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Confessions of a Liberal Darwinian Skeptic

Robert F. Shedinger

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

A deeply entrenched stereotype holds that intelligent design is nothing more than an attempt to smuggle conservative Christian ideology into the science classroom in the guise of a scientific alternative to Darwinism. In a recent discussion with some ID supporters, I emphasized how important it is for those who advance ID arguments to make sure those arguments are based firmly on scientific principles in order to undercut this stereotype. I am especially sensitive to this issue because I come to ID from a decidedly more liberal perspective. My liberal colleagues frequently wonder how I can align myself with a community so seemingly out of step with my own political, social, and religious views. This raises a further question asked of me by an ID supporter: Is there a connection between my liberal views and my support for ID? This is a great question that I will answer here in the affirmative.

First, I should spell out a little of what I mean when I call myself a liberal. As a resident of Iowa, I get to participate in the Iowa Caucuses. In the last two election cycles, I caucused for Bernie Sanders. This will give some indication of where I fall on the political spectrum. As a professor at a liberal arts college, I’m sure I am viewed as being a part of the liberal academy, and I cannot deny my support for academic movements like feminist theory, critical race theory, and post-colonial and LGBTQ studies. As a professor of religion specifically (and a biblical scholar by training), I do not uphold the unique truth of any particular religious tradition (including the Protestant Christianity in which I was raised). Instead I find value in aspects of many traditions (even polytheistic and pagan ones). But this does not mean I am a materialist or an atheist. I have a strong sense that religious traditions point to a transcendent reality, even if that reality cannot be fully grasped by any one human-mediated tradition. All this would seem to make me an unlikely candidate to support ID. But the seeds of my support for ID were in fact planted in my liberal education.

Epistemological Humility

In seminary, one of my systematic theology professors was J. Deotis Roberts, a pioneer of the black theology movement of the 1970s. Dr. Roberts introduced me to the phrase “epistemological humility,” the need in his view for more people to become comfortable with uncertainty in what they think they know. This idea stuck with me and gained greater clarity during my PhD studies as I was introduced to the concept of the grand narrative, the tendency for a group of people to exercise authority over other groups through the power of overarching stories that seek to naturalize and normalize unequal power relationships. 

For example, in the 19th century, everyone “knew” that Africans were an inferior race destined to live in a subordinate relationship to white Europeans. Today, most people know that this was an artificially constructed narrative designed to serve the interests of the economic institution of slavery. My doctoral training in the “liberal academy” sensitized me to the pervasive use of grand narratives and their political and social effects, and this positioned me to sniff out a grand narrative hiding in the literature of evolutionary biology as I began to take up the science/religion relationship as an area of research. 

Because of the common stereotype, I expected ID literature to be filled with tendentious religious arguments and biblical quotations. Instead I was confronted with sophisticated scientific arguments. So I realized right away that what I “knew” about ID was wrong and that the stereotype about it had to exist for a reason. Then, as I began to read the literature of evolutionary biology, I noticed how empirically flimsy many of the arguments are. But more importantly, I noticed the ideological work the concept of natural selection was doing in this literature. 

For example, in 1909 August Weismann openly noted how his support for natural selection was based not on evidence, but on the necessity of having a naturalistic explanation for evolution. Later, Ronald Fisher accepted natural selection by default on the grounds that alternative explanations were too close to vitalism. More recently, Douglas Futuyma hailed the importance of natural selection for its role in making biology a naturalistic science on a par with physics and chemistry. These are just a few of the many examples I cite in my book The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms. I came to realize that Darwinism developed in order to function as a scientific grand narrative designed to secure the foundation of biology as a naturalistic science, but in more recent times has grown into a philosophical grand narrative designed to naturalize and normalize a fully materialist worldview. 

A Reigning Narrative

Harkening back to Dr. Roberts, a little (or maybe a lot) of epistemological humility is in order here. No one can prove the truth of either a materialist or a transcendent reality. So the reigning Darwinian grand narrative must be de-naturalized and de-normalized, allowing alternative ideas like ID to take their rightful place within the ongoing pursuit of as yet unanswered questions about the origin and development of life.

And this is important, for as I said above, grand narratives have effects on people’s lives, and no less so the grand narrative of philosophical Darwinism and its scientific foundation. The naturalization and normalization of a materialist worldview has helped among other things to authorize a materialistic framework for life that enshrines material acquisition as the be all and end all of life and reduces all values to utilitarian economic values. If something (or someone) can be turned into a profit center, it is by definition good. This has led to a yawning gap of wealth inequality whose ugly side has been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, as those who have been systematically denied a living wage and access to health care have suffered the most, not to mention the disproportionately negative effects of the pandemic on people of color due to a history of systemic racism. 

Recognizing the likelihood that the universe is more than material stuff, that it might well be infused with creative intelligence, is crucial to dismantling the Darwinian grand narrative and its many deleterious social, political, and economic effects. If life is designed, it has inherent value that transcends utilitarian concerns, and this has enormous implications for the kind of society we build. 

Why Admire Darwin

Though I am somewhat critical of Charles Darwin as a scientist, I do admire one aspect of his life. He doggedly pursued answers to big questions even in the face of great personal suffering. He lost his mother when he was eight and then buried three of his own children and nearly a fourth. But these regular appointments with grief did not derail his fascination with life and its mysteries. Darwin, like many of his contemporaries, possessed an emotional resilience sorely lacking in many people today due to our hubristic belief in a materialist science that can insulate us from death and paper over our existential angst. But the paper is thin, so thin in fact that a minuscule virus has been able to poke holes in it, humbling us against our will, and revealing to us our true vulnerability and our dependence on forces larger than ourselves.

Never has it been more important to look beyond a superficial materialist worldview and see our lives again in a transcendent framework. The Darwinian grand narrative has served its time. Epistemological humility needs to be the order of the day. So in a nutshell, the answer to the question put to me by the ID supporter is simple. My desire to participate with those dedicated to dismantling the Darwinian grand narrative is based on the same dynamic inherent in my “liberal” suspicions of the grand narratives of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and religious exclusivism, along with my belief in the inherent value of all people whatever their particular views. Fortunately, the scientific evidence seems to lie on the side of ID.

Photo: Campus of Luther College, by Jonathunder [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.