Surprised by Intelligence

A Religion Professor Discovers the Deficits in Evolutionary Theory

Robert Shedinger had been teaching religion for almost twenty years when he was invited to take over a Science and Religion course from a retiring professor. Given his undergraduate background in science and engineering, he welcomed the opportunity, but since he hadn't been following the literature in the field for some time, academic responsibility called for some preparation.

At the outset, "I fully accepted the idea that Charles Darwin had essentially solved the problem of the origin of species," he wrote, "and that modern evolutionary theory was simply a more complex extension of Darwin's basic insight and stood as one of the most successful and empirically verified scientific theories ever proposed." He was also prepared to accept at face value the stock assumption that intelligent design was just a newer, more dressed-up version of religiously motivated creationism. Even so, he knew intellectual honesty required "squarely facing the acrimonious debate between evolution, creationism, and ID." And so, "with great hesitation," he began to read the ID literature, beginning with Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial, followed by works of Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer.

To his surprise, he found them "interesting and scientifically substantive," not at all like the stock caricature. They raised serious questions about modern evolutionary theory. If evolutionary theory is as empirically confirmed as most biologists say it is, he wondered, then why do biologists create this caricature of ID rather than simply showing why it is wrong?

Something didn't seem right. He realized he was starting to feel some sympathy for ID. Surely, that was due to his ignorance of evolutionary theory. Once I have a better grasp of the latter, he thought, I will appreciate the problems with the former. So he went to the evolutionary literature—not just the textbooks and current popular science, but the original peer-reviewed papers and published works of evolutionary theorists themselves. He ended up spending an entire sabbatical immersed in it.

He was shocked at what he found.

Grand Claims, Dearth of Evidence

In The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms: Darwinian Biology's Grand Narrative of Triumph and the Subversion of Religion, he summarizes his critical reading of it all, "from Darwin to Dobzhansky to Dawkins," and in so doing, critiques what he calls the "Grand Narrative of Darwinian Triumph." According to this grand narrative, evolution is the most successful scientific theory of all time, with overwhelmingly conclusive empirical evidence in its favor—so much so that anyone who questions it is either unintelligent or a religious zealot (or both). You've probably heard this.

Shedinger discovered a big problem with it in the very place he least expected to: the evolutionary literature itself. A plain reading did not show Darwin's theory proving its superiority over all others, as the narrative had led him to expect, but rather revealed "a continuing saga of contestation over fundamental, still unresolved, questions." To be sure, sagas of contestation and unresolved questions are part and parcel of the way science works, but that's scant cover for the problem Shedinger discovered: the scientific literature that was supposed to be supporting the narrative . . . did not support the narrative. He explains:

I was shocked when I began to recognize just how ambiguous and tentative so much of this literature is. It is littered with caveats, inconsistencies, unsupported assumptions, grand claims backed by a dearth of empirical evidence, and perhaps most surprising of all, by "religious" terms such as "orthodoxy," "heresy," "dogma," "creed," and "blasphemy."

The more he read, the more he became convinced that evolutionary biologists to this day do not know the mechanisms by which evolution occurs, hence the title, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

Academic Disciplines in Conflict

If biologists don't know how evolution occurs, then whence cometh the triumphalism? Shedinger doesn't speculate about anyone's motives, but he does suggest several functions the narrative serves. It:

• Serves the guild interests of the biological establishment. Prior to Darwin, biology, or natural history as it was formerly called, was much more bound up with religion than were the other emerging sciences. Evolution by natural selection made way for establishing biology as a "proper" science, one on equal naturalistic footing with chemistry and physics.

• Subjugates the disciplines of religion and theology, requiring them and other branches of knowledge to adjust accordingly, thus shoring up the naturalistic paradigm in the academy and beyond.

• Provides a litmus test for intellectual acceptability. Espouse the narrative and you pass. Dissent at your own risk. The litmus test in turn serves the ideological agenda of ensuring philosophical naturalism in all things by providing a backup safeguard against any would-be rogue nonconformist.

"This idea that religious ideas must always be reformulated in the light of science—never the reverse—is pervasive in the literature addressing the religion-science dialectic," Shedinger writes. And then he raises a reasonable question: Why must religious ideas necessarily be reformulated based on a narrative ungrounded in empirically verified science?

It's a fair question.

Deceived by "Progress"

It would be a mistake to take The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms as an argument for ID. Shedinger explicitly states he's not making that case, though he does say ID arguments should be taken seriously and that the scorn with which they are commonly met is "manifestly unfair." Primarily, he seems to be making a case for the reinstatement of religion as a valid field of knowledge, no longer expected to submit itself, unquestioningly, to ill-established claims based on an unsubstantiated paradigm.

