When Robert Shedinger, a religion prof at Luther College in Iowa, looked into the ID controversy, he was surprised to discover that “this literature was far more scientifically substantive than the usual caricature, and this drove me to immerse myself in the scientific literature of evolutionary biology to see if it was as convincing as usually portrayed.”
Um, yes. And the longer such critiques can be evaded rather than addressed, the more substantive they will be.
Here’s the gen on his new book, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms: Darwinian Biology’s Grand Narrative of Triumph and the Subversion of Religion:
Is Darwinian evolution really the most successful scientific theory ever proposed—or even the best idea anyone has ever had, as Daniel Dennett once put it? The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms provides a comprehensive critical reading of the literature of evolutionary biology from Darwin to Dobzhansky to Dawkins, revealing this popular account of evolution to be a grand narrative of Darwinian triumph that greatly overstates the empirical validity of modern evolutionary theory. The mechanisms driving the evolutionary process truly remain a mystery more than one hundred fifty years after Origin of Species, a fact that can free religion scholars to think in more creative ways about the positive contributions religious reflection might make to our understanding of life’s origin and diversity. The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms calls for an embrace of mystery, understood not as an abdication of the scientific quest for truth but as a courageous and humble acknowledgment of the limits of human reason and an openness to a fundamentally religious orientation toward life.
Here’s a Q and A Shedinger has offered, outlining his thoughts:
- What is the grand narrative of Darwinian triumph?
This refers to how Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been passed from one generation of scientists to another as the most successful scientific theory of all time despite serious questions about its empirical foundation. This narrative acts to ensure the scientific status of biology as a purely materialist discipline, but actually undermines a serious attempt to grapple with the origin and diversity of life.
- How does this grand narrative subvert religion?
By claiming that the diversity of life can be fully explained in purely material terms–as the result of natural selection acting on the inherent variability of organisms–this narrative renders religious ideas about a creator God or gods or some creative intelligence at work in the world of no explanatory value. Religious scholars and thinkers are thus reduced to accommodating their religious reflections to this scientific truth in ways that evacuates religious ideas of their meaning.
- What aspects of modern evolutionary theory remain a mystery?
There are currently no good scientific explanations for how life emerged from inanimate matter or how mind emerges from the material brain. Likewise for the origin of the genetic code and the grammaticality of DNA. How and why did multi-cellular organisms evolve since single-celled bacteria dominate the planet and seem far better adapted to the conditions of life? How did the various animal body plans come into existence so suddenly in the Cambrian period 520 million years ago with no new body plans having evolved since? Why do so few fossil species show any evolutionary development over their life histories? This is just a sample of the many mysteries.
- How do you feel about movements like creationism and intelligent design?
As a trained biblical scholar I cannot read the book of Genesis literally or historically. The 4.5 billion year age of the Earth is well established scientifically, and the fossil record as well as the biogeographical distribution of species around the world is strong support for an evolutionary process. So I cannot accept strict creationist ideas. I am, however, open to the intelligent design idea that life’s history cannot be explained without recourse to some type of intelligent agent. I do not identify this agent with the biblical God as some intelligent design advocates do, but I am sympathetic to the criticisms of Darwinism coming from the intelligent design movement and the principle that life cannot be explained apart from intelligence.
- What motivated you to delve so deeply into the history and development of evolutionary theory?
I took over the teaching of a science and religion class from a retiring colleague some years ago and began reading intelligent design literature so I could accurately represent it in class. To my shock I found that this literature was far more scientifically substantive than the usual caricature, and this drove me to immerse myself in the scientific literature of evolutionary biology to see if it was as convincing as usually portrayed. It was through this process that I began to see the contours of a grand narrative of Darwinian triumph emerging from the literature.
- Why do you feel it is valid to read scientific literature from the perspective of a scholar trained in the humanities?
Because science is just as much a human undertaking as any other academic discipline, and the production of knowledge is always bound up with the exercise of power. Humanities scholars–and religion scholars in particular– who are trained to be sensitive to these power dynamics have much to contribute to an understanding of how and why certain scientific ideas develop and become dominant in a culture.
- Do you think the mystery of life on Earth will ever be fully understood scientifically?
It is impossible to say. But I think the obstacles to a fully scientific understanding are profound. And in many ways I hope the answer here is no. I find grappling with mystery much more exhilarating than knowing all the answers.