Rebecca Reads Finding Darwin’s God

Before I Start Reading / First Impressions

Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller literally changed my life. As I’ve said before and will surely say again, it is this book more than any other which convinced me of evolution and thereby spearheaded my journey into atheism.

That is because I found his arguments from the scientific evidence entirely convincing, but his arguments for how evolution works with the Christian worldview entirely unconvincing. I have since learned more about evolution, and have found other reasons not to believe Christianity.

For the purposes of this review, I will disregard those reasons and see if his theological arguments seem any stronger now than they did then; to wit, can I see evolution as compatible with Christianity? I expect I will have very little to say about his words on evolution (he’s an expert in a related field and I am not), but I intend to pull out some pieces of evidence that I find convincing.

Preface

“The common assumption, widely shared in academic and intellectual circles, is that Darwinism is a fatal poison to traditional religious belief. One may, of course, accept the scientific validity of evolution and profess belief in a supreme being, but not without diluting traditional religion almost beyond recognition, or so the thinking goes. Incredibly, all too many traditional believers accept this view, not realizing that it is based more on a humanistic culture of disbelief than on any finding of evolutionary science.” -pg xii

I’ll put my view quite shortly, here. If there was no Garden of Eden, there is no theological need for the Garden of Gethsemane. Evolution necessarily requires millions of years of animal suffering before any human existed who could sin. So, I have to disagree; evolutionary science does contradict some religious belief.

Of course, the whole point of this book is to show that it doesn’t.

Chapter 1: Darwin’s Apple

“Nothing in my adolescent reading of The Origin could match the sensual poetry of Milton, the brooding darkness of Eliot, or the chilling spell of Dante’s admonition above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, O ye who enter here!” Pitted against these masterpieces, all that Darwin had to offer was a common-sense rendition of one obvious observation after another on the nature of living things.” -pg 7

This might be part of why I never read Darwin. Maybe I should someday, though. Miller proceeds to give a summary of Darwin’s main arguments, including that variation exists in nature and living things struggle for existence because of limited resources.

I will point out that I at one time denied the struggle for existence. This was, naturally, based in my theological belief that God gives every living thing everything they need to survive; there is no need for competition. Of course, this is quite obviously untrue; plants must die so herbivores can live, and herbivores must die for carnivores to live. As carnivores can’t eat all the herbivores, or both would die out, they must eat only some: those that lost the struggle. I must not have thought that argument through.

Those individuals that lose in the struggle for existence generally do not get to produce the next generation, but those individuals that do succeed get the greatest of all possible rewards–they get to pass their winning traits along to their offspring.

This means that the conditions of nature, whether acting in my backyard, on the Galápagos Islands, or atop Mount Fuji, are constantly acting on natural variation, selecting out unsuccessful variations and rewarding successful ones. When forces divide a single species into two populations, natural selection will act on each separately, until they have accumulated enough differences that each becomes a separate (and new) species. [pg 9]

This is the theory of evolution in a nutshell, and why so many creationists will admit to “microevolution” – it really is just common sense. However, that is hardly proof.

“Evolution, it seemed, was responsible for such evils as theft, murder, drug abuse, prostitution, war, and even adultery. I dismissed the pamphlet with a sneer, cleverly pointing out to my younger friends that the Old Testament documented nearly all of these sins long before The Origin, and it seemed a bit much to blame Darwin for all of them.” -pg 12

I’m fairly certain the OT does document every single one of those things, with the possible exception of drug abuse.

“The danger in evolution was that it struck directly at the fundamental assumptions of religion about the relationship between God and man. Evolution threatened the soul itself.” -pg 12

“One of the great beauties of evolution is that it is automatic. The combination of random variation and natural selection automatically selects the organisms that do best in a particular environment, and then rewards them by forming the next generation from the winners in the game of natural selection. The power of this simple idea extends well beyond biology.” -pg 13

It’s so powerful that it is actually a method of Artificial Intelligence in programming. He then explains an application of it to students who go through many tests in middle and high school before going to university, ending with:

“Students who are not proficient at test-taking are gradually weeding out. By the time they reach my classroom, only the adept test-takers are left. It works automatically, just like natural selection.” -pg 14

It’s an apt example.

“For nonbelievers like Richard Dawkins, Darwin provided the first complete, rational basis for rejecting the spiritual and the supernatural.” -pg 15

Quite so.

