Desmond Ford. Genesis versus Darwinism: The Demise of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. 2014. Available on Amazon.com for $31.49.
Reviewed by Ervin Taylor
January 15, 2015
A Non-Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian Objection to Darwinism—But Not to Evolution
This is not a typical work by a conservative Christian apologist addressing evolution. It certainly does not conform to the typical apologetic materials published by fundamentalist anti-evolution advocates. A causal reader looking at the title may not appreciate its uniqueness. To arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the author’s point of view requires that a reader consider at least the summaries at the end of each of the 28 chapters of this 425 page book.
Perhaps it also would be helpful to provide some background information about the author. Dr. Desmond Ford is well known to many belonging to an older generation of Seventh-day Adventists as an Australian Adventist theologian and evangelist. The title of his 2008 biography by Milton Hook expresses it appropriately: Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist (Riverside: Adventist Today Foundation).
Dr. Ford is probably best known to those who are familiar with the late 20th Century theological disputations within the Adventist denomination for the public statements he first made beginning in the 1980s that questioned the biblical basis on which the corporate Adventist Church seeks to support its only unique (and to many, its most problematical, controversial, convoluted and confusing) doctrine, the Investigative Judgment. To many Adventists, his detailed arguments based on biblical grounds were largely or entirely persuasive. As a reward for his efforts to advance modern Adventism’s better understanding of its traditional, historic theology, his ministerial credentials were revoked by Adventist church administrators and he became persona non grata as far as official institutional Adventism was concerned.
May I suggest that to understand the views of Dr. Ford with respect to issues considered in this book, readers at the outset might appreciate knowing that he comes at this topic from the perspective of a Christian evangelist with an intensely Christocentric Salvationist orientation. His use of language communicates his absolute dedication to a view that, to quote him “I believe in Heaven, nothing else makes senses of Earth . . . [T]here can be no lasting happiness without holiness . . . [H]oliness is so clearly identified in the person of Jesus Christ that all unanswered questions have little weight . . . I believe in the supernatural inspiration of Scripture and its offer of the gospel . . . as the foundation of all truth.” Finally,“[t]he evidence for the divine inspiration of all Scripture is overwhelming” (viii, xi, 5).
Dr. Ford academic theological credentials are distinguished with a PhD from the University of Manchester in England. However, it helpful to appreciate that he would be the first person to tell you that the style of the approach he is taking in this book is not one that a typical scientist or academic theologian would take.
With these introductory comments placing the author in some context, let us review what, at least to this reviewer, seems to be the most important positions advanced in the pages of this volume summarized here under various topical headings:
Evolution: One of the most important aspects of this book is that the author accepts the reality of a procession of biological forms proceeding over billions and millions of years that constitutes the geological and paleontological history of planet Earth. That alone sets this book apart from apologetic literature issued from Christian fundamentalists including the fundamentalist-orientated conventional Adventist perspective. However, the author rejects the idea that there are “gradual transitions from one species to another” (114). He believes in the sudden appearance of different life forms over geologic time. This fact is particularly important for him in the appearance of humans in the paleontological and archaeological record. As the title of this book declares, what Dr. Ford is objecting to is “Darwinism” and its appeal to random events or “chance” in explaining major genetic changes and thus the appearance of new biological forms. To him, the principal problem of Darwinism is “Naturalism” (101). To the author, the solution to the “problems [presented by] geology archaeology, and accepted science” is “Progressive Creationism.” His belief is “that not chance but God is behind all life in all its various stages. What scientists [describe] as the ‘abrupt’ appearance of new kinds is really the willing and creative power of God. This I believe is the clear teaching of Scripture” (181).
Genesis: The book of Genesis “is not anti-scientific nor pre-scientific, but non-scientific” (viii, 87). Ford insists that it “can be read aright in the spirit in which it was written, with its original purpose in view . . .” Modern readers should ask what did the Genesis stories mean to its original audience (24). The text of the early chapters of Genesis “alludes repeatedly to well-known ancient polytheistic traditions and rescues what has value . . . Let us remember that Christ once told a story (Luke 16:19-31) based on erroneous beliefs of his day” (93). The author insists that Genesis “refutes the errors [of] . . . atheism, agnosticism, materialism, polytheism, pantheism, dualism, humanism, astrology, the eternity of matter, and the philosophy of eternal recurrence” (14). He suggests that “by faith we believe that God created the world. But faith is not credulity” (19). Ford argues that most evangelical scholars view Genesis Chapters 1-11 as a “different genre” in contrast to the Genesis of Chapters 12-50. Genesis 1-11 is “an antidote to false faith rather than as a lesson in biological origins . . . [it] covers an unknown vista of time” being a “global introduction to the history of one localized unknown tribe” (82-83). He suggests that, “there is a great gap between the pristine chapters two and three of Genesis which have no hint of other mortals, domesticity of animals, cities and high culture” (81).
