Of Gods and Gaps:
Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution


by Edward B. Davis

A shorter version of this essay was published in The Christian Century 115 (20) (15-22 July 1998), 678-81.  Portions reprinted with permission of The Christian Century Foundation, Inc.  All rights reserved.



An essay review of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, by Michael J. Behe (The Free Press, 1996); Defeating Darwinism, by Opening Minds, by Phillip E. Johnson (InterVarsity Press, 1997); and The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer, ed. by J.P. Moreland (InterVarsity Press, 1993).

"The time has come," the lawyer said,
"To talk of many things,
Of Gods, and gaps, and miracles,
Of lots of missing links,
And why we can't be Darwinists,
And whether matter thinks."
    -- with apologies to Lewis Carroll

In 1874, fifteen years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge replied with his own book, What Is Darwinism? An astute critic of the theory as Darwin himself defined it, Hodge went right to the heart of the matter. Darwin had proposed that a blind, purposeless process natural selection, operating on random variations had produced the myriad forms of life that now inhabit our planet. The denial of design in nature, Hodge concluded, is virtually the denial of God. Although Hodge noted that Darwin might personally believe in a creator, who had in the distant past called matter and a living germ into existence, God had then abandoned the universe to itself to be controlled by chance and necessity, without any purpose on his part as to the result, or any intervention or guidance. Such a God was virtually consigned, so far as we are concerned, to non-existence. Thus Darwinism was virtually atheistical.

In the century and a quarter since Hodge leveled his pen at the offending theory, plenty of Christians have come to terms with evolution by placing it within a different metaphysical framework. There are multiple ways in which the settlement has been negotiated. Many contemporary theistic evolutionists, especially those like Richard Bube or Howard Van Till who are theologically moderate to conservative, have endorsed either the separation model of science and theology or a more nuanced version of it called the complementarity model. On either view, science deals with mechanism and material reality ( how ) and is complete in its own domain or at its own level, while theology deals with meaning and spiritual reality ( why ), which are in another domain or on another level. This approach is best summed up in the famous phrase that Galileo borrowed from Cardinal Baronio, The Bible tells how to go to heaven, not how the heaven goes. More integrative models are employed by others, including a number of more liberal Protestants such as Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke. Adherents of these models typically decry the intellectual schizophrenia of the separation model and the theological insulation of the complementarity model, proclaiming instead the need for a genuine conversation between theology and modern science that shapes both enterprises. But much of the conversation is dominated by one side: many leading advocates of integration are process theologians or panentheists who call for doctrinal reformulation in light of modern scientific knowledge, but do not intend to call on scientists to reformulate their theories in light of theology. Indeed, none of these views proposes what we might call a Christian science, in which Christian beliefs influence the actual content of scientific theories, so that the rules of science might be different for Christians than for non-Christians. Rather they represent various Christian views of science, in which the rules of science qua science are assumed to be the same for all scientists in a particular discipline, without regard to their religious beliefs, with differences among positions found only at the level of one s worldview.

In other words, adherents of all of these views accept methodological naturalism (MN), the tenet that scientific explanations of phenomena always ought to involve natural causes, which are usually understood as mechanistic causes operating without any intelligence or purpose apparent within the phenomena themselves. Whether or not any intelligence or purpose has been imposed upon natural processes from the outside is a separate question that science alone is not competent to answer, though scientific knowledge may have some influence on the kinds of answers one might offer. Science is seen as religiously neutral; evidence for or against theism has to be found elsewhere. From this perspective, Hodge s response to Darwin s theory was mistaken, because it failed to distinguish between the purposelessness of scientific mechanisms, which by assumption have no minds of their own, and ultimate purposelessness at the level of worldview.

The three books reviewed here represent a strong dissenting voice from the terms of this settlement. The authors understand Darwinism just as Hodge did: a God who is not involved in obvious, highly visible, scientifically detectable ways with the creation of the world and human beings is no God at all. Rejecting the assumption that naturalistic science is religiously neutral, they seek to construct an evidentialist apologetic for the truth of Christian theism, based partly on the perceived deficiencies of Darwinian evolution. Although certain elements of their position may warrant further consideration, on the whole I find it neither very convincing nor particularly original.

