Fundamentalism, evolution and creation by David Holloway

March 1998

 

Screwtape

Hugh Montefiore, the former bishop of Birmingham, a year or two ago wrote as a book review in the Church Times the following letter. It was in the style of one of C.S.Lewis' Screwtape Letters and entitled, "a theory unnaturally selected". (It is here reprinted with permission).


Dear Wormwood,

I am writing because I want more precautions taken to safeguard our position on the scientific front. The general belief in the West that Darwinism explains the evolution of species has been our greatest triumph, and has given enormous satisfaction to our Father Below.

The assumption that mankind has emerged from a purposeless process of evolution resulting from the accumulation of small random mutations which were to the advantage of individual members of a species, and made them fitter to survive, has robbed millions of faith in the existence of the Enemy, or reduced him to the status of a "blind watchmaker".

But I scent danger ahead. You have done very well to prevent reviews of small and easy-to-read books like Darwin on Trial (Monarch, 1994). The eminence of its author Philip E. Johnson, a Berkeley law professor, and his disclosure of the threadbare nature of our arguments, could have done us great damage.

Fortunately, we have been so successful that anyone who tries to debunk neo-Darwinism is generally regarded by society as a crank. You must keep on preventing those scientists who are adherents of the Enemy from criticising evolution through natural selection. You must try to spread abroad the idea that the only alternative to Darwinism is the belief that the world was created by the Enemy in six days. Don't try to persuade people that Darwinism is true - we know it isn't - but that there is no alternative explanation that is credible today.

A few practical hints. If anyone objects that there is no concrete evidence that any new species has actually evolved by micromutations, divert attention from the facts by saying it is logically possible. Suggest that major changes might in principle come about through small mutations in an embryo, but never try to explain how, for example, a reptile producing eggs could turn into a mammal producing live young.

When it comes to fossils, beware of the palaeontologists, because they tend to be against us. No transitional intermediates have ever been found in the vertebrate sequence or elsewhere; so hammer on about animals with similarities to two classes, and never mention the differences, or why there were sudden extinctions or why some species persist for millions of years. So you should hide the fact that the fossil problem is getting worse, not better. Pretend that we simply need to find more fossils. Assert that similarities in molecular structure between species prove a common ancestry - although, of course, they don't.

What really scares me is the thought that some well-known biologist may say that anyone looking objectively at the evidence would regard Darwinism as highly improbable. But it's unlikely: too many vested interests are at stake.

Your affectionate uncle,

SCREWTAPE


Evolution

The old certainties with regard to evolution are being challenged today. As Philip E. Johnson says:

Every history of the twentieth century lists three thinkers as preeminent in influence: Darwin, Marx and Freud. All three were regarded as "scientific" (and hence far more reliable than anything "religious") in their heyday. Yet Marx and Freud have fallen, and even their dwindling bands of followers no longer claim that their insights were based on any methodology remotely comparable to that of experimental science. I am convinced that Darwin is the next on the block. His fall will be by far the mightiest of the three.

And that will be highly significant because popular Darwinism has been used to dethrone God. As the philosopher of science Del Ratz puts it, "Evolution, along with the new cosmologies and backed by the undentable prestige of science, became part of a gratifyingly sophisticated excuse for unbelief - a ticket out of an oppressive universe with a God who set boundaries and made demands, into one where we set the rules and the cosmos itself was the only limit." Darwinism became a new secular "religion". The serious consequences have especially been seen in our schools. An official American 1995 "Position Statement" for biology teachers, excluding any divine design or control, reads as follows:

The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

So how is this confidence being challenged?

There are three areas that come together in the debate on evolution: one, the scientific; two, the philosophical; and three, the theological. In all areas there are now serious questions being asked.

In the scientific area it is now being seen that Darwin's The Origin of Species had a level of plausibility in 1859 more because of the culture of unbelief that was developing at that time than because of its scientific merit. That unbelief was evidenced, for example, in the book of theologically liberal essays published the following year and entitled Essays and Reviews.

There was nothing new in "evolution" as such. Lamarck, a French zoologist had earlier published Zoological Philosophy in 1809. This spoke of life in its simplest form emerging from nonlife by small steps and in increasing complexity. But Darwin's theory caught on where Lamarck's had not because of the theory of "natural selection" which gained natural law status and seemed a hidden power. It told how it all happened. T.H.Huxley, who described himself as "Darwin's bulldog", referred to the hypothesis of natural selection like this:

That which we were looking for, and could not find, was a hypothesis respecting the origin of known organic forms which assumed the operation of no causes but such as could be proved to be actually at work. The Origin provided us with the working hypothesis we sought. Moreover, it did the immense service of freeing us for ever from the dilemma - refuse to accept the creation hypothesis, and what have you to propose that can be accepted by any cautious reasoner?


