Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Creation--Evolution Culture War

Book Review: Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne, 2008) by Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson is a physicist, a Christian and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College. The thesis of his book is easily grasped: the controversy between "creation and evolution" is essentially not a conflict between Christian theology and natural science but a culture war between a distorted version of Christian theology (creationism) and natural science (scientism). Giberson divides his discussion between each distortion. While he presents a detailed analysis of both creationism and scientism, his position is stated with complete clarity: "We don't know anywhere near enough about evolution to infer from it that God is not the creator. And we don't know anywhere near enough about God to dismiss the idea that evolution might be part of God's creative processes. If we can embrace a bit of humility and avoid the temptation to enlarge either evolution or biblical literalism into an entire worldview, we can dismiss this controversy as the irrelevant shouting match that it is" (p. 18).
In saying that the "creation--evolution" controversy is a culture war, Giberson is saying that what is really at stake is not so much theological or scientific truth but who or what sets the agenda for American culture.
Charles Darwin's The Origins of Species was published in America in 1860 and was fairly well received. While some scientists rejected Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection on scientific grounds (like Harvard's Louis Agassiz), many Christians either saw no inherent conflict between Christianity and evolution (such as Princeton Seminary's Benjamin Warfield) or adopted means of interpreting Scripture which sought to reconcile the two. The most important of these means was the "day-age" theory, the theory which holds that each of the "days" in Genesis 1 refers to a geological epoch. In evaluating these responses, it needs to be remembered that at this point even Darwin himself recognized that his thesis that natural selection was the engine of evolution was not conclusively demonstrated. By 1875 evolution was largely accepted by scientists as a historical fact but uncertainty remained as to what caused it.
It also needs to be recognized that Darwin's work was not the principal cause of disquiet in Christian circles at the time. In 1835 David Friedrich Strauss had published his The Life of Jesus Critically Examined in which he argued that the four gospels were largely falsified portrayals of Jesus. This was the beginning of a wave of biblical scholarship (a wave which has crested but not totally receded) which argued that the New Testament tells us more about the beliefs of the early Church that it does about who Jesus actually was or what he really taught. Such a view presented an obvious threat to Protestant belief. In response, a group of Protestants published a series of tracts between 1910 and 1915 entitled The Fundamentals (eventually published together). This was the beginning of the Fundamentalist movement. As Giberson points out, however, The Fundamentals contained no attack on evolution and no attempt to argue for a literal 7 day creation process.
The initial reaction to Darwinism (as it was eventually called) was not fueled by Fundamentalism but by attempts to make Darwinism into a worldview. In the hands of the philosopher Herbert Spencer, Darwin's biological theory became "social Darwinism," the idea that in economic competition the fit deservedly triumph over the less fit--it makes no sense to help the less fortunate because they deserve the blows the economic system has dealt them. Then came the eugenics movement which was quite popular in Europe and America. Between 1900 and 1935 thirty-two states enacted legislation permitting the forced sterilization of "defective" people; some sixty thousand people were sterilized. The central notion of the eugenics program, that of "improving" the human race, was quickly seized upon and put to use in service of the cause of National Socialism (Nazism). Hitler was able to present the Final Solution as simply eugenics taken to its ultimate conclusion. Giberson comments: "Right or wrong, but mainly wrong, Darwinism has always looked much larger than biology. And today the opposition to evolution from Christians is driven by a conviction that Darwin's theory undermines traditional values and opens doors to assorted evils" (p. 69).
The current Fundamentalist opposition to evolution is actually quite recent. It essentially begins with the publication of Henry Morris' The Genesis Flood (1961). Morris is essentially the originator of young earth creationism, the view which holds that Genesis 1 presents us with a literal account of the creation of the world. The Christian opposition to evolution essentially shifted in nature. At first it was opposed as a philosophy which abetted horrible evils and destroyed all moral values; now it was opposed because it conflicted with the Bible. Giberson comments: "At the time the book appeared, most fundamentalists accepted the great age of the earth, in agreement with the scientific community. Now, half a century later, fundamentalists are largely united under the banner of young-earth creationism" (p. 132). This was an intellectual disaster in that it forced many Christians into a reading of Scripture that was simply contrary to known fact.
Giberson does not have a high opinion of Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) to which he devotes an entire chapter. His difficulty with IDT is easily stated: he argues that it has been scienfically unproductive (this is beyond dispute at this point). As a Christian, Giberson has another worry about IDT. He worries that by embracing a "God of the gaps" theology risks future disaster when what seems inexplicable now becomes explained later.
But if young-earth creationists have wrong views of science, so do many scientists and philosophers who want to turn Darwinism into a knock-down argument for their atheism. In Giberson's opinion, for figures such as Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Edward Wilson, Darwinism has become a "religion". Evolutionary theory now provides an "explanation" for everything, from altruism to religious belief itself. For evolutionary "fundamentalists" the central attraction of Darwinism is that negates God and establishes materialism as the only plausible worldview. As Giberson notes, most actual scientists find this way of thinking a contradiction of genuine science.
An interesting thing to note is that young-earth creationists have little contact with real science and some of the louder Darwinian "fundamentalists" have little contact with real theology. This may explain a great deal.
Michael Petty

2 Comments:

Blogger Erich said...

Petty explains that Giberson

“worries that by embracing a "God of the gaps" theology risks future disaster when what seems inexplicable now becomes explained later.”

When Galileo explained the sun’s centrality over mankind's earth—a similar conflict emerged. But note the stark contrast between these two purported “gaps."

1)Galileo’s explanations were later found (in terms of Newtonian physics) to have “predictive power.”

2)The sun centered “theory” is clearly context specific or situationally concrete, unlike what according to

“figures such as Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Edward Wilson, Darwinism has become a "religion". Evolutionary theory [which] now provides an "explanation" for everything, from altruism to religious belief itself.’”

3) The notion of “survival of the fittest through adaptation” is not nearly as logically cogent and engineering-wise fruitful as Galileo’s initiatory explanation (e.g., mechanics, dynamics, and their extensions of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, opening doors for semiconductors for computer to solar power chips, and clean nuclear power).

These two "gap theories" then have vastly differing concrete, practical efficacy. Evolutionary Theory seems comparatively ephemeral, having gigantic wiggle room for "creating shouting match[es]." This raises questions about its legitimate gap “filling” nature at the start.

August 3, 2008 at 1:53 AM  
Blogger Betty said...

It is plausible to believe in God and evolution at the same time, thus evoking all thanks and praise to God for His exquisite talent and scientific creation of all things bright and beautuful!

August 5, 2008 at 8:08 PM  

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