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How a theologian, two biologists see Darwin

The Washington Times

In this trio of books on science, evolution, and God, John Polkinghorne best fits his self-described category of “scientist- theologian.” He is a world-class physicist, member of the British Royal Society and an Anglican priest. His Faith, Science and Understanding (Yale University Press, $19.95, 224 pages) strikes at the heart of the theology and science debate. Is theology a real knowledge that has standing alongside science? He answers yes, and says that if any field has claim to a “Theory of Everything,” it is not science but metaphysical theology.
Our next two authors are biologists, and both Kenneth R. Miller and Jonathan Wells at least may be called “scientist-lay theologians.” They too try to meld the meaning of life with the “facts” of science.

Indeed, Mr. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Cliff Street, $14 paper, 288 pages) systematically criticizes so-called “creationists” so in the end he can posit that Darwinism has no conflict whatsoever with belief in a Christian deity.

By contrast, Mr. Wells’ Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong with illustrations by Jody Sjogren (Regnery, $27.95, 352 pages) does not mention God even once. Yet his criticism of how 10 popular “proofs” for Darwinism are either fake or exaggerated partly rests on the charge that “materialist philosophy,” or atheism, has been bootlegged into empirical science.

So while “Icons” is mostly a call to “clean house” in science, it also opens science to theology by weakening Darwinian hegemony. Though Mr. Miller’s work cites God to no end, Mr. Wells is silent–and this from an author with a second doctorate in the early theological controversies around Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

The Polkinghorne work is part reworked lectures, and part original essays. It sets the stage by saying that academic theology should have a significant role in a research university.

The retired Cambridge don also backs a modest revival in natural theology–the idea that God can be inferred from patterns in nature. He finds divine hints in a well-tuned universe that the mind can understand, and in the ways that “chaos theory” may open material systems to God’s providence.

On the truth of Darwinian evolution, Mr. Polkinghorne and Mr. Miller have no doubts. They disagree, however, on natural theology (which is fairly typical between physicists and biologists). The classic Catholic idea of primary and secondary causes – God is primary and thus utterly undetectable–works fine for Mr. Miller (a Roman Catholic), but not for his Anglican compatriot. Mr. Miller, of Brown University, tends to separate theology and science, adding that God “surpasses our ordinary understanding of chance and causality.” The British Mr. Polkinghorne, would agree that God is “surpassing,” but finds the strict separation approach, or the “two language” tack of a Mr. Miller, too reliant on pure faith.

Unlike Mr. Miller, Mr. Polkinghorne is in search of the “causal joint” where the rational believer can say God might contact matter. This has practical importance, says the priest, because modern rational Christians still pray and hope as if God intervenes in the material world and in history.

To locate God’s possible contact point, Mr. Miller cites the uncertain realm of quantum physics, and he quotes Mr. Polkinghorne with favor. But he shies from any theological detail, for his main goal is to show what “absurd” deities are proposed by three kinds of anti-evolutionists.

Young-earth creationists have a “charlatan” God who tricks us by making the world look evolved, and old-earth creationists have a “magician” God who creates species at will. Then, Mr. Miller goes after the “mechanic” God of the new group of “intelligent design” advocates – of which Mr. Wells is a part as a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank.

Once these strange gods are compared with the evidence-based conclusions of Darwinism, Mr. Miller argues, these “creationists” are “betting so consistently against science” for one main reason–they think Darwinism is atheism, as many famous Darwinists say. Not so, says Mr. Miller, whose final task is to show that many biologists like himself accept evolution with absolute confidence and still worship the God of Jesus.

We have here two able writers. Mr. Polkinghorne has been called “the C.S. Lewis of science and theology,” and Mr. Miller is a noted lecturer, debater and textbook writer–with no lack of confidence. “As a scientist, I find it easy to answer most questions about evolution,” he says. And while he can’t answer people’s objections about the “personality” of God, he concludes: “I believe in Darwin’s God.”

Then comes Mr. Wells, a concise writer with a dry wit who knows his theology but focuses strictly on Darwinian science (with a mastery of its annotated literature). The implication of his approach is that people who do science-religion may want to make sure the science is good beforehand. In his own doctoral work in biology, Mr. Wells says, he noticed a mismatch between textbook orthodoxy and articles in specialized journals. He quotes top scientists on their search for fact and “truth,” not myth, and their belief that everyone can learn science by hearing the evidence.

Thereafter, each chapter looks at an icon of biological education. Two icons – evolving peppered moths and “Haeckel’s embryos,” which look alike–are fakes used to teach evolutionary concepts, he argues. The other icons, he says, are cynically used despite heated debate over their validity in specialized fields. These icons are: the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, Darwin’s tree of life, homology in vertebrate limbs, the Archaeopteryx fossil, Darwin’s finches, the four-winged fruit fly, fossil horses, and the “ultimate icon” – human evolution.

“There is a pattern here that demands an explanation,” Mr. Wells says. Presuming innocence, he first states that the “specialist effect” has kept scientists ignorant of problems in each others’ fields. Less sanguine, he says the “English-speaking” Darwinian establishment, claiming a fight against “the dark forces of ignorance and religious fundamentalism,” commits icon fraud to keep its political and financial position.

All three works lead to a central question: How does the modern, rational, Christian believer conceive of God’s action in nature.

Mr. Polkinghorne keeps that possibility open by bolstering theological knowledge as a twin of scientific theory. Mr. Miller says that since the “Origin,” a God who gives freedom to nature always has been amenable to evolution. Mr. Wells suggests that Darwinian orthodoxy, using its icons to stifle dissent, may no longer be fruitful science. If non-Darwinian biological models are considered, he might say, then theology has new openings.

Reading these three books will easily bring a reader up to speed on the entire science-religion debate of the past 40 years. Each offers memorable phrases for future discussion: from the Polkinghorne “causal joint” and “active information” (aka the Holy Spirit) to Mr. Miller’s “Darwin’s God.” Mr. Wells may have the pithiest remark. He amends biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famed 1973 motto, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution,” to say, “except in light of evidence.”

Larry Witham covers religion for The Washington Times.