Denton’s Book and Biologos

Since Jon is busy with his new band, I thought I might sneak in here and fill a space. I haven’t asked him, so I hope he doesnt mind. Jon has already mentioned and linked to my book review of Michael Denton’s new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. I wanted to post here some of my observations, not about the book, that is what the review is for, but about the reception of the review.

The back story is that I had offered to review a different book, and Jim Stump, Biologos Senior Editor suggested I look at the Denton book instead. I agreed. My wife (Aniko Albert) and I read the book in a couple of days, compared notes, and wrote the review in a very intensive 36 hour period. We submitted it to Jim who was also in the process of reading the book. I had not yet read Darrell Falk’s Amazon review. On Monday, Jim told me that he and other senior folks at Biologos were excited, and they decided to write both a long introduction to the review under Jim’s byline, (which isn’t unusual) as well as a Summary by the Biologos Editorial Team (which is). It was clear to me that Biologos was happy with the review, although I do not speak for them, and Im sure there were some diverse views (as there were with my wife and I).

The review was posted on the site on Tuesday Feb 9, and didn’t get much attention right away. Eventually comments began to come in, and the thread is still going on, approaching 200 comments. But, aside from very perceptive and useful comments from our Hump Colleague Eddie, and a couple from Jon, (here and on my own blog, as well as Biologos) most of the comments were pretty much off topic.

The key point of both my own and Darrell’s review was that Denton’s book was a clear signal from Discovery that the hatchet could theoretically be buried. I have not spoken to Darrell, but my guess is that he would like as much as I would to see this happen. And from the reaction of the Biologos staff to my review, I was, and remain quite optimistic about this possibility.

The commenters however seemed to have missed the point. After a good deal of discussion about ID in general, the terrible title of the book, and so on, the discussion drifted to RNA world and lots of bickering. (Nothing new there). It eventually became clear that later arrivals to the thread didnt even know that the subject was a review of Denton’s book. One commenter actually asked if anyone had read the book.

I want to give  a shout out to Eddie for putting a great deal of effort into promoting Denton’s ideas and the “evolutionary” wing of ID. I am a bit disappointed that Biologos commenters are not responding to his (and mine also) attempts to emphasize the importance of this book for reconciliation between ID and EC. But, its early days yet, and hopefully other EC types will post positive or at least partly positive reviews, and eventually we will see some good results arising from this book. As I said at the end of the review, I think the Spirit is moving us in that direction. May God’s will be done.

Sy Garte

About Sy Garte

Dr Sy Garte earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the City University of New York, where he also holds a bachelor’s of science degree in chemistry. In addition to publishing more than 200 scientific publications in genetics, epidemiology, the environment and other areas, Dr. Garte is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (Amacom) and Genetic Susceptibility to Environmental Carcinogenesis (Kluwer) and is co-editor of Molecular Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases (Wiley).
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11 Responses to Denton’s Book and Biologos

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for writing this, Sy – and for the review itself, which deserves to be a landmark in the history of science-faith “sociology”.

    I’ve still to read Denton, but from what I hear he largely waves a flag for a version of the old pre-Neodarwinian structuralism, which by showing that “all is not Darwinian” opens up the field for many new insights once more. The strait-jacket is off (as I think Suzan Mazur’s book shows for biology generally), and Denton might help remove it for TEs and, inversely, for IDists.

    One ID commentator said that Denton specifically excludes an entirely law-driven (semi-deistic) evolution because structuralism can’t account for all the contingent detail we see, and so he says that other mechanisms – whether adaptive, neutral or by divine designing action – must also be taken into account. From my point of view, that means ECs must seriously engage with divine providence again, rather than lapse into even a post-Darwinian scientism.

    That BioLogos in its “official” capacity was enthusiastic about your review is indeed important, and the general “don’t get it” attitude of rank-and-file posters there is a disappointment. My impression is that there are far too many people keen to spend time in the fruitless task of defining ID, EC, evolutionist, etc, in ways that please them but will never shake the loose terminology already rampant – and which miss the big issues of how God relates to nature w.r.t. both to theology and science. The labels of factions are mere distractions.

    There is also a disappointing, persistence in both comments and some articles, in seeing the need to redefine Christian doctrines, like original sin, “in the light of evolution”. This nearly always means the popular kind of red-in-tooth-and-claw Neodarwinism which is undermined by the developing science, including Denton’s structuralism.

