The Phony War between Science & Religion over Evolution

By Turner, Frederick | The American Enterprise, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Phony War between Science & Religion over Evolution


Turner, Frederick, The American Enterprise


How did we get into our present doleful predicament, where the best scientific understanding of how we and the world came to our present state seems to be utterly at odds with the deepest beliefs of many of our most moral and religious citizens? And how can we solve this problem with civility to both decent biologists and intelligent religious folk?

The roots of the problem can be found in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Newton's clockwork universe had deeply affected the imagination of the West. The struggle between science and religion, exemplified by the silencing of Galileo by the Vatican, was already a hundred years old. Now truce lines were drawn: Religion conceded to science that the material universe was meaningless, valueless, purposeless, directionless; animals were automatons; every event could in theory be predicted, if one knew the positions, momentums, and directions of all the atoms in the universe. Science in turn conceded to religion the whole realm of freedom, consciousness, meaning, value, purpose, and end. God, Who stood outside the universe, was granted the role of having set the whole machine of the world in motion. Human beings occupied both realms at once (notwithstanding horrendous philosophical problems of how an immaterial mind and a material body could somehow affect each other). If you followed your reason, you would occupy the world of freedom and value; if you followed your passions, you would become one with the world of material bondage and the meaningless brute beasts.

When the theory of evolution by natural selection exploded into the mid-nineteenth century, these truce lines appeared to be shattered. Political interests exploited the confusion. On the irreligious left, the theory of evolution was welcomed as proof that human beings were, just like any other animal, automatons. Thus this new view justified the Romantic agitation for sexual license and economic rebellion familiar to us in nineteenth-century opera and novels.

In a fateful move, the Right and its religious supporters accepted the Left's interpretation of the meaning of evolution and cried foul. If evolution meant what its radical champions claimed, the Right was agin it, and with considerable justice. The truce rules had been violated. Forgetting that the book of Genesis itself traces the line of human descent back to dust and clay, the religious opposition was scandalized by the idea that we were descended from ape-like animals. A human world of meaning, responsibility,

and freedom from material compulsions could not coexist with this degrading new theory of evolution.

Both sides focused on one relatively minor aspect of evolution--the ancestry of humankind--to the exclusion of more important aspects. Both sides hugely misunderstood the real, amazing point of evolution: Evolution, for the first time in history, had given an intelligible account of how novel realities could come into being. Creation, for the first time, had a rational explanation and a clear program of evidentiary proof for that explanation. In other words, we no longer had to abandon reason when we tried to explain how the universe generates a new moment every moment, how the unbelievable, beautiful richness of animal and plant species might have come about, how the forms of living things are so marvelously adapted to their function, and how the dust of the field, to which all animals demonstrably return when they die, can when rightly arranged give them sentience and autonomous motion. And if we redefine freedom as creativity--the capacity to generate novel realities--then it begins to look as if we have a rational explanation of freedom, too.

Indeed, the real point of evolution is that the universe itself is, to a large extent, free in this creative sense. Thus, far from being a triumph for meaningless determinism, the discovery of evolution might have been a victory for the realm assigned to religion.

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