Leading the prosecution of evolution is Phillip Johnson, professor of law at the University of California and author of Darwin on Trial (1991), a lawyer's brief arguing that the evidence for full-blown evolution from non-living matter to human beings is greatly overstated. Although I don t accept this conclusion, it is a clearly argued, stimulating book that has elicited grudging admiration from a number of evolutionists, including Cornell biologist William A. Provine, an atheist who has debated Johnson and invited him into his classroom to argue the case against Darwin. The fact that Provine and Johnson agree that evolution is atheism cannot be overlooked, and I will return to this point later. For the moment, however, I want to focus our attention on the main idea presented in these three books: a highly sophisticated form of antievolutionism called intelligent design theory (ID).

The essence of ID and the motivation behind it are clearly explained in Johnson's latest book, Defeating Darwinism. Theistic evolution, he argues, is a much-too-easy solution that rests on a misunderstanding of what contemporary scientists mean by the word evolution. Following scientists like Provine and Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins, Johnson defines evolution as an unguided and mindless process that admits no possibility of being a divine work, implying that our existence is therefore a fluke rather than a planned outcome. To prevent students from being indoctrinated with this type of irreligion, Johnson offers his readers a primer on thinking critically about evolution and a brief account of ID. The latter is essentially the opposite of the strong biological reductionism associated with Dawkins, according to which (in Johnson's accurate description) everything, including our minds, can be reduced to its material base. For Johnson, matter is preceded both ontologically and chronologically by intelligence, in the form of the information necessary to organize it into living things, and this is an entirely different kind of stuff from the physical medium [e.g., DNA] in which it may temporarily be recorded.

A principal goal of the ID movement is to convince working scientists that information cannot and does not spring from matter, which they understand as brute and inert. This is essentially the same dualistic conception of matter that was shared by the founders of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century, such as René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. However, although the mind/matter distinction remains philosophically problematic and some types of dualism may be possible to defend, most contemporary scientists (including most Christian scientists) no longer hold to this type of dualism, even if they retain the mechanistic science it was once linked with. The same is true of many contemporary theologians, especially those committed to panentheism and/or process theology. They generally hold a more active view of matter and its capabilities, either that matter itself can think or at least that cognition arises out of it in some naturalistic manner yet to be determined. This is one important reason why adherents of the ID program are facing an uphill climb. They don t really confront the fact that the philosophical landscape has changed, and they fail to engage those Christian thinkers who recognize this.

Hardly one to be discouraged by steep slopes, however, Johnson bases his case substantially on Michael Behe s notion of irreducible complexity, the idea that certain parts of living organisms are so complex, and composed of so many separate parts that cannot function properly on their own, that we cannot account for them in a reductionistic fashion, as merely the products of blind selection. Rather we are forced to invoke a deus ex machina who assembled the parts supernaturally according to a preconceived design. Johnson uses this strong form of the teleological argument to challenge both materialism and naturalism. He calls his strategy the wedge and sees his own books as its sharp edge, opening a crack in scientific materialism that can be widened by others, especially Behe.

A biochemist at Lehigh University, Behe is not a creationist in the sense in which that word is most often (ab)used today. For example, he believes the earth is billions of years old, which self-styled scientific creationists deny, and that natural selection (NS) can account for much of life's diversity, which even an old-earth creationist like Johnson probably does not accept (if so, he is awfully quiet about it). What NS cannot explain, in Behe s opinion, is how the original building blocks of living things were formed. Darwin's Black Box is a detailed study of certain biochemical machines in humans and other organisms, aimed at realizing one of Darwin's worst nightmares. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin had worried that the origin of complex organs, such as the eye, would prove very difficult to explain using the gradual, stepwise process required by his theory. The best he could do was to speculate that complex eyes might have developed somehow from simple, light-sensitive cells that could give a competitive advantage to an organism that possessed them. But the molecular biology of vision, as Behe notes, was just a black box to Darwin. Darwin and his contemporaries took the simplicity of cells for granted, treating them as black boxes that needed no further explanation. Now that we know how complex even the simplest cells actually are, Behe argues, we can no longer ignore the question of how they originated, nor can we deny the lack of progress in answering that question scientifically within a Darwinian paradigm. Examining every issue of the Journal of Molecular Evolution (a top journal in its field) since it began in 1971, Behe could not find even one article that has ever proposed a detailed model by which a complex biochemical system might have been produced in a gradual, step-by-step Darwinian fashion. This he takes as a very strong indication that Darwinism is an inadequate framework for understanding the origin of complex biochemical systems.