Shedinger goes so far as to say that we've been "deceived by Darwin" and that even evolutionary biologists, who often rely on oversimplified textbook discussions of complex questions, are susceptible to the deception. He's right. We have been deceived. But the deception actually precedes Darwin. It traces back to the philosophy known as Progress, which arose in eighteenth-century Europe and which was the de facto belief about reality by the time Darwin started publishing his ideas.

According to the paradigm of Progress, the human condition has been continually improving over time and will continue to do so unceasingly into the future. Historian J. B. Bury says that by the late nineteenth century, this paradigm had become a general article of faith, "assumed as an axiom," and Tom Bethell, writing in Darwin's House of Cards, says we should read Darwin in light of this prevailing zeitgeist of universal progress. What Darwin did, then, on this reading of intellectual history, was to effectively take what the general public had already adopted philosophically and suggest a way by which it may have come about biologically.

Following the acceptance of Darwin's narrative about biology, an analogous recasting of history took place with respect to religion and theology. In the TruU series Is the Bible Reliable? Stephen Meyer explains that by the late nineteenth century, the intellectual shift from Judeo-Christian theism to scientific materialism was near complete. And so it was all but inevitable that someone would turn the materialistic lens back onto the outgoing worldview.

In 1878, German literary critic Julius Wellhausen explicitly did just that. In Geschichte Israels, Bd 1 ("History of Israel, Vol. 1"), Wellhausen took an evolutionary approach to both religion and the Bible. Religion, he theorized, had evolved over human history from pantheism to polytheism to monotheism, while the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah or the Pentateuch, had also "evolved," literarily speaking, over a long period of time. Up until this point, Jewish and Christian scholars had held that the Pentateuch had been written by Moses sometime after the Exodus from Egypt. But according to Wellhausen's new evolutionary history, it had been written more than a thousand years after the events it recounts, by at least four authors, over a ­period spanning hundreds of years.

Wellhausen and his co-theorists based this idea on what they saw as different styles of writing and different names used in the text to refer to God. But those who analyze things at the worldview level should discern behind this recasting the naturalistic presupposition driving the whole enterprise. Wellhausen's theory came to be called the Documentary Hypothesis, and this secular, desacralized approach to the Bible came to be known as "Higher Criticism" or the "historical-critical method."

So, just as Darwin had taken naturalistic Progress as a given and then proposed biological evolution for the origin of species, Wellhausen took biological evolution as a given and then proposed a naturalistic origin for the Bible. Shedinger only concerns himself with evolutionary theory in biology, but this historical-critical twist on Judeo-Christian religion and the Bible is equally ripe for critical reexamination, as it was based on the same naturalistic worldview.

In any event, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms, which sets forth what Shedinger found in the evolutionary literature, apart from the distortive lens of the triumphal narrative, is a welcome contribution to the science and faith discussion.

"What Is True?"

Phillip Johnson wrote in The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism that "the dominance of the scientific naturalist definition of knowledge eventually ensures that no independent source of knowledge will be recognized." Some twenty years later, Shedinger, as a representative of one of those derecognized disciplines, has put forth a formidable challenge to biology's profligately overextended knowledge claims. He hopes it will free his colleagues from what he calls "slavish capitulation to Darwinism" and reinstate religion as a viable source of knowledge. And it's especially formidable because it challenges the claims of biology on their own grounds. He quotes liberally from evolutionary theorists themselves, to the extent that they effectively make the case for him.

Regarding the religion-science dialectic, the perceived dichotomy between the two will persist as long as people look to either one of them as an authoritative disseminator of truth. The reason Shedinger was shocked at the disconnect between the narrative and the literature was probably twofold: (1) he'd been looking to science as the authoritative source of knowledge, and (2) he'd been trusting in the integrity of science and its communicators to truthfully convey what is and is not known with empirical verification to be true. Faith in the reliability of science derives from its empirical verifiability, but once science adopted naturalism as its foundation, it became a venture built on a faith proposition. This is because naturalism itself is empirically unverifiable, but is rather a faith-based, philosophical presupposition.

Shedinger brushes aside the stock criticism of ID that it's "not science" and instead suggests that we ask not, "What is science?" but "What is true?" I cannot think of a better question to ask. If religion will now take a fresh look at the Scriptures, apart from the distortive lens of naturalism, that would be the most welcome contribution of all to the science and faith discussion.

has a BS in Computer Science and worked as a software engineer with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, IN, where she works as Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #52, Spring 2020 Copyright © 2021 Salvo |


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