Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, ed. Corey S. Powell (New York: St. Martin’s, 2014) is a popularization of arguments for, and implications from, the theory of biological evolution. It is a unique kind of book, full of juxtapositions: often technical but without a single footnote, playful on one page and then heavy-handed on the next, full of Nye’s personality and style and yet written alongside an editor (and you always wonder what exactly that means).
The strength of the book is the ease and simplicity with which Nye abstracts from more technical scientific discussions: in line with his popular TV role, Nye is fundamentally a teacher, and he is at his best when breaking down complex issues into lay terms for a popular audience. Nye has helpful discussions of, for instance, the Cambrian explosion (99-101), the “what good is half a wing?” objection (chapter 20), and punctuated equilibrium (121-26). He dispels some common myths about evolution, and thoughtful creationists can sharpen their thinking by considering his points (e.g., his discussion of the pace of evolution as uneven and involving long periods of stasis).
The book is not strictly tied down to evolution. Nye will frequently foray into more general scientific topics. Chapter 14 is about mass extinctions, chapter 30 is about genetically modified foods, and chapter 31 is about human cloning. You can tell Nye’s genuine passion for science is driving the book’s flow, which makes it fun to read. This is a high value in a genre of literature that is often hyper-specialized and obscure.
I appreciate Nye’s love for science, and I bet I would like him if we could ever sit down together over a beer. We also have in common that we will probably not be invited to Ken Ham’s house for Thanksgiving this year. It’s natural for my review to focus on criticisms, given my beliefs about God’s role in creation, but I hope Nye will feel like I have represented him accurately and engaged with him charitably here. What compelled me to sketch out this review was not a desire to attack Nye, but simply enjoying his book and wanting to engage with him.
1) Ken Ham is too much lurking in the background for Nye to present evolution against its sharpest alternatives
There are some people in the world who believe that the present state of the universe is the result of relatively fast, supernatural events (for example, Ken Ham). There are others who believe that it is the result of relatively slow, natural events (for example, Bill Nye). What is frustrating is that both of these types of people tend to be so focused on each other that they forget about that long, varied, majority spectrum of people in the middle who believe that the present state of the universe is the result of a combination of both fast/supernatural and slow/natural processes.
Most of us would feel frustrated if we watched a debate on economic theory that was reduced to socialists and libertarians denouncing each other. But this is exactly what happens in origins debate: the two views at the extreme ends of the spectrum shout at each other, and all the intermediate alternatives get lost in the noise.
Nye’s presentation both reflects and supports this polarized, charged context. Early on, he acknowledges that his well-known February 2014 debate with Ken Ham was a big part of the motivation behind the book (over at AnswersinGenesis.org, Ham has written a scathing, and not entirely fair, review). Throughout the book Nye’s tone is usually likeable and good-humored, becomes more biting when young-earthers (“naysayers”) like Ham come into view. And he equates creationism proper with Ken Ham’s variety of creationism, that is, young-earth creationism, a largely 20th century, American variety of creationism.
As a result, Nye actually skirts around the most cutting edge flash points in intelligent design discussions: you could read the book cover to cover and never know that people like Stephen Meyer existed. You are presented with only two choices, in stark contrast: hard-core evolution or recent creation. It’s Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye. Take your pick.
The extent to which this dichotomy is misleading can be discerned from the words themselves: creation and evolution. Are these terms really alternative headings of the same rank and designation, as commonly used in popular culture? Creation is a philosophical-religious term, denoting a divine activity; evolution is a scientific-mechanical term, denoting an observable process in nature. A more logical contrast would involve two equally philosophical terms (like naturalism vs. creationism), or two equally specific time designations (13 billion years vs. 6 thousand years), or two equally mechanical-descriptive terms (evolution vs. sudden formation).
Because he amalgamates creationism and Ken Ham, Nye doesn’t have to engage with the more sophisticated arguments of the intelligent design community, and he doesn’t really have a category for people like Francis Collins who believe in both a Creator and evolution. He also tends to deal with creationism in terms of its worst caricatures. He calls it “a static view of the world” that cannot make any meaningful predictions of the future (5), and claims that it suppresses curiosity and the joy of discovery (10). He even imputes the motive of the fear of death to creationists’ rejection of evolution (175)!
