Monkey Business in Kansas: When Science Takes Its Cues From Religion

Last month, the Kansas Board of Education voted to delete virtually any mention of evolution from he state’s science curriculum. The reaction among the cognitive elites was predictably harsh: Why are creationists allowed to get away with this? Why can’t they keep their Bibles out of the classroom?

America has been fighting a battle over the teaching of evolution since the Scopes trial of 1925. To people with a secularist bent, it makes for a neat morality play of religious obscurantism versus scientific enlightenment. On the one side, Bible-thumping fundamentalists; on the other, Darwin.

The problem with this debate is that both sides are wrong. There is fuzzy thinking all around. Each side puts science and religion on the same playing field with the same set of rules. But science and religion do not belong on the same playing field. It’s a bit like making the New York Yankees play the Dallas Cowboys. And the confusion is compounded by the fact that the arguments of both camps—creationist and Darwinist—are full of errors and obvious suppressions.

Fundamental Lessons

Creationism is a peculiarly American phenomenon. (Show me a French creationist.) Although it has its roots in the writings of Luther and Calvin, its modern form began in the 19th century in reaction to Darwin’s theory and to the assault by German scholars on the inerrancy of Scripture. Protestant evangelicals drew a line in the sand. They were going to read each line of the Bible, especially the opening chapters of Genesis, as literally true. They paid no attention to literary form, or to St. Augustine’s advice that, if a passage of Scripture seems to contradict reasonable observations of nature, we ought to be open to the possibility that the Sacred Author may be using figurative language to express a nonscientific truth.

G. K. Chesterton noted about Christian fundamentalists that “the funniest thing about them is their name. For whatever else the Fundamentalist is, he is not fundamental. He is content with the bare letter of Scripture—the translation of a translation—without venturing to ask for its original authority.” That authority, of course, is the Catholic Church, which put together the canon in the first place. The Bible was never meant to be read apart from the teaching authority of the Church. And since Pope Leo XIII, the Church has argued tirelessly that the Bible does not teach science, period.

With no such theological guidance, creationists open the Bible and look for science lessons where they are not to be found. They read Genesis as a textbook in astro-physics and geology. But Genesis, as St. Augustine pointed out, wasn’t meant to be read that way. It teaches truths that are totally beyond science. It tells us what God did, not how he did it. Genesis was written in an archaic, pre-scientific idiom for an audience that was not ready to hear about the big bang or genetic mutations. The author of Genesis could not have said that the universe is twelve billion years old because the ancient Hebrews did not have a word for one billion. For all we know, the author might have been intrigued by the hypothesis of evolution; and in writing that man was “formed from the dust” he may even have been hinting that the Creator made ample use of secondary causes; but science, as we moderns understand it, was not on anybody’s radar in ancient Palestine and is not to be looked for in Scripture.

Creation scientists only get into trouble when they try to cram scientific data into a biblical template that was never meant to receive it. Whenever I get into a discussion with a person, Catholic or non-Catholic, who favors a literal reading of Scripture about the origin of the universe, I ask a simple question: If the universe is 6,000 years old, which a literal reading of the Bible suggests, how can we see the Milky Way? The nearest star is over a million light years away and its light would not have reached us yet.

“Creation science” is a nonstarter for another important reason. It confuses two separate orders of knowledge. Creation is a strictly philosophical concept; it has nothing to do with science, which involves the quantitative investigation of nature. It took the Western mind a long time to figure out that science works marvelously well when freed from philosophical or theological commitments. As Etienne Gilson put it, the natural sciences “cannot be too positivistic.” If you are going to do something called “Creation science,” you are in danger of corrupting both science and philosophy. Galileo, of all people, made this mistake when, ignoring the work of Kepler, he insisted on philosophical grounds that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles rather than ellipses.

The New Creationists

When creationists enter the scientific arena waving their Bibles, they play right into the hands of secularists, who attack them with Mencken-like relish. What has been missed by the media in the Kansas battle, however, is the fact that the creationists are moving away from strictly biblical arguments. Rather, they increasingly base their case on two indisputable facts. First, Darwinism, which is the only theory of evolution taught in our schools, is flawed and due for eventual retirement. Second, what our children often get in school under this topic is not straight science, but evolutionary materialism: Man is a thing, a chemical accident, an arbitrary collation of atoms with no more dignity or value than a jellyfish. Darwinism, in other words, feeds right into the atmosphere of nihilism that has helped produce tragedies like Columbine.

