a book review of
How I Changed My Mind about Evolution:
Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science
edited by Kathryn Applegate and J.B. Stump
(InterVarsity Press, 2016)
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 39, number 04 (2016). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Charles Darwin Is Our Friend, Right? The genre of testimonial memoir has a long history in American evangelical circles. Many Christians grew up reading short autobiographical tracts, written to instruct and encourage, about how some fellow Christian overcame alcoholism or childhood abuse, or escaped from a New Age cult. This book, How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science (hereafter, Changed My Mind) represents a new twist on that familiar genre. Here the unifying theme is not overcoming one’s sinful past and finding a saving faith but learning to reconcile Christianity and neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory—or more simply, “evolution,” as the editors and authors in Changed My Mind leave implicit what is meant by that term.
That’s a problem, and not a minor one. “Evolution” can mean many things: change over time, and/or the common descent of all life on Earth (Darwin’s Tree of Life), and/or the origin of life and all biological diversity via undirected physical processes, such as random mutation and natural selection. Moreover, “evolution” as it is taught in most universities and high schools comes bundled with a philosophy of science known as methodological naturalism (MN). MN tells us “the statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”1 This bundling of evolution and MN is closely akin to a complex software package: if one buys the main program, the other program comes right along with it, tightly integrated and running automatically, in fact, whether one wants to use the second program or not. Buy and install neo-Darwinian evolution in your mind, and MN will be running in the background as part of the deal.
In what follows, then, and at the risk of annoying the reader, I shall leave “evolution” in quotation marks. Changed My Mind does not define the term univocally, so each author may have his or her own peculiar usage. Below, however, I’ll show why “evolution,” as understood by most leading evolutionary biologists, certainly does conflict with Christianity. Yet if one party in a debate (i.e., the authors of Changed My Mind) sees no inherent conflict, while the other (i.e., prominent evolutionary biologists) sees conflict everywhere, we can be sure that the two parties are not giving the central terms in the discussion—namely, “evolution” and “Christianity”—the same meaning.
But Changed My Mind isn’t much interested in grappling with any of that, because the whole point of giving one’s personal testimony is not to reconsider one’s current position but confidently to persuade others to follow, and to show them that the path to overcoming, while difficult, will be rewarding in the end: “I overcame [whatever it was that the person overcame], and you can, too.” Thus, in twenty-five chapters, written by some real heavy hitters2 along with lesser-known scholars, the tortuous path out of biblical fundamentalism, or naïve young-Earth creationism, or misguided intelligent design advocacy is marked by increasing intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. The truth of “evolution” emerges as one writer after another overcomes his or her fear of science, or jettisons a misconceived reading of Genesis 1–11, or just grows up and learns to make one’s peace with the deliverances of modern biology.
Change Your Mind, because I Never Changed Mine. Curiously, however—in the notable cases of Francis Collins, Jeff Hardin, N. T. Wright, Richard Mouw, and Jennifer Wiseman—there is little evidence offered, at least in their chapters, of any path, tortuous or otherwise, out of “creationism” and into acceptance of “evolution.” In other words, little or no evidence demonstrates that these authors ever did change their minds about “evolution,” thus making the book’s title something of a misnomer where Collins et al. are concerned. Again, as I’ll explain, that’s a problem, and not a minor one.
Collins became a Christian after he was already convinced of the truth of neo-Darwinian theory. Hardin writes, “I never experienced deep conflict between science and Christian faith” and “My experiences in biology never generated debilitating cognitive dissonance” (p. 55–56). Wright says that conflicts between evolution and Christianity are largely a parochial American preoccupation, which he does not share (“I’m a Brit,” he quips ). Mouw explains that he read Bernard Ramm’s A Christian View of Science and the Scriptures as a teenager at summer camp “the way other kids our age were reading Playboy” (188). He realized that “theistic evolution” was an option for believers, and never looked back. Wiseman records that the apparent conflicts raised by her scientific education “had little to do with the science, and more with how we interpret Scripture,” and adds that the interpretative possibilities enabled by a judicious humility “prepared me to reconcile what I was learning in my college classrooms with Scripture” (83).