Questions

People wanted to escape from the "creation hypothesis". Natural selection enabled them to do that. Confirmation that there were clearly anti-religious drives and motives in wanting to find such a hypothesis comes from Richard Dawkins, the contemporary Oxford Zoologist. He writes: "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Dawkins now promotes this atheism with evolutionary zealotry. But his is only one side of the story. A senior palaeontologist at the British Natural History Museum, Colin Patterson, along with many others reflects the more sceptical side. Not so long ago at a lecture for experts in his field he asked his audience the following question:
Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing ... that is true?
I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History and the only answer I got was silence. I tried it on the members of the Evolutionary Morphology seminar in the University of Chicago, a very prestigious body of evolutionists, and all I got there was silence for a long time and eventually one person said "I do know one thing - it ought not to be taught in high school."

Patterson went on to suggest that both evolution and creationism are forms of pseudo-knowledge. His subsequent remarks do not allow us to be sure what he really thinks. But he indicates that not all is straightforward. One problem is that "evolution" can mean anything from the obvious truth that bacteria "evolve" resistance to certain antibiotics or so often "the fittest survive" to the metaphysical proposition that mankind "evolved" entirely by purposeless, mechanical forces. So first, we must ask, "are we talking about 'micro-evolution' within species? Or are we talking about the 'macro-evolution' of the cosmos?" The former clearly takes place. But is there any evidence for the latter?

More and more are saying "no!" Simple natural selection and the survival of the fittest, driving an ideology of evolution, has no longer the plausibility it once had. So the zoologist Pierre GrassÚ, speaking of Julian Huxley (T.H's grandson) and other evolutionary biologists, now says that their "evolution" was ...
simply the observation of demographic facts, local fluctuations of genotypes, geographical distributions. Often the species concerned have remained practically unchanged for hundreds of centuries! Fluctuation as a result of circumstances, with prior modification of the genome, does not imply evolution, and we have tangible proof of this in many panchronic species [i.e. living fossils that remain unchanged for millions of years].
But as significant as the questions over human evolution are the new findings in geology. Following the relatively recent eruption of Mount St Helens, the work of Steve Austin is reintroducing catastrophe theory. The volcano's eruption and the succeeding years have provided a real-time laboratory for testing theories of geological formation. What has been discovered is indeed mind stretching. The research has discovered that coal, canyons and rock layers, far from taking millions of years to develop can form in a few years if natural volcanic forces are large enough. This is all in sharp contrast to the ground breaking geological theories of men like James Hutton (1726-97) suggesting a general uniformitarianism and an absence of catastrophes (such as the flood). This uniformitarianism lead to the view in the 19th century that the earth's history consisted of successive, unimaginably long geological epochs. This was a necessary condition for Darwin's theories to be plausible. Also questions are now being raised about radiocarbon dating. One hypothesis concerns the decay of the earth's magnetic field, positing an exponential rate of decay thus giving a stronger magnetic field in the past. This would have shielded the earth from cosmic radiation and produced lower amounts of carbon 14. Whether this is convincing or not, little by little the unquestioned assumptions of ideological Darwinism are at least being put up for discussion.


Philosophy and the Bible

But the challenge is not only in matters of science. The philosophy of science is raising questions as to what is the logical nature of scientific hypotheses anyway. Are they to be considered "descriptions" of reality, or are some of them simply "models" that have built into them inferring techniques that help us solve problems. The model may be based on reality but it is not to be taken as a picture of reality.

And then there is the bible and fundamentalist exegesis. But here too not all is so simple. It is now recognized that the so called "fundamentalists" of the early part of the 20th century were far from being the bigots as popularly portrayed in films such as Inherit the Wind. The men, for example, who wrote the series of essays called The Fundamentals between 1910-1915 were for the most part distinguished scholars. B.B.Warfield, a fundamentalist of the fundamentalists and one of the essayists, was a Professor at Princeton, USA and an intellectual giant. He believed that evolution could be a method God used in creation. He actually was a theistic evolutionist. Another essayist and great fundamentalist, James Orr and a Professor of Theology in Glasgow, was concerned that evolution theory was denying the doctrine of original sin and the fall. "But if evolution is guided - and not necessarily slow, but proceeding with sudden mutations which introduce new factors - then the problem is changed. It may not be possible to prove that original man was sinless, but there is now room for such an origin." That is a summary of his views.

