Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest love the faithful more than me

June 2, 2009 • 12:14 pm

Over on his Discover blog The Intersection, Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Barbara Forrest (philosopher of science and witness at the Dover trial) take me to task for not being sufficiently nice to the faithful, and assert that my criticism of science/faith accommodationism will alienate those liberal Christians who support evolution.  Mooney and Forrest have both done good work; his book is a trenchant analysis of the right’s attempt to dismantle good science in the U.S., and in the Dover trial Forrest did an absolutely terrific job of ripping apart the arguments of IDers that they weren’t creationists.  And both Forrest and Mooney are atheists.

But I think they are profoundly misguided in these criticisms of my views.  Indeed, they seem to have completely failed to grasp what I was saying.

When I first read this piece, and Mooney’s earlier criticism of my views, I did a double take. Was this the same Chris Mooney who in 2001 excoriated the PBS Evolution Series because it was too accommodating to faith (see his dissection in Slate, Darwin’s Sanitized Idea)?:

But PBS’s mainstreaming of Darwinism also trims back some of the theory’s more controversial implications. Evolution flatly denies equal time to Darwin’s religiously based rivals, Creationism and intelligent design theory, yet the program repeatedly argues that evolution and religion are compatible. If you eat Darwin’s theory for your main course, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and others seem to say, you can have religion for dessert. . .

. . . Evolution‘s attempt to divorce Darwinian science from atheism, though well intentioned, is finally naive. Darwinism presents an explanation for life’s origins that lacks any supernatural element and emphasizes a cruel and violent process of natural selection that is tough to square with the notion of a benevolent God. Because of this, many students who study evolution will find themselves questioning the religions they have grown up with. What’s insidious is that Evolution allows fundamentalists to say this, but not evolutionists. The miniseries interviews several experts who could be expected to oppose the reconciliation outlook, notably Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who has written, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But neither Dennett nor Dawkins gets much of a say on the topic of religion.

Well, I suppose Mooney has changed his mind, and has decided, along with Barbara Forrest, to cozy up to the faithful.  Let’s see what Forrest says about my views (Mooney agrees completely with her):

Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who [sic] I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

It’s almost not worth my while responding to this, because the posters on Mooney’s site have already done such an effective job of it (read their comments!).  One of the first things I learned when I set up a website is that you can learn a lot from the posters, who are often thoughtful, intelligent, and take the time to both correct one’s misapprehensions and write careful, reasoned analysis of an initial post.  In this case, thoughtful analysis has worked against Mooney and Forrest.

Let’s first dispose of one argument: Mooney and Forrest’s implicit requirement that atheists should “make nice” with their religious, evolution-accepting opponents and never, ever criticize them.  Where in tarnation did this idea come from?  Why are newspaper columnists, politicians, and even grant reviewers allowed to criticize the ideas of their peers, but we scientist/atheists are not?  Why are we supposed to shut up and other analysts aren’t?  Let’s be clear here:

1.   I have never criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner.  My New Republic review, which Forrest and Mooney find so odious, was temperate and respectful. In fact, of all the comments I’ve gotten on this piece, none of them until now have thought it intemperate.   I took care to point out the positive contributions of both Miller and Giberson, and characterized them as “thoughtful men of good will.”  Let me point out to Mooney and Forrest that my behavior and tone have been infinitely more polite than that of “liberal Christians” such as John Haught when confronted by godless evolutionists.  But of course Forrest and Mooney don’t worry about the epiphets heaped on people like Dawkins and myself by the faithful.  At any rate, I believe in civil discourse, but I don’t believe in acting respectful towards ideas that I find weak or odious.

