Friday, February 29, 2008

William F. Buckley and Darwinian Evolution

William F. Buckley, Jr. died two days ago. In many respects, he was the most influential leader of the American conservative intellectual movement since World War II. The obituary in the New York Times is a good survey of his life.

One of his many activities was his long-running PBS television program "Firing Line." One of the most famous of his programs was a debate broadcast from Seton Hall University in 1997 on the topic: Resolved: The Evolutionists Should Acknowledge Creation.

On the affirmative side of this resolution, Buckley joined Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and David Berlinski. On the negative side--supporting evolution--were Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott, and Barry Lynn. A transcript of the entire debate can be found here.

It's remarkable how evasive and uncertain Buckley is about his position. When Michael Ruse asks Buckley "why are you on that side rather than ours?", Buckley is unclear. He seems to say that he opposes Darwinian evolution only if it is interpreted as denying any role for God as Creator. But when Ken Miller quotes from Pope John Paul II's endorsement of the theory of evolution as "more than a hypothesis," Buckley responds that he accepts this. Miller and Buckley are both Catholics, and they seem to agree on the Pope's statement.

In the exchange with Barry Lynn--who argues for the compatibility of theism and evolution--Buckley seems to concede the possibility that God could have used the evolutionary process to carry out His will. Buckley's concern is to reject the atheistic materialism of people like Richard Dawkins. But he seems to be open to a theistic evolution such as was endorsed by the Pope.

At the end of the debate, Buckley praises his opponents for their "repudiation of materialist explanations," which would seem to agree with his position that "the notion of creation has not been invalidated by whatever loyalty is shown to the idea of evolution."

What one sees in Buckley's struggles with the idea of evolution is typical for many conservatives. They worry that if Darwinian evolution is interpreted as necessarily dictating an atheistic materialism that rejects any First Cause, this will deny religious belief in human beings as created in God's image, which has dangerous moral and political consequences. And yet conservatives like Buckley can see that Darwinian evolution can be interpreted as leaving open the question of the ultimate causes of nature, and thus allowing for a theistic conception of evolution like that endorsed by John Paul II.

Of course, I have often argued that questions of ultimate explanation must be left open by Darwinian science, which permits the religious believer to accept Darwinian natural evolution while also looking to God as the uncaused cause of that natural evolutionary process. At the same time, skeptical conservatives--like Friedrich Hayek, for example--can accept evolutionary science while assuming that the order of nature is the self-sufficient ground of all explanation, and that "life has no purpose other than itself."

It should also be noted in this "Firing Line" debate that the critics of evolution here follow the strategy of negative argumentation--criticizing evolutionary theory but offering no alternative theory of their own. David Berlinski, for example, says at the end of the debate: "I find scientific flaws with the Darwinian theory. I don't have a replacement." Similarly, Behe and Johnson fail to offer any clear positive theory of their own.

1 comment:

John Farrell said...

I'm glad you posted this. The obits of Buckley have been excellent overall, but there was a lacuna in the middle of all his wide-ranging interests, and it showed in this debate.

That indifference to science has become far more of a liability now to the conservatives who remain after him.