Darwinism: Science or Philosophy

Chapter 5
Theism and Darwinism:
Can You Serve Two Masters at the Same Time?

Michael Ruse

[ Previous | Table of Contents | Next ]

CAN A THEIST BE a Darwinian? Can a Darwinian be a theist? People always complain that philosophers are obsessed with words, and there is some truth in that. Sometimes, however, you can avoid a great deal of cross-talk by looking carefully, at the beginning of the discussion, at the terms you are going to use. So. without further apology, to answer my questions, let us start by teasing out some meanings to the terms theism and Darwinian. I want to emphasize that I look upon this discussion as a prolegomenon to decision-making; at no time shall I be saying what is right or wrong, best or worst. I am simply trying to lay out the options. I function as a bureaucrat, not as an advocate.{1}

What Do You Mean by "Theist"?

I take it that a "theist" is a person who believes in a god, a god who is prepared to intervene in his (her/its) creation. This is compared to a "deist," a person who believes in a god that is not prepared to intervene in it's creation, an "Unmoved Mover." Both of these are compared to an "agnostic," who professes ignorance about the deity, and an "atheist," who does not believe in the existence of a god at all.

Traditionally, theists have been thought of as belonging to one of the great religions of the Mediterranean: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Other religions are "pagan"-although I see no reason in principle why they should not qualify as theistic or deistic. To keep my discussion within bounds, I shall confine my discussion to Christian theism. If you fault me for ethnocentrism, I shall have no ply.

In a sense, there are almost as many notions of Christian theism (Christianity, for short, from now on) as there am Christians. Cutting across all divisions, including in a fashion the division between Catholics and Protestants (not to mention the Orthodox), I shall distinguish three levels or grades. I shall call them conservative Christianity, moderate Christianity. and liberal Christianity. I think that I can use these terms without undue distortion, but please do not fault me if, say, the present Pope, whom you would judge a conservative, comes out as a moderate on my schema. I do not intend the grades to be sharp at the boundaries. In real life, people might be conservative in one sense, and moderate in another; or they might fall on a dividing line.

For me, a conservative Christian is one who takes the truth of the Bible, and/or the teaching of the church (often, but not necessarily. the Catholic church) fairly literally. I am not saying that the conservative necessarily has to take every last word of the Bible as the unalterable, face-value truth-since Augustine, Catholicism has had a tradition of interpretation-but I assume that unbending literalists ("fundamentalists") are all conservatives in my sense.

For me, therefore, a conservative will believe in a real garden of Eden, a real Adam and Eve, and a real Fall. A conservative will believe in a real flood, although I can imagine that he or she might not really care if the flood failed to reach as far as Texas. A conservative will believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, that he performed the biblical miracles (and that they were genuine miracles), that he died for our sins, that his body started to stink, and that then he rose from the dead, joining God in heaven- where some of us might hope to go to share eternal bliss. I really do not know where today's conservative stands on hell (burning flames or nonbeing), but he/she believes that that is the punishment for the sinner.

My moderate Christian believes much that the conservative believes-for instance, that actual people sinned, that Jesus was genuinely the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the literal dead, and that there is salvation for the repentant sinner. I doubt, however, that my moderate is going to spend funds and time trying to find the true home of Eden, or the remains of Noah's ark. My moderate likewise might wonder if one has to follow slavishly every dictate of St. Paul, sensing sometimes that the apostle told more of his own psyche than of God's wishes.

My liberals, perhaps, technically ought to be thought of as deists and not as theists, but for sociological reasons, if for no other, they can be included here. The liberal is one who interprets the Bible and church teaching in modern terms. Most of the stories of the Old Testament are taken to be allegorical, the miracles of Jesus are given natural explanations (if they are believed at all), and much effort is put into showing that the resurrection does not necessarily imply bodily resurrection. Original sin is thought to be something inherent in us all, and not necessarily the consequence of our first parents' failing.

These then are my three types of Christian. I have emphasized that I am being nonjudgmental. What I would stress is that it is possible to find in all three levels, people who are genuinely committed to their faith. The conservative might think the liberal no true Christian. I can testify that there are extreme liberals who are as devoted to their savior as any fundamentalist, and who find their faith a great deal more difficult and demanding than do most. Conversely, I know conservatives who have made very real sacrifices for what they believe to be the truth.

What Do You Mean by "Darwinian"?

As a fairly enthusiastic Darwinian myself, I can attest to the fact that "Darwinism," no less than "Christianity," is a notion with many meanings. Again, I will propose three grades. In a sense, these correspond to my three grades of Christian. I feel a bit diffident. however, about referring to an ardent Darwinian as a "conservative Darwinian." That is a misnomer, if not an oxymoron. Hence, I shall speak of the ultra-Darwinian, the moderate Darwinian, and the restrained Darwinian. These are not necessarily the most elegant terms, but they will serve.

All three Darwinians are evolutionists, believing that organisms, including ourselves, came by a process of development from a few simple forms. The ultra-Darwinian thinks that the sole cause was Charles Darwin's mechanism of natural selection working on random (not uncaused) variations. This factor suffices to explain all. There are no other causes at work, nor are other causes needed. This means that all organic features are to be considered adaptive, even though we may not at present know precisely the nature of the function of these adaptations.

The classic problem case is that of male nipples. What function could these possibly serve? The ultra-Darwinian thinks that they have to have some end, like sexual attractiveness. An explanation in terms of being a byproduct of other features, or some such thing, will not do. I do not know how many people are ultra-Darwinians of this extreme ilk today, but they have certainly existed in the past. Alfred Russet Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, was one before his conversion to spiritualism. The turn of the century biometrician, Raphael Weldon, was another.

The moderate Darwinian thinks that natural selection is the most important mechanism of evolutionary change. But he or she is unwilling to give selection complete and exclusive causal authority over evolution. The moderate thinks that there might well be other causes of change which, in their way, could be very important included here are genetic drift, correlation of parts, and perhaps even "hopeful monsters." No one today believes in Lamarckism, in the old-fashioned sense of the direct inheritance of acquired characters. Some today think that non-Darwinian factors might be very important at the molecular level.

The restrained Darwinian thinks that selection is certainly at work and may have important effects. However, he/she does not think it the most important cause of change, We must look for other factors of change to explain the overall pattern. In the past, someone like the American paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn would have come under this heading. Today one might include the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in this category, although I myself think he is more properly labeled a moderate. (As with Christianity, I do not intend to imply that the categories of Darwinism are sharp and exclusive; some people will fall on the boundaries.)

Can a Christian Be a Darwinian?

Now that we have our terms spelled out, we can set about answering our question. The answer obviously is that it all depends on what you mean by "Christian" and what you mean by "Darwinian." So let us start running our different categories past each other.

Start with the conservative Christian. Where would he or she stand with respect to Darwinism of any variety? My feeling is that there would not be much sympathy for Darwinism at all, ultra, moderate, or restrained. If this conservative is an outright biblical literalist, I do not see how he/she could be an evolutionist at all; and, more important, I do not see that he/she would want to be an evolutionist anyway. His or her basic belief would be in a miraculous creation of life and of frequent divine interventions thereafter. The spirit of such an outlook is against a natural account of origins.

Would it be possible, nevertheless, for the conservative to be an evolutionist, supposing that one were prepared to allow a minimum amount of interpretation? Or, supposing that one really did not think that the Bible necessarily tells us about everything, could one accept some measure of development? I do not see why that would be impossible. I doubt that such a person would be much of a Darwinian; probably he or she would want some sort of directed evolutionism. Or, one might want to restrict change to that occurring within major types (within the reptiles, for instance). Certainly, the presupposition is that there are many significant miracles, which break with the laws of nature, whether those laws be evolutionary or not. But, within these strong bounds- accepting evolution as secondary, as it were-one could allow limited development.

Before you dismiss my suggestion as ridiculous, let me suggest that there have in fact been people who fit this category. Remember that fundamentalism is a very restricted version of Christianity, is essentially an American production, and is not that ancient. It is a child of the nineteenth century. But in that nineteenth century, one also had people like John Henry Newman, a Catholic convert and very conservative in much of his thinking. As a Catholic, Newman's first allegiance was to the church and not to the literal truth of the Bible. He is in fact on record as saying that if evolution be true, then so be it Fundamentally, Newman was not interested in science; it neither helped nor hindered his religion. Hence, his attitude was that one should not pick a quarrel unnecessarily. He knew that his redeemer liveth, whatever the truth of evolution.

I come next to what I have called the moderate Christian. I think you might get some surprising answers here-at least surprising until you think about them. Clearly, the moderate Christian cannot be an ultra-Darwinian in the sense of allowing nothing but unbroken law at all times. The moderate believes in many of the biblical miracles, including the greatest of all, the resurrection of Jesus and the washing away of our sins. I suspect also that the moderate might have trouble, or certainly feel the need to think hard, concerning some other claims of the ultra-Darwinian (perhaps of the other kinds of Darwinian also).

