The following communication appeared in Perspectives on Science
and Christian Faith (the Journal of the American Scientific
Affiliation) Vol 44 No 4, December 1992 pp253, 254
I thought the comments on the value of evolution as an explanatory
framework, the nature of science and the need for an alternative
model (i.e. a "Theory of Creation") if creationists expect
creationism to be considered science are especially appropriate
to some of the current discussions.
Note that Gingerich is a Christian, and he has concerns about the
potential for abuse of evolutionary theory to "support atheistic
and social agendas." But he defends evolution as science because
of its explanatory power.
Further Reflections on "Darwin on Trial"
By Owen Gingerich
Astronomy and History of Science
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Cambridge, MA 02138
For some of the ASA members attending the 1992 Annual Meeting in
Kona, Hawaii, a highlight was a spontaneously organized discussion
session following Phillip Johnson's paper. In the round-robin of
correspondence that has ensued since the meeting, I realize that
some of my own remarks at this session as well as my review of
Johnson's Darwin on Trial (PSCF, June 1992) were not understood
as clearly as I had hoped.
On one point there was unanimous agreement: the issue is not
evolution versus creation. The issue is design versus "accident."
Phillip Johnson has impressively documented [sic] the extent to
which much evolutionary teaching comes with philosophical baggage
claiming that "accident" is a real feature of the world, "proven"
by evolutionary doctrine. In the time since Newton, science has
used mechanistic explanations that dispense with divine intervention
(the "God of the Gaps"), and with considerable success. To the extent
that design represents divine intervention and "accident" does not,
the later explanation can be invoked as part of a mechanistic
explanation. All too frequently teachers in their naivete, or because
of a deliberate atheistic orientation, present their material as if
such a mechanism describes the actual world rather than being simply
a rule of science.
Johnson and I both agree that the teaching must become more nuanced
in its presentation, and we both reject evolutionism as a philosophy.
[Evolutionary science, i.e. "evolutionism," isn't a philosophy.]
But in my reading of Johnson, his strategy appears to invoke a frontal
attack on evolution. I think this is misguided and ultimately
fruitless. My brief is to launch the attack against the atheists who
are using evolution to further their materialistic philosophies [sic],
against those who raise a reasonable structure of scientific
explanation into a naturalistic ideology.
In an upcoming article ("Theistic Naturalism and The Blind Watchmaker,"
scheduled for the March 1993 issue of First Things) Johnson presents
statistics to the effect that only a small minority of Americans accept
the seemingly accidental, zig-zag pathways of evolution as being the
wholly mechanistic way that brought intelligent life into existence.
Part and parcel of Johnson's strategy is to define evolution in those
terms, with the insinuation that anyone who thinks of evolution
otherwise (in fact, the majority) is being duped. And, he maintains,
the mechanisms that could build up the great chain of being, from
microorganisms to fishes to mammals, are so flimsily and inadequately
demonstrated that the whole structure should be dumped.
My counterstrategy would be to accept evolution as a reasonable
theoretical structure for explaining a great many relationships in
the biological world. It gives a very sensible explanation of why
the DNA in yeast is so closely related to the DNA in human chromosomes,
or why the genetic content of chimpanzees is so similar to those of
Homo sapiens. It explains numerous morphological patterns from the
coelocanth to the gorilla. It provides an insight into the many
examples adduced by Darwin for imperfect adaptation. It helps us
understand why Hawaii has so few species compared to the older
continental areas, and why there would be flightless birds on the
islands (now, alas, extinct since the recent introduction of such
predators as the mongoose [and humans]). Johnson's rejoinder is
that distribution of species is not evolution. Of course not, and
I never claimed so; but it is an excellent example of the sort of
empirical evidence that remains mysterious and even capricious in
the absence of some sort of explanatory structure, which the theory
of evolution supplies.
The theory of evolution requires two basic elements: variation and
selection. Darwin was greatly baffled as to how variation could arise,
and his theory was rejected in many scientific quarters until a much
greater understanding of genetics, and ultimately of the chemical
basis of genetics, was achieved. There still is no satisfactory
detailed mechanism for producing large enough, non-lethal variation
of the DNA to produce a new species in a single jump, and it remains
an act of faith on the part of evolutionists that there is some way
for it to have happened bit by bit. As a Christian theist, I believe
that this is part of God's design. Whether God designed the universe
at the outset so that the appropriate mechanisms could arise in the
course of time, or whether God gives an occasional timely input is
something that science, by its very nature, will probably never be
able to fathom. But as a scientist, I accept evolution as the
appropriate explanatory structure to guide research into the origins
and affinities of the kingdoms of living organisms.
