Robert Wright: Pirouetting on the fence

August 24, 2009 • 5:28 am

When my advisor Dick Lewontin’s book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, appeared in 1974, one reviewer criticized him for equivocating about the significance of genetic variation. In his text, Lewontin seemed to vacillate endlessly between the “neutral theory,” which saw variation at the DNA level as of no selective consequence to the organism, and the “selection theory,” which claimed the opposite. The reviewer noted that Lewontin did not so much sit on the fence as pirouette on it.

A similar feat of posterior rotation has been performed by Robert Wright, who has specialized in trying to harmonize two contradictory positions: materialistic evolution and divine, teleological purpose. In his recent book The Evolution of God, which I’ve reviewed here, Wright makes the case that while evolution and natural selection may have indeed molded human behavior, behind it all we see “scientific evidence” of a divine purpose. This evidence is, according to Wright, the fact that the theologies of Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have over centuries become more inclusive, more tolerant of other faiths. Wright claims that the inclusiveness results from increasing interactions between human societies, so that each perceives a “nonzero-sum” relationship with others and decides to go along to get along. And so theology changes over time (that’s what Wright means by the “evolution of God”) ultimately promoting greater morality. I guess this much is plausible, although, as I noted in my review, there are other plausible theories that can explain the growing morality of our species.

What took Wright over the top was his claim that driving the increase in morality was a transcendent “purpose” — some unspecified but apparently divine force pulling societies towards ever-increasing goodness. And so believers can find “facts on the ground” that support the existence of a higher being. Wright did admit in his book that he “wasn’t qualified” to pass judgment on whether God existed, but he surely gave his readers plenty of “scientific evidence” for it. And indeed, that’s how many reviewers perceived The Evolution of God: as a welcome guide to how religious people can buttress their faith against the attacks of the “new atheists.”

My critique of Wright’s book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific), and above all on the supposed “empirical evidence” for divine guidance of human biological and moral evolution. Wright has complained about some of my critiques of his theology, and I will post a response here soon.

Wright’s dizzy pirouetting is on display in a long and messy op-ed piece he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times: “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.” It’s basically a précis of his book, and offers what I call the “Certs Gambit.” (If you’re of a certain age you’ll remember the television commercials for Certs mints, in which two people argue about whether the product was a breath mint or a candy mint, with the argument finally ended by a voice from above booming, “STOP! You’re both right.”) Wright’s Certs Gambit in the Times involves reconciling atheistic evolutionary biology with religious belief, showing how both can find support from understanding how natural selection molded human morality. It is a return to eighteenth-century deism:  God made the universe and then went permanently to lunch, certain (because he built it into the process) that natural selection would eventually cough up his favorite species.

Like Jesus, Wright sees himself as a harbinger of universal harmony:

I bring good news! These two warring groups [atheists and religious believers] have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

[Note the insertion of the annoying word “militant.” I guess nonmilitant atheists properly appreciate the creativity of selection.]

Here’s his solution: harmony (and maybe a Templeton Prize for Wright) will arrive when religious people give up the idea of God’s constant intervention in evolution and the affairs of the world, and when atheists accept that science is compatible with a transcendent purpose. The harmony devolves from accepting the “creative power” of natural selection.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

[Note the use of the loaded words “accept that” here, words Wright uses throughout his piece.  All of his pirouetting is concentrated in that phrase.  “Believe that” would be epistemically neutral; but “accept that” means acquiescence to a true state of affairs.]

So where’s the evidence for a higher purpose in evolution? As in The Evolution of God, Wright sees “purpose” in the development of increasing morality in human affairs – indeed, in the fact that we have a moral sense in the first place. To many, like C. S. Lewis, it’s hard to see how natural selection could yield morality:

The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — “out there,” you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.

But Wright brings good news! Atheists and the faithful are both right! Evolution is both a God-driven and a materialistic process — two processes in one!  Yes, as Wright admits, there do exist purely secular explanations of morality: evolutionary hypotheses involving reciprocal altruism as well as non-evolutionary theories based on people’s ability to recognize and build a harmonious society. But Wright’s kicker is that God still lurks beneath the surface:

. . .But they may not have to stray quite as far from that scenario as they fear. Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

[Note again the words “accept that” instead of the epistemically neutral “believe that.” Here Wright is again smuggling God into the picture!]

This goes along with Wright’s postulate in The Evolution of God that natural selection itself might have been devised by the “transcendent force” (let’s stop pussyfooting around and just call it “God”). But of course such a view is NOT consistent with scientific materialism, for there is not the slightest evidence that natural selection is anything other than the ineluctable consequence of genes competing with each another for representation in future generations. That the whole process might have been designed by God to achieve certain ends is a bullet that I, for one, am not prepared to bite. Certainly evolution is consistent with a deistic view that God made the Big Bang and then took his hands off the universe, letting everything unfold naturally and materially. But that’s not quite the same as asserting, as Wright has done repeatedly, that God designed natural selection as a way to build moral beings. The latter supposes that evolution has somehow been directed.