I am thinking here particularly about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One might not believe in a literal garden of Eden, but presumably one will believe that there was a first pair of humans and that they sinned. It is possible on Darwinian theory to think that you might get down to a bottleneck of just one pair-even just one fertilized female- and so presumably one could reconcile the Genesis story in that way. But I am not sure one has the right to think that this must have happened, in order to save one's science. Obviously one might try other options, for instance, assuming that God gave all extant humans immortal souls at one instant, and that then they sinned collectively or that the sin of one pair was transferred to all, or some such thing. The point is that one has got to think of something, and this might require a rethinking of one's theology-as long as one wants to stay with the science, that is.

On the other side, however, let me point out that the ultra-Darwinian argues that there are design-like effects throughout the living world. It is true that these come about through a struggle for existence, but the problem of evil is no stranger to the Christian. What is welcome to the Christian (one moderate enough to be an evolutionist of a kind) is that his/her natural theology is thus confirmed by the Darwinian, by the ultra-Darwinian especially. Hence, what I am suggesting is that even though the moderate Christian can hardly accept the full program of the ultra-Darwinian, in respects he/she is going to be drawn much more toward the ultra end than the restrained end or even the moderate middle of the Darwinian spectrum.

Again, I would point out that before you dismiss this as so much hypothetical theorizing, there have in fact been people who think this way-embracing a fairly strong moderate-to-conservative Christianity and yet drawn by natural theology to an ultra-Darwinian stance. The great evolutionist Sir Ronald Fisher was one. There were also those, especially conservative Presbyterians in the nineteenth century, who were drawn to ultra-Darwinism because the struggle leading to selection confirmed what they had always believed about God's separating the sheep and the goats, and his choosing only the former.

I come finally to the liberal Christian. As I have said, in some respects I see this person as being close to deism rather than theism. But however you categorize such a person, the fact is that he or she will positively welcome the advances of science, seeing in every new discovery fresh evidence of God's power at work and the triumph of his great gift to us, our ability to reason and understand. Evolution will be taken as one of the glories of science and as a testament to his greatness.

Whether such a Christian as this will be an ultra, moderate, or restrained Darwinian seems to me to be an open question, and I suspect that such a believer would incline to think such a question a little irrelevant. The matter at issue is God's power, as revealed through his law-and for this, any kind of naturalistic evolutionism is both necessary and sufficient. Indeed, if I were to hazard a guess, it would be that in respects the liberal Christian would feel less drawn to ultra Darwinism than the moderate Christian, paradoxical though this suggestion may seem, simply because traditional natural theology, especially teleology, would have less of a hold on the liberal than on the moderate. I have in mind here someone like the Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke or the Lutheran pastor Philip Hefner. But, whatever the option taken, such a Christian would see Darwinism as supporting his/her faith, not threatening it.

A Final Word

There is no single answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this discussion. It all depends on what you mean by your terms, and what you mean can lead to diametrically opposing conclusions. Throughout, as promised, I have tried to be nonjudgmental. It is enough here to analyze the options. I trust that the worth of what I have done needs no justification above its execution.

But, as I conclude, let me say one final word. I speak now especially to those who hold strong opinions. Do not, I beg of you, assume without argument that you and your group, alone, have an exclusive lien on the truth or on the genuine religious spirit. You may be right, and you may be more holy than most; but remember that there are many people in different times and places--very different times and places, if you include non-Chrisuans-- who do not see things as you do. I say this, irrespective of whether you are a conservative, moderate, or liberal Christian, or not a Christian at all.

Above all, do not think people insincere if they do not solve the science/religion problem in the way that you do. Before you assume that your way of religious thought must be the proper and superior way, remember that it was not so very long ago that Michigan thought that it alone had the proper and superior way of making automobiles. I would not want you to end as the theological equivalent of General Motors.


{1} It hardly seems necessary to load down so elementary a discussion as this with a massive number of notes and references. Two books that I have found very helpful are Ernan McMullin (ed.), The Creation-Evolution Controversy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986) and Arthur Peacocke, God and the New Biology (London: Dent, 1986). McMullin is a Catholic priest and Peacocke an ordained minister in the Church of England (Episcopalian). The closest I have come to talking about these matters is in my edited volume, But is it Science ? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo: Prometheus Books. 1988). In the final essay of my The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge. 1989), I raise some problems for the Christian about the question of the foundations of morality from a Darwinian perspective. My Christian friends all tell me that my worries are unfounded.

[ Previous | Table of Contents | Next ]