Rob Harle © 1997
In this paper I discuss the claim by David Lack that the conflict between science, as represented specifically in evolution by natural selection and religion, specifically Christianity, remains unresolved. I attempt to show that there is an unresolved conflict between these two ways of knowing and that the conflict is fundamentally irresolvable. I argue that science and religion are "different knowledge systems" and as such one is not able to critically analyse the other. However, I believe there is a common denominator, a reinterpreted sense of Otto's, "mysterium tremendum et fascinans" which allows the two systems to coexist in harmony. This idea is also hinted at by Midgley. I discuss this in the final part of the paper.
Firstly, I define evolution and Christianity for the purposes of this discussion. This definition will contain a short though important analysis of Creationism. To ground the main discussion, which will concentrate mainly on ethical problems, I will give a brief history of the relationship between Christianity and the scientific way of knowing.
Darwin published, "Origin of the Species" in 1859 and although the concept of evolution existed before this, Darwin formalised, as it were, the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection (Butcher,1997. p.33). The theory maintains that: evolution is progressive, though not in a pre-determined sense; species adapt to environmental influences and either survive to reproduce or die out; the fittest to survive, survive; at various stages mutations occur, the advantageous few eventually bring about a new species. This occurs over immense periods of time that are almost impossible for us to appreciate.
Neo-Darwinism discusses such theoretical conflicts as whether species evolved very gradually, or in jumps interspersed with long latent periods (punctuated equilibrium) and whether evolution made, "a direct assault on the summit or ambled around the mountainside" (Dawkins, 1996). Regardless of these fine points the main characteristics of the theory for our discussion are: the concept of design, which necessitates an intelligent designer (God) is explicitly denied; morals and ethics are human constructs and not "written" in nature; and the facts that underpin evolution are scientifically demonstrable, if not wholly testable.
It is important to try and define Christianity, as much unnecessary confusion arises through sloppy terminology, "...there are Christian positions...not a Christian position" (Butcher, 1997. p.43). Christianity covers the whole range of beliefs from the Creationists at one extreme to Christians byname only, at the other. Regardless of weak or strong Christian belief there are certain factors essential to being Christian. The belief in a loving, omnipotent God that created the earth and its creatures; the concept of original sin; Christ suffered for the ungodly; there is a divine imperative to be morally good; and there is a definite purpose to creation which is eschatological.
The conflict between evolution and Christianity has been highlighted in the last few decades by the actions of Creationists. Creationists are fundamentalist Christians who believe literally in the Bible; specifically in the creation of the earth as described in Genesis; they deny any validity to the theory of evolution (including denying the geological, fossil and biological records). "Evolution is thus not only anti-Biblical and anti-Christian, but it is utterly unscientific and impossible as well" (Morris & Clark, 1976). Creationism is a closed system, defined and determined by God, so there is no possibility of compromise or alteration to that which is ordained by God. This of course means any investigative debate is also closed with Creationists.
Plimer in, "Telling Lies For God?" believes that Creationists are, "…a lunatic fringe, akin to the Flat Earthers" (Plimer,1997). For this essay Christian means those who accept the previously mentioned basic criteria for being Christian, whether traditional or liberal, and also accept that aspects of evolutionary theory, such as adaptation, may be possible. Creationists are not representative of the majority of Christianity. Many believe Creation Science is not science at all. This false science of Creationism has been exposed both by Plimer in his recent Australian court case and extensively by Morden (University of Wisconsin) (Morden, 1997). The National Academy of Science states that scientific knowledge, "...is based on the explanatory principles whose verifiable consequences can be tested by independent observers. Scientific interpretations of facts are always provisional and must be testable" (ibid). Here we see an important basis of why science and religion have come to be different ways of knowing.
