A couple years ago at a Christian publishing convention, I was talking trends with an astute industry veteran. We happened to be standing near a table on which several books relating to evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) were arrayed. "Well," my friend said with a dismissive backhand wave, "at least that seems to be just about played out."
My friend was guilty of wishful thinking. Like many Christian intellectuals, he was weary of the evolution debate, which had seemed not so long ago to have settled down to a low murmur. Then Phillip Johnson and his crowd of ID troublemakers came along, challenging the Darwinian establishment head-on (couldn't they have been less confrontational about it?), and then there was a flurry of school cases (mostly in Bible Belt regions), and before you knew what hit you it was starting all over again, like an embarrassing family episode brought to light. (For an account of the rise of ID and its salient arguments, see Edward Larson's review of Thomas Woodward's Doubts About Darwin on p. 89 of this issue.)
At the moment, at least, there are no signs that the debate is cooling down—on the contrary. And there is a good deal to celebrate in that. In particular, the ID movement has performed an invaluable service in highlighting the way in which much Darwinian thinking rests on philosophical assumptions that have no scientific warrant. At the same time, the aggressive ID attacks on Christian scientists who have not rejected evolutionary theory lock, stock, and barrel—"accommodationists," as they are called in ID literature, where they are treated rather like collaborationists with the Nazis during World War II—have pushed theistic evolutionists to formulate their own views more cogently. And of course the attention garnered by the ID movement has also provoked a vigorous range of responses from hardcore Darwinians that are often inadvertently revealing—especially of the extraordinary arrogance that still infests the field—but which also at times score telling points against ID weaknesses.
In short, there is real engagement (see for example the just-published volume, Debating Design, from Cambridge University Press, edited by William Dembski and Michael Ruse). And yet for all that, the state of the debate is deeply unsatisfactory, often obscuring more than it clarifies. Certainly the fiercely anti-Christian wing of the Darwinian establishment—headed by Richard Dawkins, who has just been named Britain's #1 public intellectual in a widely publicized poll conducted by Prospect magazine—bears the greatest responsibility for this murkiness. (It was Dawkins who notoriously wrote in his bestseller The Blind Watchmaker: "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane—or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that." There is a good deal of this ritual strutting in the Darwinist camp.)
But Christian participants in the evolution debate are guilty as well. What's needed most right now is a step back from the fray, a reorienting. What follows are some suggestions for that next stage.
What We All Share
Let's begin with the admirably concise opening question from the old Baltimore Catechism, on which generations of Catholics were nurtured: "Who made me?" The answer minced no words: "God made me." Protestants and indeed all Christians, whether or not they practice formal catechesis, will readily agree. God made us; God made our world; God made the unimaginably vast universe in which our world is but a speck.
Implicit in the question and its answer is the strange compound of smallness and greatness that is the essence of our human nature. As creatures we will never grasp the fullness of Creation, but as creatures made in the Creator's image we are designed to learn, to seek to understand, even (as Tolkien put it) to be "sub-creators." And as we think explicitly about Creation, we must keep in mind that tension between our limitations and our high calling. Let either end slacken and we are sure to go awry.
This suggests priorities. As Christians we all acknowledge that God made us. But we may differ—we will differ—in our understanding of how that making unfolded. Some of those differences may be significant (though we must remember our limitations, the fallibility of our knowledge, even as we forcefully argue our case). They may have far-reaching implications. And yet they must be seen as subordinate to the affirmation that unites us, the recognition of the source of our being.
Seen in this light, one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the evolution debate is the acrimony between ID proponents and theistic evolutionists (some of whom, notably Howard Van Till, don't like that term; let their objection be duly noted). Both sides, it should be obvious, see "intelligent design" at work in the universe. Van Till's "robust formative economy principle" is a case in point: The creation is endowed with the capacity to evolve. Moreover, Van Till and some others in his camp—like the ID thinkers—emphasize God's ongoing action in the world. (Their God doesn't simply build in complexity at the moment before the Big Bang and then take himself off, like the Absentee Landlord of the Deists.)
To note these affinities is not to trivialize the differences between the two factions (in which there are further internal differences: neither side is monolithic). Let them pursue their differences with passion and rigor. But it is time for the ID crowd to stop suggesting that their "accommodationist" rivals are largely driven by fear and careerism and other craven motives rather than by intellectual conviction. ("The path of least resistance," Phillip Johnson writes in The Right Question
in a typically patronizing analysis of biology professors at Christian colleges, "is to pretend that there is no conflict between evolutionary naturalism and Christian theism.") It is time for the iders to stop suggesting that theistic evolutionism is functionally equivalent to Dawkins's rabid naturalism. It is time, on the other side, for the theistic evolutionists to stop treating the ID movement as either a conspiracy or a joke—or simply ignoring ID as beneath contempt. And it's time for them to mount more sustained critiques of naturalistic dogmas.
The mutual slanders exchanged in this ongoing debate are especially harmful as they are absorbed and further dumbed down by a larger audience of Christians who want to know what side they should take. Again, there is no need to apologize for sharp disagreement. But the disagreements should clarify, not obscure, what is really at stake.
The Need for Intellectual Honesty
Neither Intelligent Design nor theistic evolutionism, alas, is the most influential position among the evangelical rank and file, where Young Earth creationism still holds sway. Hence another unsatisfactory aspect of the current debate is the strategic refusal of the ID movement to engage in constructive criticism of the Young Earth view.
But haven't I just been calling for mutual recognition among Christians of their unity in affirming God as Creator, and for mutual respect? Yes, and there's no contradiction here. What is needed from the ID movement is principled disagreement. Whereas whole books published by various ID figures have been devoted to meticulously unpacking some of the errors perpetuated in the Darwinist literature (see for example the work of Jonathan Wells), they are virtually silent about the egregious intellectual errors that abound in Young Earth literature. By contrast, Hugh Ross, who has some affinities both with ID and with the theistic evolutionists, has been more forthright; his work could serve as a model in this respect.
