Unlikely Allies: Biology Teachers and Creationists

Journal cover

I am writing in response to the article Bridging ideological divides: Why Christians still disagree about evolution and what we whould do about it, by Hans Madueme and Todd Charles Wood, Scientia et Fides 12(1), 2024, 189–213; open access here.

This article is written by two young earth creationists, who take 25 closely argued pages including 93 references to show complete misunderstanding of the relationship between observation and interpretation in evolution science, in order to claim a false epistemic symmetry between this science and the theological perspective which forces them to reject it; a more sophisticated version of the “two pairs of spectacles” thesis that has been with us since George McCready Price. So why am I bothering to review this article? And why, to my own surprise, do I find myself welcoming its appearance?

For three reasons. Firstly, because the authors, unlike “creation science” young earth creationists, accept the validity of the science in its own terms, rather than claiming that it is inferior to their own fantastical offerings. Secondly, because they lay out extremely clearly (and self-revealingly) their own epistemic position. And finally, because their recommendations, made regarding conversations within the evangelical community, are applicable (and indeed to some extent already applied) to the very practical problem of how to teach evolution science in places with a faith-based culture.

Todd Wood is a name that will be familiar to many readers here. He has a PhD from University of Virginia, conducted postdoctoral work for two years at Clemson, and has published five papers in leading journals on different aspects of molecular phylogeny. He is now applying his skills to baraminology, the attempt to explain the multiplicity of present species in terms of descent from the limited number that could have fitted onto Noah’s Ark.

This is not a joke. He describes his book Understanding the Pattern of Life: Origins and Organization of the Species, in the preface, as

an expression of my attempt, however feeble, to allow the truth of God to transform my view of biology. Rather than trying to prove the truth of Scripture, I use it as a starting point. From there, I build what I believe to be a reasonable model of biology that fits both the facts of Scripture and the data of creation.

Hans Madueme, Associate Professor at Covenant College Georgia, appears to be highly regarded in his field, and has edited a volume, Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition, published by Bloomsbury. Despite (or perhaps because of) his own convictions, he has been highly critical of claims made on behalf of creation science..

While the authors are adamant in their own beliefs, they are opposed to polemics, and for this reason, as we shall see, single out for praise Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists (reviewed in PT here).

The core of their argument lies in the introduction:

The scientific theory of evolution involves higher-level models that are associated with a range of non-scientific factors, including exegetical and theological judgments.

Something seems (and indeed is) back to front here. Some scientists work for the greater glory of God, and some to put God out of business, while I expect that most have never given a thought to theological issues. Their conclusions may have implications in “exegetical and theological judgments,” but these are consequences, not components, of the scientific framework. Why do Wood and Madueme (W&M) think otherwise?

The authors spell out their position, early on:

[W]e argue that the scientific theory of evolution involves higher-level models that are shaped by non-scientific factors. We then show that theological commitments—held not only by Christians but by non-theists as well—affect those higher-level models that influence our epistemic assessment of evolution.

So non-theists ln their attitude to evolution science are influenced in ways that presumably they do not realize by theological commitments. As a non-theist and former theist who has always accepted mainstream evolution science on its merits, I consider this claim both unwarranted and presumptuous, and disconcertingly close to the claim made by many creationists that evolution is itself a form of religion.

Later, gradually, we find out what is behind the claim, and why it is crucial to the authors’ entire outlook. They admit the range and strength of the scientific evidence for common ancestry, which is the aspect of evolution science most directly relevant to their own theological concerns, and quote the appraisal by the philosophers McCain and Weslake:

The evidence for common ancestry includes the fossil record, comparative anatomy, embryology, genetics, and geographic species distribution, while natural selection gains support from natural and laboratory work, including computer simulations and mathematical models.1

And later:

Gijsbert van den Brink and his colleagues distinguish three different layers of evolutionary theory, namely, 1) historical evolution, 2) common descent, and 3) natural selection.2 They conclude that multiple, mutually reinforcing lines of evidence for historical evolution render it strongly beyond reasonable doubt. The evidence for common descent, they argue, is also strong though less than the evidence for historical evolution (“weaky beyond reasonable doubt”). They give the lowest evidential score to natural selection, given notable scientific disagreements about its importance in evolution (van den Brink et al. 2017, 466–68).2 Most scientists would agree with these conclusions.

So I think would most readers here.

How, then, could W&M maintain their own rejection of evolution? Easily! They have prepared the ground by saying (p. 198), in response to this classification,

Common ancestry acts as a higher-level model that coordinates and supports more directly empirical models (like natural selection) within or beneath it. [Emphasis in original]

The keyword here is “supports.”

No. Common ancestry does not support the data. It is an outcome, not an input, much as process uniformitarianism is an outcome from looking at ancient rocks. Or, to take an example with which I do not think W&M could possibly disagree, atomic theory is the higher-level model used by chemists since long before they could observe the effects of individual atoms. However, this status is not an overarching presupposition, but the outcome of diverse observations, ranging from the combining ratios of elements to the properties of gases.

The authors give another example of why they regard common ancestry as a higher-level model:

The fact that common ancestry was accepted during the eclipse of Darwinism indicates that scientists could accept this higher-level model independently of any details of how common ancestry came to be.

On the contrary. Common ancestry continued to be accepted, even though (in W&M’s version of history) Darwin’s causal mechanism had been rejected, because of the way in which it was supported by the many lines of evidence that they themselves had listed. Bottom-up, not top-down. John Paul II got it right:

It is indeed remarkable that this theory [evolution] has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.3

If W&M do not see things this way, it is because they are committed to top-down reasoning. As they say, in a section titled “Evolution without theological presuppositions is impossible,”

Dogmatic commitments inevitably shape our overall judgments of the epistemic status of evolution. Theology is the epistemic linchpin.