2.  Apropos, my critique of accommodationism has always centered on one proposition:  the reconciliation of science and faith almost always dilutes science, especially evolution.  This was the main topic of my New Republic piece.  In it, I go to great lengths to show that popular forms of accommodationism, such as those expounded by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, require statements that are not supported by science. For example, many accommodationists argue that the evolution of humans was inevitable: that if we reran the tape of life, some God-fearing creature like H. sapiens, or some “humanoid” equally capable of apprehending its creator, would inevitably arise.  I don’t think science tells us this and, as far as I can see, my analysis was the first critique of this popular view.  It was the intellectual discussion of an idea.  Likewise, I criticized the “fine-tuning” argument for the existence of design, and pointed out (as many have before me) the disparity between the materialistic claims of religion (e.g., the Resurrection) and what we know about science.  These are intellectual dissections of intellectual arguments.  In claiming that I should refrain from such work, Forrest and Mooney are, I’m afraid, being anti-intellectual.  Regardless of whether they accept my analysis (and it seems that they do!), they have to admit that it was not an exercise in religion-bashing.  Even Mooney’s posters recognize this (see below).

As for whether I am engaged in “bad tactics” by criticizing our liberal religious friends who support evolution, let me point out, as I have many times before, the following facts.  Accommodationists like Forrest and the National Center for Science Education have been using the “let’s-make-nice-to-the-faithful” strategy for several decades.  What is the result? First, American acceptance of evolution has stayed exactly where it is for 25 years.  The strategy is not changing minds.  Second, the progress that has been made is not in changing minds, but winning court cases, as in Dover. However, winning those court cases does not require that we show that science and religion are compatible.  Rather, it requires showing that creationism and ID are forms of disguised religion.

There is also a strong negative correlation among countries between acceptance of Darwin and belief in God.  Countries with high belief in God, like Turkey and the US, have low acceptance of Darwinism. Countries like France, Sweden, and Denmark, which have high acceptance of Darwin, are not very religious.  Too, there is an obvious relationship between learning evolution and losing one’s faith.  All of this leads me to believe that the real problem with evolution in this country is not creationists, but religion.  You can have religion without creationism, but you never see creationism without religion.  I think, then, that we will only win this war by either vanquishing religion or waiting for it to disappear in the US, as it has in Europe.  There is real room for a discussion on tactics here, but Mooney and Forrest refuse to engage.  They’re just too fond of religion, apparently having what Daniel Dennett calls a “belief in belief.”

The implicit argument of Forrest and Mooney is that I should be spending my time attacking creationism and ID rather than criticizing our “friends.” Well, I’ve been doing the former for 25 years, and I’ll put my record up against that of either Mooney or Forrest in the fight against creationism. (See an earlier article I wrote on ID for The New Republic.) I’ve been writing and speaking against creationism since I got my first job.

Finally, as the posters at Mooney’s site have noticed, often religion is not a private matter.  Religious people are often trying to force their faith-driven agendas down our throats, and so it is perfectly acceptable to “question their personal way of making meaning of the world.”  And, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out (and I believe him), religious “moderates” often act as enablers of religious extremists.  The failure to criticize the excesses of Islam, for example, can largely be laid at the door of our friends the liberal Christians.

So much for “etiquette.” What about “diversity”?  Well, I have repeatedly criticized fundamentalists of all stripes, including Orthodox Jews and Muslims (a year ago I was in Turkey lecturing on Harun Yahya and Islamic fundamentalism).  I am an equal-oppportunity critic.  Forrest and Mooney are just wrong that I single out liberal Christians for criticism. And they’re wrong in saying that liberal Christians “have not sacrificed scientific accuracy” in their support of evolution.  People like Miller and Giberson have indeed sacrificed such accuracy, giving the public the false impression that science actually supports the idea of a God.  Every time they make the fine-tuning argument, every time they claim that science shows that human evolution is inevitable, they are “sacrificing scientific accuracy.”

And as for humility, well, I don’t see much humility coming from the liberal Christians, who assert without reasons that there is a God.   And although we cannot prove a negative, I doubt whether Mooney or Forrest would give much credibility to those who worship tree spirits, Zeus, or John Frum.  Certainly we can show that the world does not comport with the kind of world we’d expect to see if it were run by an omnipotent, omniscient, and loving god.  Humility?  Yes, I don’t know if there is a God, but the evidence is against it.  In the meantime, I don’t assert that there is no God; I simply find no reasons to believe in one.