To show that natural selection is indeed a teleological process designed by God, Wright resorts to the “convergence arguments” familiar from the writings of Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris. These assert that built into the evolutionary process was the consequence that selection would produce rational, moral beings capable of apprehending and worshiping their creator — in other words, us. The argument rests on “evolutionary convergence”: the observation that natural selection has sometimes produced similar results in completely independent lineages (a classic example is the physical eye, which has evolved several dozen times).

Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects — in spiritually relevant respects, you might say — was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible.

For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species — not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest — but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity.

I have criticized elsewhere the assertion that the evolution of a fully moral, religious “humanoid” species was inevitable. All we can say is that such a species did evolve — but only once, so that convergence arguments are completely irrelevant. It’s just as plausible — indeed, I think more plausible — to argue that such beings were not inevitable consequences of evolution, and might very well have failed to appear were the tape of evolution to be rewound and replayed.

Here’s why Wright sees morality as inevitable:

And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.

Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?

But the truly scientific answer to Wright’s question is “we don’t know how unlikely it is.” Yes, we see the rudiments of morality in other species, but only one species went all the way to developing an explicit moral code.  We cannot assume that just because we see rudiments of some trait in some species, its full evolution was inevitable. That’s like saying that evolution must produce fully volant fish because flying fish have already gone part of the way by evolving the ability to glide.   It doesn’t take an intellectual giant to see that just because something evolves, its appearance need not have been inevitable were life to begin again.

Wright also claims that repeated evolution of “moral behaviors” is evidence for the preexistence of moral rules – i.e., the Transcendent Purpose formerly known as “God.”

If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them?

His implicit answer is “yes,” but it’s Wright’s intellectual style to make his points in the form of questions whose answer is rather obvious. In that way he can claim that he’s on the side of both atheists and the faithful without having to take a stand himself.  This is the same thing he’s doing by using the weasel-word “accept” rather than “believe”.

I’m not convinced that such convergence of altruism says anything about its “out there” existence. Instead, it is evidence only for the following proposition:

If a species evolves to be social, and individuals interact repeatedly with one another, natural selection may (but need not) mold individual behavior in a way that leads to reciprocal altruism.

Although Wright cites Steve Pinker as accepting the possibility of pre-existing moral rules, I think Pinker probably meant something closer to the proposition I constructed above.  Altruism isn’t really a pre-existing “thing” out there, it’s a solution that selection can arrive at if 1) the conditions of sociality and repeated interactions among individuals are of the right type, and 2) the relevant genetic variation exists.  Without that, altruism can’t evolve.

Indeed, you can make another proposition about “immoral rules” as well:

If it is to the reproductive advantage of individuals of a species to kill the young of other individuals, or to engage in other behaviors that violate what humans see as morality, then “immoral” behaviors like infanticide can evolve.

Indeed this is exactly what happened in lions and langur monkeys. (Some evolutionary psychologists have claimed that these behaviors are “rudiments” of an immorality that we find in humans: the murder of step-offspring by their adoptive parents, but I won’t address that here.) Does this mean that infanticide is an immoral rule floating out there in space?  The point is that in some cases natural selection produces behaviors that we see as “moral”, but in other cases behaviors we find “immoral.” It all depends on the circumstances. This is not evidence for pre-existing “rules”, but simply for the multifarious ways that natural selection can mold the behavior of social species.

And here’s a third proposition:

If members of a species gain a reproductive advantage by helping members of a second, unrelated species, then we could see the evolution of two species helping each other.

This, of course, is why we have mutualisms between organisms like algae and fungi (lichens), between leafcutter ants and fungi, and between termites and their gut symbionts. These mutualisms could be considered interspecific “moral” behaviors, since they merely extend the principle of “selfish altruism” (aka the “golden rule”) towards members of a different species.

Natural selection can create all kinds of behaviors, including those that humans would find immoral were they to occur in our culture. All that matters is that the behavior gives individuals a reproductive advantage and the right kinds of mutations are around. Indeed, humans may well have evolved some immoral behaviors, such as the propensity to cheat when you can escape detection.

At any rate, the evolution of altruistic behaviors in some animals does not count as evidence that that somehow morality pre-dated those behaviors. How could it? It’s like saying that the “goal” of detecting vibrations in fluid somehow pre-dated the evolution of hearing and lateral lines. Would we have been able to predict that hearing would some day evolve had we been present at the formation of the first primordial replicator 3.4 billion years ago? I don’t think so. The “prediction” is made retroactively! As in the theological and biological changes described in The Evolution of God, Wright has a tendency to see whatever has happened as inevitable.

Thus, the “good news,” as Wright calls it, is merely an attempt to make a theological virtue of empirical necessities, which, of course, is the basis for all apologetics.

. . . natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them? That would be good news for any believers who want to preserve as much of the spirit of C. S. Lewis as Darwinism permits.

But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.

Of course these godly speculations are compatible with the “standard scientific theory of human creation”!  This is just the standard idea that God designed evolution to achieve a certain aim — in this case, morality.  What is new here? Nothing; it’s the same 200-year-old deism — a deism that didn’t harmonize science and religion for most people then, and won’t now. Many religious people like to see their god as continually acting in the world rather than having gone to lunch after the Big Bang.  I don’t, therefore, see devout Muslims, fundamentalist Protestants, or Orthodox Jews accepting these speculations and ending their conflicts with science.

And what are we atheists to do? Wright says we must admit the possibility of a Higher Purpose:

But believers aren’t the only ones who could use some adapting. If there is to be peace between religion and science, some of the more strident atheists will need to make their own concessions to logic.

They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.

[Note the word “grant,” which, like the word “accept”, presupposes a pre-existing truth that we must acknowledge.]

And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained in it.

Engrained in it? Sorry, Mr. Wright; I’m not willing to acknowledge that any god had a hand in designing the process of natural selection. There’s just no evidence for that. Natural selection is simply what happens when replicators compete for representation in the next generation. Yes, it’s formally possible that God brought the whole complicated process into being, but why complicate matters by positing an unnecessary layer of divinity atop a process that works fine on its own?

And I’m even less willing to grant that “natural selection’s intrinsic creative power” adds any plausibility to this “remotely creative god” (note how Wright sneaks “god” in there!). If we’re going to quote Darwin on the role of divinity in natural selection, here’s a place where he definitely abjures celestial intervention or any “principle of improvement”:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition “of new powers and attributes and forces,” or of any “principle of improvement” except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

Finally, Wright tries to give believers solace by saying that organisms do have a purpose: to spread their DNA.

And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the “designer” — the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it — there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is “as real as purpose could ever be.”

So in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

As I noted in my New Republic review, this is truly creationism — or intelligent design — for liberals. This would all sound very different if Wright used the word “function” instead of “purpose”. “Purpose” sounds, well, so . . . intentional!  And of course that is what Wright want the reader to think. In my dictionary, the definition of “purpose” is “the reason why something is done or created or for which something exists.”  Again, Wright is using words to sneak God into his argument. This is the same tactic used by Kenneth Miller when he lectures about how natural selection produces “design” instead of saying it produces apparent design.

But Wright is asking a lot of the faithful here. I doubt that many believers will be satisfied in learning that their “purpose” is to spread their genes. For that is the “purpose” of every species, be it fungus, gnat, or tortoise. A theology based on propagation of DNA leaves nothing special for humanity. How many believers will find comfort in that?

Wright is a cagey man. He ends his op-ed piece with some furious pirouetting, as he did in the final chapter of The Evolution of God. Note how, in the following passage, he simultaneously claims that God is not necessary but at the same time invokes a “higher-order creative process.”

There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

The second moral of the story is that, even if evolution does have a “purpose,” imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.

I’m not sure what Wright is trying to say here, unless he’s invoking a kind of anthropic principle: in some universes natural selection gave rise to beings who, through evolved rationality, evolved altruism, or both, became moral. And we live in such a universe. (But of course it is conceivable to have a universe containing smart, rational beings that lack sophisticated moral codes.)  But this scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on,” what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As Many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

In his peroration, Wright claims (somewhat cynically, I think) that even if there’s no god, believers can nevertheless shoehorn one into his scenario:

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Such is Wright’s intellectual style. Without ever admitting what he himself believes, Wright weaves a narrative in which he sees both atheists and the faithful attaining philosophical harmony. But that won’t do. This is not a “grand bargain over evolution,” but a Faustian bargain for both scientists and the faithful. The price of Wright’s bargain is that both scientists and believers must abjure critical elements of their craft and belief. The faithful must abandon most of the trappings of conventional religion: the belief in a divine and providential power who interacts with the world and listens to prayers, and belief in an afterlife and divinely ordained prophets and scriptures. Wright’s church is Our Lady of the NonZero Sum, the Power That Drives Morality. Gone are Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses, replaced by the “awe-inspiring story” that through our Purpose of Spreading Genes, an undefined transcendent source has pulled us all towards the good.

And we scientists – well, we must give up our crazy notion – and all the supporting evidence — that evolution is a blind, contingent, materialistic process that is not externally directed toward certain goals. We must “accept” the idea that there is “scientific evidence” for a higher purpose/higher order/transcendent reality. We must accept the idea that natural selection and evolution give real evidence for a “remotely creative god.”

This is nonsense. Wright’s utopian solution fails for the same reason that accommodationism always fails: any genuine harmony between science and faith requires that the faithful give up essential elements of their supernatural beliefs, and that scientists accept some elements of the supernatural. The Certs Gambit for science and faith may sound warm and fuzzy in the liberal columns of the New York Times, but in practice it doesn’t work.  Still, it may just earn Wright a Templeton Prize.


Update: Other critiques appear at PharyngulaThe Mermaid’s Tale, and The Apple Eaters.

