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by David Taylor
from Signs of the Times, No. 28 - Jan 2008
Like most people, even those who talk quite a lot about him, I've never actually read a book by Darwin. In my youth it is possible I read one or two books about him - it's so long ago now I can't remember. But everyone, even those who've never even read a book about him, everyone talks about him; and if you want to be taken seriously as any kind of scientist in the modern world, it is essential that you agree with him. Animal life is as it is, not because that's the way that God created it - so that man could give a name to a series of for ever separate and for ever unchanging species - but because it has evolved into these forms by a continuous process of natural selection. These species are indeed separate, but not for ever separate; they are unchanging, but not for ever unchanging. Most, if not all, species will eventually become extinct, to be replaced by new species which have evolved as a consequence of successful adaptation, through natural selection, to a new environment.
What is the Christian to make of this? Some insist that if the Bible says a thing, then that thing must be true. If Darwin's speculations (as they insist they are) conflict with the passage above, then the passage above proves - with certainty - that Darwin's ideas are mistaken. Others would prefer to argue that Darwin and the Bible are not incompatible: God did not, at a fixed point in time some six thousand years ago, create the individual species we see in the modern world. Evolution was the means God used in order to create the various species.
Despite the clear intention of the second view to be conciliatory, scientists will no more accept that than they do the first - which, they argue convincingly, scarcely needs discussion. Are there any remotely plausible reasons for insisting that an account, written getting on for three thousand years ago, in a culture in which any kind of scientific investigation was still unknown, must be preferred to an exhasutive survey of the evidence, and a well-argued and coherent theory to explain it? No sensible person, Christian or otherwise, is prepared to take the so-called creationist view seriously. But science is scarcely less charitable to the second view. Why? Because the theory works perfectly well without any reference to God at all, and if the reference to God is not necessary, then it is not allowed. As William of Ockham insisted of old: Entia non sunt multiplicanda. If you don't need the added notion, then you must dispense with it: note, not that you may dispense with it, but that you must.
Darwin's theory, unlike the biblical account, had in his own eyes, and has in the eyes of the modern scientist, no moral implications. Furthermore it assumes an entire universe which has no moral implications. In the hands of those who are not scientists, on the other hand, it has had definite moral implications, always of an unsavoury nature. It underlay the racial theories which were prominent in the early part of the last century, culminating in the atrocities of the Nazis. It has been invoked to justify every kind of ruthlessness in business and politics, under the banner of "the survival of the fittest".
It gets us nowhere for scientists to insist that these are abuses of the theory; they are, but such abuses are bound to occur when the absence of any moral implications in the theory is both admitted and affirmed. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so our human nature abhors a moral vacuum: we have to have moral implications in the world we live in whether that world offers them or not. Science insists that to infer moral implications from the world we live in can only distort our understanding of it. To speak more truly, it distorts our scientific understanding of it; but man no more lives by science alone than he lives by bread alone.
No matter what science says therefore, we have to have an account of the created world that has moral implications. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good (Genesis i.31a). Darwin had no interest in whether it was good or not; his scientific approach gave him no guidance on the question, which in any case he wasn't even asking. Had he asked it, he would have forfeited the esteem of all his fellow scientists. But humanity as a whole is quite right to ask it.
It's not a question to which we can ever claim to have found the answer. Science derides religion above all for its tradition of claiming certainty. Science, which deals rigidly with hard, examinable evidence, is aware that all its conclusions are merely provisional; further evidence may - almost certainly will - lead in the future to different conclusions than the ones we currently hold. The very fact that religion claims to have certain and for ever unchanging knowledge of what is good and bad, true and false, right and wrong, is itself the proof that religious claims are bogus - that, and the huge variety of such certainties on offer.
Those particular claims are. We should look on the Bible as a search for such knowledge rather than a revelation of it. Treated that way its value is unaltered. Its teaching that life is a gift of God, that man is frail and longs for a redeemer, that we are never alone in facing adversity, they may not be truths in any scientific sense, but they are as validated by our experience today as they always have been. No theory of evolution can rob us of them.
David Taylor worked in publishing and is now retired and living in North Wales.