It’s a pity that Mooney and Forrest take such an anti-intellectual stance when they could be engaging in real discussion about whether science and faith are compatible. (In his earlier Slate piece, Mooney found them dead incompatible, and was not shy about saying so!)  In their desire to cozy up to Christians, they are trying to impose a form of intellectual censorship on the rest of us.  That is what you do when you’ve lost the argument about the compatibility of faith and science.  I’d take Forrest and Mooney more seriously if they’d deal with the arguments of scientists and theologians who, in their frenzy to accommodate faith and science, give a distorted view of science.

I’ll give the last word to a poster on Mooney’s site, one “Madcap”.  Whoever he/she is, this person has a far more accurate view of matters than do either Mooney or Forrest:

June 1st, 2009 at 3:43 am

Once again, it sounds like Mooney is taking Coyne (and others) to task for choosing reason and science over compromise and political sentiment.

Forrest even admits that Coyne (and presumably, the other “New Atheists” who are inevitably lumped together into one ideological unit) may be right in his assertions; but then rather than discuss or debate those assertions, castigates him for being ‘uncivil’ for daring to suggest that even most liberal theology has incompatibilities with science.

In fact, Coyne’s critique of the recent works by Giberson and Miller was anything *but* uncivil. On the contrary, I found it in-depth and insightful. Coyne went to lengths to explain what he did and did not like about their books in particular and their positions in general. Agree or disagree with Coyne’s point, I fail to see how he is being uncivil. I challenge Forrest and Mooney to find an example of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett being ‘uncivil’ when discussing religion. (Hitchens, the most common bogeyman of the Christian apologists, is not a scientist.) In fact, the only incivilities I am witnessing here are coming from the likes of Mooney, who is more or less telling Coyne to shut up, for the second time.

Apparently, taking a scientifically-minded theist to task, no matter what the tone or strength of one’s argument, is ‘uncivil’ and impolitic. We must maintain, I suppose, a bunker mentality: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Anyone paying lip-service to Darwinism must be welcomed as an ally in the great war against Intelligent Design. In the interest of ‘civility’, we must accommodate one version of creationism over another one.

Nevermind that ID has already been legally forbidden from our nation’s public schools; in this post-Dover world, you’re either with us or again’ us. Any creationist willing to ally with us against ID must be our friend, and anyone like Coyne who disagrees is a traitor to the cause. I wonder if, in the interests of science, Francis Galton would be equally welcomed into the fold.

This is the second article I know of in which, for purely political reasons, Mooney has decided to favor the theological side of the argument. If I’m reading Mooney correctly, the pro-evolution forces cannot afford any divisiveness, and that’s why vocal atheists like Coyne must either be quiet, or be called out. The irony appears to escape him.

Coyne previously called individuals with this mentality “accomodationists”. Given these unfair attacks against evolution’s most ardent defenders, I’m beginning to think a more appropriate term is “collaborationists”.

Karl Giberson defends accommodationism

May 26, 2009 • 8:37 am

Karl Giberson, whose accommodationist book Saving Darwin I reviewed in The New Republic, is vice president of The BioLogos Foundation, the Templeton-Foundation-Funded organization headed by born-again Christian Francis Collins.  Giberson is also a trained physicist, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College, and head of a faith and science initiative at Gordon College.

I criticized Saving Darwin — and BioLogos as well — for their insistence that the evolution of human beings (or of some humanlike form of devout animal) was inevitable.  As part of a scheme to accommodate evolution with Jesus, BioLogos (and other accommodationists like Kenneth Miller  and John Haught) must devise a way to reconcile naturalistic evolution with the Christian view that humans were made in the image of God as the goal of the whole creation.  This magic is accomplished by claiming that God either set up the evolutionary process so that it would produce H. sapiens as an inevitable outcome, or that He intervened at some juncture(s) to ensure that humans would appear.  Either way, such a view completely violates the scientific presumption (and evidence) that evolution is a purely materialistic and unguided process — a process without a goal or, indeed, any determined outcome.

A weekly feature of BioLogos (which provides hours of entertainment and nanoseconds of enlightenment) is “Science and The Sacred,” a weekly online column where “leaders of the BioLogos Foundation share insights on the latest ideas in science, faith and their integration.”  In this week’s column Giberson takes on yours truly:

God or Matter?

