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When Theology Becomes Invisible: A Reply to Joshua Rosenau (ID at the AAAS Annual Meeting)

Last month, NCSE staffer Joshua Rosenau complained on his blog that I failed to report on his talk, “Why We Need to Apply Dobzhansky’s Maxim Today,” which opened the February 15, 2009 AAAS session, Evolution Makes Sense of Biology. Instead, he says, my blog post focused on issues of my own manufacture, and missed the point, not only of his talk, but of the entire session — evolution, not intelligent design.
Did I miss the point? Here’s the evidence:

1. The AAAS audience, given the chance in the Q & A to respond to Rosenau, asked him not about evolution, but about intelligent design (ID) and “creationism.”

One question concerned the supposedly creationist views of ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Timothy Johnson, and what could be done about that problem. Another question, from National Academy of Sciences representative Jay Labov, addressed what Labov saw as the relative weakness of the NCSE pro-evolution public relations campaign, compared with effectiveness of the ID slogan “Teach the controversy.”

In short, no one asked about the science of evolution. That was the case for the questions after most of the other lectures as well (see forthcoming entries in this blog series). The audience wanted to talk about controversies over ID, or “creationism,” and what was could be done to respond to these ideas. (Anyone curious about verifying this can purchase the MP3 files from AVEN, session number AS963.)

Rosenau also said that I gave his lecture too cursory a summary, and failed to rebut his arguments. Taking the trouble to rebut, however, requires a proposition worth rebutting, and I focused on the implicit theology in Rosenau’s recommended source materials. The science was mostly using “evolution” to name for all kinds of different things (from pest management to the evolution of universes), in a fashion either question-begging or irrelevant.

For instance, Rosenau described the discovery of the medicine Taxol (paclitaxel) and the use of phylogenetic methods to identify plant sources for this compound, other than the limited supply available in the bark of the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia. Why didn’t I reply to this example? Rosenau asks:

Nelson is free to disagree that an understanding of common ancestry was essential to producing enough Taxol to treat hundreds of thousands of patients, but he never explains why.

I didn’t explain why, because the common ancestry of Taxus brevifolia and Taxus baccata (the European yew, whose needles provide additional sources for synthesizing Taxol) is a phylogenetic hypothesis not even the most doctrinaire young-earth creationist would challenge. If this is “evolution,” then everyone accepts evolution.

But both the AAAS and the NCSE mean a great deal more than this by “evolution.” Using the same word to refer to species of yew within the genus Taxus, and (say) to the origin of life by some unknown natural pathway, is the sort of equivocation that engenders skepticism. (Rosenau’s other uses of “evolution” suffered from the same equivocation.)

2. The NCSE does not promote theistic evolution, says Rosenau. But that’s exactly what they promote, whether they are conscious of doing so or not.

Like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who speaks prose without knowing it, many evolutionary biologists advocate theological views with genuine (and highly debatable) content. That they may not be conscious of doing so doesn’t affect the content of their arguments. Prose is prose, and theology is theology.
Here is Rosenau’s view of Dobzhansky’s famous 1973 essay, “Nothing In Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” Rosenau writes:

It is simply and demonstrably false, however, to claim that Dobzhansky’s essay is any sort of theological argument…Three paragraphs out of ~75 can hardly be claimed as proof that Dobzhansky is mounting a theological case for anything.

Below, I’ve excerpted the parts of the 1973 essay where Dobzhansky makes theological claims. After each, I give a short summary of the particular theological argument or assertion. Roughly one fifth of the essay (912 words / 4460 words = .204) is either explicitly or implicitly theological in content.

The Koran and the Bible do not contradict Copernicus, nor does Copernicus contradict them. It is ludicrous to mistake the Bible and the Koran for primers of natural science. They treat of matters even more important: the meaning of man and his relations to God. They are written in poetic symbols that were understandable to people of the age when they were written, as well as to peoples of all other ages. (p. 125)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #1: Sacred writings do not assert matters of empirical fact.

The earth is not the geometric center of the universe, although it may be its spiritual center. (p. 125)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #2: The Earth may be the spiritual center of the universe.

