Two Men & a Maybe
My daily Internet reading often provides me with fascinating topics for lectures, discussions, and reflections. This was especially the case on June 14, 2006. The first item to attract my attention that day, from an on-line philosophy journal, was an essay by one of my colleagues at Berkeley, the English professor Frederick Crews, the introduction to his new collection Follies of the Wise.
By “the wise,” Crews apparently means fools who rank high in the social realm or academic pecking order, and their chief folly is belief in God. This belief ranks as folly, according to Crews, because it has been discredited, both by the logic of Darwinism and by the occurrence of natural catastrophes, specifically, the great Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
In pre-modern times, religious leaders could ascribe natural disasters to God’s anger at human wickedness. By 2005, only an unschooled person or a blinkered zealot could fail to understand that a thoroughly natural conjunction of forces had wiped out populations whose only “sin” was to have pursued their livelihood or recreation in lowlands adjacent to the ocean.
Crews was particularly disgusted by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s attempt to justify belief in a God who would permit suffering on this scale. The archbishop proposed that God had decided that human life could best be lived in a world where effects predictably follow causes in a way we can chart, and so it is unreasonable to expect God to step in whenever this pattern of cause and effect turns dangerous.
Crews denounced the whole idea that God designed the world to suit humans as “complacent anthropocentric vanity.” He surmised that, if asked, the archbishop would say that he subscribes to Darwinian scientific principles. In that case, wrote Crews, “he can hardly go on to assert that nature’s laws were fashioned for the benefit of Homo sapiens, a great ape whose entire period of existence has occupied not even a nanosecond of the cosmic hour.”
Just as many have wondered how a Berkeley law professor became a prominent critic of Darwinism, some may ask why a Berkeley English professor has dedicated himself to an uncompromising defense of the embattled theory with all its philosophical implications. The answer is that Crews came to be a militant scientific materialist by way of a disenchantment with Freudianism.
He was a Freudian literary critic in the early years of his career but eventually realized that Freud’s scientific pretensions were bogus, and he became a bitter apostate, continuing to flog the dead carcass of psychoanalysis long after those pretensions were everywhere discredited. I hoped that this experience might lead him to question the scientific pretensions of Darwinism also, but instead, he embraced a mission to protect good scientific practice, proceeding from a solid metaphysical basis in materialism, from deviants on the right (religion, tradition) and on the left (postmodern relativism).
Crews sees himself as fighting the all-too-human tendency to confuse fantasy with reality and then to protect the fantasy from empirical disproof with attacks on dissenters, mixed with assertions of authority and appeals to tradition. I approve of Crews’s mission in principle. I just wish he would apply the same unsparing scrutiny to Darwinist defenders and their tactics.
If he did, he might see that Darwinians have also dabbled in some of the pseudoscientific tricks that materialists like to identify with religion, and that it is a good thing that there are some skeptics around to point out these faults, even if the skeptics don’t have a satisfactory alternative at hand. If Crews were to follow such thoughts out at length, perhaps one day he would want to consider whether Darwinism might be one of those follies of the wise.
The second item that caught my attention on June 14 was an article from the London Sunday Times of three days previous with the dramatic title, “I’ve found God, says man who cracked the genome.” This article heralded the anticipated publication—in September—of a book about DNA by Francis Collins, the director of the US government’s National Human Genome Research Institute.
According to the Sunday Times (my only source of information at this writing), Collins writes that unraveling the human genome allowed him to “glimpse the workings of God.” He had a sense of having now perceived something that “no human knew before but God knew all along.”
The article quoted Collins as explaining, “When you have for the first time in front of you this 3.1-billion-letter instruction book that conveys all kinds of information and all kinds of mystery about humankind, I can’t help but look at these pages and have a vague sense that this is giving me a glimpse of God’s mind.”
Despite all these theistic statements, Collins remains a Darwinian of sorts, meaning one who claims that natural selection is the tool that God used to create the information-rich genome. “I see God’s hand at work through the mechanism of evolution,” the newspaper quotes him as saying. “If God chose to create human beings in his image and decided that the mechanism of evolution was an elegant way to accomplish that goal, who are we to say that is not the way?”
I admire Collins, and I hope that he will not get into serious trouble for publishing such a daring book. Darwinist inquisitors cannot help but notice that his tribute to natural selection is perfunctory and his reasoning is shockingly un-Darwinian.
Collins should be safe enough, however, because even the zealots will know that the prudent path for them is to continue to honor Collins as living proof that a serious Christian can also be a Darwinist. There may be a sarcastic book review or two, but that is merely the common lot of bold authors. Even the mighty Stephen Jay Gould was slighted at one time in the pages of the New Yorker as an “accidental creationist,” with no lasting damage to his stature as a Darwinist superstar.
A Good Example
Although I hope Francis Collins does not suffer, I also hope that his example makes the Darwinists a little more nervous than they already are. It is significant that all of Collins’s scientific fame comes from his study of DNA as it is now, and this is where he finds the language of God. When he writes off-handedly of what natural selection might do, he is not reporting anything that stems from his own research, but merely reflecting the dominant opinion among biologists today.
To borrow a term from Fred Crews, the bow to natural selection is a bow to traditional authority, because there is no scientific evidence that natural selection has the required information-creating power. Of course, God could fix that problem by adding some information to the mix, but to propose that possibility is to repudiate Darwinism.
Crews’s introduction can be found at www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=198;
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“Two Men & a Maybe” first appeared in the October 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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