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Sunday, 10 February 2008

Et Tu Tony? A Critique of Tony Campolo’s attack on "Darwinism"

Tony Campolo is a prophetic voice in the Evangelical community, prophetic in the sense of the ancient Hebrew prophets who challenged the Israelites to care for the poor and to "act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God" – not prophetic in the modern sense like, for example, the quackery of Pat Robertson or the wacky “prophecies” of Oral Roberts. And like the Hebrew prophets, Campolo’s voice is often unwelcome in large parts of the religious community in which he participates. I don’t always agree with what Campolo says (for example his “red-letter Christians” initiative - see a good critique here on John Stackhouse’s blog) but he is inspiring and a man of integrity.

So it is sad to see Campolo miss the mark so badly in his recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In an article entitled The Real Danger in Darwin is not Evolution, but Racism (HT: Ed Darrell) he lashes out at … well, possibly the science of biological evolution, possibly an ill-defined metaphysic of “Darwinism”, or maybe even Charles Darwin himself – the focus of his attack is unclear. I suspect that Campolo wanted to highlight that all of humanity enjoys a special place in God’s creation, and that ideas that deny this can be dangerous. It is commendable that Campolo strongly defends this important truth about human dignity. However, in my opinion, his argument is presented so badly that it probably does more damage than good.

A) Positive Aspects of Campolo’s Argument

First the positive: In the past (for example here) (HT: Stephen Matheson), Campolo has parroted standard anti-evolutionist claims that “Evolution is just a theory”. However, in the current op-ed he does not question the scientific evidence for biological evolution, and even states that “in terms of science, Darwin’s account may be solid indeed”. Secondly, he states, in opposition to YEC claims, that “the development of biological organisms over eons of time really does not pose the great threat to the dignity of our humanity”. Thus he is not insisting on a rigorously literal interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that itself can be damaging to the Christian faith. Finally, he concludes that there is an “infinite qualitative difference” between humans and that rest of creation. These are all great points, and could have been constructed into a useful argument against some of the unwarranted philosophical extrapolations to evolutionary theory being passed off as science (for example, the insistence that the biological connectness of humanity to other forms of life implies that we are nothing more than “gene machines”).

B) An Argument Gone Astray

Campolo, however, does not build a useful argument. Instead he repeats some of the most ill-informed and inaccurate anti-evolutionist claims. These include:

1. Darwin was a racist: Campolo claims that Darwin’s ideas are dangerous because they promote and support racism. This is simply not true. Campolo shows he grossly misunderstands Darwin by claiming that they do. At a minimum, Darwin was no more racist than most Christian Victorians, and as several commentators have shown, (see here, here, here, and here) he personally opposed racism and slavery.

2. Let only the strong survive: Campolo claims that Darwin wanted to abandon society’s weak. He states:

Darwin even argued that advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects. To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.
This is also false. These are the ideas of Herbert Spencer, not Darwin. Spencer took Darwin’s descriptive biological theory and created a prescriptive theory for human societies called Social Darwinism. (For a good overview from a Christian perspective on Social Darwinism and other extrapolations of Darwin’s ideas, see Evolution: From Creation to New Creation pages 51-64)

3. Darwin’s theories were complicit in the rise of Nazism: As Ted Davis has noted (HT: David), the relationship between Darwinism and Nazism is complex, and there is indeed some connection. However, the responsibility for this connection should not be laid on Darwin, nor should biological evolution be rejected because of Hitler’s madness. To paint Darwin and biological evolution with this brush is ludicrous. In fact, it may be just as accurate to say that Christian ideas were complicit in the rise of slavery and racism in the American south. Depending on your definition of Christian, and what facts you cherry-pick from history, this could well be true. However, slavery and racism should never be blamed on Christ or the Christian gospel. This too is ludicrous.

C) A Failure to Define this “Darwinism” that is so dangerous

I believe the central flaw in Campolo’s article is that he attempts to define “the real dangers of Darwinism” without in fact defining what he means by Darwinism – a word that can convey such a broad range of ideas that it has become almost useless except as a pejorative. Does Campolo mean Darwin’s writings? Does he mean the main scientific theories Darwin proposed (descent with modification through natural selection), or possibly the modern evolutionary synthesis that includes Mendelian genetics as well as other modifications to Darwin’s theories? Does he mean the extrapolations, and sometimes dramatic distortions, of Darwin’s theories outside of the field of biology (eg. Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and Evolutionary Psychology)? Or is he focusing his criticism on the (often atheistic) ideologies that claim all knowledge should be viewed through an evolutionary paradigm?

If by Darwinism Campolo means the latter of these options, then I would agree with his assertion that Darwinism can be dangerous. However, I’m sure that many (probably most) of his readers will interpret his use of Darwinism to be the scientific theory of biological evolution. And for this definition, Campolo’s claim is wrong. As I’ve discussed previously, there are no ethical implications to the scientific theory of biological evolution. It is a very good model for explaining the development of life on earth, but it provides no moral guidance (good or bad) for future human decisions.

It is important for Christians, as Ted Davis notes, to “Do one's best to separate science as science from science as grand metaphysical program”. (Allan Harvey’s proposal, that includes six different definitions for evolution and which I discussed here, makes the same point). We do not need to fear science. We should however, be leery when scientific theories are woven into grand meta-narratives that claim to explain the really big questions. These are questions that science is just not able to answer.