Perhaps the most perplexing mischaracterization of creationism in the book is Nye’s repeated assertion that creationism is unexciting and shuts down exploration and hypothesis (5, 283). I don’t understand that at all. Why should intelligent causes end curiosity? If life has both natural and supernatural causation standing behind it, rather than just natural causation, I can understand how that could be disturbing or unwelcome for some people on a variety of grounds—but how in the world could it be boring?
To me, it is the most exciting discovery possible. It means that reason and mind predate us. Far from shutting down questions, it opens the door to infinite curiosity and possibility. It is as exciting as when the scientists meet the species that sowed life on Earth in the movie Promethius. In fact, it is more exciting: aliens could get boring after a while, but not God.
To sum up: maybe Nye’s “energetic campaign to spread awareness of evolution” (front flap) is motivated by and directed towards more popular level, less sophisticated creationist beliefs. But he would have offered a sharper, more convincing alternative, and would have written a more significant book, if he had engaged with the best of creationist literature and argumentation.
2) Nye overstates the role of the theory of evolutionary theory within the natural sciences, and for life in modern society.
This book is about propagating evolution as much as defending it. In other words, Nye is not just arguing that evolution is true, he is arguing for its function in science and society. For Nye, the theory of evolution is closely related our ability to predict the future, and our reaction to it is linked to our reaction to climate change (11, 126), racism (chapter 32), and even the question of extraterrestrial life (8, 295). It is also bound up with modern technology, such that it becomes inconsistent to reject evolution while accepting crop rotation, running water, electricity, etc. He even claims that “the assault on evolution … is an assault on science overall” (5).
Now, even if we assumed for a moment that the theory of biological evolution were completely true, I think it would be misleading and inaccurate to equate it with science itself, and with technological progress. Science is a diverse enterprise. It involves many different axioms and tools, some involving more direct, quantifiable observation and others involving more speculative and inferential hypothesizing. Einstein spoke much of the role of imagination and artistic intuition in his own field of theoretical physics. Evolution is one particular theory involving several certain branches of the natural sciences (biology, geology, paleontology, etc.), but it is not tantamount to science as such—and it is certainly not linked at the hip with modernization, as Nye implies.
Let’s get specific to prove this. Nye writes, “our understanding of evolution came to us by exactly the same method of scientific discovery that led to printing presses, polio vaccines, and smartphones” (4). But the word “exactly” in this sentence is far too clumsy. First of all, just for the record, the printing press is a late medieval invention (15th century), not a discovery of modern science. Second of all, more basically, by this way of thinking you could bind up evolutionary theory with every technological advance that has happened in the world since Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859. Different forms of technology and discovery come about in different ways, and with different kinds of supporting evidence. Medical breakthroughs like polio vaccines, for instance, are empirically verifiable: they either work or they don’t. Evolutionary science involves far more ambitious and theoretical reasoning about the past.
Is it true that our knowledge of the origins of the first cell is of the same rank as our knowledge of the cell phone? This overlooks the fact that no one has any knowledge of the origins of the first cell. Ask Richard Dawkins, and he’ll admit he hasn’t the foggiest. To quote him verbatim: “no one knows how it got started.”
When it comes to science’s role in solving problems and predicting the future, Nye’s equation of science and evolution becomes more disconcerting. In the first place, while many of Nye’s goals are admirable, it’s difficult to see how, on evolutionary grounds, we have a reliable basis for determining which problems to solve, and which future to create.
Science is always guided by some larger philosophy or worldview. The founders of modern science, for instance, were mostly Christians (Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Pascal, Faraday, Bacon, Galilei, Pasteur). The reason so many hospitals and universities have Christian origins is because the Christian faith values the body and the mind. It is interesting to read the early Boyle Lectures, initiated in England in the 1690’s, in which scientists/clergymen at once propounded their understanding of science and their interpretation of the Bible, particularly their optimistic postmillennialism.
So we might well ask: once scientific enterprise becomes completely un-tethered from any larger faith or religious worldview and becomes instead directed by an evolutionary worldview, what social and cultural efforts will that motivate? It is alarming to consider this, because if the survival of the fittest is the wrap-around category for explaining how we got here, it is difficult to see why, for instance, race eugenics or rape are objectively bad. If evolution is science, and science is the future—as Nye intimates—then we have no reason to oppose a violent, strong-devour-the-weak kind of future. That is what evolution is and does.
