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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Brief book excerpt: What really made Darwin's theory revolutionary?

Parents sometimes worry that the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools will undermine faith and values - and almost as often they are soothed by bureaucratic assurances that Darwinism is completely compatible with traditional theistic beliefs.

Now, of course, most school office go-home-at-fivers tell parents these things because they cannot be bothered finding out. A few may know perfectly well that not only are most prominent Darwinists atheists, but a number of them have embarked on an anti-God campaign. But they hope the parents don't know.

Nancy Pearcey explains how Darwinism differs from "evolution" in general in this excerpt, reprinted with permission, from her recent book Total Truth:
. . . The reason Darwinian evolution was so revolutionary was not its concept of natural selection but its definition of knowledge, or epistemology. The older epistemology assumed an open universe, where concepts like design and purpose (teleology) made sense and were considered perfectly rational. But as we saw in chapter 6, Darwin wanted to establish a naturalistic epistemology that assumed a closed system of cause and effect—one that ruled design and purpose out of bounds. Thus the heart of the conflict revolved around two rival epistemologies: Which definition of knowledge should govern in science?

The tragedy is not just that evangelicals failed to meet the challenge: For the most part they did not even recognize it. As good Baconians, evangelicals denied the role of philosophical assumptions in science - and thus they were powerless to critique and counter the new assumptions when they appeared on the intellectual horizon. A great many of them simply took the facts that Darwin presented and inserted them into the older philosophy of nature as an open system - not realizing, apparently, that the older philosophy was precisely what was under attack. In the late nineteenth century, explains historian Edward Purcell, the majority of thinkers failed to realize that Darwinism implied "a fully naturalistic worldview." They inserted Darwinism into a religious and providential framework, trying to somehow fit it into a "belief in nature as part of a comprehensive divine order, and in science as part of a larger and morally oriented natural philosophy."

An example was the Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield. As a young man, he had bred shorthorn cattle on his father's ranch, where he noticed that wild cattle developed distinctive traits through interaction with their environment. In short, he had witnessed natural selection. Thus when he encountered the concept of evolution, he accepted it easily, describing himself as “a Darwinian of the purest water.” Yet when Warfield explained what he meant by evolution, he spoke of the constant supervision of divine providence, punctuated by "occasional supernatural interference." Anyone expressing those views today would be branded a flaming creationist.

Princeton president James McCosh likewise called himself a Darwinian. Yet he held that several pivotal events could not be explained by natural causes alone - that God worked by immediate fiat" at the origin of life, intelligence, and morality. Finally, one of the most influential theistic evolutionists of the nineteenth century, Asa Gray, also inserted Darwin’s concept of natural selection into the older theistic cosmology open to divine supervision and design. He apparently failed to understand that Darwin's intention was to replace that cosmology with a naturalistic one.

One of the few to recognize what was at stake philosophically was Charles Hodge. "The distinctive element" in Darwinism, he wrote, is not natural selection but the denial of design or purpose. And "the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God."
Despite Hodge's protest, the debate was not really engaged on the level of philosophy until the rise of the Intelligent Design movement in our own day. When I began writing on science and worldview back in the 1970s, the debate was still being carried on almost solely at the level of scientific details (fossils, mutations, geological strata). One reason the Intelligent Design movement has had such a powerful impact is that Phillip Johnson finally succeeded in shifting the argument to Darwin's naturalistic definition of science. "Christians often think the controversy is primarily a dispute about scientific facts, and so they become trapped into arguing scientific details rather than concentrating on the fundamental assumptions that generate the evolutionary story," Johnson writes in his latest book. The rise of the Intelligent Design movement signals that Christians are finally moving beyond a Baconian view of science, recognizing the formative role that philosophical assumptions play in what counts as genuine knowledge.

So the lesson here is, if you are traditional Christian, theist, or non-materialist of any description, edge away from that grinning, baby-faced clergyperson who assures you that "evolution" (= Darwinism) is "entirely compatible with your faith." His/her "faith" maybe ... but yours? In all these situations, the rule is, find out what is going on and decide for yourself.
If you want to understand why the intelligent design controversy cannot go away, read By Design or by Chance?.

New book!: Mike Behe's Edge of Evolution argues design even more prevalent than he earlier thought

I mentioned a while back that Behe had a new book out from Free Press in 2007, and now he writes to say,
The first review of my new book, The Edge of Evolution, is out from Publisher's Weekly (see below). Next week PW is supposed to run a feature article on me 'n' the book. The book itself will be out in early June. The gist is that data available in just the past decade from
studies of microbes which occur in nature in truly astronomical numbers, such as the malarial parasite and HIV, demonstrate random mutation to be incoherent, and Darwinian processes capable of only trivial changes to pre-existing systems. (Now, who on this list is surprised at that?) Extrapolating from such data allows relatively precise, firm limits to be placed on what is reasonable to expect of unintelligent processes to have done during the course of life on earth. The bottom line is that design extends very deeply into life, well past such Cadillacs of
complexity as the flagellum, far deeper than I myself would have guessed ten years ago.

Edge of Evolution promises to be great, because the Publisher's Weekly review is profoundly negative, and the book has not even been released (but it was 22, 500th when I just checked this evening). Hey, I'd hate to be a materialist right now too, but there is a cure for it. (Note: You have to scroll down or search on "Behe".)
If you want to understand why the intelligent design controversy cannot go away, read By Design or by Chance?.

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