Sunday, May 28, 2017

Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? by Michael Ruse (Book Review #15 of 2017)



Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?  The Relationship Between Science and Religion by Michael Ruse

I have read a number of books (and listened to a large number of podcasts over the years) ranging from physics to Christian apologetics that overlap with issues in this book. I'd ask the reader not consider my review of this book without first interacting with any number of those I include on the list at the bottom of this review. I bought this for a quarter at a library discard sale.

Ruse is a philosopher who delves in biological philosophy. He got some notoriety in the early 1980s testifying against Arkansas' legislated creation science curriculum, arguing that it was not science. I had read his discussion with Gary Cutting in 2014 about whether evolution explained religious beliefs. He is polite with Richard Dawkins in this book but has been highly critical of him elsewhere.

Even though the author ultimately answers his own question with "absolutely!" the quote isn't really supported by the rest of the book where he provides plenty of qualifications to that statement. The real answer would be "It depends." It depends on what is meant by "Darwinian" and "Christian." Unfortunately, Ruse makes a critical error about Christianity that undermines the entire purpose of his book: One's beliefs on the origins of the earth and biological processes do not determine whether or not one is a Christian. Christianity hinges on the belief that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 for may be the earliest of Christian creeds). As the Apostle Paul puts it (ESV):

"13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied."

Ruse dances around the resurrection, speaking only of the belief that Jesus died for the world's sins. Everyone dies, it's a biological inevitability. But resurrection requires something that would seem biologically impossible. Once you have a resurrection, then you can begin to work backwards into examining what implications that fact has for history before it. (Plenty of philosophers over the last 2,000 years have written on the rational plausibility of a resurrection given the evidence compared to other events in recorded history we consider to have actually happened.)

Ruse seems to think that Christians believe miracles must be interventions/violations of Natural Law and that God usually leaves everything to follow a pre-designed process. This makes God the galaxy's watchmaker who sometimes intervenes to set the clock. But others of us believe God as the Bible actually describes him-- that even the "natural" processes we see are held together every minute by the Creator (see Colossians 1:17). Water retains its wetness, leaves respire, the earth rotates, because God is at every instant, in every molecule, making it so. Therefore, there are no "miracles" because it is all, at every moment, miraculous. If God can keep water wet, know every sparrow that falls, how much different is it to raise someone from the dead? So, when finches of the same species are separated on different islands and scientists observe how their beaks change over time to accomodate for their available food supply, it may not come as a surprise. Their beaks were always held together by God. When they die of some plague, we understand that that, too, is somehow held together by God in the midst of the effects of sin as a consequence of creation's rebellion against God. Why did God create man He knew would rebel? Because this is His story.

You might scoff at the above paragraph, but my point is that is basic Christian theology that Ruse seems to be unaware of, or perhaps he's confused by Plantinga's explanations of it (p. 104). If he had been, perhaps he wouldn't dismiss fundamentalists of not fulling utilizing their mental faculties, or blame 19th century American evangelicalism for believing in a God who is living and active (p. 57-58). In his book The Lie, Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis and Ark Park fame) writes that one can be a Darwinian and a Christian, but that the position is untenable once properly examined and understood. "(C)reationists and evolutionists all have the same facts. Therefore, what we are really talking about are different interpretations of these same facts," (Ham, 16). I don't know any Christians, evangelical or otherwise, who disregard the importance of genes and heredity, who disregard that bacteria mutates and evolves such that new medicines have to be developed to kill them, etc. There have been plenty of Christian astrophysicists, biologists, anthropologists, etc. through the centuries with plenty of books written on the subject of the interaction of science with Christian belief. So, I regard Ruse's attempt to say Christians disregard the subject (p. 65-67) as a pure straw man argument.

