Science, History, and the Fact of Evolution


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I would like to propose an approach to evolutionary theory that does not answer all of the vexing theological as well as scientific questions that have been raised on this site and elsewhere but that might help to re-frame the debate for Adventists and clarify what is and is not at stake. My suggestion is likely to prove dissatisfying to many evolutionary biologists and biblical literalists alike. This makes me think I might be on the right track. In brief, I would like to suggest that believers develop an approach to the evidence of evolution that models itself more upon the methods and assumptions of historical scholarship than upon the methods and assumptions of atomic physics.

Why There is No Intelligent Design History Historians, as a general rule, refrain from grand theorizing because they understand that life is more complex than any single theory could possibly capture or explain. They recognize that any attempt to interpret all of reality in terms of a narrow set of scientific “laws” (such as Marx’s dialectical materialism) will not be based upon truly scientific reasoning but upon a prior commitment to a particular worldview as a way of "reading" reality. The best that historians can offer, then, are more or less plausible accounts of why particular sets of events unfolded the way they did based upon the evidence actually available to us for those events, making clear their own presuppositions, biases, and theoretical commitments from the outset. But where no evidence exists, no serious history—and so no comprehensive or unifying theory of history—can be written.

These principles apply equally to historians who are Theists and those who are not. A scholar who, instead of mustering concrete and verifiable evidence, continually invoked divine intervention or “intelligent design” to explain historical outcomes would clearly not be doing her job as a historian. There is thus no debate about teaching supernatural or intelligent design history in American public high schools (or, for that matter, Adventist colleges and universities) because most believers fully understand and accept that historical scholarship operates according to a different epistemological grammar than the theological interpretation of history.

There might, of course, be perfectly valid reasons to think that history has a direction or purpose that falls under God’s control in ways we cannot predict or fully comprehend—even in the face of a great deal of unfathomable brutality and suffering. Believers should be free to state such beliefs and their reasons for them in the public square and in the academy without fear of censorship. And one would hope that history classes on Adventist campuses would include vigorous discussion of how theology might inform and shape one's approach to historical questions and to history writ large. But belief in God’s providence over human history is ultimately a matter of religious faith that lies beyond any possible historical “proof” using the tools of the historical method.

By the same logic, I submit, God’s control over natural history is not something that can or should be pinned down beneath a microscope. Theologically, many religious thinkers would in fact argue, a god who could be so captured or “proven” by science qua science would be a greatly reduced divinity—not the utterly transcendent, self-revealing and self-concealing God of Jewish and Christian Scripture who summons human beings to a life of faith that is not blind but is nevertheless built upon what St. Paul describes as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The attempt by creationists and some intelligent design theorists to reintroduce supernatural explanations of the natural world into science appears at certain levels to be less rather than more faithful to orthodox Christian teachings.

When Science Becomes Myth Conversely, however, any historian who claimed to have discovered scientific "proof" that there is no divine providence at work in human history—that even if there is a God this God is utterly detached from historical events; that all of historical reality can be explained as a combination of material variables, random occurrences, and naturalistic processes; and that in the cosmic scheme of things we now know that there is no overarching purpose or direction to the human story—would no longer be speaking as a historian but, ironically, as what can only be described as a true believer in the materialist metanarrative, that is, in philosophical naturalism as a controlling myth.

One might embrace the idea of God’s involvement in history and be a serious historian. One might also believe in God’s control or "design" over nature and be a serious biologist or biochemist. But any historian or scientist who denies, on allegedly scientific grounds, the very possibility that there is a God who acts in history—including natural history—is no longer expressing a historical or scientific view but a kind of metaphysical conceit, a species of intellectual hubris. To the extent that the theory of natural selection purports to show that all of evolutionary change has unfolded on purely materialistic grounds, without any direction or purpose, Darwin too falls into this trap. This larger materialist claim may be an eloquent (and at some levels even useful) conjecture for scientists to work with. It is not—and never can be—a demonstrable fact of science. It cannot even be submitted to any properly scientific test, anymore than the claim that God does or does not intervene in history can be submitted to any properly historical test.

One would hope, then, that biology classes at Adventist colleges and universities would not only teach the scientific fact of evolution but also clearly spell out and vigorously critique the pretensions of much evolutionary theory as a form of philosophical materialism (perhaps using a text like Mary Midgley's Evolution as Religion as a guide). One fears, however, that the absence in at least a few classrooms of such a forthright and unapologetic critique of the totalizing pretensions of Darwinian theory and the mechanism of natural selection has played some part in feeding the reactive and embarrassing fundamentalism that remains such a large part of our denominational culture.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1686