The Hall of Shame: God, evolution, and quantum mechanics

July 5, 2009 • 8:28 am

For those who claim that no religious scientists allow their scientific statements and beliefs to be infected with religion, here’s a counterexample.  It’s from Francis Collins’s BioLogos website (funded by our friends at The John Templeton Foundation) and is a statement about how God may influence the world through quantum mechanics:

The mechanical worldview of the scientific revolution is now a relic. Modern physics has replaced it with a very different picture of the world. With quantum mechanical uncertainty and the chaotic unpredictability of complex systems, the world is now understood to have a certain freedom in its future development. Of course, the question remains whether this openness is a result of nature’s true intrinsic chanciness or the inevitable limit to humans’ understanding. Either way, one thing is clear: a complete and detailed explanation or prediction for nature’s behavior cannot be provided. This was already a problem for Newtonian mechanics; however, it was assumed that in principle, science might eventually provide a complete explanation of any natural event. Now, though, we see that the laws of nature are such that scientific prediction and explanation are ultimately limited.

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles. Given the impossibility of absolute prediction or explanation, the laws of nature no longer preclude God’s action in the world. Our perception of the world opens once again to the possibility of divine interaction.

This view is nearly identical to that of Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin’s God.  What this means, of course, is that what appear to us to be random and unpredictable events on the subatomic level (for example, the decay of atoms) can really reflect God’s manipulation of those particles, and that this is the way a theistic God might intervene in the world.  And of course these interventions are said to be “subtle” and “unrecognizable.” (Theologians are always making a virtue of necessity.  They never explain why, if God wanted to answer a prayer, he would do it by tweaking electrons rather than, say,  directly killing cancer cells with his omnipotence. After all, a miracle is a miracle.  Theology might, in fact, be defined as the art of making religious virtues out of scientific necessities.)  And why did these interventions used to involve more blatant manipulations of nature (several thousand years ago, virgin human females gave birth to offspring, were taken bodily to heaven, and their offspring brought back to life after dying), while  in more recent years the manipulations have been confined to the subatomic level?

And think about how ludicrous this theology really is.  God:  “Well, let’s see.  Johnny’s parents have prayed for a cure for his leukemia.  They’re good people, so I’ll do it.   Now how to do the trick?.  If I can just change the position of this electron here, and that one over there, I can cause a mutation in gene X that will beef up his immune system and allow the chemotherapy to work.”  Why can’t God just say “Cancer, begone!”?  (He apparently did that in Baltimore.) I already how the theists will respond:  “That’s not the way God works, because we know how he works and it’s not that way!”

The BioLogos statement appears as part of the answer to the question, “What role could God have in evolution?”  I submit that the statement is a scientific one that is deeply infected with religious views.  The statement is this:  “God acts by tweaking electrons and other subatomic particles, constantly causing non-deterministic changes in the universe according to his desires.” Further, the clear implication is this:  “God intervened in the evolutionary process, tweaking some electrons to eventually ‘evolve’ a creature made in his image”.  That is a religious statement masquerading as science. And that appears to be the view of some religious theists, especially those Catholics who adhere to the Church’s position that God intervened in human evolution.

Well, what happens if we find out some day that the subatomic “nondeterministic” changes really turn out to be deterministic?  After all, quantum mechanics and its indeterminacy are provisional scientific theories; we might eventually find out that what appear to be totally unpredictable events really do have a deterministic causation.  Where does Collins’s deity go then?  Do you suppose for a minute that Collins and his fellow theistic evolutionists would say, “Right. Everything is in principle predictable after all.  Obviously, there’s no room for God to intervene in nature, so theism is wrong.”  I wouldn’t count on it.

Making quantum mechanics the bailiwick for celestial intervention is a God-of-the-gaps argument, no different in kind from many arguments for intelligent design. Do theistic evolutionists really want to make quantum mechanics God’s playground?  Remember the words of the martyred theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer about the dangers of mixing science and faith:

If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed farther and farther back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.


Note:  Someone once asked me what the “H.” in the expression “Jesus H. Christ!” came from.  I used to reply, “haploid,” since he came from an unfertilized egg.  But now I am starting to wonder if it might be “Heisenberg.”

Krauss attacks accommodationism in the Wall Street Journal

June 26, 2009 • 7:45 am

In the WSJ — of all places — we find physicist Lawrence Krauss attacking the compatibility of science and faith.

Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world’s organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an “atheist absolutist,” a “reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions.”

This editorial stemmed from Krauss’s participation in the World Science Festival, where he was on a panel with two religious scientists, Kenneth Miller and Guy Consolmagno. (I turned down an offer to join this panel because the Festival was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. I still don’t regret it.)  When challenged about the so-called “truths” of their faiths, both Miler and Consolmagno — who works for the Vatican — apparently maintained that the virgin birth of Jesus was only a metaphor:

When I confronted my two Catholic colleagues on the panel with the apparent miracle of the virgin birth and asked how they could reconcile this with basic biology, I was ultimately told that perhaps this biblical claim merely meant to emphasize what an important event the birth was. Neither came to the explicit defense of what is undeniably one of the central tenets of Catholic theology.

Well, so much for the “truth” of that claim! I look forward to their assertion that the Resurrection was also a metaphor. (By the way, how do they know that the virgin birth was only a metphor but that Jesus was really, actually, the son of God?)

