I can remember the day it happened: I could no longer be a Darwinist.
It was a few months prior to the release last year of Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. Prior manuscripts of the book had gone under the working title Biology’s Second Law, the first law being Darwinian natural selection. The second law, by my initial reckoning, was a physiological concept, homeostasis, that had been articulated by one of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries, the French physiologist Claude Bernard.
My hope was that I could somehow rescue modern evolutionary thought from the “physics envy” trap it had walked into nearly a century earlier: the notion that biology, to be a “real” science, had to adopt a stance of strict materialism and mechanism, just like those “real” scientists, the physicists, did.
To be sure, the physics envy trap was a capacious one, very good for Darwinism, ushering in a century-long record of brilliant Darwinian achievement. A price had been paid for this success, because physics envy had ultimately led Darwinism into a sterile dead end. In striving to be like physics, Darwinism had alienated the phenomenon of evolution from the unique phenomenon of life itself. All sorts of foolishness ensued from this, most notably a muddle-headed presumption that Darwinism was finally able to explain everything worth understanding about life. It is a short, and quite direct, line from Richard Dawkins’s brilliant The Selfish Gene to the strident and shallow schoolboy skepticism of The God Delusion. By my reckoning, modern Darwinism could not even define what life was. How could it presume to banish God?
The solution, I thought, was to revitalize Darwinian evolution by reconnecting it to life through biology’s second law—homeostasis. Darwinism could still hold pride of place as biology’s first law, but a coherent theory of life and evolution needed both the first and second laws.
Until finally, that day, I had to conclude that was an impossible dream. Modern Darwinism had wrapped itself into such a tangled skein of incoherency built upon incoherency that it would be pointless to try and unravel the knots. It was impossible to rescue. What was left was my erstwhile second law—homeostasis—now elevated to the first, indeed the only, law.
At the time, I was scheduled to appear on The Dennis Prager Show, so I decided that would be where I “came out.” In responding to one of Dennis Prager’s questions, I announced that I didn’t think I was a Darwinist anymore. To paraphrase Charles Darwin’s famous 1844 letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, it was like “confessing murder.” I was admitting, publicly, that verboten ideas—intentionality, purposefulness, design—ideas that would get me drummed out of the Darwinian club, could no longer be dismissed as the illusions of the religiously credulous. Intentionality, purposefulness, and design were not only real phenomena, they were necessary for a coherent theory of life, and for a coherent theory of how life evolves. Once I had abandoned the Darwinian idea as unsustainable, the logic of what was left pointed inexorably to the startling conclusion that living things evolved in a certain way, not because of blind genetic luck, but because, in a deep sense, they wanted to evolve that way. To put it as an example, dinosaurs evolved into birds because some dinosaur lineages wanted to fly. And so, they set about, quite intentionally, evolving to fly.
Needless to say, this completely upends the Darwinian idea. You can see why it felt like I was confessing to some crime. Yet that is where the logic led me, up from Darwinism.
Why should any of this matter to Christians, or for that matter to any religious believer? Isn’t all this just scientific insider baseball?
I think it matters because modern evolutionism is more than just a scientific-philosophical issue. It is one of those smoldering flash points in the ongoing culture wars that roil our society. These flare up with tedious regularity: fights over teaching of creationism, intelligent design, evolutionism, Darwinism, etc., etc. The latest skirmish was in 2005, when the ACLU dragged the Dover, Pennsylvania school board into Federal court to answer for the thought crime of an elected school board pointing out that perhaps students should keep an open mind about Darwinism. Much heat followed, but little light: important as that case was to the parties involved, the issues that drove that skirmish were indistinguishable from those in the founding circus of the modern evolution-creation debate—the 1925 Scopes trial, fought out in Dayton, Tennessee. Have we really come no farther?
The sad answer is that no, we have not. Even sadder is the old truism that it takes two to tango. It is very easy for believers to blame the intransigence and frank godlessness of the “evolutionists” for the stalemate: their claim would not be without justice. But it is not evolutionism alone that is trapped in a philosophical cul-de-sac: believers are also trapped inside their own self-made bubbles. The result is two camps, separated by a deep philosophical divide, both sides dominated by fear of the consequences of concession. On the one side of the divide, Darwinists see any concession to “the creationists” as a surrender to irrationality and ignorance. On the other side of the chasm, believers see any concession to “the evolutionists” as abandoning God and faith. There we have sat, for roughly a century now. Why?
We are stuck there because the evolution-creation “debate” is misnamed. It is no debate, but just one aspect of the phony “war” between “science” and “religion” that was ginned up in the late nineteenth century by authors such as Andrew Dickson White, John William Draper, and notoriously, by the Irish physicist John Tyndall. This “war” owes its origin more to obscure academic politics than to any principled debate over the best path to truth and enlightenment. As with all sophistry, it takes little to cut the logic to shreds, but as with any war, the supposed conflict between science and religion has been sustained for many decades by propaganda, historical revisionism, and, at times, the raw exercise of power. The result for our culture has been an Orwellian world of Oceania perpetually at war with Eastasia, at least this week, as the political situation demands. Consequently, the vital public discussion over evolution we must have has been dominated by cant and dishonesty. The health of our culture demands that it end.
What I have tried to do in Purpose and Desire is to cut through the cant to show that there is a coherent theory of life and evolution that recognizes both the reality of evolution, as well as the reality of the purposeful, intentional, intelligent, and designed nature of life. There is room in this theory for both scientist and believer, for both rationality and revelation, and for the great middle to find common ground.