More than 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin, the debate about God and evolution shows no signs of abating. Voices loud and soft continue to read Darwin’s science as if it were irreconcilable with religious faith.
The noisiest Darwinian controversialists include Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist at Oxford; Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts; Paul Zachary Myers, a biologist and blogger at the University of Minnesota; and Jerry A. Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago. These writers habitually festoon their scientific writings, philosophical musings and Internet offerings with extravagant claims about how Darwin has destroyed theology.
Most scientists and scientific journalists, by contrast, are reluctant to flash their views on evolution and faith so openly, even when they agree with the more combative Darwinian atheists. The Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert Wright (The Evolution of God), for example, whose religious skepticism is based directly on his reading of Darwin, prefers not to be called an atheist, though he admits he is a materialist and does not believe in a personal God. Wright looks kindly on religion but does not address the fact that materialism is incompatible with a coherent understanding of God.
While Nicholas Wade, a talented science writer for The New York Times, explicitly professes that he has no atheistic intentions, he claims in his book The Faith Instinct that religion arose in human history for a single reason: to help human genes pass from one generation to the next. Wade insists that he has no interest in suppressing the “faith instinct,” which has been adaptively fertile, but says he would not be unhappy if the idea of God would just go away for good.
All of these writers are devotees of “evolutionary naturalism”: the belief that neo-Darwinian biology (a synthesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the more recent science of genetics) can provide the ultimate explanation of all living traits. Evolutionary naturalism, which must be distinguished carefully from evolutionary biology, is now increasingly popular with scientists, science writers and other intellectuals. According to the evolutionary naturalist, religion and theology, far from being explanatory, are nothing more than obsolete adaptations themselves, fully understandable in evolutionary terms. Beneath the surface of all of the world’s myths and sacred traditions, what is really going on, they say, is that populations of human genes are blindly adapting, surviving and making their way from one generation to the next. And that is all. Evolution has even aimlessly concocted human morality to make people cooperate with each other to improve the chances of transferring their genes to subsequent generations.
The Morality of Babies
An interesting illustration of soft-spoken evolutionary naturalism appeared in an article in The New York Times Magazine (5/9) by Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University. Entitled “The Moral Life of Babies,” the article seems innocent enough, but the tacit assumptions that guide it are theologically far-reaching. Commenting on new research in child psychology, Bloom surmises that babies, long before the age of reason, exhibit a rudimentary sense of right and wrong. They do not have to undergo lengthy inculturation before expressing their genetically determined moral propensities. Cultural formation gives content to morality, but evolution makes humans ready to receive it. Even apart from cultural influence, writes Bloom, “some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.”
What catches my eye is Bloom’s insinuation that the new research proves that Darwinian evolution, rather than any divine spark, ignites human moral instincts. Bloom tries to avoid the question of God, but his article cannot hide his fundamental agreement with the ultra-Darwinians: that evolution demonstrates the godlessness of life and the universe.
Above all, Bloom’s new science of babies offers no hope to those who still think people cannot be truly good without God. Babies, according to Bloom, do not come into the world as blank slates, morally speaking, any more than they do linguistically. Evolution, long prior to socialization, “jump-starts” the process of moral development all by itself. Infants come equipped naturally with rudimentary moral tendencies only because this endowment has been adaptive—conducive to gene survival—in the past. Beginning with primates and hominids, the moral instincts inherited by modern humans were being sculpted by genetic accidents and natural selection hundreds of thousands of years ago. God is nowhere in sight.
Bloom takes the new research to mean that no divine invitation, no Platonic awakening to a transcendent realm of goodness, no sense of the holy is ever necessary to ground the seriousness of human morality. After Darwin, moral development and the refinement of virtue must be seen as the result of purely natural and cultural processing, all in the service of gene survival. There is no need, Bloom concludes, for divine intervention.
After reading Bloom’s article and countless others like it, I find no good reason to deny the scientific evidence that human morality is somehow adaptive in a Darwinian sense. A theologian need not reject contemporary evolutionary accounts of human intelligence, morality and religion. Everything living is, at some level of inquiry, grist for the evolutionary mill. If the mill is that of evolutionary naturalism, however, theologians may legitimately protest, without being hostile to evolutionary science. I would immediately want to ask, for example, whether morality is “ultimately” or “nothing more than” an evolutionary adaptation (or perhaps a byproduct of other adaptations). Can one prove scientifically that gene survival is the ultimate meaning of ethics?
Bloom, like Wade, wears his evolutionary naturalism lightly, but it is not hard to detect the metaphysically provocative subtext in his ostensibly scientific essay. Bloom is not content to test his ideas by comparing them exclusively with other empirically based developmental theories, as one would expect a scientist to do. Instead he launches an attack on the conservative Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza, who is cited in the piece as a defender of the Christian faith.
Why would a good scientist do this? Why not just stick with science? Perhaps Bloom still assumes that theology is little more than a primitive attempt to do science, which must now make way for Darwin. D’Souza, in his defense of the Christian faith against the onslaught of naturalism, appears unconsciously to share Bloom’s assumption that theology belongs to a generically scientific category of explanation, one that allows theology to compete with natural science. D’Souza grudgingly allows that evolutionary biology may explain some of the less noble instances of human morality, like people’s instinctive kindness to close relatives. He adds, however, that more self-sacrificial acts, like donating blood to strangers or giving anonymously to a worthy cause, are evidence of “the voice of God within our souls.”