And Krauss’s finale:

Science is only truly consistent with an atheistic worldview with regards to the claimed miracles of the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Moreover, the true believers in each of these faiths are atheists regarding the specific sacred tenets of all other faiths. Christianity rejects the proposition that the Quran contains the infallible words of the creator of the universe. Muslims and Jews reject the divinity of Jesus.

So while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that these issues are not purely academic. The current crisis in Iran has laid bare the striking inconsistency between a world built on reason and a world built on religious dogma.

Perhaps the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs — as well as in the rest of the physical world — reason is the better guide.

You said it!  Krauss’s piece, by the way, begins with a great quote from the evolutionary geneticist J. B. S. Haldane:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

It’s encouraging that a mainline newpaper — especially a conservative one — will publish a piece like this. Dare we hope that the “new atheism” is having an effect?

Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part II: Out of context

June 17, 2009 • 11:56 am

Today involves a bit of tidying up: I want to hook several red herrings that appear at the beginning of Ken Miller’s critique of my anti-accommodationist views, ‘Thoughts of an ‘Ardent Theist,’ or Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong, and call him out for taking a quote out of context.

Miller clears his throat as follows:

In one piece he [JAC] compared religious scientists who might defend evolution to “adulterers.” In another he argued that making a case for compatibility of science and faith was akin to peddling cancer by lying about the ill effects of tobacco. To Coyne, the pro-evolution arguments of religious scientists such as Francis Collins, George Coyne, or Karl Giberson are not only unwelcome, but downright dishonest. In his words, this is because “when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers.”

Right off the bat, Miller is trying to stimulate the reader’s antipathy toward me by saying that I compared religious people to “adulterers.”  What a horrible guy!  How could Coyne say such a thing! But let’s look at what I really said:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. )

Do I really need to point out to Dr. Miller that I am not comparing religious scientists to adulterers? I am comparing the argument about compatibility of faith and science with an argument for the compatibility of marriage and adultery.  Please, Dr. Miller, let’s stick to the ideas and not try to smear someone with a false analogy.

And about the cancer and tobacco thing; here’s what I really said:

But despite their avowed commitment to not mixing philosophy with science, an important part of the NCSE’s activities is its “Faith Project,” whose director is the theologically trained Peter M. J. Hess.  This project appears to be devoted entirely to the philosophical position that evolution need not conflict with “proper” faith.   Among the pages of this project is Hess’s statement, in “Science and Religion”:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

You can’t get much more explicit than this.  To those of us who hold contrary views, including the idea that religion is dangerous, this logic sounds like this:

We are sometimes told that we must choose between smoking two packs a day and pursuing a healthy lifestyle.  Many cigarette companies, however, hold unequivocally that no such choice is necessary.

Again, I think it’s clear that here I am comparing the logic of the science/faith compatibility argument with the logic of an argument touting the compatibility of  smoking with a healthy lifestyle.  That’s all.  No implication that religious people peddle cancer, or are engaged in similar nefarious activities!

Miller continues, but can’t manage to avoid misrepresenting my views. (Really, I’d rather discuss the issues instead of having to keep correcting the other side):

Coyne’s criticisms are significant because they apply to institutions, not just individuals, involved in the struggle to defend science. In particular, he attacks both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education for what he calls “accomodationism.” In Coyne’s lexicon, this is the misguided attempt to “show that it [evolution] is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.” Accomodationism is a “self-defeating tactic” because it “compromises the very science” these organizations seek to defend. Apparently, NAS and the NCSE ought to change their ways, come out of the intellectual closet, and admit that only one position is consistent with evolution — a philosophical naturalism that requires doctrinaire atheism on all questions of faith.

Nobody who has read my thoughts on this issue, and who is interested in representing them fairly, could ever accuse me of asking scientific and educational organizations to tout atheism as the sole position consistent with evolution.  As I have stated repeatedly, my position with respect to organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science education is this:  leave religion completely out of the discussion.  Do not, say I, take a position on the issue, either one of compatibility of evolution and faith, or the sole compatibility of evolution with atheism.  Don’t take any position on the issue — just sell evolution on its merits as a theory which happens to be true.  Or, if these organizations simply must say something, say this: some scientists feel that faith and evolution are compatible while others say they’re not.  Instead, these organizations present only one side: the view that scientists see faith and evolution as compatible.  And that, I think, is intellectually dishonest, though perhaps politically expedient.  (In the long term, I don’t think it is expedient.)

Want proof that this is my view? Go here and read this (written by me):

Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE?  Not at all.  I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint.  I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.  If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended.  Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education.  Leave theology to the theologians.

Everybody who has discussed these issues recognizes that this is my view — except for Kenneth Miller.  Has he not read my pieces?  Or is he trying to score debating points by distorting what I said?  It’s three for three so far in the latter camp, but there’s one more to go.  Miller says this:

Curiously, for someone so eager to defend Darwinian theory, Coyne never tells his readers that Charles Darwin was once asked the very same question — and that he gave a quite different answer. In an 1879 letter to John Fordyce, Darwin wrote: “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” Absurd? Apparently this Darwin fellow must have been an accommodationist, too, at least by Coyne’s standards.

