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.