The University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne recently objected to the suggestion that humans might actually be a part of God’s creative plan. Like most of the so-called “new atheists,” he denounces the idea that evolution — all by its lonesome, blind, purposeless, unguided self — would ever find its way to such an improbably unique species as human beings.

Although we know a lot more than we used to about evolution, I don’t see how we can have any certainty whatsoever about what kinds of things evolution might or might not be able to do. It was not long ago we thought 100,000 genes were required to make a human being, and now we know it can be done with approximately 20,000, or roughly the same number as rice and sea urchins. There is a lot we still don’t know about how evolution works, but this is not the point I want to make, for I have no desire to hide inside the shadowy corners of science and hope that they are never illuminated by the light of scientific progress.

Coyne’s objections are really just the traditional objections to belief in God repackaged as scientific objections. Traditional theism — which is the foundation for a majority of people’s worldviews, including scientists — is a richer and more complex version of reality than materialism. As a theist with a deep respect for science, I believe in all the same remarkable laws and particles that undergird the worldviews of scientists. But I also believe this reality is rooted in the creative and sustaining activity of God. God can act in the world and provide a larger understanding of the way things are.

Theists have both God and science as important parts of their reality. But many Americans reject particular scientific ideas like evolution or the big bang theory because they think they are incompatible with belief in God. The BioLogos Foundation is committed to helping religious people make peace with such scientific ideas, a project Coyne describes as a “hilarious goldmine of accomodationism.”

But what about the accommodationism of materialists? How do they reconcile their materialism with the rationality of the world? It seems to me reality has to be grounded in one of two deeply mysterious foundations: God or matter. Each has its own set of questions. Theists wonder about the nature of God’s existence, the problem of evil, how and why God acts in the world and why God has chosen to remain hidden from us. These are difficult questions and certainly must trouble thoughtful believers. But don’t materialists have another set of mysteries? Don’t they have to wonder about the nature of physical existence? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are the laws of nature so rational? Why is our species so religious? Is the world just a big pointless accident?

In Coyne’s excellent book, Why Evolution is True, he suggests we can “make our own purposes, meaning, and morality.” I know I am not alone when I say I am not entirely satisfied with this. I think the materialists have their own accommodationist project to work on, and I suspect it may turn out to be even more hilarious than ours.

Karl Giberson is executive vice president of The BioLogos Foundation and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.

Well, I appreciate Giberson’s praise for my book but still disagree strongly with his views.  First of all, he mischaracterizes mine: “[Coyne] denounces the idea that evolution — all by its lonesome, blind, purposeless, unguided self — would ever find its way to such an improbably unique species as human beings.”

Not so. I never said this. Indeed, this would be a moronic assertion, since blind, purposeless evolution has found its way to human beings.  My position has always been that the evolution of human beings may not have been inevitable, nor is there any way we can confidently assert from the facts of science that it was.  I won’t go over my arguments, which you can find in The New Republic piece.  The onus is on crypto-creationists like Giberson and Miller to show that the nature of selection, environmental change, and genetic mutation makes the evolution of a creature with humanlike intelligence and rationality an inevitable outcome.  This they have not done, though they must if they wish to reconcile an inevitable appearance of humanoids with straight, undiluted Darwinism.

And Giberson claims that we rationalists have our own set of problems:  “Don’t they have to wonder about the nature of physical existence? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are the laws of nature so rational? Why is our species so religious? Is the world just a big pointless accident?”

The answer to the last question is “yes — so what?”   And why is there something rather than nothing? As physicist Victor Stenger has shown repeatedly (don’t these guys ever read him?), the answer is “because ‘nothing’ is unstable.”

Why is our species so religious?  We’re working on that, and there are lots of answers that don’t include the existence of celestial deities.

Finally, why are the laws of nature so rational?  That’s a dumb question. The laws of nature aren’t rational: WE are rational, and there are good reasons, based on natural selection and culture, why we should be.

