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The Need for Clear Thinking about Evolution: Three Questions for Stephen Barr

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design is that so much of it is based on misunderstandings, caricatures, and an unwillingness to engage in genuine dialogue. Sadly, even those who claim to be for open dialogue often aren’t. Thus, Stephen Barr’s willingness to engage in a serious exchange of views on evolution, theism, and intelligent design is commendable — and refreshing. Even if we do not persuade each other about our respective positions, we may help illuminate the real points at issue, and that is certainly a positive result.

After Barr’s latest salvo, I can say that we agree on at least one thing: The need for “clear thought” when it comes to Darwinian evolution. Alas, we seem to differ on what clear thought entails. In an effort to promote the clarity we both desire, I’d like to pose three questions to Dr. Barr:

1. Since you reject the Darwinian idea that evolution is undirected, why not make that disagreement perfectly clear and call your version of evolution “teleological evolution” or “directed evolution,” rather than trying to conflate your view with the terms “Darwinism” or “Darwinian evolution,” which only adds confusion to the discussion?

Barr in the original version of his latest response acknowledged that “very many and even perhaps the great majority of evolutionary biologists are atheists who do believe that the randomness of the genetic mutations that fuel evolution contradicts the idea that evolution is guided by God. But in my view, the fact that many people think that A implies B does not require that we believe it.” (This passage has since been deleted by Barr.)

Barr misstated my position. I am not claiming that because evolutionary biologists believe evolution is undirected that we must believe evolution is undirected. I am saying that modern evolutionary biologists define evolution as blind and undirected (just like Darwin himself did), therefore it would lead to greater clarity if those who have a different definition of evolution didn’t try to conflate their view with “Darwinism.” Barr’s conflation promotes confusion, not clarity. By the way, as I have pointed out previously, it isn’t just atheistic evolutionists who define evolution as undirected, even though that seems to be how Barr wants to portray things. It’s also mainstream theistic evolutionists like Ken Miller and George Coyne who think evolution is undirected.

Barr thinks it relevant to point out that I am not a scientist. Well, okay. But neither is Barr an evolutionary biologist; and unlike Barr, I am willing to let evolutionary biologists define their own theory. It seems to me presumptuous to think that one can single-handedly redefine Darwinism to mean something it doesn’t. Barr thinks it is unscientific for biologists to define Darwinian evolution as an undirected process because he thinks “random” need not mean undirected. Fine. But that is how Darwin’s theory has been defined from the very start. Rather than offering a new idiosyncratic definition of Darwinism, wouldn’t it be better for Barr to simply state that Darwinian (undirected) evolution is unscientific? Why is Barr so insistent on trying to present his view as compatible with “Darwinism” when it’s not? Barr’s muddying of the meaning of Darwinism promotes the very type of confusion and lack of clear thinking that he says he wishes to avoid.

Barr’s attempted redefinition of Darwinian evolution is somewhat like a person insisting that Marxism—properly defined—need not be in tension with Christianity. Yes, the person might say, most Marxists think atheism is central to their philosophy, but we know that they are wrong to think this. Voila! Marxism and Christianity are now compatible. Most people would understand the hollowness of such a “solution” to the tension between Marxism and Christianity. If you excise the materialism from Marxism, you no longer have Marxism, but something else. One might add that the result of convincing Christians that Marxism isn’t antithetical to Christianity is not to make Marxism safe for Christianity; it is to lull Christians into believing (wrongly) that Marxism is not a threat to their worldview. Another result is to open the door to strange debasements of Christianity such as the “liberation theology” popular during the 1980s. Wouldn’t a far better approach be to admit that Marxism is in tension with belief in God, but to go on to say that there are other forms of socialism that aren’t?

Similarly, wouldn’t it promote greater clarity if the proponents of theistic evolution who believe that evolution is guided came up with another term rather than trying to offer an idiosyncratic redefinition of Darwinism that most leading practitioners of evolutionary biology would reject? Again, what purpose is served by trying to conflate views that are in reality contradictory? Surely not Barr’s stated purpose of clear thinking. For someone who rejects the core idea of Darwinism (that evolution is unguided), Barr seems to go to great lengths to avoid any appearance of disagreement with Darwinian evolution. Why?

2. Since you indicate that you affirm that God knows and directs the outcomes of evolution, why don’t you and Francis Collins clearly repudiate the views of mainstream theistic evolution proponents like Ken Miller and George Coyne who do promote undirected evolution?

It is interesting that in his responses to me, Barr says nary a word about the mainstream theistic evolutionists I criticized such as biologist Kenneth Miller and former Vatican astronomer George Coyne who claim that God does not direct or know the specific outcomes of evolution. Why not? Barr and Francis Collins both publicly criticize proponents of intelligent design because they disagree with them. Why aren’t they equally forthright in criticizing mainstream theistic evolutionists who claim that God does not know or plan the specific results of evolution? Far from criticizing theistic evolutionists who hold this view, Francis Collins has praised the work of Kenneth Miller and delivered a keynote address to a conference of “open theists” who explicitly claim that God does not know the future. Barr criticizes me for finding equivocation in Collins where he thinks there is none, but it seems to me that Collins has made it quite easy to misunderstand his position. If Collins embraces the exact same view as Barr (i.e., that God knows and specifies all the outcomes of evolution), why is Collins going out of his way to associate himself with and praise those who argue otherwise? For the sake of clarity, why don’t Barr and Collins both publicly disclaim the position of these theistic evolution proponents?

Near the end of his recent blog post, Barr tries to diminish the role of design in the Christian theological tradition by offering an unduly constricted reading of the Apostle Paul’s statement that God can be known “by the things that are made.” (Romans 1:20) Barr suggests that Paul is echoing a passage from the book of Wisdom, which explicitly references God’s design in the heavens. However, Paul (unlike the author of Wisdom) does not reference the stars or planets, and it is a questionable interpretive strategy to base one’s reading of a passage on something the author did not say. Taken on its own terms, Paul is clearly offering a general statement of principle that applies to all sorts of created things, not just those in the heavens. Interestingly, even the passage from the book of Wisdom doesn’t really sustain Barr’s point. The author of that book goes on to make a general statement that “from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” Here the author offers a general point that presumably applies not only to the heavens but to created things as a class. Unless Barr is somehow trying to argue that living things are not “created things” in the same way as planets and stars (an untenable proposition from the standpoint of traditional Christian theology), Barr’s effort to restrict the design argument to areas outside biology fails.

Even if Barr’s constricted readings of Paul and the book of Wisdom were to be accepted, they would not cancel out Jesus’ citation of the lilies of the field as evidence of God’s care and provision for the world, nor would they cancel out the consistent writings of the early church fathers, which repeatedly reference evidence for design in biology. Frankly, Barr’s effort to keep the design argument outside of biology seems to be dictated more by a desire to achieve peace at all costs with Darwinism than a fair rendering of historic Christian teaching.

Having said this, I agree with Barr that “[t]o say that there is evidence of design in the world does not mean that every single thing one sees in the world, taken by itself, standing alone, constitutes persuasive evidence of that design.” Who claims otherwise? But Darwinism doesn’t just exclude one or two things from providing evidence for design. It purports to explain the entire development of complex life, including the development of human beings, as the product of a blind and undirected process. That seems to be a pretty frontal assault on the idea that God has revealed Himself throughout nature. Barr seems satisfied that if we can still talk about design in physics and cosmology, we don’t need to bother about it in biology. But surely from the standpoint of historic Christian theology, living things—including human beings—do not show less evidence of design than stars or planets! Indeed, if human beings are the crown of creation, one would think they might show a lot more evidence of design than, say, the planet Uranus.

The sad thing is that Barr’s redacted version of historic Christian theology seems to be driven by an unbounded—and unwarranted—faith in the claims of Neo-Darwinism. The idea that natural selection acting on random mutations can produce the sort of finely-tuned complexity we see in biology is simply not supported by the scientific evidence. At best, the Darwinian mechanism seems capable of producing trivial changes. Those who doubt this should read

Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, or look at some of the debates inspired by that book here and here.

By the end of his post, Barr appears to recognize that completely repudiating design in biology is unsustainable, and so he suggests that when all is said and done there may be evidence of design in biology after all:

The fact that I would criticize certain biological design arguments as shaky or simplistic doesn’t mean that I think all biological design arguments are. I think good biological design arguments can be made, but it is a challenging task to formulate them in a way that will be persuasive to knowledgeable people today

If Barr truly believes that “good biological design arguments can be made,” then I would consider him an intelligent design proponent. However, Barr also says that “not all design arguments based on biology are of the kind made by the Intelligent Design movement, and not all of them presuppose that Darwinian evolution is false.”

I am not exactly sure what arguments in biology Barr thinks the intelligent design movement is making. There are in fact a variety of arguments made by design proponents, and not all design proponents agree on all arguments. What design proponents do share is an openness to the detectability of design throughout nature based on evidence and arguments that do not depend on the Bible or other sacred teachings. If Barr shares this commitment, then he would seem to agree with the scientists and philosophers in the “intelligent design movement.”

Nevertheless, I am confused by his statement that “not all design arguments based on biology… presuppose that Darwinian evolution is false.” The design arguments in biology I know about do not “presuppose” that Darwinism is false. Instead, they make an argument based on evidence that the Neo-Darwinian mechanism of natural selection and random mutations cannot produce what it claims; then they go on to explain that intentional design is a better explanation. But perhaps Barr merely intended to claim that there are biological design arguments that are consistent with Darwinian evolution. If that is Barr’s claim, then I wish he would say more about the kinds of arguments he is thinking about, because he might find that we agree.

If Barr merely means that design arguments in biology need not challenge Darwin’s theory of common ancestry (as opposed to Darwin’s undirected mechanism of selection and random variations), he is surely right. Design arguments in biology need not challenge common ancestry. Of course, this is a point that has been made time and again by intelligent design proponents for the past decade, and it is a point I emphasized in my book Darwin’s Conservatives.

Similarly, if Barr means that there are design arguments about the origin of the first life that need not conflict with Darwinism because Darwinism assumes the existence of the first self-replicating organism, then I also would agree—as would the leading proponents of the “intelligent design movement.” Stephen Meyer, in fact, has just come out with a book, Signature in the Cell, which provides a compelling argument for design based on the origin of the first life. Meyer explicitly acknowledges that Darwin’s theory does not address the origin of the first life.

However, if Barr means that there are design arguments based on the development of biological complexity after the first life that do not conflict with Darwinism, then that claim seems hard to sustain. Even in Barr’s redefinition of Darwinism, the development of life is supposedly driven by “random” mutations. As I understand it, Barr defines “random” as meaning that from a human standpoint that an event displays no discernible pattern and cannot lead to any predictions. Yet if evolution is driven by “random” events in this sense, it is difficult to see how the development of complex life can provide any evidence of design. It’s one thing to claim that “random” mutations are somehow known or planned by God even though from our standpoint they show no discernible pattern. It’s quite another thing to claim that such “random” events provide us with evidence of design.
This leads to my final question for Dr. Barr:

3. If Darwinism is true and the development of life really is driven by random mutations that display no discernible pattern and cannot lead to predictions, then in what sense do you think biology provides evidence of intelligent design?

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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