Science and religion have not always been in conflict, quite the opposite in fact. As Weeks points out, "...science no longer simply means knowledge (scienta) but has a political component which invests it with power" (Weeks, 1997. p.4). Both Platonic and Christian ideas were the source of the belief in the West that "nature was a creation"". By investigation of, and reasoning about the natural world, an understanding of God could be obtained. Hence the close relationship between theology and early science (Natural Theology). Butcher points out, "...religious belief was strengthened by being erected on the twin pillars of natural theology and revelation" (Butcher, 1997. p.26). So, far from there being a conflict between Christianity and science, science was harmoniously helping to fill in, through collection and classification of natural specimens, the gaps in, "The Great Chain of Being" (ibid.)
At this stage theoretical speculation was not a dominant part of Natural Theology, such matters as the theory of classification were considered but not theories about creation (ibid. p.26). It was accepted apriori that God created the world, so it was enough to uncover the "hidden secrets" of nature to show more accurately God's creation. It is interesting (and ironic) to note how this careful classification of species and the increased discovery and analysis of fossils, quite often by clergymen (amateur scientists), was the basis for the "Crisis of Faith" and the present conflict between evolution and Christianity. At first, fossils and the geological record could be explained by the Noachian flood but as larger fossils were uncovered, through expansion of industrialisation in the eighteenth century, doubts were beginning to be raised (Butcher,1997. p.28).
The expansion of the fossil record highlighted that species had become extinct, this challenged the concept of God's beneficence and purpose. Was God indifferent to the fate of his [sic] offspring? It was not only the problem of fossils but also social changes taking place at the time which questioned the accepted idea that God had set the world in motion and that it ran along the lines of a mechanistic clock. These concepts are known as general providence and design from God. The social changes that brought about progress confronted the Christian concept that, "...one's social role was fixed for all time" (ibid. p.29). So, rather than God running the whole show, perhaps he [sic] created the universe and sat back as it were, to let humans work out their own destinies (ibid. p.30). This Diest approach really allowed progressive thinkers, such as Thomas Paine to get on with scientific investigation using reason alone, whilst placating the Church (and perhaps their own fears). The time was not quite ready for the Nietzschean announcement that "God was dead".
It can be seen from this brief historical overview of the relationship between science and religion that only very gradually from the early eighteenth century did a parting of the ways start to occur. The teleological view of nature was rejected; science was developing its own methodology; new technology, a result of scientific processes and industry was seen to be beneficial and desirable; and scientists were becoming professional, hence powerful. This set the stage for the appearance of Darwin's, "Origin of the Species". Whilst Darwin's work was one of many coming under the rubric of Scientific Naturalism, "Origins" was the most scientifically rigorous and reputable. "[It] came into the theological world like a plough into an ant-hill". "It was felt that the whole edifice of traditional social, ethical and theological values was at stake" (Young, 1974. p.17).
Even though it was not Darwin's intention to denigrate God's omnipotence he did write, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man [sic] and his [sic] history" (Darwin, 1967. p.488). Although not necessarily questioning the existence of God this statement challenges the very foundations of Christianity. It is important to stress that God as a universal creator is not necessarily synonymous with Christianity itself, in much discussion after Darwin this difference is not expressed, even if it is dimly realised. There can be no meaningful conflict between the idea of a transcendent God and the theory of evolution. It is only from the construction of a religion and scripture that ascribes certain qualities, actions and intentions to this God that a conflict can arise.
After Darwin the "war" between Christianity and science became a reality, deliberately exacerbated by scientists such as Tyndall, Clifford and Thomas Huxley. Mythical as this "warfare of science and religion" may be, the metaphor, "...became a potent weapon in the debate over who was to have the right to define public knowledge" (Butcher, 1997. p.35). This is an important point to note as it highlights the way knowledge systems can change, due not only to new information or facts, but by political pressure or groups with vested interests.
Darwin's, "The Descent of Man" (1871) provided more "ammunition for the war" by arguing that not only were humans physically related to the primates but certain mental attributes could also be due to the process of evolution (ibid. 36). Not only did the physical connection to primates go against the Christian belief that humans were special in creation, above and separate from mere animals, but to suggest that mental phenomena may be a result of evolution made it possible to dispute the whole basis of morality derived from the goodness of God. The moral and ethical aspects of the conflict between evolution and Christianity are I believe the main reasons why the conflict is irresolvable.