The point is that there are provisional but testable answers to the questions that “plague” us rationalists (for example, physicists’ theories about how our universe came into being), but no testable answers to the questions that trouble supernaturalists like Giberson.  Take the existence of evil: we will never know why, if there is a god, innocent people undergo needless suffering (e.g., the death of children from horrible diseases and the death of thousands from “acts of God” like tsunamis).  There are lots of theological answers (every one ridiculous), and no way to discriminate among them. Indeed, the most sensible answer to the problem of evil is that there simply is no god.  I, for one, am content with the idea that bad things like tsunamis happen to good people for no reason at all other than movements of the Earth’s crust, and that small children get leukemia or cholera because of random mutations or the evolution of pathogenic organisms.

Behind all this, I think, is the longing for the “richer and more complex view of reality” that Giberson finds in religion.  But what could be richer or more complex than the material universe as we have it — a universe full of great mysteries and wonderful things to find out?  What Giberson means by “a richer and more complex view” is “after I die I’ll be able to meet my dead relatives in the sky.”  Such a view may be more complex, but it’s not richer.  It’s impoverished by adherence to magic and superstition.

Why the evolution of humans was NOT inevitable; BioLogos peddles more dubious science

May 13, 2009 • 7:21 am

Over at that hilarious goldmine of accommodationism, Francis Collins’s BioLogos website (generously supported by The Templeton Foundation, they have posted an answer to the question, “Did evolution have to result in human beings?” Now if you know anything about this history of faith/science accommodationism, you know that the answer has to be “yes”, at least if you construe the question to mean “Did evolution have to result in a rational, highly intelligent being that was capable of apprehending and worshiping its creator?”  If God is running the evolutionary process, as the accommodationists maintain, then the evolution of humans (who are, after all, the goal of this process — the one species made in God’s image) could not have been left to chance.

And so, religious biologists like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins, and “science-friendly” theologians like John Haught, have maintained in their writings that evolution would inevitably have coughed up an intelligent rational creature like Homo sapiens.  In other words, contrary to the assertions of Stephen Jay Gould, if we re-ran the tape of life, something humanlike would always appear.  Religious apologists always contend that the evolution of what we will call “humanoids” was not a continent process: it was built by God into the very fabric of evolution.

Of course, this is not a scientific belief.  For one thing, it makes humans different from other creatures.  The faithful don’t go around maintaining that the evolution of squirrels or cockroaches was an inevitable outcome of the evolutionary process, because according to Scripture God didn’t make rodents of insects in His image.  So God stuck his hand in, somewhere, to make humanoids appear.  That is creationism, pure and simple.  Or, he designed the process with the foreknowledge that humans would appear, which is also creationism, since no evolutionist really thinks that the process was jerry-rigged from the outset to produce certain life forms.

Second, if you do believe in a naturalistic and materialistic process of evolution in which God didn’t interfere, then the appearance of humans doesn’t seem likely at all — and certainly not inevitable.  Higher intelligence and rationality evolved only once, so it certainly isn’t something like eyes (whose morphology evolved independently dozens of time).  The idea that “convergent evolution” shows that humans were inevitable is deeply fallacious.

Yet BioLogos uses this argument — a favorite of the religious paleontologist Simon Conway Morris –to show that (surprise!) something like humans WAS inevitable in evolution.  After disposing of Gould’s contingency argument, they then approvingly reiterate Conway Morris’s “convergence” argument:

Humans: Inevitable, Intentional

Simon Conway Morris presents a different perspective, arguing humans, or a human-like species, are actually an inevitable part of evolution.  Morris is not proposing a different mechanism for human evolution, merely a different observation of its possible outcomes.  Morris would agree that any slight difference in the history of human DNA would result in a different evolutionary path.  Unlike Gould, however, Morris argues each of those possible pathways would inevitably lead to something like the human species.  Morris writes:

“The prevailing view of evolution is that life has no direction — no goals, no predictable outcomes. Hedged in by circumstances and coincidence, the course of life lurches from one point to another. It is pure chance that 3 billion years of evolution on Earth have produced a peculiarly clever ape. We may find distant echoes of our aptitude for tool making and language and our relentless curiosity in other animals, but intelligence like ours is very special. Right?”

