Evolution and Ideology

Over at Huffington Post, Denis Alexander hawks his new book Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Darwin, coedited by Ronald Numbers. It features an essay by Alister McGrath entitled, “Evolutionary Biology in Recent Atheist Apologetics.” McGrath, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a Christian apologist whose most recent book is a defense of the notion of heresy. It features a foreword from Rick Warren, who writes, “We know that truth is eternal and unchanging. If it’s true, it’s not new.” Charming. Somehow McGrath is not someone I trust to lecture me about the perils of ideology.

Alexander’s essay has its interesting points, but it is really the following on which I want to comment:

In the hands of Prof. Richard Dawkins, evolution becomes an ultra-Darwinian philosophy in rivalry with the idea of creation. Dawkins argues that there are at present only three possible ways of seeing the world: Darwinism, Lamarckism, or God. The last two fail to explain the world adequately; the only option is therefore Darwinism. In such claims, McGrath notes, evolution becomes exalted to a metanarrative, infused with the ideological rhetoric of atheism.

The ideological uses and abuses of science are bad for science education, because so often the science gets lost in the rhetoric. They are also bad for religion, because scientific theories are always provisional, open to refutation, and simply not up to the herculean task of refereeing between pro- or anti-religious arguments. Darwinian evolution, for example, just happens to be the inference to the best explanation for the origins of all the biological diversity on planet earth. It’s a stunningly successful theory, but it’s best just to let scientific theories do the job that they’re good at, and not invest them with ideologies that have nothing to do with the science.

My personal library contains many volumes claiming to reconcile evolution with Christianity. They have titles like Finding Darwin’s God, God After Darwin, The Language of God and Thank God for Evolution. I wonder if McGrath or Alexander believe that these books represent ill-considered attempts to fuse science with ideology. Why do I get the impression that attempts to unite evolution and Christianity are fine with them, while arguing that evolution and atheism are a better match is somehow illegitimate? Evolution used in defense of atheism is ideology. Evolution used in defense of Christianity, by contrast, is just dandy.

Alexander’s plea that we send science and religion to their respective corners is a very common one. Sadly, it is completely unworkable. It is not because of Richard Dawkins that people think that evolution poses serious challenges to Christianity. People think that because it is true. It would have to be an incredibly unreflective sort of religious faith that just shrugs its shoulders at Darwin. There is a reason there is such a vast literature by Christian apologists attempting to place the round peg of evolution into the square hole of Christianity. Certainly if they are to be permitted to make the attempt, it is equally permissible for the rest of us to point out their arguments aren’t very good.

Comments

  1. #1 Collin Brendemuehl
    September 9, 2010

    But if McGrath’s point is the issue of the “metanarrative”, then why make an appeal to “science” instead of to the very different question that McGrath raises? To confuse these two seems counter-productive.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    September 9, 2010

    “Narrative” and “metanarrative” are completely useless concepts.

  3. #3 Richard Wein
    September 10, 2010

    I wonder whether you are overlooking a relevant distinction. Do moderates like Miller argue that theism is a better match with evolution than is atheism? Or do they merely try to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution, i.e. show that the match is reasonably acceptable?

    I haven’t read the books you listed. The title of the last one, “Thank God for Evolution”, makes it sound like more than just reconciling.

  4. #4 Richard Wein
    September 10, 2010

    P.S. I liked this passage from Alexander:

    “They are also bad for religion, because scientific theories are always provisional, open to refutation…”

    So anything that’s open to refutation shouldn’t be used in support of religion? There goes the Bible, then, unless he thinks the Bible is not open to refutation.

  5. #5 Richard Wein
    September 10, 2010

    P.P.S. The rest of that sentence is even worse:

    “They are also bad for religion, because scientific theories are always provisional, open to refutation, and simply not up to the herculean task of refereeing between pro- or anti-religious arguments.”