Chapter 2: Eden’s Children

“Scientific knowledge, in the absolute sense, is always tentative. Science is founded on the proposition that everything we think we know about the natural world can, in principle, be rejected if it does not meet the test of observation and experiment. The very practice of science, at its core, is a constant exercise of extending what we do know about the world, and then correcting what we thought we knew for sure.” -pg 21

This is a great explanation – you can tell he’s an educator.

“We may not be able to witness the past directly, but we can reach out and analyze it for the simple reason that the past left something behind.” -pg 23

This is part of a passage that definitively rejects “Were you there????” type “arguments” as entirely illegitimate.

“Scientific materialism assumes that the objects and events of the natural world can be explained in terms of their material properties.” -pg 27

“It’s true that scientific materialism makes a considerable leap of faith.” -pg 27

“The reason, of course, is that the scientific, materialist explanation works.” -pg 28

I’ve pulled out these three quotes because I spy a contradiction here. I have pulled the last quote out of context, a bit, but he is saying what it sounds like he’s saying: scientific materialism works.

This is not a leap of faith, considerable or otherwise. This is inductive reasoning. Every time that a material explanation has gone head to head with a supernatural explanation, the material explanation has won, because materialism works and supernaturalism does not (at least not with the same repeatable consistency).

The first members of a major group, and we can take the earliest amphibians as an example, are loaded with characteristics that betray their ancestry. Though Acanthostega, from the late Devonian, is one of the earliest true amphibians, its shoulder and forelimbs are unmistakably fish-like and its skull is very similar to Devonian lobe-finned fish. In 1991, researchers M. I. Coates and J. A. Clack discovered a stunning testament to this early amphibian’s origins—a fossil specimen of Acanthostega in which internal gills were preserved. These investigators were not reluctant to point out the importance of this feature: “Retention of fish-like internal gills by a Devonian tetrapod blurs the traditional distinction between tetrapods and fishes.” Blurs it, indeed. Let me put it another way: The first amphibians looked more like fish than any amphibian species that would follow them in the next 380 million years. That just has to mean something important, and it does.

If the appearance of amphibians with fish-like features was an isolated event in the history of life, we might pay this detail little mind, but that is not the case. The first reptiles to appear in the fossil record are more amphibian-like than any reptiles to follow. The first mammals have a set of reptilian characteristics so pronounced that they are commonly known as the reptile-like mammals. The first birds are so similar to another group of reptiles that some paleontologists have formally proposed that birds be classified as a subgroup of the dinosaurs.

Time after time, species after species, the greater our knowledge of the earth’s natural history, the greater the number of examples in which the appearance of a new species can be linked directly to a similar species preceeding [sic] it in time. These histories reveal a pattern of change, a pattern that Darwin aptly called not “evolution,” but “descent with modification.” Once this pattern becomes clear, and it can be found in any part of the fossil record, the theme of life is equally clear. [p 40]

I think this is a very important passage to note, because it blows the idea that we don’t have evidence for so-called “macro”-evolution completely out of the water, unless creationists want to argue that amphibians and fish or dinosaurs and birds are of the same “kind”.

Why, one might ask, should such a unique set of animals be found in exactly the same place as their closest fossil relatives? There could be just one answer—a process of descent with modification linked the present to the past. If the armadillo, to take just one example, was a species that had been created ex nihilo, why was it found in the exact same spot on the globe as the fossil species most similar to it? The answer, of course, is that the armadillo was found only in the New World because it had evolved there from its ancient ancestors. [p 41-42]

Again, I’m pulling out a few key pieces of evidence, here. For a really good look at all of the evidence he presents, seriously, read this book.

In fact, instead of pulling out passage after passage until I could reasonably be accused of plagiarism (or at least misusing somebody else’s intellectual property), I’ve bookmarked every piece of evidence and otherwise convincing argument that I would have pulled out from page 43 until page 167, which is the next page where I actually have something interesting to say.

2014-05-04 10.56.27

That’s a lot of pieces of evidence, and I didn’t even mark every single thing.

The red one marks a quote from Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box showing that that author accepts evolution. This is flagged in a different color because Lee Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, one of the creationist books that helped keep me convinced of creationism, devotes a chapter to Michael Behe’s argument against one part of evolution. To me, using Michael Behe to prove six day creationism is dishonest, and if I ever decide to review that book by Lee Strobel, I plan to point out this quote.

