Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Darwin and Accommodation

Darwin mania continues here at CORE! Well, maybe not, but I am about to post a string of Darwin-related items. Before I do that and fuel the rumors of my closeted evolution-ism, I wanted to clarify my overall thoughts about Darwin. Unlike 99% (or 99.99%) of creationism, I don't think Darwin is to blame for much of our present predicament. By "present predicament," I mean the widespread belief that the Bible does not contain valid or true information (except for some moral truth). I think it's a "predicament" because I do think that the Bible can be a source of reliable information, and I think that the church (and science and culture) suffers for failing to recognize that. I don't want to be too specific on how we suffer, because I'm not entirely sure how it manifests itself. I think society's been wrong so long that I have trouble imagining what being "right" would be like.

If you've read my Answers magazine article Evolution of a Revolution, you know that Western culture (and British culture especially) had given up believing that the Bible could tell us reliable information about the past. Darwin's Origin of Species arrived in a world that was basically ready for it. Part of the preparation for Origin was the acceptance of an ancient earth (much older than Ussher or Lightfoot would have accepted), as evidenced by a vast fossil record that seemed to imply the previous existence of different worlds.

Why did this shift in geology happen? The origin of geology is a much longer story than I want to tell here, but I think the more pertinent question for my purpose is, Why did early geologists not consider the Bible a source of reliable information about science? To answer that question, we have to go way back to events at the beginning of the seventeenth century. As Galileo argued against his opponents and tried to prevent the Catholic church from condemning Copernicanism, he adapted an exegetical principle from Augustine that Galileo called "accommodation."

According to Galileo, since the Bible was not written only for scholars but for everyone (even the "rude and unlearned"), it was necessary for God to communicate in understandable language so as to convey the message of salvation. Sometimes that meant that God had to say things that were not strictly true, and as a result, we cannot rely on the "bare meaning" of the words of the Bible as a source of reliable information. Consequently, when science has established something that seems to contradict scripture, then we can conclude that scripture has been accommodated on that point (because science is not wrong).

I think you can see where this is going. I see over the next 250 years a gradual but inevitable erosion of confidence in the Bible. Along with that erosion is an intentional expulsion of biblical authority from all areas of scholarship. Physics and geology are first, and Darwin merely completed the process for biology. I don't mean to denigrate Darwin's intelligence, creativity, or sheer perserverance, but I do think that if it had not been Darwin, it would have been someone else. Given the state of scholarship for the previous 250 years, someone would have completed the secularization of biology had Darwin not done it.

Of course, we can also ask why Galileo got this whole ball rolling? It would be a mistake to blame it all on Galileo. The trend of rebellion against ancient authority had been well underway for at least a century before Galileo. You can see it as Vesalius doggedly critiques Galen's anatomical teachings. You can also see it in the Reformation itself. I think these earlier examples give us a better understanding of how we got where we are: In our zeal to throw off false or corrupt authority, we did the typical human thing: We went to the opposite extreme of relying exclusively on personal experience and rationality as the primary source of truth.

Why bother talking so much about Darwin? Well, for one thing, I'm a biologist and he had a tremendous influence on modern biology. Second, he did amazingly original work and developed truly ingenious explanations for data that most people didn't even notice. He was brilliant, and deserves a little recognition for that. And third, he wasn't all wrong. Yes, I think he was wrong to reject God and God's influence in the world. And I think he was wrong about the extent of evolutioinary development, the age of the earth, and the power of natural selection to mimic design. But he was right about the relationships of species, his explanation of biogeographic observations, and the nature of hybridization. Though I don't accept the near unlimited power of natural selection, I do think his critique of natural theology had a lot of merit.

So I hope that clarifies things a little bit. Hopefully, in the future, I'll be able to expand on some of these topics I've only mentioned here. In the meantime, tomorrow I hope to post my review of the Darwin exhibit, "Darwin's Big Idea." On Darwin's 200th birthday (Thursday), I've been saving a special "From the Library" that should be amusing. On Friday, I'll have a book recommendation related to Darwin. By then, I'm sure you'll be just about Darwined out. I'm pretty sure I will be.