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On Evolution, Can’t We All Just Get Along?


On February 10, 2020, Lutheran theologian Ted Peters published an online article titled “Fighting over Evolution. Why?“ He concluded that “a culture war is raging, to be sure. But, this is not a war between science and faith.”

I agree completely — if by “science” we mean empirical science. Empirical science searches for the truth by proposing hypotheses and comparing them with the evidence. If a hypothesis is consistent with the evidence we tentatively take it to be true. If it is inconsistent with the evidence we revise it or reject it as false. In reality, things can get a bit more complicated. But this is science at its best.

A Different Meaning

Yet “science” has taken on a different meaning in the modern world. For many people, “science” is the search for natural explanations. In this sense, “science” attempts to explain things in terms of material objects and the forces among them. Such an approach can be self-limiting: A scientist can admit that a particular phenomenon might not have a natural explanation. In practice, however, the approach is usually unlimited: Many scientists consider it their duty to persevere until they find natural explanations for everything. Anything that cannot be explained in terms of material objects and the forces among them is considered illusory — including mind, free will, spirit, and God. 

Science in this second sense is really applied materialistic philosophy. It insists on materialistic explanations even when the evidence is against them. Since such explanations are empirically dead, I call the enterprise zombie science.

Faith in God is not at war with empirical science. But it is necessarily at war with materialistic philosophy.

Defining Evolution

Then the question is, What is evolution?

According to Peters:

What Darwin tried to explain is how one species evolves from another species. His explanation was and still is so very elegant in its simplicity: variation in inheritance acted on by natural selection (survival of the fittest) leads to some inherited traits passed on while others go extinct. 

Again, I agree completely: In a nutshell, this was Darwin’s theory. And the second sentence is pretty uncontroversial. If we replace “natural” with “artificial,” generations of farmers and breeders can testify to its truth. But there has long been controversy over whether variation and selection lead to the origin of new species, organs, and body plans.

Micro Versus Macro

On page 12 of Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), Darwin’s follower Theodosius Dobzhansky distinguished between “microevolution” (minor changes within existing species) and “macroevolution” (the origin of new species, organs, and body plans). 

There is no way toward an understanding of the mechanisms of macroevolutionary changes, which require time on a geological scale, other than through a full comprehension of the microevolutionary processes observable within the span of a human lifetime and often controlled by man’s will. For this reason we are compelled at the present level of knowledge reluctantly to put a sign of equality between the mechanisms of macro- and microevolution, and proceeding on this assumption, to push our investigations as far ahead as this working hypothesis will permit.

But Dobzhansky’s “working hypothesis” has never been empirically confirmed. In 1997, evolutionary biologist Keith Stewart Thomson wrote: “A matter of unfinished business for biologists is the identification of evolution’s smoking gun,” and “the smoking gun of evolution is speciation [the origin of species], not local adaptation and differentiation of populations.” Before Darwin, the consensus was that species can vary only within certain limits; indeed, centuries of artificial selection had seemingly demonstrated such limits experimentally. “Darwin had to show that the limits could be broken,” wrote Thomson, “so do we.”

Despite the lack of sufficient evidence, macroevolution is claimed to be as scientific as microevolution. But the claim is based on materialistic science, not empirical science. 

A Divine Foot

In 1979, historian Neal C. Gillespie wrote that “it is sometimes said that Darwin converted the scientific world to evolution by showing them the process by which it had occurred.” But Darwin had no evidence for natural selection, only a few imaginary illustrations. So “it was more Darwin’s insistence on totally natural explanations than on natural selection that won their adherence.” This view was echoed in 1997 by evolutionary biologist Richard C. Lewontin:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

So the answer to Peters’s question, “Fighting over Evolution. Why?” is that “evolution” for many people means “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” To any person of faith, those are fighting words. But the fight is not with empirical science; it’s with materialistic philosophy masquerading as empirical science.

A Pile of Leaves

Oh, one other thing. In passing, Peters misrepresented intelligent design (ID) in his article. He wrote: 

Complex organisms such as human beings, like a Toyota Camry, require a designer to become as complex as they are. Intelligent design better explains evolution than Darwin’s theory of natural selection. That’s the sum of the argument proposed by ID. 

But ID advocates do not argue that complexity alone justifies an inference to design. A pile of fallen leaves is very complex, but that doesn’t mean the arrangement of the leaves is designed. As design theorist William A. Dembski wrote in 1998, “complexity by itself isn’t enough to eliminate chance and indicate design.” He argued at length that another essential element is specification, or conformity to an independent pattern. And ID advocates have been making the same point for decades. 

Photo: Playing in a pile of fallen leaves, by Dion Hinchcliffe, via Flickr (cropped).