Naturalistic Fallacy


Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education, by Phillip Johnson, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 245 pages, $19.99

Charles Darwin published his great work, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. In it he argued that all organisms, including us humans, are the product of a slow, gradual, non-miraculous (that is, law-governed) process of "evolution" from just a few, perhaps even one, simple forms. He was not the first evolutionist–his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was pushing the idea in the 18th century–but it was he who made the concept plausible. So plausible, in fact, that if we judge from reviews and comments and other such things (like the exam questions for undergraduates at leading universities), within a very few years educated people in Europe and North America–not just professional scientists–became evolutionists.

Much more controversial was the mechanism of change proposed by Darwin. He argued that, thanks to life's struggles, there is a constant process of "natural selection," with the winners (the "fit") alone surviving and reproducing. Over time, this winnowing process leads to full-blown change, change moreover of an adaptive nature. The eye, the hand, the heart, and–as Darwin made very clear in a later work, The Descent of Man–the brain and mind, all serve the end or interests of their possessors. Organisms are not just thrown together, but are as if designed by a conscious being.

Only in this century has selection come into its own and been seen to play the key role supposed by Darwin. Of course, I would not pretend that everyone in the scientific community is a hardline Darwinian. Notoriously, America's most famous evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould, has expressed reservations about the ubiquity of adaptation and has promoted a less gradual and more jerky version of Darwinism–the theory of "punctuated equilibria."

Yet even people like Gould are more concerned to supplement Darwinism than to replace it. Like the best scientific hypotheses, it does not rest on past successes but points the way to new triumphs–most successfully, in recent years, showing how social behavior can be given a Darwinian explanation. "Sociobiology" is controversial, but it is the controversy of success. Bright graduate students are prepared to invest their careers in it, and that tells you everything.

Indeed, even most religious types have made peace with evolution–so long as one is allowed miracles for the creation of souls (hardly a scientific concept anyway). The great exception has always been American biblical literalists or "fundamentalists," who argue that one must not deviate from one word of the Bible taken absolutely at face value, and that therefore evolution is the work of the devil. Inspired by the writings of the turn-of-the-century Seventh Day Adventist James McCready Price, a veritable industry of "Flood geology" has been spawned, trying desperately to show that such venerable myths as the six days of creation are scientific fact–and hence not only should be taken seriously but should be allowed in the nation's biology classes.

To be candid, this stuff has always been a bit down-market. For instance, Duane Gish, author of Evolution: The Fossils Say No!, may indeed have a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but there is a touch of Elmer Gantry about his style and rhetoric. In the 1980s, the creationists lost key court cases–most famously in Arkansas in 1981, where a federal judge ruled firmly that a law mandating "balanced treatment" between evolution and creationism was a blatant attempt to get religion into the science classrooms, and thus unconstitutional.

Undaunted, the literalists switched strategies, trying to introduce the Bible by stealth–pressuring school boards and teachers, putting weight on textbook manufacturers, and the like. They have looked hard for academic heavyweights who, through shared religious sympathy, might be inclined to give support. This drive for respectability has been somewhat successful, netting such spokesmen for the creationist cause as Alvin Plantinga, professor at Notre Dame (though a Calvinist) and arguably America's best living philosopher of religion.

Another is Phillip Johnson, law professor, former clerk to Earl Warren, and holder of a named chair at Berkeley. Johnson is the author of the smoothest-ever presentation of the anti-evolutionary case, Darwin on Trial (1991). Not entirely original, Johnson's case invokes all of the old favorites of the creationist cause–the "incompatibility" of the fossil record with evolution (all of those notorious "gaps"); the impossibility of life's arising from the non-living by purely natural causes; and the irrationality of supposing that a simple mechanism like natural selection could create order out of randomness.

Now Johnson presents Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education. Here, laid out in full detail, are the reasons why a respectable and intelligent man like Johnson would freely and gladly make himself a pariah, even in conservative academic circles, and God only knows what on the Berkeley campus. It is not a little bit of evolution that worries Johnson and his ilk. A new adaptation here, a lost adaptation there–who cares? Rather, it is the very moral fiber of the nation that counts. Let in evolution, and pornography, abortion, and sodomy are next. Or rather, because we let in evolution, pornography, abortion, and sodomy are now.

Johnson starts with an introduction to the enemy: "The most influential intellectuals in America and around the world are mostly naturalists, who assume that God exists only as an idea in the minds of religious believers. In our greatest universities, naturalism–the doctrine that nature is 'all there is'–is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds. If naturalism is true, then humankind created God–not the other way around. In that case, rationality requires that we recognize the Creator as the imaginary being he always has been, and that we rely only on things that are real, such as ourselves and the material world of nature."

I must confess that on reading this, my jaw did sag somewhat. I have myself recently published a book with the title Evolutionary Naturalism. I had no idea that that which Johnson describes was the topic on which I was supposed to be writing! I am fascinated (and troubled) by the God question, but that I was denying God's existence was news to me. Naively, I thought that naturalism was about a particular attitude that one takes to understanding, refusing to appeal to the supernatural (miracles) in the physical world, but saying nothing definitive about whether there is a world beyond this. Perhaps God exists. Perhaps not. But, wonderful book though Evolutionary Naturalism may be, on these issues it says nothing.

Now, to be fair to Johnson, he is aware of a response like mine, and in an appendix does try to deal with it. But in a way it would be a mistake to get bogged down in Jesuitically fine distinctions of terms. Johnson's main argument is what counts and, as in his earlier book, evolution and its mechanism are the problem here, whatever the philosophical category into which you might dump them. Let in these ideas, he says, and anything goes.

The general argument runs somewhat like this: If evolution be true, then science as a whole has scored a success and should be taken seriously (perhaps more seriously than anything else). Furthermore, if science should be taken seriously, then its naturalistic methods should be endorsed. "If the scientists," writes Johnson, "have actually confirmed many of the most important elements of the story [of evolution], so that only a few gaps remain to be filled, then there are solid grounds (short of absolute proof) for believing that the story itself is fundamentally correct."

Move on down the syllogism. If we endorse scientific naturalism, then we exclude God, certainly the God of the Christian. Even if one allows a god outside the natural world, this is little comfort, for a "Creator who merely sets a process in motion and thereafter keeps hands off is easily ignored." But, if we exclude or deny the Christian God, then we have no reason to endorse Christian morality. And, if we do not endorse Christian morality, then the only alternative is moral anarchy: "Naturalistic metaphysics leads inexorably to relativism in ethics and politics."

Curiously, in my book on naturalism, the very thing I was trying to do was to get away from relativism. I abhor the sociological, "If it feels good, then it's OK!" Indeed, the very crux of the evolutionary approach to ethics is that nature sets certain universals and you break these at your peril. It is precisely for this reason that so many in the social sciences loathe any biological approach to morality.

But I get ahead of myself. Let me say two things on Johnson's behalf:

First, I am surely not alone in agreeing with Johnson that, in today's society, especially on university campuses, much that is of true moral value is brushed aside in a senseless rush to the politically correct. On my own campus, for instance, we have so many rules and regulations about minorities, real and apparent, that the results of important departmental elections are decided before the first ballot is cast. And more than one aged prof–thinking one might speak to one's students as one might speak to a grown-up–has been sent off for a week's "sensitivity training," under threat of really dire alternatives. Mistakenly, I thought that winning the Cold War was supposed to lift these sorts of things from the Russians, rather than impose them on North Americans.

Second, I am right with Johnson against those who would complain that his syllogism must be worthless, since a science like evolution is only about matters of empirical fact and hence can have nothing to say about God and morality. The truth is that far too many evolutionists today treat their subject like a secular religion, drawing out all sorts of consequences way beyond the empirical. Who has not heard Richard Dawkins, Oxford-based author of The Selfish Gene, for example, telling us that, thanks to Darwin, the "Argument from Design" is stone-cold dead and that now the only intellectually respectable position is that of the atheist?

Where Johnson makes me cross is in his refusal to take seriously, even if only for the purpose of refutation, the arguments of those such as Ernan McMullin–a Catholic priest as well as a professional philosopher of science–who strive to show how science can be stripped of the ideologies that supporters and critics would read into it, and that science as such can be regarded as ethically and religiously neutral, no more supportive of free love than it is of the traditional, two-parent, 2.5-child nuclear family.

Where Johnson makes me even more cross is in the way that he encourages evolutionists in foolish efforts to make even more of a secular religion of their science. Johnson speaks proudly of his friendship and interactions with the historian of biology and ardent evolutionist Will Provine, one of the worst offenders in this respect. For instance, in the January 1993 issue of Biology and Philosophy, Provine advocates teaching creationism in biology classes, so that students might be exposed to the clash between it and the better "faith" (his word) of naturalism. It would be disingenuous of me were I not to admit that I am the editor of Biology and Philosophy. But although you may applaud me on this occasion for letting authorial rights take precedence over editorial qualms, it remains simply silly to bandy about terms like "faith," implying that the scientist in the lab is necessarily on a par with the repentant sinner at a Billy Graham rally–the one drawing on years of training and the accumulated wisdom of the ages, the other driven by rhetoric and other paraphernalia of emotionalism.

Thus far I am merely cross. What makes me truly livid is the way that Johnson flagrantly misrepresents and trivializes philosophy. How can anyone–perhaps other than a lawyer trying to win a case–claim that the morality of liberalism "tends to become progressively more relativistic and even permissive"? In what sense can one claim that today's most influential theorist of liberal thought, John Rawls, preaches a philosophy of permissiveness? Rawls, for instance, would give us freedom to drive cars. But he would at once except the blind. That is not relativism, but the realization that morality is always a question of combining ultimate norms and particular factual circumstances.

Basically, as I have hinted already, the flaw in Johnson's position lies in his slippery notion of naturalism, from which he extracts atheism and all of the wrongs of contemporary society. I will waste no time in trying to refute him, for his treatment of opponents convinces me that this would be a futile task. Rather, I want to go on the offensive, asking what it is that Johnson really wants us to believe.

Johnson admits candidly that these are questions that he prefers his critics not ask. While happy to rubbish the other side, he feels no obligation to offer an alternative. However, we can ignore his modest reticence. Not only because it is in flat contradiction to demands he makes elsewhere that the naturalist answer all questions (else the argument is "a nonstarter"), but because, with an undercurrent of grumblings throughout his book about abortion, homosexuality, and the like, Johnson clearly is pushing an alternative.

Go to the heart of the case. Johnson calls himself a creationist. What does that mean exactly? All Johnson says is that he takes seriously the beginning of St. John's Gospel ("In the beginning was the Word," etc.). That is all very well, but not that informative. Indeed, it is not informative at all. What about Noah's flood? Where does Johnson stand on that, especially on its supposedly universal nature? If he does subscribe to it, then smooth though he may be, he is surely as scientifically crazy as the down-market crew.

If Johnson does not subscribe to the universality of the flood–unambiguously described in Genesis–then he is apparently interpreting the Bible and taking out bits and pieces as it pleases him. There is nothing wrong with this, but we have the right to know which bits and pieces. Is Johnson against pork eating, for instance? Or wearing a wool-linen mixture? Both practices are forbidden in Leviticus. If so, should we take him seriously? And if not, why should we then accept what Leviticus tells us about homosexuality?

The simple fact of the matter is that Johnson's case is as empty as he pretends his opponents' is. He gives us no foundation for moral understanding. If he has one, he conceals it. Up-market creationism proves no more satisfactory than down-market creationism. Neither compels our allegiance. But, apart from the very real threat that such slick products as Reason in the Balance might mislead the uninformed or slow-witted, they do serve as a warning for us all, especially those of us who cherish science as a wonderful achievement of the human spirit.

We who are being attacked should put our own house in order. I am glad that Richard Dawkins is a Darwinian. I have no quarrel with Dawkins if he wants to be an atheist, even though it is not my position. I deny the claim of both Dawkins and Johnson that there is a connection between the two. That kind of link must be broken, whoever is trying to forge it. Science and religion are good neighbors. They are lousy bedmates.

Michael Ruse ( is professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. He was a witness for the ACLU in the Arkansas creationism trial. His Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, a study of the place of values in science, will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall.