Most of us find it annoying to be forced into a false dilemma. In a false dilemma, alternatives and gradations of belief are arbitrarily excluded as a technique of manipulation. Accept my version of orthodoxy or you’re a heretic!
Jews and Christians employ this argumentative strategy, not least when conversation turns to emotionally charged subjects – like Darwinian evolution. And not least when it is those on Darwin’s side who are talking.
But in explaining how life developed, aren’t there just two alternatives? That’s what we’re always told in the media. Either life accumulated complex features through a purely Darwinian process of natural selection, or the universe was created in six literal, 24-hour days, less than six thousand years ago.
Actually, there are gradations between the extremes of Darwinism and creationism. That fact often gets lost.
Consider Rabbi Shlomo Brody who writes the Jerusalem Post’s interesting “Ask the Rabbi” column. In a recent article (“Intelligent design?,” October 31), a reader queried him: “Why don’t more Orthodox Jews support the intelligent design movement against evolution?”
Rabbi Brody, rejecting intelligent design as “pseudo-science,” proceeded to state the case not against intelligent design at all, but against the very different doctrine of biblical literalist creationism.
He seemed unaware that intelligent design theory (ID) is a gradation of thought that may be identified neither with creationism nor with Darwinism. A scientific critique of Darwinian evolution, supported by the think tank I’m associated with, the Discovery Institute, ID finds positive evidence of a designer’s purpose in the fossil record, in the nanotechnology at work in the living cell, in the origins of life itself. It entirely accepts paleontology’s evidence that life changed and developed, with most animal body plans or phyla having appeared some 530 million years ago in the Cambrian Explosion. However, ID rejects Darwinism’s insistence that evolution may be explained as unguided, purposeless, meaningless churning.
Yet, from Jewish Darwinists, you’ll often hear the claim that, in the evolution debate, we must choose between enlightened science, which is no threat to Judaism, and scriptural literalism, which Judaism historically rejected anyway. “Judaism has never rejected science,” we are frequently assured. This is wildly simplistic.
Inevitably, Maimonides is brought forward as an authority. In the Guide for the Perplexed (II:25), he wrote that when a surface-level reading of the Bible is convincingly refuted by science or logic, then “the gates of interpretation remain open.”
But Jewish Darwinists often forget to read to the end of that chapter. In Maimonides’s day, Aristotelians argued that the universe had no beginning, that it existed eternally. Maimonides responded that he rejected the Aristotelian thesis for two reasons. First, because it “has not been demonstrated.” And second, because it made nonsense of Judaism: “If the philosophers would succeed in demonstrating eternity as Aristotle understands it, the Torah as a whole would become void, and a shift to other opinions would take place. I have thus explained to you that everything is bound up with this problem.”
Maimonides was not saying that any scientific theory can be reconciled with theistic belief, that our liberty to interpret has no limit, and certainly not when the science itself is wrong or unproven.
Another favorite authority of Jewish Darwinists is the 19th-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Again, Hirsch is presented simplistically as a supporter of evolution. Jewish Darwinists always forget to mention his explicit comment on “Darwinism” in the context of the idol, Baal Peor, worshipped in the most grotesquely animalistic fashion. To illustrate: “the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learns to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal” (Numbers 25:3).
On evolution, Rabbi Brody is right in perceiving “widespread fear and ignorance.” It can be observed in the Christian world as well. When Jews and Christians alike aren’t being forced into false dilemmas, we are given alternatives to Darwinian theory that can be imagined as reconciling science and theology only if the whole subject is kept cloudy and confused.
Thus the two most recent popes have appeared to speak of the Church’s comfort with “evolution” but without defining the term. Does it mean an unguided process or a guided one? One that gives scientific evidence of a Designer’s purpose, or not?
The ambiguity and hedging probably comes from a fear of putting their Church on the losing side of a historic controversy, and an unfamiliarity with the scientific details.
Last month, Pope Benedict spoke to a conference on cosmic and biological evolution held by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. His words were beautiful but gaseous, taking no clear position. The invited scientists at the conference included cosmologist Stephen Hawking, whose work denies that the universe had a beginning as Aristotle’s did, undercutting basic theistic belief. Scientists who perceive evidence of design in nature were excluded from the conference. No wonder Catholics are confused about what their Church believes.
Thanks to the prevailing murkiness, Catholic doctrine is often identified in the media with “theistic evolution.” Theistic evolution is another gradation of belief between creationism and Darwinism, but an unsatisfactory one. It boils down to the proposition that life’s history was guided by natural laws that God designed but in such a way as to leave no evidence of that fact.
One problem with theistic evolution is that natural laws are predictable whereas Darwinian evolution, according to its own theorists, is entirely unpredictable. Think of those laws that govern weather patterns or the formation of geological features. Not so with Darwinian evolution, which can take any of countless very different directions. How could such a purposeless process reflect divine purpose?
The question is far from merely academic. If we are the product of design, then the designer sets the moral order in which we operate. If we were cast up on the cosmic shore by a purposeless, unguided natural process, then every person can decide for himself what is right and wrong. Or maybe the idea of right and wrong is itself illusory. Darwin watered the seeds of modern nihilism.
To be sure, secular opinion has contributed mightily to constructing the false dilemma of evolution versus creationism, which well suits anti-religious purposes. What a pity that in religious circles, we are so easily intimidated or overawed by secularism’s prestige, automatically surrendering to its deceptive framing of this important debate.