“Wrong! The history of life on Earth appears impossibly complex and unpredictable, but take a closer look and you’ll find a deep structure. Physics and chemistry dictate that many things simply are not possible, and these constraints extend to biology. The solution to a particular biological problem can often only be handled in one of a few ways, which is why when you examine the tapestry of evolution you see the same patterns emerging over and over again.”

The patterns Morris mentions are also referred to as convergences in the evolutionary process.  In his most recent book, Life’s Solution, Morris gives many examples of physical traits or abilities found repeatedly among different species.5 Normally, such similarities are understood asthe result of common ancestry.  However, the species in Morris’s examples are known to be distantly related.  In many cases, not even these species’ common ancestor shared the same trait.  The implication is that several different species have independently developed similar traits.

The examples of convergence range across many levels of biology.  One popular and straightforward example is the human eye.  It turns out that several other species share a nearly identical visual system to that of the human eye, including the octopus.6 However, humans and octopuses have separate predecessors, neither of which shared this characteristic.  Two very different evolutionary paths arrived at the same visual system.  If Gould’s supposition is correct, and there was an infinity of other possible outcomes, then this example of convergence is all the more improbable.  Morris’s argument, conversely, is that the laws of nature allow for only a few solutions to any particular problem.  It appears the eye has developed independently at least seven times over the course of evolutionary time.

Human Significance

To see evidence for human significance, one need only consider Morris’s examples of convergence for many of the traits that are particularly relevant for human-like beings.  These examples include basic senses like balance, hearing and vision, as well as highly advanced features like the human brain.  Morris argues that evolution does not pose any threat to human significance.  Characteristics such as a large brain capable of consciousness, language and complex thought would inevitably have to emerge from the evolutionary process. Morris writes:

“Contrary to popular belief, the science of evolution does not belittle us.  As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation.” 7

The exact anatomical features of this ultimate sentient being might not be precisely specified by the evolutionary process, however.  This thought can be unsettling to anyone who imagines our particular body plan is part of the imago Dei, or image of God. Despite the marvelous paintings in the Sistine Chapel, there is no reason to think that God the Father has a physical body that looks like ours.

God’s Sovereignty in the Evolution of Humans

Belief in a supernatural creator always leaves open the possibility that human beings are a fully-intended part of creation.  If the Creator chooses to interact with creation, he could very well influence the evolutionary process to ensure the arrival of his intended result.  (See Question 14 about Evolution and Divine Action.)  Furthermore, an omniscient creator could easily create the universe in such a way that physical and natural laws would result in human evolution.  (See Question 19 about Fine-Tuning of our Universe.)

Although the unpredictable mutations of DNA can make any species appear entirely accidental, Simon Conway Morris also puts forward strong arguments in favor of the inevitability of creatures that have the attributes of humans.  From this perspective, it seems the evolutionary process itself might be geared toward human life.

So it goes. (By the way, have a look at the last paragraph of this page where BioLogos suggests that the evolution of humanoids ON OTHER PLANETS was  improbable. (As expected, they take this stand because theologists can’t see God sending Jesus careening from planet to planet to save every species of alien).

The Argument for the Inevitability of Humanoids is perhaps the most popular argument (ranking with The Fine Tuning of Physical Constants) used by accommodists to show that evolution and God are not in conflict.  But the argument is simply wrong.  Nobody can say with assurance that the evolution of humanoids was inevitable.  The only honest response is “We don’t know” (and I would add “what we know about evolution tells us that it was probably not inevitable.”)

I attacked this argument in my New Republic essay “Seeing and Believing,” and for those who haven’t read it, or who don’t wish to plow through the link to find it, I’ll reproduce it here. This was a review of two books, Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, and Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.


In Finding Darwin’s God, his earlier book, Miller proclaimed a universal theism: “Remember, once again, that people of faith believe their God is active in the present world, where He works in concert with the naturalism of physics and chemistry.” Giberson clearly agrees. And where do they find the hand of God in nature? Unsurprisingly, in the appearance of humans.

