentations as entertainment to be cheered, rather than as education to be pondered or as evidence to be weighed? Do audiences leave their thinking caps at home and go to see a contest and cheer the winner, as they go to an athletic event?

A major challenge to writers and speakers is how to give a thoughtful, honest presentation on stage or in print to an audience which eschews careful thought. Let us hope that many in the ASA will respond effectively to this need.