Reconciling With Darwin

Stephen Jay Gould took on biological determinism, racism, scientific objectivity, scientific progress, science and religion and much more in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History. The primary thrust of this book was to help us come to terms with Darwin and the implications of his ideas for our understanding of ourselves and our world.

The Western world has yet to make its peace with Darwin and the implications of evolutionary theory. The hippocampus debate merely illustrates, in light relief, the greatest impediment to this reconciliation–our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness. (50)

I believe that though there has been progress, this continues to be the case in 2011. This book is primarily about science and conversations within science about Darwinian theory, but it touches on religious beliefs and views in a number of surprising ways. I’ve had an interesting ongoing conversation with a good friend of mine about the relationship and nature of both science and religion. I think this is one of the most important conversations that we need to have, particularly as we are facing the crises of climate change and stretching our natural systems beyond the breaking point. Gould believes that the answer lies in Darwin’s theory itself.

I suggest that the true Darwinian spirit might salvage our depleted world by denying a favorite theme of Western arrogance–that we are meant to have control and dominion over the earth and its life because we are the loftiest product of a preordained process. (13)

This is true for both religious and scientific-minded people, as well as capitalists, economists, Marxists, atheists and almost everyone, but the indigenous peoples of the world. It is a mind set which drives our experiment with civilization, agriculture and technology. Gould claims that this is why Darwin waited so long before publishing The Origin of Species. In that first book he only hints at the implications of his theory and waits until Descent of Man to begin to unpack what this means for our way of thinking about ourselves in relationship to nature. The real scandal of Darwin’s evolution was not that it dethroned the idea of creation. Other evolutionists of the time allowed room for God to simply use evolution instead of creation, as many continue to today.

The real scandal was that Darwin’s explanation of the mechanism by which evolution took place, random variation and natural selection, did away, not only with the need for a Creator, but with the special, exalted place of human beings in the great pyramid of creation. While Darwin does away with a particular notion of God, and I believe rightly so, I don’t see his concept of the human beings creatureliness in contradiction with how I read the Genesis story. Indeed, later on in the book Gould also states,

I return, then, to Linnaeus’s compromise–we are both ordinary and special. The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brains. (257)

I have basically stated the same view at other times. We are no more than creatures, but we are certainly unique among creatures. Gould points out that Darwin intentionally refrained from using “higher” or “lower” terminology to describe lifeforms. Instead, it is clear that prokaryotic organisms are perfectly adapted to their own environment and we would not survive in their place because we are terribly suited to their environment. In another passage Gould puts it this way,

What we criticize in ourselves, we attribute to our animal past…What we prize and strive for, we consider as a unique overlay, conceived by our rationality and imposed upon an unwilling body…Little more than ancient prejudice supports this common belief…It has roots in an attitude that I attack in several of these essays: our desire to view the history of life as progressive and to place ourselves on top of the heap (with all the prerogatives of domination). We seek a criterion for our uniqueness, settle (naturally) upon our minds, and define the noble results of human consciousness as something intrinsically apart from biology. (261)

I have made this same argument many times, not from a scientific perspective, but a religious one, though thoroughly informed by what I know about ecology and agriculture. Now, Gould is an avowed atheist and arrives at his understanding about the world from his knowledge as a scientist. Yet, he refrains from the militant anti-religious zealotry of others by rigorously applying sound principles on both scientific theories and history. He even points out that religious people who held beliefs about the world, which we laugh at now, were sometimes dedicated scientists in their time applying what they knew of science. In his chapter called “The Reverend Thomas’ Dirty Little Planet” he describes the fantastic theories of Thomas Burnet which tried to explain the events described in the Bible, such as Noah’s flood, in rational scientific terms. Writing in 1681 “Burnet’s tale may be fanciful, but his actors are the ordinary physical forces of desiccation, evaporation, precipitation and combustion” (144).
The point here is to remember that our perspective on scientific truth and progress, particularly when reading history, is colored by our current beliefs. This doesn’t mean science has no basis. The reason Gould uses this example is precisely because this religious explanation insisted on rational explanation and was persecuted by the “dogmatists and antirationalists” of his time, not the theists.

But the actual relationship between religion and science is far more complex and varied. Often, religion has actively encouraged science. If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism. (141)

The book is full of interesting stories from the history of scientific thought and development that expound on this theme. Another example was the rationality of beliefs about geologic formation prior to the modern understanding of continental drift. Given the evidence at the time, continental drift was more fantastic than other beliefs held at the time which seem ridiculous now. This leads to one of my favorite lines of the book, that describes the stance that I think both religion and science should take.

Common sense is a very poor guide to scientific insight for it represents cultural prejudice more often than it reflects the native honesty of a small boy before the naked emperor. (109)

I have said often, though perhaps not on the blog, that I don’t believe in common sense. I don’t know what it is or where it comes from. Common sense is a nonsensical appeal to non-existent wisdom. Standing before the emperor and being willing to speak aloud the fact that he is naked is no small task for religion or science, because as social creatures we are bent towards conformity. However, we have reached a place where as a species we face the fate of lemmings if we do not speak up.

Throughout the book Gould makes claims about the world and evolutionary theory based on what science can tell us right now (or at least in 1977). Yet the last sentence of the book reveals the kind of stance he takes as a scientist, always willing to be swayed by evidence and never wishing to become an irrational dogmatist.

I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers. (271)

This, I believe, is the humble stance of the human being that is both “ordinary and special”, unique among creatures, but not apart or above in any way. This is the kind of thinking our world needs for its own salvation. Perhaps part of the reconciling work of Christ in our time (for the church) is redeeming Darwin by accepting his ideas as they are and then recognizing them in our own tradition, choosing to reject the ways of thinking and acting in our religions, societies and nations that have led and still lead to domination and violence in all its multiplicity.

2 thoughts on “Reconciling With Darwin

  1. Gary

    I should add this book to my reading list. Gould is talked about a lot in the skeptical community (partly for non-overlapping magisteria). You might also be interested to know that at the latest The Amazing Meeting (TAM), a skeptical conference, the topic of skeptical religious believers came up and how to be more inclusive. I think that echos some of your thoughts here.

    Reply
    1. lucas Post author

      You’ll be pleased to know that I have a copy of The Ancestor’s Tale by Dawkins on my bookshelf to read from the MCC library here. I’m also checking out the essay on non-overlapping magisteria. I’m interested to know how the skeptics and people you follow are interested in including religious skeptics (perhaps I would be included). Maybe we should be including each other rather than them bringing me into their fold. ;-) I look forward to reviving our discussion at some later date with more thought behind us.

      Reply

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