    If ones “evolutionary theology” gets overturned by the scientific paradigm shift, then it wasn’t ever worth staking ones eternal detiny on. For example, the perennial idea that “sin” is really “evolutionary selfishness” rather than what the Bible teaches is demolished by the increasing realisation that cooperation and interdependence is at the heart of nature, and “selfishness” either merely a metaphor for local realities or plain incoherent.

    I’ve been arguing about that here and at BioLogos, and the fact that so few seem to have taken it on board suggests they just like a “talking shop” for their own speculative ideas.

    It would be a great shame if science-orientated Christians unhitched themselves from the old biology at last, only to continue to wander round in a theological morass divorced from the Rule of Faith of the apostolic and biblical revelation.

    • Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

      I agree that your voice has been a critical one for ECs to listen to, Jon. I am indeed somewhat discouraged by the disinterest shown in the discussion of the book review about the book review (let alone the book) by BL commenters. I have just asked that we stop making comments there, since they have degenerated to the inane and irrelevent. I dont blame BL itself for this. They have allowed, in the name of democracy and diversity a great deal of atheists, agnostics and deists to dominate their boards (as has happened before) and while people like Merv, Eddie and Aleo, and others do show up, it often feels like a branch of Coyne’s blog. (I am exaggerating a bit, but you get the point).

      I will say that when I first came back to public posting, after my retirement from NIH, I wrote a private message to Jim Stump et al. asking for the imposition of rules regulating such things as discussion of whether or not God exists. I think a great first step would be full acknowledgement that BL is first and foremost a CHRISTIAN site. Others are welcome, as long as that simple truth remain foremost in the their minds as they comment. This might go some way to solving part of the problem you raise in your last paragraph. Maybe.

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

        Hi, Sy.

        Yes, I, too, have been frustrated by the presence on BioLogos of people who want to argue about the existence of God, whether atheists can be as moral as Christians, whether religion is bad for the world, etc. Such topics belong on another site. The main focus of BioLogos should be the relationship of evolutionary thought to Christian thought. BioLogos should be a place where Christians from various traditions can review the foundational claims of their own traditions about God, creation, and nature, and try to see how the notion of descent with modification and the various proposals for its mechanism can be related to those traditions.

        I would be happier if more of the discussion on BioLogos were between Christians who accept evolution but disagree over Christian theology (and therefore about how to connect theology with evolution), and if less of the discussion were between Christians who don’t accept evolution and Christians who do, and between Christians who don’t accept evolution and atheists who do.

        From my point of view, a debate between Robert Russell and Dennis Venema, or a discussion between Michael Denton (who may be a theist or at least deist, even if he isn’t a Christian) and Simon Conway Morris, would be be more instructive and useful than arguments between someone like Patrick and some YEC over whether or not evolution has even occurred.

        But my biggest immediate beef is that commenters on BioLogos are dismissing Denton without having read his book, even when scientists with EC sympathies like yourself and Darrel Falk are saying that the book, whatever its imperfections, it worth reading. Some people can’t rise above historical resentments (i.e., TE/EC folks have traditionally been cool to Denton for his indirect role in starting up the ID movement), and some can’t believe that an author might after 30 years correct and enlarge his views. So they judge the book without reading it.

        But that’s typical of BioLogos commenters. Beaglelady is sure that the book of Suzan Mazur which she hasn’t read is rubbish; Joao/benkirk is certain that Shapiro’s book which he hasn’t read is rubbish; and now Old Timer is certain that Denton’s book which he hasn’t read is rubbish. And the columnists are often not much better; in fact, they set the example by insisting that ID says things that it has never said, and then shooting down the strawman version of ID, or by insisting that natural theology makes claims that it has never made, and then shooting down the strawman version of natural theology.

        I don’t know how to change this. The way I was educated, one came to fear, more than anything else, the statement by a professor or fellow student, “But the text doesn’t say that.” Rule Number One was that you had no business judging a text until you had read it. That rule seems to be thrown out the window in origins discussions. People say anything they want about the Biblical idea of nature, or about Calvin, or about the Fathers, or about Wesley, or about Discovery, or about Behe, or about Denton, and feel not even a twinge of academic guilt for relying on secondhand or thirdhand sources, including notoriously biased sources such as the Wiki- sites.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Sy

        Perhaps part of my concern is that, presumably, the commenters on BioLogos (like those on its nearest ID counterpart, Uncommon Descent) represent the rank-and-file of those (mainly) religious people interested in origins. So it is frustrating to find it bogged down by discussions between Unitarians, Deists, Christadelphians, panentheists, liberal Nonconformists and agnostics, all apparently doing their thinking (as Eddie observes) on the fly and being all the more dogmatic for it.