3) At times Nye mushrooms evolution up from a scientific theory into a philosophical worldview
Like many popularizers of science, Nye strays out of science into scientism. Early on in the book, Nye will assert that because evolution is true, “human beings are just another species on this planet trying to make a go of it, trying to pass our genes into the future, just like chrysanthemums, muskrats, sea jellies, poison ivy … and bumblebees” (3). One again, though, even assuming evolutionary theory were a complete biological explanation of our existence, this assertion is not yet justified. Nye is advancing here a claim about the meaning of human existence: specifically, that it is to procreate. To move from the how to the why like this is to move outside of the boundaries of science, outside the realm of empirical observation of the natural order, and into the realm of philosophy and religion.
It is where Nye strays into philosophy and religious theory that his weakest argument surface, in my opinion. At one point, Nye is marveling about the uniqueness of human beings within the natural order, and the question of why human beings perennially desire an after-life comes up. It is a fascinating discussion, and a fascinating issue to see a scientist wrestling with.
In response, Nye describes the loss of mental activity that a fellow scientist suffered late in life and then states, “despite many human beliefs about an afterlife, it sure seems as though these remarkable people did not have their consciousness transported to some wonderful eternal place of rest and contemplation. Instead, it seemed as though they lost their facilities as certain systems in their bodies shut down (179). But why would you expect to see the effects of the afterlife when someone is still alive? That our brains can malfunction, get sick, and shut down is hardly proof that consciousness is impossible apart from the body. I don’t think Nye would be making these mistakes if he were sticking to the science.
4) Nye fails to make visible the shortcomings and weaknesses of the theory of evolution.
My first three objections are not about the truth of evolution. Even if Nye were completely right about evolution, he should still interact with the best of creationist literature, recognize the limits of evolutionary theory, and keep it distinct from philosophy. My final objection is concerned with Nye’s account of evolution itself.
Nye doesn’t provide a clear, short-hand definition of evolution in his book. But it is clear from his argumentation that he dealing with evolution as a completely exhaustive explanation of all of our existence, including our quest for meaning, our moral instincts, our curiosity about life after death, our desire for transcendence, and so forth. In Tim Keller’s terminology, he is talking about the “Grand Theory of Evolution”—that is, evolution as an all-encompassing philosophy and explanation of life.
Now to be clear, I see a lot of evidence for evolution as a biological process. It would be quite surprising, actually, in a constantly evolving world with constantly evolving atmospheres and ecosystems, if living organisms did not evolve over time as natural selection works upon random genetic mutation. Can you imagine if giraffes with longer necks didn’t tend to survive more frequently to pass on their DNA to their offspring, or frogs with better camouflage, or falcons with better eyesight, or squids with inkier ink? I see no merits in the assumption that a universe created by God must be characterized by stasis rather than dynamism and adaptation.
Because my training and calling is not in the natural sciences, I suspend judgment on exactly how much evolution can explain of life’s current diversity. But from what I do read of the science, it would cause me no theological conundrums if it turned out that, say, all various species of cat (lion, puma, jaguar, etc.) had common or interwoven ancestry. I have no problem in principle with the possibility that natural selection working on random variation could produce even much more significant change than this, particularly when given a few billion years to work with.
I know some of my fellow creationists will be concerned that I don’t stay within the neat micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution distinction. All I can say is, I want to be responsive to the evidence, and I want to draw the battle lines in the right place. To my mind, the great enemy is not “evolution” in every possible sense, but evolution as a self-contained, universally explanatory process in the way Nye treats it—evolution as a worldview, or philosophy. I don’t think the Bible tells us the mechanics of how God made the entire pre-human world, and the possibility of intermediate causes, in my mind, takes nothing away from the fact that it is God’s work. (No one would dispute God’s role in bringing a tree into existence because a seed was involved, and no one would deny that a human being is made be God because a sperm and egg from mom dad are involved.) So the possibility of God using evolution as an agent of creation, at least to some degree, does not trouble me.
But here the crucial question: is natural selection + random variation (the mechanism of textbook neo-Darwinism) sufficient in itself to explain everything—how life began, its subsequent diversification, and the entirety of human psychology and morality and experience?
I think Nye’s book falls far short of showing a positive answer to that question, certainly in a way that is “undeniable.” Nye’s book would have needed to engage more adequately the many perplexities and difficulties within contemporary evolutionary thought, those that cause even religiously agnostic people like David Berlinski to forcefully object to evolutionary theory. Here I will look at just two issues: the origin of life and the fossil record.