So how did the fundamentalists treat the bible? James Orr in volume 1 of The Fundamentals wrote this:

What I see in these narratives of Genesis is that, so true is the standpoint of the author, so divine the illumination with which he is endowed, so unerring his insight into the order of nature, there is little in his description that even yet, with our advanced knowledge, we need to change. You say there is the "six days" and the question whether those days are meant to be measured by the twenty-four hours of the sun's revolution around the earth - I speak of these things popularly. It is difficult to see how they should be so measured when the sun that is to measure them is not introduced until the fourth day. Do not think that this larger reading of the days is a new speculation. You find Augustine in early times declaring that it is hard or altogether impossible to say of what fashion these days are, and Thomas Aquinas, in the middle ages, leaves the matter an open question. To my mind these narratives in Genesis stand out as a marvel, not for its discordance with science, but for its agreement with it.

And he concludes:
It is clear that the narratives of Creation, the Fall, the Flood, are not myths, but narratives enshrining the knowledge or memory of real transactions. The creation of the world was certainly not a myth, but a fact, and the representation of the stages of creation dealt likewise with facts. The language used was not that of modern science, but, under divine guidance, the sacred writer gives a broad, general picture which conveys a true idea of the order of the divine working in creation. Man's fall was likewise a tremendous fact, with universal consequences in sin and death to the race. Man's origin can only be explained through an exercise of direct creative activity, whatever subordinate factors evolution may have contributed. The flood was an historical fact, and the preservation of Noah and his family is one of the best and most widely attested of human traditions. In these narratives in Genesis and the facts which they embody is really laid the foundation of all else in the Bible. The unity of revelation binds them up with the Christian Gospel.
So speaks the voice of Fundamentalism.


Other voices

It is wrong to think, however, that the problems of "origins and the bible" only surfaced for the first time with Darwin. Consider the following:
Natural scientists and philosophers have attempted to explain nature or the world; but not one of their theories or suggestions has remained firm or unshaken; each has been over thrown by its successor ... Those for whom the concept of "God" is meaningless are unwilling to admit that a rational being was in control at the inception of the Universe ... Take the "materialists" - those who say matter is all there is, matter is ultimate, or put more technically, atoms, molecules etc (invisible entities) coalescing make up the visible world. It is because they don't know how to say, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen 1.1). An atheistic philosophy of the world has misled them; and it appears then that nothing governs or rules the Universe, but all is given up to mere chance.
To guard us from such an error the writer of the creation narrative in Genesis, with his very first words, flashes into our minds the name of God. "In the beginning God created". What a glorious order. He first establishes a beginning. Then he adds "created" to show that what was made was a very small part of the power of the creator.

This was not from someone arguing against Darwin in the last century. This was from the pen of Basil of Cappadocia in the 4th century. Christians down the centuries have realised you have to respect the language of Genesis. Genesis 1-3 are clearly not like the Acts of the Apostles. Calvin in his Commentary on Genesis writing about "Let them be for lights" says:
it is well again to repeat what I have said before, that it is not here philosophically discussed, how great the sun is in the heaven, and how great or how little is the moon; but how much light comes to us from them ... By this method (as I have before observed) the dishonesty of those men is sufficiently rebuked who censure Moses for not speaking with greater exactness. For as it became a theologian, he had respect to us rather than to the stars."
In the early church Augustine believed that the earth, with all that is in it, was created in one instant. He had a "very big bang" theory. He said that the six days were introduced to help the mind grasp this concept. More recently Pope Pius XII spoke of the early part of Genesis in Humani Generis:
Although it is not right to judge them by modern standards of historical composition, such as would be applied to the great classical authors, or to the learned of our own day, they do nevertheless come under the heading of history ... These chapters have a na´ve, symbolical way of talking, well suited to the understanding of a primitive people. But they do disclose to us certain important truths.

Chapters 1-3 of Genesis still raise certain questions. After nearly 150 years many people are thinking that Darwin does not provide the answers. Is it not wrong, therefore, to give the ideology of evolution a privileged place in our education today? The philosopher Stephen Toulmin has written of the theory of evolution as "scientific mythology". As a "myth" or "model" it may have value if it secures results. But it should not then be taught, with all the secular prejudices we are now so used to, as reflecting "what really happened" in history. T.H.Huxley invented the word "agnostic" with regard to belief in God. Surely agnosticism with regard to the theory of evolution is what is now called for.


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