Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Render Unto Darwin

Render Unto Darwin: Philosophical Aspects of the Christian Right’s Crusade Against Science
James H Fetzer
Chicago: Open Court, 2007., 201 pages
Reviewed by
Keith M Parsons

Philosopher of science James H Fetzer argues that creationism, both in its fundamentalist young-earth form and in the guise of allegedly more sophisticated “intelligent design”, fails to qualify as science, and therefore is not a respectable theoretical alternative to evolutionary science. As the book’s subtitle implies, Fetzer holds that the attack on evolution is part of a comprehensive effort by the religious and political right to undermine scientific rationality and the authority of science. He further identifies the right’s attack on science as a single battle of a multi-front offensive by political and religious extremists.

Fetzer, of course, is not the first professional philosopher of science to criticize creationism (see Kitcher 1982, 2007; Ruse 1982; Pennock 1999; Shanks 2004; Sarkar 2007), and his critique is decidedly less effective than those previous ones. What made Philip Kitcher’s books, for instance, so effective was that he offered trenchant, detailed, point-by-point critiques of creationist claims, based upon a close reading of creationist texts, and informed by a deep understanding of the scientific issues. Fetzer’s treatment of leading “intelligent design” proponents Michael Behe and William Dembski is cursory at best. Fetzer apparently does not feel that it is necessary to delve into a detailed critique because he thinks that creationism blatantly violates the criteria that demarcate science from nonscience, and that creationist claims can therefore be dismissed without much ado.

In recent years professional philosophers of science have largely shied away from the attempt to formulate criteria to demarcate science from nonscience, for the simple reason that past such efforts have come to grief. Many attempts have been made to spell out the distinctive virtues of scientific theories, such as falsifiability, progressiveness, predictiveness, and so on, that are supposed to distinguish genuinely scientific theories from less worthy ones. Such proposals do not hold up under careful scrutiny. Larry Laudan seems to speak for the majority of philosophers of science when he warns of “the probable futility of seeking an epistemic version of a demarcation criterion” (Laudan 1988: 348). In other words, “science” has historically comprised a set of practices and beliefs so varied that they defy neat categorization by a one-size-fits-all set of demarcation criteria.

It is not, of course, that we do not value scientific theories that, among other things, are falsifiable, progressive, and accurate. Of course we do. The problem is that it is one thing to list some of the various virtues of good theories, but it is another to try to base strict demarcation standards on our descriptions of such desiderata. Consider Sir Karl Popper’s famous falsifiability criterion. Popper held that a theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable, that is, if and only if some observation, measurement, experiment, or other empirical procedure can discredit the theory. The falsifiability criterion is intuitively appealing, and, indeed, we do not accept a theory as scientific if it is compatible with all conceivable observations or data; scientific theories must have empirical content.

But as a candidate for a criterion of demarcation, falsifiability is fraught with problems (see Gale 1979: 199–205 and Chalmers 1999: 87–103), among others, that it seems far too permissive. If creationists and other pseudoscientists are willing to name any possible observation, however improbable, as incompatible with their claims, then the criterion of falsifiability cannot be invoked to rule these claims out of science.

To argue in the manner that Fetzer does that creationism is not science, we first have to say what science is. Fetzer says that the aim of science is to discover laws of nature (p 38). Further, scientific knowledge is expected to meet standards of conditionality, testability, and tentativeness:

Scientific knowledge assumes forms that are conditional, testable, and tentative. The conditionality of scientific hypotheses and theories arises from characterizing what properties or events will occur in a world as permanent properties or causal effects of the presence of other properties or the occurrence of other events. Such knowledge has to be testable, where it must be possible to detect the presence or absence of reference properties or events-as-effects in order to subject those hypotheses and theories to empirical test. Moreover, scientific knowledge is tentative insofar as it is always subject to revision due to technological innovations, the acquisition of additional evidence, or the discovery of alternative hypotheses. (p 38)

Fetzer then considers some typical creationist claims — such as the sudden and recent appearance of the earth and life, including humans, in essentially their current form — and concludes that such claims cannot count as scientific hypotheses since they are asserted unconditionally, are untestable, and are held absolutely and not tentatively (p 38–9).

