Overestimating the power of science.

Phillip E. Johnson

June 5, 1998

In 1981, the United States National Academy of Sciences passed a resolution saying that "Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief." The statement was intended only for use in a public-relations campaign against the creation science movement, and it has never been invoked against evolutionary pantheists, agnostics, or scientific materialists. For example, the Academy makes no protest when Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) uses the authority of science to promote atheism, or when physicists promote a "theory of everything" that will allow its possessors to "know the mind of God," or when Carl Sagan proclaimed in his Cosmos series that "the Cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be." On the contrary, the National Academy gave Sagan its Public Welfare medal.

Chet Raymo is another in the long line of scientific metaphysicians who yearn to make a religion out of science; and so he argues that Christians should adopt for religious purposes what he calls "the new creation story." His description of the new story is more in poetic than scientific language, as befits an admirer of Teilhard de Chardin, but he clearly is referring to the standard version of evolutionary naturalism. According to this story, nature did its own creating through unintelligent material processes, particularly the purposeless Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and natural selection. God was involved if at all only in the very beginning, in setting up the laws, and thereafter nature runs by itself. In Raymo's words, nature itself "becomes the sublime scripture," humans are viewed as the universe becoming conscious of itself through evolution, and prayer consists of rejecting miracles while giving praise and thanksgiving to nature.

The National Academy's motives may have been partisan, but there is clearly some truth in its warning that mixing science with religion can produce a highly intoxicating brew. Teilhard's comment that "less and less do I see any difference between research and adoration," which Raymo quotes with approval, is about as far from the ideal of scientific objectivity as one can go. When scientists begin to worship their own concepts, they are tempted to proclaim vast philosophical systems rather than stick to what the data is showing.

So it was with Teilhard, and so it is with evolution-worshipers generally. The first thing to understand about Raymo's "new story" is that scientists cannot prove that known natural forces can produce complex biological organisms. They assume this crucial and highly debatable fact, regardless of the evidence. No one has demonstrated that chemical evolution can produce life in the first place. Indeed this field is in a state of confusion and cannot even begin to account for the information content of the simplest organisms. Despite what you were told in school and in countless public television nature programs, natural selection has no substantial creative power. Ask for evidence and all you will get are examples of trivial variations in fundamentally stable populations. Look at the fossils and you will see a general pattern of unexplained sudden appearances of new forms of life followed by stasis--meaning the absence of fundamental evolutionary change. Neo-Darwinism is more accurately classified as materialist mythology than as science.

The highly regarded Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin explained the true basis of evolutionary science in a remarkably candid essay in the New York Review of Books (January 9, 1997). Lewontin has as low an opinion of the adaptationist "just-so" stories of the neoDarwinists as I do. In spite of hepticism, however, he accepts the basic story of evolutionary naturalism because, in his own words,

We have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

If you are going to define science as applied materialist philosophy, then of course you are going to end up with a materialist creation story, one that excludes the possibility of a personal God who created us and answers prayer. Just don't make the mistake of thinking that this new story has been validated by scientific testing. The important questions are all decided in the assumptions and definitions.

In fact the new story is rapidly becoming an old story and it may not be around much longer, even in the scientific world. For a look at the way things are going, see the recent article in the Boston Review by James A. Shapiro, professor of microbiology at the University of Chicago, with the provocative title "Scientific Alternatives to Darwinism: Is There a Role for Cellular Information Processing in Evolution?" (The Boston Review is available on the Web [].) Just to give the flavor of the article, here is a string of excerpts:

The molecular revolution has revealed an unanticipated realm of complexity and interaction more consistent with computer technology than with the mechanical viewpoint which dominated when the neo- Darwinian modern synthesis was formulated.... It has been a surprise to learn how thoroughly cells protect themselves against the kinds of accidental genetic change that, according to conventional theory, are the sources of evolutionary variability.... The point of this discussion is that our current knowledge of genetic change is fundamentally at variance with postulates held by neo-Darwinists.... Is there any guiding intelligence at work in the origin of species displaying exquisite adaptations that range from lambda prophage repression and the Krebs cycle through the mitotic apparatus and the eye to the immune system, mimicry, and social organization?

Shapiro takes jabs at both the Creationists and the neo-Darwinists, accusing both groups of "presenting a static view of the scientific enterprise." He blames Creationists for refusing to credit the successes of science, but also comments that, when faced with new ideas, neoDarwinists "assume a defensive posture of outraged orthodoxy and assert an unassailable claim to truth, which only serves to validate the Creationists' criticism that Darwinism has become more of a faith than a science."

James Shapiro plays by the same scientific rules that Richard Lewontin does, and so he is still talking about the origin of cellular information-processing systems as a problem in "evolution." But the systems he describes are analogous to sophisticated computers, and there is no known natural process that can produce anything of that kind. Scientifically, Shapiro's program is identical to that of Michael Behe, the molecular biologist (and Roman Catholic) author of Darwin's Black Box (1997). The difference is that Shapiro tries to use language that scientific materialists can conceivably tolerate, whereas Behe dares to make the obvious inference that the evidence of biology points unambiguously to design, and hence to the reality of a Designer.

In short, Chet Raymo is urging Christians to rely for their salvation on a theory derived from materialist philosophy, rather than from scientific testing. Since scientific materialists don't hesitate to give advice to religious people, I suggest religious people should return the favor. Let's gently advise the evolutionary scientists that they need to cultivate a bit more of that objectivity they are always recommending to others. They could make a start by learning to tell the difference between what they assume and what they investigate.

By Phillip E. Johnson

Phillip E. Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Defeating Darwinism-By Opening Minds (Intervarsity, 1997).

Copyright (c) Commonweal

(Johnson P.E., "Overestimating the power of science," Commonweal, June 5, 1998)