The Death of Faith?

Darwin's theory was part of a larger cultural shift towards naturalistic philosophy. Why is he still the target of so many attacks?
By Brendan Maher

Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) By Janet Browne, 320 pp., Atlantic Books, $19.95
Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, By Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey (Editors), 416 pp., W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95

In the years before I became a moping, rebellious teen, I spent countless hours talking with my father, Thomas Ryan Maher: me sitting at the...

Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) By Janet Browne, 320 pp., Atlantic Books, $19.95
Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, By Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey (Editors), 416 pp., W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95

In the years before I became a moping, rebellious teen, I spent countless hours talking with my father, Thomas Ryan Maher: me sitting at the foot of his bed and him in a creaky office chair with his feet up on the same.

My father was a devout Roman Catholic, a lawyer, and foremost an arguer. He'd argue any point, but relished in particular the intersections between law and morality, ethical puzzles, and the nature of faith. His arguments were meticulously crafted in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, appearing to take all angles into consideration, but almost always settling on teleology and doctrine.

We spoke of evolution. I was young and had largely experienced science through a Catholic school that exposed me to Darwin, but also to Aquinas' Summa Theologica, which in the 13th century invoked the complexity of life as a proof of God. My father puzzled me by remaining mysterious, seemingly agnostic on this point. It's an argument revived several times in history as prominent Darwin biographer Janet Browne documents in Darwin's Origin of the Species a short, delightful treatise that bills itself as the biography of a book that changed the world.

Browne picks up the discussion at William Paley, whose 1802 trilogy, Natural Theology, Darwin read as a student. Paley famously compared life's complexity to that of a found watch - if you came across a watch in a field, its design and apparent purpose certainly implies an intelligent agent at work. In 1861, astronomer John Herschel wrote about an "Intelligence" that guided the steps of change according to the laws of science. Browne, in a disappointingly brief chapter on the legacy of Origin, addresses how these arguments have evolved over the decades, and have contributed to the largely American Intelligent Design (ID) movement.

A better jumping off point for information on this and other antievolution factions is the newest edition of Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, edited by Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey. This collection of new articles and essays from prominent evolution supporters, including Eugenie Scott and Robert Pennock, takes on creationist arguments in three sections, exposing their roots in fundamentalist Christian reformation, shutting down the pseudoscientific posturing, and discussing the nature and philosophy of science.

Scott's contribution is noteworthy for the distinctions she draws between ID and earlier forms of creationism such as young earth creationism, which takes a literal interpretation of the Bible. It's been advantageous for Darwin defenders and accurate to equate the two, especially in precedent-setting court cases such as Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which it needed to be clear that by inserting ID into a high school curriculum, the Dover school board had violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Scott draws parallels between both their motivations and ultimate goals: to reduce secularism and materialism in the world via "the disenfranchisement of evolution and/or 'Darwinism' in the popular mind."

The clash between faith and Darwin is nothing new, but the gray areas have receded.

But she also shows where they diverge in philosophy, at least in the short term. More traditional creation science movements, like that sponsored by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) have placed Darwin at the center of a "tree of evil." Intelligent Designers have been more welcoming of a dialog between evolutionists and creationists invoking scientific-sounding arguments. This "creation science lite" approach takes advantage of the egalitarian nature of US citizens by promoting a stance that seems to present origins science objectively. IDers have similarly been friendly to the traditional creationists by being nonspecific about such arguments as the age of the earth.

Scott writes about these so-called big-tent tactics of the ID movement, and how they have gained them little in the way of support from Biblical literalists, who deem them too soft on such issues as Noah's flood. The essays in the book include predictions as to these groups' next steps. The Discovery Institute is circulating an "evidence for and against evolution" strategy that is gaining traction. The big tent tactic, however, seems a liability to Scott, because it "results in the inability to speak with one voice ... rendering incoherent ID's pronouncements on anything other than the untenability of evolution or 'Darwinism.'"

Faith appears to play heavily in the current onslaught of antievolutionary thinking. But my father, a man of very sincere faith, never jumped on board with the simplistic arguments of creationists. Browne outlines some of the historic perspective: It was not simply faith that was threatened by Darwin's theory, but rather a way of life that was threatened by a variety of forces. That Origin conflicted with Biblical infallibility was not a great issue in its time.

Fundamentalism of this sort, writes Browne, is a modern phenomenon, not a Victorian one. At issue was how naturalistic explanations for origins would affect social mores at the time. Pushing God out of the gaps meant that secularism would reign. Blaming Darwin, however, ignores the fact that, as with most social revolutions, change is in the air prior to the introduction of the perceived catalyst. Browne writes that no one "could fail to notice the way that Darwin's biology mirrored the British nation in all its competitive, entrepreneurial, factory spirit."

Some of Darwin's defenders have tried to call an uneasy truce with faith. Steven Jay Gould tried to keep scientific and religious domains separate. David Sloan Wilson and others have addressed it head on. Wilson's latest, Evolution for Everyone, is billed as a practical teaching tool for anyone curious about how evolution works and how it might be applied to such things as gossip, laughter, and faith. He presents Darwin's theory in an easy affable way, with dozens of short examples of ecological fieldwork that has supported evolution. Much of the book reads like a love song to Edward O. Wilson, whose book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, popularized the idea of group selection, putting cultural practices under the same heritable and selectable rules as individual physiologic adaptations. David Sloan Wilson - no relation to E.O. - recaps and expands on many of the arguments made in his previous book, Darwin's Cathedral, regarding religions as adaptations for group survival. It's an argument that's been ridiculed by other evolutionists for losing sight of the individual in favor of the group. Huzzah! A real controversy in evolution.

Wilson's book serves as a nice primer on some basic concepts in evolution, including the newer and more controversial fields growing up around group selection and evolutionary psychology, but its title seems a bit of a misfire. Being for Everyone, Darwin critics and all, would probably require an even softer touch on faith. Nevertheless Wilson is an inimitable Darwin guardian.

The early defenders of Darwin, such as Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray, and Thomas Huxley, played an important role, says Browne, because Darwin himself was more reticent, delicate even, about defending his theory. But indeed few of them would be considered great Darwin defenders today. Gray, who famously debated the powerful American botanist and anti-Darwinist Louis Agassiz, invariably suggested modifying Darwin's scheme to make it more palatable to theists - to allow that God provided good and useful variations that nature would select for. Darwin reportedly respected Gray's opinion, at one point saying, "No other person understands me so thoroughly as Asa Gray. If I ever doubt what I mean myself, I think I shall ask him!"

The clash between faith and Darwin is nothing new, but it seems that the gray areas that Browne outlines in the early years have receded.

My father died last October, but before he did we had a few chances to revive some of the discussions from my childhood, this time with me in the creaky office chair at the side of his bed. I recall him being dismayed at the most recent evolution eruption in Dover, Pa. Though not unfriendly to the idea of religion in public schools, he saw ID for what it was and recognized that the law had been broken.

My father never fully bought the theory of evolution, but he often asked me to explain things to him about biology, especially the "guh-nome," as he called it. He was also not a biblical literalist, but rather struggled to square the allegory of creation stories with his fragmented understanding of matters on which scientists were in agreement. During one of our chats, he reminded me of his theory of evolution, told to me when I was still young: After the fall in the Garden of Eden, he said, God turned man into an apelike being from which he would have to evolve. It's not the most sound hypothesis, I told him, but at least it's testable.

Brendan Maher is a senior editor at The Scientist.

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