Surely, though, it is too narrow to say that the aim of science is to discover laws of nature. Much progress in science occurs when scientists produce detailed, well-confirmed explanations of singular phenomena, or localized clusters of phenomena, rather than the discovery of new general laws. For instance, geologists offer detailed explanations of the structure of the Swiss Alps in terms of complex processes of thrusting and folding. This thrusting and folding is further explained in terms of tectonic processes such as the relative movements of lithospheric plates. Of course, such explanations presume that, at considerable explanatory distance, the basic laws of chemistry and physics are operating as the ultimate explanations of geological processes. But the proximate explanations of geological events, such as the Alpine orogeny, neither invoke such laws nor reveal the existence of new ones.

What about Fetzer’s claim that central creationist claims are not made conditionally, that is, they do not specify particular conditions under which such events should be expected to occur? Some unquestionably scientific hypotheses seem to have been asserted unconditionally. Standard big bang cosmology postulates the initial singularity as an ultimate, unconditioned fact. The initial singularity is unconditioned because there are, by hypothesis, no conditions prior to the big bang.

As for testability, are creationist claims testable? If, contrary to fact, the fossil record contained trilobites, dinosaurs, mastodons, rabbits, eurypterids, and coelacanths all mixed together in no discernable order, and if all sedimentary rocks bore evidence of having been deposited in a single, recent, cataclysmic event, and if remains of a large wooden ship were found on top of Mount Ararat, then, surely, young-earth creationism could claim to be not only testable but confirmed. The problem with creationism (besides simple dishonesty) is not that it is untestable, but that it has an egregious record of failure.

Finally, tentativeness does not seem to be a virtue of science but of scientists, that is, it is not a virtue of theories themselves, but how they are held. Scientists are rightly expected to hold on to theories only so long as the evidence warrants, or at least permits, and not to cling to them dogmatically, come what may. Therefore, to say that creationist tenets are not held tentatively may be an accurate ad hominem against creationists, but is not an objection to creationism itself.

It is not that Fetzer is a bad philosopher; he is a very good philosopher. The problem is with philosophy, at least as it is still too often practiced. Philosophers like Kitcher are effective critics of creationism because they are willing to get down from philosophy’s high horse and get down into the trenches with creationists. Philosophy’s self-image, which Richard Rorty mocked as “the tribunal of pure reason,” has too often permitted philosophers, as would-be justices of the high court of pure reason, to refuse to soil their hands with the messy factual details. Too often they have theorized with vague, stereotypical, and ahistorical images of scientific practice, and this fed the illusion that science, and its practices of explanation and confirmation, admitted of neat packaging into simple, rigorous accounts. More historically sensitive studies of science, initiated by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which, of course, brought its own distinct problems), were supposed to change all this and prompt philosophers to adopt a far more nuanced, complex, and historically aware understanding of science, its history, and its practice. Fetzer’s book shows that there is still a long ways to go in this regard.

Though Fetzer misfires against creationism, his book contains a number of very interesting and enlightening discussions of questions in the philosophy of biology, such as whether evolution optimizes and whether species should be regarded as individuals, as a number of leading philosophers and evolutionary biologists have maintained. The book can be recommended just for its discussion of these points. Also, some readers may appreciate the fact that Fetzer ties creationism to larger political and ideological forces that provide the impetus for creationism as a social movement and prompt wealthy sympathizers to bankroll its organizations. Others may regard these sections as a distracting diatribe, and view Fetzer’s unabashed characterization of the Bush administration and corporate miscreants as “fascists” as irresponsible agitprop. (I personally hold that some elements of the religious right, especially defenders of so-called “dominion theology,” are quite accurately and appropriately described as “fascist.” See Hedges 2006 and Goldberg 2007).

In summary, then, far better critiques of creationism are available. The main lesson that Fetzer’s book teaches is that philosophy’s attempt to legislate rationality by deploying its admittedly awesome logical weaponry, is an enterprise that should have gone out with Duns Scotus. Logical acuity is not enough; you have to know what you are talking about.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.