Printer Friendly

James H. Fetzer: Render Unto Darwin: Philosophical Aspects of the Christian Right's Crusade Against Science.

James H. Fetzer

Render Unto Darwin: Philosophical Aspects of the Christian Right's Crusade Against Science.

Chicago: Open Court 2007.

Pp. 220.

US$24.95 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-8126-9605-9).

The reconciliation of Christianity with science was made possible by the widespread abandonment of biblical literalism. In North America, however, this reconciliation has been under threat for several decades as resurgent hordes of fundamentalists and evangelicals committed to a literal reading of select Bible verses have proclaimed evolutionary biology anathema to Christian faith, and have thus exercised their political power to supplant science with a pseudo-scientific construct known, in its various guises, as creationism, creation science, young-earth creationism, and intelligent design.

Fetzer spends the first chapter of his book exploring the reasons behind the Christian Right's hostility to evolution. He is careful to note that some varieties of creationism may be compatible with science--that is, the fact that creationism (at least some varieties) is incompatible with evolution doesn't necessarily preclude it from being science. Even if creationism is not science, it does not follow that it is therefore nonsense. After all, the world abounds with perfectly sensible ideas beyond science's borders. Nor would it follow, if creationism were not science, that evolution was, for they may both be unscientific.

As a non-biologist's introduction to evolution, this book is, for the most part, a great success. Fetzer provides good explanations of the difference between Darwinism and neo-Darwinism--the modern synthesis that incorporates developments made since the 1850s. He also notes, for readers new to evolutionary biology, that there really isn't a 'theory of evolution'. There are, rather, many theories of evolution, which share some common evidence, assumptions, and conclusions. Furthermore, Fetzer provides an excellent explanation of the various causal mechanisms of evolution, many of which are frequently ignored by others.

Fetzer is a devotee of inference to the best explanation, a method by which we ask not, 'Is X true?' but rather 'Is X the best possible explanation of the evidence?' The best explanations are able to explain more than their rivals, spur further questions and developments, make the fewest unsupported assumptions, are testable, and are lawful (follow identifiable, somewhat predictable natural processes). Evolution, he argues, is a better explanation than creationism, which ignores most evidence and has virtually no explanatory power.

Fetzer clearly demarcates science from other endeavors. Not everything given the label of 'science' is actually science, and not every science includes the word 'science' in its name (physics and biology, for example). Particular sciences, he notes, are distinguished from each other by their goals and their methods, which include some form of observation, experimentation, and inference to the best explanation. And for a knowledge claim to count as scientific, it must be conditional, testable, and tentative.

Furthermore, science is defined by its aim--the discovery of natural laws using the sorts of methods and knowledge claims mentioned above. This, he maintains, is where creationism fails most significantly. Distinguishing between three forms of 'Creation Science', Fetzer argues that one (CS-1) rests on three unconditional, untestable, and arbitrary hypotheses. The second form (CS-2) is nonspecific, ambiguous, and, depending on one's interpretation f it, either trivial, false, or question-begging. And the third (CS-3) is demonstrably false and absurd. In fact, Fetzer argues, it seems to be an argument for widespread macroevolution. Thus, he writes, 'it may, at best, be said that, to the extent to which Creation Science qualifies as science, it does not support creation; and to the extent to which Creation Science supports creation, it does not qualify as science' (43).

Fetzer zeroes in on one of the key flaws of Intelligent Design--apart from its vacuous concept of 'irreducible complexity' and hostility to evidence --namely, its dependence on poor arguments from analogy. The rhetoric be hind Intelligent Design, the tropes it uses to lull people into belief, are analogies that seem intriguing at first glance, then turn out to be laughable after a moment's reflection, for instance, the analogies between eyes and bacterial flagella, and between the Intelligent Designer (whom we must not admit is God, lest honesty endanger legal battles) and an oddly tool-less artisan.

The arguments for creationism fail because, for the most part, there are more differences than similarities. Creationism's best offering is simply the old Argument from Design, dressed up in pretty new clothes. That argument received its fatal blow in the eighteenth century, courtesy of David Hume. Fetzer does not rest with the Argument from Design, moving on to demolish several lesser arguments. Although he is not saying anything particularly new in his criticisms, neither are the creationists. He even pauses for a moment to examine the devastating legal defeat of Intelligent Design advocates in Dover, Pennsylvania, where much of their disingenuous, often blatantly dishonest, strategy was publicly exposed in a court of law.

There is, clearly, much to enjoy here. Yet, all is not well. Once Fetzer moves away from evolution and creationism into ethics, the book loses its charm. True, he adequately summarizes W K. Clifford's ethics of belief, and applies it well to theological beliefs, before moving on to a welcome discussion of meta-ethical criteria. The problem is that neither Fetzer's beliefs regarding which criteria should be used to evaluate moral theories, nor the moral beliefs he lays bare over the next few chapters, would pass Clifford's test. He fails to justify his beliefs, in part because he refuses to entertain the possibility that his moral convictions could be wrong.

The inconsistency is intriguing. When writing about evolution, he per forms well: his discussion is interesting, mostly accurate, mostly accessible. When writing about creationism, his standards begin to slip now and then, leading him into some caricature. When writing about ethics he loses sight of his standards completely. While I am sympathetic to many of his moral beliefs, sympathy is insufficient. It makes little sense to open the discussion with a positive take on Clifford, only to flout Clifford's argument from that point on. His suggestion that his standards for comparing moral theories are 'comparable to those for evaluating alternative empirical theories' serves merely to call his lapse into focus (101). Fetzer holds theories of morality to an arbitrary set of criteria that he does not even attempt to justify (102), declaring that any theory he holds unable to meet those arbitrary criteria is either indefensible or just less defensible than one which does.

Many of the eight moral theories that he presents will not be found in the ethics literature. They don't even seem to be moral 'theories' in any meaningful, robust, philosophically relevant sense. Apparently, we may use 'theory' in the sense of 'unsupported speculation' in philosophy, though not in science.

His conceptions of ethical egoism and 'limited utilitarianism' are both oddly formulated. 'Religious ethics' and 'family values' are both ridiculous pastiches of relativism, though he presents a vague sort of 'cultural relativism' as its own theory. These, along with 'subjectivism', are 'traditional theories'. And, yes, they do, as Fetzer claims, seem to 'make moral criticism, moral progress, and moral reform meaningless conceptions.'

After stacking the deck so that his favorite approach, a vaguely Kantian deontological theory, looks obviously superior to an audience unaccustomed to the complexities of moral philosophy and willing to be led by the hand, Fetzer declares the matter settled. As it turns out, this deontology is superior because it meets his arbitrary criteria--which is fortunate, since that theory also tells him what he wants to hear about stem cell research. In the discussion of stem cell research, Fetzer routinely confuses law and ethics, adds a rights-based morality without explanation, and postulates several 'rules of thumb' as key undefended assumptions to make his conclusions appear sensible.

Fetzer is not the first to believe that reason necessarily backs his moral assumptions, whatever they may be, but as even he recognizes when dismissing creationism, subjective feelings of certainty do not guarantee truth. Nor is it appropriate to ignore the details of a theory for the sake of expedience. At one point, when dismissing an argument identified as egoistic, he blithely ignores the ethical egoist's points, assumes the opposite, and claims victory.

Insofar as Fetzer is providing accessible explanations of complex natural phenomena for an educated lay audience--and there is ample evidence that this is the book's purpose--this is an excellent account. If the book were for an audience already well-versed in science, explanation of the different meanings of 'theory' would be condescending. Nevertheless, Fetzer some times presumes too much. Even many contemporary philosophers will be unfamiliar with some of the logical terminology used throughout the book unless they're rooted in the analytic tradition. At times, Fetzer takes pains to define every little term for the reader. Then he'll drop in a term like 'singular subjunctive conditional' without any explanation at all. Although there is a glossary at the front of the book, it doesn't define such terms. Is the book for educated lay readers well versed in logical terminology but ignorant of basic scientific concepts? How many such people could there be?

Michael K. Potter

University of Windsor
COPYRIGHT 2009 Academic Printing and Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Potter, Michael K.
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Previous Article:Roberto Esposito: Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy.
Next Article:Steve Fuller: Science vs Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters