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Randy Isaac on “Evolutionism”

The BioLogos Foundation recently published a scholarly essay (with several accompanying blog posts) titled “Science and the Question of God” by Randy Isaac. Isaac is a physicist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA)–a scholarly society of Christian natural scientists. In his essay, Isaac examines, as he puts it, “three schools of thought regarding the possibility of detecting God’s existence through science: Evolutionism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design.”
In this and two follow-up posts, I’ll respond to some of the themes of Isaac’s essay.
When I began to read “Science and the Question of God,” I worried that Isaac would define ID as an explicit attempt to prove the existence of God.
But, happily, Isaac doesn’t make that mistake, and provides instead an acceptable definition of ID: “The essential principle of ID,” he says, “is that there are patterns in nature that are best explained by the action of an indeterminate intelligent designer.”

He also defines “creationism” (that is, young earth creationism) fairly. In fact, I agree with much of what Isaac says in the first two sections of his essay. He understands, for instance, that the myth of an intrinsic war between science and religion is just that–a myth. And he recognizes the positive role that monotheism played in the rise of natural science in the West. Nothing to dispute there.
Unfortunately, as we’ve come to expect from BioLogos publications, Isaac is at pains to accommodate Darwinism (and methodological naturalism). Not surprisingly, this quixotic quest to square a circle leads to an essay that is fairly less enlightening than it could be.
I argue in the introduction to the just-released book God and Evolution that theism and Neo-Darwinian evolution, under standard definitions, are incompatible creeds. Insofar as a view is theistic, I argue, it will modify Neo-Darwinism. And insofar as it is Neo-Darwinian, it will modify theism. So it’s no surprise that attempts to reconcile the two invariably result in heterodoxy (whether theological or scientific), fuzzy and ambiguous language, distinctions without a difference, or all of the above.
Similar problems appear in Isaac’s essay. Let take each of its sections in turn.
The first sign of fuzziness in Isaac’s essay is his discussion of something called “evolutionism.” Now, he’s not the only one to distinguish between “evolution” and “evolutionism.” Christoph Cardinal Sch�nborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, and Presbyterian author and pastor Tim Keller have both commended the distinction (I discuss this at more length in God and Evolution). For Sch�nborn and Keller, “evolutionism” seems to refer to a philosophical gloss on what they take to be a perfectly acceptable scientific theory of “evolution.” Isaac seems to define the word similarly. Evolutionism refers to the mistaken belief that since the theory of evolution is true, God is out of a job. It also refers to the belief that creation and evolution are mutually exclusive–that if you have a scientific explanation for something, then you have made a theological explanation superfluous.
Isaac is right to see problems here; but he has not provided an illuminating distinction. First of all, the word “evolution” is hopelessly ambiguous. Are we talking about the appearance, development, and death of stars, planets, and galaxies over time, or a long history of life on earth, or universal common ancestry of organisms, or the sufficiency of the Neo-Darwinian mechanism of random genetic mutations and natural selection?
Since Isaac talks about the rise of Darwinian Theory, I’ll take him to be referring to the latter. But Isaac’s comments on the subject do not inspire confidence, since the status and evidence for these various meanings of evolution vary dramatically. They need to be distinguished, not bundled together in a big fuzzy package. Claiming that life has a history is vastly different from claiming that all the adaptive complexity we see in organisms is the result of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations.
In describing the emergence of Darwinism, Isaac says:

[T]he shockwave that Darwin sent through the scientific community was that living organisms could be studied systematically and could follow natural laws analogous to those that the rest of the world followed, for example, Newton’s laws of motion. Until Darwin, living organisms represented a possible escape from the philosophical constraints of a mechanistic world. Darwin gave rise to the expectation that life itself was orderly and subject to study. It was not, however, deterministic. The randomness inherent in evolutionary processes prevented determinism and even, in Darwin’s opinion, divine control.

If you’re like me, you probably stumbled over this paragraph. Isaac seems to be saying that Darwinism represented both an extension of determinism and mechanism into biology, but also an escape from these specters. However we resolve that apparent contradiction, it’s surely misleading to treat Darwin’s conjecture as on a par with Newton’s laws of motion. Although we’re accustomed to referring to the Darwinian “mechanism,” it is qualitatively different from ordinary physical mechanisms like, say, gravity. You can express the law of gravity in mathematical form. Newton’s law is F = Gm1m2/r^2. If you know it and a few other things, you can predict where Jupiter is going to be in the sky on July 12, 2035. You can’t use it to describe everything, of course. It’s highly abstract and leaves out much that is interesting and real; but the law explains a certain set of facts in certain contexts, and very reliably.
The Darwinian selection-variation “mechanism” isn’t like that at all. Darwin simply proposed a designer-substitute by extrapolating from a somewhat trivial, known set of facts. In the twentieth century, Darwin’s “variation” came to be identified with genetic mutations. And yet, despite some trivial examples (you know, antibiotic resistance, finch beak variations), the power of this “mechanism” to explain as much as Darwin intended has not been demonstrated. If anything, the evidence suggests that its powers are quite limited. We don’t even have reason to believe that natural selection and directed genetic mutations can do much creative work. Basically, what the “theory” amounts to is a claim that whatever adaptive complexity exists, and whatever adaptations emerge in the future, they must be the result of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations. It doesn’t allow you to predict, say, what kinds of organisms we can expect to see in ten thousand years. It simply doesn’t provide the determinate predictions that you get from a law of physics.
I’m belaboring this point because Isaac is doing what far too many theistic accommodationists do: he’s trying to treat the Darwinian claim as if it’s really no more theologically problematic than positing law of physics. It’s as if he’s saying: “C’mon folks. We’re just applying scientific explanation to the biological world. Nothing to worry about here unless you’re one of those ignorant fundamentalists.”
This strategy ignores the unusual nature of Darwinism in science. Newton didn’t propose his law to get God out of the planet business. Darwin, on the other hand, did propose his theory to get God out of the life business, and Darwinists are right when they understand Darwin’s theory along these lines. It’s special pleading to pretend otherwise. Richard Dawkins isn’t imposing his atheism on Darwin’s theory. He’s following in the spirit of Darwin’s theory. The whole point of the theory was anti-teleological and anti-theological, and this sets it apart from virtually all well-established theories in physics and chemistry, and the laws described therein.
Rather than commending a vague distinction between the ambiguously defined “evolution” and “evolutionism,” as Isaac does, we need to be talking about the actual evidence for the Darwinian claim, as well as the philosophical claim that accompanied Darwinian Theory, namely, that science by definition must exclude intelligent agency as an explanation. That claim allows Darwinism to win by default, since the main competitor has been disqualified. Instead of dealing with these issues, however, Isaac simply surrenders the territory to Darwinism, while seeking an immunization strategy to prevent theology from suffering after the surrender.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.