One can suppose that the Creator saw fit to play deceitful tricks on geologists and biologists. He carefully arranged to have various rocks provided with isotope ratios just right to mislead us into thinking that certain rocks are 2 billion years old, others 2 million, which in fact they are only some 6,000 years old. This kind of pseudo-explanation is not very new. One of the early anti-evolutionists, P. H. Gosse, published a book entitled Omphalos (“the Navel”). The gist of this amazing book is that Adam, though he had no mother, was created with a navel, and that fossils were placed by the Creator where we find them now — a deliberate act on His part, to give the appearance of great antiquity and geologic upheavals. It is easy to see the fatal flaw in all such notions. They are blasphemies, accusing God of absurd deceitfulness. This is as revolting as it is uncalled for. (p. 126)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #3: It is blasphemy to say that God created with the appearance of age.

Organisms now living are successful descendants of only a minority of the species that lived in the past and of smaller and smaller minorities the farther back you look. Nevertheless, the number of living species has not dwindled; indeed, it has probably grown with time. All this is understandable in the light of evolution theory; but what a senseless operation it would have been, on God’s part, to fabricate a multitude of species ex nihilo and then let most of them die out! (pp. 126-7)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #4: God would not have created species only to let them become extinct.

Was the Creator in a jocular mood when he made Psilopa petrolei for California oil fields and species of Drosophila to live exclusively on some body-parts of certain land crabs on only certain islands in the Caribbean? The organic diversity becomes, however, reasonable and understandable if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice but by evolution propelled by natural selection. It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way. (p. 127)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #5: God creates not directly but by using evolution. God’s creative activity is ongoing.

But what if there was no evolution and every one of the millions of species were created by separate fiat? However offensive the notion may be to religious feeling and to reason, the anti-evolutionists must again accuse the Creator of cheating. They must insist that He deliberately arranged things exactly as if his method of creation was evolution, intentionally to mislead sincere seekers of truth. (p. 127)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #6: Skeptics of evolution impute deliberate deception to God.

The presence of gill slits in human embryos and in embryos of other terrestrial vertebrates is another famous example. Of course, at no stage of its development is a human embryo a fish, nor does it ever have functioning gills. But why should it have unmistakable gill slits unless its remote ancestors did respire with the aid of gills? It is the Creator again playing practical jokes? (p. 128)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #7: God would not have made terrestrial vertebrates appear to possess gill slits during development. Therefore, these animals descended from ancestors with gills.

Oceanic islands other than Hawaii, scattered over the wide Pacific Ocean, are not conspicuously rich in endemic species of drosophilids. The most probable explanation of this fact is that these other islands were colonized by drosophilid after most ecologic niches had already been filled by earlier arrivals. This surely is a hypothesis, but it is a reasonable one. Anti-evolutionists might perhaps suggest an alternative hypothesis: in a fit of absentmindedness, the Creator went on manufacturing more and more drosophilid species for Hawaii, until there was an extravagant surfeit of them in this archipelago. (p. 129)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #8: It is nonsenical to impute the creation of Hawaiian drosopholids to God.

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. As pointed out above, the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness. (p. 129)

Dobzhansky’s theological claim #9: Restatement or combination of claims 1 and 6.
Evolutionary biologists since Darwin’s time have used theological language or concepts (Nelson 1996; Lustig 2004) to support evolutionary theory. In conversation with me, some biologists have justified this practice as mere rhetoric — tweaking believers with their own terms, and nothing more. It’s fun and easy to use theology to mock theists.
Other biologists, however, acknowledge the genuine theological content of the arguments, but see that as unavoidable, given the historical relation of evolutionary theory to its theological antecedents. As historian Abigal Lustig notes:

But evolutionary biology, perhaps more than any other science, not only is not nonepistemic-value-free, but, by virtue of its descent, cannot be so. Born in theology, its goals entail the extension of an a priori metaphysical rationalism whose aim at its origin was to upset the strongest rational argument for the existence of God. (2004, 70)

By promoting Dobzhansky’s 1973 essay, however, Rosenau and the NCSE both stake a claim in ongoing theological controversies, and give the lie to their organization’s simultaneous promotion of methodological naturalism as the only acceptable philosophy of science.

If you speak in prose, you’re using prose, whether consciously or not. The same is true of theology.


Lustig, Abigail. 2004. Natural Atheology. In A. Lustig, R. Richards, and M. Ruse, eds., Darwinian Heresies (Cambridge University Press), pp. 69-83.
Nelson, Paul. 1996. The Role of Theology in Current Evolutionary Reasoning. Biology & Philosophy 11:493-517.

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.