A Response to Coyne, MacDonald, Ruse, and Wilkinson

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In December of 2010, we posted a paper by Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute, which presents two models (the Homo divinus model and the retelling model) for relating Adam and Eve with the findings of contemporary anthropology. The paper, which ran in five series, drew responses from biologist and atheist blogger Jerry Coyne and ex-Anglican priest Eric MacDonald, who questioned both the Homo divinus model and Alexander and BioLogos’ attempts to integrate modern science with Christian faith. Michael Ruse also made a passing comment on the discussion in a Huffington Post article. In January, philosopher and theologian Loren Wilkinson posted his own two part response to Alexander, Coyne, and MacDonald on The BioLogos Forum, voicing his concerns with theHomo divinus model while reaffirming the harmony between science and faith and calling into question the "positivism" he saw in Coyne and MacDonald's response. Today, we post the first part of Denis Alexander’s response to Wilkinson, Coyne, and MacDonald. The full response can be downloaded in PDF format here.

I am pleased to note that my paper speculating on the initiation of human spiritual life, with its suggestions of possible ways to relate theological and scientific truths, has stimulated a good discussion. As is the way with such discussions, the topic has broadened in the process, so here I will simply cherry-pick a few points that seem most pertinent.

I should start by emphasizing that on a scale of 1-10, where 10 represents optimal importance for Christians, this topic for me scores about 1, maybe 2 at a push. I became a Christian in 1958 and first published something on the subject half a century later in 2008,1 although I wrote on many other topics in the intervening period - so I do not think I can be accused of exactly rushing into print on the matter. Personally I do not believe that the plausibility or otherwise of one or the other of the suggestions that I labeled ‘models’ (more below) makes any significant difference to any central points of Christian doctrine.

One motivation in proposing such models is, as Loren Wilkinson correctly points out, to provide resources to those Christians who have a problem with evolution, illustrating the various ways in which biblical truths, central to the faith, can happily (and consistently) be maintained by those, such as myself, who have all their lives been passionate Darwinians. That is not to say that I view such models merely as utilitarian tools to persuade creationists to embrace mainstream science. I do actually believe that some models are more plausible than others and, as a matter of fact, haven’t read anything in the ensuing discussion that seems to me to render the Homo divinus model any less plausible than it was before, although I do think that there are some misunderstandings on what the various models do or do not claim.

American Atheists and the Use of Language

In this context one might have imagined that evolutionary biologists interested in education, either atheist or theist, would be extremely pleased to find fellow biologists helping to break down unnecessary barriers preventing people from embracing contemporary science. Indeed, as someone rather well-known for my critique of Intelligent Design, I have often been teamed up with atheists in debates and panel discussions on the subject, and find such educational opportunities useful. To his credit Richard Dawkins has, on more than one occasion, exhorted religious communities to engage in such enterprises, and has himself teamed up with the Bishop of Oxford to talk about evolution in the public sphere. Let us not forget that the very first written response to Darwin’s Origin of Species on record was effusive in its praise, a letter to Darwin written by an Anglican cleric, his friend the Revd Charles Kingsley, on 18th November 1859. Kingsley was one of many clerics who through his lecturing and writings helped to get evolution widely disseminated in the 1860s and onwards.

