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Clarity and Confusion: Stephen Barr Answers My Questions

Stephen Barr at First Things has responded to the three questions I posed to him in our online dialogue about evolution, God, Christianity, and intelligent design. Parts of Barr’s response are helpful in clarifying the points in contention; other parts continue to leave me perplexed.

For those who have not been following our exchange, it began after Barr took issue with this article I wrote for The Washington Post criticizing proponents of theistic evolution such as Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins (who was just nominated by the Obama administration to be the head of the National Institutes of Health, and who was one of the notable supporters of President Obama’s repeal of the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research earlier this year.) Other installments in my exchange with Barr can be read here, here, and here.

Barr’s latest response comes in two parts: The first part appeared as a comment posted on June 26 to one of his earlier blog posts; it’s a thoughtful answer that advances the discussion by clarifying our disagreements. The second part appeared as a new post on the First Things blog. Unfortunately, this latter rejoinder adopts an exasperated and condescending tone that isn’t especially conducive to civil discussion.

My three questions to Barr focused on his peculiar definition of Darwinism, his public silence on the mainstream theistic evolutionists who promote undirected evolution, and the ways in which Barr thinks design can be detected in biology.

The Humpty Dumpty Approach to Defining Darwinism

In my first question, I asked Barr why he insisted on conflating his teleological view of evolution with the term “Darwinism.” Doesn’t that simply promote confusion rather than clarity?

As I demonstrated previously, the vast majority of evolutionary biologists don’t just believe that Darwinian evolution appears undirected; they hold that it really is undirected. Barr even seems to have conceded this fact. However, he rejects the idea that evolution truly is undirected. To him, evolution only looks undirected and any claims to the contrary are merely “philosophical offshoots” of the real biological theory of evolution. Whatever can be said about Barr’s view of evolution, it is not “Darwinism.” The definition of Darwinian evolution as an undirected process goes back to Darwin himself; it’s a core part of the theory. Barr’s response? He insists there isn’t any other term that can be used: “At present, there is no such agreed-upon substitute word [for Darwinism], or even any proposal or discussion of finding one. So we HAVE to use the word Darwinism to describe the mere biological theory—there is simply no other word available.”

Well, if there is simply no other word currently available, why doesn’t Barr invent one? Surely he can come up with his own more precise term to describe his unique view of evolution, one that isn’t already being used by others to mean something else. But instead of coining a new term for his own view, Barr suggests that we come up with a new label for undirected evolution: “atheistic hyper-darwinism.” The problem with this suggestion is that what Barr calls “atheistic hyper-darwinism” is merely mainstream Darwinian theory as accepted by the vast majority of evolutionary biologists. Indeed, if we were to adopt Barr’s suggestion, we would have to classify Charles Darwin himself—the author of the theory—as a “hyper-Darwinist.” The “hyper-Darwinist label” is thus seriously misleading. It attempts to portray garden variety Darwinism as a fringe view, when it is Barr’s attempted redefinition of Darwinism that is the fringe view among evolutionary biologists.

This discussion over terminology begins to make one feel rather like Alice in Wonderland:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I believe Darwinism should be defined as Darwin and most of his followers have defined the term—as a blind, undirected process of natural selection acting on random variations. Barr insists that he should be able to redefine the term to mean that evolution only appears to be unguided, and that mainstream Darwinian theory be relabeled “hyper-Darwinism.” Readers will have to decide for themselves which approach leads to greater clarity in public discussions. In my view, one can have a theory of evolution that is harmonious with Christianity, but Darwinism isn’t it, and using the term “Darwinism” to refer to such a metaphysically-neutral theory of evolution is not helpful at all. As I pointed out in my previous post, I think the main consequence of trying to redefine Darwinism to mean something other than what most Darwinian biologists think is to lull theists into believing that mainstream Darwinism is metaphysically neutral—when it’s not. Mainstream Darwinism will continue to mean what it has always meant, and mainstream Darwinists will continue to use the theory to promote their metaphysical agenda, Barr’s efforts to redefine the term notwithstanding.

The Hear-No-Evil, See-No-Evil Approach to Undirected Theistic Evolution

My second question to Barr asked why he and Francis Collins have not repudiated the theory of undirected theistic evolution propagated by scientists like Kenneth Miller and former Vatican astronomer George Coyne. Here Barr pleads ignorance, saying that he really hasn’t studied the views of Kenneth Miller. Barr indicates that if Miller really espouses the views I cite, then of course those views wouldn’t be acceptable, but Barr doesn’t want to hazard an opinion as to whether Miller actually holds the views I cite. (He doesn’t mention George Coyne.) This plea of ignorance is puzzling. Kenneth Miller, George Coyne, and Georgetown theologian John Haught are prominent figures in the evolution debate, and their view of unguided theistic evolution is hardly a secret. Yet Barr seems more concerned about finding fault with intelligent design proponents than with countering the denial of God’s omniscience and sovereignty by fellow proponents of theistic evolution who are trying to square theism with undirected Darwinism. This seems to be a strange set of priorities. After all, which is more serious: Disagreement about where and how one can detect design in nature? Or disagreement about whether nature really was designed in any traditional sense? I would encourage Dr. Barr to become acquainted with what mainstream theistic evolutionists like Miller, Coyne, and Haught are arguing. Otherwise while he is busy skirmishing with intelligent design proponents over where and how to detect design, he may miss a far more fundamental intellectual battle going on all around him.

Francis Collins, I might add, can’t plead the excuse of ignorance. Unlike Barr, Collins has praised Kenneth Miller’s writings and has drawn extensively on Miller for his own critique of intelligent design. As I noted in two previous posts, Collins also delivered the keynote at a conference on “open theism” and science. Open theists, of course, explicitly deny that God knows the future exhaustively. So Collins surely is not ignorant of the views of theistic evolutionists who deny that the specific outcomes of evolution are known and directed by God. Why, then, has Collins stayed silent about the views of these mainstream theistic evolutionists? Again, this seems to be a strange set of priorities. Collins assails intelligent design, shrilly claiming that “ID is not only bad science but is potentially threatening in other deeper ways to America’s future.” (emphasis added) Yet Collins raises no similar criticisms of his fellow theistic evolutionists who insist that God neither knows nor directs the specific outcomes of evolution. Why not?

Evolution Appears Undirected (Except When It Appears Directed)

My third question to Barr asked about where he sees evidence of design in biology. This question arose after Barr seemed to endorse Francis Collins’ position that evolution only looks “undirected.” Barr then seemed to agree with intelligent design proponents that biology does display evidence of design even though he disagreed with specific arguments for the detection of intelligent design in biology. (“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….”)
Responding to my question, Barr says that there appears to be “a great deal of directedness in biological evolution,” echoing Simon Conway Morris’s view that evolution converges on the same solutions time and again. Barr goes on to claim that man’s “spiritual powers of intellect and will” provide evidence of “design and purpose very directly.” According to Barr, “no kind of biological theory can account for man himself. We have spiritual souls. These cannot be accounted for by any biological process, whether Darwinian or otherwise. The soul is infused directly by God.”

Barr’s answer makes me even more mystified about why he insists on calling his own view “Darwinism.” After all, Morris’s view of “channeled” evolution is far from canonical Darwinism. Indeed, although Morris has been publicly critical of intelligent design, his early statements about convergent evolution explicitly drew a connection between the anthropic principle in cosmology and what he was finding in biology. Barr’s view of human development, meanwhile, is completely contrary to the Darwinian view. There is simply no principled basis from within Darwinism to exempt any part of human beings from the evolutionary process, and no orthodox Darwinist would ever accept the idea that Darwinian evolution does not fully explain man’s capacities, including his mental and moral faculties. In fact, Darwin himself wrote an entire book—The Descent of Man—to demonstrate that all of man’s intellectual, moral, and even spiritual faculties were produced by the same blind and mechanistic process that produced his bodily appendages. When fellow scientists such as Alfred Wallace and St. George Jackson Mivart dared to disagree with Darwin about whether natural selection could explain such human faculties, Darwin became upset; in his view, their views were heretical.

I must admit that I am perplexed about how to reconcile Barr’s latest statements with his earlier defense of the position of Francis Collins. Remember that our original exchange began when Barr took offense because I criticized Collins for insisting that evolution looks to human beings as if it is “undirected.”

Lydia McGrew insightfully analyzes how Barr seems to discount the detectability of design throughout nature, not just in biology. Yet Barr is now saying that we can discern “a great deal of directedness in biological evolution.” Well, which is it? Does evolution look “undirected,” as Collins says, or does evolution appear to have “a great deal of directedness”? Interestingly, after his latest response to me, Barr posted the following comment:

We are in the presence of mystery. God does not always show his hand. He is the “deus absconditus”, the God who hides. The splendor of creation indeed proclaims the greatness and power of God. But I certainly don’t know how God does everything He does, and neither do the ID people.

Setting aside the jibe that “ID people” pretend to know how God does everything (in fact, they merely propose that science can detect certain features of design in nature), let us focus on the confusion that seems to inhere in this passage. Barr first asserts that God is “the God who hides” (implying that His activity may be undetectable in nature); but then Barr turns around and asserts that “creation indeed proclaims the greatness and power of God” (implying that God’s activity is detectable after all). It seems to me that Barr is trying to have it both ways when it comes to Darwinian evolution. When someone critiques Collins’ view that the evolutionary process only looks “undirected,” Barr responds with “the God who hides.” When it is pointed out that this claim flies in the face of historic Christian theology, Barr turns around and says, well, of course, I believe that evolution shows evidence of direction and design!

No doubt he will accuse me of misunderstanding his position (again), but it seems to me that Barr’s actual position is rather difficult to pin down. According to Barr, Darwinian evolution appears to be undirected—except, of course, when it appears to be directed.

Does Barr’s Position Diminish the Role of Design in the Christian Tradition?

Thus far I have responded to Barr’s answers to my three questions, which he posted as a comment to one of his blogs. Later, Barr posted an entirely new blog post titled “There He Goes Again: Another Response to John West.” Barr begins that post with: “To quote the Gipper, ‘There he goes again’ Every time John G. West attempts to argue against my views, he misrepresents them.” Barr goes on to say that he has “deep differences with the ID movement, but I think they deserve far better than this kind of advocacy.” He ends with the claim: “West thinks he can read the evidences of God’s activity and purpose in nature much better than I or Francis Collins can. His claims in this regard would be much more convincing if he were to demonstrate some ability to understand human purpose let alone divine, and in particular the meaning and purpose of very clear passages of human prose.”

I’m not sure why Barr thinks that honest questions and disagreements should be met with a tone of condescension and exasperation, not to mention intimations that I am either mendacious or dim. Perhaps Barr is learning bad habits from some other theistic evolutionists. He seems to think that I am questioning his honesty or sincerity in disagreeing with him. For the record, let me assure him that I have not intended to do so. I’m sure Barr genuinely believes that his position is correct. Just because I disagree with him does not mean I am trying to impugn his integrity. I earlier praised Barr as a serious and thoughtful man and commended him for being willing to engage in a genuine dialogue about serious issues.

Barr takes particular umbrage at my writing that he “tries to diminish the role of design in the Christian theological tradition,” which he says misrepresents his position. On further reflection, however, I think my statement was fair. I did not claim that Barr denies the role of design in the Christian theological tradition, only that he was trying to diminish it. Now why did I say that?

To understand the context of what I wrote, one needs to go back (again) to the very beginning of our exchange. Barr criticized an article I wrote for the Washington Post that criticized Francis Collins for suggesting that the outcomes of evolution could have been known and specified by God even though God (according to Collins) made the evolutionary process look “random and undirected.” Barr insisted that Collins’ “understanding of divine providence, omnipotence, and omniscience are thoroughly in accord with the insights and explanations to be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the mainstream of Christian tradition.”