In closing my review of Darwin on Trial, I expressed my frustration
by Johnson's apparent lack of appreciation about how science works,
and this seems to be the least understood statement in my review.
In Kona I tried to illustrate what I meant by mentioning Foucault's
pendulum experiment, carried out in Paris on the night of 7-8 January
1851. The next morning there was not dancing in the streets because
finally experimental proof for the earth's rotation had been found
and that Copernicus was right. It was a marvelous demonstration, but
Foucault's pendulum hardly affected the status of Newtonian theory or
heliocentrism. It made no difference: people were already convinced
about a rotating earth because Newtonian physics connected so many
observations together into a coherent structure. I firmly believe that
science concerns itself mostly with building coherent patterns of
explanation, and rather little with proof. Lawyers seek proofs, and
that's why I said that Phil Johnson was approaching science like a
lawyer, somehow supposing that if he could show that evolution has
no proofs, it would crumble. That, I think, is misguided. [Johnson
-IS- a lawyer, and has no formal training in science or biology.]
In the discussion in Hawaii, John Wiester spoke well of the Science
paper by Alan Lightman and me, in which we analyzed anomalies in
science and the resistance of scientists to acknowledging them
(Science, 255, pp. 690-695). But the essential, underlying thesis
of the paper was that anomalies will generally pass unrecognized
until the availability of an alternate theory in which they suddenly
make sense. When I said above that Johnson's approach would probably
be fruitless, I did so in this precise context. Until or unless there
is another acceptable scientific explanation for the temporal and
geographical distribution of plants and animals and their structural
relationships, biological evolution will remain the working paradigm
among scientists. To invoke God's active agency as the explanation
for slow, long-term changes in the biological record will be no more
efficacious as a scientific theory than to say that the moon orbits
the earth or apples fall from trees because of God's sustaining
activity in the universe. While I believe both to be true, they do
not pass as scientific explanations. In reading Darwin on Trial, I
am left with the impression that Johnson wishes they would.
I don't much care what legal/rhetorical mumbo-jumbo Johnson may have
concocted on this -- I was *not* impressed by his understanding of any
scientific issues or discussions in his brief foray on the net. There
is, at base, an issue of null hypotheses, which I do *not* think that
the Johnsons (and, as it appears, the Gingerichs) of the world have
managed to understand.
What theists seem to have difficulty dealing with is the mere possibility
that something could be unconstrained, random, accidental, or otherwise
NOT SUBJECT to specific "directedness." If one wants (as I do, I should
note) to "see" God as providently "directing" the course of evolution,
then one has to ask, critically, "does this exhibit itself in any way
that is objectively describable?" In this context, one ASSUMES (whether
or not one "believes") variation to be "random" and then tests to see if
there is any reason to reject that hypothesis. Without clear evidence of
something NON-accidental, something that statistically *rejects* this null
hypothesis, "accident" is sustained as the default, even if one has no
particular thesis or objective or desire to "explain" anything by accidents.
All of this is purely methodological -- it has ZERO implication about the
beliefs of the people writing the papers in the journals. In order to have
some "non-accidental" explanation, one MUST PROPOSE AND TEST FOR the explan-
ation. With some very recent, very marginal (and as far as I can see,
without any theological implications) instances, one finds evidence of a
not-entirely-random distribution of variation: some populations of bacteria
seem to be "reactively" generating variation in the "direction" needed to
evolve themselves out a tight spots. Very interesting! but not (yet, at
any rate) relevant to issues of theistic "design." Again, a null hypothesis
has to intervene -- is this effect a "second order" perturbation of what is
in most studied instances "accidental" in the sense of showing no biases to
>since Newton, science has used mechanistic explanations that dispense with
>divine intervention (the "God of the Gaps"), and with considerable success.
Yep; such success that we even have a "methodological null hypothesis" or
rule of thumb that divine intervention is a LOUSY "explanation" in ANY
given case -- simply because vastly more informative and fruitful explana-
tions seem to emerge by ruling out that one, which by being taken seriously
tends to UNDERMINE attempts to comprehend the world around us. As in the
case of a normal, experimental null hypothesis, this one *could* be proven
wrong by some clear demonstration that it fails in a public, demonstrable
manner. As far as I know, there is NO SINGLE INSTANCE of what we regard as
the precious residue of natural philosophical explanation of the world in
which an hypothesis of divine intervention has contributed in any way at
all. Given the VAST expansion of natural explanations in the last several
centuries, this strikes me as rock solid support of that methodological
null-hypothesis. Anyone who *wants* to argue otherwise (as Gingerich does)
needs EXAMPLES, DATA, FAILURES of the naturalistic, null-hypothesizing mode
of operation. Does he HAVE any such examples? Hah.