In this respect I think that Jerry Coyne, may be somewhat out on a limb even within his own atheist community in his apparent refusal to engage in any kind of sensible intellectual dialogue. Loren Wilkinson has drawn attention to the intemperate language that characterizes his web-page. In the academic circles in which I move and have my being, there is generally deemed to be an inverse relationship between pejorative language and intellectual content. Using excitable words to keep repeating the assertion that one disagrees with someone else’s position can too readily become a substitute for thought, and ends up being merely boring. In the general verbal froth, factual accuracy also tends to go out the window. In this respect I note that in Coyne’s comments I have been promoted to being a ‘physicist’ (by the way, I am sure that Coyne knows that the word ‘physicist’ was invented by another nineteenth century Victorian cleric, William Whewell). Whilst believing that physics is an honorable and worthy profession, to put the record straight let me just say that I have been in the biological research community for the past four decades, finally retiring from active science and closing my lab in 2008 to engage full-time in the work of The Faraday Institute. What I suspect may prove to be my last scientific research paper appeared on Christmas Day, 2008, in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Sociologically I actually find the intemperate language of certain commentators on the US science-religion debate, such as Coyne, quite intriguing. I come to the US to speak on science and religion fairly often. For a European the polarized nature of the contemporary public debate in the US is rather striking. Most European countries, including Britain, are far more secular than the US, which is currently one of the more religious countries in the world by any measure. The point is made by taking a look at the 26th British Social Attitudes Survey report (January 2010) which revealed three populations: first, those who believe, identify with a religion and attend services at least occasionally (i.e. three traits present in one individual); second, the non-religious who don’t believe and never attend services; and third, the “fuzzy” middle, who either believe, or attend services occasionally, but not both together. The religious category in the US is 70%, compared to 26% in the UK; the “fuzzy group” is 24% for the UK, 36% for the US; and the non-religious group is only 4% for the US, but 31% for the UK. Most pertinent of all for our present discussion, when asked for agreement with the statement “I don’t believe in God”, a tiny 3% of the US population agrees, compared to 18% in the UK, and Elaine Ecklund’s survey data summarized in her fine book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think make clear that elite US scientists are heavily over-represented within this tiny 3%.2

There are clearly many different reasons for the polarized and somewhat grumpy nature of the science-religion debate in the US at the present time, but the fact that only 3% of the US population declares itself as atheist has to be one of the factors in the equation. Minorities tend to be more strident; they feel they have to shout more loudly to make themselves heard in the public domain, to engage in confrontational politicking in order to catch the ear of the media. And in the present socio-political context, in which US society finds itself particularly factious, with some disastrous outcomes, it becomes too easy for all forms of disagreement to be cast within the framework of rhetorical posturing in place of calm reflection. Coupled with this is the obvious fact, to return to the immediate topic, that if more than 40% of your population disbelieves (for religious reasons) the theory of evolution, which as a matter of fact provides the integrating framework for all contemporary biological sciences, then at the very least this is frustrating. On this point I have to say that my sympathies are rather with Jerry Coyne, though if he genuinely wants to reduce that 40% figure, then adopting confrontational attitudes is not going to help.

I also think that there is too often an assumption in the US that because something happens to be the case there, ipso facto it must be the case in all other parts of the world. But every country is unique in its history, and in its religious and cultural mores. Take creationism, for example. Until recently I think it is fair to say that in Europe it remained virtually unknown. As a Christian studying biochemistry in the Oxford of the mid 1960s I had never heard of it, nor had any of my former student colleagues (I have checked); creationism, if it existed, was invisible. Since that time it has been exported from the US and now has some presence, albeit small.

The importance of historical and cultural contexts

A further contribution to the present polarization of science-religion interactions in the US comes, I think, from the lack of awareness by the scientific community of the historical roots of their disciplines. I should hasten to say that ignorance of the history and philosophy of their disciplines is an equally striking characteristic of many UK scientists. The difference in the European context is simply that scientists often live and work within or near historical environments that act as implicit if not explicit reminders of their roots.

Some years ago I remember being in an immunology conference in France that happened to be located in a fine old convent as its venue, a tiny corner of the convent still being occupied by nuns. Before his talk, one of the US speakers made a quip implying that ‘modern science’ was displacing ‘backward religion’. In this audience of largely European scientists, nobody laughed. I am sure this was not because they were any less secular than their US counterparts, in fact probably more so. I suspect rather that, apart from being in rather bad taste (the nuns were, after all, our hosts), it is difficult to avoid the Christian roots of science if you are living and working in one of Europe’s older universities, be it Padua, Paris, Leuven, Heidelberg, Amsterdam, Oxford or Cambridge (and of course dozens of others).

