The Politics of Creation and Evolution: Bruce Glass on “The Reconciliation of Christianity with Biological Evolution,” Part 3

This the third part of my discussion of Bruce Glass, Exploring Faith and Reason: The Reconciliation of Christianity with Biological Evolution (Houston: DBG Publishing, 2012).

In the previous two parts of this book review I discussed Glass’s clear explanation of evolutionary theory in Part 2 of his book and the evidence for evolution that he marshaled from the world around us in Part 3. I found his discussion of these topics to be a most helpful and clear exposition for the scientifically uninitiated.

Now I want to address the conclusion of Glass’s book (Part 4), where he moves beyond science, to politics.

In the final part of my review of Glass’s book I’ll address the author’s proposals for how we should relate evolution and faith. (I was planning to include this in the current post, but it was getting too long; so this will end up being a four-part book review.)

In Part 4: “The Politics of Evolution,” Glass addresses so-called “Creation Science” and Intelligent Design Theory (chapter 10) and then moves on to “Darwinism” (chapter 11), giving a historical account of each and subjecting them all to apt criticism in the process.

The Evolution of “Creation Science”

In chapter 10 Glass sketches a brief but illuminating history of the development (shall we say, the evolution) of the idea of “Creation Science” and then of the Intelligent Design movement as its successor (perhaps a new species that developed out of the old?).

He begins with the story of what came to be known as the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” where John Scopes was put on trial for having taught evolution in a biology class in Dayton, Tennessee—in clear contravention of the 1925 Butler Act, which prohibited this.

In the aftermath of this trial (at which Scopes was found guilty and fined, but later got off on a technicality), other, similar laws were passed in Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Florida. Evolution then seemed to disappear from most U.S. school biology textbooks for almost three decades.

But things began to shift in the late fifties and early sixties, with the U.S.-Soviet competition for the space program. New science textbooks were being written in the U.S., and evolution was once again making its appearance, despite anti-evolutionary laws in some states.

In 1968, after a challenge by the ACLU, the U.S. Supreme court struck down the Arkansas law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools and declared all such laws unconstitutional because they infringed on freedom of speech of the teacher.

Well, if evolution couldn’t be outlawed, then perhaps creation and evolution could be taught together in public schools. So Tennessee enacted a law that replaced the Butler Act, and mandated equal time in biology classes for evolution and a literal interpretation of Genesis on origins.

However, even this new law was struck down in 1975 by a Federal Appeals Court, since mandating the Genesis account of origins amounted to the establishment of a particular religion (a clear violation of the Constitution).

At this point the concept of “creation science” was born, in an attempt to put a literalist interpretation of the Genesis account of origins on equal footing with biological evolution. After all, “creation science” was not quite the same as the (religious/ Christian) doctrine of creation. Thus a new reality evolved out of the old.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the idea of “creation science” was promulgated through books such as Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood (1961) and the Institute for Creation Research that Morris founded in 1972.

Following on the growing popularity of the idea of “creation science” among the American public, Arkansas enacted a “balanced treatment” law in 1981, mandating that public schools teach “creation science” along with biological evolution.

But this law was soon challenged and overturned—as were similar laws in other states—on the grounds that “creation science” (despite the name) was not science, since it had no research program and could not be falsified by empirical evidence (essential points for genuine science).

“Creation Science” Evolves into “Intelligent Design”

It was at this point that the “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement arose, traceable back to a series of strategy meetings in 1992-93 organized by Philip E. Johnson. We could even say that ID evolved out of “creation science,” through a process akin to natural selection.

Whereas Philip Johnson was a retired law professor, who had written books critiquing the materialistic philosophical assumptions of Darwinian evolution, other famous ID proponents include biochemist Michael Behe and mathematician/ philosopher William Dembski.

Now, I take it for granted, based on my (somewhat limited) reading of works in the ID genre, that the ID movement is not quite the same as “creation science,” since most ID proponents accept an old earth, some are comfortable with biological evolution (within limits), and not all are Christian or even overtly religious (there are Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and agnostics among the proponents of ID).

The key idea in the ID movement is that there are certain structures that have developed in the cosmos and especially in organisms, which are of such “irreducible complexity” (Behe) or of “specified complexity” (Dembski) that they testify to the presence of an intelligent Designer; such complex structures could not have come about by chance.

That is certainly an interesting philosophical argument, but it isn’t science (and it may in fact be a flawed argument, as we shall soon see).

Glass helpfully traces the politics of the ID movement, which I was not previously acquainted with. He notes that a conservative “think tank” called the Discovery Institute adopted Phillip Johnson’s concerns and developed the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture to propagate his ideas.

Although ID proponents claim not to be associated with “scientific creationism,” and to be interested in the purely theoretical issue of design in nature, the stated agenda of the Center (discovered through a document leaked in 1999) was:

“nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. . . . we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism.”

Based on the idea that the giant tree of Darwinian materialism can be toppled by a small wedge, this became known as “The Wedge” document, and it went a long way towards discrediting the ID movement as a neutral scientific/philosophical movement.

A further turning point in discrediting the movement was the federal lawsuit filed in 2004 by parents against the Dover, Pennsylvania school board for their inclusion of ID in the school district’s science classrooms.

The trial was eye-opening, since Michael Behe, who testified for the ID position, was unable to convince the presiding Judge (John E. Jones III) that ID counted as science. According to the Judge’s report, Behe admitted (under cross-examination) that:

“There are no peer-reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred.” (Behe’s own words)

As part of the argument in favor of ID as science (which would make it admissible in the biology classroom), a number of witnesses explained that the definition of science needed to be broadened to admit “supernatural causes.”

The somewhat predictable result was that ID was deemed by the judge not to be science; in fact, it has come to be regarded in many quarters as religion (“creation science”) in disguise—which is probably not a fully fair assessment.

I’m going to be the first to admit that I’m somewhat stumped by the Intelligent Design movement.

On the one hand, I’m not convinced that all proponents of ID are in fact simply closet scientific creationists; indeed, not all are religious. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that ID qualifies as science (contrary to the claims typically still made by ID proponents).

However, we decide the status of ID (I would categorize it as a philosophical theory), there are fatal flaws in the basic ID argument about complexity and design. ID proponents claim that since natural selection cannot be proved to be the definitive cause of biological complexity, this means that this complexity must have been designed. This simply does not follow; it is bad logic.

Beyond that, ID buys into the “God-of-the-gaps” problem, appealing to a Designer to explain what we are unable (at the moment) to explain scientifically. As Glass notes, “ID theorists have merely discovered an Intelligent Designer of the gaps.” The result is that as science explains more and more, the Designer is no longer needed to account for the complexity. This is quite a reductive view of God.

Further, as Glass notes, there is no evidence—even if we were to grant such a Designer—that this Designer is equivalent to the God of Christianity, or even of monotheism in general (even Aquinas’ version of the argument from design ended—illegitimately—with “and this we call God”).

Evolutionary Science and “Darwinism”

So much for “creation science” and the ID movement. Now let’s get to chapter 11, on “Darwinism.”

The basic point Glass makes in his final chapter is that the science of biological evolution that Darwin’s name is associated with is not the same thing as “Darwinism,” where the ism designates a variety of materialistic ideologies that are thought to either underpin or derive from biological evolution.

Whereas many Christians think a “godless” materialistic ideology grounds evolution (which is why it is tainted, in their view), a number of secular philosophers and ideologues have argued that evolution provides them with the outlines of an ethic or a philosophy of history. Both are fundamentally misguided.

Paradoxically, while Karl Marx claimed that Darwin’s work justified his theories of class warfare on the way to the communist state, others have used Darwinian evolution to ground extreme laissez-faire capitalism. I say paradoxically, since some of the very Christians who anathematize biological evolution are in favor of such capitalism.

It is well known that Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinism” extrapolated from natural selection (as a factor in biological evolution) to an ultra-conservative philosophy that advocated individual rights to the exclusion of state initiatives on behalf of the poor (whether public education, state banking, or a federal postal system). Indeed, Spencer favored the total deregulation of business. All of this, in his opinion, would result in the elimination of the unfit from society. And similar ideas were advocated by John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

Glass also shows how extrapolation from Darwinian evolution led some (including Theodore Roosevelt) to advocate U.S. expansionism, in order to safeguard American supremacy in the competition of nations, while others tied this expansion to outright racism (one U.S ambassador advocated the U.S. claim the supremacy “destined to belong to the Aryan races and to the Christian faith”).

And there is the infamous program of “eugenics,” upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court as late as 1927, which led to compulsory sterilization of undesirables, including people of color, the poor, and those mentally retarded or disturbed.

It is important to note that Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” was never an adequate definition of natural selection. Not only is “survival of the viable” more accurate, but this properly applies to populations and not to individuals. Furthermore, it functions simply as a description of outcomes and not as an ethic for how anyone ought to behave. Indeed, within biological evolution, individuals often act cooperatively.

Glass concludes by noting that Christians (including proponents of “creation science” and ID) rightly criticize those who inadvertently or deliberately mix the science of evolution with their materialistic ideologies. But he warns that such Christians are wrong to conclude that this means that evolutionary processes are not real.

It is, of course, problematic to understand how we might reconcile “the seemingly blind, materialistic forces of nature that shape our world with the idea of a providential God who has created the universe and humankind for noble and loving purposes.”

How we might reconcile them is Glass’s project in Part 1 of the book, which is the topic of my final installment of this post.

