Darwin Re-Crucified

Why Are So Many Afraid of Naturalism?

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 2.


A disturbing new dimension has emerged in the creation/evolution controversy. The crusade against Darwinism is no longer the sole preserve of fundamentalist Christians, for many influential religious conservatives have now joined in the fray. One hundred sixteen years after Darwin's death, efforts to crucify him continue unabated. The main complaint of religious conservatives is that the theory of evolution is allied with naturalism, and this is inconsistent with their theistic faith.

Mainstream Creationism

Until recently the creationists' campaign had been marginalized in America. It had been predominantly identified with Christian fundamentalists who interpret the Bible literally: the earth, they claim, was created 10,000 years ago ex nihilo! Recently I visited the Creationist Museum near San Diego along with students and professors of the Center for Inquiry Institute, which was holding seminars in San Diego on Creation/Evolution and the History and Philosophy of Skepticism. Included in the delegation were Jere Lipps, distinguished paleontologist from Berkeley, and Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. Scott has waged an heroic campaign against the creationists' demand that "creation science" be taught in the public schools side by side with evolution.

We were appalled by what we viewed. Many of the exhibitions displayed biblical quotations masking as "creation science" interspersed with numerous attacks on John Dewey, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and other secular humanists. The exhibit of Noah's Ark was hilarious: how Noah could handle the manure factor on board was never adequately explained. It did not explain how Noah could squeeze two dinosaurs on board or transport kangaroos from Australia, or how the flood could recede so rapidly to allow the millions of species aboard to descend onto dry land - without divine miracles!

There are now new efforts by religious conservatives to crucify Darwin. Joining in the hallelujah chorus are writers as diverse as Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, Jr., Robert Bork, and Phillip Johnson. Although these conservative critics reject the literal interpretation of the Bible, they believe that we need to supplement evolutionary theory with some form of "intelligent design." They reject the young-earth theory, given the strong evidence from geology that the earth is at least 4.5 billion years old. Thus, they are willing to accept some form of evolution; but they insist that creation is a factor, either at the beginning of the universe and/or at several important junctures, when God intervened in the process. Polls indicate that these views are now held by a majority of Americans, who apparently are willing to accept both evolution and creation.

The political pressures on scientists and teachers to acquiesce to religious criticisms are thus very great. Unfortunately, the National Association of Biology Teachers meeting in late 1997 modified an earlier statement defending evolution in order to accommodate theism. The original statement read as follows:

The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

At the behest of two theologians, Alvin Plantinga and Houston Smith, and after considerable debate, they deleted the words unsupervised and impersonal to leave room for divine intervention. Many proponents of evolution agreed to the change because they did not wish to offend religious sensibilities; they wished to make it possible to do evolution science without raising the war cry that it was atheistic. Whether this strategy was wise remains to be seen.

Symptomatic of the intensified attacks on Darwinism now occurring is the recent two-hour "Firing Line" debate on Public Broadcasting System television that aired in December 1997. The question of the debate was: "Resolved: The evolutionists should acknowledge creation." The affirmative was defended by William F. Buckley, Jr., noted Roman Catholic conservative; Phillip Johnson, Professor of Law at Berkeley; Michael Behe, Associate Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University; and David Berlinski, author of a controversial article, "The Deniable Darwin," in Commentary. Arguing for the negative were Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Eugenie Scott, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology; Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown; and Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy and Zoology at Guelph University. The burning issue was whether Darwin's theory of evolution implied naturalism and atheism, and whether it needs to be supplemented by some form of creationism.

Buckley did not deny evolution; he only wished to argue that evolutionists "should acknowledge creation as an explanation for cosmic and biological happenings." Pope John Paul II recently reiterated the Roman Catholic Church's support of evolution. The pope qualified this, however. At a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1997, he said that, although the Church recognizes the physical continuity between humans and nature, the spiritual soul is "immediately created by God" and the "transition into the spiritual" cannot be observed or measured by science.

Those who defended the affirmative side of the debate sought to do so by finding gaps in Darwinian explanations. Phillip Johnson, author of a series of books attacking Darwin, pointed out that there are arguments among scientists about the various kinds of mechanisms at work in the evolutionary process - for example between Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould, about the importance of natural selection versus punctuated equilibrium. What especially exercised Johnson is the fact that many people use Darwin as an argument for naturalism and atheistic materialism.

Michael Behe, author of the recent book Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (1996), said that he supported evolution as a fact, yet he wished to leave room for intelligent-design theory. Such design is manifested, he said, in the creation of the universe, in the fact that life is "finely tuned," and especially in the irreducible complexity of cells. His argument was that Darwinian natural selection fails to account for the evolution of complex biochemical machinery found in every living cell.

The negative team in the debate sought to demonstrate that evolution theory is so well supported by converging lines of evidence from a wide range of sciences that it would be difficult to deny. In response to Phillip Johnson, Eugenie Scott argued that descent with modification and the emergence and extinction of species found in the fossil record can be explained by natural selection, differential reproduction, genetic mutation, adaptation, and other natural processes, without postulating intelligent design. She maintained that it is possible for evolutionary scientists to describe how nature evolves without answering the question of why it evolved and whether or not there is a creator.

Kenneth Miller responded to Michael Behe by showing that evolution does operate on the molecular level, that the so-called irreducibly complex cellular systems can be explained by it, and that intelligent design is an unnecessary postulation. Paradoxically, Miller maintained that, although he excludes intelligent design from biology, he personally shared Buckley's religious commitment, and that he was not an atheist.

Barry Lynn, an ardent evolutionist, likewise maintained that he was a Christian, though he rejected both creationism and the argument from design within evolutionary theory. Regrettably, none of the participants in the debate would openly come out for naturalism.

Defending Naturalism

Indeed, there are few in America today who will defend naturalism per se; though they may hold it privately, they are reluctant to admit to it publicly.

We may ask, What do we mean by naturalism? There are at least three senses. First, naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations. On this ground, to invoke an intelligent designer or creator is inadmissible. Natural science was able to develop freely in the sixteenth century only when it abandoned occult explanations. Similarly, the Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century was so impressive because it sought naturalistic explanations for biological phenomena.

There is a second meaning of naturalism, which is as a generalized description of the universe. According to the naturalists, nature is best accounted for by reference to material principles, i.e., by mass and energy and physical-chemical properties as encountered in diverse contexts of inquiry. This is a nonreductive naturalism, for although nature is physical-chemical at root, we need to deal with natural processes on various levels of observation and complexity: electrons and molecules, cells and organisms, flowers and trees, psychological cognition and perception, social institutions, and culture. We cannot at this time reduce the concepts and explanations of psychology, economic politics, sociology, or anthropology to physics and chemistry, but need to leave room for naturalistic explanations on various levels of complexity.

But to so argue does not entail "spirit" or "purpose" in nature, and least of all a divine being for which there is insufficient evidence. The big-bang theory in physics and astronomy is a useful hypothesis introduced to explain a receding universe; it does not imply a creator or designer. To do so is to leap outside of the naturalistic universe. Thus, naturalists are skeptics, atheists, or agnostics about the God question; they reject the existence of the "soul" or belief that it survives the death of the body.

The philosophy of materialism had been developed historically prior to the emergence of modern science. It was attacked by some philosophers because it seemed based on purely abstract metaphysical speculation. Today, it is possible to defend the above form of naturalism, i.e., nonreductive materialism, on empirical scientific grounds. Naturalism thus provides a cosmic interpretation of nature. The universe is basically physical-chemical or material in structure, it is evolving in time; human life is continuous with other natural processes and can be explained in terms of them. To defend naturalism today is to say something significant, for it is an alternative to supernaturalism, which is, in the last analysis, based on a literature of faith and piety, supported by powerful religious institutions, and is unsupported by scientific evidence. It is time, in my view, that scientists defend naturalism forthrightly as the most appropriate generalization of what we have discovered about nature, without retreating into neutral agnosticism or blind faith.

Third, naturalism has an ethical dimension; for it relates human values and principles to the desires, interests, and needs of human beings. The critics of naturalistic ethics attempt to derive ethical values and principles from theological premises. Naturalistic ethics, by contrast, rejects the idea that you have to believe in God in order to be moral. If there is no evidence for a divine plan in the universe at large, then humans are responsible for their own destinies individually and socially. We have the opportunity to give life new meaning without mythological illusions, and to achieve a better life here and now. Naturalistic humanists believe that, although our ethical values are relative to human experience, some degree of objectivity is possible in ethics without depending on purely subjectivistic caprice. They maintain that it is possible to reconstruct our ethical values in the light of rational scientific inquiry.

The new critics of Darwinism properly perceive that, if the implications of Darwinism are fully accepted, this would indeed mean a basic change in our outlook of who we are, what we are, and also how we ought to live. Darwin's "most dangerous idea" is that natural selection and other causal factors provide a more adequate explanation for the descent of humans than the postulation of divine fiat or design. The efforts to re-crucify Darwin now underway, in my judgment, are motivated by fear. I submit that it is important that scientists and skeptics defend naturalism, not only as a method of inquiry, but as a scientific account of the cosmos and our place within it, and the basis for a new humanistic ethics appropriate to the world community. "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves," says Humanist Manifesto II. To realize this and accept it with courage could be the harbinger of a new, creative, moral future for humankind.


Paul Kurtz is Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the author of more than 30 books. His latest is The Courage to Become (Praeger/Greenwood, 1997).