>too frequently teachers in their naivete, or because of a deliberate
>atheistic orientation, present their material as if such a mechanism
>describes the actual world rather than being simply a rule of science.
The "rule of science" is merely that without evidence to the contrary, one
MAY NOT conclude that there is ANYTHING going on (let alone, "design" or
"divine intervention." I don't care HOW unhappy that makes GIngerich --
he has ZERO grounds for complaint.
>Johnson and I both agree that the teaching must become more nuanced in
>its presentation, and we both reject evolutionism as a philosophy.
I don't know what Gingerich means by "evolutionism as a philosophy." It
seems to me, as a Christian, that I must acknowledge the force of empirical
testing which CANNOT (as far as I know) distinguish "divine intervention"
from "nothing at all is going on." If I am to see God as "intervening" in
the "healings" of Revival Meetings, I am going to have to do it at a level
of subtlety that is quite beyond the comprehension of the "evangelists"
involved. I don't think any other conclusion is compatible with intellectual
>My brief is to launch the
>attack against the atheists who are using evolution to further their
>materialistic philosophies, against those who raise a reasonable structure
>of scientific explanation into a naturalistic ideology.
Crap. The Christians have used, for millenia, a now known-bankrupt argument
from design; they (we) are in no position at all to criticize a far more
chaste extrapolation from serious natural science, that there is NO DATA
which points to God. Have some atheists gone overboard on this basis?
Probably. So what? Until Christians cease their FAR more extravagant and
unjustified "use" of natural data, they have no standing to object to other
ideological abuses of science. If I am to continue saying (as I will!)
"The heavens declare the glory of God" I can hardly object if someone else
makes an equally unjustified "leap" in an "opposite" direction!
>My counterstrategy would be to accept evolution as a reasonable theoretical
>structure for explaining a great many relationships in the biological world.
How very nice of Gingerich -- he will defer to the obvious! What is weird
is that he goes on to point out some of what makes evolution so convincing
as a theoretical structure for biology. Pardon me for quoting it, as it is
gratifying to see someone unhappy with "atheistic evolutionism" explicitly
recognizing this basic truth:
>It gives a very sensible explanation of why the DNA in yeast is so closely
>related to the DNA in human chromosomes, or why the genetic content of
>chimpanzees is so similar to those of Homo sapiens. It explains numerous
>morphological patterns from the coelocanth to the gorilla. It provides an
>insight into the many examples adduced by Darwin for imperfect adaptation.
>It helps us understand why Hawaii has so few species compared to the older
>continental areas, and why there would be flightless birds on the islands
With this statement, Gingerich sets himself apart from the fraud and dissim-
ulation of the ICR types, and I must salute him (despite finding him very
muddled, otherwise :-))
BIll has split Gingerich's remarks over two postings. The central point
I want to make is this thing about *not* drawing conclusions when none
are justified -- and what appears to be a misunderstanding on Gingerich's
part that terms like "accident" or "random" have any more specific force
than the denial of non-null hypotheses. Sure, it may disappoint theists
that there is no "objective" correlate to our psalmic or scriptural theme
that God is "evident" in His Creation -- and the more quixotic may indeed
still be *looking* for such correlates. Some may even go into scientific
endeavors in hopes of finding such correlates. I hope they are not greatly
distressed if none appear -- for there seems to be a misunderstanding at
the very foundations if science is aimed at finding what ALWAYS occurs,
while theology is directed at what occurs, in divine power, outside of
expectation. I'll scan the second article, but forbear commenting unless
something substantially different from the tone of this part of Gingerich's
note should appear there.
Michael L. Siemon I say "You are gods, sons of the
firstname.lastname@example.org Most High, all of you; nevertheless
- or - you shall die like men, and fall
email@example.com..com like any prince." Psalm 82:6-7
Organization: Stanford Univ. Earth Sciences
From: salem@pangea.Stanford.EDU (Bruce Salem)
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org> email@example.com ( Tim
>From my readings, it appears that Phillip wants to invoke a highly
>active creator/deity - one who participates intimately in the day-to-day
>happenings of the universe.
That is a definition of "Theism", you wouldn't be surprized if
Johnson attends a church that pushes theism, they are rather common in
this part of the world :-)
> Perhaps this is why he suggests that
>one cannot be a good Christian and be an "evolutionist" at the same time.
The reason for this is that Johnson has said that one cannot
allow for anything other than the transcendant moral authority of
God in Special Creation. That is, that the acceptance of the theology
defines who is a Good Christian for him. Johnson has posted here before
and although I don't have his posts at my fingertips I do recall hearing
this kind of argument.