Creation Week: As Ford sees it, the fundamental problem of those who interpret the Genesis text literally is that they do not realize that “God’s purpose in Scripture is not to make us scientists or historians but to save us, and therefore there are parabolic elements in the Genesis stories of chapter 1-11. . . Genesis does concern a week, but it’s a parabolic not a literal week” (65).
Age of the Earth: To Ford, the “age of the earth” is the most “vulnerable point in traditional Christian belief” (xii). The author asserts that “[t]he Bible cannot rightly be used to establish even an approximate date for the age of the earth. It is nowhere interested in that topic . . . [t]he [scientific] evidence for the great age of the earth [at about 4.5 billion years] is overwhelming and fully valid for all who really want to know. . . [Using the bible] precise dates for events before [the time of] Abraham are unknown” (66, 81). He quotes approvingly a comment of an Adventist physicist that “Fundamentalists may attack one dating method or another, pointing out sources of error and uncertainly. But this is like walking into a forest and denying its existence because many of the trees have imperfections” (68).
Age of Life Forms Including Humans: Ford believes that there was a real Adam and Eve who were “Gods’ climactic creations after the progressive arrival of all preceding life forms” (81, 152-157). With regard to the dating of Adam and Eve, he comments that while the “date of their arrival nobody knows . . . [m]any Christian scientists believe it must [have] been somewhere between 200,000 B.C. and 100,000 B.C.” (81).
Fall of Man: Ford believes in the reality of “The Fall” stating that it probably occurred very soon after the appearance of Adam and Eve (81).
Noah’s Flood: The author addresses directly the issue of whether the Flood recorded in Genesis was universal. While the author insists that while, in his opinion, there was “a great Flood, an ark, and a Noah,” he concludes that “[n]either geology nor archaeology testify to a universal flood millennia ago . . .” The Bible uses a “parable about a universal flood . . . Parables use everyday language with which we are familiar to teach abstract truth which is outside our experience,” (88). It is not wise to press every detail of a parable for historic or scientific truth.” (59) In his view, the argument that the Genesis flood was world-wide is “based on a very literal reading of the text rather than a serious reading” (63). Finally, he notes that we don’t need to “worry about how Noah could fit in his vessel so many thousands of genera some of which had to traverse oceans and mountains” (88).
Death Before Sin: With regard to the issue of “constant suffering and death over millions of years,” he quotes the author of a 2010 work Good News for Adventists that “animals have no concept of death . . . while death is a moral problems to humans, it is not a moral problem to any animal and never has been.” Ford takes a position earlier suggested by C. S. Lewis that God “did not want it that way and is not responsible for being that way.” If God is not responsible, then who is? Ford’s position seems to be similar to that of the late Adventist theologian, Jack Provonsha, which is that “we have the right to look for a supernatural enemy of God who has twisted God’s good creation.” He also offers the interesting view quoting William Dembski that “we should understand the corrupting effects of the Fall retroactively (in other words, the consequences of the Fall can also act backward into the past.). Accordingly, the Fall could take place after the natural evils for which it is responsible”(75-76).
In the view of this reviewer, the goal of the author in writing this book is to be commended. His motivation is based on his concern that many younger evangelical Christians, including many younger (and older) Adventists, are “giving up their faith” in large part over the manner in which their churches are advocating fundamentalist interpretations of Genesis. He comments that even the Christian gospel is “too often bound about and rendered powerless by traditional error taught [about a literal recent world-wide flood and the age of the earth and of plants, animals, and humans on this planet] in both church and home” (xiii).
The author correctly notes the problems that scientific research since the publication of Darwin’s original work has had in modifying understandings of several mechanisms that Darwin originally posited as being responsible for major changes in animal and plant forms over geological time. These differences are well-known and widely discussed in the standard biological literature. However, modern evolutionary biology considers the core of Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) understandings dealing with the process of natural selection are still very insightful. However, as pointed out in the book, there are well regarded evolutionary biologists who interpret the current scientific data as indicating that non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms may contribute more complete understandings of the complex evolutionary pathways that created new biological forms.
On this basis, the subtitle of this volume “The Demise of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution” is, if strictly interpreted would be considered correct. No biologist today believes in the validity of the entire range of ideas that Darwin proposed in Origins of Species. However, the core concept that Darwin and Wallace proposed, that of natural selection, is still, in a much more complex and sophisticated forms, regarded as an important scientific insight. This fact is obscured in this book.
Some may also regard the approach that Dr. Ford has taken to present his views — compiling a massive collection of quotations on a great variety of topics from the works of scientists, theologians and other scholars – as indicating that he lacks the ability to summarize the most important issues without resorting to long quotations. This is a relatively minor criticism as others may view it as a means of validating the arguments being advanced in the book.