They impose such dogmatic commitments even when they are absent.4 Thus they cite Richard Dawkins’s famous remark, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” as evidence that our theology shapes our views on evolution, when Dawkin himself tells us that it was the other way round; learning about evolution led him to reject his former faith. This inverted perspective makes it possible for them to say in all seriousness,

Some epistemic judgments depend on how one evaluates the clarity of nature against the clarity of Scripture. Young-earth creationists tend to foreground the perspicuity of Scripture and the fallibility of science, while theistic evolutionists tend to emphasize the clarity of science and the ambiguity of exegesis.

My translation: Young earth creationists think that their own exegesis of Scripture and commitment to its truth gives them the right to overlook both the scientific evidence and the possibility that their exegesis itself may be in error. This on the basis of a false equivalence between the two epistemic evaluations: on the one side, a priori commitment to a doctrinal position, and on the other, willingness to pay attention to facts.

Later they elaborate on this very point:

We agree with scientific realists that the objective data in creation should inform any assessment of evolution, but the process of interpreting the data should also entail theological oh judgments.

Here the authors are claiming the right to interpret facts to fit their theological preconceptions. If they do not like the outcome of a scientific enquiry, they will demand that the evidence be tortured until it says what they want to hear.

And then, something interesting happens, that changes the reader’s perspective on everything that has gone before. Having established that for Christians like them, the epistemic status of evolution will depend on theological considerations, they then admit that Christians can reasonably disagree about this theology. Understandably, they deplore the way in which unbelievers and evolution-accepting believers alike regard young earth creationism as absurd. More surprisingly, they deplore the mirror-image attitude of young earth creationists such as Henry Morris and John MacArthur, who describe those who accept evolution as atheistic, irrational, and amoral. They invoke the great commandment to love one another, too often neglected as “we evangelicals find group identity and security in our confessions, doctrinal statements, and ideological consortiums,” and for this reason urge dialogue even when such dialogue seems impossible.

The authors, I now belatedly realize, are not really talking to me but to those who share their own fundamental outlook. If they have been at great pains to affirm their own epistemic position, that is partly to establish their own credentials, and partly to suggest to their fellows that respectful treatment of a different epistemic position may be possible.

There are practical reasons for the dialogue that they are commending. Evolution-accepting Christians should not be made to feel unwelcome in churches where they are in the minority. Conversely, creationism-accepting students should not be ignored or silenced in the science classroom. Here they cite the philosopher and former biology teacher Douglas Allchin, who discusses how to engage such students, and advocates examining epistemology, building trust, and considering evolution in the context of the moral order.5 As practical examples of the mutually respectful attitude that they recommend, they quote at some length from Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists (reviewed on PT here), with his emphasis on the enriching experience of seeing those we disagree with as real people, not merely defined by stereotypes and the oddity of their beliefs.

All this also reminded me of James Krupa, award-winning biology professor at the University of Kentucky, who concludes his lectures with explicit discussion of social resistance to evolution.6 Even more relevant is the approach being developed by Constance Bertka and colleagues.7 Here, as a prelude to the discussion of evolution, students consider the range of possible views on the relationship between religion and science, from conflict to integration. Comparing hermeneutics, just as W&M are advocating. A strange alliance, between those dedicated to the effective teaching of evolution science, and those who fundamentally oppose its conclusions.

This is as different as possible from the attitude that runs through the mainstream creationist literature, from George McCready Price onwards, and that is expressed in the blurb8 to Wood’s own book, Understanding the Pattern of Life, I mentioned earlier:

Darwinian evolutionary theory has been largely recognized over the last century to be the most pervasive and damaging influence on modern society. As a frontal assault on the Kingdom, evolution has been Christianity's most notorious detractor and its greatest foe.

What has changed? The times have changed. As W&M put it:

In the North American context, the polarized and fractured political climate illustrates how sinful division can fester in the absence of ideological interaction. Sober reflection on the consequences of ideological segregation should motivate us to cultivate the true discipline of dialogue.

Indeed. And we do not need more riots on the steps of the Capitol, or more pastors forced out of their congregations for showing independence of thought, or more memoirs like Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, to show us what they mean.

Notes and References.

  1. McCain, Kevin and Brad Weslake 2013, “Evolutionary Theory and the Epistemology of Science.” In The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators, edited by Kostas Kampourakis, 101–19. Dordrecht: Springer, p 106

  2. Van den Brink, Gijsbert, Jeroen de Ridder, and René van Woudenberg. 2017. “The Epistemic Status of Evolutionary Theory.” Theology and Science 15(4): 454–72.

  3. Of course, evolutionary science does not consist of a single theory, but of numerous theories interacting. The Pope was aware of this, and spelled it out later in his message.

  4. As also illustrated by their treatment of Denis Lamoureux’s position in the same Section.

  5. Allchin, Douglas. 2013. “Sacred Bovines.” The American Biology Teacher 75(2) : 144-147. https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2013.75.2.16

  6. Krupa, James. “Defending Darwin.” Orion March/April 2015: https://orionmagazine.org/article/defending-darwin/

  7. Constance M. Bertka, Briana Pobiner, Paul Beardsley and William A. Watson, 2019. “Acknowledging students’ concerns about evolution: a proactive teaching strategy.” Evo Edu Outreach (2019) 12:3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12052-019-0095-0

  8. As shown on the Alibris website. We do not know if Wood himself wrote this blurb, but it could hardly have been adopted without his approval.