Several years ago, I picked a fight with some Darwinist or other. This was in print, as part of my day job as a newspaper pundit, I hasten to add: No humans were injured in the making of this controversy. I must have had a lot of time on my hands, for the time I have since invested.
The "mainstream media" run articles daily in support, praise, or extenuation of "Darwinism" — implicitly defined as "the scientific alternative to religious belief." The year 2009 will be a double anniversary for Charles Darwin, for both his birth (in 1809) and the publication of The Origin of Species (1859). It follows that we will have more celebration of this "patron saint of modern atheism" and be subjected to more irritations than ever.
Now, Darwin is no more to be blamed for the behavior of his disciples than Karl Marx for the crimes of Stalin — which is to say, yes, I blame Marx, but I blame Stalin more. That Darwin was himself an atheist I think becomes clear as one reads him; that he was also a remarkable observer of natural history should go without saying.
Darwin’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, whose contribution to the hypothesis of "natural selection" tends to be understated when not overlooked (he had weird spiritual views of the sort that embarrass "rationalists"), had the more interesting, original, and engaging of the two minds. I was rereading recently his wonderful book, The Malay Archipelago, which I can recommend to anyone as a narrative of travel and adventure. There you will find a man remarkably open to experience and careless of where the truth may lead. In Darwin, by comparison, I find a very careful man — a decent and honest one, but a spiritual miser, crouched over his single, plausible insight into nature.
"Plausible," and no more. Evolution was clear enough to the generation before Darwin’s; the descent of diverse creatures from common ancestors cannot be an issue. But there is no conceivable way to extract, from recoverable fragments of the deep fossil record, a confirmation of Darwin’s hypothesis, nor to predict anything with it.
Moreover, modern biology moved on through Gregor Mendel, through DNA, through advanced microscopy, into realms unimaginable to Darwin, where none of his assertions are required. We have, in evolutionary biology today, what is called "the modern synthesis" of neo-Darwinism and Mendelian genetics. But if Darwin had never lived, the science would be much the same. We would be missing only the lip-service to Darwin.
That all living nature can be explained ultimately by "natural selection," and by this alone, is plausible, easy to imagine — but only for as long as one is able to ignore the presence of volition in all living things. By comparison, no form of "intelligent design" can possibly be plausible, until a Designer can be produced and dissected. This God has done only once in history.
Beyond this, the idea that the existence of God is "disproved," merely by suggesting an alternative hypothesis, is too absurd. A better question is: How have intelligent minds been reduced to this? Arguments over how one species came of another cannot possibly touch on the existence of God. Likewise, "proofs" of God are irrelevant. Faith in God is prior to intellectual knowledge; if nothing else, Descartes should have proved that no intellectual process can get "behind" it.
I was shown, over Christmas, an article by an American "philosopher" (in the Boston Review) touching on recent "arguments from design" and comparing them dismissively with other "proofs" of the existence of God, chiefly St. Anselm’s "ontological argument," with animadversions to St. Thomas. What a waste of precious electrons!
There are unintended comic moments when our contemporary Whiz Boys present themselves as interpreters of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, but mostly it is grim to read. For they are smartasses: They lack seriousness. They do not want to know the answers to the questions upon which they are disporting themselves. It is pure display, performance art.
Anselm was not presenting a "proof" of the existence of God, in any glib sense of that word. Faith is prior to knowledge, from the first reaching of the newborn child, so long as there is life. It is volitional, not epistemic, in its nature.
This is not playing with words. Anselm is instead concerned with what faith itself can teach us about God, through the concentrated application of reason — which involves a faith in reason, too. For Anselm is not trying to replace faith with reason, as trite interpreters assume, he is trying to enlarge upon faith. His point of departure is to ask why the Fool in the Psalms — "who has said in his heart, there is no God" — is a fool. He is engaged in a high philosophical quest, not a game with such rewards as tenure. This is why he remains worth considering after a thousand years.
The smartass begins by rejecting all "faith claims." In doing so he places himself, as it were, outside his own being, in the void where abstract judgments are made. As Anselm was showing, he is a fool.
My New Year’s resolution is to try, hard, to overcome my own foolish propensity to argue with fools on the fools’ own premises. For it is a pointless distraction from the task of building, upon faith, ad majorem Dei gloriam.