The Evidence for Evolution: Bruce Glass on “The Reconciliation of Christianity with Biological Evolution,” Part 2

This the second part of my discussion of Bruce Glass, Exploring Faith and Reason: The Reconciliation of Christianity with Biological Evolution (Houston: DBG Publishing, 2012).

While the chapters in Part 2 of Glass’s book (which I discussed in my last post) are helpful in dispelling many misunderstandings about Darwinian evolution, the chapters in Part 3: “The Evidence for Evolution” are even better.

Reviewers sometime say that a particular chapter was worth the price of the book. Sometimes, depending on the book’s price, that is pure hyperbole. In this case, I would make the “worth the price of the book” claim for chapter 7.

Chapter 7: “Clues All Around.” In this chapter Glass points to multiple lines of evidence of biological evolution in the natural world, citing example after example of actual changes that have been observed in the past century. If you want to understand what “natural selection” means, this is the best explanation I know of.

Glass first cites examples of humanly-guided selection (breeding) among both animals (fish, cats, dogs) and plants (corn, vegetables, flowers). But not all observable changes in organisms have been intentional. The reason we have shorter dandelions today is due to mowing of lawns (shorter dandelions have been “selected” for survival). He also points to the adaptive resistance of insects and other pests due to the use of pesticides in agriculture, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and genetic drift in viruses. The discussion of the constant evolution of HIV strains and the avian flu is particularly illuminating for illustrating how natural selection works.

Most of the changes Glass discusses do not involve the transformation of one species into another (since this takes a lot longer than a century for complex animals). But bacteria and viruses (which have a much shorter generational life) demonstrate more significant evolution in a shorter time.

Glass also explains how genetic disorders (such as Down’s syndrome, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, color blindness, sickle-cell anemia) are inherited. He notes that some of these genetic changes may have been adaptive measures to various diseases in the distant past (thus cystic fibrosis carriers seem to have increased resistance to cholera, while those with the sickle-cell gene are more resistant to malaria).

Beyond noting observable changes in organisms due to natural selection, Glass also points to the appearance and subsequent fading of ancestral structures in embryos. The fact that all reptile, bird, and mammal embryos have temporary gill slits, and that some whale embryos develop teeth (which are then reabsorbed into the tissue) is suggestive of evolutionary history.

Likewise, atavistic structures appear in some humans at birth (coccygeal tails in newborns) and in some animals (whales and dolphins born with legs, horses with extra toes).

Then there are the vestiges of the evolutionary past found in the normal anatomy of mature humans (wisdom teeth, tailbone, appendix). Other vestiges are consistently exhibited in certain animals (the dewclaw on dogs, hollow bones and wings on flightless birds, fingernails on the flippers of manatees, rudimentary leg bones inside the bodies of most pythons and some whales, and vestigial legs on some lizards that look more like snakes).

These structures are all consistent with the evolutionary history of the organisms involved.

What is particularly instructive about this chapter, besides the wide array of evidence Glass marshals, is that his many examples end up clarifying the meaning of “natural selection,” in contrast to the discredited Lamarckian notion of the “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” So this chapter is both great at explaining how evolution works and marshaling observational evidence for evolution that is consistent with what we know from paleontology and genetics.

Chapter 8: “The History of Life.”  Having claimed that chapter 7 was worth the price of the book, I have to admit that I found chapter 8 (an overview of the evolution of life on earth) to be fascinating, especially the discussion of hominid evolution, which is a particular interest of mine.

Beginning with the formation of the earth (along with our solar system) some 4.6 billion years ago, Glass moves step-by-step through the development of simple single-celled organism (3.6 billion years ago), more complex single-celled organisms (1.4 billion years ago), the so-called “Cambrian explosion” (over 500 million years ago), the development and extinctions of more complex animals (first in the water, then on the land, including, of course, dinosaurs), right up to pre-human hominids (the oldest fossil hominid skull being about 6 million years old). While the chapter is clearly selective (it is a non-technical sketch for those not acquainted with the science), Glass gives us a bit more detail about the latest paleontological evidence for what seem to be twelve distinct types of humans known from the fossil record–the oldest dating back almost two million years, the latest being the relative newcomer, homo sapiens.

As Glass notes, the fossil record is certainly not complete. It’s been estimated that only one bone in a billion gets fossilized; others have estimated that only one in a hundred thousand species have been found. And yet existing fossils tells us a compelling tale of the history of life on earth.

Chapter 9: “The Tree of Life.” As a follow-up to chapter 8, Glass then explains (in somewhat brief compass) the basics of the classification system scientists use for living organisms, including the contribution of genetics to this understanding.

