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The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 2

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January 18, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 2

Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the second part in a series reviewing Conor Cunningham's new book Darwin's Pious Idea. The first part can be found here.

Darwin's Pious Idea deeply engages contemporary evolutionary theory. Conor Cunningham has entered fully into the evolution discourse by probing contested areas of biological research that question what he calls “ultra-Dawinianism” or “vulgar Darwinianism,” His work shows the great good of scientific thought – it is open to rational examination and continual conceptual modification.

In chapters 1-4 (pp.1-177), Cunningham strips the intellectual hubris from those who would transform evolutionary theory into a “theory of everything.” The book purports to show how “ultra-Darwinians” enclose themselves within concepts like the gene as an “immortal replicator,” and demonstrates that this is actually an anti-evolutionary approach to describing the history of life (p. 65). In contrast, Cunningham argues, “Dobzhansky states that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution and the function of the gene is no exception.” Dawkins’ “selfish gene,” in other words, can’t be at the heart of evolution, since it had to start off as something else, and to suggest that it is, is itself an anti-evolutionary concept.

These extreme Darwinists have to deny the empirical results of recent biological sciences, Cunningham maintains, in order to sustain their commitment to conceptually reducing all there is to a strictly material realm. “Ultra-Darwinists keep pulling up our skirts, raising our curtains to reveal an absence—the missing homunculus [Descartes' notion of ‘pure mind’]. But if we take a closer look, we notice there is something decidedly old fashioned about this approach“ (parentheses added).

It is not that simple anymore, he says.

This leads us to the main, underlying theme of Cunningham’s argument: Christian thought is the great friend of proper scientific thought because it insists that scientific thought remain empirical and not become a materialistic “theory of everything.” The orthodox, catholic, and evangelical Christian tradition refuses to allow science to reduce all reality to strictly matter or to divide reality into two independent realms: matter on one side and spirit on the other. Neither is consistent with Christian thought; both are grounded in philosophically-derived views that rely on over-interpretation of the empirical data.

Christian Darwinian detractors often accept the terms presented by the ultra-Darwinists, but try to deny the conclusions they make on the basis of scientific arguments. Cunningham’s analysis goes deeper. As a theologian, he has learned well from his biologist colleagues. Cunningham shows that the full range of the empirical results of evolutionary theory limit the stories that secularists tell. Cunningham invokes cutting-edge biological studies, especially recent work in molecular biology, evolutionary developmental biology, and systems biology. In this way, he shows that as powerful as evolutionary biology is, it is increasingly clear that it is not a “theory of everything.”

Chapters 1-3 dissolve two “urban legends” that secularists impose upon evolutionary studies. Cunningham first re-narrates a secularist story that Darwin changed everything by freeing human thought about “nature” from previous irrational, tradition-bound, “religious” thought. In the secularist story, Darwin becomes the scientific genius who rises above history to describe reality as it is, heroically putting aside the biases of “pre-scientific” positions.

Cunningham also disputes a second narrative that evolutionary theory is a settled “thing,” a universal acid that focuses on a gene’s algorithmic struggle for survival through natural selection, encased in bodies.

These two narratives promote a secularist cultural agenda of a “disenchanted” world – a “flattened” world which rips to shreds the traditional tapestry that gives a transcendental purpose and meaning to human life. Darwin becomes celebrated in the role he played to open the world to human freedom for technical mastery and rational, benevolent manipulation. History is divided between “pre-Darwinian” and “post-Darwinian” eras, an era of irrational, tradition-based speculative “metaphysics” transformed into a post-metaphysical era of pure rationality in “science’s” ability to describe what is. In these two narratives, Darwin plays the truly salvific role in the history of humanity. Darwin, not Jesus, becomes the hinge of history. For ultra-Darwinists Jesus becomes the “anti-Darwin;” for Christians Darwin becomes the “anti-Christ.”

Urban Legend #1.

Going back to Darwin himself, Cunningham deflates the hyper-exaggerated claims about Darwin through a summary of formative influences on Darwin in chapter 1. Cunningham does not deny Darwin’s accomplishment but places it in its historical context. Contrary to the myth that before Darwin, humans had always thought in terms of immutability of species, Cunningham reminds us that “there had always been theories of transmutation. Darwin’s innovation lay in the notion of species evolution and the manner of its occurrence” (p. 8). The cultural and intellectual forces of the 18th and 19th century influenced Darwin -- “one of its main inspirations apparently stemmed from reading in 1838 a book by the cleric and ‘gloomy parson’ Thomas Malthus entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society” (p. 9). In addition, the concept of natural selection was heavily influenced by the analogy with selective breeding of pigeons in England. At the time Darwin finally presented his theory to the Royal Society, “the society’s annual report for that year stated: ‘The year has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the departments of science upon which they bear.’ So much for the universal acid” (p. 9).

For Cunningham Christians should find offense at Darwin in the deeply embedded philosophical background of Darwin’s theory. Darwin, like Malthus and Adam Smith upon whom he drew, depended upon a late medieval, early modern theological/philosophical presupposition called “nominalism”.

“Darwin apparently employs an individualist ontology ... a species is for Darwin a group of interbreeding individuals sharing a common ancestry, or more accurately, sharing a relatively similar distance from a common ancestor. . . this has radical implications, or so it would seem, for it literally historicizes species, which means a cat, for example, is only an accidental, historical lineage” (p. 15). For Darwin “change is what is really real (ontos onta), while stability is a construct” (p. 17-18). No being or essence exists except as cultural constructions of human language. Only becoming is real.

Precisely at this point, the philosophical presuppositions of Darwinism conflict with historic Christianity. Nonetheless, many modernist Christian theologians continue to try to translate the faith given to the saints into the philosophical categories of Darwinian struggles within the nominal, immanent flow of history; they give up the faith in order to try to save it from its scientific cultural despisers. Ironically, empirical research has shown that the so-called scientific cultural despisers unduly limit their biological understandings to support their philosophical views.

Urban Legend #2.

Cunningham deflates the second secularist narrative as well through his interaction with recent biological research. The nominalist presuppositions in the neo-Darwinian synthesis have led to such notions as “the selfish gene” as the unit of natural selection through violent competition. The gene, the ‘replicator’ becomes isolated as an individual unit within the “vehicle”, the organism, and thereby escapes history in its replication. Form follows function; function protects the gene, as a moat (the organism/vehicle) around a castle (the gene/replicator).

Cunningham shows that the genotype-phenotype one-to-one correspondence that such a conception entails, fails to hold. Even worse for such ultra-Darwinists, “the molecular era of biology profoundly challenged the atomistic, informational understanding of the gene, which was thought to be discrete, or discontinuous, and thus identifiable and isolatable from its context” (p. 51). Rather than individual genes competing with each other for the survival of the fittest through their “vehicles”, the whole function of genes require cooperation both within the genotype, the phenotype, even between species, and between species and the environment. To speak of a unit of selection reductively simplifies a much more complex situation: “evolution consists in major transitions that are acts of group selection, or rather, that all individuals are composed of vestigial groups, as it were. In addition, all biological levels and entities that accompany these are radically emergent: the relationship of DNA to the phenotype, the very emergence of genes themselves by way of downward causation, not to mention natural selection, and so on” (p. 78).

A gene cannot be selfish before it exists; other chemical processes, not characteristics of the gene itself, must account for its existence. The gene’s “selfishness” is thus secondary. This, of course, begins to undercut the notion of “the survival of the fittest” that lies at the basis of neo-Darwinian’s notion of natural selection. Natural selection can only work on what already exists, refining and encouraging novelty. Current biological scientific thought more adequately speaks of “the arrival of the fittest” – a concept that works with natural selection.

Most significant for Cunningham is the discovery of form in the evolutionary processes. Evolution displays certain inherent properties. Cunningham notes research shows that “similar morphological design solutions arise repeatedly in . . . independent lineages that do not share the same molecular mechanisms and developmental systems . . . in other words, function follows form” (p. 112), a phenomenon called “convergence.”

Cunningham thus shows that evolution does not arise from purely random competition; formal constraints shape the evolutionary process. Cooperation, not competition, is primary for the “arrival of the fittest.” This does not annul natural selection, but complicates it. As Cunningham writes, “If we leave vulgar Darwinism behind, we can understand self-organization and natural selection in a relation more in keeping with a cooperative marriage than an acrimonious struggle” (p. 119). The role of form at various levels in biological life requires such cooperation. “The existence of such form more than suggests that nature manifests laws that are not caused by selection but . . . accommodate or subsequently encourage selection” (p. 122). Natural selection itself is an emergent phenomenon, a changing product of evolution produced by inherent natural laws or forms. The empirical data renders the nominalist philosophical background of Darwin as problematic.

Cunningham’s immersion into recent biological science will disarm both the secularist--who sees evolution as necessarily confined to “red tooth and claw” and confined to random historical processes--as well as “biblical science” that wishes to dispute the empirical results of macro-evolutionary processes. Both depend on the false narratives of secularism, one to affirm them; the other to react against them. What Cunningham shows, however, in light of a full range of evolutionary studies, is that such a dichotomy is itself overdrawn. He has set the evolutionary table, so to speak, for deeper theological reflection to come.

John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #48342

January 20th 2011

Now I think I have a better idea of where Cunningham is coming from.  It appears to me that he is a Platonist, who has criticized other philosophers who have allowed Non-Being into traditional philosophy to explain the reality of change.  See the quote below from the article.

‘For Darwin “change is what is really real (ontos onta), while stability is a construct” (p. 17-18). No being or essence exists except as cultural constructions of human language. Only becoming is real.’

Cunningham, like most of us, is driven by Western dualism, so there are two alternatives, the One or the Many, Stability or Change.  Plato & the ancients chose the former.  Science & people today choose the later.  C. appeals to traditional Christian thought for support, while D. & Co appeal to postmodern thought, so we have a stalemate, except most people probably agree with postmodernism than with Plato.

We have the strange situation where the philosopher turned scientific thinker has science on his side, but not philosophy, while the scientist turned theologian has philosophy on his side , but not the science.

To be fair to Cunningham his best point is that evolution has continuity while Dawkins and his individualism cannot explain.

ssquinn - #60890

May 9th 2011

The original poster may never read this but I feel compelled to put this up for future readers: this is utterly false nonsense. Cunningham is a brilliant man, not some freshman student who got falsely lulled into dualism! He is not only emphatically NOT a “platonist” in the simplistic way described here (for that matter, only someone who knows absolutely nothing about Plato could label even *him* a platonic dualist!), but he is one of the most intelligent arguers against the very dualism that the poster refers to.

Ashe - #48384

January 20th 2011

Steve Ruble ##48337 wrote:

Nice quote mine. Of course, if anyone actually reads my comment (#47940) they will see that I was referring to a specific claim Cunningham is quoted as making (about group selection), and which has been shown to be incorrect by scientists.

I’m not aware of the examples in the book, I just ordered it. But the assertion that group selection has been shown to be incorrect is false. Here’s a great discussion . Perhaps more clearly in bacteria that form biofilms, and other activity. Game theory models actually assume a multgroup structure.  Also, I don’t think Cunningham is claiming that group selection is a “major force”, but was involved in “major transitions” in evolution, regardless of whether it is a weak or strong force. Lynn Margulis’s theory with regard to the evolution of the eukaryotic cell (symbiosis) invokes between group selection. Other major transitions are discussed by Smith.

Steve Ruble - #48438

January 21st 2011


Cunningham wrote, “evolution consists in major transitions that are acts of group selection,” and as an anti-nominalist I’m sure he knows that “consists in” means something like “has its essence in” or “is the realization of”.  Saying that the essence of evolution is in major transitions is wrong, because evolution rarely if ever produces major transitions, and saying that those (non-existent) major transitions are acts of group selection is wrong because he can’t possibly prove that all transitions (of whatever magnitude) are cases of group selection.

Of course there are instances of group selection in nature, and I’m well aware that there are still areas in which multilevel selection and the relative power of the levels are live topics. Indeed, no one would be more delighted than I to learn that group selection has been vindicated, because it provides such an elegant explanation for so many characteristics of religious believers. However, my understanding is that the circumstances under which group selection can occur are well understood, and that those circumstances are rare. If the science behind that is to be overturned, it will not be done by a theologian.

Mint225 - #48466

January 21st 2011

Go on Steve, just read the book!

Steve Ruble - #48472

January 21st 2011

It’s on its way, Mint225. Free shipping is slow.

Ashe - #48479

January 21st 2011

Steve wrote:

Saying that the essence of evolution is in major transitions is wrong, because evolution rarely if ever produces major transitions, and saying that those (non-existent) major transitions are acts of group selection is wrong because he can’t possibly prove that all transitions (of whatever magnitude) are cases of group selection.

Major transitions are by definition rare and they have momentous consequences. So when Cunningham says the essense of our evolution is in major transitions, that is correct, and you only need look in the mirror to see that that it is true. You yourself are a group of cooperating vestigial groups.  I already pointed out the evolution of the eukaryotic cell, which invokes group selection. Smith and Szathmary expand this to the origin of life, multicellular organisms, social insect colonies, and human evolution. In each case it is shown how mechanisms cause between-group selection to become dominant.

Ashe - #48492

January 21st 2011

Perhaps this is another good example of a major transition:

Steve’s comment #47616

Group selection is not a major force (and probably doesn’t happen at all )

Steve’s comment: #48438

Of course there are instances of group selection in nature

Eric Lee - #48750

January 22nd 2011

If I may, a few pretty egregious things need to be addressed here. Most of which would be solved by reading Conor Cunningham’s (CC) book. For convenience sake, I’ll be using the acronym IOHRTB (If One Had Read The Book).

“Dawkins & Co go by what Darwin actually wrote.” - R.A. Sawtelle above

No, they do not. In some ways, perhaps, but the biggest reason that Dawkins and Dennett do *not* go by what Darwin wrote is because Darwin didn’t know about the gene. Hence Dawkins et al. are all post-modern-synthesis thinkers. Obviously, they themselves are aware of this, but to say this about them is patently false without clarification. CC explains this.

On the group selection thing, the detractors above will need to actually read all the many different *scientists* (most of whom are atheist/agnostic) that CC cites above. His claim is not made by mere assertion. Even Darwin himself later realized this, as CC also cites. Ashe above (comment- #48384) has helpful cited just a few. There’s a lot of work being done in that area.

Regarding the accusation of CC being a ‘dualist’ (?!): IOHRTB, you would have learned that the entirety of CC’s argument is for a BOTH/AND—both for evolutionary change AND for the stability of various law-like structures within nature which makes such change even possible. CC shows how ‘mere’ change makes no sense, but also how mere stasis also makes no sense. CC has sections devoted to homoplasy (convergence) which is itself an example of change-within-structure, not to mention a whole sub-section on systems biology. He very *explicitly* argues for *both* a biology of becoming and a biology of being. Indeed, throughout the whole book he cuts through the dualist divide even, e.g. saying things like, “Instead, difference arises from, or is generated by, the nonidentical repetition of the same genetic material” (p. 106). You say CC appeals to the Christian tradition for support, but sadly you do not know what you are talking about, because every page of his book where this alleged ‘stasis’ is appealed to is actually missing. Indeed, ‘nonidentical’ repetition comes from Kierkegaard who was himself modifying Platonic recollection, but he was radically and very much intentionally trying to up-end the very concept.

n response to Gene Valentine’s comment above (#48662), most of the scientists that CC employs throughout his book are actually atheist/agnostic. CC cites atheist molecular biologists, evolutionary anthropologists and philosophers all throughout (save for the last recapitulatory chapter, of course), not to mention atheist/agnostic scientists/philosophers who very positively blurbed the book. That being said of *course* CC would be open to having anybody at all review the book. But, to be fair to this website, this *is* Biologos. But, feel free to read it yourself and write a review!

Also, to be fair, it’s not like CC doesn’t spend a great many words critiquing some of the members of his own ‘choir’ (literalist Creationists/ID) throughout the book. I’d argue that while CC does spend more time critiquing the ultra-Darwinist side of the picture than the Creationist/ID side (mainly because there’s more official literature out there for u-D, probably), what he shows is that both logics of the supposedly opposing sides betray the same metaphysics, since both rely on an account of ‘special creation’ for their frameworks. So a critique of either side of the intended coin actually cuts both ways.

Dave Ussery - #48846

January 23rd 2011

It seems that Cunningham confuses ‘randomness’ with lack of purpose and the absence of God.  If only he could show that randomness is not what we see in biology, then there’s a way forward in theology.  So he attacks Dawkins at this point.  For example, on page 75, he says “Instead of genic reductionism, with its love of randomness, we will concentrate on ... the crucial role that form plays.”  But he hopes to replace this “randomness” with emergent properties - as if these have nothing to do with randomness.

Then later he states very seriously “Biologists today, as then, have no coherent theory of variation.”  wow!  Perhaps he should come and sit in on my comparative genomics course - we see lots and lots of variation at the DNA level - far more than most people ever expected.  We DO have a theory, but unfortunately the author is not aware of it (nor really much of what’s been going on in the past 10 years in genomics).  It’s as if by ‘modern biology’ he seems to think of what was current in the 1970s.  Imagine a computer in the 1970s, compared to one today.  The changes in biology have been much greater than that, and hardly get mentioned here.

Does he really think genes are not “real”, nor are atoms?

Ashe - #48856

January 23rd 2011

Hi Dave,

I don’t have the book yet, but are you sure that phrase is a quote from Cunningham? Or was he quoting someone else?  That exact phrase is used in an essay called “Arrival of the fittest”.

gingoro - #48868

January 23rd 2011

Dave Ussery

I’m glad to see you reading and commenting on Cunningham’s book.  We need experts in the field of biology to read and comment on his book.  Wrt genes not being real IMO he is trying to emphasize the relevance of other factors and thus overstates his case. 

I find that I lack the background in philosophy/religion and in biology to really appreciate this book.  As well he uses enough unfamiliar vocabulary and German or Latin phrases that comprehension is difficult.  I hope that RIch also reads and comments on the book.
Dave W

Eric Lee - #48891

January 23rd 2011

Re: randomness. Ashe is bang on in his reference to that paper. It is in a blockquote from the two scientists, Buss and Fontana.

Dave, however, you haven’t read far enough or you have missed the point Cunningham has made regarding randomness. He never says there isn’t randomness; he is always relativizing its importance, qualifying it. In fact, he unequivocally says, “Yes, there is randomness. But like selfishness, it is derivative” (p. 148). In other words, randomness, contra Dennett and Gould, is not originary; there isn’t merely randomness.

Mike Gene - #48916

January 24th 2011


I don’t have the book yet, but are you sure that phrase is a quote from Cunningham? Or was he quoting someone else?  That exact phrase is used in an essay called “Arrival of the fittest”.

Whoa.  Nice catch!  So David just picked a fight with Leo Buss and Walter Fontana.  Either that or a theory of variation has been crafted since 1995.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #48952

January 24th 2011


For the record my conversation with Steve was not about genes, but “survival of the fitest,” and my statement about what “Darwin meant” dealt with an article in the Wikipedia that he refered me to.  IMHO Dawkins & Dennett subscribe to faithfully to the Malthusian views of Darwin.  Most people are very aware that Darwin was not aware of the gene theory of inheritance, but the survival of the fitest has nothing to do with this.

One serious problem with the whole issue of evolution is that it is not one problem, but a whole thicket of issues that need to be sorted out and addressed.  Whereas CC has made a dent in this process by pointing to the important philosophical dimension of Darwinism, I still think my book, DARWIN’S MYTH, does a better job of sorting out the scientific, philosophical, and theological issues involved so that they can begin to be addressed in so sort of orderly fashion, instead of the hodge podge way that we normally use.

Eric Lee - #48994

January 24th 2011


Fair enough regarding the wikipedia article, which frankly I don’t care about, because, it’s well, wikipedia. Onward.

I just have to ask you: have you read CC’s book in it’s entirety or at all? Even your last statement concerning the “thicket of issues” betrays the fact that it seems you haven’t read CC’s book, because IOHRTB, one would see the incredible plethora of issues not only handled in the first four chapters with the basic ideas of Darwinism (selection, progress, fitness), but the whole host of issues which make up some very large chapters (5 & 6) regarding the mind, evolutionary psychology/sociobiology, social Darwinism, memes, sex, the science ‘vs’ religion debate, intelligent design, and materialism/naturalism and its various progeny. Not only, and most importantly, a final very substantial chapter which shifts into a wholly theological register (yet still in an effort to recapitulate what was said before). To be frank, it seems like there there is unnecessary confusion and therefore needless clarification—too much of it, really. Biologos could schedule a whole other symposium for your book if need be, and we could talk about *that* one at a later date perhaps?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #49012

January 24th 2011


Thank you for the clarification.

I have not read the book by CC.  Right now I do not have the time and money for this.  Please note that the comment about the thicket of issues was not a criticism of CC, because I credited him for broadening the discussion.  My criticism of him thus far as been of the philosphical basis of his criticism of Dawkins & Co.

Although my book is also opposed to Dawkins & Co. I try to respect them as a valid point of view.  The problem is culture wide, not a certain group of persons.  Philosophy has failed to adequately to the challenge of Einstein’s Theory, and Theology instead of taking up the mantle of leadership has followed in the wake of philosophy.  Realism vs Nominialism do not cut it by a long shot.

Only by moving forward instead of moving backward can Science, Philosophy, and Theology lead the way forward into the future. 

Question?  Is Jared Loughner’s troubled mind the result of his nihilist ideas, or are his nihilist ideas the result of his troubled mind?

Steve Ruble - #49544

January 29th 2011

Ashe -#48492

Busted! You’re right, I did change my terminology without acknowledging it. In my earlier post I was still thinking of “group selection” in its original form; I didn’t realize that “group selection” and “multi-level selection” were to be treated as synonyms in this discussion.

I foresee this kind of confusion being frequent in this discussion if CC’s defenders are a casual as he is with words and meanings. I’m about to start chapter 3 and I can’t at this point predict what CC will mean the next time he writes “gene”, “selfish”, “finite”, “real”, “species”, “group”, or several other crucially important words. He seems to mean whatever he wants to mean, so to speak, in each particular usage, which is to say, in other words, this book is the most absurd excuse for an argument I’ve ever had the misfortune to pay money for.

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