D) Conclusion

I have the utmost respect for Tony Campolo. His challenge to Evangelicals to take seriously our responsibility to the poor is sorely needed. We should all emulate his passion for defending the dignity of humanity, whether from racism or a denial of human spiritual uniqueness. But I believe his attack on Darwinism will be counterproductive. The easily refutable pieces of his argument may allow many to feel justified in also rejecting his implied conclusion: That humanity is created in the Image of God. More importantly, choosing between the “how” of human creation (biological evolution) and the “why” of human creation (to be the Image of God) is a false dichotomy. We are the Image because God declared it to be so, not because of how we were created. That is why each and every human being is important.


Another addendum. I guess I have a defective blogging gene. I had seen Campolo’s original piece a couple days after it came out but didn’t find the time to put my thoughts together. Actually, that probably turned out for the better. Stephen Matheson provided his own reaction, and a very interesting discussion ensued between him and David Opderbeck. Reading this (unfortunately after the discussion was over) helped clarify my own thinking. So thanks guys for the provocative (and spirited) discussion.


Anonymous said...

Nice post -- I think you get the balance pretty well here.

Anonymous said...

A theory simply is some way we explain the world we look at. If it explains what we see without error, it remains a theory, or it heads off to the stand next to the theory of the ‘ether’ in a dark closet of disproven theories. It makes no difference to whether a theory is true or false based upon who the author is. If Satan were the author of the theory of common decent and published it in the book of the dead, or if Ghangis Khan were the author, it would make no difference to whether the theory was true or false.

Atomic theory led to the ability to blow the world up. Yet we don’t use that to argue if the theory is true or false. We don’t use that to decide whether to teach atomic theory. Let’s assume of the sake of argument that a evil dictator studied the theory and used it to determine who was to live and who was to die? Is that the fault of the theory? Should we not teach it? The entire argument is to frighten us into not wanting to teach our children something because it’s “Evil”.

So what is left in the argument? Name calling. What is a Darwinist? Is that to put us in a group like, Methodist, or Baptist, or atheist? Funny, they don’t mention the fact we are also Newtonist, and Galeloists. Is someone who uses algebra to solve problems of this world an algebrist? Is someone that studies the Civil War a Historyist? So what is a Darwinist? A way of calling those who don’t agree with the theory “Evil”.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post!

Cliff Martin said...

Good post, Steve. And great observations, Elbogz. Judging a scientific theory by its social misapplications is foolishness.

I would expect better things of Campolo. He is certainly not a closed-minded fundamentalist. I wonder if some of these leaders have been reduced to pandering.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone attempted to contact Campolo to discuss the article?

Cliff Martin said...

This kind of "guilt by association" continues with an article by Chuck Colson released this morning subtitled "Evolutionary Foolishness".

It is true that there are some questionable social agendas being forwarded by some Darwinists. But when people like Colson take issue with those agendas, their line of reasoning assumes that this is one more reason why evolution must be rejected.

Perhaps a new term is needed to distinguish a worldview that includes acceptance of evolutionary biology from the worldview of Social Darwinism.

Steve Martin said...

Eblogz: Thanks for the comments .. good points.

Siamang: Did a quick google search .. doesn’t look like Campolo has responded to any of the criticism. Actually, not sure I’d expect him too. He gets lambasted relatively frequently by lots of Evangelicals for being “liberal” .. so he’s probably used to getting loads of criticism. It would be nice though if he was made aware that some of the criticism this time is coming from those of us in the Evangelical community that, in general, strongly support him.

Cliff: Thanks the link to Colson’s article. And I agree that we need a term that clearly identifies a worldview that rejects all the baggage anti-evolutionists try to hitch to Darwin’s scientific theories … but I think we might already have one – Evolutionary Creation.

Anonymous said...

Very good post! I too like Tony, but there are some weaknesses to his argument.


Steven Carr said...

'However, the responsibility for this connection should not be laid on Darwin, nor should biological evolution be rejected because of Hitler’s madness.'

Hitler explicitly rejected Darwin's claim that man and apes had a common ancestor.

From Hitler's Tischgespraeche for 1942 'Woher nehmen wir das Recht zu glauben, der Mensch sei nicht von Uranfaengen das gewesen , was er heute ist? Der Blick in die Natur zeigt uns, dass im Bereich der Pflanzen und Tiere Veraenderungen und Weiterbildungen vorkommen. Aber nirgends zeigt sich innherhalb einer Gattung eine Entwicklung von der Weite des Sprungs, den der Mensch gemacht haben muesste, sollte er sich aus einem affenartigen Zustand zu dem, was er ist, fortgebildet haben.'

'From where do we get the right to believe that man was not from the very beginning what he is today.

A glance in Nature shows us , that changes and developments happen in the realm of plants and animals. But nowhere do we see inside a kind, a development of the size of the leap that Man must have made, if he supposedly has advanced from an ape-like condition to what he is' (now)

Rich said...

Why is it a misapplication of Darwinism to say that some people or races of people are more evolved than others? Seems like a perfectly logical assumption.

(When I say Darwinism I don't mean the man. I mean the theory as it stands today.)

Steve Martin said...

Hi Rich,
Welcome. It is not correct to say that the modern neo-darwinian synthesis aka the theory of biological evolution says that any people or races of people are more evolved than others. “More evolved” is a value judgement that is not in the theory. The scientific theory simply states that some organisms are more likely to survive based on environmental factors. So, for example, in one case “a long skinny tail” may be more beneficial, in other instances “a short stocky tail” may be more beneficial. There is no value judgement on which is “more evolved”. As for the human race, modern biology has indeed demonstrated that all of humanity is very, very closely related.