No theist himself, as he made clear in that letter, Darwin nonetheless realized that it was certainly possible for Christians to see the evolutionary process as consistent with their faith. As well he should have. His most enthusiastic proponent in the United States was the “eminent botanist” Asa Gray of Harvard. Gray, as Darwin knew, was a sincere and committed Christian, and Darwin was not about to reject Gray’s strong scientific and personal support. Nor did he find it dishonest or logically inconsistent.

Well, first of all I don’t adhere down the line to every opinion that Charles Darwin ever expressed.  Darwin said some pretty racist things, and he sometimes got the science wrong, too, as in his adherence to Lamarckian inheritance.  My opinions are my own.  But let’s look at the letter in question.  It really says this:

Dear Sir

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin

What Miller has done here is to present the first sentence of this letter as evidence that Darwin was an accommodationist, but then lop off the rest of the letter, which shows that a) Darwin had a fluctuating opinion depending on what he saw as the definition of theism and b) Darwin himself was certainly not a theist.  As for whether Darwin himself saw faith and evolution as compatible, there’s no slam dunk here for Miller, either.  Darwin takes the straight scientific line of not being an atheist in the sense of not saying, “I know God doesn’t exist.”  Instead, he professes agnosticism, which for Darwin could mean either the idea that “I don’t know whether God exists,” or “I don’t see any reason to believe in God.”  Given the history of Darwin’s views on the subject, I think he probably adhered to the “I-see-no-reason-to-believe” school, especially after the death of his daughter Annie. Regardless, though, Miller has taken his quotation out of context to make it seem that Darwin did endorse a compatibility of theism and faith.  That’s not at all what I glean from the letter as a whole.

I can’t resist pointing out that here Miller is borrowing a favorite tactic from the creationist playbook: quote-mining.  All evolutionists who have been attacked by creationists know of this trick, and our antennae twitch furiously when we see a creationist use a quote from a scientist.  We always go back and look up the original quote, which is what I’ve done here.

As an interesting footnote, there is a historical parallel here with another favorite “mined quote” from Darwin that creationists use when attacking evolution, a quote that also raises and then defuses an “absurdity” claim.  It is this famous sentence that, say creationists, shows that even Darwin thought that the eye could not have possibly been produced by natural selection:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. – Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 1st Ed., p. 186.

All evolutionists know that this quotation is taken out of context to twist its meaning. The quote in its context is this (Darwin is showing that the eye could really have evolved by a gradual process in which each step was adaptive):

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of Spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei [“the voice of the people = the voice of God “], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

In the very short introduction to his piece, Miller manages to misrepresent my views three times (and not subtle misrepresentations, either) and throw in  an out-of-context quote as well.  Is there any hope that we can have a meaningful argument?  Tomorrow we’ll continue with Miller’s claim that I have misrepresented him — by saying that he tries to inject faith into his scientific views.

Science vs. theism: a debate with Kenneth Miller. Part I: Throat-clearing

June 16, 2009 • 12:35 pm

The recent debates about accommodating scientific with religious views have been scattered across several websites.  The whole megillah began with a post on Chris Mooney’s site, arguing that the atheist attack on accommodationism was inimical to our joint interest in promoting the understanding of evolution. Mooney also characterized anti-accommodationists as “uncivil.”  Since then, the arguments have bounced between this site and those of Mooney, Jason Rosenhouse, Russell Blackford, “Erratic Synapse,” and others; I’ve assembled the posts in chronological order here.

In his last post, Mooney called my attention to a recent posting by Kenneth Miller at Brown University responding to my critiques of accommodationism and especially my piece in The New Republic discussing two books, one by Miller and the other by Karl Giberson. I have promised to respond to Miller, although both P. Z. Myers and Jason Rosenhouse have already published critiques of Miller’s posting.  Indeed, they did such a good job of refuting Miller’s claims that I’m not sure I have much to add. However, I promised to respond and so I will, though with an increasing sense of languor and futility.

Miller’s piece is in six parts: an introduction and five sections, each of the latter having a bold heading.  I propose to respond to each section in turn.  Today I’ll make a few introductory comments, and will tackle Miller’s own introduction tomorrow.  Bear with me: this will take a few days, and I have a day job. 

Revisiting Miler’s prose from his first book, Finding Darwin’s God, through his most recent posting, I observe what others like P.Z. have noticed: Miller is increasingly backing off from the theism he previously espoused. (Indeed, P.Z.’s response is called “Theistic evolution beats a hasty retreat.”)

My theses are these:

1.  While science and theism (i.e., the view that God acts to change things in the material world) are compatible in the trivial sense that some people adhere to both, they are incompatible in the philosophical sense of being harmonious world views.  I’ve argued this ad nauseum (as in the New Republic piece) and so won’t go into all the details again.