On the other hand, from the perspective of this reviewer, the most serious lack of perspective exhibited in the book is a consequence of the author’s failure to appreciate the critical role of methodological naturalism in the conduct of scientific-based investigations, in this case, scientific investigations concerning how and why living organisms change over time.
Dr. Ford is certainly aware of the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical or ontological naturalism. We know that because of a footnote on page 101 where he states that “it is appropriate to distinguish between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism” (101). This reviewer would suggest that it is more than just “appropriate” to be aware of the difference. It is absolutely critical in a book dealing with this topic in the manner in which the author is addressing it.
To explain why this simple distinction is important if one wishes to have a productive discussion of this topic, it might help to be explicit about the contrasting definitions of these two concepts.
Metaphysical or ontological naturalism is a philosophical postulate or assumption about the nature of reality. It holds that all that exists, i.e., all that is “real,” in the entire universe is only, totally, and completely physical or materialistic in nature. If it does not have a physical form of some type, it does not exist. Note that this naturalism is a philosophical postulate or assumption. The arguments for and against accepting this postulate as stating something about the “real” world are philosophical or, if thought to be relevant, theological arguments.
Methodological naturalism is an operational principle of how to approach the scientific study of any aspect of the physical world. It states no postulate or makes no assumption about the nature of any presumed reality beyond physical or materialistic reality. As noted above, that task is left to philosophy and, if one wishes, theology. The “naturalism” of methodological naturalism is an “as if” naturalism. One undertakes the study of any aspect of the physical world as if the only reality is a physical or materialistic reality. Whether reality is or is not actually a materialistic one is irrelevant as being beyond the purview of any scientific-based consideration.
Methodological naturalism is one of the fundamental operational principles of the modern scientific enterprise. Because it is so basic, it is a “given” not typically formally considered or discussed among practicing scientists. That task is left to historians or philosophers of science, if they so wish.
There is a famous cartoon by Sidney Harris representing two scientists at a blackboard on which is written a set of equations and then the phrase “Then a Miracle Occurs” followed by more equations. One of the scientists is pointing at the “Then a Miracle Occurs” and the caption reads “I think you should be more explicit in step two.” The message is clear: science does not deal with miracles, i.e., any presumed non-natural or supernatural phenomena. The game it plays has certain rules and one of these rules is that all scientific explanations must be naturalistic explanations. That does not mean that non-naturalistic phenomena or explanations may not exist. It simply means that science is not designed to deal with any phenomena of any such presumed order. It can only deal with physical or materialistic phenomena. It has nothing to say about any postulated non-physical or non-materialistic expressions or entities.
As far as this reviewer can tell from reading this book, the author seems to not be sufficiently aware of, or sensitive to the fact, that the modern scientific enterprise is, by definition, totally naturalistically focused. When the author states that the problem with Darwinism is that it is naturalistic, he overlooks that this is what it is supposed to be, because the intellectual framework within which Darwinian evolution is considered operates, by definition, within a totally naturalistic and materialist framework because its arguments must be constructed within a scientific and thus totally naturalistic/materialistic contexts.
Now it is certainly correct to state that some scientists who are highly regarded by their peers in their areas of expertise in semi-popular or popular venues or in books intended to be read by non-scientists make statements that indicate that they have adopted as a personal preference metaphysical or ontological naturalism and expound on the advantages of adopting such a personal philosophy. Such an individual would naturally gravitate to holding to a classical atheistic metaphysics. We can perhaps thus correctly infer that these individuals have adopted “Darwinism” in its non-scientific incarnation. That is, of course, their absolute right. However, a personal decision on their part should in no way confuse other considerations of what Darwinism might indicate within an explicitly scientific context.
In the view of this reviewer, if the author of this book could have included an explanation of the fundamental distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism and the implications of that distinction as being at the center of the scientific enterprise, this could have been an outstanding book. This reviewer has the most profound respect for the intellectual and religious integrity of the author as an outstanding representative of the religious commitments that he espouses and for the willingness to publicly declare his convictions on points of theological dispute within his faith community.
The present book is an important statement by a non-fundamentalist conservative evangelical Christian that goes a long way to provide a much needed corrective on a topic that causes so much confusion in the minds of young evangelical Christians including Adventist Christians. However, in the opinion of this reviewer, the book in its present form lacks an important perspective in explaining what kind of statement the scientific approach to the study of the physical world can and cannot make. Darwinian evolution, either in its original formulation or as it has been subsequently modified, in its explicitly scientific incarnation, is not an enemy of the values that the author espouses. This is because the scientific status of Darwinian evolution or neo-Darwinian evolution or however Darwinian evolutionary concepts may be reconstructed and reconceptualized in the future, has no relevance to these values.
Perhaps the author in a second edition of his book would consider some of the points raised in this review.