Debating Darwin

When the Luther College community gathers for worship, the hymn "Praise the Source of Faith and Learning" is a frequent part of the worship experience—not surprising given this hymn's relevance to the faith and learning dialectic so central to the college's identity. In the second verse we sing:

God of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art,

                        and the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart.

Far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound,

                        where your purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.

How seriously do we take these words? Especially when it comes to science, do we really believe that science only imparts partial truth, and that beyond our scientific calculations lies a depth where God's purpose for creation is found?

I am currently devoting a sabbatical break to the exploration of these very questions. I am particularly interested in debate over Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design theory. Is Darwinian evolution compatible with religious faith or must a person of faith reject Darwinian principles? Is Intelligent Design an intellectually coherent alternative, or just a conservative Christian ideology dressed up as science? These questions are far more complex than they are usually portrayed.

For example, while the religious views of Charles Darwin are much debated (was he an atheist or just an agnostic?), there is no doubt about the religious views of many modern evolutionary biologists. Richard Dawkins has famously claimed that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." According to E. O. Wilson, "If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species." William Provine has written, "Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society. We must conclude that when we die, we die, and that is the end of us." And Douglas Futuyma adds, "Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms—but this seems to be the message of evolution."

Such quotations could be multiplied many times over, but are they the last word? Does accepting evolution by natural selection require that one accept a purely materialistic, purposeless view of reality? It is hard to see otherwise. If the diversity of life on earth was achieved by the purely physical process of natural selection acting on random mutation, a process that is not goal directed but simply is what it is, there seems to be little room for the actions of a creative God. But not all people of faith will agree. Polls show that about 40 percent of Americans accept Darwinian evolution, but believe it to be the process by which God has created life. Even evolutionary biologists who are people of faith take a position like this, Brown University cell biologist Kenneth Miller, for one.

In his book "Finding Darwin's God," Miller, an orthodox Catholic, strenuously argues that a complete embrace of Darwinian evolution is fully compatible with traditional Christian faith. He bases his argument on the indeterminacy of events at the level of elementary particles. Quantum indeterminacy acts for Miller like an escape hatch. It allows God to influence events in a way that is both profound, but also scientifically undetectable. Miller thus concludes:

A God who presides over an evolutionary process is not an impotent, passive observer. Rather, He is one whose genius fashioned a fruitful world in which the process of continuing creation is woven into the fabric of matter itself. He retains the freedom to act, to reveal Himself to His creatures, to inspire, and to teach.

How, we might ask, does God accomplish all this while remaining scientifically undetectable? And why is it so important for Miller that God's actions remain scientifically undetectable? The latter question is easily answered. Biologists who seriously question the sufficiency of materialist theories to fully account for a process like evolution are quickly dismissed and marginalized by the scientific establishment. Miller wants to avoid the fate of another Catholic cell biologist, Michael Behe. Behe is a leading component of Intelligent Design theory and a tenured full professor at Lehigh University. Since he can't be fired, but is considered an embarrassment to the university, the Lehigh University biology department webpage contains a disclaimer making it clear that neither the department nor the university endorses Behe's views, a blatant disregard for principles of academic freedom.

For Behe, God's actions in the world are scientifically detectable. He believes the living world reveals elements of irreducible complexity and design and that science itself reveals to us its own limits and the fingerprints of a creative God. For believers like Behe, Miller's attempt to retain a belief in God while simultaneously affirming the totality of Darwinian evolution serves to trivialize God by rendering God scientifically undetectable. If God is the creator of the universe, why wouldn't we expect to see evidence of God's existence? And if we can't—if a purely materialistic, meaningless process can fully account for the diversity of life—on what grounds can we continue to believe in God's existence? But is Intelligent Design theory tenable? And if so, wouldn't its embrace be more consistent with the words of one of Luther College's favorite hymns?

I am not yet confident about the answers to these profound questions. I can say with confidence that the earth is very old, evolution is real, and that the various forms of young earth creationism that treat the book of Genesis like a documentary are intellectually untenable. But is the evolutionary process purely materialistic and lacking in purpose or direction? Or can one detect the hand of a designer without necessarily dismissing the achievements of science?  I hope to share my developing insights on these questions in future blog posts. How seriously should we take the words we sing when we gather for worship? This is the question I hope to answer.

Headshot - Bob ShedingerRobert Shedinger is an associate professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."