Although reviewers in scientific journals have generally been highly critical of Behe, they have not agreed with one another on the accuracy of his assessment of the state of the literature. While some critics deny his claim, others, such as biochemist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago, think that Behe has his finger on a real unsolved problem in evolutionary theory, a problem that invites novel approaches but certainly not the invocation of an intelligent designer, which would be to give up hope of a scientific (read, naturalistic ) solution. Still others, such as Notre Dame philosopher of science Ernan McMullin, argue perceptively that Behe s proposed solution is itself just another black box, since the appeal to ID slams the door on further inquiry at the level of secondary causes, denying in principle our ability to learn how irreducibly complex structures were assembled. Van Till takes this point further, noting that we should be careful to distinguish between the claim that the world is a product of creative intelligence (a belief he shares with the ID camp) and the additional claim, implicit within the ID position, that certain products of that intelligence could not have been assembled naturalistically.

Behe realizes that it will be difficult for most scientists to give ID fair consideration, mainly for philosophical (rather than purely scientific) reasons. The scientific community, he notes, is not only committed to MN, which rules out a priori any appeal to design, but in addition many important and well-respected scientists, just don't want there to be anything beyond nature. He is right about the convictions of many scientists and the way in which this can bias their response to ID one cannot challenge the operative rule of MN without simultaneously challenging the worldview of philosophical materialism but this point can be stressed only by overlooking many other scientists (including most Christian scientists) who accept MN while rejecting its extrapolation into a larger worldview.

In the highly charged atmosphere that results from excluding the middle ground, the ID challenge will inevitably be perceived as ideologically motivated, with the unfortunate result that more heat than light will often be generated. This can only be encouraged by the highly apologetic thrust of certain essays in The Creation Hypothesis, edited by Biola University philosopher J.P. Moreland. Consider for example just the title of the essay by Canadian astrophysicist Hugh Ross, head of Reasons to Believe, a Pasadena-based ministry specializing in apologetics: Astronomical Evidences for a Personal, Transcendent God ; or the title of Moreland s own essay: Theistic Science & Methodological Naturalism, which he posits as competing alternatives. The latter distinction has elsewhere been drawn even more starkly by Johnson, who likes to refer to MN as methodological atheism and to label Christian scientists who defend it as mushy accommodationists. This can hardly be described as a helpful approach, a fact that a rhetorician of Johnson s stature ought to appreciate. [NB: in the next newsletter, Johnson will explain that he actually takes the term methodological atheism from theologian Nancey Murphy.]

Theistic science, as Moreland defines it, claims that God has through direct, primary agent causation and indirect, secondary causation created and designed the world for a purpose and has directly intervened in the course of its development at various times, including history prior to the arrival of human beings. Primary causes are further defined as God s unusual way of operating; they involve his direct, discontinuous, miraculous actions, whereas secondary causes are God s normal way of operating. Either way, Moreland stresses, God is constantly active in the world, but his activity takes on different forms. In spite of this clear affirmation that God is never absent or inactive in the creation (and similar statements by others), the ID program is widely viewed as being committed to a God-of-the-gaps (GG) theology, in which (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted with objections) God is invoked only when natural explanations fail and God disappears from view when previously unexplained phenomena are given natural explanations. This is a serious charge that warrants a fuller examination than I can provide here, but something at least needs to be said to clarify this misunderstanding.

It is important to distinguish between a GG theology and a GG strategy. As we noted above, advocates of ID believe that God is active always and everywhere in a variety of ways, including (for the most part) working through natural processes. It is both inaccurate and unfair to call this a GG theology which is in my view a form of deism simply because they believe that God sometimes acts in ways that cannot be described naturalistically. On the other hand, they believe that such extraordinary divine activity must be postulated as a scientific explanation to account for certain phenomena when MN fails, and that the failure of MN itself provides one of the strongest arguments available for the existence of God. This is, in my opinion, properly described as a GG strategy, though it is not based on a GG theology.

Johnson and Behe also employ a GG strategy, since they argue apologetically from gaps in our knowledge of nature to gaps in the actual processes of nature, from which the necessity to invoke an agent outside of nature is inferred. However and this is not a trivial point it is not a simple form of the GG argument; as with other ID arguments, it is quite sophisticated (which sharply distinguishes their approach, in my view, from that of garden variety creationism). To justify an appeal to divine causation of a particular complex entity, the argument goes, one needs to show not only the absence of any plausible naturalistic explanation, but also the presence of irreducible complexity, which suggests that no naturalistic explanation can be found. Many complex features are not classified as irreducibly complex, but some are, including several of those discussed in Behe's book.