The decision of the ID movement not to engage critically with the Young Earth view is one aspect of ID's much-discussed "Wedge" strategy: ID is presenting a united front against the enemy, naturalism—and indeed, a handful of Young Earth figures have been involved in ID projects. Here the strategy comes at a great cost. Many Christians are raised to believe that they are faced with a stark choice: Either they accept the most literal Young Earth account of Creation or they abandon their faith. The ID movement includes a number of penetrating thinkers who could show that these are not the only alternatives—while maintaining respect for fellow Christians who believe otherwise. And now is the perfect time for them to do so, as ID has begun to gain credibility in some of the circles where Young Earth creationism is the default position.
In some cases, however, the reluctance on the ID side may not be attributable solely to the Wedge strategy. There were indications in Johnson's recent book, The Right Questions, that he is sympathetic to a Young Earth reading of Genesis. For instance, he suggests that the great age of the early patriarchs may—may, he emphasizes—be accounted for "on the assumption that the basic 'constants' of physics may have changed over time." Johnson writes that, while he makes "no dogmatic claims," he does "predict that scientists who are genuinely trying to find a set of physical constants that would permit greatly extended human lifespans will be able to do so in good faith." It's hard to know how seriously to take this proposal, no doubt calculated to administer a salutary shock to the Enlightened and set their tongues a-wagging. In any case, others will have to explain what form such a "research project" might actually take.
In the same passage from which I have just quoted, Johnson observes that "the accuracy of any prediction can be determined only in the light of what actually transpires." It's a good reminder especially today in a media environment where this basic principle is routinely violated. And it may remind some readers of the astonishing rhetoric coming from the Darwinian establishment, where it is asserted categorically that ID "simply isn't science" and moreover can never be science. Evidently there is no need to wait and see what actually transpires.
But this is also a reminder of another unsatisfactory aspect on the Christian side of the evolution debate: the boastful triumphalism of much ID rhetoric. If ID is going to foster the pursuit of first-rate scientific work "on a philosophically liberated basis," it would be more becoming to do some of the work first and boast later.
Fleshing out the design How much of the "evolution debate" is really about science, anyway? Consider the evolutionary roots of vertebrate immunity, the subject of the cover package in the July 8 issue of Nature. (This British-based journal and its American equivalent, Science, are the two leading English-language science journals, meaning the two most influential, period.) The cover photo is a close-up of lampreys, looking cheerfully hideous as usual. A brief article (a summary of sorts for those who won't make their way through the full-dress research paper also in the issue) explains that the lamprey and its cousin, the hagfish, are anomalies: They are jawless vertebrates, presumed to be the remnants of a much larger such group "deep in vertebrate family history." They are of interest to immunologists because they have seemed to lack one part of the two-part immune system characteristic of vertebrates, the "adaptive system." The article summarizes new research suggesting that the lamprey has an alternative adaptive immune system.
Let me interrupt for a moment to suggest that your attention may already be wandering—indeed you may have already skipped ahead. Vertebrate immunity? Lampreys? Antigen receptors and lymphocytes? No offense, but you aren't really interested in this technical stuff.
But that's the stuff of science. Built into this research are many assumptions based on the latest generation of evolutionary theory, ranging from fundamental governing assumptions to those more specific to this branch of study. So, for example, on a basic level, there's the assumption of common ancestry (hard to deny, it seems to me, though most of the ID people disagree, as does the formidable philosopher Alvin Plantinga) and an evolutionary conception of the family history of vertebrates.
How would an ID immunologist interact with this material? What assumptions would he accept? Which ones would he reject? What sort of work might he be doing alongside or in contrast to the research reported here? Those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered in the next stage, if ID is going to do science. "Design" needs to be fleshed out.
At the same time, the big questions that the ID movement has taken on are indispensable. As it happens, the author of the brief article in Nature, Martin F. Flajnik, who is in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland, issues a provocation in the title of his piece: "Another Manifestation of GOD." Having explained how the vertebrate adaptive immune system typically operates, generating "a huge repertoire of antigen receptors" to marshal the body's defenses, Flajnik comments: "Immunologists irreverently refer to this process as GOD (generation of diversity)."
So Flajnik tweaks a certain slackness in many Christian claims to see God's hand evident in his world. And don't we have to plead guilty as charged, at least on occasion? We all have suffered through some of the same slide shows (now converted to PowerPoint) in churchy gatherings over the years: magnificent mountain peaks, waterfalls, leafy glades, gamboling lambs and pink-cheeked babies, with voiceovers from the Psalms. I like babies and waterfalls as much as the next man, but don't these kitschy versions of God's manifest presence in his creation—however well intended—subtly suggest that we can domesticate him? Next time, include a shot of the lamprey, and maybe a diagram of its adaptive immune system.
God's designs will always elude our expectations, blow away our tidy, settled theories. And yet this uncontainable force is personal, cares for us, and has arranged his creation so that we know everything we absolutely need to know, even as our hunger to understand will never be quieted.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and a Christianity Today editor at large.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christianity Today articles on ID from our Science & Health page includes:
The Dick Staub Interview: William Dembski's Revolution | The author of Intelligent Design set out to answer the toughest questions about the movement he helped promote. (March 30, 2004)
'A Nuclear Bomb' For Evolution? | Critics of Darwinism say skull's discovery isn't all it's cracked up to be. (Aug. 14, 2002)
Design Interference | William Dembski fired from Baylor's Intelligent Design center. (Nov. 28, 2000)
Your Darwin Is Too Large | Evolution's significance for theology has been greatly exaggerated. (May 25, 2000)
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