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Karl Giberson v. Al Mohler on Darwin: The Grudge Match

David Klinghoffer

It’s always a bad sign when people start publishing “open letters” to one another. Our BioLogos friend Karl Giberson is embroiled in a strangely bitter dispute with Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Bitter, at least, on Dr. Giberson’s side. In this dustup, theistic evolutionist Giberson displays a lot less dignity than the object of his ire, Dr. Mohler, and less regard for truth notwithstanding that it’s precisely a lack of truthfulness with which he seeks to tar Mohler.
Dr. Giberson’s concern as always is to demonstrate the Christian bona fides of Darwinian theory. Writing on the Huffington Post under the striking headline “How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth,” he now takes Mohler to task for a speech he gave showing, in Giberson’s eyes, that Mohler “does not seem to care about the truth and seems quite content to simply make stuff up when it serves his purpose.” Mohler’s sentences that provoked Giberson to make this charge are as follows:

Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution.

Giberson notes that he disputes this exact idea in his book Saving Darwin, which Mohler quoted from in his speech. This prompts Giberson to imagine Mohler dispatching a flunky with the instructions, “[F]ind something in Giberson’s book that I can ridicule in my speech.” He suggests that Mohler is guilty of “faith fibbing.”
The cartoon-like uncharitableness of these totally unsupported allegations — Mohler calls them “shocking,” and he’s right — is in contrast with Mohler’s own restrained response. The Southern Baptist theologian, unlike Giberson, declines to make personal attacks and sticks instead to the misleading theology and history in Giberson’s book.
As someone outside the Christian community, I won’t try to adjudicate the faith issues separating these two men. On the historical question, having been challenged on his statement about Darwin boarding the Beagle in order to “prove the theory of evolution,” Mohler now honorably concedes that it probably misrepresents the facts.
Giberson, on the other hand, is so far sticking to his own guns. This does him little credit. He wants to present the “Darwin of history” as someone who lost his earlier strong faith long after the Beagle journey. In Saving Darwin, he quotes Darwin’s own statement in his Autobiography, written late in life, that makes him sound like the most orthodox Christian as a young man, who “did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible,” believing “our Creed must be fully accepted.” Giberson notes that this orthodoxy was notwithstanding Darwin’s having “some unorthodox characters listed in the family Bible.”
As Mohler points out, Giberson is not exactly being “straightforward” here. Darwin was already well acquainted with evolutionary thought, and an heir of unorthodox religious beliefs, before he ever heard of the Beagle. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who died before Charles was born, was famous for his unbelief, which he in turn bequeathed to Charles’s father Robert. The Unitarianism of his mother’s family was also far from Christian orthodoxy.
Evolutionary ideas were in the air at the time, to be found in his famous grandfather Erasmus’s book Zoonomia, which Charles studied and discussed with his tutor in evolutionary studies, Robert Grant, in medical school. An accessible analysis of Darwin’s own stylized account of his intellectual evolution can be found in Benjamin Wiker’s The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin.
Tales of conversion — whether to a religion, or away from it — often follow a set storyline. The stereotyped narrative form requires a stark contrast between the early, deluded self and the later, enlightened one. Often, the reality is more complicated. Certainly, in Darwin’s case it seems to have been so.
Darwin may not have got on board the Beagle to stake his claim on his grandfather’s scientific and spiritual legacy. But to imagine that it was marginal to him — a matter of a few “unorthodox characters listed in the family Bible” — seems na�ve at best.
Yet Darwin is long dead. What we say about him matters, of course, but less so than what we say about our living contemporaries who have reputations they rightly care about. On the Internet, scurrilous personal attacks and innuendo never die. Neither Giberson nor Mohler gets the history exactly right. But Mohler corrects the record, while Giberson piles on the personal insults and wild slanders. If you were looking for a guide to history, or theology or science, which man would you trust?

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.