Skin in the game

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that the bloke who wins a Nobel Prize for, say, the No-threshold linear mutagenesis model of radiation is not the most susceptible to research debunking it. Nor is a renowned race activist immersed in intersectional theory the most amenable to evidence that racism has decreased. For they both have “skin in the game.”

When you consider it, this means that they are committed at a deeper level than the merely intellectual to their theories. In the first case, the Nobel Laureate’s reputation and status, not to mention potential income, depend on the challenge not being true. In the second, the theory is, in fact, founded on an entire internal world view as well as on lucrative book deals.

When, having retired, I decided in around 2010 to investigate the relationship between evolutionary theory and biblical Christianity, I can honestly say I had no skin in that particular game. I certainly had a strong commitment to biblical truth, but saw Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory which would, if true, undoubtedly fit that truth somehow. The task was only to make a better fist of the synthesis than had been achieved before, if possible.

So I came to the task needing to do much detailed work, but with a lifelong sense that, if I got the genre considerations of Scripture sorted out, and understood what was genuinely scientific in evolutionary theory, things would come together. I was, of course, aware of the controversies surrounding the subject, but had long before (with apologies to our friend Robert Byers) been through, and rejected, Young Earth literalism regarding the biblical account of Creation, and had no truck with “Creation Science” as in Morris and Whitcomb or Answers in Genesis. If Darwin’s theory, familiar to me since the age of five, should prove to be wrong, I could happily live with a generic creationist model, and if it proved to be correct, God’s creative providence was compatible with it, in my view.

Let me expand on that last point a little, using the general principles I began my quest with. God created all things in heaven and earth, the Bible clearly teaches (as it also teaches the role of the Eternal Son in that), and in that sense creation was done and dusted long ago, just as the YECs and the Big Bangers alike say. Yet I also believe I was individually created by God, being one of those “all things.”

Roman Catholic doctrine holds that each individual soul is created by God, notwithstanding the seven days of creation in Genesis. But even apart from that, David recognises in Psalm 139 that God “knitted me together in his mother’s womb,” and Paul says in Ephesians 1 that believers were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.” And in John, Jesus says that a random man born blind was born thus for a specific purpose of healing, implying that God has some purpose in every human life, however mysterious that is.

Yet even before modern science, everyone knew that there was a chancy biological process involved in procreation, and now there is no dispute that, from our human viewpoint, the random encounter of one of millions of spermatozoa with one of many ova determines the biological make-up of the baby to be born, including congenital blindness, perhaps, or the qualities of a warrior-king like David.

There’s a paradox in this, in that the biological mechanisms seem intended to randomise genetic inheritance, presumably to maximise species survival, whereas theologically it is subsumed in God’s highly individual providence in creating me, or you. Since I could live with that tension happily, the possibility that Neodarwinian mutation and natural selection might also be providentially governed was no more problematic, all other things being equal.

In the event the more I studied, and the more I interacted with disciples of Darwin, the more I saw that their commitment to the theory was more metaphysical than scientific, though the nature of naturalistic materialism blinded them to the distinction, discounting the very existence of metaphysics as mumbo-jumbo. The denial, though, doesn’t alter the fact of their philosophical commitment to naturalistic materialism, and that commitment can be seen in a multitude of evolutionary writings from Darwin himself to Gaylord Simpson to Richard Dawkins to Jerry Coyne.

Sadly this proved to be the case for most committed Theistic Evolutionists as well, for they tried all kinds of gymnastic manoeuvres to mix, in practice, a naturalistic metaphysics with biblical Christianity. Somehow, God had to be behind an ontologically random process without actually being involved. If he was in any way active, he would be breaking his own laws, or interfering with creaturely freedom, or in some way offending Aristotelian causal categories. I concluded early on that such ideas were incoherent, but my point here is that the “semi-deist” Evolutionary Creation people, like the atheists, had metaphysical “skin in the game.”

For, as once more became clear, when push comes to shove Darwinian Evolution doesn’t only make atheism intellectually respectable, to quote Dawkins or whoever it was, but it is the only theory of origins that is compatible with naturalism, and so its defence is an existential matter for the materialist. This is true even for the variations on evolution by natural selection like neutral theory, punk eek, James Shapiro’s active evolution model, or the various self-organisation theories. In the end, assuming naturalism, all of these must ultimately fall back on random variation and natural selection to explain the phenomenon of life that has every appearance of being designed.

Now I reach my central point for the day. Speaking as someone for whom, initially, the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory was a matter of indifference, what happens to the plausibility of the scientific theory of Darwin once one factors out the metaphysical commitment that it must be true in order for God to be excluded? Well, for myself, after a decade of study and interaction, I came to the conclusion also expressed (but then retracted!) by Colin Patterson, a pattern-cladist palaeontologist at the British Natural History Museum, when lecturing the Systematics Discussion Group at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City in 1981:

“Can you tell me anything you know about evolution, any one thing, any one thing that is true?”

There’s not space here for details, though I’ve done plenty of posts on them over the years. But whether I look at the fossil record, nested hierarchies morphological or genetic, laboratory evidence, molecular clocks, probability, semiotics, origin of life scenarios (ie chemical evolution), or anything else that is purportedly scientific rather than imaginative narrative or polemics, I find very little that I find persuasive beyond population genetics within species. That’s useful science, but by no means anything to do with “the origin of the species.” Divorced from philosophy, the theory seems flakier than phlogiston. With no skin in the game, I’m no longer persuaded that the game has much skin.

And since Darwinian evolution is the only naturalistic game in town, and looks certain to remain so, I find that I have returned to a model of creation that is far more purely theistic, though I lack the evidence to say whether I should favour progressive creation of new species, progressive transformation of existing species, directed evolution with saltational mutation or whatever. Bear in mind, though, that my uncertainty is no greater than the complete uncertainty of how and why any one actual species on earth evolved into another on Darwinian principles.

Paradoxically, over the years I’ve found greater and greater evidence for the fact that, around 3BC in Judaea, God himself became incarnate in man, thereby putting his own skin in the game of creation. Now, I have to admit that I have skin in that game, as I said from the start. But then I’m not pretending that it is a matter of science. As the Darwinians’ commitment to naturalistic metaphysics proves to all except themselves, there’s a lot more to reality than science.

Have a great Christmas, and thanks for your continued interest in The Hump of the Camel.

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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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