Really, the scope of this book is too narrow. When dealing with origins you might as well begin with "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Ruse remarks that Darwin intentionally remained silent on the origin of life "And very succesful he was in his strategy" (p. 61). Dawkins and Huxley are far "less reticent" to be forthright on the issue. Having reviewed the astrobiologist David Deamer's book First Life, examining various hypotheses of how life began in the chemical pools of early earth, I am pretty certain there is not much certainty as to how life began (and Ruse acknowledges similarly on p. 64). Ruse admits that if you hold to the demands of "contemporary Darwinism" then "a Darwinian cannot be a genuine Christian" (p. 62). He later claims that "no sound argument has been mounted showing that Darwinism implies atheism," writing that it has been "smuggled in, and then given an evolutionary gloss" (p. 128). Neo-Darwinists have thus been critical of this book on this point. By not addressing the larger question of origins, Ruse's claim that Darwinism does not imply atheism is groundless.

Another example of limiting the scope are Ruse's thoughts on whether Darwinism can embrace the idea of a soul and what Darwinism and Christianity say about contingency. Ruse does some hand-waving on the soul issue (p. 81-82) because he does not want to admit it logically must be a nonsensical concept to a naturalist. Contingency is interesting because "On the Darwinian picture, there is simply no guarantee that human or humanlike createures...would evolve. Indeed, the chances seem slim indeed" (p. 84). Gould credited our existence to "our lucky stars," and Ruse restricts the discussion purely to biology and ignores that string theorists use the multiverse to get around the "lucky" part-- there are bound to be an infinite number of universes worlds with and without humans, even though we cannot test the idea scientifically (see quantum loop gravity proponent Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics). Ruse proposes an "Augustinian solution" that God foreknew man would evolve even though there were no guarantees of it. Ruse would adopt a B-theory of tenseless time that God operates outside of. He is really not adding much to the in-house Church debate about God's relationship to time. Again, it misses the larger question-- where did anything, including time, come from? The book refers often to "the job" of natural selection, but why does that process even exist?

Ruse only gets to the question of why anything exists in his Chapter Eight digression on extraterrestrial life. He summarizes Simpson's argument that "There is absolutely no reason to think--and many reasons not to think-- that humans will ever appear again on Earth or an any other planet," positing that the conditions for life are so "unique" as not to be found elsewhere (p. 147). But Ruse never stops to ask "Well, then, why or how do any of us exist?" After saying some Darwinists acknowledge a slim chance of some sort of (likely non-intelligent) life elsewhere, he pivots to theological implications. Again, ignorant of basic biblical theology that the universe is part of creation, is under the same curse of sin, and that all of it "cries out for salvation" because Christ died once for all (Romans 8, Hebrews 10). Hence, the digression is a distraction.

Darwinists are apparently "badly split on the question of whether or not the path of evolution is progressive" (p. 88). There really is nothing in the theory of evolution that says we have to progress. Traits that help us adapt and which survive via selection may cause us all to die when surrounding conditions change (asteroid, climate change, flood, etc.). Those traits may also be sub-optimal so as to create other restrictions on further development. "Internal constraints seem no more directed upwards than downwards" (p. 91). Ruse examines arguments about the genetic "arms race" that would push the species "upwards," but argues philosophically speaking that suggests an unwelcome purpose in developing those traits. Again, Ruse never addresses larger question. How did cells come to realize there was such a thing as sound waves and light waves and that they contained useful information such that receptors were necessary to retrieve that information? This is where Bonner (an atheist himself) would suggest that it requires much more randomness than neo-Darwinists want to admit otherwise it requires either intelligent, purposeful development.

Ruse is forthright: "I think that evolution is a fact and Darwinism rules triumphant...I think that everything applies to humans, thought and action, and that sociobiology is the the best thing to happen to the social sciences in the last century. The kindest thing that can be said for those who disagree...is that they speak from ignorance."

One of Ruse's goals is to show a "Darwinian range" from Dawkins on the left, to Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Richard Spencer, Richard Lewontin, Stephen J. Gould and others who are much more humble and "deplore the excesses of ultra-Darwinians," including the "old-earth" Christian variety like Alvin Plantinga. (I find it odd that Ruse never mentions William Lane Craig, who knows Ruse and is friends with and has debated several people mentioned in the book on various philosophical issues related to time and the universe. Maybe they were not yet friends.) Each strain of Darwinism has various histories, implications, and controversies and Ruse examines these. That is the real educational value of this book.

