TWO THOUSAND and nine is the year of Darwin. February was the 200th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth and November will mark 150 years since the publication of his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. In the Origin, Darwin makes the case for evolution by natural selection by contrasting his view with “the theory of independent creation,” which looked to design by some external force rather than natural causes to explain the history of life on Earth.
Darwin’s arguments have long since won the day within science, but in the U.S. in particular, creationism—recently rebranded as the theory of Intelligent Design (ID)—continues to have wide appeal. In 2005, a survey of thirty-four industrial countries found that the U.S. was thirty-third (ahead of only Turkey) in the percentage of its population that accepts human evolution, and nearly half the population believes that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years. While U.S. courts have consistently ruled that creationist ideas have no place in the science classrooms of public schools, the battle against creationism continues unabated.
In Living with Darwin, the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher examines the evolution versus creation debate in historical context to show how and why Darwin’s ideas triumphed. Kitcher distinguishes three different creationist challenges to evolutionary theory. First, there is “Genesis creationism,” which holds to the literal truth of the Bible and claims that living things were created in their present form within the last ten thousand years. Second, there is “novelty creationism,” which admits the great age of the Earth, but rejects the idea that all living things share a common ancestor, and claims that major novelties in the history of life—such as the appearance of multicellular organisms, land-dwelling animals, or human beings—are the products of successive acts of creation.
Finally there is “anti-selectionism,” which accepts both an ancient Earth and common ancestry, but denies that natural selection (or any other natural process) is capable by itself of accounting for the history of life, and claims that it must be supplemented by creative activity that produced not completely new organisms, but new traits, organs, or structures.
Kitcher points out that the ID movement oscillates between a relatively austere anti-selectionism and novelty creationism, while acting as a cover for full-fledged Genesis creationism. However, unlike many critics of creationism, he does not claim that these ideas are inherently unscientific. As he points out, all of these ideas were part of serious scientific debate in the past. The problem with them is not that they invoke non-natural forces or that they are, as some claim, in principle not testable, but that they have been tested and have failed.
Intelligent Design, according to Kitcher, is not non-science, but “dead science.” Generations of devout Christian naturalists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries attempted to reconcile the history of the Earth with scripture. Instead, they uncovered a mountain of evidence that made such a reconciliation impossible, and Genesis creationism had ceased to be a serious scientific position by 1830.
Novelty creationism was refuted by the overwhelming evidence of common ancestry accumulated by Darwin in the Origin, and was abandoned by 1870. Anti-selectionism, on the other hand, survived into the twentieth century, but with the development of the modern synthesis of genetics and evolutionary theory, the central importance of natural selection was established by the 1930s.
Foster, Clark, and York’s Critique of Intelligent Design, traces the history of debates about design even further back, arguing that the contemporary debate between evolution and creation is merely the latest manifestation of a conflict between materialism and religion that goes back to the ancient Greeks. Foster et al discuss the ideas of the Greek materialist philosopher Epicurus, who argued against the creationist views of Socrates and Plato, and they show that the revival of Epicureanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries played an important role in the development of modern science.
In later chapters they examine the ideas of the three most influential materialist thinkers of the modern period—Marx, Darwin, and Freud—before returning to a critique of the modern ID movement, emphasizing that its goals are “more theological than scientific, more political than theological.”
These two books are largely complementary, but there are some noteworthy differences between them. One concerns the scientific status of creationist ideas. Foster et al argue that science is by definition committed to materialism and thus that creationism is inherently unscientific. Kitcher, as we have seen, offers a more historically nuanced perspective—creationism has been refuted and is no longer part of legitimate science, but two centuries ago it was. From this point of view, rather than being materialist by definition, the development of science has confirmed the truth of materialism.
The two books also treat religion somewhat differently. Although Foster et al agree that “in principle religion and science can coexist with a mutual non-aggression pact,” in practice they see science and religion as being on a collision course. Kitcher, who describes himself as a secular humanist, agrees that the idea of a personal god is “hard to sustain” in the light of evolutionary theory, but is more sensitive to the social and psychological needs that religion serves, and argues that creationism will continue to find supporters so long as those needs are not met:
There is truth in Marx’s dictum that religion…is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug—but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpalliated.… We should look more carefully at the causes of the pain, the harsh competitiveness of American life, the lack of buffers against serious ills, the atomization of society, the vapidity of much secular culture, and above all, the absence of real community.
Both of these books are useful contributions to the critique of creationism and the defense of science and evolution, both place their arguments in a broader social and historical context, and both deserve a wide audience.