As I ride my bike every week around Cambridge (the quickest way to navigate streets designed for horse and cart), I pass places such as the Old Cavendish Laboratories (the host of 29 Nobel prize-winners) where a verse from Psalm 111:2 is engraved over the entrance in Latin (“Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them”). The inscription was approved by the committed Christian, James Clerk Maxwell, director of the Cavendish, as it was being built in the 1870s. In 1973 when the Cavendish was moving to its new site the same verse was inscribed over the new entrance, only this time in English. As I continue on my bike down the road I pass Trinity College, where one of the founding fathers of modern biology, John Ray, used to give lectures on natural history in its chapel, believing that these were just as much an act of worship as that provided by the choristers. A few years later we find the passionate albeit somewhat unconventional theist Isaac Newton in the same College, who wrote far more on biblical interpretation than he ever did about science. Round the corner on my bike and jumping a century we come to Christ’s College where Charles Darwin read divinity, later recalling in his autobiography how his study of the natural theology of William Paley during his student days was his main source of intellectual stimulation. Though drifting into agnosticism in his later years (he was never an atheist), Darwin always retained cordial and polite relationships with his many clerical friends and correspondents.

I could go on, but you get the point. “Yes,” I hear you say, “but isn’t it the case that today the UK is home to some fire-breathing scientist-atheists whose fame has spread throughout the world?” True, the way the media works does give huge scope for the dissemination of extremism, but the point in this case is that the number of such ultra-enthusiastic scientist-atheists is really small, to be counted on the fingers of one hand. They are retired elderly professors, with time on their hands, and to be frank my secular colleagues tend to treat them as slightly odd. What’s the point in getting all hot under the collar in crusading for a belief system that, in essence, just represents a disbelief in someone else’s belief system? That does seem a bit pointless. In a postmodern culture it is far more common, in my experience, for one’s faith to be treated with polite respect: “Oh, so you go to church on Sundays, that’s really nice for you, I play golf.” In a multi-cultural society extremism in all its forms is treated with deep suspicion within the academic community, and indeed without.

Ironically – ironically, that is, in light of the lack of penetration of their publications into the US scientific community – it is US historians and philosophers of all people who have done the most to subvert the so-called ‘conflict model’ of the relationship between science and religion. It was the historian F.M. Turner (who sadly died recently) who promoted the idea, since widely adopted, that the roots of the conflict model, in the English speaking world at least, may be found in the professionalization of science that took place in the late nineteenth century.As another fine US historian of science, Steven Shapin, remarks:

In the late Victorian period it was common to write about ‘the warfare between science and religion’ and to presume that these two bodies of culture must always have been in conflict. However, it has been a very long time since these attitudes have been held by historians of science.4

Clearly the scientific community needs to do some catching up with the historians on such matters.


Talk of the conflict model brings us to the comments made by Eric MacDonald (where, again, I find myself promoted to the status of ‘physicist’ – it is wonderful how mutations spread). If one can get past all the polemical huffing and puffing, then MacDonald seems to be disagreeing with three points. First, he does not like the idea of ‘integration’ of science and theology, an expressed aim of the BioLogos website. Second, he does not like the use of terms such as “models” and “data-sets” outside of science. And, third, he thinks my biblical hermeneutics is wrong.

On the first point, I’m inclined to agree that the word “integration” is ambiguous. In its strong form, it could be made to mean that the aim is to somehow mingle theological discourse with that of scientific practice. I am certainly against that, and I don’t think that’s what BioLogos is about. Each academic discipline has its own integrity, its own specialized language and its own criteria for assessing its truth claims. Mingling different forms of disciplinary discourse can readily lead to confusion. Fortunately, however, there is a weaker meaning of “integration” which simply refers to the attempt to relate two bodies of knowledge together in a coherent kind of way. In the context of the science-religion discussion, this is often labeled the “complementary model” for understanding the relationship between science and theology. The scientific and theological narratives provide complementary perspectives on the same reality viewed through different windows. The narratives are concerned with different kinds of question.

