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UPDATED: A Further Response to Larry Arnhart, pt. 3: Darwinism, Religion, and Intelligent Design

John G. West

[Editor’s Note: This blog post was mistakenly listed as the last in a four part series, when in fact it is the third. The fourth and final installlment will be published in the near future.]

This is the third installment of a four-part series responding to Larry Arnhart’s comments about my book, Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest. The first and second installments can be found here and here.

3. Darwinism and Religion

In the section of my book on religion, I make clear that “evolution” can be compatible with theism in general and Biblical theism in particular—depending on how one defines the term “evolution.” If all one means by “evolution” is “change over time,” or “microevolution” through natural selection, or even biological “common descent,” then evolution would seem perfectly compatible with most forms of theism. Only if one insists that evolution is an undirected Darwinian process of chance and necessity, with no particular end in view, does there seem to be a serious problem with traditional theism. But even here there are at least two potential solutions.

First, one could choose to believe that evolution is a directed process even though it looks undirected. As I explain in my book, most consistent Darwinists would reject such a view because it essentially guts Darwinism’s core claim that evolution is undirected. Alternatively, one could stress that Darwin’s theory, strictly speaking, begins after the first life has developed, and so it does not necessarily refute the claim that there may be some kind of “first cause” to the universe that stands outside of nature. I agree with Arnhart that this second view is logically possible according to Darwinism. However, in his book Darwinian Conservatism, Arnhart claims not only that Darwinism is compatible with the idea that there is a “first cause,” but that it is “compatible… particularly with biblical theism.” (emphasis added) I am highly skeptical of the latter claim. As I explain in my book, the God of the Bible actively supervises and directs the development of life in a way that is detectable, but this is precisely the kind of God that Darwinism cannot allow.


Does Darwinsim lead to Moral Relativism? Click here to watch a video clip from Dr. John West’s presentation on his book Darwin’s Conservatives.


In an effort to answer my objection, Arnhart comes up with the inventive claim that

Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theory are in the same boat here. They are both open to the possibility that nature depends on some supernatural First Cause. But whether this is the “God of the Bible” is a matter of faith beyond any rational study of nature. As West admits, the proponents of intelligent design cannot determine “whether the intelligent cause is the Judeo-Christian God.”

But this is another false analogy. True, both Darwinism and intelligent design are open to the possibility of a transcendent First Cause of the universe. But only intelligent design is open to the further possibility that a transcendent First Cause could have personally directed and guided the development of life—which is the particular claim made by traditional Judeo-Christian theism. It is this further possibility that orthodox Darwinism clearly denies. In the words of an open letter signed in the late 1990s by more than 100 evolutionists, “the possibility that evolution is in fact supervised in a personal matter… is a prospect that every evolutionary biologist should vigorously and positively deny.” (See p. 16 of my book for documentation.)

Intelligent design as a scientific theory cannot prove whether the intelligent cause behind life is the God of the Bible. But—unlike Darwinism—it leaves open the genuine possibility that such an intelligent cause exists, allowing philosophers and theologians to continue to discuss and debate this possibility.

4. Darwinism and Intelligent Design

Arnhart has little to say about my chapter on Darwinism and intelligent design, except to continue to insist that “for ID to have some positive content, its proponents would have to explain exactly where, where, when, and how a disembodied intelligence designed ‘irreducibly complex’ structures like the bacterial flagellum.” I think the response in my book to that charge still stands:

But why? Can’t we know that something was produced by an intelligent cause even if we do not know the method used by the intelligent cause? If I am hiking in the desert and come across what appears to be the ruin of a giant building, can’t I conclude that an intelligent cause was at work even if I know nothing about how the building was created or who had inhabited the area previously? Discovering the methods by which intelligent causes organized matter and energy in a certain way is an interesting inquiry, but determining whether an intelligent cause was involved at all also seems to be a legitimate question. Faulting intelligent design theory for not answering a question it does not even purport to answer seems unreasonable.

Arnhart replies that my response proves his point: “The proponents of ID cannot do what they demand that the Darwinists must do—provide detailed, step-by-step explanations of exactly how these ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanisms are constructed.” But I think this is yet another false comparison. First, Darwinists themselves claim that evolution explains the material process by which biological features and organisms developed over time. Given this claim, I don’t see why it is unfair to demand that evolutionists provide plausible step-by-step explanations for the biological features they themselves claim were produced by selection and mutation. This is a key question they are purporting to answer, after all.

Second, and more importantly, the standard of proof is naturally higher when someone invokes a cause to explain something it would not normally explain. As I discuss in my book, we have overwhelming evidence from the natural and social worlds that intelligent causes are routinely capable of creating structures that exhibit the complex and purposeful arrangement of parts. At the same time, we have similar evidence that processes of chance and necessity do not ordinarily produce new structures of such specified and functional complexity. Given this situation, the burden of proof is on the evolutionists to show why it is plausible that a process of chance and necessity like random mutations and natural selection can generate these kinds of structures.

In my final installment of this series, I will respond to Arnhart’s comments about Darwinism and economic liberty.
Those who desire more information about any of the issues discussed here are encouraged to consult the relevant chapters of my book.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.

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