"Darwinism" is defined by Ruse "at the most basic level obviously, one is going to accept evolution as fact...A Darwinian has to take natural selection seriously. Indeed...as the most important evolutionary mechanism there is" (P. 28). The author examines ideas predating Darwin and contemporary thought, particularly evolution as a causal force (p. 22-24). He notes that "Darwin did not look upon natural selection simply as a causal force for evolution...Darwin believed that the most fundamental aspect of organisms is their functional complexity. They are not simply thrown together randomly." But, their traits "could not be in any sense guided or directed to the needs of their possessors. In this sense they are 'random.'" This is interesting to me because biologist John Tyler Bonner argues in his book Randomness in Evolution that natural selection is far less important than most evolutionists give it credit for, randomness is far more important. It really is chance mutations, or else the mutations require a consciousness "directed to the needs of their possessors." Ruse does not explain very well that Darwinists admit they do not understand why or how the mutations come about. "A major problem (for Darwin) was that of heredity," until mathematically-inclined biologists showed that "(natural) selection and Mandelian genetics are complementary," thus improving Darwin's theory (p. 26).

Ruse describes the 1940s synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelian genetics. Molecular biology spurred by the discovery/theory of the double helix DNA by Watson and Crick led to even more ideas and discoveries. Follow-up studies on beak sizes in finches, etc. "Now selection pushes things one way, now another" (p. 27). But Ruse doesn't explain how a recessive gene (ex: a short beak after just one year of good rains) becomes predominant again after the environment suddenly has need of it again. Differences on the process of inheritance, apparently, give us the "range of Darwinisms and Darwinians" (ex: allometry, pleiotropy, genetic drift, etc.). Within these there are further subdivisions.

On the ultra-Darwinian/selection-is-everything side are Ronald Fisher and Richard Dawkins. Fisher (1930) "thought that upper-class humans are biologically less fit than the lower classes and that remedial action should be taken. Dawkins (1976) has a theory of 'memes,' analogous to genes, which are supposedly responsible for mental evolution" (p. 29). That certainly ought to give one pause, particularly with how influential Dawkins has become in the popular world.

Then there are those like Lewontin, Gould, and Bonner (above, not mentioned by Ruse) who argue that evolution is mostly random factors or of constraints on development (p. 30). The more ecumenical variety of Darwinist point to evidence of randomness and natural selection but are hesitant about the moral and philosophical implications of natural selection. "Since many of these people, Lewontin especially, work from a Marxist perspective, there is a reluctance to tie humans--particularly consciousness--too firmly to adaptation and selection" (p.30). Ah, so unlike ultra-Darwinists like Fisher who applied natural selection in the form of eugenics, these like Lewontin and Gould "hesitate" because it does not jive with their preferred worldview. Sounds like a paradox to me.

Indeed, in Chapter Ten Ruse explores the implications of Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer was an Ayn Rand-style libertarian who saw natural selection as a tool to ferret out the weak. John D. Rockefeller likewise applied social Darwinism to to free market competition. Ruse acknowledges that Darwin's ideas were taken up "in Germany in particular...They provided a rationale for the militarism which led to the First World War as well as...communism and national socialism," citing Hitler as well. (Ruse notes Hitler condemned Christianity for its opposition to evolution, p. 175). Ruse displays the mixed relationship between Darwinism and Marxism. Again, Ruse notes that Huxley and others cited moral reasons for combatting such ideology without explaining on what basis those morals came from. On p. 183 he seuggests that "evolution itself gives meaning and confers value," without explaining why this is the case. Truly, evolution really is religion if that is what you believe. Ruse seems to himself assume life has value without explaining on what basis that is true and which life has value. He admits that "one cannot simply equate the natural with the good," but never explains what is "good" and why he believes it exists whereas Dawkins does not (p. 197). In the end, he just concludes that you can find bad-behaving Darwinists just as well as you can find bad-behaving Christians, so there's no need to lump Darwinists in with the Nazis (p. 181).