Giberson and Miller assert that the evolution of humans, or something very like them, was inevitable. Given the way that evolution works, they claim, it was certain that the animal kingdom would eventually work its way up to a species that was conscious, highly intelligent, and above all, capable of apprehending and worshipping its creator. This species did not have to look perfectly human, but it did have to have our refined mentality (call it “humanoid”). One of Miller’s chapters is even titled “The World That Knew We Were Coming.” Giberson notes that “capabilities like vision and intelligence are so valuable to organisms that many, if not most biologists believe they would probably arise under any normal evolutionary process…. So how can evolution be entirely random, if certain sophisticated end points are predictable?”

Reading this, many biologists will wonder how he can be so sure. After all, evolution is a contingent process. The way natural selection molds a species depends on unpredictable changes in climate, on random physical events such as meteor strikes or volcanic eruptions, on the occurrence of rare and random mutations, and on which species happen to be lucky enough to survive a mass extinction. If, for example, a large meteor had not struck Earth sixty-five million years ago, contributing to the extinction of the dinosaurs–and to the rise of the mammals they previously dominated–all mammals would probably still be small nocturnal insectivores, munching on crickets in the twilight.

Evolutionists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march that culminated in humans. Yes, the average complexity of all species has increased over the three-and-a-half billion years of evolution, but that is because life started out as a simple replicating molecule, and the only way to go from there is to become more complex. But now complexity is not always favored by natural selection. If you are a parasite, for instance, natural selection may make you less complex, because you can live off the exertions of another species. Tapeworms evolved from free-living worms, and during their evolution have lost their digestive system, their nervous system, and much of their reproductive apparatus. As I tell my students, they have become just absorptive bags of gonads, much like the students themselves. Yet tapeworms are superbly adapted for a parasitic way of life. It does not always pay to be smarter, either. For some years I had a pet skunk, who was lovable but dim. I mentioned this to my vet, who put me in my place: “Stupid? Hell, he’s perfectly adapted for being a skunk!” Intelligence comes with a cost: you need to produce and to carry that extra brain matter, and to crank up your metabolism to support it. And sometimes this cost exceeds the genetic payoff. A smarter skunk might not be a fitter skunk.

To support the inevitability of humans, Giberson and Miller invoke the notion of evolutionary convergence. This idea is simple: species often adapt to similar environments by independently evolving similar features. Ichthyosaurs (ancient marine reptiles), porpoises, and fish all evolved independently in the water, and through natural selection all three acquired fins and a similar streamlined shape. Complex “camera eyes” evolved in both vertebrates and squid. Arctic animals such as polar bears, arctic hares, and snowy owls either are white or turn white in the winter, hiding them from predators or prey. Perhaps the most astonishing example of convergence is the similarity between some species of marsupial mammals in Australia and unrelated placental mammals that live elsewhere. The marsupial flying phalanger looks and acts just like the flying squirrel of the New World. Marsupial moles, with their reduced eyes and big burrowing claws, are dead ringers for our placental moles. Until its extinction in 1936, the remarkable thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, looked and hunted like a placental wolf.

Convergence tells us something deep about evolution. There must be preexisting “niches,” or ways of life, that call up similar evolutionary changes in unrelated species that adapt to them. That is, starting with different ancestors and fuelled by different mutations, natural selection can nonetheless mold bodies in very similar ways–so long as those changes improve survival and reproduction. There were niches in the sea for fish-eating mammals and reptiles, so porpoises and ichthyosaurs became streamlined. Animals in the Arctic improve their survival if they are white in the winter. And there must obviously be a niche for a small omnivorous mammal that glides from tree to tree. Convergence is one of the most impressive features of evolution, and it is common: there are hundreds of cases.

All it takes to argue for the inevitability of humanoids, then, is to claim that there was a “humanoid niche”–a way of life that required high intelligence and sophisticated self-consciousness–and that this niche remained unfilled until inevitably invaded by human ancestors. But was its occupation really inevitable? Miller is confident that it was:

“But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.”

