Shermer: “Right on, Darwin!”

Logan Paul Gage

Scientific American is carrying a new piece by Michael Shermer on “Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution.” Shermer is a libertarian, agnostic Darwinist, so it is curious that he would make this argument. It reminds one of Eugenie Scott‘s lectures in churches. (Recall that they are both original signatories of Humanist Manifesto III.) But perhaps this is all the more reason to hear Shermer’s argument. After all, if ID advocates and their detractors merely speak to their natural constituencies, this controversy-that-does-not-exist will go nowhere. Shermer makes six quick arguments.

First, he argues that “Evolution fits well with good theology.” Shermer argues that Christians should not be overly concerned with when God created but merely with the fact that he did so. I’m not a biblical scholar, so I will take a pass on that one, though I heartily recommend C. John Collins’s Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Shermer is probably right that when God created is probably not the most important question for Christians as compared to the question of whether he acted in natural history at all. Phillip Johnson always said as much. But the devil, pardon the phrase, is in the details. Shermer asks, “And what difference does it make how God created life–spoken word or natural forces?” Now I’m no expert on Christian theology. As I understand it, the Christian tradition has always had room for God using natural forces and for direct divine action. But the problem here is not one for theologians; rather it is for logicians. It is all well and good to say “God used evolution,” until we get to defining those terms. Serious neo-Darwinists have always claimed that “evolution” happens by random gene mutations natural selection. As should be clear, if God is “using” random mutations, they are not random; and if he is selecting which mutations stay in the gene pool, we have intelligent selection, not natural selection. As one friendly philosopher suggested to me (in jest) yesterday, “It’s really simple, you know: God is just directing an undirected process. He does this right after he squares a circle and moves an immovable object.”
Second, Shermer says that ID is bad theology because it makes God out to be a watchmaker or “garage tinkerer.” Here Shermer follows something Fr. George Coyne said not long ago in a lecture here in D.C. at the AAAS. Coyne claimed that ID belittles God, since he/she is not primarily a designer but a lover. This analogy seems silly to me. One could just as well say that Coyne’s quasi-Deism makes God out to be a deadbeat Dad who abandons his creation the moment after birth. This gets us nowhere.
Third and fourth, according to Shermer “Evolution explains original sin and the Christian model of human nature,” and not only that but “family values,” too. Now that is a bold claim. I will leave the doctrine of original sin to the theologians. My guess is they think that humanity was created good and then chose to sin, rather than Shermer’s version, which seems to suggest that humanity has always been good and bad. Once again, my problem is with the use of logic. If, as Shermer writes, “As a social primate species, we evolved morality to enhance the survival of both family and community. . . [and] Subsequently, religions designed moral codes based on our evolved moral natures,” then morality is a social construction rather than a real fact of the universe. But if the Christian story is true, or even if the mythology of most ancient civilizations were true, then morality is real and not constructed. Religious people everywhere, not merely Christians, would take issue with Shermer here, I believe.

Evolution accounts for specific Christian moral precepts. Much of Christian morality has to do with human relationships, most notably truth telling and marital fidelity, because the violation of these principles causes a severe breakdown in trust, which is the foundation of family and community. Evolution describes how we developed into pair-bonded primates and how adultery violates trust. Likewise, truth telling is vital for trust in our society, so lying is a sin.

It is starting to seem that evolution can account for anything. One question: How is it that our “selfish genes” which desire nothing more than to procreate also account for marital fidelity? Would not natural selection favor those who copulate and reproduce offspring like rabbits? I suppose one could say that the offspring are more likely to survive if the parents are faithful to each other, etc. But the problem here is that evolution explains too much. It explains both why we aren’t faithful and why we are. These are just-so stories.
Sixth, “Evolution explains conservative free-market economics” since, as Adam Smith showed, complexity can arise spontaneously out of competition. As I wrote in a letter to the libertarian publication The New Individualist last year, this is really an example of intelligent design.

Order does emerge in a free market. But why? Because intelligent agents are at work–engaged in buying, selling, trading, and producing products. This was George Gilder’s fundamental insight in Wealth & Poverty. The supply-side revolution was ushered in partly because Gilder and others recognized that man is more than matter. He is mind. And mind is the source of all innovation, and hence mind is the resource that creates wealth where there was none before. Order and complexity can emerge “spontaneously”–from intelligent, creative beings, anyway.

Finally, for those of you in the D.C. area, do not forget to check out Michael Shermer and Jonathan Wells at the CATO Institute October 12. They will be discussing Shermer’s new book.

Logan Paul Gage

Logan Paul Gage is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Gage received his B.A. in history, philosophy, and American studies from Whitworth College (2004) and his M.A. (2011) and Ph.D. (2014) in philosophy from Baylor University. His dissertation, written under the supervision of Trent Dougherty, was a defense of the phenomenal conception of evidence and conservative principles in epistemology.