Consciousness also creates a problem for the Darwinian. Ruse ponders that randomness and survival/selection may explain many of our traits as we developed, but what about those which have evolved now that we're conscious of them, such as language and culture? Ruse warns that "one should not look too strongly for adaptation as the defining and controlling factor in thought and its consequent action." But why not, exactly? Ruse admits there is no good evolutionary explanation for why and how we have abstract thinking or even mathematics and says it is a "serious question" (noting it comes from Polkinghorne, 122-124). Ruse dismisses any relevance to the argument simply because he doesn't think Christians have a better one. "Why should the Darwinian not also hold that there is a world of nonphysical reality, which likewise may or may not have an ultimate explanation?" (p. 124). Well, because as Ruse wrote early on, modern Darwinists are naturalists, and therefore must logically reject "nonphysical reality."

Ruse is not the first writer to give an evolutionary anthropological reason for the rise of religion. Religion is something that helps us make sense of the world and gives us a tribe with which to survive. But the title of this book is not about religion, it's about Christianity. Other religions aren't based exclusively on the claim that a man died and rose to life again, as Christianity is. Christians would be eager to explain to Ruse how religion is about making one's self right with God, whereas Christianity teaches that it is impossible to make ourselves right with God.

Ruse's pondering of "If God is so good, then why do bad things happen?" also remind me of the Apostle Paul's illustration of the pot criticizing his creator and refusing to heed his own advice about being humble about what one knows. While he acknowledges that there is nothing that suggests evolution is progressive, he doesn't stop to acknowledge in his criticism of God that things could be so much worse. In dealing with the problem of pain and evil (p. 129), he never explains on what basis he is able to call something "evil." He correctly understands that "Dawkins's conclusion is not that there is an evil God or gods...but rather that there is nothing...it all means nothing." He shares Dawkins' quote on how evil is fiction to a Darwinist (p. 131):

"In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason it it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Houseman put it:
'For Nature, heartless witless Nature
Will neither know nor care'

DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."

Ruse is apparently unwilling to accept this but never explains why. Perhaps because it leads back to the question of how we can justify any laws in our society or judge anyones actions if there is no such thing as "right/wrong, good/evil." In a couple places in the book, Ruse hints that he has cheated on his wife sexually. This is forgiven since evolution has tilted the human species toward mass reproduction. Ruse then writes that it would be "bad" if everyone behaved this way toward every woman because it would certainly threaten peace and create general chaos. But that begs a Nietczhean response--how about if I do it and am strong enough to prevent you from also doing it? As Dawkins says "some are going to get hurt," and that isn't bad, it's just DNA. Unaddressed by Ruse is the question that if we are all just a collection of random molecules and our consciousness is an illusion created by firing synapses, then why should I be concerned if I simply scatter someone else's molecules into other uses? I'm reminded of the physicist and quasi-philosopher Alan Lightman who writes about the dilemma he faces because he loves his daughter and got emotional walking her down the aisle before remembering that she was just molecules that would one day be spread back to the galaxy. You'll find no solutions or even serious examination of this dilemma in this book. At this point, Ruse as a philosopher is quite disappointing. For starters, I recommend Robert H. Kane's The Quest for Meaning (Great Courses lectures available) as Kane offers a complete history of philosophy that asks what "values" are and has a response to postmodernists and neo-Darwinists who argue nothing has objective value. Because of this, his entire Chapter Nine on Christian Ethics is meaningless.

Ruse takes on both Alvin Plantinga and Michael Behe's arguments that naturalism is self-refuting or that Darwinism collapses on itself (p. 106). Plantinga writes that if naturalism is true, then there is no reason why our reasoning or or cogniion should lead us to truths, a concern Darwin allegedly in old age (p. 107). Ruse argues that "it was in selection's interest to make us think that causes really do exist as entities, and so we do," and that the psychological self-delusion we do document is also illustrative of mechanisms that have developed via natural selection to help us cope and survive. Similarly, design proponents argue that an eye is designed to see similarly to how a telescope is designed to see. Something cannot have a purpose unless it was designed for that purpose. Ruse refers to Dawkins' "blind watchmaker" argument which lays it out starkly: "Natural selection...has no purpose in mind" (p. 113). Dawkins, of course, demands to know who created God, rejecting Anselm's argument that God is the ultimate necessary being. At least physicists like Brian Greene seem to admit that without Anselm's argument you end up in an infinite regress.