These five testimonies therefore do not recount a change of mind about the truth of “evolution,” because that never actually happened. Rather, the authors tell us, in effect, “I didn’t have a problem accepting ‘evolution’ as a Christian, so why should you?”
So What Does “Evolution” Really Mean? At this point, the precise meaning of terms becomes an inescapable issue. Ernst Mayr (1904–2005), a zoologist at Harvard University, was the leading representative of neo-Darwinian theory throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In a major publication near the end of his life, Mayr carefully defined the content of neo-Darwinian theory—that is, textbook evolutionary biology, the same theory that Changed My Mind urges Christians to accept—with respect to its consequences for our understanding of ourselves and the living world around us. Mayr writes:
The truly outstanding achievement of the principle of natural selection is that it makes unnecessary the invocation of “final causes”—that is, any teleological forces leading to a particular end. In fact, nothing is predetermined.3
…Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically. It no longer requires God as creator or designer (although one is certainly still free to believe in God even if one accepts evolution). Darwin pointed out that creation, as described in the Bible and the origin accounts of other cultures, was contradicted by almost any aspect of the natural world. Every aspect of the “wonderful design” so admired by the natural theologians could be explained by natural selection.4
Now, if Mayr is right about what “evolution” means and entails, namely, a world in which “nothing is predetermined,” then it is difficult to see how any Christian can endorse the theory in its standard expression. “Before I formed you in the womb,” God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “I knew you; before you were born, I set you apart” (Jer. 1:5 NIV). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reassures His listeners that their existence is not a matter of chance or randomness but fully planned and known to God in exquisite detail: “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7 NIV). Such passages could be multiplied for pages. God’s world is not random, and it will always require Him as Creator and designer, as a child needs her mother.
The plain meaning of “evolution” for Mayr (and other neo-Darwinian theorists), when contrasted with the unmistakable biblical assertions of God’s providence and knowledge of the natural world, creates a dilemma. Either neo-Darwinians do not understand their own theory, or “evolution” means something very different for the Christians in Changed My Mind.
That’s the charitable interpretation of the dilemma. The cynical interpretation would follow George Orwell’s bitter complaint, in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” about the prostitution of words, where an author conveys one meaning to the reader, while holding a private and quite different meaning for himself: “Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”5
Let’s take the charitable interpretation, as the cynical view says that not only are the authors of Changed My Mind unable to heed the law of noncontradiction but also intend to mislead their readers. Let’s see if any textual evidence shows that the Christians in the book mean something by “evolution” very different from what neo-Darwinians intend.
Sure enough, they do. Consider Denis Lamoureux’s chapter, for instance. Lamoureux, a Canadian biologist with theological training (and—full disclosure—a friend of mine), argues that “evolution” is best understood on a model of human embryological development. “God created us in our mother’s womb by using his natural process of embryology,” he argues (151–52). “This is also the case with evolution.” It’s a natural process in both situations.
Except that “evolution” in its full neo-Darwinian sense has no goal, whereas embryological development is the best example of a goal-directed process that nature provides. I can tell Denis that he would be unable to teach his version of “evolution” in biology classes at the University of Chicago (where I studied the theory), or to publish it in any evolutionary biology journal, without creating a huge stink. Goal-directed evolution is not neo-Darwinian, and that is why one will not find the idea in biology textbooks, or science journals, or university classrooms where MN currently reigns. “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”
But God the Creator is not a natural thing or process, and if He acted in cosmic history, science must eventually come to grips with that reality. —Paul Nelson
Paul Nelson, PhD, is an adjunct professor in the MA program in science and religion at Biola University, and a Fellow of the Discovery Institute, specializing in developmental biology and evolution.
- National Academy of Sciences, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998), 42.
- Prominent contributors to Changed My Mind include National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, popular speaker and pastor John Ortberg, University of Wisconsin biology professor Jeff Hardin, theologian N. T. Wright, Fuller Seminary professor Richard Mouw, and astronomer and American Association for the Advancement of Science program director Jennifer Wiseman. Every author in the volume has some connection to the science-and-faith organization BioLogos, which promotes “evolutionary creation.” See www.biologos.org.
- Ernst Mayr, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought,” Scientific American, July 2002, 80.
- Ibid., 81.
- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950), 83.