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

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January 18, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

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

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

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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Mike Gene - #47402

January 15th 2011

Cunningham sets up an interesting contrast:

Form follows function; function protects the gene, as a moat (the organism/vehicle) around a castle (the gene/replicator).

This, in essence, is the non-teleological perspective.  An activity that just happens to occur in the right place and right time becomes a function, and once a function, is maintained and propagated by 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.”

This is the teleological perspective.  Functions emerge not by mere coincidence, but because both life and evolution conform to a particular form or logic that facilitates their emergence.  However, the teleological perspective can tolerate a great deal of non-teleological “noise” – function does not always have to follow form.


Steve Ruble - #47616

January 16th 2011

This is really interesting. All of the “legends” Cunningham “disolves” are sectarian constructs, not secular ones. Sure, it may be the case that people on the street think Darwin was the first to think that species change, or that the “selfish gene” is the basic unit of selection, but no serious writer on the topic promulgates such fictions, as you can easily find out by actually reading a book.

Cunningham continues his fail with this:

Evolution consists in major transitions that are acts of group selection, or rather, that all individuals are composed of vestigial groups, as it were.

Assuming that Wright is quoting him faithfully, Cunningham is either wrong or talking complete nonsense. Group selection is not a major force (and probably doesn’t happen at all), but his claim about “vestigial groups” leads me to think that he’s just making stuff up.

... such a dichotomy is itself overdrawn.

Yeah. By Cunningham.


Just asking - #47716

January 17th 2011

Hey Steve, how about reading the book and finding out for yourself?


Dave Ussery - #47718

January 17th 2011

I just got this book over the weekend, and have finished the first chapter.  Looks to be a good book.  However, I am a bit concerned that the author seems almost proud NOT to be a scientist, and although he points out that Dawkin’s seems to not know much about religion, I’m a bit uneasy when I see things like the claim that the “Central Dogma” is not really taken seriously anymore, and that ‘information is vaguely defined’ or that the idea of having somatic vs. germline cells might not be true… ugh.

“The Central Dogma” was part of a larger framework, called “The General Idea” (seriously!) which tried to figure out how the genes (DNA) could encode proteins.  The information here is very clear - DNA sequence makes protein sequence, via RNA.  That’s still true - and it’s still true that one cannot easily go from protein sequence back to the DNA sequence.

Just finished reading Francis Crick’s “Of Molecules and Men”. Crick wanted originally to call it “The Death of Vitalism”, but the editors and others convinced him that most people wouldn’t know what vitalism was.  I don’t agree with Crick’s philosophy, but the contrast with “Darwin’s Pious Idea” is stark.  I’m hoping things will improve in Chapter 2.


Mike Gene - #47738

January 17th 2011

Hi Dave,

Well, it does seem that Cunningham overreaches in some places and paints a cleaner picture than that which exists.  For example:

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.

“Current biological scientific thought” should be phrased “One school of current biological thought.”  There is much less consensus about evolutionary mechanisms that the description of Cunningham’s argument presupposes.


sy - #47769

January 17th 2011

My copy is on order. Im looking forward to a discussion here of this book in the near future by those who have read it. (Considering how long it takes me to finish a book these days, I am marking late summer of 2014 for this).


Roger A. Sawtelle - #47804

January 17th 2011

I have not read the book, so I will not comment on any specific arguments.  I seem to be in agreement with Cunningham’s analysis of Darwinism as based on conflict rather than harmony, which is basic.

What bothers me is that he seems to be criticizing Darwinism as “nominalist.”  Who speaks of philosophy as nominalism vs realism these days?  If he is against nominalism, is he for realism?  As far as I am concerned both realism and nominalism are outmoded concepts that do not add light to the discussion, and are certainly not Biblical or theological. 

It appears to me that for a philosopher, his philosophical analysis is his weakest argument.  His empirical analysis is on target which is what I have been saying all along.  Evolution is true, but Darwin’s Theory is wrong.  Ecology is right.


Steve Ruble - #47940

January 18th 2011

I agree with Roger (!) that the nominalism/realism aspect seems out of place, but that is the sort of thing where one would need to read the book to find out whether Cunningham can develop a solid argument for taking such an odd perspective. On the othe hand, one does not need to read the book to know that Cunningham is almst certainly wrong when he declares that evolution happens in “acts of group selection”. If I’m wrong, and Cunningham has shown that group selection is a major force in evolution, I look forward to his paper in Nature.

In addition, there isn’t any way for Cunningham to make good on the claim Wright makes about

the notion of “the survival of the fittest” that lies at the basis of neo-Darwinian’s notion of natural selection

because “the survival of the fittest” is not a neo-Darwinian (or even scientific) notion. It’s a popular soundbite, but it doesn’t “lie at the basis” of anything, except perhaps a number of misconceptions. Presenting it as a serious position is as much of a straw man as the idea of “Ultra-Darwinists” is.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #47993

January 18th 2011

Steve,

While “survival of the fittest” may have originally been a “sound bite” coined by Herbert Spencer as part of a text on biology, but it was accepted as valid by Darwin and incorporated by Darwin into the Origin as the subtitle of his chapter on Natural Selection in later editions of this work. 

“Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for the Malthusian basis of Darwin’s concept of natural selection.  This is an integral part of Darwin’s Theory.  Until there is a consensus that the Malthusian basis for natural selection is wrong (as it is,) then by default it still stands.  I agree that it is not “scientific,” but it is the foundation of one of the most significant scientific theories if all time.  Explain that please. 

It seems very strange to me that the scientific understanding of this process is so vague and imprecise.  When I try to pin someone down to what it is or what is the generally accepted concept of what is, I get no real answer except to be referred to Dawkins, whom no really wants to defend.

Steve, feel free give us your take on what the real Theory of Evolution is.

In this respect the science of evolution is worse off than Christianity.


Steve Ruble - #48034

January 18th 2011

Roger, I’ll refer you to the Wikipedia page on the phrase “survival of the fittest”, which nicely describes the common usages and misusages of the term.

You may find the “scientific underpinings” to be “vague and imprecise”, but I think the problem may be with your understanding, rather than the actual state of the art. If you’d like to change that, I suggest beginning with the Wikipedia page on population genetics. Following the sub-article links, notes, and references should dispell any impression you may have that the study of evolution is “vague and imprecise”.


dopderbeck - #48064

January 18th 2011

Dave, Steve and others—I suspect that what you’re missing, because you’re only reading these isolated quotes, is that Cunningham in this section of the book is primarily taking on Dawkins et al. and the concept of the “selfish gene.”  Dawkins famously reduces everything to this unit of replication.  What Cunningham is trying to show is that this sort of reduction is neither “scientific” nor consistent with the full range of contemporary evolutionary theory.  Or are you claiming that the all-consuming role Dawkins assigns to the “selfish gene” is scientifically valid?

Re: nominalism vs. realism—this remains a live debate, particularly in theology, and particularly in the circles in which Cunningham runs (he is director with John Milbank of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy).  Cunningham shows convincingly, IMHO, that Dawkins et al. are effectively nominalists, i.e. anti-realists—and that this very anti-realism undermines utterly their entire project.

Mike Gene—Cunningham relies heavily—maybe too heavily?—on Simon Conway Morris.


darknesswhistler - #48090

January 18th 2011

Hey All,

I agree with Dopderbeck. I am reading the work in preparation for a class I will teach on the relation of faith and science and am finding it to be very helpful. My speciality is on the theological /philosophical side (admittedly, I am only a PhD candidate in theology and so no great authority) in terms of such discussions and I can tell you that Cunningham is adept at discussing the western philosophical/theological tradition and contemporary philosophy, from Badiou to Deleuze (whether one agrees with all of his interps., I don’t necessarily). His GENEALOGY OF NIHILISM is helpful. He is receiving high marks from the likes of Charles Taylor, Slavoj Zizek, and William Desmond. Those philosophers are arguably paradigm shifting voices in philosophy. Surin’s complements are also noteworthy.

No insult intended, but it t is tough to take critiques seriously that do not arise from immersion in the work. Cunningham’s discussion of realism vs nominalism is not nearly as simple as a nostalgic reversion to a medieval perspective. His genealogy of this dimension of thought is simply one strand of a number of sources coalescing in the complex web of influences upon Darwin. 

Rely too much on Morris…not a bad “mistake” .


Mike Gene - #48098

January 18th 2011

Dopderbeck,

A very powerful attack on the selfish gene perspective can be found in J. Scott Turner’s book, ‘The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself.”  Turner is a physiologist whose knowledge in many areas of biology is quite impressive.  And his perspective as a physiologist is very refreshing - physiologists might be the best in biology when it comes to linking biology with physics. 

Darknesswhistler: “No insult intended, but it t is tough to take critiques seriously that do not arise from immersion in the work.”

I fully agree with this statement.  I was merely offering an impression that is completely dependent on the brief synopsis presented above.


darknesswhistler - #48105

January 18th 2011

Many thanks for the clarification Mike and the reference to Turner’s work.

I appreciate your patience with my comment as well. I certainly don’t want debate to become something in which we are afraid to offend and challenge one another (I never want the goal to be sentimental “niceness”), but I add the “no insult” because my frustration with much popular debate on faith and science is that (with folk like Dawkins and his ilk on the “atheist” side and Desouza and others on the “theist” side) there is this vitriolic screaming back and forth that never actually becomes an intelligent conversation in which the dialectic of debate helps us ascend to higher understanding or deepen our understanding. It is like a bunch of arrogant college freshman (or 8 year olds) screaming at each other nonsensically or like “Hannity and Oberman do faith and science.” So while we should certainly lay down the gauntlet and challenge one another from various perspectives, there must be convergence into coherent dialogue. I am, therefore, encouraged to see folk like Cunningham and the atheists like Terry Eagleton and Cunningham’s atheist and theist interlocutors, whether scientist or philosopher, having such conversations.

Best


dopderbeck - #48207

January 19th 2011

darknesswhistler—“Hannity and Oberman do faith and science.”  haha!!


Roger A. Sawtelle - #48234

January 19th 2011

Steve,

Thanks for the reference to the Wikipedia.  I had seen the article in an eariler form.  Unfortunately it doesn’t solve the problem, but illuminates it.  Basically if Darwin meant that natural selection was governed by ecology, which is my view, he did not say so.  The statements about what “he meant” have not been backed up by references. 

Dawkins & Co go by what Darwin actually wrote.  In a different discussion I brought up “niche construction theory” as a place where evolution and ecology are reconciled.  At that time I was refered to a conference in Europe convened by the friends of Dawkins which condemned niche construction theory.  Dawkins says that the gene is independent of ecology and everything else.  Who speaks for Darwin, Dawkins or Wikipedia?

Another fact I found was the claim that Darwinism takes ecology into account when it only gives lip service to ecology.  Ecology is based on symbiosis and mutualism.  Evolution as far as I can see is still based on conflict and competition.  It was for Darwin and still is for Dawkins and those who seek a competitive edge for evolution, even though there isw strong evidence that this is NOT the basis for evolutionary change.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #48237

January 19th 2011

Part 2

As I am sure you know, the late Karl Popper questioned Darwin’s theory because it is tautalogical, saying those who are fit survive and those who survive are fit.  This is the issue the article in the Wikipedia is addressing.  Popper certainly was well versed in science and the field.  Apparently he and those of his time did not think that Darwin meant to include ecology in his concept of natural selection, so why does it emerge now when ecology is popular except with Dawkins.

The issue is not Darwin, but evolution and how it works.  People seem to be more interested in justifying Darwin than understanding the science, which is not good science. 

As for population genetics that is fine, but I do not think that really gets into the issue of how organisms relate with their environment, which appears to be the basis of natural selection, according to the article in the Wikepedia.


Alan Fox - #48252

January 19th 2011

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.

Just curious as to whom the post is referring to here. Would I be right in looking at the popular writing of Dawkins, Coyne and Myers. I ask as I suspect some building of straw-men.


Just asking - #48267

January 19th 2011

“one does not need to read the book to know that Cunningham is almst certainly wrong “

Which is exactly the sort of justification of self-ignorance we hear from creationists every day.


Steve Ruble - #48337

January 20th 2011

Just Asking,

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 was not, as you seem to be implying, dismissing the entire book out of hand.  This is demonstrated by the fact that in that same comment, I pointed out another claim attributed to Cunningham about which I said, “one would need to read the book to find out whether Cunningham can develop a solid argument,” to back it up.

So no, my comment did not comprise “exactly the sort of justification” one might expect from a creationist. On the other hand, the quote mining and disregard for context and nuance you just demonstrated is more typical of creationists than of honest thinkers.


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