It is my honest opinion that anybody who is intellectually honest cannot read this book and still reject evolution. If you deny evolution, you owe it to yourself and those around you to read this book, especially if you are in charge of educating children or use creationism as a basis for any of your other beliefs. I’m not saying your beliefs based on creationism are necessarily wrong (the author of this book is a Christian, so clearly people can accept science and still be Christian), but they are based on something completely and obviously false.

I’m not joking about this one. If you have any doubts about the fact of evolution, stop reading this review and go read this book. Make it your top priority (outside of family or work obligations, of course) at least until you finish chapter 5.

Chapter 6: The Gods of Disbelief

Less than half of the U.S. public believes that humans evolved from an earlier species. The reason, I would argue, is not because they aren’t aware of strength of the scientific evidence behind it. Instead, it is because of a well-founded belief that the concept of evolution is used routinely, in the intellectual sense, to justify and advance a philosophical worldview that they regard as hostile and even alien to their lives and values. [pg 167]

I think Miller is both right and wrong here. I was unaware of the strength of the scientific evidence behind evolution, and as soon as I became aware, I changed my mind. That is why I see this book as so valuable: it gave me that awareness. However, I think there are people who deny evolution, or parts of evolution, only for philosophical reasons despite awareness of the evidence (Michael Behe appears, from chapter 5 of this book, to be among them.)

To Wise and many others, the disciples of evolution have crushed the innocence of childhood, poisoned the garden of belief, and replaced both with a calculating reality that chills and hardens the soul. How sweet it would be to close one’s eyes to “Darwin’s damn theory,” and once again sleep blissfully (Gould notwithstanding) in the bosom of Abraham. [pg 174]

He’s not wrong. Reality is rarely comforting.

“Our abilities to imagine the divine, which are surely part of human nature, must exist because of natural selection. They surely do not exist because the Deity is real.” -pg 179

This seems like quote-mining – Miller is here describing Daniel Dennett’s viewpoint. The only real comment I have is that, in the absence of evidence for a god, it is certainly more logical to explain people believing in deities through evolution than through asserting one is real. However, as the book is written largely for a Christian audience, and by a Christian, not much else needs said. Under the assumption of the existence of a Deity, of course the most logical explanation for our ability to imagine one is his existence!

“The conventions of academic life, almost universally, revolve around the assumption that religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated. The prospect of an educated person who sincerely believes in God, who prays and fasts, or who is naive enough to think that there is actually such a thing as sin, is just not taken seriously.” -pg 184

There is a trend pointing this direction, although there are exceptions, notably Kenneth Miller (author of this book) and Francis Collins.

Chapter 7: Beyond Materialism

A cynical critique of science might regard it as nothing more than a new kind of magic, useful only when it works as well as it does in these examples. But there is something genuinely different about this particular brand of magic. Trying science makes sense because science comes with a track record. Science works because it is based on causality. Once you understand a process, even a complex one, you can reduce it to the mechanistic sum of its parts. Then, everything that happens becomes an obligatory outcome of how those components interact. It’s just something that happens. No longer magic, but just a simple (and predictable) outcome. That, to paraphrase the title of Carl Sagan’s final book, is why science serves “as a candle in the dark” in this “demon-haunted world.”

We can light that candle to explain the commonplace activities of everyday life, by showing that an understandable, material mechanism is at work in each of them—in short, by showing that the phenomenon at hand is a property of the ordinary stuff of nature. That is the working assumption of materialism—namely that nature itself is where we can find the explanations for how things work. It is also the credo of science— making science, by definition, a form of practical, applied materialism. [pg 194]

It’s hard to see how this man could believe, honestly. But again, that isn’t the point of the book, so I am not asking him for evidence, but to show how Christianity can be compatible with evolution.

Fortunately, neither is the case. The indeterminate nature of quantum behavior means that the details of the future are not strictly determined by present reality. God’s universe is not locked in to a determinate future, and neither are we. Sadly, few theologians appreciate the degree to which physics has rescued religion from the dangers of Newtonian predictability. I suspect that they do not know (at least not yet) who their true friends are! [pg 204]

Isn’t using quantum mechanics to justify religion exactly the same as using evolution to deny religion? As in, if it is wrong to do the latter because science and religion should be separate, shouldn’t it be wrong to do the former? Miller spent the last chapter criticizing those who allow evolution to overstep its bounds by using it to deny religion.

