1.5 Dissing Darwin
The “Darwinism” threat, what are god(s) to do if natural causation applies everywhere.
Having seen how superficial Wiker’s treatment of Darwin’s theoretical contribution was reinforces the idea that what is really bothering him is that big “lie” part, which for him turns out to be just one: “Darwin’s insistence that evolution be godless is the cause of much mischief and not a little mayhem,” Wiker (2009a; xi). Wiker doesn’t seem to have a problem with the equally “godless” disciplines of physics, chemistry or geology, which relates ultimately to the highly parochial focus of designer thinking. Few religious believers these days get pangs of theological angst over the idea that the Alps came about by natural means, or that conceding a natural origin for mountains somehow causes all gods to go poof! But that is exactly the slippery slope that thinkers like Wiker require Darwinian evolution to slide down once living things (and especially us) are included.
This is a long-running battle, predating Darwin by a good stretch, percolating in Christian theological circles at least since the Franciscan priest John Duns Scotus (1266-1306) proposed that the same methods of reason could be applied to God and the creation—in contrast to his contemporary, the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who regarded godly intentions and creative activities as too inscrutably remote for human ken—with the eventual fallout being that once something gets pegged as a natural phenomenon it ought to stay that way, Noll (2011, 148). Scotus was also responsible for the First Cause argument for the God of Abraham, by the way, John Williams (2013), which remains one of the most popular “proofs” to this day.
The early practitioners of the Scientific Revolution took Scotus’ logic and ran with it, which wasn’t too theologically disturbing so long as the scientists were comfortably believing Christians, but as the centuries wore on it became progressively less relevant to plop God down at the end as divine string puller. Take Isaac Newton (1642-1727). As noted by Davis (2009), the devout if quirky (non-Trinitarian and alchemy groupie) science genius had no difficulty imagining God mediating all the action at a distance his mathematics described so succinctly. But that same mathematical comprehensiveness opened up the possibility that the gravitational clockwork—a metaphor posed by his rival Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716), which Newton did not embrace—operating over vast timespans without need for external adjustment, so that by the time Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was asked by Napoleon (1769-1821) to explain why there was no mention of God in his latest work refining the deterministic Newtonian description of planetary motion, Laplace is said to have replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Whether or not the Christian version of God existed, it was possible to imagine that entity not meddling in the way matter slogged around in the universe, rendering God irrelevant in that context.
Moving on to living things, Darwin was certainly not the only participant in the game of whittling down the deity’s operating parameters. Cuvier had that ball rolling in the 18th century the moment he recognized that some once living creatures had gone extinct, Van Wyhe (2008, 8-9), for the biblical concept of a “perfect” initial Creation frowned on the idea that anything could have vanished in that way since (a notion that will resurface in the YEC Flood Geology hope that somewhere even today some of the dinosaurs preserved on Noah’s Ark only some 4600 years ago will turn up somewhere in Africa or Indonesia).
Once Darwin extended natural processes to the living realm it was inevitable for some theologians to regard Darwin’s idea as inherently atheistic, such as Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Indeed, Hodge (1874) reads surprisingly like modern Kulturkampf antievolutionists in submerging all the technical issues into a deep teleological sea (showing also how peripheral recent developments like the Big Bang or bacterial flagella are to the argument, since Hodge fielded the same themes without any of that specific examples at hand). Beyond that was the role biblical interpretation played as a suppositional framework that did not allow much wiggle room. “Among the most intransigent foes of organic evolution were the premilennialists, whose predictions of Christ’s imminent return depended on a literal reading of the scriptures,” Numbers (1982, 538).
Wiker failed to perceive this fundamental distinction as an option on the table: one between the recognition of the explanatory power of “secondary” natural processes (and hence the “irrelevancy” of deities as a working factor, no less than for Laplace’s celestial dynamics) and the deeper philosophical issue of whether the operation of natural laws render the existence of “primary” causes such as gods so unnecessary that atheism becomes the simplest alternative.
Neither option seems particularly agreeable for creationist geologist John Morris (2013a), son of the Creation Science pioneer Henry Morris, disparaging the idea of “relegating God to the mundane task of overseeing the evolutionary process” (implicitly assuming that such matters are indeed so “mundane” to begin with) and thus denying “His awesome power in creation.” For the Flood Geology believing Morris, only an extrovert Cecil B. DeMille special effects blockbuster God is apparently worthy of his attention or allowed as a permissible interpretation of Scripture, as though one generating and sustaining every molecule and moment in a universe billions of years old and billions of light years in expanse was somehow paltry and niggling—which may be compared to the perspectives of a variety of Christian evolutionary scientists, such as biologist Ken Miller (1999; 2008), geologist Patricia Kelley (2009), and paleontologist Robert Asher (2012c).
