Review: Falling Off a Tightrope: Compromise and Accomodation in The War Between Creationism and Evolution

Reviewed Works: Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth R. Miller; Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould; The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough
Vol. 50, No. 10 (October 2000), pp. 926-929
DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2000)050[0926:foatca];2
Stable URL:[0926:foatca];2
Page Count: 18
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Falling Off a Tightrope: Compromise and Accomodation in The War Between Creationism and Evolution

Kenneth R. Miller . Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Cliff Street Books. New York. 1999. 338 pp., illus. $25.00. ISBN: 0-06-017593-1. cloth.
Stephen Jay Gould . Rocks of Ages. Ballantine Books. New York. 1999. 241 pp. $18.95. ISBN: 0-345-43009-3. cloth.
Ursula Goodenough . The Sacred Depths of Nature. Oxford University Press. New York. 2000. 224 pp., illus. $24.00. ISBN: 0-19-513629-2. paper.
Department of Botany, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7271

This is the Century of Biology, right? Thomas Jefferson's DNA is fodder for tabloid gossip. Genetically modified foods, animal cloning, and molecular medicine are just a taste of things to come.

And how about the public's insatiable love affair with dinosaurs? Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg turned “Jurassic,” a word found only in biology textbooks and museum exhibits, into the stuff of mainstream conversation. T. rex Sue made her big debut at Chicago's Field Museum sandwiched between dinosaur extravaganzas from Disney and the Discovery Channel. But a strange thing happens after Americans watch lifelike velociraptors tear up the countryside: they tell pollsters that they don't believe scientific evidence for evolution, preferring the literal story of Genesis. In biology's century, it doesn't add up.

Denying deep history

Evidence for life's long saga mounts daily. It's obvious to even casual observers that, like a de facto law of nature, scientists always seem to push dates backward, not ahead. The oldest fossils are 3.5 billion years old; extant animal lineages didn't start at the Cambrian, as the textbooks always said, but millions of years earlier; humans probably arrived in the Americas not on the heels of the last receding glacier but thousands of years earlier—and not just overland but on boats that crossed the ocean.

Genome sequences say as much about the history of organisms as they do about cancer and muscular dystrophy, weaving life's tapestry in a web of ever more interconnected threads. Supposed missing links in the fossil record turn up regularly, and, combined with gene data, tell us about feathered dinosaurs, the earliest flowering plants, the relationship between whales and hippos, and how snakes probably lost their legs (apparently an apple had nothing to do with it). A gene sequence from just one Neanderthal seemed like pie in the sky a decade ago; now that we've sampled two specimens, dare we dream of population genetics (Ovchinnikov et al. 2000)?

Yet creationists insist that because people weren't around as witnesses, evolution is still just a theory. As Hubble sends us picture after breathtaking picture of distant galaxies, as cosmologists find telltale signs of the universe's infancy 13 billion years ago, the Kansas school board insists the big bang never happened.

Let's make a deal

Most people don't have a problem with immunizations, even though they're based on the germ theory of disease. Nor would they decline the services of an oncologist, despite cancer's rock-solid link to the cell theory. The problem with evolution boils down to purpose—the meaning of it all. Scientists deal with purpose the way water treats grease: we wish it would go away. Purpose means philosophy, and philosophy makes us uneasy. We prefer the firm feel of hard data and want somebody else to handle the squishy stuff. But public angst over evolution isn't going away. If anything, creationists are more sophisticated, vocal, and well funded than ever before. And evolution is important, especially for science education. That's why some scientists are groping for ways to make evolution more palatable (and creationism more distasteful) to the public. What to do? Write a book, of course.

The counter-creationism genre isn't new: Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science (1982) and Douglas J. Futuyma's Science on Trial (1995) are standouts. But instead of launching a frontal assault against creationist absurdities, the latest entries attempt a compromise, which, by claiming the middle ground, appeal to the majority of people whose opinions about evolution may not be etched in stone. The question is, when it comes to explaining the natural world, what can scientists concede in the name of compromise? In seeking conciliation, are our credibility and integrity at stake? It depends.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's approach in Rocks of Ages is pretty simple and it probably resonates with most scientists. According to Gould, the blood game between science and religion is senseless because the two play in different ball parks—they address fundamentally different issues. Problems arise when people try to switch playing fields by using science to justify religious belief, or vice versa. By insisting that the Bible is a bona fide biology/ geology/physics textbook, creationists cause needless strife. What scientists believe and believe in (the latter implying faith rather than reason) is irrelevant. In other words, live and let live. Gould sees no conflict between evolution and religion, if only we compartmentalize.

