The Oct. 5 opinion piece “God, Darwin and my biology class,” reprinted from the New York Times, brought quite a lot of feedback, a lot of it too lengthy to print. In it, the writer, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, explains how he gives his students each semester The Talk to explain the mental gymnastics they will need to reconcile his class with their religious beliefs: “Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a ‘theory,’ but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.”
If you missed the piece, read it here.
Here’s a sampling of the letters we’ve received. Some of these will indeed see print.
David Barash in his Octo. 5 opinion piece makes some excellent points that clarify a naturalistic worldview and its discords with theistic belief systems in evolutionary biology. Important points, as much for what he said, as what is implied. Implications that most people do not take into account when striving to reconcile clashing worldviews in any arena. As he notes, his biology class is built on a “scaffolding of evolutionary biology.” To be able to converse about any belief system, there must first be a framework of presuppositional beliefs in order to talk about a particular worldview. This framework is called “metatheory,” a theory about theories, upon which we base our understanding of the concepts we are investigating, studying or even attempting to live by. Barash correctly recognizes that the metatheory, or scaffolding, of evolutionary biology is naturalistic. In that metatheory, no supreme being exists, or if it does it is not relevant to the discussion.
From that metatheoretical position, he can state the principle that it is “irresponsible to teach biology without evolution.” He cannot have a teaching moment about biology without having that moment based in the naturalistic scaffolding that he has declared as his metatheory. Likewise, persons with a theistic metatheory cannot have a teaching moment about biology without having that moment based in their theistic scaffolding they declare as their metatheory. Ultimately, because they have antithetical metatheories, Barash and a theist can both be talking about biology but coming to very different conclusions because the theory about their theories is entirely different. He correctly states that the two worldviews can never be clapped together like Inherit the Wind’s Bible and Origin of Species.
Barash is refreshingly consistent with his metatheory and that creates discomfort even for those who agree with evolutionary biology. He rightly states that in such a worldview, “we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be.” Therefore, he can conclude that we are a product of a totally amoral process. Pain and suffering have no meaning or importance other than that they are elements of a naturalistic evolutionary world. He is correct that this truth is the only one we can arrive at via a naturalistic metatheory. He joins hands with existentialists and post-modernists to rightly declare that humans have no meaning and whatever joy or pain they experience are merely by-products of natural events.
Thankfully he makes no attempts to slip slyly into a quasi-theistic worldview that humankind has some inherent meaning. By being consistent with his metatheory, he makes no leaps about morality and ethics, because in a naturalistic worldview there are none. He does not play theistic Twister by trying to cling to both a naturalistic worldview of science and a theistic worldview of meaning, morals and ethics. Either a creator deity exists who governs both natural and moral laws, or there is no supreme being and naturalistic forces govern natural laws. There is no meaning, morals or ethics except those which exist in the natural order of things.
Indeed, Barash may make people uncomfortable when at the bedside of a terminally ill family member he would have to note that their death makes no difference, the laws of nature are at play, and there is no meaning to their suffering. They are merely an animal whose death has no importance in nature.
Likewise, he must state that there is no significance to clashes between Middle Eastern extremists and civilized nations. It is all in the natural order of things. One wins, the other wins, makes no difference. Most of all, do not struggle with so-called “moral” issues of our day. There are no morals. Do not give meaning to something that has no meaning other than of animals living within the natural order of things.
Does this make anyone uncomfortable? Too bad. Barash is being consistent with his metatheory, and he is calling on all of us to live into our metatheories, too. Have you thought through what your metatheory of existence is?
Like Barash, live consistently with it after you do.
Randy Marsh, Ph.D.
First, I confess that self-righteous condescension such as Professor Barash’s “God and my biology class” is very off-putting. He sees himself as heroically speaking truth to ignorance, first to his freshman classes (whom he must see as Christian fundamentalist and Republicans to boot) and then, via the NYT, to all the rest of us.
What is off-putting is his making it all sound so very idiotic not to believe as he does; to be part of religion’s “intellectual instability.” The real issue is not so much whether evolution is true but whether its claims are not way beyond the competence of science.
He claims evolution has undermined belief in an “omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.” He gives three reasons:
1. Natural processes are all that is needed to produce complex biological entities.
2. People are animals without supernatural traits
3. People experience unmerited suffering which a benevolent God would preclude. He even ends with a reference to the play (later movie) “Inherit the Wind,” which has precious little utility for truth-seeking.
Letters to the editor do not provide space to rebut Barash. Two points in closing: Whether evolution is an accurate explanation for the variety of life we see around us has little to do with God; those who are increasingly offering scientific doubts about evolution include scientists, some of whom are religious believers but many of whom are not.
Professor Barash of the University of Washington condescendingly explains why it is necessary for him to give what he calls “The Talk” on behalf of students who do not yet understand that evolutionary science has demolished and undermined “belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.”
Objective seekers of truth will find it enlightening to go deeper into the topic. In today’s vernacular we find two basic usages of the word “science.” Science as in “rocket science,” which requires observable and repeatable processes and is thus always verifiable. Or there is “science” as in “political science,” which while it may include elements of verifiable history and data, such as public polls, is subject to imaginations in its conclusions and is not consistently repeatable or observable. Where does the proper usage of “evolutionary science” fall in the spectrum of meanings for the word “science.”
Proponents of “evolutionary science” claim their ideas are like “rocket science” and cannot be refuted. Then they continue to claim sole, and unquestioned, authority over the topic of science in the classroom. But are all of the beliefs of evolutionary biology observable and repeatable? Questioning their ideas usually leads to demagoguery and name calling evidently because the typical evolutionary biologist believer is want to respond to thoughtful questioning that may raise doubts about his/her ownership of total truth.
If the above statement is not the case, if the proponents of evolutionary science truly seek object truth, will they please answer a few simple questions?
1. Observation of reproduction clearly demonstrates it is a degenerative process. Observe the numerous breeds of dogs. Each new breed is caused by selective breeding which (rocket science) observation will show is caused by a loss of genetic material, not the creation of new genetic material. And when dogs are allowed to breed freely, we observe movement toward the common dog as the genetic material is more completely restored. The same process is observable across the animal and plant spectrum. So where is the observable and verifiable reproductive process of creating new genetic material that is absolutely necessary if evolutionary biology is a valid explanation for the origin of man as a descendant from simple and basic life forms???
2. Evolutionary biology relies heavily on the fossil record to justify its beliefs. If the fossil record can verify evolutionary biology, it should contain thousands upon thousands of small incremental, transitional examples for such changes as: (a). The transition from extracting life-giving oxygen from water to extracting it from air; or (b). Animal reproduction via growth of the embryo external to the parental body verses the internal process of the same. But alas, the fossil record does not include a multitude of such examples, but merely a hand full of wildly speculative imaginations constructed from meager fragments of data not readily connected. Basic evolutionary theory cries out for such a proof (rocket science style proof). How can a thoughtful person believe the fossil record is valid proof of evolutionary biology except through imaginations to fill huge gaps in verifiable data???
Until Professor Barash is willing to include “rocket science” answers to basic questions such as the above in “The Talk” given to his vulnerable college students, he suffers from the same weakness he assigns to religious questioners of evolutionary biology: the necessity to “undertake some interesting mental gymnastics.”
Carlton (Smoke) Betts
In his Oct. 5 Point of View “ God and my biology class,” Professor David Barash plainly admits to proselytizing his undergrads on the “fact” of evolution. Too bad it also plainly exposes him as a jackleg philosopher, familiar with neither origin science nor religion.
First, citing Darwin, he confidently pleads with his captive audience members to ignore the illimitable superior spirit who revealed himself to Einstein and put their faith in the god of random variation that, he insists, is able to produce the wonderful complexity we see in nature. Perhaps the professor doesn’t understand that fish-to-philosopher evolution requires a ton of genetic accretion.
Richard Dawkins, dean of British neo-Darwinists, had the opportunity to cite one example of genetic accretion. His somewhat less confident reply can be seen on the YouTube video “ dawkins stumped.”
Next, exposing ignorance of biblical proportion, not to mention prose, Barash offers the straw-god argument against some mythical, omni-benevolent god. Where did he get that? Watching Oprah?
Barash’s students might be better off if they transferred to classes where professors stuck to teaching biology or religion instead of waxing philosophic on topics they don’t understand.
In response to the Oct. 5 Point of View “ God and my biology class”: The author argues that “evolutionary science” has undermined belief in an omnipotent God. He asserts that the argument for design often used by creationists is no longer valid since “random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of nonrandomness.” Evidently, he assumes readers will accept these assertions based solely on his credibility because he cites no actual evidence.
“Random variation and natural selection” are not evidence. They are rather the supposed mechanism for biological evolution, and it is the mechanism that is the core of the debate in the first place. When trying to prove the validity of the mechanism, we can’t cite the mechanism itself as proof.
The real question is, could this mechanism result in the new genetic information/increased complexity that evolution requires? The answer is “No!” Natural selection doesn’t create new information/complexity because it can select only from information that already exists.
Also, random variation/mutation inevitably results in decreases in genetic information, not increases. Former Johns Hopkins professor and information scientist, Dr. Lee Spetner, in his book, “Not by Chance,” stated, “Not even one mutation has been observed that adds a little information to the genome. That surely shows that there are not the millions upon millions of potential mutations the theory demands. There may well not be any.”
This engineer turned pastor was not convinced by the article.
Regarding David Barash’s annual “talk” to his students (“ God and my biology class,” Oct. 5 Point of View), despite his gleeful tone in describing how he peels away his students’ beliefs in God, his arguments are nothing new.
Take his claims that God does not exist because the natural world is cruel and the innocent suffer. The natural world was not meant to be this way. Every insect, fish, animal and human was meant to be vegetarian, according to Genesis. Who could worship a god who would intentionally create a food chain based on fear, suffering and death? But God did not create such a world.
Nor does God cause the innocent (or guilty) to suffer. Does God fling planes out of the sky or dish out diseases as his mood varies? No, again mankind (and sometimes rotten luck) is responsible for earthly tragedy. We have poisoned our air, water and earth, as well as our minds and bodies. We’re selfish and careless. We make mistakes and learn slowly. Why blame God for the world we have contaminated?
Barash claims humans have no supernatural traits and that our evolution gives no indication of a creator. Actually, Barash disproves his own theory by discussing the existence of a god. Humans alone can conceive of this. At some point in our natural evolution, we were made spiritually aware in a way that can’t be carbon-dated.
This supernatural distinction has allowed humans to know good from evil and the free will to choose good even at great personal cost.
I encourage Barash’s students to respect their teacher but keep their hearts and minds open. He’s just one dude.
Professor Barash solved the relationship of science and religion for no one except himself and those who accept his premises. His discussion is about evolutionary developments of material entities, not about origins. Science deals with material things that can be tested and replicated toward proof and can neither prove nor disprove premises about origins of material entities.
Science and religion are about different facets of life. Religion is about faith, which can be neither proven nor disproven, but can be examined seriously by logic and experience. Science is about matter, which can be both theorized about and studied, and sometimes replicated and proved.
Religion makes an error when it tries to make its authority, the Bible, a science book and a history book. Scientists make an error when they assume that their evidence about developments make their premises about origins valid.
The problems that students in Professor Barash’s biology classes have is a problem he should leave to their churches. He should teach evolutionary biology without attempting to justify his positions by trying to disprove religious faith. In that realm he is outside his field.
Sherrill G. Stevens, ThM, PhD
It appears as though the piece by Dr. David P. Barash appeared across the nation in other newspapers as well, hence a new method of propaganda as communists did in the old days. In this column, David P. Barash, the noisy advocate of “Buddhist Biology,” reaffirms loud and clear that new wave of atheism, like the sheep-clothed in wolf’s skin, is penetrating deep into our beloved Tar Heel State.
I, too, like Barash took a Ph.D. in zoology, and we both ended up at the University of Washington, but he chose the Department of Psychology, and I selected the zoology department. Presumably Barash changed colors since his book on “Human Aggression.”
What bothers me profoundly is his following statement: “God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation. This is undeniable.” This is precisely what theistic evolution is all about, as advanced by another book in 2006 “Language of God” by Francis Collins. The fundamental difference here is the label these two authors carry, Barash calling himself a nonbeliever and Collins identifying himself as a believer. They both are misleading public opinion, twisting the truth and thus causing confusion.
Barash sings a song same as the late Dr. Stephen Gould of Harvard University did to advance atheism in the the society. Nevertheless, Gould felt that the theologians must be independent to advance the teaching of gospel without interfering with evolutionary biologists advancing their pet theory of Darwinism. But Barash disagrees with Gould in his column, saying that there must be a dialogue between theologians and Darwinists, with his assumption that Darwinists will win. It is not a question of who wins, but it is becoming clear that both Bible and “Darwinism” are not mutually exclusive, and really are compatible if understood correctly.
Robert Y. George
Former Professor of Biology and Marine Biology, UNCW