Ruse challenges Behe's argument about "irreducible complexity," meaning that systems like eyesight are too complex to have evolved randomly by piecemeal and that eliminating or adding any single part of the system would destroy it, including any random mutations that are the driver of natural selection. Ruse uses an example from biochemistry, the Krebs cycle, to "trample" Behe's argument (p. 116-118). The Krebs cycle is the result of other independent biological processes that were eventually "co-opted for the new end." Besides pointing out some logical problems in Behe's hypothesis, Ruse challenges Behe's idea that "nearly four billion years ago the designer made the first cell, already containing all of the irreducibly complex biochemical systems" (Behe, 227). Ruse asks why, if Behe believes in some form of evolution over those millions of years, did none of those traits get eliminated over time, even by random mutation? "Why does the designer throw around such misleading clues?" (p. 119). Ruse makes an interesting point here that I need to consider further. But Ruse seems unwilling to extend to Behe the same charity he extended Darwin-- we don't judge people's hypotheses on whether all of them are proven true, but only on whether some are proven true. Ruse also examines Dembsky's "explanatory filter" as something that allows one to ascribe to natural selection all the bad things in life and to God all the good.

I found the best question Ruse asked of Christians is what exactly life was like before the Fall. Was there weather or seasons? If there were seasons, how did naked people keep warm? If they made fires, wouldn't that require dead wood and therefore death? What was in the soil? Arsenic is a poison but also an essential part of soil. Did poison like arsenic exist in soil before the fall? These are interesting challenges. I find myself thinking maybe "gap theorists" have plausible answers but those are generally rejected as heterodox.

To Ruse, the greatest advancement that evolution has given us is sociobiology--psychological explanations of why we behave the way we do, why we observe altruism, how morals evolved, etc. In his view the Ten Commandments are "commonsense" prescriptions for morality. It's interesting he omits the rest of the Law, which Jews have long held in as high esteem as the Ten Commandments. One need look only at the context of the Law versus what was practiced by Egypt and others. Burying the dead, washing when unclean, not drinking blood, etc. were radical departures from what other societies were doing and were later proven good ideas by modern science, particularly during periods such as the bubonic plague in Europe. Ruse at this point strikes me as the college sophomore in a religion class who suddenly thinks he knows everything about which he comments. In his remarking about sin, and the struggle against sin, he cites Romans 7-- Paul's struggle against his flesh. But he omits Paul's words about the Spirit. In Ruse's mind there is no SPirit, so it's simply a flesh vs. flesh value. Again, he has no understanding of what it means to be a Christian and desires not to take Paul's instructions on those points.

Ruse's concluding polite warning to modern Darwinists is to be humble:
"We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown" (p. 219). (Amir Azcel's work Why Science Does Not Disprove God echoes this point.) I give this book three stars, namely because the author gives plenty of other works to read and I learned a lot about the history of Darwinism.

Other books that contributed to my understanding of this book:
Black Holes and Baby Universes (Stephen Hawking)
The Universe in a Nutshell (Hawking)
The Grand Design (Hawking)
The Hidden Reality (Brian Greene)
The Fabric of the Cosmos (Greene)
The Elegant Universe (Greene)
The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris)
Arrival (Andreas Wagner)
The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin, arguments against the cult of string theory from a quantum loop gravity physicist.)
The Accidental Universe (Alan Lightman, physicist armchair philosopher who is critical of Dawkins but has his own logical fallacies.)
Randomness in Evolution (John Tyler Bonner, slime mold biologist who argues natural selection is far less important than randomness.)
First Life (David Deamer, mix of astrophysics and biology)
Why Science Does Not Disprove God (Amir Aczel)
I Don't Believe in Atheists (Chris Hedges, also debated Hitchens and Harris; familiar with Aczel's arguments.)
The Quest for Meaning (Great Courses lectures by Dr. Robert H. Kane based on his book The Significance of Free Will. A history of philosophy that also asks what "values" are and has a response to postmodernists who argue nothing has objective value.)
The Reason for God (Tim Keller)
Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig)
The Lie (Ken Ham)

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