B B Warfield as prophet

In the Light of Mark Noll’s excellent piece on BioLogos, I got hold of a copy of Noll’s sadly out of print collection of B B Warfield’s writings on evolution. The amazing thing is that the book does not read like a relic from history, but like a commentary on the current evolution-faith debate.

In today’s terms Warfield was a theistic evolutionist, but unlike many of today’s TE’s he took a sometimes skeptical approach towards evolutionary theory, and always placed his theology before his science, rather than vice versa. That immediately attracts me to him. Additionally I strongly suspect that, were he posting on the web nowadays, he would be dismissed (even by some TE’s) as an ID-creationist. I like him more and more.

So his comments on evolutionary science as it was 100-150 years ago are a valuable historical insight, as they are free of the baggage of cultural responses to Darwin that colour most discussion today. But what is more surprising is that his comments would be exactly as relevant to evolution as it is in the 21st century, not only in his understanding of the attitudes of those on the various sides of the debate, but even in his critique of the state of the science itself.

So, in reviewing the very books that established the myth of the science-faith war (and in disproving  their thesis pre-empting the historians of science by a century) he writes:

One attributes the present situation to the bondage into which what he speaks of as “so called modern science” has fallen, to materialistic philosophy, or even to satanic evil-heartedness. Another finds its explanation in the absorbtion of scientific workers, in this busy age, in a kind of investigation which deadens spiritual life… and totally unfits them for estimating the value of evidence other than that obtained in the crucible or under a microscope. Others suppose that it is the crude mode in which religion is presented to men’s minds, in these days of infallible popes and Salvation Armies… Others, still, conceive that it is advancing knowledge itself which in science has come to blows with religion and the outworn superstitions of a past age. (p132-133)

Can we not easily see YECs and GNUs faithfully portrayed here? And what about TEs like George Murphy in this quotation:

Accordingly, evolutionists are constrained to reverse the whole biblical teaching in this matter [of the fall]. What the Bible represents as a descent from morality, they necesssarily represent as an ascent into morality. (p128)

The complaint of many critics of evolution is that it is now hailed as an established fact, whereas it is really a theory in crisis. If so, it isn’t exactly new:

[The lay reader] is very apt to rise from the perusal of [their books] with a strong suspicion that, if the writers did not put evolution into their premises, they would hardly find so much of it in their conclusions. They all start out with the assumption of evolution as a thing “as universally acknowledged as is gravitation”, and supplied long since with “demonstrative evidence”; but they oddly enough appear to be still on the outlook for evidence for it, and cannot avoid speaking now and again of valuable material for its establishment. (p184-5)

Familiar? And you thought “Why Evolution is True” was a modern phenomenon! As, perhaps, you thought handwaving explanations to be:

A possible genealogy is made out, for example, for the Equidae which might possibly be accounted for by the doctrine of evolution. It is then assumed that this is the actual genealogy of the Equidae and that evolution is the right account to give for it. And then it is forthwith assumed that because evolution may thus possibly account for the Equidae, it is also the true account to assume for the origin of species and genera for which we cannot, as yet at least, make out any genealogy which is at all consistent with the doctrine of evolution – of the Trilobites, say… (p168)

Indeed, it’s as true today post-Gould as it was then that:

Darwin defends himself against the geological record rather than appeals to it. (p122)

Trilobites were a problem back then, because:

Evolution has not yet made the first step toward explaining, e.g., the origin of the Trilobites in the Silurian (=Cambrian) rocks…(p121)

Woops, that’s still the case, isn’t it? Then, as now, that didn’t stop people making firm pronouncements about the origins of life:

[Prof. Le Conte] tells us that “matter by combination, recombination, and therefore by purely chemical forces, rose to higher and more complex forms until it reached protoplasm.” …So it is not only a theory of self-creation, but it is a theory of the self-creation of all that is. …It will assuredly not escape the reader that this philosophical theory has no claim to be called science. It is purely a priori construction. (p160-161)

Warfield appears to be alive and well and writing under the name of “Meyer”! You may think it is molecular biology that has led to an understanding of the limitations of natural selection as the cause of speciation. But Warfield got there first:

We may add that, so far as observation can evidence, there appear to be limits to the amount of variation to which any organism is liable… (p124)

And did you think it was DNA sequencing that first threatened the tree of life concept and transformed it, as Eugene Koonin has it, into a forest? Wrong again:

Certainly if every new obtrusion of facts should still further separate the lines at their back ends, the genealogical tree will soon begin to look amazingly like a plantation of canes, each growing independently from a common soil; and the lines may become so nearly parallel that they will meet only at infinity. (p186)

But at least, you may say, evolution was a fresh and optimistic theory back in the nineteenth century. It is only the disillusionment of the years that has led to Dennet, Margulis, James Shapiro, Koonin, Sternberg and all that crowd casting doubts on random variation and natural selection as a sufficient cause for life. Let Warfield, writing around 1900, have the last word:

In the progress of scientific investigation is is becoming now somewhat more common to find [this attitude] adopted even by scientific workers themselves. An increasing caution is observable in assertion, perhaps, we may even say, an increasing doubt as to the universality and sufficiency of evolution. (p164)

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to B B Warfield as prophet

  1. SteveMatheson says:

    Warfield is definitely worth reading. I thought his stance toward evolution evolved pretty significantly during his lifetime, and I definitely don’t put Meyer into anything near his league. But I like your thoughts here, and I do think that keeping ideas like yours and Warfield’s in the mix is a worthy goal.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Steve. I guess the “What would he say today” game is as futile for Warfield as it is for Darwin (and less often tried!), but we could certainly use people with his combination of theological care and orthodoxy on the religious side, with scientific judgement and healthy skepticism on the science side.

    His views certainly developed, or even oscillated to some extent (though Gregory would insist they “extended” rather than “evolved”, there being no gradual change in meme frequency owing to blind selection for fitness).

    His book gave me much food for thought. It’s a great shame it’s out of print.

  3. SteveMatheson says:

    I wonder how many of his works have found their way into Google eBooks. I did a little search today and couldn’t find much, but a lot of his writing has been anthologized (as in the Noll-edited volume) and those hits kept turning up. I’d love to find the whole of “The Unity and Antiquity” since it’s only partially reprinted in the Noll book. If I turn up anything I’ll let you know.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Yes, please do Steve. Warfield’s approach is too important to be forgotten.

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