As part of my response, I cited Romans 1:20, Psalm 19, and the teachings of the early church fathers to make one very simple point: The idea that God hid his activity in creating biological life (making His actions appear “random and undirected” in Collins’ words) is difficult to square with the universal teaching of the church that God’s creativity activity can be discerned through the things he has made. Contra Frank Beckwith, my point in citing Romans was not to insist on a particular way of detecting design in nature—be it Bill Dembski’s explanatory filter, Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity, or Stephen Meyer’s inference to the best explanation. I certainly have opinions on how design can be detected in biology and elsewhere, but that was not what I was getting at. My original point was that Collins’ specific claim in The Language of God that the development of life through evolution looks “undirected” is in tension with the historic Christian teaching that God can be known through His works. I think this criticism of Collins still stands.

Now in response to this criticism of Collins’ position, what did Barr say? Well, one thing he did not say was that he disagreed with Collins. Instead, he launched the following defense: “It is a huge leap of logic to jump over all these crucial distinctions and say that because someone defends the basic validity of Darwinian evolution and thinks the arguments of the ID movement are shaky and inadequate he must therefore be denying that God’s activity in the world is knowable through the things he has created.”

But Barr misstated my argument and missed my central point: I did not argue that because someone “thinks the arguments of the ID movement are shaky and inadequate” that “he must therefore be denying that God’s activity in the world is knowable through the things he has created.” Rather, I objected to Collins’ claim that God made the evolutionary process look like it was “random and undirected” (again, this is Collins’ phrase, not mine). It seemed to me then—it still seems to me now—that Collins’ assertion is hard to square with the general principle enunciated by Paul that we can discern God’s character through the things he created in nature. Collins’ claim that God made evolution look “undirected” to human beings isn’t just a denial of one particular way of discerning design in the history of life; it is a general denial that we can discern design in the particular outcomes of the evolutionary process.

After critiquing an argument I did not make, Barr went on to argue that the passage I cited from the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:20 contained “a clear allusion to a passage from the Book of Wisdom,” which he then reprinted at length. Since I had not mentioned the Book of Wisdom, what was the reason for Barr’s lengthy quotation from it? According to his own explanation at the time, he wanted to make the following point: “It is noteworthy that this passage does not point at all to biological phenomena, let alone biological complexity.” Now why was this point “noteworthy,” unless Barr somehow thought that it countered my interpretation of Romans 1:20 to which he was responding? Read in context, Barr’s statement certainly does seem intended to diminish the prominence of biological arguments for design in the Christian theological tradition. Barr’s subsequent paragraph reinforces this interpretation. I reproduce that paragraph in full:

To 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. Everything is part of the divine plan, but the divine plan is not always and everywhere evident on the surface of things. There are valid design arguments, but that does not mean that all design arguments are valid. Darwinism has indeed made certain kinds of design argument more difficult to make; but, happily, science has made other kinds of design argument easier to make. 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. In my view, it is more effective at present to use design arguments of another sort.

Again, it is necessary to correct Barr on what he imagines ID proponents propose. They do not hold that “every single thing one sees in the world, taken by itself, standing alone, constitutes persuasive evidence of… design.” This is a straw man argument. As for the rest of the passage, Barr does not deny that there are any valid design arguments (nor did I claim that he did), but it’s clear that the overall thrust of his argument is to diminish the importance of biological arguments for design. Barr argues that “Darwinism has… made certain kinds of design arguments more difficult to make” (i.e., biological arguments for design), and although he goes on to say that “good biological design arguments can be made,” he warns that “it is a challenging task to formulate them in a way that will be persuasive to knowledgeable people today.” Barr’s conclusion? “In my view, it is more effective at present to use design arguments of another sort.”

Note that Barr indicates here that even “good biological design arguments” are hard to make persuasively, and therefore he prefers “design arguments of another sort.” How is this not diminishing the importance of arguments for biological design—even those Barr considers “good biological design arguments”?! When I wrote that Barr was trying to diminish the role of design, the context was clearly a discussion of his view of biological design. I never claimed that he was hostile to all design arguments. In fact, I have noted that both he and Francis Collins are open to design in physics and cosmology. The point under discussion, however, was whether or not the evolutionary process that led to the development of complex life displayed evidence of design.

An additional point. Barr takes me to task for stating that his “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.”

Barr thinks I was impugning his integrity by this passage. In fact, I was trying to criticize his approach, not his integrity. To reiterate: I do not question that Barr is a serious Christian who sincerely believes that his position is correct. In retrospect, I think I could have eliminated the phrase “at all costs” in my criticism. Regardless, by his own self-explanation, Barr is very concerned about getting Christians to make peace with Darwinism. Indeed, he even invokes the metaphor of warfare in expressing his concerns that Christians stop attacking Darwin. He writes:

It is both futile and very harmful to Christianity for Christians to keep waging war against evolution and “Darwinism”. This will not have any effect whatsoever on the field of biology. Contrary to what many people naively imagine, there is zero chance that the idea of evolution will be overthrown in biology. There is zero chance that Darwin’s idea of natural selection will be completely overthrown. It is likely to be modified and refined by new discoveries and insights, but not overthrown. Darwin’s ideas are important pillars of modern biology and will always remain so. So attacking Darwin will do no damage to Darwin. It does, however, do enormous damage to religion.

Based upon comments such as these, I think it’s entirely fair to point out that Barr is concerned about the need for Christians to make their peace with Darwinism. I think it’s just as fair to point out—again, based on his own comments—that Barr’s concern about Christians making their peace with Darwinism is more pronounced than his concern about whether theistic evolutionists such as Ken Miller and George Coyne are promoting heterodox ideas about God. After all, while Barr seems uninterested in finding out about the beliefs of Miller and Coyne, he goes out of his way to condemn fellow Christians who have the temerity to push back against Darwinism. That is the point I was trying to make.

Is Disagreeing with Stephen Barr and Francis Collins Beyond the Pale?

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Barr’s latest response is the seeming effort to brand honest disagreements with his views (and with the views of Francis Collins) as somehow beyond the pale. Barr writes:

I cannot sympathize at all with those ID people (fortunately, a small minority) who target anyone, no matter how traditional his theological stance, who isn’t willing to join their anti-Darwin movement. Why West feels he has to call my integrity into question by talking about “peace at any price” I cannot imagine. But what disturbs me much more is the targeting of Francis Collins. Collins is, without any question, the most effective voice coming from the ranks of scientists in favor of traditional Christian belief that we have seen in a very long time.

Barr complains that some ID proponents (presumably meaning me) “target anyone, no matter how traditional his theological stance, who isn’t willing to join their anti-Darwin movement.” The whole tenor of this passage is along the lines of “How dare they! How dare they question my arguments or the arguments of Francis Collins!” Barr’s very terminology of “target” and “targeting” communicates that he thinks something illegitimate is afoot.

This complaint must be examined closely.

Francis Collins is a public figure who regularly makes public arguments denouncing intelligent design. He asserts that intelligent design is bad science, bad theology, and is even “potentially threatening in other deeper ways to America’s future.” Stephen Barr also has made public criticisms of intelligent design, and he accuses those who disagree with Darwinism of doing “enormous damage to religion.” Barr presumably thinks that both he and Collins have every right to “target” those they disagree with in this way. But when someone responds with a different view, Barr seems to view those challenges as personal affronts or otherwise illegitimate. Does he similarly think it is illegitimate for someone who supports a pro-life position to critique Collins’ support for embryonic stem-cell research or his ambiguous views on abortion?

In fact, what would be illegitimate is a one-sided exchange where party A gets to criticize party B all he wants, but when party B responds he is suddenly accused of having done something inappropriate.

Although I disagree with both Collins and Barr, I have not questioned their right to express their views. Nor have I complained that they “target anyone, no matter how traditional his theology, who isn’t willing to join their pro-Darwin movement.” In a free society, it is perfectly proper for people to express their disagreements with one another, especially about issues of consequence. Barr and Collins have every right to criticize proponents of intelligent design. But they should not take it as a personal affront if those they criticize respond with questions and counter-arguments.

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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