All in all, Parts 2 and 3 of this book are a superb overview for non-experts who want to understand the current state of the science on biological evolution. Glass has done us (especially Christians, who are his primary audience) a great service in this respect.

 In my next two posts I’ll address the non-scientific aspects of the book, including Part 4: The Politics of Evolution (which was quite illuminating) and Part 1: Christianity and Evolution (which I didn’t find particularly satisfying). I’ll use the latter as a springboard to explore better ways to think theologically about evolution.

A Helpful Explanation of Evolution: Bruce Glass on “The Reconciliation of Christianity with Biological Evolution,” Part 1

I’ve just finished reading Bruce Glass, Exploring Faith and Reason: The Reconciliation of Christianity with Biological Evolution (Houston: DBG Publishing, 2012). The book was recommended by various scholars whom I respect, and for the most part I agree with their recommendation.

Glass is a religious agnostic and a non-scientist who writes to explain evolutionary theory to a popular audience and also to explain why it is not antithetical to classical orthodox and evangelical theology (he writes from a knowledge of pious evangelical Christians who are evolutionists). Glass’s writing is both lucid and permeated by an irenic spirit.

The book has eleven chapters divided into four Parts.

Part 1: Christianity and Evolution
1. God’s Word
2. God’s Creation
3. God’s Providence

Part 2: The Theory of Evolution
4. Layers of Understanding
5. The Awakening of Evolutionary Science
6. “Let the Land Produce Living Creatures”

Part 3: The Evidence of Evolution
7. Clues All Around
8. The History of Life
9. The Tree of Life

Part 4: The Politics of Evolution
10. “Creation Science” and Intelligent Design Theory
11. “Darwinism”

I found the book to be helpful in explaining biological evolution in a non-technical way. I’m going to comment on this in the current blog post (part 1) and also in the one following (part 2).

But I was less enamored with the strategy Glass used to reconcile Christianity and evolution. It showed a somewhat simplistic and bookish understanding of the Bible and theology. I’ll raise my criticisms in the final part of this post.

I found the real value of Glass’s book to be Part 2: “The Theory of Evolution” and especially Part 3: “The Evidence for Evolution.”

Part 2:“The Theory of Evolution” contains three lucid chapters. Glass is at his best explaining biological evolution in ordinary language so that non-scientists can make sense of it.

Chapter 4: “Layers of Understanding.” Here Glass clarifies what a scientific theory is (including the multiple ways the word “theory” is used) and how later scientific theories often explain matters that earlier theories can’t (without totally invalidating the earlier theory). This nicely diffuses the objection that evolution is “only” a theory (where theory means something like an unsupported hunch). It also illustrates one of the meanings of the word “layers” in the title of the chapter, namely, how earlier and later scientific theories relate to each other.

But “layers” has another meaning, namely, how science relates to faith. Glass helpfully also addresses the historical problem Christians have had when they related theology to science by the strategy of a “God of the gaps” (that’s when God is introduced to explain what science—at the moment—cannot explain). That science typically fills in the gaps, over time, thus squeezing God out of the picture should warn Christians about the folly of this approach (which is the basic problem with the “Intelligent Design” movement).

Chapter 5: “The Awakening of Evolutionary Science.” In this chapter Glass recounts Darwin’s intellectual development, his collection of specimens and observation of species diversity during the Beagle voyage, and how he came to develop his theory of “natural selection” to explain the mechanism of evolution. Glass notes that biological evolution did not begin with Darwin, and he summarizes how evolutionary theory has developed since Darwin, especially with the rise of genetics. This is a fine, clear exposition.

I would, however, have liked Glass to explain more fully the difference between Darwinian “natural selection” and Lamarckian “inheritance of acquired characteristics,” which are often confused in the popular mind, and which he declares incompatible (p. 92). Thankfully, he does this in a later chapter. It should be noted that Glass treats natural selection as the only viable account of evolution, even though there are supplementary mechanisms being proposed these days (including neo-Lamarckian proposals).

Chapter 6: “Let the Land Produce Living Creatures.” In this chapter Glass focuses on the multiple ways that life has proliferated on earth, including examples of “co-evolution” (in which species evolve in tandem, adapting to each other), the quite diverse paths through which complex structures (like eyes and wings) have developed in different organisms, and convergent evolution of different species filling similar niches in different parts of the world (such as evident similarities between marsupial mammals and placental mammals, which developed separately).

Glass also helpfully explains how biological evolution with greater complexity can occur in a universe defined by entropy (which initially seems counter-intuitive). And he makes the important admission that Darwin’s evolutionary theory can explain how life evolves, but does not actually explain biogenesis or the origin of life (p. 120). Although there is much current speculation on how life began, there is no accepted scientific explanation.

In my next post I’ll discuss Glass’s superb explanation of the evidence for evolution, especially the chapter that is proverbially worth the price of the book.