The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 3
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 mesa characterizes the landscape of the southwestern United States. A level plain rapidly ascends to meet a broad table top where various activities can take place. If chapters 1-3 rapidly ascend from the neo-Darwinian synthesis with a review of evidence for form, constraints, and convergence within evolution, Darwin’s Pious Idea reaches the top of the mesa in chapter 4. Cunningham enters the chapter with the difficult question, “Does Darwinism involve a notion of progress?” The underlying question of the chapter, however, is, “What is humanity that You are mindful of them?”
Cunningham argues that we need the “biology of being” within which to place the “biology of becoming” of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Cunningham importantly does not reject the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He does, however, demand a larger theoretical framework that can account for deeper levels of the stability and cooperation and remote causes that we observe when we look at biological phenomena synchronically: “Such a gestalt switch in perspective – from the atomistic to the systemic, the discrete to the emergent –involves new levels of life and new modes of causality as we move from a wholly linear approach to a nonlinear one. Emergent systems (from cells to organisms) exhibit modes of behavior that demand new ways of thinking” (p. 157). Unless neo-Darwinism can account for such data (and in its ultra-Darwinian form, it cannot, Cunningham argues), in the words of Imre Lakatos, it will become a degenerating research program in light of the need for a wider synthesis, just as Newton’s research program became degenerating to Einstein’s.1
Cunningham does not have to invent this “biology of being”; it is already present in developmental evolution and systems biology (p. 152). Cunningham writes, “Evolution, or at least biology, is not all about the flux of phylogeny, for nature manifests structure and form. There is a form of progress and inevitability in evolution, one that is lawful and thus demonstrably antireductionist. . . . Consequently, not only will the great chain of being be reinstated (as if it was ever removed, except in the vanity of man’s mind) but also mankind, more importantly, will be shown to be both ‘cross and crown’ of creation. This claim precludes, rather than accommodates, anthropocentrism, for it is a matter of participation (methexis) rather than exclusivity. Indeed, accompanying man’s ascendancy or uniqueness is a growing sense of vulnerability, even danger” (pp. 149-50).
Cunningham helpfully uses the analogy of the production of a play within a theatre to describe the interaction between synchronic and diachronic events within evolution: “The play of evolution (that which becomes, namely, phylogeny) takes place within a theater; in terms of that theater’s structure, the play is constrained and therefore informed” (p. 159). Within this theater humans play a significant role in the drama because of what we are – the “cross and crown of creation”; the mode of transportation through which we have arrived at the “theatre” is irrelevant.
Cunningham reminds Christians that the “what” of humanity is special (their form on the stage of the theatre); pressing theologically the “how” question actually takes us towards a paganism where we conceive of god as a big, more powerful being like us. As Cunningham writes, “If we conceive God in terms of power, we have actually managed to reduce God to our own level, because divinity becomes a matter of something we cannot do – namely, suspend the natural order – rather than it being about someone we are not” (p. 172). As Cunningham notes, Thomas Aquinas would heartily agree (p. 151).
Cunningham’s retrieval of “form” becomes the basis for his theological reflections. Properly construed, evolution signs that life’s origin and end lies beyond itself in the Invisible “seen” in the visible. The “forms” of evolution, its “being” within which random “becoming” occurs, signs Transcendence beyond itself. Humanity results from the material process of evolutionary becoming; nonetheless we have a distinct form which allows us to participate in the symbolic science that biology is: “biology is a semiotic science, a science where significance and representation are essential elements. Thus evolutionary biology stands at the border between physical and semiotic science, just as man does” (pp. 165-66).
Combining concepts from Augustine and Kierkegaard, Cunningham describes how humanity results both from “recollection” and “non-identical repetition”: “Yes, humans are different. Yes, they forge whole new levels of existence. In so doing they are only recollecting evolution’s history, yet at the same time they are nonidentically repeating it” (p. 159). He finds a parallel between this evolutionary understanding of humanity and that proposed by the early church fathers: “cooperation is the truth of nature and . . . competition is secondary; . . . more basic forms of nature are themselves not devoid of intelligence, or rationality; and . . . there is definite progress in evolution, with man at the pinnacle, because man is a microcosm of the universe, both recollecting and nonidentically repeating the lives of his ancestors, right back to basic chemical, as the Church Fathers correctly saw. But such ascendancy is not simple, for with increasing complexity comes increasing danger, to the point that what theologians term sin becomes possible” (p. 163). Evolution does provide progress, but progress itself has an inherent ambiguity. Again, welcome to humanity--the “crown and cross of creation.”