        And when they do self-identify by the term “Evangelical”, it’s often with the caveat that they’ve never been happy with doctrines X, Y and Z and evolution seems to enable one to jettison those and become up to date.

        Since the YECs tend to be the most traditionally Evangelical voices, the core question, “How can the best science and the best Evangelical theology fit together?”, gets lost in the haze.

        As a recent instance, a YEC asked Brad Kramer how understanding evolution helps further theology. The right answer, in my view, is that it doesn’t, any more than any other facts about nature, but that it can happily live with it.

        Brad’s reply included that it helps us understand how God acts in nature. But that’s the very thing that has generally been poorly addressed, other than the completely non-informative idea that “God creates through evolution.”

        As Denton says, that slogan completely misses any discussion of whether he works through laws (like structuralism), though contingency or through direct providence or miracle, and so leaves theologically nebulous the question of whether creation is God’s work alone, or involves forces beyond his direction.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          PS Sy, thanks for the compliment! 🙂

        • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

          Jon:

          Thanks for these comments. Yes, indeed, I wish that the religious discussions at BioLogos were less dominated by atheists, agnostics, pantheists, syncretists, and sectarian heretics, and more frequently from Christians who explicitly aligned themselves with some standard theological or denominational orthodoxy, whether Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or Anglican, or Reformed, or mainstream Lutheran, or Missouri Synod Lutheran, or Presbyterian, or Southern Baptist, or whatever.

          I don’t mean that such alignment should be mandatory for entering the discussions, or that there is no constructive role for mavericks and non-aligned Christians, but only that where there is such alignment, and that alignment is directly related by the commenter to the discussion of evolution, things become clearer; it’s easier to see what is being asserted, and what is being denied.

          As it stands, the relationship of evolution to faith is almost always tied to some vague generic type of Christianity, or some vague generic type of evangelical faith, or some vague “Biblical” position; one can therefore never tell what systematic commitments the people are speaking out of, and the overall impression is that most people there simply “pick and mix” the scientific writers and the religious doctrines that they like, and then dig up whatever quotations from the Bible or the tradition serve to defend their idiosyncratic and private version of the Christian faith.

          The question then arises: is BioLogos the cause, or merely the consequence, of “pick and mix” attitudes among evangelicals? Or is it a bit of both?

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            Eddie

            I was going to say – and I think it’s the case – that BioLogos is only reflecting the state of religious play in the US (or worldwide, according to the proportions shown on Brad’s recent poll, if that’s representative!).

            But it matters if this is where the issues are being hammered out for this generation.

  2. GD GD says:

    Hi Sy,

    I get the impression the conflict is supposed to be between neo-Darwin thinking and ID. My (short and rapid) reading has left me with another impression, which is a long standing disagreement between Darwin thinking and structuralist (or developmental biology). While I think I can follow the overall basis for the difference, I do not pretend to have an expert opinion on the details. I found the following quote however entertaining and information (from Wagner reviewing a book by Ron Amundson’s ‘‘The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought’’ ):

    “Was everyone before Darwin really an Idiot?
    That is the question one should have asked oneself when reading the, in the meantime standard historiographies of evolutionary biology such as Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought (Mayr 1982). As briefly mentioned above, the cartoon version of the history of biology has it that there was the dark age in which the greatest minds of western culture were held hostage to the vile philosophical ideas of idealism, or what ever it was called at a time. The stranglehold of these philosophical preconceptions where keeping biological research confined in the unenlightened dungeon of typology and species fixism. And then, out of the blue sky of Southern England, comes the genius that set biology free by breaking the shackles of idealism and replacing them with the wings of population thinking. Ron Amundson makes two simple observations that essentially destroy this tale. Fist, pre-scientific ideas about life did not include fixed species. In fact the earliest accounts of the living world is a chaos of suggested transformations between the inanimate and the animate worlds, in which mice grow out of old rags, and mosquitos from dew drops as well as one kind of organism form others, like ducks from fallen leaves. The idea that species are real immutable entities was not forced onto the minds of biologists by philosophical ideas but the result of a systematic but now forgotten empirical research program. It included common garden experiments to determine how far the environment can modify organisms. This was largely done by botanists, but the conceptual impact has reached all of biology. “

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Sy’s own site has just linked to his two articles on the new evolutionary biology in relation to faith. One is available only to ASA members (who will therefore probably become aware of it anyway). The second – an excellent and stimulating review, is here: Sy Garte “God and the New Evolutionary Biology” God & Nature Magazine Winter, 2016

  4. Cath Olic says:

    Edward writes:
    “The main focus of BioLogos should be the relationship of evolutionary thought to Christian thought.”

