Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Did Darwin Get it Right?

Did Darwin Get it Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution
George Sim Johnston
Huntington (IN): Our Sunday Visitor, 1998. 175 p.
Reviewed by
Thomas Scharle
About a decade ago, Our Sunday Visitor, a publisher of periodicals and books and other items of interest for Roman Catholics in the US, published an encyclopedia (Stravinskas 1991). It had a quite balanced, brief article on evolution, describing it thus:
Evolution: The process by which existing organisms have developed from earlier forms through transformations of characteristics in successive generations. The most widely accepted theory explaining this process is that originally advanced by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858, and subsequently amplified by the work of other scientists.
It goes on to discuss natural selection, mutations, and recombination. This discussion is followed by a paragraph dismissing any conflicts between any theory of evolution and Catholic doctrine, as long as one accepts the creation by God of each individual human soul. The book under review, although from the same publisher, takes a far different stance on the question of whether Darwin "got it right".

George Sim Johnston is described on the jacket of this book as a 3-time winner of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He is also the author of an entry on evolution in a recent revision of Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia (Johnston 1997), and one may expect that his book will appear on many Catholic bookshelves — especially in Catholic secondary schools. That is unfortunate for the influence that it may have on Catholic young adults.

There are some positive things to be said about this book. It does have a more sophisticated approach to the meaning of "creation" than is common in most fundamentalist or creationist literature. He recognizes the difference between creation and design, for example, and puts down the simplistic "watchmaker" argument of Paley (p 152-3). The author asserts no problem with evolution, common descent (p 16), and a 4.5-billion-year-old earth (p 30). He adds: "[E]ven if some day the origin of life were proven to be a mechanistic phenomenon (which is not very likely), I would be unperturbed" (p 125). Johnston also makes a commendable call for a debate in the calm and conciliatory "irenic" tradition of Church discourse: "The Catholic side of the debate over evolution should be calm and charitable" (p 154). Unfortunately, major flaws in the book massively outweigh these virtues.

He quotes a number of well-known Catholics who have considered evolution: among others, Popes Pius XII and John Paul II, St George Jackson Mivart, GK Chesterton, and Jacques Maritain. This may serve as an introduction to Catholic thought on the issue in the first 100 years or so after Darwin. However, Johnston overlooks a literature that provides a better coverage, including later generations of Catholic thinkers — for example, McMullin (1985).

Furthermore, Johnston may accept "evolution", but he finds "Darwinism" sorely lacking: "Darwin's theory is due for retirement within the next generation ... because scientists themselves now have serious reservations. The word 'crisis' is not too strong" (p 11). Darwinism, he says, will "someday be retired. Whether this will happen rapidly (in the form of a Kuhnian paradigm shift) or gradually, one cannot say" (p 154). And the retirement will also call for a "New Theology of Creation" (p 147).

There is no reason to catalog Johnston's "scientific" arguments against "Darwinism" for readers of RNCSE or for those familiar with creationist literature. There is nothing novel. However, this book makes a real muddle out of some very important and intellectually challenging issues in the dialogue between religion and science.

For example, some of the ideas seem entirely contradictory. Johnston reminds us that we must recognize "two different orders of knowledge — theological and scientific — and allow each its due consequence. ...Putting God in the gaps unexplained by science has always been a mistake" (p 17). And yet elsewhere, "[A] Christian physicist or biologist who runs into an intractable problem ... waits patiently for a natural explanation. If such is not forthcoming, he admits a scientific mystery and humbly hands over his data to philosophers and theologians" (p 22-3). Perhaps someone can make this all consistent, but Johnston does not give us much guidance.

One recurring problem with this book is that his presentation has many such major incongruities, if not inconsistencies. Although he does accept portions of evolutionary biology, he does not seem to give any reasons for this acceptance. Indeed, on the contrary, we find the same old arguments of the creationists — the arguments against evolution — on matters of common descent, an "old earth", and natural origin of life.