2.  Miller, as a scientist and a theist, is guilty of diluting (indeed, distorting) science by claiming that God interferes in nature in certain specified ways, and that these ways are in principle detectable.  Some of his assertions, such as that of the inevitability of humanoid evolution, are scientifically insupportable.

3.  Miller denies #2, but the evidence is against him.  In particular, he has suggested a). that God might tweak nature through events on the quantum level; b). that God arranged things so that evolution would arrive at certain “inevitable” ends (e.g., the evolution of our own species), a view that cannot be defended as scientific;  c). that the physical constants of the world were constructed by God, or “fine tuned,” to permit life to exist in the Universe;  and d.) the fact that there are “laws” (regularities, really) in the Universe can be understood only as an act of God. The last claim is in fact a God-of-the-gaps argument, since it asserts that the best answer to the question, “Why are there scientific laws at all?” is “God made them.”  Here Miller merely swaps ignorance for “God,” just as creationist Michael Behe swaps ignorance of biochemical evolution for God.

4.  When confronted with #3, Miller says that he is only suggesting these as possibilities.  I counter that this claim is disingenuous, and that Miller either believes these things himself, or is offering them for serious consideration by fellow theists.  I further argue that since Miller has made his theism a centerpiece of this debate, he must do more than obliquely suggest “possibilities” for the theist.   He must state publicly what he actually believes vis-a-vis #3, and tell us what reasons he has for his beliefs.  It is my opinion that his failure to ever have done this reflects more than a desire for privacy of faith — after all, Miller is the one who wrote a book called Finding Darwin’s God and has made much of his own reconciliation of Catholicism with science. I believe it also reflects an understanding that if he publicly revealed what he believed, he would lose stature, for his beliefs would be seen as  not only unscientific, but embarrassingly superstitious.

5.  The behavior seen in #4 constitutes what I call “wink wink nudge nudge” theism.  Without ever defending his beliefs — or indeed, telling us what they are — Miller nevertheless offers a kind of coded succor to his fellow theists.  This is manifest in his recent string of lectures, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that the universe shows “design,” but then backs off, claiming that “I didn’t really mean, folks, that God actually did anything.” Let me repeat — I think this is disingenuous, and that Miller knows exactly what he’s doing.  I suggest that such behavior promotes public confusion about what science does and does not tell us about the universe.  Miller’s “suggestions” for fellow theists involve pointing out ways that nature attests to God.  And, in the end, this is nothing more than a form of creationism.

I have stated many times before that I have enormous admiration for Miller’s accomplishments: he has not only written several excellent biology textbooks (no mean feat, believe me!), but has vociferously defended evolution in the classroom, the courtroom, and other public venues.  I gladly join him in opposing those creationists who want to take good science out of the classroom and replace it with medieval theology.   But we differ in how we view this battle.  Ultimately, I don’t think it will be won until religion’s hold on America loosens.  As a theist, he obviously feels otherwise.

Now that the throat is cleared, more discussion tomorrow.

A defense of accommodationism and a misunderstanding

June 14, 2009 • 11:57 am

Over at the Guardian website, James Hannam has appeared from the woodwork to argue that by critiquing the philosophical accommodation of faith with science, I am explicitly rejecting an alliance with the enlightened faithful to go after creationism:

It’s popularly imagined that the history of science and religion is one of violent conflict, but the facts don’t bear this out.

As the battle between creationism and evolution heats up, some atheists, like Jerry Coyne, have been insisting that it is really a battle between religion and science. Coyne resists any accommodation between religious and non-religious scientists to defend Darwinism. He doesn’t want to see them joining forces against the creationist common enemy in case that legitimises religion. In order for his position to make sense, he needs to show that there is some sort of existential conflict between religion and science. So it is unfortunate for him that the historical record clearly shows that accommodation and even cooperation have been the default positions in the relationship. . .

. . .The conflict between science and creationism is real enough, but it is the exception, not the rule. For most of history, science and religion have rubbed along just fine. So, if Jerry Coyne really wants to promote evolution, he should be joining hands with the religious scientists who want to help.

Mr. Hannam is either joking or simply hasn’t immersed himself in the debates or  the c.v.s of their participants.  For crying out loud, I  have always been allied with religious people in attacking creationism.  For example, I wrote a book on the evidence for evolution.  What I won’t do is suppress my view that people who claim that religion and science are compatible are victims of bad philosophy.  You can obviously defend Darwinism without cozying up to the faithful.  As far as I can see, none of the  new militant fundamentalist atheists have ever threatened to stop attacking creationism if organizations such as the NCSE and AAAS continue their accommodationism.   As P. Z. Myers has pointed out, it is not we atheist/scientists but the religious scientists who threaten to withdraw from the creation/evolution battles unless the other side shuts up about religion.  Do we threaten to withdraw our support if Kenneth Miller, the NCSE, and others continue to espouse accommodationism?  I don’t think so.

On to the bigger fish, who badly need frying.

Update: It looks as if I didn’t have to correct Hannam here.  The comments on his own post, and a note by Olivia Benson, are warming his tuchas.

Did Chris Mooney tell me to shut up?

