The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 3

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January 28, 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 3

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

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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Gregory - #50019

February 3rd 2011

(As if one needed an ‘authenticity’ stamp by Rich!)

Well, we’re learning that Rich doesn’t know what Quid Pro Quo means b/c he has refused most of my easy-to-read, but perhaps hard-to-answer questions.

Do you disagree, Rich?

I feel no obligation to answer Rich’s Yes/No questions, which only do more to reveal how 1-track minded Rich is on ‘intelligent design,’ especially the 2nd question.

He really *WANTS* me to say something bad about ID ‘proponents,’ so he is goading me, *simply* so that he can come to IDists’ rescue, the hero, Robin Hood. Yet, there is no need for me to do that. The ‘evidence’ speaks for itself.

& I am not against the person of IDists. Their theory is just ‘science weak.’

When speaking with Rich a problem is one is dealing with Rich-ID, not ‘real ID.’

“Intelligent design “harps” on design only in the sense that an economist “harps” upon budgets; what else would you expect a design theorist to talk about but design?” - Rich

I’d expect talk of ‘designing.’ Why is there no talk of ‘designing’ in public talk of ID?

Besides, ‘economics’ is an academic field with a bounded subject; ‘intelligent design’ is not. Can you give an example of something that is *not designed*?

Gregory - #50020

February 3rd 2011

“Gregory has been steadily evasive, after implying something negative about the motives and/or behavior of ID proponents” - Rich

There is no need to be defensive b/c the record is available for any reader to consider.

What did Gregory say that was “implying something negative about the motives and/or behavior of ID proponents”? There’s a question for more of Rich’s ID-spin…

“I’ll add, Jon, that there is a history on this site of uninformed ID-bashing by Gregory that long antedates your coming.” - Rich

Well, I’m willing to go toe-to-toe with Rich @ ID any day of the week. Not afraid. Rich has read a lot of books @ ‘intelligent design.’ Great. Yet people can read lots & lots of books @ bad ideas & it doesn’t make them magically turn into ‘good science’!

Bashing ID is not that difficult, when done properly & with due respect for IDists. It can be done with nuance & this seems to cause problems for Rich’s seeming ‘your with us or you’re against us’ B&W attitude.

To Rich, ID is *not* science. Yet to most IDM-IDists ID *is* science. So who’s right, the people who made the theory, or an internet Robin Hood?

Btw Rich, how could a phd in intellectual history *miss* the reflexive turn?!

Gregory - #50022

February 3rd 2011

Rich #49766

At your request, I provided a passage with a definition. To your ‘Thanks in Advance,’ my response is: ‘You’re welcome.’ It has not been mentioned if you learned anything from it or not as you have not (yet) given a reaction.

Christine & Alan have expressed interest in inter-subjectivity & reflexive knowledge. This is closely linked with several features of the book review so far. Frankly, I’d be glad to follow-up with them about it than to discuss ‘intelligent design.’ Being at all times ready (correction to above: not necessarily ‘willing’) to go toe-to-toe with IDists doesn’t mean doing it is always fun!

I agree with JWW & CC that “the “what” of humanity is special”. This is something that makes ‘reflexivity’ quite important for the current epoch.

Now that we have this ‘discovery’ of method for/from human-social sciences, the ‘special what’ can be more deeply & widely discussed. If this book contributes to that goal, it would be a success.

Rich - #50026

February 3rd 2011


Well, any objective observer can see what has happened here.  You have made an insinuation of a causal connection between ID proponents’ prior belief in God and some unspecified inadequacy in their scientific procedures and/or their conclusions regarding design.  Despite repeated requests, in the plainest possible English, for you to spell out the causal connection that you are insinuating, you have not done so.  Whether this is due to deliberate wittholding on your part, or due to some problem you have in the written exposition of ideas, I do not know, and no longer care.

As for your last question:

“Can you give an example of something that is *not designed*?”

I think I can.  If the hallmarks of design are unity, coherence, and parts well-arranged to achieve an intelligible purpose, the first example that comes to mind is “Your replies.”
But I can probably come up with other examples that are almost as good, if you give me some more time.

Best wishes, Gregory.  And I will pass along your compliments re ID to Mike, Bill, and Steve at our next clandestine theocracy-planning meeting.

Gregory - #50037

February 3rd 2011

Please know that I am not offended nor do I feel attacked in the least by your post #50026, Rich.

Thanks for playing friendly here at BioLogos to you!

- Gregory

R Hampton - #50041

February 3rd 2011

If the hallmarks of design are unity, coherence, and parts well-arranged to achieve an intelligible purpose

How do galaxies and solar systems match up with this defintion?

Christine S. - #50049

February 3rd 2011

R Hampton

so to me the real problem is that - for any given phenomena - many more variables are involved in the social sciences as compared to the “hard” sciences.

I totally agree.
What I tried to point out to Alan is the amount of careful preparation needed to maintain the high level of reproducibility in the “hard” science. Controls and calibrations all the way down for phenomena with comparatively limited sets of parameters. But the external standards make it possible to have a relatively easy exchange of data with confidence in their reliability as long as the procedures to obtain the data is known.
The number of parameters involved in what appears to be the simplest question in the social science seems staggering to me and the approach you can take in e.g. chemistry or biochemistry, where reductionism still yields meaningful answers that can be integrated into wider encompassing concepts, does not seem feasible. Your example of GSR has value in showing the physiological aspects of the reaction of people in particular social situations but, as you said yourself, they are very difficult to interpret because of all the parameters you cannot eliminate while studying the measured effect.

Christine S. - #50050

February 3rd 2011

Also, I think the quote that Gregory provided in comment #49979 sheds some light on the second problem I see in developing methods for social sciences. The dual role of participant and observer is detrimental to some currently employed forms of investigating phenomena in social science. I am referring to things like questionnaires, which are unreliable because they sometimes force people to decide between answers (by ticking of the box near the one that is the least misrepresentation of their actual viewpoint) that the author of the form provided because of the preformed concepts in his or her mind. This makes the author a participant rather than an observer. But even the GSR is suffering from equal problems – does the person applying the electrodes put the patient/proband at ease or does he/she intimidate?
I would be interested what you, R Hampton and Gregory, think that the concept of reflexivity can contribute to developing a more intersubjective approach to social science.


Christine S. - #50051

February 3rd 2011

Steve Ruble - #49975

I do agree with all you said on topic wholehartedly.
But you will have to forgive me to take issue with this:

The same standard leads me to see theology as about as pointless as possible: no consensus, no predictions; even when I can’t immediatly detect the problems myself, I have no reason to think there’s any knowledge being generated by theologians. I really don’t know what people see in it.

This appears to me hostile in an uncalled for manner. R. Hampton answered to my comment addressing the issue of methodology and intersubjectivity in science – which I see as the enterprise in finding out as much as we can about our shared experience of physical reality. I value all contributions to the discussion about how to conduct this enterprise. Drawing the “theology” card was uncalled for and added little to the argument unless you really insist that the “we” and “them” has something to do with putting forward a point about how to proceed in science. Such controversies have happened here on Biologos in the past, but why stir them up without need? Can’t we be civil just for once? I want to read about R. Hamptons and Gregories views about intersubjectivity.


Gregory - #50065

February 3rd 2011

Hola Christine S.

In this thread, your first post reads:
“I am very interested in the subject of intersubjectivity, which is admittedly rather subjectiv.”

Well, maybe to start we can note there are 3 different terms: subject, intersubjectivity & subjectiv. I wonder how you are approaching the topic already, e.g. linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc. You also mention relationships btw participant & observer…?

Just trying to test the waters to see what could be a fruitful way to approach ‘reflexivity’ & ‘inter-subjectivity’, consistent with the thread.

I wouldn’t say *all* questionnaires are ‘unreliable,’ but can see the force behind your point. Some questionnaires or surveys just provide ‘useful information’. There are many ‘context effects’ that influence the ‘reliability’ of HSS methods.

“I would be interested what you, R Hampton and Gregory, think that the concept of reflexivity can contribute to developing a more intersubjective approach to social science.” - Christine S.

Be welcome! I’m open to conversation, biased by my background & experiences, like everyone else here. Glad to offer views or address questions that you pose if I am able. My background is in 2 HSSs & philosophy.

Gregory - #50066

February 3rd 2011

p.s. Just curious also to know if you read comments in the following thread, where I wrote five thread posts (#49729-35) on reflexivity, reflexive science, reflexive knowledge. Hopefully it explains something about my views of ‘reflexivity’, if less so about ‘inter-subjectivity’:

R Hampton - #50080

February 3rd 2011

Christine S.,

By its very nature, psychological counseling is an example wherein intersubjective knowledge can yield practical benefits. But because the methods are adapted and interpreted for each and every unique counselor/client relationship, the extraction of empirical evidence is, at best, very difficult. Thus the ability to make the (current) practice of psychological counseling a hard science is, essentially, not productive. That’s why experimentation, clinical trials, etc. are necessary to advance the science of psychology rather than the “art” of the practice. Otherwise psychology would never escape the realm of pseudo-science wherein anecdotal evidence and “common sense” alone are sufficient to determine external, unbiased truths (basically what medical science was before the 19th century.)

Jon Garvey - #50126

February 4th 2011

@R Hampton - #50080

Just a brief application of your point to my own field of medicine. Every medical consultation is a complex interpersonal exchange as well as the practical application of scientific knowledge (as far as that can be got in such a field).

Science has studied the power of the placebo effect - even testing drugs against it. But that effect in itself is an imponderable - ones trust in the doctor or the therapeutic process has much to do with the interpersonal relationship one has with the people involved.

Science, therefore, is informing and refining the business of achieving health, rather than defining it as it would in a “simple” field like physics. It can control the anecdotal, but cannot, and probably should not, eliminate it; at least when persons, and not populations, are the focus of the exercise.

Gregory - #50157

February 4th 2011

Good example, Jon. I remember once hearing the term ‘cooperative art’ applied to medicine, as well as to agriculture, education, music & theology. Also, speaking with MedStudent friends @ their units on interpersonal relations, doctor-patient interactions, etc.

Likewise, when you speak of “a ‘simple’ field like physics” this could perhaps help to address Christine’s question @ inter-subjectivity, or at least create a space for discussion.

The space is for a ‘higher’ or ‘interdisciplinary’ discussion of ‘more complex’ fields. A ‘law’ (among others?) to be debated is this: Does ‘complexity’ correlate to ‘reflexivity’ establishing a threshold btw NPSs & HSSs?

Iow, in fields that do not study human beings, or only interact with them/us on a physical or biological level (hat-tip to those levels), how can we relate a lack of reflexivity to the ‘simplicity’ of the subject/object?

Trying to understand or to make sense of ‘order’ at higher levels (e.g. above physics & biology) means learning to participate in ‘cooperative arts’, rather than to objectivize & depersonalize the world.

Example of an empty, unreflexive statement:
“It is in ‘the nature of’ reality to become more complex.”

Christine S. - #51152

February 15th 2011

Sorry for coming back so late, some urgent matters demanded my full attention for a while. I know the discussion has moved on but Gregory asked me a question and I owe him an answer.
The angle from which I approach the topic of intersubjectivity is decision making. An assessment of the current situation and
1.) a projection of ongoing processes to determine the likely outcome to decide whether or not to intervene and how (regulatory)
2.) a setting a goal (desired projected outcome) and planning the necessary processes to effect that goal (design)

Christine S. - #51153

February 15th 2011

With clearly defined parameters for the assessment of the current situation and a well understood processes as the NPS provide, engineering becomes possible and you can get a good angle on some aspects in biology and medicine (the limits of this have been pointed out by R. Hampton and Jon Garvey)
In fields like economics, education, social development, legislation decisions would be ideally (from the point of the decision-maker) based on clear cut parameters and processes, but this is not the case at the moment. Most obvious at the moment are the economic crisis and failing governments in North Africa. Bad decisions can derail entire world regions, but it all starts closer to home for me when I look at the state of local communities. People working in the HSS are also part of their local communities and this, to my mind, should be taken as a chance to refine models and work on better projections.

Gregory - #51318

February 16th 2011

Hi Christine S.

You wrote:
“Sorry for coming back so late, some urgent matters demanded my full attention for a while. I know the discussion has moved on but Gregory asked me a question and I owe him an answer.”

No need to apologize to me, but thanks in any case for returning to the question, as it led to my longest post ever at BioLogos, the one about ‘reflexive’ science. & unless I’m wrong looking back, there were *zero* comments on it in that thread. Might make one think that neither ‘reflexivity’ nor ‘reflexive or non-positive science’ are on the radar for most people here.

“The angle from which I approach the topic of intersubjectivity is decision making.” - Christine S.

Please excuse, but I’m not clear on how this ties in with the topic of the thread. Intersubjectivity, reflexivity, decision-making are what I approach in my professional work too. In fact, I’ve been writing about this recently.

How it fits together with “science, philosophy, religion discourse”, especially one geared primarily to evangelical Christians, is indeed a challenge! Welcome to the discussions!

Rich - #52760

February 27th 2011

Gregory (49979):

I finally stumbled on your “definition” of reflexive science, which I missed before.  You call that a definition?  Eight long, bloated lines of sweeping abstractions, almost devoid of concrete contents?  It reads exactly like the kind of social science prose that was rightly lampooned by Alan Sokal in his famous hoax essay.

The paragraph by Burawoy is circumlocutious, lacks conciseness, and generally violates the principles of clarity articulated by George Orwell in his famous essay on the English language, and by Strunk and White.  He never should have been given a Ph.D. for writing like that.  But unfortunately Social Science departments crank out thousands of Ph.D.s per year who, just like Burawoy, are inept communicators, capable of writing only in social-science shop-talk.

Aside from the fact that Burawoy can’t write, his ideas are just plain inapplicable to evolutionary theory.  What has “intersubjectivity between participant and observer” got to do with whether or not random mutations could turn an artiodactyl into a whale in 9 million years?  That’s the debate between Behe and Dawkins, Sternberg and Miller.  How could a social scientist possibly contribute anything to that debate?

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