    So he’s ruling scientific theories out of pro- or anti-religious arguments a priori. But it follows he must rule out all empirical conclusions, since science is our most effective form of empirical reasoning, and all empirical conclusions are fallible, even the acceptance of our immediate sensory observations. That seems to leave nothing but arguments of pure logic with no empirical content, like the ontological arguments. Or maybe he thinks there can never be any rational or evidential basis for pro- or anti-religious beliefs (in which case it would be clearer if he just said so).

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 10, 2010

    Richard —

    Certainly the authors I referred to routinely claim that evolution “enriches” their Christian faith. It is pretty common to see Darwin described as having a gift to theology or as being a disguised friend. And certainly these authors believe that Christian theism is a better fit for the facts of the world than is atheism. I don’t, however, have any quotes handy where they claim that evolution specifically fits better with Christian theism than it does with atheism, so you may have a point there.

    But I have enough for my purposes. I don’t think that Dawkins, in arguing that evolution supports atheism, is doing anything relevantly different from what, say, John Haught is doing in arguing that evolution provides a gift to theology. If one of them is illegitimately using science in the service of ideology then both of them are. Personally, I don’t think either one of them is doing anything illegitimate. I just think people like Haught make unpersuasive arguments.

  7. #7 Lakonislate
    September 10, 2010

    I kind of agree with the quote.

    “Dawkins argues that there are at present only three possible ways of seeing the world: Darwinism, Lamarckism, or God. The last two fail to explain the world adequately; the only option is therefore Darwinism.”

    I agree, except that Dawkins doesn’t argue that, usually the creationists do. They seem keen on attacking evolution and Darwin etcetera, in the belief that if the science somehow isn’t completely perfect, then you will have to believe in creationism. Um, no, if it somehow turns out that evolution is not a perfect theory, then that is NOT somehow proof of a magical creature who made everything from out of nowhere.

    I am not an evolutionary biologist, or any kind of scientist. I’m sure evolution is a fine scientific theory, but I don’t know all that much about it. That doesn’t stop me from being an atheist. If you need an alternative explanation in order to disbelieve a bunch of fairy tales, then you are admitting that before Darwin (or Lamarck or others), people were right to be religious. They were not. Just because a reasonable explanation hadn’t been found yet, that doesn’t mean you have to go along with the unreasonable ones.

  8. #8 James Sweet
    September 10, 2010

    I kind of agree with the quote.

    “Dawkins argues that there are at present only three possible ways of seeing the world: Darwinism, Lamarckism, or God. The last two fail to explain the world adequately; the only option is therefore Darwinism.”

    I agree, except that Dawkins doesn’t argue that, usually the creationists do.

    I too noticed that quote was at least mostly true, though I think it glosses over an important subtlety… It should not say God, but rather Creation.

    However, it’s still true on balance, because invalidating Creation doesn’t leave a huge role for God.

  9. #9 Kevin
    September 10, 2010

    evolution becomes an ultra-Darwinian philosophy in rivalry with the idea of creation

    Has Dawkins ever said something even remotely akin to this?

    This will strike some as odd, but I’ve never really liked Dawkins’ writing very much. I’ve only read a couple of his books (Blind Watchmaker, Greatest Show on Earth), so can’t speak with authority on the subject, so if I’m wrong, please correct me.

    But I find it difficult to accept that Dr. Dawkins, a biologist, would equate the theory of biological diversity on this planet with an explanation of the process by which the universe came into existence.

    Seems to me that when he writes about biology, he writes about biology. And when he writes about religion, he writes about religion.

    For sure, the modern biological theory of evolution makes the myths told in the Genesis accounts about magical poofing of creatures whole (fish with fins, birds with feathers, men with an extra rib and a penis-and-testes but no one to have sex with) seem completely trite and … well … silly superstitious childishness.

    But there’s a difference between that and “creation”.

    I spend a lot of my time in conversations with the uneducated trying to get them to narrow their focus to the specific scientific discipline at stake. I suspect Dr. Dawkins does the same.

  10. #10 RBH
    September 10, 2010

    Jason wrote

    I don’t think that Dawkins, in arguing that evolution supports atheism, is doing anything relevantly different from what, say, John Haught is doing in arguing that evolution provides a gift to theology.

    Ayala argues the same position in Darwin’s Gift: to Science and Religion. His argument is that evolution relieves God of responsibility for gratuitous pain and suffering.

  11. #11 Dan L.
    September 10, 2010

    @Tyler DiPietro:

    “Narrative” and “metanarrative” are completely useless concepts.

    As a militant godless materialist heathen, I respectfully disagree that “narrative” is a useless concept. I only provisionally disagree that “metanarrative” is a completely useless concept.

    In a criminal trial, the prosecution in defense offer competing narratives, each consistent with the evidence, to argue for the conviction or acquittal of the defendant respectively. That’s one of many uses of the concept of “narrative.” Scientific explanations are also necessarily narratives, and I conjecture that when neuroscience gets a little deeper into the “how” of cognition, narrative construction is going to be an important principle there as well.

  12. #12 tgt
    September 10, 2010

    @10 Ayala’s position is ridiculous. Either God created evolution and is responsible for the results or evolution exists without God and God is kinda pointless.

  13. #13 heleen
    September 11, 2010

    The position that there can never be any rational or evidential basis for pro- or anti-religious beliefs seems to be fairly prevalent. Sort of, there can never be any rational or evidential basis for preferring Baroque music over Mozart. Evolution is not an anti-religious belief (and sicence in general isn’t).

  14. #14 AxisofJared
    September 11, 2010

    Jason, you needn’t look through your own library for examples of Christianity/Evolution reconciliations. Just look at Dr Alexander’s own publications:

    http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Biography.php?ID=9

    Some examples:
    Evolutionary biology and the purposes of God
    Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?

    What a pair this guy must have to wag his finger at Dawkins.

  15. #15 J.J.E.
    September 13, 2010

    @ AxisofJared

    Nice catch.

  16. #16 Benoit M.
    September 16, 2010

    I doubt very much that evolution is a gift to Christian theology. Last time I checked, the Bible claims that animals were created to serve man, while evolution teaches us that animals existed for billions of years before the first human beings walked the Earth.

    Another problem is that Christians do not adopt the theory of evolution as is, but rather make some ad hoc additions, among which the idea that evolution is directed, that is, all species that ever existed were intended to exist from the start. That is not part of the ToE. The fact that Christians have to tinker with the ToE to make it fit their theology is quite telling, if you ask me.

    Let’s remember also that the ToE is the only reason to reject a literal reading of Genesis, as such a reading is absurd only insofar as we know it is wrong.

  17. #17 Anton Mates
    September 16, 2010

    Last time I checked, the Bible claims that animals were created to serve man

    Sometimes. God says as much in Genesis, but in Job he basically says that most of the natural world doesn’t have anything to do with man. It’s pretty hard to find any theological position that’s consistently defended by all the authors of the Bible.

    Another problem is that Christians do not adopt the theory of evolution as is, but rather make some ad hoc additions, among which the idea that evolution is directed, that is, all species that ever existed were intended to exist from the start. That is not part of the ToE.

    No, but neither is the idea that evolution is undirected in this sense; the ToE merely says that mutations are random with respect to fitness.

    Then, too, there are Christians who deny that all species were intended to exist from the start, such as Jerry Korsmeyer and Ken Miller.

    Let’s remember also that the ToE is the only reason to reject a literal reading of Genesis, as such a reading is absurd only insofar as we know it is wrong.

    Ye gods, no. Geology refuted a literal reading of Genesis before evolutionary theory was a twinkle in Darwin’s eye.

    Cosmology, history, meteorology…everything refutes a literal reading of Genesis. Unlike ID, it has the bad taste to make lots of specific claims about the world, and that makes it vulnerable to evidence.

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