We need not ask if the nature of quantum physics proves the existence of a Supreme Being, which it certainly does not. Quantum physics does allow for it in an interesting way, and certainly excludes the possibility that we will ever gain a complete understanding of the details of nature. We have progressed so much in self-awareness and understanding that we now know there is a boundary around our ability to grasp reality. And we cannot say why it is there. But that does not make the boundary any less real, or any less consistent with the idea that it was the necessary handiwork of a Creator who fashioned it to allow us the freedom and independence necessary to make our acceptance or rejection of His love a genuinely free choice. [pg 213]

This is fair enough, I suppose, although I’m not sure why a boundary in knowledge is the “necessary handiwork” of god.

Much of the rest of this chapter is little more than Miller asserting (quite rightly) that we cannot ever definitively disprove god. Unfortunately, that is the wrong way to look at the issue, as I’ve explained previously. Again, though, that’s not really the point I’m looking for.

Chapter 8: The Road Back Home

This chapter starts out talking about the anthropomorphic principle, and then goes into talking about chance. Essentially, the argument Miller makes is that chance events can be accepted while accepting Christianity. That might be fine, but as a creationist, the random chance was not the part of evolution that I saw (and still see) as contradicting Christianity. I think a good case could be made either way on the chance issue. However, what I want to know is how it makes sense for Jesus to die for Original Sin when there was never an Adam and Eve to commit it.

Later in the chapter, he speaks about the argument that evolution is too cruel of a method for a loving god to employ, and calls it strange and illogical. Oddly enough, he then points to atrocities in the Bible as though that makes it better. I wrote a post recently about the problem of evil, focusing largely on the Old Testament, but the summary for this case is simply that loving beings who can prevent it don’t cause or allow global suffering for millions of years. It is clear that nature is often brutal regardless of evolution, and Yahweh killed many children in the Old Testament, but that makes the case for a loving god weaker, not stronger.

There’s obviously more to the chapter, but nothing answers the conflict I saw. As a Christian, I was taught that suffering, most specifically the suffering of Christ on the cross, was the result of Original Sin. Under the fact of evolution, there was a ton of suffering before any beings capable of sin existed, and there was never a time when a single man through whom all men were generated existed, let alone ate any metaphorical forbidden fruit. Obviously, this leaves the question: why did Jesus have to die, or if he didn’t have to, why did he?

I find myself with nothing to say about chapter 9.

Takeaways / After I Finished Reading

The scientific evidence and arguments put forth in this book are every bit as convincing as I remember them being, and the last few chapters which deal largely with theology are actually worse than I remember. Not only do I find the arguments he presents in those chapters unconvincing in themselves (especially as they mostly assume the existence of a god, but again, Christian audience), but he never addresses the main reason I saw (and still see) evolution as contrary to Christianity.

I still recommend this book to believers, especially those who deny evolution. You may not agree with me after reading it that evolution contradicts Christianity, but I’m fine with that. I’d rather have all Christians accepting evolution, even if I see that as illogical, than all Christians denying it and being (in my own view) consistent.

I’m not sure I recommend this book to non-believers. It’s a good resource if debating creationists because the author is on their side religiously, but if you want to learn more about evolution, there is probably a better book. I say that not because this book does a bad job of teaching evolution – on the contrary, I think it is superb – but because I doubt any non-believer looking only to learn more about evolution would care about approximately the second half of the book.


3 thoughts on “Rebecca Reads Finding Darwin’s God

  1. It amazes me the length that creationists will go to prove the literal interpretation of the Bible. It is curious that men should want to believe it since it is almost impossible to be a Christian the demands being so great. Human nature does not take easily to a strait jacket as most sensible people admit. I believe at the bottom we have this yearning to be reunited with those we loved. Coupled with a desire that the world should be a just place it is sufficient to encourage alsorts of strange beliefs.
    We have a moral conscience within us which gives us no rest. Other animals are fortunate enough to be free of this impediment, and nature herself has no morals.
    You are now on the rock of science but it will give you no guidance as to how you should behave.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      It’s interesting you should make that last remark, because I have a book called The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris on my reading list, and it purports to make the exact opposite argument. I have not yet started it, so I’m not sure how I’ll react.

  2. You will look to your own conscience and balance it against your life-style and desires, and end on a sea -saw of happiness and dissatisfaction. The Bible neatly portrays the coming of conscience in the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Being an agnostic I can read the Bible or Scientific papers with out prejudice.
    May I wish you best on your journey walk where you have to.

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