Miller and Giberson are forced to this view for a simple reason. If we cannot prove that humanoid evolution was inevitable, then the reconciliation of evolution and Christianity collapses. For if we really were the special object of God’s creation, our evolution could not have been left to chance. (It may not be irrelevant that although the Catholic Church accepts most of Darwinism, it makes an official exception for the evolution of Homo sapiens, whose soul is said to have been created by God and inserted at some point into the human lineage.)

The difficulty is that most scientists do not share Miller’s certainty. This is because evolution is not a repeatable experiment. We cannot replay the tape of life over and over to see if higher consciousness always crops up. In fact, there are good reasons for thinking that the evolution of humanoids was not only not inevitable, but was a priori improbable. Although convergences are striking features of evolution, there are at least as many failures of convergence. These failures are less striking because they involve species that are missing. Consider Australia again. Many types of mammals that evolved elsewhere have no equivalents among marsupials. There is no marsupial counterpart to a bat (that is, a flying mammal), or to giraffes and elephants (large mammals with long necks or noses that can browse on the leaves of trees). Most tellingly, Australia evolved no counterpart to primates, or any creature with primate-like intelligence. In fact, Australia has many unfilled niches–and hence many unfulfilled convergences, including that prized “humanoid” niche. If high intelligence was such a predictable result of evolution, why did it not evolve in Australia? Why did it arise only once, in Africa?

This raises another question. We recognize convergences because unrelated species evolve similar traits. In other words, the traits appear in more than one species. But sophisticated, self-aware intelligence is a singleton: it evolved just once, in a human ancestor. (Octopi and dolphins are also smart, but they do not have the stuff to reflect on their origins.) In contrast, eyes have evolved independently forty times, and white color in Arctic animals appeared several times. It is hard to make a convincing case for the evolutionary inevitability of a feature that arose only once. The elephant’s trunk, a complex and sophisticated adaptation (it has over forty thousand muscles!), is also an evolutionary singleton. Yet you do not hear scientists arguing that evolution would inevitably fill the “elephant niche.” Giberson and Miller proclaim the inevitability of humanoids for one reason only: Christianity demands it.

Finally, it is abundantly clear that the evolution of human intelligence was a contingent event: contingent on the drying out of the African forest and the development of grasslands, which enabled apes to leave the trees and walk on two legs. Indeed, to maintain that the evolution of humans was inevitable, you must also maintain that the evolution of apes was inevitable, that the evolution of primates was inevitable, that the rise of mammals was inevitable, and so on back through dozens of ancestors, all of whose appearances must be seen as inevitable. This produces a regress of increasing unlikelihood. In the end, the question of whether human-like creatures were inevitable can be answered only by admitting that we do not know–and adding that most scientific evidence suggests that they were not. Any other answer involves either wishful thinking or theology.

Miller opts for theology. Although his new book does not say how God ensured the arrival of Homo sapiens, Miller was more explicit in Finding Darwin’s God. There he suggested that the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics allows God to intervene at the level of atoms, influencing events on a larger scale:

“The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.”

In other words, God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

Obviously, given that higher intelligence and rationality of the human type has evolved only once, the existence of convergence says nothing about whether these features would always appear.  In fact, the one-offness seems to imply otherwise.

What bothers me about this is, of course, that BioLogos is using the imprimatur of science (and the wonky ideas of Simon Conway Morris) to try to convince people that of course our evolution was inevitable.  This tactic is a favorite of BioLogos (and Templeton), for it tries to blur the boundaries between science and faith.  As scientists we can say nothing about the inevitability of humans except that it seems unlikely given its unique appearance.  Certainly one can say that the idea of evolutionary convergence is irrelevant here.

Please, BioLogos, stop making scientific arguments for God!

A discussion of science and religion

January 23, 2009 • 10:53 am

Are science and evolution compatible? Or is the empirical nature of science flatly contradictory to the revelatory nature of faith?  I wrote an article on this topic in the latest issue of The New Republic.  My article is centered on two recent books about science, creationism, and faith, Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Belive in Evolution, and Ken Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. You can find my analysis of these book and a broader discussion of the disharmony between science and religion here.  My piece also been posted for discusson on the Edge webpage, with various heavy hitters weighing in on the issue and my article; that discussion is here.