How does Nye deal with the origin of life? First, he claims that roughly a billion years passed before the earth’s formation and the origins of life, leaving plenty of time for the first cell to develop. But as Nicholas Wade’s review in the Wall Street Journal review pointed out, this is mistaken. Most scientists acknowledge a meteorite shower sterilizing Earth roughly 3.9 billion years ago subsequent to its origins 4.54 billion years ago. So from this sterilization to the origins of life roughly 3.8 billion years ago, there is actually a much shorter amount of time.
When it comes to his explanation of how it actually happened, Nye acknowledges the challenge and mystery of the question, and Darwin’s unwillingness to “go there.” He then writes:
“Asking the big question sounds an awful lot like asking, ‘is there a god who runs the show?’ There is an essential difference, however. Every other aspect of life that was once attributed to divine intent is now elegantly and completely explained in the context of evolutionary science. For me, there is no reason to think that the origin of life is any different” (282).
But this seems highly question-begging to me. Nye seems to be saying that we don’t need God to explain the origin of life, because God has been disproven before in other areas. In other words, because evolution can explain some things, it must be able to explain everything. This argumentative strategy is like when any appeal to intelligent design is labeled—and dismissed—a “god-of-the-gaps” argument (the idea that gaps in scientific knowledge used as evidence for God will gradually be filled, leaving no place for God). The problem is that this objection rests upon the (not scientific, but philosophical) assumption that all of the “gaps” will be “filled in.” How could someone know this?
Why should we assume a natural cause for the origin of life simply because there are natural causes elsewhere? We are not dealing with a mere “gap” here. The first cell is an absolutely unprecedented, unparalleled event: the transition from randomness and disorder to, not only information and intelligence, but self-replicating information and intelligence via DNA and RNA. If Bill Nye wants to make an “undeniable” case for evolution, he needs to demonstrate, not assume, an evolutionary explanation for this event.
In chapter 4 of book If God, Then What?, Andrew Wilson conducts a creative thought experiment, imagining what it would be like for planet Earth to go from lifeless to containing life. It’s an illuminating exercise, and to my mind reinforces just how difficult this would be through purely natural processes. He suggests that the transition of earth from a barren rock to a place teeming with life on every corner needs some kind of explanation, and ultimately it makes more sense to posit that mind created matter than that matter created mind. I agree with him, and I highly recommend this chapter for people to read as an alternative to Nye.
What about Nye’s account of the fossil record? This is another challenging area for contemporary evolutionary theory, and yet Nye’s engagement seems passing, untroubled, uncurious, carefree. He spends barely over a page on the Cambrian explosion, and basically speculates (if I read him rightly) that maybe hard-shelled creatures would more easily diversify than previous organisms, and are inherently better preserved as fossils (100-101). Then he concludes:
“But of course, I may be wrong. Please investigate this business for yourself and reach your own conclusion” (101).
Really? That’s it? If you want us to accept evolution as “undeniable,” Mr. Nye, you’ve got to be more conclusive than that. And it’s not just the Cambrian explosion. The entire fossil record needs more explanation: all the ones I read based on punctuated equilibrium and population stasis and so forth seem like guess-work, like people are re-figuring the question to match the answer.
To sum up: Undeniable does some engaging science education, but its polemical thrust is vitiated by its over-reach and by its failure to engage the best of creationist argumentation.
And a final thought: one of the most fascinating parts of the book is when Nye’s discussion of altruism: “the origins and nature of altruism is one of the hottest areas of research in evolutionary science today” (210). I remember thinking at this point, “evolution cannot explain the cross.” To my mind, this is an area where the contrast between a Christian account of the world (whatever greater or lesser role it may assign to evolution) and a naturalistic account of the world (which assigns everything to evolution) becomes the sharpest.
For the naturalist, altruism is an eccentricity that needs to be explained. You’re surprised when you see it. For the Christian, it is the core meaning of reality. So it’s not something that needs to be explained; it is what explains everything else.
If everything is the result of evolutionary processes that helped our ancestors survive, then love and reason and our capacity for art are not connected to anything transcendent or fixed; they are deviations from a more basic chance reality; they are like computer glitches that pop up and are soon wiped out.
For the Christian, by contrast, love and reason are at the core of reality. What created the world was the overflow of love and reason within the Trinity. The person who experiences love, or employs their reason, is tapping into something more real than time and space.
Which worldview is more satisfying to human experience, more meaningful, more coherent? For me, there is no doubt. To both my conscience and my reason, it is undeniable.