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Evolution and Evolutionism

by Huston Smith

Dr. Smith is professor of religion at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. This article is adapted from his new book, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (Crossroad).This article appeared in the Christian Century July 7-14, 1982, p.755. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Not since the days of Clarence Darrow and the “monkey trial” has America been so caught up in the debate over human origins. Now as then the issue has polarized our nation. It did so conspicuously this past winter, when spokespersons for mainline churches, the scientific establishment and the universities lined up behind the American Civil Liberties Union. Together they knocked out of Arkansas’s statutes the bill that would have required creationism to be taught alongside evolution in the public schools.

I rooted for the ACLU during that trial, but my rejoicing over its victory was more subdued than that of most of my friends. Because the issues are important and unresolved, I wish to explain my response.

Between the creationists’ claims concerning human origins and those of neo-Darwinists, truth is more evenly divided than our nation realizes. The creationist notion that our planet is no more than 10,000 years old is so strained that I have difficulty taking it seriously; on this point I side solidly with the liberals. But what the liberals do not see is that the neo-Darwinist account of how we got here is not much stronger.

In addition to being logically flawed, neo-Darwinism has unfortunate psychological consequences. Yet it is being taught as “gospel truth”; the lip service being paid to science’s fallibility does little to lessen neo-Darwinism’s impact. The upshot is that the civil liberties of those who disagree with the theory are being compromised. Of this situation the ACLU and its backers seem to have little inkling.

Before I proceed to the central issue, three short quotations will set out the psychological consequences of teaching neo-Darwinism.

First, “If anything characterizes ‘modernity,’ it is loss of faith in transcendence” (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 1978).

Second, “There is no doubt that in developed societies education has contributed to the decline of religious belief” (Edward Norman, in Christianity and the World Order [Oxford University Press, 1976]).

Third, one reason education undoes belief is its teaching of evolution; Darwin’s own drift from orthodoxy to agnosticism was symptomatic. Martin Lings is probably right in saying that “more cases of loss of religious faith are to be traced to the theory of evolution . . . than to anything else” (Studies in Comparative Religion, Winter 1970).

The Civil Liberties Union’s handling of the creationist case abets the historical drift these quotations point to with logic that runs roughly as follows:

Major premise: Creationism is religion rather than science; therefore, according to the principle of separation of church and state, creationism may not be taught in public schools.

Minor premise: The science which is and should be taught our children “must be explanatory [and] rely exclusively upon the workings of natural law” (ACLU’s witness Michael Ruse, a Canadian philosopher of science, as quoted in Civil Liberties, February 1982).

Unspoken conclusion: The only explanation for human existence that public schools may teach is a natural-law theory which precludes in principle, as we shall see, even the possibility of (a) purpose and (b) intervention in the workings of the observable universe.

Restated to bring out its practical import, the ACLU position is that it is science’s responsibility to explain things by natural laws. The alternative to such natural explanations is supernatural ones. Thus, insofar as religion involves the supernatural, church-state separation requires that only irreligious explanations of human origins may be taught our children. Already we may be wondering if this is what our forebears intended by the First Amendment. The irony is that evolutionists have no plausible theory to pit against religious accounts of human origins. Their discoveries show a history of evolutionary advance but do not explain how or why that advance occurred.

This brings me to my central point. The notion of evolution harbors an ambiguity which moderns have finessed rather than faced. On the one hand, the word “evolution” describes life’s advance; on the other, it claims to explain that advance. If these two meanings part company, with which should the word side?

As description -- of the fossil record and of the age, continuities and discontinuities in life forms that the record discloses -- evolution is true and creationism mistaken. But as an explanation (let’s call this evolutionism), neo-Darwinism is largely a failure, and one that has the important psychological consequences noted above. This crucial distinction is not being drawn today. As a result we witness a standoff, a shouting match between the scientific establishment and the fundamentalists, each of which has hold of a half-truth and a partial error.

Neo-Darwinism’s proponents do not present it as a mere description of life’s journey on this planet; they claim that it is a theory explaining that journey. Specifically, neo-Darwinists claim that natural selection working on chance mutations accounts for what has occurred. But “natural selection” turns out to be a tautology, while the word “chance” denotes an occurrence that is inexplicable. A theory that claims to explain while standing with one foot on a tautology and the other in an explanatory void is in trouble.

Take “natural selection” first. The phrase encapsulates the argument that the pressure of populations on environments results in the survival of the fittest. But as no criterion for “fittest” has been found to be workable other than “the ones who survive,” the theory is circular. As the late C. H. Waddington wrote, “Survival . . . denotes nothing more than leaving most offspring. The general principle of natural selection . . merely amounts to the statement that the individuals which leave most offspring are those which leave most offspring. It is a tautology” (The Strategy of the Genes [Allen & Unwin, 1957]). E. 0. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) reiterates this point and updates the support for it.

As for “chance mutations,” chance is the opposite of having a cause; something that happens by chance admits of no reason or purpose for its occurrence. A scientist would be happy to discover a “reason” that would replace chance, but he or she is debarred by the rules of the scientific enterprise from introducing one that is intelligently purposive. For, in the words of Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity, “The cornerstone of scientific method is . . . the systematic denial that ‘true’ knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of. . . ‘purpose.’” The determination with which evolutionists insist that chance be read as the opposite of purpose can be seen in the way they speak of “blind” and “pure” chance, when there are no such things in science itself. In science, chance is a number.

If we step out of the strictures of science, however, there is an alternative to this nonpurposive view of chance: it could be an occurrence whose cause lies outside the world of discourse in which the event is considered. If a bird found birdseed sprinkled on the snow only when a forest ranger passed its way and the ranger came only at night while the bird was asleep, the bird would doubtless attribute the seeds’ appearance as “due to” chance. (Note the way “due to” seems to produce a cause where none is offered.) According to this second reading, the combination of chance and necessity -- that is, of random mutations joined to natural selection -- “is precisely just the necessary and sufficient condition required for any who would wish to assert that the evolutionary process is . . . purposive,” as physicist and Episcopal priest William Pollard pointed out in his “Critique of Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity” (Soundings, Winter 1973).

“The introduction of probability [as the specification of chance’s perimeters] into scientific description constitutes the one case in which science expressly renounces an explanation in terms of natural causes,” Pollard went on to say. But evolutionary theory then faces the statistical improbabilities that pepper life’s ascent. It used to be argued that geological ages are so interminable that they allow time for anything and everything to happen. That notion required getting used to, but as long as it was thought of in single numbers (analogous to the number 26, say, turning up on a roulette wheel exactly when it was needed in a given evolutionary thrust), it could be accepted.

But we now see that significant organic changes require that innumerable component developments occur simultaneously and independently in bones, nerves, muscles, arteries and the like. These requirements escalate the demand on probability theory astronomically. It would be like having 26 come up simultaneously on ten or 15 tables in the same casino, followed by all the tables reporting 27, 28 and 29 in lockstep progression; more time than the earth has existed would be needed to account for the sequences that have occurred. Moreover, the number of generations through which a large number of immediately disadvantageous variations would have had to persist in order to turn reptiles into birds, say  -- scales into feathers, solid bones into hollow tubes, the dispersion of air sacs to various parts of the body, the development of shoulder muscles and bones to athletic proportions, to say nothing of conversion to a totally different biochemistry of elimination and the changeover from coldblooded to warm -- makes the notion of chance working alone preposterous. As Professor Pierre Grasse, who for 30 years held the chair in evolution at the Sorbonne, has written:

The probability of dust carried by the wind reproducing Dürer’s “Melancholia” is less infinitesimal than the probability of copy errors in the DNA molecules leading to the formation of the eye; besides, these errors had no relationship whatsoever with the function that the eye would have to perform or was starting to perform. There is no law against daydreaming, but science must not indulge in it [Evolution of Living Organisms (Academic Press, 1977)].

Professor Wickramasinghe of the department of applied mathematics and astronomy at Cardiff, Wales, did not take the stand for the creationists in Arkansas out of sympathy for their alternative scenario. A non-Christian from Sri Lanka, the professor said that it was for him not a question of the Bible’s inerrancy; he didn’t believe in the Bible at all. He testified for the creationists solely because he felt it was important to puncture neo-Darwinism’s pretenses. “Some 2,000 or so enzymes are known to be crucial for life,” he reported, and continued:

At a conservative estimate, say 15 Sites per enzyme must be fixed to be filled by particular amino acids for proper biological function. . . [T]he probability of discovering this set by random shuffling is one in 1040,000, a number that exceeds by many powers of 10 the number of all atoms in the entire observable universe [Science News, Vol. 121 (January 16, 1982)].

If we want to retain our belief in chance, obviously something is going to have to intervene to reduce it to conceivable bounds. This area is where the search goes on today. Vocabularies proliferate as repressor genes, corepressors and aporepressors, modifier and switch genes, operator genes that activate other genes, cistrons and operons that constitute subsystems of interacting genes -- even genes that regulate the rate of mutation in other genes -- are invoked. Anything to narrow unlimited chance to chance within conceivable proportions. On a different front, with the displacement of Darwin’s gradualism by the “punctuational” model, it is now conceded that the “missing links” between most species will not be found. It all happened too fast. “Most change has taken place so rapidly and in such confined geographic areas that it is simply not documented by our imperfect fossil record,” according to Steven Stanley (“Darwin Done Over,” the Sciences, October 1981).

From The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, which can be taken to summarize intellectual orthodoxy at the time of its publication in 1979, one would gather that neo-Darwinian theory is as settled as Newtonian theory. The Britannica tells us that “evolution is accepted by all biologists and natural selection is recognized as its cause. . . . Objections . . . have come from theological and, for a time, from political standpoints” (Vol. 7). Who would suspect from this statement that biologists of the stature of Ludwig von Bertalanffy had been writing: “I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in ‘hard’ science has become a dogma can only be explained on sociological grounds”? Or that Arthur Koestler’s investigation into the subject led him to conclude that neo-Darwinism is “a citadel in ruins” (Janus: A Summing Up [Random House, 1978])? Koestler compares Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity to Custer’s Last Stand. Even Harvard’s spokesman for evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, concedes in the April 23 issue of Science that “neither of Darwinism’s two central themes will survive in their strict formulation.”

As the creationists continue to press differently nuanced bills in 20 or so state legislatures, we can expect social pressure to continue to bear on the evolutionism issue. The pressure buttresses certain errors, but in doing so forces others into the open. The civil libertarians have not recognized the problem: by their lights, the liberties of the creationists and others who hold other-than-naturalistic views of human origins are not being infringed upon because only scientific truth is arrayed against them.

The creationists, with all their literalist excesses, are performing a public service for us. It is as though an excess on the science front -- scientism, that over-extrapolation from the findings of science which Nobel laureate Elias Canetti says has “grabbed our century by the throat” -- has given political leverage to an opposite excess on the religious front: fundamentalism.

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica article cited above tells us that “Darwin did two things; he showed that evolution was in fact contradicting scriptural legends of creation and that its cause, natural selection, was automatic, with no room for divine guidance or design.” Do biologists really want to take on issues like “creation,” “divine guidance” and “divine design”? It is time that the negative theological conclusions implicit in the neo-Darwinism I have here called evolutionism -- and the shaky status of that theory itself -- be brought into the open and separated from what the fossil record actually shows: that in the course of millions of years on earth, life has indeed advanced.


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