And there’s the rub: MacDonald, as Wilkinson points out, is an old-fashioned positivist who doesn’t believe that theology does express “knowledge” in any shape or form. It’s difficult to relate two bodies of knowledge if you don’t think that one represents “knowledge” anyway. I will not critique positivism here as Wilkinson has already carried out that task very effectively. Suffice it to say that whereas positivism as a formal philosophy went extinct many decades ago now, hoist by its own petard (meaning ‘subverted by its own weapon’ – you may recognize the phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet), its offspring scientism continues to survive in certain ecological niches. One of the characteristics of people who think that there is only one form of reliable knowledge and, furthermore, that they possess it, is a kind of strident certainty that casts a withering scorn upon all lesser mortals who do not share their particular opinion (“I am embarrassed even to write this”). Such a tightly constrained understanding of what counts as true knowledge no doubt provides a considerable degree of psychological comfort to the community who share the same view. But, like all forms of fundamentalist certainty, such a stance does not take sufficiently seriously the sheer complexity of human ways of knowing, nor the many different ways in which reliable knowledge is acquired in different disciplines.

As it happens, I could easily have presented the views expressed in my paper without any recourse to the language of “models” and “data”; none of the arguments presented depend on the use of that particular language. Nevertheless, I do want to discuss the use of such terms in science and other disciplines briefly, because I think that also might help positivists to see that the acquisition of scientific knowledge is quite a complicated process, let alone other forms of knowledge. MacDonald and several bloggers point out that models in science can be tested and refuted (or not) by the acquisition of data in a proper kind of Popperian manner. True, in many scientific disciplines this approach works rather well. The double-helical model of DNA really does fit the data better than a triple-helical model (although, as it happens, triple-helices can exist). But now contrast that with the physicist Brian Greene’s recent book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.In his book, Greene expounds no less than nine different rival cosmological models to explain the existence of our present universe. These range from various versions of inflationary theory, to string theory, to the idea that the universe is a holographic projection. Great fun as these are as ideas, there is just one catch: not a single one of these models is testable, even in principle. As the cosmologist George Ellis points out in his review of the book in the current issue of Nature (current as I write): “we cannot make direct observations of domains beyond the observational horizon – the greatest distance that light can have traveled toward us since the universe became transparent to radiation 300,000 years after the Big Bang”.As Ellis further comments: “The multiverse argument is a well-founded philosophical proposal but, as it cannot be tested, it does not belong fully in the scientific fold,” and “Scientists are beginning to confuse science with science fiction”.

Lest those from other disciplines begin to feel a little smug at this point, on the assumption that their forms of enquiry wouldn’t lead to such an exotic proliferation of untestable ideas, one only has to look at the rival models for the origins of religion in anthropology or in evolutionary biology, to realize just how many different models can flourish for so long, all without exception being heavily under-determined by the data. Clearly these particular examples are not in the same category as those from cosmology, because at least further data could come along that could help to distinguish between them, but for the present they remain to a large extent untestable ideas (well, what were the religious beliefs, if any, of people living in Herto, Ethiopia, 160,000 years ago?).

So, should we therefore ban all forms of speculative model-building in science because, at least in our present state of knowledge, we can see no conceivable way of determining which, if any, of the rival models might be the correct one? Personally I don’t think so - otherwise a lot of the fun and intellectual curiosity would be sucked out of science, although it is important also for the scientist to distinguish carefully in their writings between wild speculations and solid testable models. In practice they do not always do so, and because the media are rather partial to whacky ideas, the public then ends up absorbing the speculations as if they were serious science.

But the point in our present context is that the use of the language of “models” in science is often ambiguous, and models may be happily proposed, as in this case, in the complete absence of any kind of data that would discriminate the models (which could all be wrong anyway). Yet the speculative approach is often how progress in science is made. How many times in the discussion sections of scientific papers (or in conference talks) have we heard the words “It is tempting to speculate that….” Scientific ideas are always moving well beyond the data, and no one minds that – as long the data catch up in the end.

The language of “models” and “data” is in any case not confined to science, but crops up all over the place, in history, philosophy, economics, theology, and other disciplines. Its application in history and philosophy comes somewhat closer to the way in which I was using the terms in my paper. Try Googling Historians+Models and you will get about four million hits. Many of the papers posted are indeed by historians presenting various rival models for their views on intellectual history or on how to interpret particular historical periods. Having said that, most historians probably steer clear of such language; the return of narrative means that historians are often suspicious of descriptive words that might imply static models of causation. The data of historical research are clearly distinct from those of (most) scientific disciplines, arising as they do from unique and unrepeatable events, although the similarities become closer with the ‘historical sciences’ such as geology and, for that matter, evolutionary biology. In the context of history, data are simply those items of observation or discovery that need to be reckoned with in model construction. As in science, so in history, the data require a very large degree of interpretation.

Philosophy provides another rich hunting ground for those interested in the use of the language of “models” and “data” in different disciplines. This time Google delivers a mere 3.4 million hits (for “Philosopher+Model”) and many of those are about the philosophy of the use of these terms in science. There is also a branch of philosophy called “model theory” which involves the formal interpretation of languages. But the use of the language of rival “models” in the sense in which we are using it here crops up often enough in philosophical discourse. Take, for example, the various rival models in the discussion about free will: libertarian, compatibilist, determinist etc. Are there data that can count for or against one explanatory model or another? Certainly. For example it is possible to measure whether Heisenbergian uncertainty could, in principle, make any difference to synaptic function, a topic of interest to libertarians. But in our present state of knowledge it seems very unlikely that any data or arguments will come along that will enable a definitive answer as to which model might be correct. New data can tip the interpretation slightly in one direction more than another, but all the models are likely to keep flourishing for a long time to come yet.

If that is the case with free will, how much more with rival models concerning the status and meaning of consciousness? There are those who, like Roger Penrose from Oxford,7 cast doubt on the idea that the conscious mind will ever be properly explained. There are those who think that it already has!The reality is that no one really has much if any idea as to how qualia and brain inter-relate. But that in itself surely shouldn’t stop thousands of flowers blossoming whilst the discussion continues. My point here is that rival models, theories, call them what you will, can continue on for decades, even centuries, in different disciplines, without any realistic hope of resolution, but that in itself shouldn’t act as a brake on the process of argument and enquiry. They might get sorted out one day, and in the interim the discussion is at least intellectually stimulating (and useful for student exam papers).

And that is one reason why positivism foundered as a formal philosophy. If you keep telling people that the perfectly valid questions they pose are really invalid because they cannot be answered by science, even in principle, so any statements you make are like writing on paper and nothing appears, then in the end people will just tell you to shut up and not be so boring and lacking in intellectual curiosity. And basically that’s what happened to positivism although, as mentioned above, more formally it was hoist by its own petard, because of course if positivism is true, then it must be false.

When it comes to theology, as one blogger in this discussion pointed out, there has been a rich use of the notion of models going back many decades. And in the arena of science and religion the use of models is prolific.9 I have myself written a short Faraday Paper on some of the models available for thinking about the relationship between science and religion. The whole point of the paper, to prevent any misunderstanding, is that there is certainly no one model that is satisfactory as some kind of overarching meta-narrative for the relationship between science and religion.

Now, as already mentioned, I don’t think it’s at all necessary to use the language of ‘models’ and ‘data’ when considering, for example, the relationship between scientific insights and biblical theology. Nothing of any importance hinges on such usage. But equally I can’t see any reason not to use such language either – it’s more a matter of convenience. Those who don’t like its use in this context might prefer to use the language of “inference to the best explanation” (IBE), the instinctive task that we all carry out in the course of our daily lives to infer that, given x, y and z, such-and-such is most likely the case.10 Scientific discourse is saturated with IBE-type language, not least in the discourse of evolutionary biology. Inferring what might have been the case based on x, y and z is certainly what the current discussion in this essay is about, but I find talking about different models is simpler (and yes I know that Peter Lipton, an Associate of The Faraday Institute before his untimely death a few years ago, was a realist in science but not in religion, but that is another discussion).


One of the areas in which I think we are all broadly agreed in this discussion is on the subject of hermeneutics. As Wilkinson states in his correction of comments by Coyne, it is simply not the case that ‘liberals’ interpret the early chapters of Genesis metaphorically whereas ‘evangelicals’ interpret them in a wooden literalistic kind of way. The most conservative readings of the texts, be they from the Early Church Fathers, early Jewish commentators, or the reformer Calvin, have always taken these chapters to express theological truths using figurative and metaphorical language. The modernistic tendency by young earth creationists to read the texts as literalistic history, or even as scientific texts, is particularly characteristic of the late twentieth century, and it is surely no accident that the enthusiasm by many Muslims to find science in the Qu’ran has come to prominence over the same period. One could, indeed, blame positivism for this tendency. If the only “real” truths are scientific truths, then presumably my holy book must contain science, otherwise its status is somehow lowered, or so the thinking goes. Such thinking is a typical product of modernism.

My personal view, as I have argued at some length in Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?, is that the early chapters of Genesis are expressing theological truths using figurative language. If pressed, I would want to call this genre of literature a ‘theological essay’. These chapters are certainly not history in the sense in which we generally use the word today, although let us not forget that a text can describe something that happens “in history”, even though the text itself is “non-historical”. Equally clearly the chapters are not science, for the simple reason that scientific literature as we now understand it, with its focus on the specialized meanings of technical words, did not exist at the time. And I certainly do not think that we should use contemporary science in our attempt to interpret the texts, a strategy known as concordism, which I am against. Rather our understanding of the texts has been hugely assisted by a study of their cultural and literary contexts, as Wilkinson points out, and as I have argued, again at some length, in my 2003 book published by Zondervan, Rebuilding the Matrix.

Given this broad agreement on hermeneutics, I was somewhat puzzled by the implication by some commentators that I thought otherwise. Upon reflection, I suspect that this is in itself a commentary on the different assumptions that arise from varying cultural and geographical contexts. Given the huge slice of the US population (around 40%) that identifies with various versions of creationism, and the enormous literature that attempts to “reconcile the early chapters of Genesis with modern science”, I suppose it was inevitable that a paper written about Adam and Eve, in the same breath talking about anthropology, would be taken as yet another offering of that kind of literature. The paper for BioLogos was also in essence a brief Abstract of my 382 page book Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?, and the scope for misunderstandings is always greater when reading an Abstract than when reading the book.

Personally I have never thought that the early chapters of Genesis need any kind of ‘reconciliation’ with science for the simple reason that they are not about science. You might as well ask whether English cricket can be ‘reconciled’ with American football – they are just about two different kinds of thing.

So what are we actually trying to do when we speak of the models that seek to relate biblical theology to contemporary understandings of human evolutionary history? Some further clarifications appear to be in order and these will be addressed in my next post.




Alexander, Denis. "A Response to Coyne, MacDonald, Ruse, and Wilkinson"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 4 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 August 2017.


Alexander, D. (2011, February 4). A Response to Coyne, MacDonald, Ruse, and Wilkinson
Retrieved August 20, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/a-response-to-coyne-macdonald-ruse-and-wilkinson

References & Credits

1. Alexander, Denis, Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?, Monarch, 2008

2. Ecklund, Elaine, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, Oxford University Press, 2010

3. Turner, FM, Between Science & Religion: the Reaction to Victorian Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, Yale University Press, 1974

4. Shapin, Steven, The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1998

5. Green, Brian, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Knopf/Allen Lane, 2011

6. Nature 469: 294-295, 2011

7. Penrose, Roger, The Emperor's New Mind, OUP, 2002

8. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Back Bay Books, 1992

9. For example, Mikael Stenmark, How to Relate Science and Religion: a Multidimensional Model, Eerdmans, 2004

10. Peter Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation, Routledge, 2004

About the Author

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is a founding fellow of the ISSR and Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is Emeritus Fellow. Genes, Determinism and God was published by Cambridge University Press on July 13th 2017, and is based on the author’s Gifford Lectures given at St. Andrews University, Scotland, in 2012.

More posts by Denis Alexander