Unfortunately, there's still Genesis, which, barring a radical rewrite, opposes what the radioisotopes, fossils, and genes tell us. At one level, I suspect a lot of people recognize metaphor when they see it, but denying Genesis goes against a deep cultural grain, which accounts for the recoil against evolution. Gould's approach sounds like so much wallpaper.

If Gould is a splitter, cell biologist Ursula Goodenough is an ecumenical joiner. Exploring everything from protein structure to consciousness and speciation in The Sacred Depths of Nature, Goodenough leavens each chapter with a dash of the metaphysical muse. Not a religionist, she still finds spiritual succor in the universe. If God exists, (s)he is everywhere, in everyone and everything, including evolution. By revealing nature's secrets, science is a source of infinite awe. Says Goodenough, “…I sanctify myself with my own grace…and I sing my own song, with deep gratitude for my existence” (p. 60). It sounds a little like Whitman, but those are fighting words to evolution's most vocal critics, who resent materialism and naturalism in science. Fundamentalists aside, naturalism has been around a long time, with no mass movement in sight. Goodenough's “religious naturalism” won't win many more converts—people want a God that answers prayers.

Design flaws

Unlike Goodenough, Brown University's Kenneth Miller, a Catholic, believes in a miraculous, personal God. However, he also dislikes creationism, especially its latest incarnation called Intelligent Design, personified in Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box (1996).

The old Argument from Design, comparing natural structures like wings and eyes to human artifacts like watches, was supposed to be firmly planted in intellectual purgatory thanks to eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume and modern developmental biology. But zealots never say uncle, and when the courts struck down scientific creationism as patently religious, design rose like the phoenix, trumpeted as intelligent design by a new crew of neocreationists like Behe .

Forget about bird wings and vertebrate eyes; God's handiwork can be found in biochemical pathways and subcellular structures, according to Behe (1996). Such complex pathways and structures, like a modern mousetrap, exhibit irreducible complexity, which could not have evolved piecemeal. After all, what good is half a flagellum or only part of a blood clotting cascade? Since we have no idea how biochemical complexity could have arisen organically, Behe sees a supernatural master designer at work (neocreationists eschew mentioning God, probably to avoid the creationist label.)

But creationism it is, and intelligent design is bad science, both philosophically and operationally (Shanks and Joplin 1999, Pigliucci 2000). In the face of unanswered questions, good scientists look for more data, they don't punt to the supernatural. Behe's appeal is an argument for ignorance: it asks people to settle for “God did it” instead of pushing the envelope of knowledge. Besides, irreducible complexity is meaningless when one organism has many thousands of genes and another has just 470 (Fraser et al. 1995).

InFinding Darwin's God, Miller tears apart Behe's arguments. Who says we don't know how complex pathways like clotting and the Krebs cycle evolved? Who says the textbook 9+2 flagellum is structurally sacrosanct? Doesn't Behe know that some eukaryotic flagella are much simpler? Hasn't the good biochemist ever heard of gene duplication, and hasn't he learned that evolution borrows and steals at the micro as well as the macro level? Who says a natural process like evolution doesn't create and design? And who says a mousetrap is the simplest way to catch a mouse?

Down in flames

Miller made me want to leap to my feet with a resounding “yes!” slapping high fives all around—until I read the second half of the book and Miller's attempt to reconcile evolution with a personal God. Perhaps to sound evenhanded, Miller first criticizes science, faulting “the reflexive hostility of so many within the scientific community to the goals, achievements, and most especially the culture of religion” (p. 166). With barbs for Stephen Jay Gould, Edward O. Wilson, and others, Miller slams scientists for their atheism and materialism (are those creationists I see smiling?). But criticism isn't enough. Having poxed both camps, Miller has to solve the universe's big whodonit—he has to find a way to put God into the equation, and he does it through the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics.

According to Miller, the unpredictability of subatomic particles provides enough wiggle room for God to work miracles. Even better, indeterminacy makes its way up the matter ladder: “The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay” (p. 241). Miller later continues, “God, the creator of space, time, chance and indeterminacy, would exercise exactly the degree of control He chooses” (p. 242). Since we can't explain quantum indeterminacy, nor breach the resulting wall that hides an ultimate understanding of nature, there's even more reason to invoke God.

Wait! Is Ken Miller, irreducible complexity's worst nightmare, using the exact same arguments as Behe, except that instead of designing biochemical pathways, Miller's deity plays dice with quarks? And this impenetrable wall business sounds like an argument for ignorance. I get nervous when people talk about permanent barriers to understanding the natural world. Maybe we don't know what indeterminacy means today, but my great grandkids may peek over the wall in 2100. “Not now” doesn't mean “never.” To make matters worse, Miller flirts with the idea of purpose in the hard anthropic principle, another of neocreationism's pet rocks: God created the universe, just as it is, with us (or a species like us) in mind.