A weak form of the ID program, without the strong apologetic component, has been suggested by others, such as Messiah College philosopher Robin Collins. On this view, the ID hypothesis warrants due consideration, not for what it denies (the adequacy of Darwinism), although pointing out the inadequacies a received theory is a necessary part of an argument for an alternative, but for what it affirms that some real causes might not be purely mechanistic and for the possibility that a research program that looks in non-mechanistic directions might ultimately be successful. It is true that some very interesting and fruitful science has been done by great scientists who did not assume that all causes must be mechanistic. For example, Gottfried Leibniz called Newtonian gravitation a perpetual miracle, because Newton offered no mechanical explanation for it; and Johannes Kepler hypothesized that the orbital radii of the planets could be found from the assumption that God used the five Platonic solids as archetypal causes in laying out the dimensions of the solar system. (Kepler s fascinating understanding of causation operating on various levels, working together, is one that might be instructive for ID advocates to study.) For ID to fit this category, however, it will be necessary for its advocates to spell out much more clearly just what an ID account of the origin of biological complexity would look like, and how this would actually further scientific inquiry rather than hinder it. I remain skeptical that this will happen it seems central to the program to insist that irreducible complexity can be explained only by an appeal to direct divine agency but the movement is still in its infancy and some of the very bright people associated with it may in time prove me wrong; certainly they will try to.

Despite the desire by some in the ID movement to have potentially enlightening discussions of very interesting philosophical and scientific questions, however, thus far ID appears to be little more than a highly sophisticated form of special creationism, usually accompanied by strong apologetic overtones that tend to keep the debate at the ideological level. All too frequently science becomes a weapon in culture wars, denying in practice the clean theoretical distinction between science and religion that is otherwise widely proclaimed. As Provine put it in a recent public statement, evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented. Johnson s audience would be much smaller if scientists like Provine and Dawkins did not make it so easy for him to equate evolution and MN with atheism, but in fact they do speak for a good number of scientists (not to mention other academics) who like to project the public image of science as a highly secular, rational enterprise that challenges or flatly contradicts religious interpretations of reality. Because this image flies in the face of a highly religious American public, antievolutionism will not go away any time soon, whether or not Johnson and his associates convince many scientists to adopt their program.

No single solution is likely to satisfy all parties. My own view is that we could go a long way toward correcting the excesses of the Johnsons and the Provines if public education were more genuinely pluralistic, that is, pluralistic in a philosophical and religious sense in addition to other types of pluralism. As long as public education essentially ignores the religious values of many families and pretends to remain neutral toward religion while actually promoting secularism, many religious people will feel disenfranchised. Johnson is keenly aware of this; indeed, he is at his best when he decries what he elsewhere calls scientific fundamentalism, the tendency of scientific materialists to monopolize the conversation about science in public schools. A key chapter in Defeating Darwinism analyzes the Hollywood classic, Inherit the Wind, a profoundly unhistorical film based on a McCarthy-era play that depicts the Scopes trial as the triumph of academic freedom (personified by Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow) over an ignorant, intolerant fundamentalism (personified by Frederic March as William Jennings Bryan). Johnson calls attention to the moment when Tracy warns March not to deny others freedom of thought, supposing for March's consideration that there may come a time when a law would be passed that only Darwin should be taught in the schools! But this, as Johnson tells us with considerable accuracy, is exactly what happened later. The real story of the Scopes trial is that the stereotype it promoted helped the Darwinists capture the power of the law, and they have since used the law to prevent other people from thinking independently. By labeling any fundamental dissent from Darwinism as religion, they are able to ban criticism of the official evolution story from public education far more effectively than the teaching of evolution was banned from Tennessee schools in the 1920s.

What Johnson wants most is for Americans to think more critically about evolution and also about tough religious questions such as the problem of evil. He is right to link these issues: it has long been my view that the biggest stumbling block to the acceptance of evolution among religious conservatives is theodicy especially as seen in the question of death before the fall, which accounts for the young-earth part of scientific creationism. The teaching of evolution should be coupled with serious discussions both of its perceived religious implications and of various ways in which religious thinkers have responded to it highly inclusive, controversial conversations that public schools seem unable to undertake, given the prevailing (and I believe, erroneous) interpretation of the antiestablishment clause of the First Amendment. All told, the efforts of an accomplished attorney like Johnson might be better directed toward persuading his colleagues to reconsider their interpretation of the Constitution, rather than toward criticizing the basic tenets of what most scientists rightly regard as a well-supported theory of the history of life on earth.