Science in Christian Perspective



One Spiritual Danger in Creationism: Drawing a Red Herring Across a Track

David C. Lahti

Department of Biology and Museum of Zoology 
University of Michigan 
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

From: PSCF 52 (June 2000): 123-126.                                        Response: McIntyre

"In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us" --Titus 2:7-8.

In training dogs to follow a trail, the dragging of a smoked herring across a path was once (and, perhaps, somewhere still is) a common practice. A worthy dog would catch the scent and break from the path to follow it. This led to the adoption of the phrase "red herring" to denote the practice in reasoning or debate of commencing an argument toward one conclusion, but at some point subtly veering from this and concluding something else entirely. This is a logical fallacy, an error in reasoning.

The Red Herring and Creationist Argumentation

The "red herring" figures in a particular form of argument commonly advanced by creationists.1

That it is among the more common forms of creationist argument is suggested here, but an attempt will not be made to support this claim. Its prevalence is perhaps a matter for the history of science and religion; here only its soundness and ramifications are investigated. The form of argument is as follows:

Premise 1: Particular proponents of biological evolution (A, B, etc.) say x or incorporate x in their understanding of the concept of evolution.

Premise 2: x is repudiated by Christianity or is scientifically unfounded.

Conclusion: Evolution is repudiated by Christianity or is scientifically unfounded.

We start with the premises on the path to discussing the merits of A's and B's view x. This is called into question, and the reasonable conclusion would be that A and B are wrong in this area. However, instead of arriving there, the "red herring" of biological evolution is dragged across the path and leads the reader or hearer astray. The strategy is to discredit evolution by showing that a particular view x is wrong, without demonstrating any necessary connection (whether logical, conceptual, or empirical) between x and evolution.

A recent example of the use of this strategy is an argument by John McIntyre, which can be summarized as follows (in his words):

Premise 1: "A consensus, then, appears to have developed among the leaders of evolution," the roster of which includes, but is not limited to: Richard Dawkins, Douglas Futuyma, Jacques Monod, and G. G. Simpson. By these people "evolution is said to be a purposeless and materialistic process."

Premise 2: "The absence of the designer within the materialistic universe cannot logically lead to a conclusion that there is no designer outside the materialistic universe." Again, "... materialistic measurements can tell us nothing about the purpose behind evolution, since 'purpose' lies outside the materialistic world."2

McIntyre provides clear support for both of the premises of this argument (the first in terms of the four people enumerated above). We are being led down a logical path, and the reasonable destination is that "the conclusion that evolution is purposeless is worthless." The author does in fact state this, and commits no fallacy by doing so. Such a conclusion follows from his second premise alone. Elsewhere he discusses the implications of the fact that the National Academy of Sciences has accepted this conclusion as well.3

However, this is not the main conclusion McIntyre offers from the above premises. Instead, it is the following:

Conclusion: "Correspondingly, with a logical fallacy incorporated into the theory of evolution, conclusions drawn from it cannot be trusted. If conclusions from the theory of evolution cannot be trusted, then the theory of evolution is worthless--indeed, a fatal flaw."

From discussing views of particular evolutionists, we have been subtly led astray by a red herring drawn across the track. We suddenly find ourselves facing the momentous conclusion that the theory of evolution is worthless, that "this emperor of science has no clothes."

The Fallacy of the Strategy

The reason why this particular reasoning is a red herring and therefore fallacious is because there is no necessary connection between the views of these particular people and biological evolution per se. The biological concept of evolution is not enslaved to the views of any or all evolutionists, much less a selected group of them. If, on the other hand, this type of argumentation were valid, a Christian biologist could respond to a citation of G. G. Simpson and Richard Dawkins by enlisting such giants of evolutionary biology as Theodosius Dobzhansky and Francisco Ayala,4 both of whom have asserted their beliefs in a personal God and a divine purpose behind the evolutionary process. The Nobel prize-winning Ilya Prigogine could be used to counter-balance Jacque Monod on the subject of chance.5 Finally, W. T. Keeton and J. L. Gould's excellent introduction to evolutionary biology, which asserts that any attempt to make conclusions about the existence of God from scientific premises is a fallacy, could serve as a counterpoise to Futuyma's text.6

Stephen J. Gould, the most renowned (if idiosyncratic) popularizer of evolutionary biology, has written that the mere fact that Dobzhansky, "the greatest evolutionist of our century," was a theist should make us accept once and for all that nothing in evolution can undermine religious belief. "I know hundreds of scientists," Gould continues, "who share a conviction about the fact of evolution, and teach it in the same way. Among these people I note an entire spectrum of religious attitudes--from devout daily prayer and worship to resolute atheism."7.

A stream of prominent scientists and incisive quotes can therefore be provided to show that many believe in a harmony between biological evolution and the idea of divine purpose. But, would these counterexamples to the "purposeless" view do anything to support the concept of biological evolution, and therefore preserve confidence in evolutionary biology?

In fact, nothing of the sort is accomplished by appealing to the claims of particular biologists, because science (thankfully) does not work that way. In science, there are no "leaders" in the field, in the sense of people who dictate what others should think. Scientific concepts and hypotheses and conclusions are public domain, to be discussed, refuted, or corroborated by any individual on earth who is able and inclined to do the necessary work. Whereas some analytical discussions in philosophy are couched entirely in terms of a certain proponent (for example, Kant's works are the final source for Kantianism), scientists on the other hand are almost always interested in discussing aspects not primarily of someone's thought, but of the external world. A scientific publication that happens to conclude in opposition to a particular hypothesis focuses on the hypothesis, never (if it is worthy) on people. To ignore or abandon this central feature of science misjudges the entire nature and worth of the enterprise.

