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God and Evolution: A Response to Stephen Barr (part 1)

John G. West

Theistic evolutionist Stephen Barr is a serious and thoughtful man, and on the First Things blog, he has raised some serious and thoughtful objections to an essay I wrote for The Washington Post as well as to reflections on that essay by Joe Carter (also at the First Things blog). Unfortunately, I think Barr’s criticisms confuse matters more than they clarify them. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that he has aired his objections, because some of his misunderstandings are shared by other conservative intellectuals, and they deserve a response. This is the first of three posts responding to Barr.

False Dilemma or Wishful Thinking: Is Darwinian Evolution Undirected or Not?

Barr first claims that Joe Carter and I “are trapped in a false dilemma” because we wrongly think that random processes cannot be directed by God. Barr points out that even random events, properly defined, are part of God’s sovereign plan. Just because something is random from our point of view, doesn’t mean that it is outside of God’s providence. Barr may be surprised to learn that I agree with him. Indeed, most, if not all, of the scholars who believe that nature provides evidence of intelligent design would agree with him. The problem with Barr’s argument is not with his understanding of the proper meaning of random, but with his seeming blindness to the fact that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists do not share his view. Barr’s ultimate disagreement here is not with me or Joe Carter, but with the discipline of evolutionary biology itself.

Barr claims that “[w]hen scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes.” I don’t know which “scientists” Barr thinks he is speaking for, but they surely aren’t most evolutionary biologists. When Darwinian biologists say that natural selection is a blind process fueled by random biological changes, they most assuredly think that this claim contradicts the belief that evolution is guided—by God or any other intelligent cause. It should be noted that the insistence that evolution is undirected goes back to Darwin himself, who explicitly framed natural selection as a blind and non-teleological process. Criticizing those who believed that evolution was somehow guided, Darwin wrote:

no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations… which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, second edition (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1883), vol. II, pp. 428-429]

The insistence that evolution acts without plan or purpose has been a standard refrain by evolutionary biologists over the past century. The view expressed by famed Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson was typical: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” [Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345] Or to cite a more recent example: In 2006, 38 Nobel laureates sent an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education insisting that evolution is “the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” (emphasis mine)

The same insistence that evolution is undirected can be found ad nauseum in biology textbooks over the past several decades. According to the college biology text A View of Life (1981), evolution is “a natural process without purpose or inherent direction.” [pp. 586-587] According to Evolutionary Biology (1998), “[b]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.” [p. 5] According to Life: The Science of Biology (2001), accepting “the Darwinian view… means accepting not only the processes of evolution, but also the view that… evolutionary change occurs without any ‘goals.’ The idea that evolutionary change is not directed toward a final goal or state has been more difficult for many people to accept than the process of evolution itself.” [p. 3]

The belief that Darwinian evolution is undirected probably explains why biology is more dominated by atheists and agnostics than any other scientific discipline. According to a 1998 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), nearly 95% of NAS biologists are atheists or agnostics; and according to a 2003 survey of leading scientists in the field of evolution, 87 percent denied outright the existence of God, 88 percent disbelieved in the existence of life after death, and 90 percent rejected the idea that evolution is directed toward an “ultimate purpose.” Even among rank and file biologists at all American universities and colleges, more than 60% classify themselves as atheists or agnostics.

In sum, when it comes to the field of evolutionary biology, Barr’s assurance that “scientists” don’t think random processes imply anything about whether God directed evolution is plainly wrong. His view comes close to being an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Barr essentially tries to redefine Darwinian evolution so that it no longer excludes the idea that evolution could be directed. But one can’t resolve the debate over the implications of Darwinism by definitional fiat. Barr may be frustrated that Darwinian biologists misunderstand the real nature of randomness, but that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists think natural selection is an undirected process by definition. That’s their theory. If Barr wants to come up with a new definition of evolutionary theory that is not inherently undirected, fine. But he shouldn’t try suggest that it is somehow consistent with mainstream evolutionary biology. It’s not, and intimating otherwise simply spreads confusion, not clarity.

As it turns out, it’s not only atheistic evolutionists who disagree with Barr. Even many current “theistic” evolutionists insist that evolution is genuinely undirected. That will be the subject of my next post.

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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