    I think that IS BioLogos’ stated focus or mission.
    It’s as if BL is trying to *marry* evolution and Christian faith (or more precisely, Protestant Evangelical Christian faith).

    One major problem I see with this is that the BL community doesn’t have agreement on everything that evolution is or Christian faith is. Both have degrees of fluidity or instability in BL land.

    And marriages between unstable parties usually don’t end well.

    Relative to this, Jon notes: “And when they do self-identify by the term “Evangelical”, it’s often with the caveat that they’ve never been happy with doctrines X, Y and Z and evolution seems to enable one to jettison those and become up to date.”
    And Edward adds “Yes, indeed, I wish that the religious discussions at BioLogos were… more frequently from Christians who explicitly aligned themselves with some standard theological or denominational orthodoxy, whether Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or Anglican, or Reformed, or mainstream Lutheran, or Missouri Synod Lutheran, or Presbyterian, or Southern Baptist, or whatever”,

    as if there was no problem with having multiple Christian faiths and not ONE Christian faith (cf. John 17; Ephesians 4:4-6).

    Lastly, and seemingly contrary to Edward’s first quote above, Jon writes:
    “… a YEC asked Brad Kramer how understanding evolution helps further theology. The right answer, in my view, is that it doesn’t, any more than any other facts about nature, but that it can happily live with it.”

    To which I ask, as I’ve asked before: Then why your assiduous focus on evolution vis-à-vis Christian faith and theology?

  5. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Cath Olic:

    Regarding this exchange:

    ******************************
    And Edward adds “Yes, indeed, I wish that the religious discussions at BioLogos were… more frequently from Christians who explicitly aligned themselves with some standard theological or denominational orthodoxy, whether Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or Anglican, or Reformed, or mainstream Lutheran, or Missouri Synod Lutheran, or Presbyterian, or Southern Baptist, or whatever”,

    as if there was no problem with having multiple Christian faiths and not ONE Christian faith (cf. John 17; Ephesians 4:4-6).

    ***********************************

    Your inference is unwarranted. I never implied that there was “no problem” in the existence of multiple Christian churches. But on the institutional, sociological level, the existence of multiple Christian churches (I use the small “c” in case you insist that “The Church” is always only One — which is true on the metaphysical level) is a given of the American reality in which BioLogos operates. It is simply a *fact* that the various Christians who post on BioLogos come from different denominations and theological traditions, and that those traditions do inform how they think about God, omnipotence, creation, etc. I’m saying that, given that these traditions are influencing how the BioLogos columnists and commenters argue, it would be better for the assumptions and claims of these traditions to be out in the open, rather than slipped in tacitly without any notice or justification.

    For example, it is clear that many BioLogos commenters strongly dislike Calvin’s thought (or what they perceive to be Calvin’s thought; it appears that the majority of Calvin-dislikers there haven’t read much of the man’s actual writing), and prefer looser versions of Christian theology in which there is very little systematic rigor. But the very looseness and lack of rigor makes it hard to pin anyone on BioLogos down. If someone’s doctrine of God, omnipotence, sovereignty, providence, etc. is nailed down, anchored in Biblical passages, creeds, Patristic writings, etc., it is much easier to then take something like neo-Darwinism and assess whether or not it is compatible with Christian belief. But when everyone on a website goes out of his or her way to avoid being pinned down on any theological teaching, no assessment can be made.

    And to be frank, it is almost always the liberals who don’t like being pinned down. Conservatives, be they Calvinists or Thomists or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Jehovah’s Witnesses, are much more willing to commit themselves to a definite premises and all that follows from them. Liberals like to keep everything fluid so that, no matter which way events turn, they will always have an escape hatch. Thus, when people like Jon and I ask for clarity on BioLogos, we are often rebuked, especially by management, for being unreasonably concerned with finding out what theological views people privately hold, but publicly hold back. Yet if the the privately held views are *driving* the public argument, then it is right and necessary to flush those private views out into the open.

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