In the Beginning
Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, is that rare bird, a theologically literate scientist. He was a major expert witness, along with the theologian Langdon Gilkey, in the 1981 test case of the state law (signed by then Governor Bill Clinton) which permitted the teaching of creation science in the Arkansas school system. Ruse’s new book assumes that some version of Darwinism is true and then goes on to give an affirmative answer to his title’s questioncan a Darwinian be a Christian? He thus takes issue with all thosescientists like Richard Dawkins, William B. Provine and Edward O. Wilson, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Daniel C. Dennett, and the legal scholar Phillip Johnsonwho claim that you can’t be a Darwinian and a person of faith at the same time. Science and religion, as they view things, must inevitably conflict. Or, as Stephen Jay Gould holds, the questions science and religion ask are so different that there can be no overlap or connection between them.
In contrast, Ruse defends the classic theological position, which is that of both Catholics and mainline Protestants, that finds a fundamental congruence between science and faith. Yes, there will be tensions between reason and faith, but as Galileo once proposed, there can be no conflict in principle. The bulk of Ruse’s book is concerned to lay out where Darwinism and Christianity may be thought to contradict each otherin their different accounts of origins, human nature and evil, for instance, or in the conflict between naturalism and miracle, or the challenge of selfish genes (sociobiology) to Christian ethics. Contrasts there are, but the alleged contradictions, Ruse argues, are misconceptions. Natural selection and divine providence are not to be opposed; they are explanations that take place at different conceptual levels, and hence Ruse can argue along with philosopher Keith Ward of Oxford University that there is every reason to think that a scientific evolutionary account and a religious belief in a guiding creative force are not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing.
Ruse won me over immediately by demythologizing two classic tales of the science-religion conflict. The first is the legendary confrontation in 1860 between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley, bulldog for the new theory of evolution, in which Huxley supposedly bloodied the stuffy bishop and champion of biblical authority. The second story involves the encounter between the spellbinding biblical literalist William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (portrayed, respectively, by Frederick March and Spencer Tracy in the film Inherit the Wind) defending the agnostic John Thomas Scopes in the Tennessee monkey trial of the early 1920’s. Reporting for the Baltimore Sun, H. L. Mencken sold a lot of newspapers by making a laughing stock of Bryan in the Scopes trial, but again, the truth is that Bryan never subscribed to a narrow reading of Genesis, and four ordained clergymen had been ready to speak on Scopes’ behalf if the judge had only allowed it. The truth of the Wilberforce-Huxley debate, on the other hand, says Ruse, is that everybody enjoyed himself immensely, and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards.
The perceived conflicts between Darwinism and religion, however, are not as easily dismissed as the Wilberforce-Huxley debate. The virtue of Ruse’s book is that, one by one, he takes up all the serious questions that Darwinism can pose to the Christian worldview and systematically answers them. Is there a necessary conflict between the biblical account of origins in the first chapters of Genesis and the notion of the Big Bang and the Haldane-Oparin theory of how organic life began on a 4.5 billion-year-old earth? Is Darwinism bound to a materialistic theory, reducing everything to molecules and atoms, and therefore denying doctrines of the imagodei and an immortal soul? Is Darwinism’s commitment to the ubiquity of lawand to naturalismopposed to Christianity’s commitment to the Virgin birth, turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000 or raising the dead? Ruse draws a useful distinction here between methodological reductionism and naturalism, and metaphysical reductionism and naturalism. Believers can work with the former, he suggests, but must rightly object to the dogmatism of the latter.
Then there are the questions that relate more directly to Christian ethics. Is natural selection incompatible with the intervention of an intelligent Designer? Does the struggle for existence necessarily translate into social Darwinisma brutal laissez faire socioeconomic system that excludes Christian compassion? How is it that human-caused evil comes into existence? Do our genes make us do it? Is altruism of Mother Teresa’s kind ruled out by the fact that our social behavior bears some similarity to that of an ant colony? (One of Ruse’s best chapters is devoted to a careful analysis of Edward O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology.) We are not marionettes, writes Ruse, dancing blindly to the tune of our DNA. That is the fate of the hymenoptera. The whole point about morality, and the reason a full-blooded genetic determinism will not work...is that we humans have taken an evolutionary route for which such simple determinism would be fatal.
Then there is the theodicy question: When things go wrong, as they often do with chance mutation, must God be held accountable? There is no standard Darwinian response to this question, but even for hard-line atheists like the biologist Richard Dawkins, it can hardly be said that there would have been any alternative to the trial and error of evolutionary changeeven for God. Not even God, in other words, can be expected to do the impossible; God cannot make two plus two equal five. Similarly, once God decided to create, God had to do so through a series of small, incremental alterations, and that being so, God is necessarily locked into a path that involves physical evil, the inevitable losses at the core of the struggle for existence. For every beneficial mutation, there will be hundreds of random changes that spell doom. Moreover, natural selection acts to keep deleterious mutations around. Sickle cell anemia, for instance, stays in the population because its carriers have a natural immunity to malaria. This is simply the price we pay for an adaptive process that has resulted in something as amazing as the human brain.
Darwinism concentrates the mind on the problem of physical evil, and to a degree explains how this evil happens. But it hardly has an answer to Dostoevsky’s question about whether eternal happiness can be worth the needless suffering of one small child. The most Darwinism can offer is an added reason to be modest about questions like this. We are, after all, primates who have come down out of the trees into the (hunting and gathering) garbage and offal business. As a Darwinian, Ruse doubts our selection-based powers to fathom the ultimate mystery of existence, much less the mystery of evil.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “In the Beginning,” in the December 9, 2000, issue.