You didn’t know that there are problems with Darwin’s theory of evolution? Well, people like Richard Dawkins and the science editors of the New York Times do not wish you to know. Neo-Darwinism, the reigning orthodoxy, tells us that all species are the result of accidental mutations gradually directed over millions of years by natural selection. This scenario is supported neither by the fossil record, which shows species abruptly appearing and changing little before they become extinct, nor by breeding experiments, which show that all species have limits beyond which they will not go. In fact, nobody has ever seen one species turn into another species. The testimony of breeders is particularly telling: Dogs remain dogs, fruitflies remain fruitflies.

Although it is largely invisible to the public, there is an acrimonious debate among scientists today over every aspect of Darwin’s theory. Occasionally, it erupts in a public forum—for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s recent article in the New York Times Review of Books attacking what he calls “Darwinian fundamentalists” (i.e., people who believe Darwin’s theory). In the opinion of Gould and others, a major problem with the theory of natural selection is its explanatory glibness. Every natural phenomenon, no matter how irreducibly complex, is attributed to the miraculous workings of natural selection. But all natural selection can do is eliminate what doesn’t work. It does not “create” elephants and bombadier beetles.

Scientific Sleight-of-Hand

The teaching that natural selection is biologically creative is one of the great intellectual confidence games of modern times. Read this sentence carefully: The destruction of the unfit does not explain the origin of the fit. Natural selection can tell us why polar bears have white, rather than brown, coats; it does not explain how there came to be mammals in the first place. Put another way, natural selection can explain “microevolution”—the changes that occur within species, like longer beaks or more prehensile claws—but it cannot deliver the really big jumps between species, what is called “macroevolution.” Many scientists, including Pierre P. Grasse, Steven Stanley, and Gould himself, argue that neo-Darwinism is wrong when it extrapolates evolution from the minor changes we see within species. Microevolution does not lead anywhere beyond the small ecological adjustments that species make all the time. But once you stop extrapolating macro from micro evolution, you are left with no answer to the question: Where do species come from?

The decision of the Kansas Board of Education elicited indignant statements in places like the Times from assistant professors of science. One physicist writes that “evolution enjoys an overwhelming amount of empirical support, and modern genetics provides a deep understanding of the mechanisms underlying the evolutionary process.” Really? The fossil record shows species being replaced by later species, not evolving into them. Its pattern in no way fits the neo-Darwinian scenario of gradual evolution. Stanley writes in The New Evolutionary Time Table that the record “does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another.” And what does modern genetics tell us about this process? Richard Lewontin writes in his influential book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, that “we know nothing about the genetic changes that occur in species formation.”

The scientific problems with Darwinism are too numerous to rehearse here, and it is worth reading critiques like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial or perhaps my own Did Darwin Get It Right? Anyone with an open mind will be struck by what John Cardinal Newman called “the logical insufficiencies” of the theory. Newman’s Christian orthodoxy was not troubled by the idea of the common descent of species; but he would have agreed with Chesterton’s later verdict: “I am very far from calling the Darwinian a liar; but I shall continue to say that he is not always a logician.”

Johnson remarks that the more we tell schoolchildren all that is to be known about macro-evolution, the better. And how much is that? I once asked a prominent biologist who works at the New York Museum of Natural History what we really know about evolution, and he said to me, “We know that species reproduce, and that there are different species now than there were 100 million years ago. Everything else is propaganda.” This scientific vacuity is why serious biologists and molecular biologists seldom talk about evolution in research journals. It is rather populizers like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan who push evolution on the public. And their reasons for doing so have more to do with their materialistic philosophy than with hard science. Like Darwin himself, they are bent on eliminating God from intelligent discourse.

From Next to Nothing

Since the courts have already removed God from the classroom, is it any wonder that intelligent people concerned about the moral education of children balk at letting science teachers spread what amounts to a materialist ideology? If Darwinism were more modest in its claims, and more honest about what it cannot explain, these creationist eruptions would never occur.

Any class on evolution ought to begin with the admission that science is nowhere near answering the three big questions: the origin of the universe, of life, and of man. These three questions, however, are usually fudged. My favorite statement by a Darwinist is Daniel Dennett’s remark that the universe began with “next to nothing,” an ontological category that should amuse anyone capable of thinking.

We are in a bad situation when nobody will admit that there might be a reasonable center between the poles of biblical and scientific fundamentalism. Pope John Paul II teaches that there is room both for the Bible and for the scientific hypothesis of evolution, so long as divine causality is not excluded from the big picture. Christians ought to allow science its due competence without attempting closure on sensitive issues like evolution. And Darwinists ought to behave like scientists rather than ideologues and stop trying to smuggle their views about God into the classroom.

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George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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