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In Shadow of Oz, Biologist Wayne Rossiter Critiques Theistic Evolution

Wizard of Oz.jpg

A new book, Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God, by Wayne Rossiter, offers a keen scientific, philosophical, and theological critique of theistic evolution. Rossiter, who holds a PhD in ecology and evolution from Rutgers, is an assistant biology professor at Waynesburg University. Because he has interests in both the scientific and the philosophical/theological dimensions of the debate over Darwinian evolution, Shadow of Oz is one of the most comprehensive books critiquing theistic evolution to date.

Rossiter.jpgThe title is a reference to The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy is told that you can never see the "Wizard" and so she reasonably asks, "Well, then -- how do you know there is one?" By analogy, Rossiter argues that theistic evolution gives no reasons to believe there is a God guiding nature. In his view, Darwinian evolution is the wrong way to describe nature.

Rossiter tells some of his own personal story. He entered grad school as a "staunch and cantankerous atheist," studying under "an equally atheistic advisor who was of Dawkins's ilk." But soon he started having doubts about atheism, sparked in part by his increasing doubts about Darwin. As he puts it:

I started to read and listen to scientists and intellectuals who had found faith in God compelling. Just as I was converting, so too was the famed atheist Antony Flew (though never to Christianity). I started to realize that there were good reasons to doubt the metanarrative of naturalism (the centerpiece of which is Darwinian evolution), and that many secular thinkers in fields related to the topic had also come to doubt the entire enterprise (and Darwin in specific). (p. 5)
After going through a deconversion process, leaving behind atheism and Darwinism, and now with a doctorate in hand, he landed a job teaching biology at a Christian university. There, however, he saw that many Christian students were moving in the opposite direction. Under the influence of the Darwinian evolution they had been dogmatically taught they must believe, they were losing their religious faith:
As a Christian professor at a Christian university, I can attest to the countless students who find the central tenets of their Christian faith difficult to retain in light of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, or more precisely, its implications. (p. 5)
Rossiter appreciates the confusing and conflicting messages, and the misinformation about Darwinism, that students face:
Proponents [of theistic evolution] argue that the idea of God is perfectly compatible with evolutionary theory, that there are no doubts regarding the full efficacy of Darwin's theory, and that acceptance of the full form of this theory should have no real bearing on our capacity to believe in the Judeo-Christian God. This is a startling juxtaposition. On the one hand, numerous secular evolutionists have told us that Darwin greatly compromises faith in a God that is (or ever was) active in his creation, and that there is no need for theology in our descriptions of the workings of the natural world. On the other hand, theistic evolutionists are pushing Darwin in every aspect of our faith discussion. Moreover, they present it as if there is no conflict between the two ideas (Darwin and God). The Christian student sitting in a high school or college classroom is told not to be uncomfortable with what Darwin has to say. Our educators point to names like Francis Collins or the late Theodosius Dobzhansky, and say, "See. These scientists are Christians, and yet they accept Darwin." So the theist is being asked to fully ascribe to Darwinian evolution. But none of these educators, lecturers, or writers are making an equally forceful case to atheistic evolutionists that, "These evolutionists also believe in God." (p. 6)
He makes an apt point. In the "conversation" that theistic evolutionists say they want to have about science and faith, theistic evolutionists capitulate to nearly all of the ideas and beliefs of atheists, thinking this will somehow attract atheists into the religious camp. It won't work, because theistic evolutionists almost never challenge anything at the core of atheist beliefs. This leaves Christians -- and anyone else for that matter -- facing some confusing and conflicting messages:

  • "New Atheists" proclaim that neo-Darwinian evolution is unassailable and refutes Christianity, and that we have no scientific evidence that God exists. As one New Atheist author puts it, "There is no God, no Intelligent Designer, and no higher purpose to our lives."
  • The increasingly vocal theistic evolutionist camp claims neo-Darwinian evolution is correct, perfectly compatible with Christianity, and we have no scientific evidence that God exists. If you disagree, you'll be labeled ignorant, "anti-science," and an embarrassment to the church.

Shadow of Oz cuts through this confusion. Quoting numerous leading writers, Rossiter first explains the illogic of theistic evolutionist attempts to reconcile God with Darwin. His logic is devastatingly clear and simple: "[T]he Darwinian paradigm stands opposed to the classical understanding of a Christian God. The reason is plain and obvious; something cannot be intended and unintended at the same time." (p. 28)

Then, he puts his biologist hat on and asks (my paraphrase), "Why would anyone try to reconcile God with Darwin when the modern Darwinian viewpoint is so scientifically flawed?" Since I'm more of a science-nerd than a philosopher, this is my favorite part of the book. After all, if Darwinian evolution is wrong, why waste time trying to go through illogical attempts to reconcile it with theism? Again, Rossiter's framing of the issue is spot-on:

The second [premise of theistic evolution] -- that Darwin's theory explains nature -- is the appraisal of the theistic evolutionist, but is frankly no longer a consensus among biologists. I will pause here briefly to illustrate another spurious position. In his book, The Language of God, [Francis] Collins finds "overwhelming" evidence for Darwinian evolution. Among those evidences is junk DNA, shared pseudo-genes, the DNA-based case for universal common descent, and several cases of microevolution. As Jonathan Wells has written, many of Collins's points of evidence have either been entirely reversed, have been called into question, or require additional assumptions. I deal with many of these in Chapter 6 of this book. (p. 47)
Rossiter explains what many college students face from their professors:
Most freshmen in college get a cursory treatment of evolutionary theory, and the assurance that it somehow will not erode or alter their beliefs or sense of being. As Richard T. Wright has written, the trick for theistic evolutionists is, "on the one hand to deny the worldview extensions of evolution, and on the other to claim the evolutionary process as part of God's activity in his world." This is dangerous and intentional intellectual dishonesty. (p. 104)
How do theistic evolutionists affirm that blind, chance-based processes are what created us -- but then deny that blind, chance-based processes are what created us? According to Rossiter, it's because their "loyalties lie with Darwin, but they deeply desire to hang on to their prior religiosity." (p. 105) Yet Rossiter finds that Darwin is scientifically wrong, so the loyalties of theistic evolutionists are entirely misplaced. He knows what the evidence says, and he reviews many scientific problems with Darwinian evolution. He discusses:

  • Mainstream scientists who now challenge the efficacy of Darwinian theory as evidence mounts against it.
  • Why homology cannot be used as an argument for common ancestry, and how DNA evidence fails to generate a grand "tree of life." This leads to the following apt riposte from Rossiter: "When Karl Giberson claims that, Biologists today consider the common ancestry of all life a fact on par with the sphericity of the earth or its motion around the sun, he seems to be massively overstating the degree of scientific consensus."
  • The lack of fossil evidence for common ancestry.
  • The difficulty with demonstrating the veracity of many adaptive explanations for the origin of complex features.

That last argument is one of my favorites in the book. Ask anyone why cheetahs run fast and they will tell you, "Why of course it's to catch gazelles (or other fast prey)." But there are many tasty, nutritious animals that run much slower than gazelles, so why couldn't cheetahs just catch slower prey that didn't require so much specialized musculature to allow them to run fast? Rossiter elaborates on why adaptive explanations that "everyone knows are true" are often much less obvious than they would seem:

The classic co-evolutionary "arms race" between cheetahs and gazelles is a surprising example. The assumption is that these two species have been tightly bound to one another, such that the strongest selective pressure acting on one is the other, and that this dynamic has been persistent over evolutionary time. An ancestral cheetah eats an ancestral gazelle. The ancestral cheetah is blessed with a faster phenotype that enables it to more efficiently capture gazelles. The ancestral gazelle is then under a strong selective pressure, which can be satisfied by a reciprocal increase in speed. Back-and-forth the two species go, until we end up with two of the fastest species on land, still interacting in space and time. So, what evidence exists for such a story? The answer is surprising: very little. The prominence of this story is a consequence of the rhetorical force that all evolutionary post hoc explanations carry. In present day savannas cheetahs eat gazelles. Cheetahs are very fast. So too are gazelles. Their living relatives are not as fast. Therefore, as the circular logic dictates, selection has acted to preserve changes that increased speed in both species.

So, try it for yourself. Use the search engine (or textbooks) of your choosing and find a paper that demonstrates the specific adaptations ... that led to this current situation. It gets messy immediately. You get tacit admissions like, "The big cat's evolutionary history is poorly understood because few fossils have been found" and great debate over which big cat is related to which other cats, and from whence all big cats come (and when). ... Where Darwin's general theory (as well as the extensions like this scenario) postulates a series of incremental, back-and-forth nudges from one form to the next, implicating selection the entire time, the evidence is not forthcoming, and is never discussed in the public. (pp. 134-135)

Throughout, Rossiter's depth of reference to the literature is very impressive. The book aims to be readable by a non-specialist. It is full of citations to and quotations from the literature of theistic evolutionists, atheistic evolutionists, and mainstream scientific papers. This will satisfy the technical reader and the lay reader.

More importantly, Rossiter is keenly aware of the theological and scientific arguments that theistic evolutionists make, and he's got ready rebuttals to nearly all of them. If you are a college student hearing professors tell you (a) that Darwinian evolution is perfectly compatible with faith, and (b) that Darwinian evolution is unquestionably scientifically correct -- but you sense that your professor isn't telling the whole story -- then you need to put Shadow of Oz on your Christmas wish list. If you know a college student who is going through the typical pro-Darwin indoctrination program that so many undergraduates face, then you need to buy this book for your friend. In fact, Christmas might not be soon enough.

Image: Dorothy and Cowardly Lion, by W.W. Denslow (d. 1915) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.