D’Souza’s way of making explanatory room for God after Darwin is theologically questionable. To claim that God rather than evolution accounts for highly altruistic expressions of morality is the inverse of the evolutionary naturalist’s declaration. Both positions are theologically meaningless, since they assume, first, that theology can provide scientific information and, second, that there exists only one explanatory level, rather than a plurality of them.
Bloom’s predictable response to D’Souza is that evolutionary biology can fully explain all levels of moral development. Even the selfless moral acts that for D’Souza point directly to the supernatural have for Bloom a purely natural rationale. “Giving up a bus seat for an old lady,” writes Bloom, “turns out to be a cold-bloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint.” It is “an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.” Such displays of altruism are good for attracting mates, hence for promoting gene survival. According to Bloom, Darwinian mechanisms (along with some degree of cultural influence) rather than divine influence explain ultimately and adequately every instance of moral aspiration and activity.
In his broadside, Bloom has moved away from objective reporting into theological disputation. Most evolutionary naturalists—as distinct from evolutionary scientists—habitually try to validate scientific theories by bringing them into competition with theology. Their strategy for debunking deity is to transform the idea of God into a crude scientific hypothesis and then announce that the “God hypothesis” cannot compete with natural selection as an “evidence-based” ultimate explanation.
This is why Richard Dawkins spends so many pages in The God Delusion trying to convince readers that the idea of God is a pathetically primitive scientific hypothesis. The biologist Jerry Coyne’s otherwise informative work Why Evolution Is True follows the same strategy, as does Victor Stenger’s book God: the Failed Hypothesis. The authors’ central assumption is that if only people today would come to their senses and realize that the God idea is nothing more than our species’ infantile stab at doing science, they would be more receptive to the superiority of Darwinian biology. Evolutionary naturalists expect in this way to purify science of all contamination by “faith.”
Whenever Darwinian scientists joust directly with religion instead of giving evidence of scientific purity, they insult both science and theology by transforming empirical information into atheistic propaganda. Evolutionary naturalists like Wade and Bloom may not speak as thunderously as Dawkins and Coyne, but their efforts contribute to the unhappy contemporary fusion of biology with materialist naturalism.
On the other side, D’Souza’s way of responding to evolutionary naturalism is also suspect. He sabotages his apologetics by allowing theological accounts of morality to compete directly with those of Darwinian biology. Like the proponents of creationism and intelligent design, D’Souza cheapens theological commentary by placing it at the same explanatory level as natural science.
Evolution as Grammar
A thorough critical inquiry would ask Bloom and other evolutionary naturalists what exactly they mean by morality, goodness and evil; what makes behavior moral or immoral; how a purely evolutionary explanation of morality can escape moral relativism; whether an exclusively scientific account of morality can be compatible with claims to human freedom; whether Darwinian biology alone determines what true responsibility means; what it means that human beings pass through different stages of moral development. These all deserve lengthy comment. But the main issue is to avoid placing theology and biology into competition with each other in the first place. How can evolutionary science be kept from becoming evolutionary naturalism, and theology from appearing to be a primitive kind of science?
One way is to think of evolution as comparable to grammar. In written or spoken language grammatical rules generate the structure of sentences by placing constraints on everything one says and means. Analogously, one may think of Darwin’s recipe for evolution—variation, inheritance and selection—as a set of grammatical rules that generate biological outcomes, including moral behavior. Scientists rightly claim that evolution “gives rise to” moral instincts, along with the whole suite of distinctively human traits. But it does so the way grammatical rules structure sentences and paragraphs.
It is good to learn both the grammatical rules for writing and the evolutionary constraints on life. Grammar, however, does not determine the meaning or content of what is written. An article is more than its grammatical structure, just as life and morality are more than the results of a Darwinian formula for generating biological forms. Just as one would not consult only a grammarian to interpret the meaning of a text, so one would not consult only the evolutionary biologist to discover the meaning of life or whether (and when) one should submit to moral imperatives. The claim that evolution is contrary to theology, therefore, seems as nonsensical as the claim that the grammar underlying this article (or any article) is opposed to its content.
No doubt theology and evolutionary naturalism are incompatible belief systems, but biology and theology lie on distinct planes of inquiry and are logically incomparable. At one level of life, science explores the “grammatical” constraints of evolutionary process. At another level evolutionary theologians explore a still unfinished drama embedded in the grammar of life. Evolutionary naturalists notice the drama too, but summarily declare it pointless. Evolutionary theologians, however, have every right to comment on the story themselves, without having to repudiate the evolutionary rules. Theologically, the drama of life carries a momentous meaning that falls out of the range of what scientific method is wired to receive. Since the adventure of life is ongoing, humanity may have to wait—perhaps in joyful expectation—to see how it turns out in the end. Meanwhile, one can follow the drama without grumbling at the grammar.
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