Neither Darwinism, intelligent design explain it all


Guest Column

By Dr. W. Lamar Weems

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin was published nearly 150 years ago. The book formalized a growing notion in the scientific community that life on Earth has evolved from lower forms to more complex and specialized organisms. Darwin theorized that evolution has been driven by the force of natural selection through the mechanism of random variation and survival of the fittest.

His book has been taken by many religious believers to be an affront to the Genesis account of creation. The famous Scopes Trial pitted two nationally prominent lawyers representing advocates of teaching Darwinism in public schools versus supporters of creationism who opposed it. The controversy, which attracted world-wide attention, has obviously not gone away as evidenced by the spate of conflicting opinions appearing lately in lay and scientific press.

The United Methodist Church has not been a conspicuous participant in the recent debate, although a resolution adopted by General Conference in 2000 directs the General Board of Discipleship to “develop study materials for all levels of the church which will bring all the theories of evolution and creation to the churches in a manner which will compare emerging areas of compatibility and areas yet unresolved in a reconciling approach to the relationship involved.” Whew!

The Social Principles say: “We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world.” Further: “We also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the Universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible.” With this somewhat ambiguous language, the church has effectively abstained from active participation in the current heated debate over how the natural world, and humankind in particular, came to be.

For sure, life has existed on Earth longer than 6,000 years. Surely, it is not true that dinosaurs are extinct because the breeding pair fell off the ark. Such absurdities, and even many less far-fetched fantasies, should not be dignified by the serious attention of church leadership.

Nevertheless, the fundamental question of the origin and the destiny of life on Earth is not a frivolous matter. The subject deserves sober consideration by scientists, philosophers and theologians. What is known about the material world is within the domain of science, and new knowledge is best pursued through the scientific method. Science should be the guiding light in the understanding of the natural world. The mystery of what lies beyond knowing is a sphere of ignorance occupied by both scientists and non-scientists and within which science and religion often are in dispute.

Creationism is a religious doctrine. The existence of God and the manifestations on Earth of God’s power is a metaphysical reality to many people; although religious beliefs in general cannot be validated by tangible evidence. The companion piece is that neither can they be refuted, because things religious are beyond the pale of scientific investigation. The only authority, within the scope of our understanding which can be invoked to support the belief in divine creation is the “revealed word of God.”

The Darwinian theory of evolution is supported primarily by evidence from fossil records. Adaptations of living life forms have been observed in response to changes in environment both in nature and in the experimental laboratory, but the documented, dynamic changes have been minor variations. Species change has not been observed.

Nevertheless, the belief that the ultimate truth in this matter will eventually be revealed by scientific investigation requires a leap of faith in science which is tantamount to religion. While the ultimate building block of all matter may be discovered and a “unified theory of everything” may be formulated, the mystery of where the basic particle came from and how energy was generated in the first place will not be solved by experimentation.

When the quest for truth through scientific research comes down to the question of how something came from nothing, an impenetrable wall of mystery faces humanity. In the end, metaphysics will prevail over science. In the meantime, there is much to learn, and the search for knowledge should not be stultified by religious dogma.

The intelligent design theory is a recent fad in religious circles which concedes the validity of evolution theory, but contends that chance occurrences alone are not adequate to explain the complexities of living things; therefore, the process must have been designed and guided by higher intelligence. For most believers, the intelligent designer is God. There is no proof to support this theory which would satisfy the requirements of the scientific method. However, it seems to be gaining traction in the religious community. It seems prudent to digress in this growing debate to suggest that, for Christians, the intelligent design theory is problematic.

The Christian God is a God of love. Natural selection and survival of the fittest is a harsh system, devoid of love and compassion. It is easy to be beguiled by the beauty and grandeur of the natural world and to fail to recognize that this incredibly magnificent creation is the product of a cruel and implacable system in which the strong survive and the weak are destroyed.

On the face of it, the law of the jungle is inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. When the lion lies down with the lamb in peaceful co-existence as promised, what will the lion eat and what will keep the population of sheep from growing to outstrip available forage? When the concerned citizens of the world feed starving children in the Sudan, human misery may actually be increased in the long run unless the act of kindness is accompanied by a plan to replace survival of the fittest with a kinder, gentler way to stem the population growth which already exceeds the capacity of the land to support it.

Lowered mortality rates due to better nutrition and medical care are a cause for celebration. A gene may be discovered which causes aging with promise of increased longevity if it can be moderated. Such contrivances may upset Mother Nature to our detriment if we don’t prepare for the consequences. Humanity proceeds at its peril to suspend the dispassionate laws of nature, with even the most benevolent of intent, without having in place commensurate rules and regulations which are more consistent with humanistic and religious instincts.

Meanwhile, proponents of intelligent design theory should pause to ponder the paradox that a benevolent God would choose natural selection and survival of the fittest as the mechanism for divine creation.

Constitutional prohibitions aside, teaching religion in public schools outside a secular, historic context is inappropriate because of the diversity of religious beliefs. Creationism is a religious doctrine and should be subject to this constraint. The Darwinian theory of evolution is fit for inclusion in the scientific curriculum because it is supported to some extent by demonstrable facts.

Known facts supporting Darwinism, however, leave many unanswered questions. The uncertainties should be acknowledged in the classroom, leaving room for metaphysical explanations to be legitimately entertained.

The whole truth concerning what is known and unknown about who we are, where we came from and how we got here should be taught to children in public schools. Religious doctrine, including creationism and intelligent design, are more appropriately taught as part of a belief system in church, home and private schools.

Finally, all of humanity, regardless of philosophical persuasion, should share a feeling of togetherness and a sense of awe and humility in contemplation of the realities and the mysteries of the natural universe.

Weems is a Jackson physician.