Darwin himself tried to keep those issues separate, never claiming that belief in evolution required the rejection of all religious convictions, Van Wyhe (2008, 58), but such ambivalence annoys Darwin critics like Windchy (2009, 18-21). Wiker (2009a, xi-xii) also refuses to allow Darwin the luxury of his view because Wiker is tilting at far larger windmills: “What is certain is that Charles Darwin, despite his fine personal qualities, was dishonest in this regard, and Darwinism consequently makes for bad science however illuminating it is in regard to many of the details of evolution.”
This theological visor hangs over much of Intelligent Design coverage of evolution. The one gripe Flannery (2008) had regarding Davies (2008) was that The Darwin Conspiracy sought to give Wallace priority in inventing “Darwinism”—a terrible dishonor in Flannery’s view because of the rejection of strictly materialist causation by a “Wallaceism” attracted to the creative intervention of some Spirit or Mind. But then, on the Kulturkampf antievolution circuit, “Darwinism” is the preferred dirty word personification for evolution (often conjoined with Marxism and Freudianism)—so much so that in the 1993 Of Pandas and People revision, references to “evolution” were methodically replaced with “Darwinism” to hit the apologetic nails home, Scott & Branch (2009, 92-93).
But where do material explanations peter out and Mind come into play? Just how far-reaching the threat of “materialism” is in the ID worldview is indicated by the founder of the Discovery Institute, George Gilder (2004), fuming that “Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science,” and contributing to a decline in educational excellence—why biology classes even “espouse anti-industrial propaganda about global warming.” Horrors!
The Discovery Institute posting of a later opinion piece by Gilder (2006) for the National Review sported a similarly sweeping subheading: “The Darwinian theory has become an all-purpose obstacle to thought rather than an enabler of scientific advance”—which might come as something of a downer for the tens of thousands of scientists muddling along in the various disciplines constantly inspired and invigorated by evolutionary assumptions fueling their imagination and research programs. If only they knew how blinkered their benighted vision was compared to the clarity emanating from Gilder (2004): “Intelligent Design at least asks the right questions.” Though nailing down exactly what those questions are supposed to be, and whether any valuable ID insight can ever exist for them, has (as we shall see in the chapters to come) proven to be the contentious devil in the details.
The deep issue that Flannery, Wiker and Gilder are waltzing around concerns one of Darwin’s great contributions to how living things were assessed in an evolutionary framework: to dispense with the haphazard nature of vague multiple creation events favored by colleagues like Charles Lyell or opponents like Richard Owen and put the full weight of the mounting evidence on the scales. There was an explosion of identified species to account for by the time Darwin came along, from a few hundred known in the 17th century of naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) to hundreds of thousands a century later, and the number was continuing to climb rapidly all through Darwin’s 19th century, Van Wyhe (2008, 8, 36).
With every new living species and extinct fossil that turned up, every geological observation that pushed the age of the earth ever farther back beyond Eden, every microscopic discovery of the similarity of underlying biology that linked seemingly disparate forms, the old God of simple overt meddling (let there be light, angiosperms, crickets, people) gave way to a more circumspect God of the Gaps where there were progressively fewer gaps to play in. Darwin opponent Louis Agassiz reflected this conundrum, positing divine creation of whole ecological communities, a view that Darwin thought “utterly impracticable rubbish,” Browne (2002, 51-52).
The only way out of this vise is to start erasing some of the explanatory terrain to make more gaps, or at least enlarge the ones you might think you can still defend. This may be good for theological psychology, but is a risky maneuver if you’re angling to play science—especially so if you can’t replace the erased material with anything like a clearly defined design alternative. But Wiker doesn’t even bother to do that, never addressing his own dangled reference to those “many details of evolution” for which Darwinian thinking proved useful—the structure Wiker’s ID is obliged to sweep away in order to give their God some fightin’ room. Instead he is on the same express lane as Flannery and Gilder, reinforce his own mythic view of what Darwinian thinking was supposed to mean for religion and society.
It’s the same one that loomed for the first opponents of evolution, from Darwin’s old Beagle captain, Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865), scientists from Adam Sedgwick to St. George Mivart, but also for Darwin’s allies, such as Charles Lyell, Browne (2002, 52, 93-95). However much it might ostensibly embody the cherished icons of 19th century society, namely progress through individual competition, most everybody then and now knew precisely where all this “common descent” thinking would lead. Whether they were scientists grappling with the technical argument or fulminating clerics defending sacred turf, there was simply no way to cordon off human ancestry and all that entailed: our behavior and beliefs as well as the genesis of our physical bodies. Darwin eventually sidled around to the topic in 1871 with The Descent of Man, and how all that has played out is covered in Chapter 5 of Downard (2004).