Forget the high fives. If this is the fruit of compromise, I don't want any part of it. To accommodate the natural world and religion, Miller uses the same mental contortions as his adversaries, and he doesn't even realize it. He's conceded too much ground.

It's the philosophy…

Miller self-immolates because, after a valiant defense of science, he has to rescue purpose. In search of common ground, he mixes science and religion, a poisonous brew. He isn't alone: Robert Wright's new book Nonzero (2000) also argues for purpose, and again humanity is the ultimate goal.

Miller identifies creationism's real problem—its dangerous philosophy, not its poor grasp of facts—though not in the way he intends. Whether we like it or not, scientists have to tackle the squishy stuff—the very real fallout should creationism succeed as public policy. We should deflect the silly claims about the fossil record and concentrate on what creationism will do to science in the long run. Robert Pennock realizes this in Tower of Babel (1999). Confronting Behe and colleagues William Dembski and Phillip Johnson, Pennock zeroes in on their philosophical deficits. Then again, Pennock is a philosopher. Maybe that's what it takes to do the job.

For neocreationists, it's all about worldview. Take a look at the Web site ( of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, intelligent design's cybercathedral (Behe is a fellow). A scion of the Discovery Institute, the CRSC rails against science's materialism and where it's taking us. To neocreationists, society's salvation is a theistic science that acknowledges supernatural intervention. In other words, they want to mix science and religion. That means changing the way science is done, and perhaps first and foremost, the way the public thinks science should be done. Creationists want to slowly change public perceptions of the scientific process, and thereby win a culture war.

Scientists and the general public should be alarmed. Changing the way we do science to incorporate a miracle here and there has profound ramifications (Palevitz 1999). For one thing, it makes experiments untrustworthy. Who is to say when God steps in, rendering a result unrepeatable? If routine experiments are subject to supernatural whim, then I'm out of here because the enterprise is pointless. Apologists like to point out that modern science is rooted in religion. True enough, but most of the life-enhancing progress of the last 200 years—antibiotics and vaccines, im proved agricultural productivity and nutrition, and genetic medicine—came about because scientists stopped invoking miracles in favor of methodical experimentation and trust in natural law. They didn't forsake God so much as they left him out of the scientific equation.

As for purpose, if it's meant in a metaphysical instead of a functional sense, scientists are right to ignore it. Miller isn't the first person to compromise on the issue of purpose. In 1997, the National Association of Biology Teachers dropped the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal” from its statement on evolution. Like any other science, evolutionary biology seeks explanations based on material evidence, and by default implicitly poses certain questions: Is the supernatural necessary to explain biological change over time? Does evolution have to be supervised? Does a supernatural entity have to take a personal interest in the process to make it go? Based on all the evidence at hand, the answer to these questions is no. So much for purpose.

It's up to us to explain that scientific materialism and naturalism have much less to do with metaphysics than they do with method. Sure, a lot of scientists are atheists and agnostics (Larson and Witham 1998), but so what? Science is a way of finding out about the natural world based on material evidence obtained from natural sources, which we detect with our senses or extensions thereof (machines). It's more about the way we do our job than about what we believe in. Neocreationists conflate metaphysical with methodological materialism and naturalism, perhaps because it suits their agenda; scientist Miller makes the same mistake.

If we want the American people to accept evolution, we must defend the philosophical and procedural foundations of our profession. The public must realize there will be a price to pay if we forsake our credo in order to accommodate religious belief.

References cited

  1. Behe M. J. 1996 Darwin's Black Box New York: Free Press
  2. Fraser C. M. 1995 The minimal gene complement of Mycoplasma genitalium Science 270 397 404
  3. Futuyma D. J. 1995 Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates
  4. Kitcher P. 1982 Abusing Science Cambridge (MA): MIT Press
  5. Larson E. J. Witham L. 1998 Leading scientists still reject God Nature 394 313
  6. Ovchinnikov IV 2000 Molecular analysis of Neanderthal DNA from the northern Caucasus Nature 404 490 493
  7. Palevitz B. A. 1999 Science and the versus of religion Skeptical Inquirer 23 4 32 36
  8. Pennock R. T. 1999 Tower of Babel Cambridge (MA): MIT Press
  9. Pigliucci M. 2000 Chance, necessity, and the war against science BioScience 50 79 81
  10. Shanks N. Joplin K. H. 1999 Redundant complexity: A critical analysis of intelligent design in biochemistry Philosophy of Science 66 268 282
  11. Wright R. 2000 Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny New York: Pantheon