Science, as properly practiced, is never a matter of authority. If a lost work of Darwin, written just before his death and claiming everything he had written during his lifetime to be false, were found, this would not cause the tiniest tremor in today's biological research or theory. The reason for this is simply that although we acknowledge Darwin for his achievements, his assertions continue to be tested and assessed for their own merit. Scientific propositions stand on their own logical and empirical feet, not on the shoulders of any individual or group, no matter how illustrious.

Biological evolution can easily be explained in theoretical terms without reference to individual people. If an aspect of the theory is to be tested or criticized (as regularly occurs in the course of scientific research in this area), scrutiny must be applied to these theoretical premises. Otherwise, any criticism is simply misplaced.

The Spiritual Danger

This particular species of red herring, where a system of thought is said to be refuted when in fact only the views of particular people have been, is of course not peculiar to creationists. In addition, no claim is being made here that this is the most significant problem with creationism, nor is it even a necessary part of creationism. To highlight a red herring in a creationist argument certainly does not undermine creationism, even if that fallacy often happens to be found in defense of such a position. So, in light of all of this, why do I bring up the two concepts together?

Primarily, a serious spiritual danger exists when this fallacy is employed by a Christian creationist, which does not exist in most other circumstances in which the fallacy is committed. This danger is twofold: first, harm to apologetics, the defense of the faith; and second, harm to evangelism, the spreading of the faith.

First, most Christians are aware that this precise fallacy has been committed throughout modern times in an attempt to discredit Christianity. C. S. Lewis is not alone in recognizing the frequency with which people try to refute Christianity with a discussion of "the incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France, or Poland--or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point."8

One must divorce the opinions or actions of particular Christians from the tenets of Christianity and the person of Christ. Our belief system and way of life revolve around Jesus alone as far as humans are concerned, and him precisely because he was not merely human.

Whenever creationists counsel other Christians to use the red herring strategy in their defense of a particular interpretation of Genesis, they are in effect endorsing it as a valid mode of argument not only for the Christian, but for the non-Christian. If the red herring is perceived to work against evolution, it will be perceived to work against Christianity, and then the defense of the faith has been undermined. There is no reason to believe that the same fallacy that can be used so heartily by creationists against evolution in books, articles, the internet, lectures, and discussions, will be immediately recognized as illogical when it backfires and is leveled instead against the Christian world view.

Second, this particular kind of red herring, when used in the context of creationism, harms the evangelistic enterprise. As the biblical quotation at the beginning of this paper illustrates, Christians are called to have integrity in their teaching and speech for the sake of the nonbeliever. Only if others "have nothing bad to say about us" will there be a real possibility of acquaintances listening to our testimony of faith with any sincere interest. The attempt by creationists to dissolve opposition to Christianity by removing the intellectual obstacle of evolution with the red herring strategy, is likely to reflect badly on Christianity as a whole. This is the case whether or not the fallacy is intended, and even if the non- Christian's generalized response is unjustifiable. This is not a matter of logic at this point, but of pragmatic evangelism--using fallacies to remove a perceived obstacle to faith is simply a bad strategy. Others will notice the unfairness and be repulsed from our faith.

Again, regardless of how widespread the red herring fallacy is in creationist argumentation, it is a danger that is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, to the doctrine of creationism itself. In other words, it is not claimed here to be a "fatal flaw" of creationism, but simply a flaw in some creationist argumentation. It is not even claimed here to be the most serious flaw in such argumentation. Nevertheless, besides the illogic of it, the spiritual danger that it poses is significant enough for critical mention to be made of it, and for a plea to be made that the fallacy be carefully excluded from any future creationist writing or argument. Incidentally, it may be the case that the ability of creationists to defend their position rationally may suffer if this tool is not available to them. However, this cannot be a major concern to anyone seriously in pursuit of the truth of the matter. A victory achieved without intellectual integrity would be a hollow one indeed, especially for a Christian.



1By creationism here is not meant the belief that God created the universe, but rather the much narrower view that the mechanism by which God did so is primarily a matter for theology rather than scientific investigation, and that the Bible therefore must be sought for the description of specifically how God chose to create the world and its living things.

2. J. A. McIntyre, "Evolution's Fatal Flaw," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 51 (September 1999): 162-9. This paper was presented at the 1998 Conference of Christians in Science and the American Scientific Affiliation, August 2-5. All quotations following are from this source unless footnoted otherwise. The use of this paper as an illustration implies nothing about McIntyre's own views on the mechanism of creation, save that he believes evolution to have a "fatal flaw."

3J. A. McIntyre, "We Won," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (September 1999): 144-145.

4E.g., F. J. Ayala and T. Dobzhansky, eds., Studies in the Philosophy of Biology: Reduction and Related Problems (London: Macmillan, 1974); and T. Dobzhansky, F. J. Ayala, G. L. Stebbins, J. W. Valentine, Evolution (San Francisco: Freeman, 1977).

5E.g., I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order out of Chaos (London: Heinemann, 1984).

6W. T. Keeton and J. L. Gould, Biological Science, 5th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 5.

7S. J. Gould, "Darwinism defined: the difference between fact and theory," Discover (Jan. 1987): 64-70, p. 70. Of course, this is not an endorsement of Gould's particular opinions on the relationship between science and religion

8C. S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," in W. Hooper, ed., God in the Dock (New York: Inspirational Press, 1996), chap. 10.