Monday, February 9, 2009

Religious Objections (Some of Them Veiled) to Darwin


So, Darwin, for all the conflict he has inspired, can sometimes bring left and right a little closer.  By offering a model for human behavior that vindicates competitive sorting processes (not only biology but tradition, markets, and science itself), Darwinian thinking could provide an explanation of change over time, an explanation that unifies rationalist, moralist, traditionalist, capitalist, and Progressive threads of Western thought.  These threads have been separated since roughly the eighteenth-century Enlightenment — at great cost to our intellectual life — with the right-left rift only the most obvious manifestation.

But a reunification is unlikely.  Our cultural house will probably remain divided, and for the obvious reason.  Most on the right will not stand beside the left and say “We are all Darwinists now” as long as Darwin is seen as subversive of religion.  There have been occasional signs of rapprochement over the years, such as a pro-sociobiology series of articles in the conservative magazine National Review that included a piece called “Origins of Conservatism.”  But more conservatives sound like Jeffrie Murphy, professor of philosophy and law at Arizona State University, who once wrote a sociobiology-friendly book entitled Evolution, Morality, and the Meaning of Life but years later told me, “I am now inclined to take more seriously a religious perspective on moral matters…the village atheist/science worshipper person present in that book now strikes me as a shallow fellow indeed.”


Convinced that the materialist account of life is reductionist, a tiny band of conservative scientists have even been working in the opposite direction from the sociobiologists, you might say, attempting to show that the complexities of biology can only be explained by rejecting Darwin and invoking “intelligent design,” some unseen maker.  Intelligent design theorists have gotten press attention far out of proportion to their numbers and influence within scientific circles (and I’m giving them a little more right now, I must admit).  By studiously avoiding using religion as an authoritative source, referring only to scientific observations such as the surprising complexity of cell structures, the intelligent design theorists avoid becoming the outright laughingstocks that their predecessors, the creationists, were (with their accounts of dinosaurs being killed by the Flood, etc.).  Like the creationists, though, they claim that it is Darwinism that is dogma.

Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, author of the anti-evolution book Darwin’s Black Box, told me he thinks sociobiology is a fad, one more example of evolutionists telling stories that can explain anything they choose.  “It’s superficially plausible, which is why I guess it sells.  There are some anatomical similarities between chimps and humans, and evolutionists are always good at pointing out that the similarities can imply common descent…The fact is, nobody knows what it would take to develop a language instinct in something that looks remarkably like a person but didn’t have that language instinct.”  His prediction, then, for the fate of sociobiology?  “I predict that sociobiology will draw a picture of humanity that is remarkably similar to the personal predilections of the people who subscribe to it, and after a while it will fade away.”


Intelligent design theorists routinely claim that species-making differences simply could not arise in the few billion years of life on Earth, and many conservatives are happy to take them at their word.  Anti-Darwinists ought to at least be given pause, though, by the incredible variation that has taken place just within dog populations in the past few thousand years, in some cases mere centuries or decades.  Who, if arriving from another planet and lacking familiarity with Darwinian theory, would have thought that wolf-like creatures could beget St. Bernards and chihuahuas in a just a few thousand generations?  They are as strikingly different in their way as chimps and humans, but we know dogs have a common ancestry.

The anti-Darwinists might respond that we know the lineage of dogs but that for other, more ancient animals we lack “transitional” fossils showing one species turning into another.  The fact is, though, that every fossil is transitional, since each generation is constantly blending into the next, with changes happening very gradually.  It’s not as if one should expect to find something like a werewolf in the fossil record, transmuting before our eyes from one species into another — though if the anti-Darwinists need something that blatant, recently-unearthed feathered lizards ought to count for something.

If God designed life on Earth, there is absolutely no evidence of it.  He would seem to have designed it to look exactly as though it resulted from billions of years of unplanned evolution.  From mosquito populations that shift toward a higher proportion of mosquitoes who prefer human blood after their supply of rat hosts diminishes, to the widely acknowledged phenomenon of bacterial antibiotic resistance (caused because each generation of bacteria descends from those bacteria that were resistant to the previous round of antibiotics), evolution is happening in small, gradual ways all the time, all around us.

Luckily, even the Vatican acknowledges this and discourages claiming that every remaining gap in our knowledge is evidence for the direct intervention of God.


dave said...

Speaking of dogma and religon, I thought you might be interested to see that Ayn Rand was resistant to the theory of evolution.

- from Nathaniel Branden’s website:

‘…“After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.” I asked her, “You mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms—including humans—evolved from less complex life forms?” She shrugged and responded, “I’m really not prepared to say,” or words to that effect. I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God’s creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable….’

Todd Seavey said...

That jibes well with something in one of her own essays that suggested she was not necessarily opposed to but troubled by evolution — and there she suggested that the idea of us being descended from ape-like creatures seemed an affront to human dignity. But again — as I swear I have not forgotten here — one can’t pick facts to suit one’s political predilections, merely see if the facts constrain one’s political ideas in unexpected ways (or provide useful, inspiring analogies).

Adam Cohen said...

Reading Rand’s philosophical writings about reason and science alongside Darwin, Dawkins, Dennett and Gould would lead independent thinkers to regard evolution as sound, incontrovertible, scientific theory that is compatible with Rand’s core ideas. Which isn’t to say that Rand herself was an advocate of the theory of evolution, but that her appreciation and defense of rationality and the scientific method is ultimately far more significant than her own particular opinions. Except to Randroids, on the one hand, and critics dedicated to discrediting her at every turn, on the other hand.

Here is an intringuing link about Rand and evolution: .

Todd Seavey said...

We all have our areas of expertise and must be cautious about straying outside of them, of course — but anyone wanting to iron out the kinks in Objectivism will apparently have a whopping NINE DAYS to do so in Las Vegas if you’re interested (that’s convention-commitment to rival Burning Man — with time enough to read the whole John Galt speech from the end of _Atlas Shrugged_, I’d think):

Todd Seavey said...

Though it should be noted that Las Vegas’s mayor is clearly encouraging parasitism: