The Heirs of Galileo
Louis Markos on Evolution & Reasonable Science
In a critique of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement published in The New York Review of Books, the literary critic Frederick Crews argued that “Neo-Darwinian natural selection is endlessly fruitful, enjoying corroboration from an imposing array of disciplines, including paleontology, genetics, systematics, embryology, anatomy, biogeography, biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, physical anthropology, and ethology.” He is, of course, quite right in this assertion. The evolutionary paradigm set forth by Darwin does indeed undergird that colossal, multi-storied structure that is modern (post-Enlightenment) science.
But Crews was not satisfied merely to trace and celebrate the pervasiveness of evolutionary theory. His article was also a polemic designed to dismiss ID as an ideological construction whose real agenda is to promote, as “scientific,” Christian claims that cannot be sustained by “real” (read, evolutionary) science. He began the second installment of his two-part critique with this unapologetic claim:
As far as he is concerned, the debate between evolution and ID is not a debate between two competing scientific schools or even two opposing worldviews; it is simply a squabble between objective (true) science on the one hand and self-serving (untrue) religion on the other. In contrast to this claim, I shall argue that the philosophy behind “Neo-Darwinian natural selection” is just as much a faith-commitment as religion, and that it rests just as firmly on assumptions that cannot be “settled [or substantiated] on strictly empirical grounds.”
However, before making this argument, I need to step back and explore Crews’s celebration of the widespread influence of evolution. He is right to posit evolution as a core theory underlying all of the modern sciences. Indeed, Crews need not have stopped with scientific disciplines in his praise of evolution’s ubiquitous presence. The notion that the origin of all things is material, physical, unconscious, that all things proceed from less complex to more complex, from less refined to more refined, that all higher things spring out of lower things, lies at the root of all modern thought.
Not just our bodies but, with Freud, our very conscious minds are the products of material, unconscious forces; not just our economic behavior but, with Marx, all of our higher intellectual and spiritual pursuits (religion, philosophy, aesthetics, political science) are mere products of a crude, material self-interest; not just our institutions but, with Nietzsche, those very truths that we hold most sacred (Beauty, Truth, Love, the Good) are but so many man-made idols that we somehow forgot we created. When Nietzsche declared—speaking for all modern thought—that God is dead, he didn’t just mean God; he meant all spiritual origins, all divine absolutes, all Platonic forms. All creation from above is suspect. Metaphysics, art, even consciousness itself are to be denied any inherent, eternal transcendent meaning.
And, wonder of wonders, far from being resisted by the seminaries of Europe, the evolutionary mindset was embraced there as well. The biblical “higher” critics applied a textual form of evolution to the Torah. They replaced Moses as the inspired author of the Pentateuch with a long line of editors and redactors who, quite literally, evolved the text. Or, to put it another way, Moses did not create the Pentateuch; the Pentateuch created Moses.
Evolutionary-minded classicists have done the same thing to Homer that the higher critics have done to Moses: demoting him from the creator of the first great Western epic to the product of a long and finally impersonal succession of bards and editors. Even the cultural anthropologists have adopted the evolutionary mindset. Starting with Sir James Frazer (author of The Golden Bough), they have demonstrated—oh, so nicely—how man has struggled his way up from myth to ritual to religion to—you guessed it—science.
Even our child psychologists and educators adapted one of the evolutionary mantras (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) to their own disciplines and arrived at the rather precious notion that toddlers are animists who must be guided up the cultural ladder of progress. More spiritual-minded modernists like Bergson, Chardin, Whitehead, and Kazantzakis have tried to factor “God” back into the equation, but their God is finally himself a product of evolutionary forces.
Evolution is one of the most fundamental building blocks of the modern world. It is, in fact, the founding myth of modernism, as necessary to it as the creation story is to the traditional Western Judeo-Christian metaphysic. But, of course, to say that evolution is both useful and central to modern thought is not to say that it is true. Both the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian conception of the geocentric universe and the theory of the four humors, on which so much of classical and medieval cosmology and medicine were based, have been shown finally to be false.
For a while, those conceptions proved useful. The geocentric theory of the universe helped us to save the appearances, that is, to make coherent sense of the heavens, and the theory of the four humors helped us make sense of ourselves and our relationship to the universe. The intricate, harmonious structure of the classical-medieval cosmic model (especially in its fullest, Dantean form) is still a wonder to behold. It lasted, and it worked, for two thousand years.
The geocentric theory grew up, in great part, as a reaction to a group of thinkers whose theories and assumptions were based on an evolutionary paradigm not so different from that of our post-Darwinian world. I speak of the pre-Socratic philosophers (most notably Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Gorgias) who posited what is essentially a naturalistic, materialistic view of man, nature, and the universe.
They were geniuses all, and their views might have determined the future of Western thought, but they were wrestled to the ground and their assumptions exploded by the greatest Galileo of them all: Plato. Indeed, they were so thoroughly thrashed that they more or less lay dormant until the nineteenth century.
Of course, the modernist rebuttal to all that I have said above is a simple, programmatic one: Those unenlightened people back then based their theories on unfounded superstitions, unproven traditions, and faith in nonrational doctrines, whereas we moderns base ours on science, experimentation, and the facts. Which is really to say that they practiced deduction while we modernists practice induction. Induction is a kind of reasoning that begins with observed facts and figures and then proceeds upward toward a more abstract hypothesis or inference, while deduction begins with abstract premises and general assumptions and works its way downward toward a specific conclusion about observed facts and figures.
Christian (and Platonic) thought is deductive, for it begins with a priori assumptions that must be accepted as givens before logical thought can begin (e.g., the existence of God, the authority of Scripture, the immortality of the soul, the possibility and reliability of divine revelation, and so forth). Modern thought is inductive, and claims that its conclusions are based solely on empirical observation, that its conclusions are “objective,” unrestrained and unbiased by any prior assumptions or presuppositions.
But this claim, of course, is false. The evolutionary-minded modernist begins by taking for granted—by assuming—that the supernatural does not exist, or that if it does, it is entirely irrelevant. Evolution is a necessity, not because an objective study of the evidence forces such a conclusion (inductive inference) but because, well, we are here, and since God does not exist, the only way left to explain how we got here is the wholly naturalistic process of evolution. (The “third option,” actually favored by some people, that we were put here by aliens, merely defers the dilemma to another planet in another solar system.)
The modern thinker knows that the difference between microevolution and macroevolution, between a species adapting to its environment and a new species evolving from another, is not quantitative but qualitative. The latter is not an extension of the former, but a different operation entirely. To claim that the latter can spring out of the former calls for a leap in logic whose source seems to lie less in empirical observation—for the evidence is not as strong as Crews and other modern thinkers claim—than in the need to support the major premises on which modern science rests. That is to say, while evolutionary thinkers and researchers claim to be enacting a strict form of induction, they are, in fact, practicing deduction in disguise.
They are like a paleontologist who hears that the fossilized footprints of a dinosaur and a man have been found across from each other in the same strata (as has been reported). Were he truly dedicated to induction, he would take such a discovery seriously and would be prepared, if the evidence proved conclusive, to rethink his evolutionary idea. But, generally speaking, he is not, and so he does not. Evolution is the major premise that must be protected at all costs, and so he comes up with a spurious explanation, a paleontological parallel to the liberal theologian’s favorite evasive maneuver: Write it off as a later textual emendation.
Now the modern thinker would surely respond that Evangelical Christians will often play fast and loose with the books of the Bible in order to preserve its strict inerrancy, and he would be right. But there is a difference. Many Christians will admit this and even celebrate the deductive nature of their enterprise; precious few evolutionists will admit the same about their own dependence on deduction.
The debate between the creationist and evolutionary mindset is not so much a debate between faith and science as it is a debate between two different sets of a priori assumptions that are equally efficient at finding what they are looking for. Despite the exalted claims of modern induction, wrote C. S. Lewis in the first chapter of his still timely Miracles, when it comes to the supernatural, “seeing is not believing. . . . What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. . . . The result of our historical enquiries thus depends on the philosophical views [i.e., the a priori assumptions] which we have been holding before we even begin to look at the evidence.”
Creationists accept as a first principle that God exists, and their eyes are thus opened to seeing (intelligent) design in the world around them; evolutionists accept as their first principle that nature is all there is (that is, that the supernatural does not exist), and thus they see only the random effects of time and chance in the world around them. Perhaps a few examples from two other related debates (that over miracles and that over the dating of the Books of the Bible) will clarify the nature of this pervasive, ongoing battle over first principles.
When a Christian and a modern disagree over whether the parting of the Red Sea was a miracle, what is more often at issue is the underlying assumption of whether or not miracles occur in the first place. A modern who takes for granted that the supernatural does not exist, and that therefore miracles are impossible, will of course have to find a “logical” explanation for the parting of the Red Sea.
Likewise, if a biblical “higher critic” decides a priori (on the basis of accepted, unproven assumptions) that predictive prophecy does not occur, he will have to argue that any biblical passage that accurately predicts a historical event must have been written, or at least reached its final form, after the event occurred. Thus, the accepted, “proven” conclusion that there were at least two (and probably three) Isaiahs does not rise out of an objective, empirical study of the text, but is made necessary by the unacceptable fact that in the eighth century B.C., Isaiah accurately predicted the name of the Persian king (Cyrus) who would allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem two centuries later (45:1).
Now, of course, he will never tell you that he is assuming that predictive prophecy does not occur and that, in fact, his disbelief is the very cause of the conclusions he draws from his textual analysis. He will claim rather that the end point of his textual analysis was the discovered “fact” that this prophecy was written after the event took place.
As an English professor at a Christian liberal arts university, I constantly encourage my students to test the assumptions on which modernism rests. Does that mean I dismiss out of hand the evolutionary paradigm in the same way that Crews dismisses the creationist paradigm? Hardly. My students are encouraged to explore and test both paradigms, and they may, after close study, decide that they agree with modernist assumptions.
What I will not accept in my students (what no true liberal arts professor should accept) is the uncritical embracing of a system of thought that is as reliant upon a priori assumptions as Christianity. That is to say, a student may accept evolution (Darwin), materialism (Marx), and the deterministic nature of the unconscious (Freud), as long as he realizes that such beliefs are assumptions, and that they are just as much the basis of deduction as the traditional beliefs in creation, the supernatural, and the existence of the soul.
In attacking the theorists of Intelligent Design, Crews presented himself as a modern-day Galileo tearing down the prejudices and superstitions of an entrenched, inflexible Church determined to protect its sacred traditions. Crews is sincere in his scientific “crusade,” and one must surely admire his passion for removing all obstacles to the pursuit of truth.
And yet, one is forced to ask, who, finally, is the real Galileo in this conflict? Is it Frederick Crews, backed up as he is by the media, the academy, and the intelligentsia, or is it Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski, and the other pioneers who have risked scorn from their colleagues and the questioning of their credentials in order to poke at least a few holes in the pretensions of a monolithic scientific establishment that takes the theory of evolution as a universal, incontestable fact?
Galileo forced the thinkers of his age to look more closely, to think more critically, to see something they didn’t want to see. To modernists like Crews, ID is finally the product of a sublimated wish-fulfillment, a desire for order, meaning, and purpose in the universe. It is, to use Crews’s own phrase, nothing more than an anodyne for “existential angst.” But can not the same charge be leveled against the secular evolutionists? They wish to live in a purely naturalistic universe free from the meddling of a higher power, a clockwork universe that makes no demands on them and that lays itself bare for their study.
The Christian could say that it is the evolutionists who seek the crutch. When they feel guilty and unsure and afraid that all those religious “superstitions” just might be true, they run for cover under the wings of the evolutionary eagle: a safe haven that promises them that they need not fear, that everything can be explained in naturalistic terms, that God is, after all, an unnecessary hypothesis.
A Great Curtain
Four times in his didactic poem, The Nature of Things, the Roman writer Lucretius exclaimed: “This fright, this night of the mind must be dispelled, / not by the rays of the sun, nor day’s bright spears, / but by the face of nature and her laws.” Like his Darwinian heirs (including Crews), Lucretius sought to found the nature of all things upon material grounds, and, by so doing, free humanity from the irrational grip of superstition and empty ritual, the stifling fear of cruel priests and retributive deities, and the mind-benumbing terror of eternal torment in the afterlife.
The Judeo-Christian heritage of the Western world is not irrational, cruel, and retributive (as was the paganism of Lucretius’s day), but it still makes demands, and it still provokes fear and awe. Modern man hates being exposed, and evolution is a great curtain to hide behind. The one who dares to rip away that curtain is the real modern Galileo.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.