>For, if "chance" occurances are the rule and God truly does not know
>where his "creation" will lead, then where is divine justice if evil
>or immoral acts are not immediately censored? In other words, if God's
>punishments or rewards (ie. intervention) are not actively metted out
>in this world then much of the old and new testament stories must
>be false. The underpinnings of evolutionary theory (and the rest of
>science, for that matter), are based on the assumption that direct
>divine intervention does not occur: There are no "signs" (like
>loaves of bread), or direction from God. This scenario, I think, Phillip
>would like to reject.
Yes, this is pretty main stream control freak Christianity,
you know. Now, of course, there are many fine people who profess
Christianity who have no problem with evolution or its supposed implications
for morals, they are not bothered by the appearent separation or origens
from the moral messages of the Bible. Maybe this is because they are not
trying to set themselves up as moral authorities attempting to get control
over the conduct, or the minds perhaps, of other prople.
>On the other hand, the possibility that God may have "started" the
>world in a single, billiard-like push that eventually led to the evolution
>of humans (and then backed off to watch the balls roll), might also
>be objectionable to Johnson. In this case, there is no free will
>because we are only part of a predetermined program. Divine punishment
>or reward would be both meaningless and unfair in such a world.
This is Deism. God starts the universe and its laws and backs off.
The world is a rational mechanism, nature, natural. Evolution is possible.
Johnson makes the mistake many people who are basically ignorant of science
do in assuming that the world as described by science offers no degrees of
freedom. This is clearely wrong. Many of the laws of science are statistical
because we cannot characterize the universe in deterministic and linear terms
and never will be able to. The free will matter is a staw man even in a
completely nondeified universe. So God is not necessary to offer us choice
and hence morality, we have choice by virture of our nature and our problem
is not needing absolute moral standards given by force of authority.
>Instead, it appears that Johnson is opting for a mechanism of "managed
>humanity." In this case, God actively oversees the world. Free will
>exists but divine feedback occurs at the individual level. Sinners
>are blighted (eg. AIDS - nevermind spouses, children and hemophiliacs),
>and the righteous are rewarded (eg. law degrees). So, in addition to
>heavenly rewards, God also makes his will pretty damn clear while
>people are alive. Free will and clear signs leave no excuses for bad
Yeah, there is a connection here with Johnson being a lawyer. Does
anyone what kind of law he does. I'll guess contracts :-) This is the
control freak litany. The basic idea if only we lay down the law, I'll
bet J. sees the Surpreme Court Justices rendering their decisions on
stone tablets :-), then everyone will fall into place.
>This still leaves me at a loss however, as to why evolutionary mechanisms
>are reviled by Phillip under this last scenario (which he clearly favors).
>Why wouldn't the Big Bang and the rest of planetary evolution prove
I think that the reason Evolution gets so much negative attention
from moralistic Christians is that it is the chief competition for the
cherished teleology that gives them moral authority. Special Creation is
about God giving to Mankind his transcendant law. Any competing explaination
of origins which sidesteps this teleology is feared because with it
the whole argument by appeal to authority in Genesis as used by the
Christian control freaks is undermined. This has nothing to do whatever
with the scientific merits of evolution, pro or con, although some facts
and an argument based on emperical facts is an appeal to reason.
I am not characterizing all Christians or people of other
religions with this view, only a few, the Fundementalists, Inerrants,
and some of the Law and Order sects and cults, one might have to
include the Southern Baptist Convention, or have they come to their
senses since 1985 when the fundies took over their divinity schools?
This overgeneralization would be like calling all Christians members
of the Davidian Branch. There is a deep connection between mainstream
Christians and David Koresh when normal community leads to authoritarianism
and isolation, and there are closer connections between small churches
and the nature of the cult at Waco. I have commented before on the
partiarchial and authoritarian tendancies common to Christianity, Judaism,
and Islam where it concerns the use of Scripture primarily as law, as
literal history, and the subsequent weakening of its spiritual message
in favor of control over people.
>Phillip Johnson continually mentions the underlying biases of evolutionary
>theorists, but what are his? Is there any writing of his where he
>describes his underlying beliefs and assumptions? I'd be very interested
>in seeing this.
There were a series of posts from within the year that cover the
views you have mentioned and which I have been discussing. As one would
expect, Johnson's writings here are brief tracts in which he presents his
views more via rhetoric and invective than by comprehension. Most of
his comments about evolution entail misunderstanding, but as it is
pretty easy to see in his writings the underlying prejudices, one may
identify them, as I think I have been able to do here.
What I have said here is pretty much how I replied to Johnson's
posts when I saw them. He posted here and did not reply to too much. I
never got any direct reply, so I had free reign to pick Johnson's