In trying to find an "evolutionary basis for ethics" thinkers such as Spencer argued that evolution was progressive (from simplicity to complexity), "progress was a natural law". Using this so called natural law of progress, Spencer tried to show that social progress was based in evolutionary theory and consequently only the fittest in society would survive. The extreme of this Social Darwinism was the eugenics of Galton (ibid. p.39).
Huxley argued against the Spencerian system, saying that nature was morally indifferent, this however was no basis for developing a system of ethics. Moore referring to the naturalistic fallacy showed that it is impossible to say, because evolution is survival of the fittest in a physical sense that human ethics ought to follow. The naturalistic fallacy is by no means dead and buried (Flew, 1979. p.240) nor is eugenics, in the new guise of beneficial? genetic engineering. The idea expressed by many scientists that screening foetuses to eliminate such diseases as Down's Syndrome from society is surely based on Spencerian style naturalistic ethics.
The important point here is that any system of ethics which is based on evolutionary survival of the fittest is antithetical to Christianity. The Christian belief that all humans are created equal in the eyes of God and the exhortation of Jesus, "...that unless you become like children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" are two examples which show the conflict between Christianity and the social aspects of evolutionary theory.
Looking past the rather extreme aspects of Social Darwinism we are still confronted with an impasse. The Christian belief that a loving God created humans and the consequent moral obligations and requirements of goodness for such Christians, cannot square with evolution by natural selection; even if God had initiated a "Big Bang" an left it to evolve. This means that either ethics are purely a human construct or they are a human construct with a basis in the doctrine of "survival of the fittest" and adaptation.
Ruse believes, "Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and has no being beyond or without this" (Ruse, 1989 p.269). If we subscribe to the evolutionary paradigm, we understand that humans are a result of adaptation to a changing environment and that to actually be here, we have survived a host of conditions which threatened our extinction at every step of the way. We have survived not only by physically adapting and mutating but the fact that our brain size has developed, particularly the neo-cortex, far in excess of other creatures, is perhaps the key to morality. Our huge, complex brain has given us the ability to be self-conscious and to contemplate the past and anticipate the future. This ability has two vitally important ramifications as pointed out by Ruse (ibid. pp.259-63). Firstly, it has endowed us with a religious or spiritual way of understanding, I discuss this further on. Secondly, it has enabled us to reason that we must live in such a way that it is expedient to care for our neighbours to the extent that it helps us, Ruse calls this a special kind of altruism.
The essence of Christianity is love; unconditional love of the father (creator, God) and unconditional love for one's neighbour. It is, "...precisely because we are self-serving that Jesus came to preach his message" (ibid. 258). Ruse discusses the possibility of a weak and strong interpretation of, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22:39) which has important bearing on the Evolution-Christian conflict. Simply, the weak view is to be helpful and friendly to one's neighbour, the strong view really means to be a martyr if necessary. Whilst I concede that it is possible to interpret this command either way, I believe the weak interpretation is incorrect. There is far too much additional support throughout the Bible for martyrdom, especially the prime command to love God unconditionally, at all costs. There are also many anti-evolutionary concepts such as, "the lion and the lamb laying down together".
This is but one intractable conflict between evolution and Christianity. A further serious problem arises when we consider the eschatological nature of Christianity. Evolution seems to be progressive, in the sense from simplicity to complexity, but Darwin himself believed there is no guiding purpose, or more specifically, a determined end to evolution. This conflicts sharply with the eschatology that is a basis tenet of Christianity. The Second Coming; The Day of Judgement; repentance of sins to be `rejoined' with God, underpin the whole of Christianity. Whether we take these concepts literally or metaphorically they are inimical to evolutionary theory.
This brings me to the observation of a most peculiar phenomenon. How is it possible for highly intelligent scholars to work in and develop evolutionary theory and at the same time profess true Christianity? One such scientist, Sir John Eccles will serve as an example. In his book, "Evolution of the Brain" he explains for over two hundred pages, methodically and scientifically, how basic organisms and the brain have evolved in accordance with Darwin's evolutionary theory (Eccles, 1989). Then in a few pages at the end of the book, after saying, "...philosophy of science lies outside science" (and one assumes the biologist’s field of expertise) makes the most outrageous non sequitur imaginable. "Since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, I am constrained to attribute the uniqueness of the Self or Soul to a supernatural spiritual creation". (ibid. p.237).
I believe Eccles made two grave errors: (a) it is not at all evident that materialist solutions fail to account for our uniqueness; and (b) his (mis)understanding of what constitutes the Self. Without these errors, deliberate or otherwise, he could not have made the above statement. Further, his desire to believe in God and Christianity at the end of his life could not have been substant-iated otherwise. I of course respect Eccles’ right to believe in what he likes but not to state these irrational beliefs under the guise of scientific deliberation.
A reason for the ability of the human mind to be content with such non sequiturs is offered by Wilson. "If the mind is instructed that its para-rational activity cannot be combined with the rational, it will divide itself into two compartments so that both activities can continue to flourish side by side" [my emphasis] (Wilson, 1994. p.226). This explanation follows Wilson's discussion outlining why the human brain developed an ability and survival strategy to believe in a religious mode. The need to believe in a spiritual reality may be a vitally important evolutionary necessity for homo sapiens. If this is so, and it seems highly plausible, considering all cultures have developed religions and spiritual beliefs; How is it possible to resolve the conundrum? If we can agree at least on a common denominator the two systems can coexist. Otto believed when we have a sense of "... ‘the numinous’ - a realm or dimension of reality which is ‘mysterious, awe-inspiring and fascinating’ - that we really know what religion involves" (Charlesworth, 1988. p.3). Surely the evolutionary process is, mysterious, awe-inspiring and fascinating to the layperson and scientist alike, which is perhaps why Midgley and others have likened the theory to a religion (Midgley, 1985).
The common denominator of religion and evolution is life itself, our unique humanness. Christianity tells us at minimum to tolerate and be kind to our neighbours; evolution tells us exactly the same thing, when we understand the correct theory of the process of survival. They do so based on completely different reasoning and as such can be thought of as two separate ways of knowing. It is difficult for us today, immersed as we are in the scientific paradigms, to appreciate how a different self-contained way of knowing can exist. The example of traditional Australian Aboriginal culture illustrates the point well. For thousands of years Aboriginal society existed based upon their myth called the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is an all encompassing way of understanding the universe, the environment and the relationship of humans to each other within the universe. Aboriginal society is unique with its absence of our modern scientific way of knowing. Yet this sophisticated, complex society existed harmoniously for tens of thousands of years without a scientific approach to creation and existence.
This example shows it is possible to have a way of knowing that is sustainable yet non-Western and non-scientific. Hence when modern science describes religions as having no foundation in reality it is gravely mistaken because the religious way of knowing that underpins the Dreamtime is similar to that which underpins Christianity and this religious way of knowing is based on its own reality, just as the scientific theory of evolution is based on its own reality.
It has been forty years since Lack wrote, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief" and much new information has been gleaned about the human brain in this time. It may soon occur that such abstract qualities as love and self-awareness, that Lack said could never be explained by science, may be so explained. Recent research has shown that certain chemicals in the brains of rodents are present in significantly different proportion for promiscuous rodents and their similar cousins who live a short distance away and who mate with a partner for life (Suzuki,1996).
Even if it is possible to show that the ability to love or to appreciate beauty is due to certain brain chemicals it is still only one way of knowing the reality that humans perceive around them. As Midgley says, "Evolution is the creation myth of our age" (Midgley, 1985. p.154). Although I sense the future as mysterious, awe-inspiring and fascinating I find it difficult to imagine the creation myth of the coming millennium. Perhaps it may have its genesis in the technologies of genetic engineering and Artificial Intelligence, the products of which may be post-human cyborgs.
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MIT Press, Massachusetts.