This is no “creation science” or “intelligent design” argument. While matter has an inherent rationality, Cunningham, with the historic Christian tradition, refuses to reduce God to an agent of design. Cunningham concludes the chapter with a wonderfully provocative shift in our language in order to not make God a “creative force” that guides an evolutionary process: “if we are going to employ such terms as ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural,’ then it is better (at least for theology) if we think of God as the only truly natural phenomenon, while the world around can be thought of as ‘supernatural.’ For what else is creation meant to signify? Indeed, is creation’s status as signifier not reflected in the very fact that when we try to return what exists, here in our universe, to itself, we fail to save the phenomena. Rather, the phenomena are shown to exhibit the one thing that is intrinsically their own, namely, the nothing from which they came” (p. 177).
If the book stopped with Cunningham’s provocation at this point, it would represent a tremendous accomplishment. Cunningham teaches us how to order the language of post neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory in light of the classical Christian understanding of the world in which essences are “seen” in, but never abstracted from, the materiality of God’s good creation. Creation itself becomes a sign of a radically transcendent God from whom and through whom and to whom are all things because God created all things from nothing. Cunningham, however, extends his argument farther.
Chapter 5 critically examines attempts to generalize the neo-Darwinian synthesis beyond biology. As Cunningham has already found “ultra-Darwinism” limited in explaining evolution itself, it is no wonder that he finds its extension in evolutionary psychology (and its earlier vehicles, social Darwinism and Sociobiology) severely lacking. Cunningham uses this opportunity, however, to show the underlying logic of ultra-Darwinism. Ironically, by stressing adaptivity, such generalized ultra-Darwinism evaporates truth, the good, even science itself into what Nietzsche called “the true lie”. Beliefs themselves become “intrinsically fictitious” (p. 214), repeated only because of their adaptive function – including the belief in evolution. Our lives are really about sex and sex is really about the survival of genes and thus evolution.
Attempts to generalize ultra-Darwinism require a concept of evolution that itself stands outside of time. To save evolution, therefore, we must de-mythologize it and return it to a biological theory. We must save it from the antievolutionary reductionism of the ultra-Darwinism whereby evolutionary thought functions as “a security blanket, one loved by willful secularists who demonstrate no reluctance at destroying the natural world” (p. 262). Such a cultural bias is thoroughly “unnatural.”
Through the evolutionary emergence of humanity, the human mind, and human language, the symbolic activity of thinking about “God” became profoundly natural. Cunningham cites the research of Justin Barrett: “With the arrival of our minds in the story of evolution, religion became inevitable. It was, quite simply, not an option” (p. 252). At the same time, the symbolic, the “cultural,” directly shapes the “natural”: “Symbols have true causal powers over the physical, though the language here is potentially misleading, for we must resist the temptation of setting symbols over and against the purely physical, at least in any naïve sense” (p. 256). As culture is thoroughly natural, nature becomes thoroughly cultural. Therefore, “there is no mere animality, and thus we can have neither a pure culture nor a pure animality” (p. 239). In the emergence of the uniqueness of the human being, Cunningham argues, “the elements gifted to us at the beginning of time are, quite literally, transubstantiated, and new, real relations are forthcoming, relations that then recapitulate the entire process” (p. 242). Evolutionary psychology, as set of ultra-Darwinism, cannot account for such an evolutionary process. They seek the security for their secularity in the ahistoricism of the endless repetition of the same neo-Darwinian natural selection.
Cunningham will continue his attempt to save evolutionary theory from its ultra-Darwinian supporters in chapter 6. But he will also increasingly have to save Christian orthodoxy from its ultra anti-Darwinian supporters as well. If Darwin’s theory signed the death of Protestant fundamentalist readings of the Scriptures (even as it created them), Darwin’s Pious Idea itself signs the death of the “true lie” that God is dead within a secularist, scientific culture. Such secularists will have to go perhaps to Huxley for their security blanket; the blanket that was theory of evolution of the ultra-Darwinists has dissolved. Perhaps they can meet their fundamentalist Christian allies there.
1. Commentators in the previous discussion of the blog have noted Cunningham’s dependence on the work of Simon Conway Morris, a dependence that Cunningham notes in the acknowledgements. In a recent article, Conway Morris reviews research that “point to a biology that will move far beyond the Darwinian formulation. . . . Today our understanding of evolution is immensely widened, but naturally it remains thoroughly Darwinian. The aim of this review is not to dispute this synthesis, but simply to enquire if it is complete” (p. 1337). See Simon Conway Morris, “The Predictability of Evolution: Glimpses into a post-Darwinian World,” Naturwissenschaften (2009) 96: 1313-1337 (http://www.springerlink.com/content/b46l378pju61h6k2/).
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).