June 5, 2009 • 6:49 am

Well, Chris Mooney has decided to continue the discussion about the compatibility of science and faith that he and Barbara Forrest began on his Discover blog.  If you’ve followed all this, they criticized me for my “divisiveness” in going after the idea that science and faith are compatible.  I responded to this, saying that since Forrest and Mooney apparently agreed with my views (and my atheism), they were in effect telling me to shut up — imposing upon me (and some of my colleagues) a form of intellectual censorship.  I also pointed out that in 2001 Mooney published a pretty strong piece criticizing faith/science accommodation — a piece diametrically opposed to the views he espouses now.

Mooney responded that he had indeed changed his mind, and has become much more of an accommodationist:

…indeed, I find my work from 2001 on this topic pretty unsatisfying. I guess you could say I’ve changed my view; certainly I’ve changed my emphasis. A lot more reading in philosophy and history has moved me toward a more accomodationist position. So has simple pragmatism; I don’t see what is to be gained by flailing indiscriminately against religion, other than a continuation of the culture wars. That’s especially so when those who flail against religion do so in philosophically or historically unsophisticated ways, or (worse still) with the bile, negativity, and even occasional intolerance that I have encountered in such discussions.

I wrote on Mooney’s blog that I was certainly not flailing indiscriminately against religion, and challenged him to find one example of where I’ve done that, or been uncivil to the faithful (another comment that he implicitly levelled at me).  My criticisms of accommodation have been specific: it waters down science and gives people a mistaken view of what science says. (One of these mistaken views is the widespread claim — viz. Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, etc. — that the evolution of humans or human-like creatures was inevitable). This is hardly “flailing.”

Well, Mooney is now publishing a longer critique of what I said, and (oy vey!), he claims that it will be in two or more parts, and perhaps take several weeks.  My heart is sinking. Part I is here.

I will wait until Mooney publishes all of his several promised critiques of accommodationism before I respond, but let me take up one issue here.

Was Mooney telling me to shut up? Apparently stung by that suggestion, he denied it vehemently:

So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong.

Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.

But of course he was telling me to shut up!  Despite his denial, it’s palpably clear that Mooney (and by extension, Barbara Forrest), was advising me to lie low and let the accommodationists address the compatibility of science and faith.  (In this he joins the AAAS, the National Academies of Science, and the National Center for Science Education).  Rather than repeat what all of Mooney’s posters have agreed on, which is that he was telling me to put a sock in it because my words were “divisive”, let me just steer you to the excellent analysis by Jason Rosenhouse on his EvolutionBlog.  A sample (read the whole thing on his site because there’s a lot more):

Moving on, let’s look a bit more closely at what exactly Coyne did to bring Mooney and Forrest down upon him. He published a book review. In The New Republic. In this review he did not level a single ad hominem attack and praised certain aspects of what Miller and Giberson have done. He then went on to criticize their ideas. Mooney himself, in his follow-up post, wrote

So-I have recently reread Jerry Coyne’s lengthy New Republic piece, which is at the source of some of our debates; and let me say, it is a very good, extensive, thoughtful article.Are you seriously telling me that is poor tactics? A very good, thoughtful, extensive book review in a high-level venue like TNR is just too much for those poor, delicate liberal Christians to handle? Please. Any Christian who has genuinely made his peace with evolution is not going to be driven to the other side because Jerry Coyne offered a few contrary thoughts.

The whole thing is reminiscent of that Jerome Bixby short story “It’s a Good Life” (later made into a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone). That’s the one with the three-year old who has God-like powers, but lacks any sense of judgment or conscience. Whenever someone does something he doesn’t like, the kid simply wills something terrible to happen to that person. Everyone has to go around thinking happy thoughts all the time, because happy thoughts are relaxing to the kid. And everytime the kid throws a tantrum everyone has to say things like, “It’s very good that you did that. We’re all so happy you turned Mr. Smith into that terrible thing.”

That’s what I think of whenever I read essays like Mooney’s. Liberal Christians are playing the role of the kid. Coyne et al are in the role of those doing things the kid doesn’t like. And Mooney et al are in the role of those trying to soothe the kid. “Mr. Coyne didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s very good that you believe religious clerics and holy texts have something valuable to tell us about the workings of nature…”

In one of his follow-up posts Mooney bristled at the idea that he is telling Coyne, in effect, to shut up. Mooney writes

So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong. Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.

No, he didn’t argue that Coyne should shut up. He only argued that writing a very good, thoughtful, extensive article for The New Republic was evidence of how woefully misguided Coyne is about strategy. Which raises the question: where should Coyne have expressed his views? If even a relatively tame article in a high-level venue like TNR is too much for liberal Christians, then what could Coyne have done, short of shutting up, that would have mollified them?

I couldn’t have said it better, so I won’t.  Thanks, Jason, for saving me the trouble.

I don’t want to belabor this “he said/he said” stuff about shutting up, but Mooney’s bizarre denial of what he really said doesn’t bode well for future discourse.  And I’m a bit wary because I don’t think I have much more to say about accommodationism than what I’ve already said on this website or in my New Republic piece.

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!