As an example, consider Paley's "watchmaker" argument from design. Although Johnston rejects that argument in strong terms, he quotes favorably Michael Behe's version of that argument, one which is a "challenge to evolution", even though Behe welcomes the parallel with Paley at length (Behe 1996: 209-16).

Another striking case is that, although Johnston accepts the great age of the earth, he objects to the accepted dating of hominid fossils. "[R]adioactive dating depends on several unverifiable assumptions" (p 89), he tells us. Perhaps some "intense cosmic radiation" (p 89) throws it off. In this case, he simply transforms a "young earth" argument into a "young man" argument.

An incongruity occurs in his discussion of the difference between chimpanzees and "man" [sic] (p 93-6). It seems to me that one of Johnston's major concerns is "in John Paul II's words, an 'ontological leap' between the rest of the animal kingdom and man" (p 18). Johnston is undoubtedly being deliberately facetious when he says that one distinction between chimps and humans is that we can understand "what the Super Bowl is, or the difference between Democrats and Republicans" (p 94). Of course, he does go on to mention other distinctions such as free will, conscience, language, and art. But once his facetious comment has called to mind that there are plenty of men and women, Americans and non-Americans, who do not understand the Super Bowl or who cannot tell the difference(s) between Democrats and Republicans, could we then also argue that there are humans who don't have free will, conscience, language, or art? And conversely, characteristics once thought to be exclusively human have a history of failure, so drawing such specific lines of demarcation between humans and other animals may create a sort of "'man' of the gaps" scenario — we look for gaps between humans and other animals that natural science has not yet filled and then move the ontological barrier into those positions.

Despite Johnston's irenic exhortation, and despite his realization that he needs to defend himself by saying "[t]his book is no diatribe against science" (p 12), there is one final incongruity. A great deal of the book is an excoriation of Darwinists as being downright malicious. He tells us both that the "tenacity of Darwin's theory ... can only be explained by its crude materialism" (p 15) and that "the tenacity of Darwin's theory ... can be explained by the fact that it is an effective club with which to beat religion" (p 106). Darwinism, according to Johnston, is a replacement for "political Marxism" among the "cultural elite" (p 10): "Darwin's apologists have few inhibitions about displaying a flippant agnosticism" (p 14). So all you Darwinists are simultaneously crude materialists, religion-clubbers, political-Marxist also-rans, and displayers of flippant agnosticism (I wonder if a Marxist can be an agnostic). Take that! But of course, take it only in the spirit of calm and charitable debate.

Johnston lets off relatively mildly those scientists who are afraid of making their anti-Darwinism known (p 11-2), and scientists who let down their guard when writing for a technical audience (p 45-6). Johnston's disdain also extends to various non-Catholic Christians, although not with the same bile. He thinks that Anglican theology is a "straw man" (p 59) — though it is unclear how something that is seriously advocated by millions can be a straw man. He also has disdain for fundamentalists and evangelicals (p 122). This is definitely not a book for "testifying" to non-Catholics.

Johnston spends some time in Darwin-bashing, telling us about how he was always either a weak Protestant or a stealth atheist, and how overall he was not much of a scientist. And Johnston does not think much of Darwin's family or teachers, either (p 19-23). Relatively mild ad hominem is stretched to the limits when Johnston describes how both the Marxists and the robber barons were Darwinists (p 100 and following). Then, beyond the realm of civilized discourse, he reminds us how Hitler rationalized his regime on the basis of natural selection, and then, surpassing the limits of outrageousness, he concludes: "It is a short step from Darwin to gas ovens and abortion mills" (p 103).

That is the kind of language that one would expect of those comic-book "Christian" publications, and I cannot understand the lapse of the publishers in allowing this obscenity. I do not know whether this comic-book treatment of scientists will succeed more in turning impressionable readers away from "Darwinism" or away from Catholicism. There is a place for calm and charitable — and enlightening and novel — discussion of the relationship between science and faith, but this book is not where to find it.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.