Towards a theology of evolution

Likeability Blueprint

Develop Charisma and Become More Likable

Get Instant Access

Let us suppose that I am an immensely successful biochemist, and happen to be engaged in experiments involving gene manipulation. A couple of years ago I was attending a conference - keynote speaker, naturally - when I fell into conversation with a curious individual, who for some reason seemed much older than he actually looked. As we talked, it seemed we were walking across a plain of infinite dreariness, but his voice, his demeanour, how can I describe it? He knew all about our work, and as conversation progressed, gave me remarkable hints as to some avenues of research we had somehow overlooked. I was enthralled, and as we parted he remarked, 'I am sure we will meet again.' The next day, however, he had vanished, and checking at the registration desk, I was puzzled to find no record of my companion. It was all a little eerie, but the hints were sufficient. Now my team and I have managed to reconfigure a gene that will allow animals, and the poorer humans, to digest cellulose directly. Before long, in Bangladesh and Somalia, the main meal will be recycled newspapers. There is, unfortunately, just one small side effect, and that is it is very likely (I can explain the details if you have time) to induce childhood cancers in about one per cent of the population, especially if the individual happens to live in a deprived environment. Of course, the gene is patented, and in strictest confidence I can reveal to you alone that the biotech company, OmegaPoint, has the product ready for immediate marketing. Great riches beckon; surely I am to be congratulated?

Do I detect a sense of unease,1 but pray why? Surely it is most regrettable that a vast proportion of the world's biomass is tied up as indigestible cellulose,2 and at present the only simple route to the hamburger is via the bacteria living within the rumen of the millions of cattle contentedly grazing on thin grassland, once rain forest. It is, of course, only these bacteria which are capable of breaking down the refractory plant cellulose and so release compounds that elsewhere in the cow will ultimately end up as beef mince. Nothing, of course, will go to waste: spinal cord and the rectum have their uses, while anything else, in the best traditions of agrobusiness, will be ground up and returned to the cattle themselves. And if this hypothetical gene3 has side effects, what matter? The vast bulk of scientific research undertaken by the biotechnology companies is subject neither to peer review - the accepted norm anywhere else in science - nor available for publication. That link to childhood cancers will take years to 'prove', and in reality most probably never will be, given both the medical inadequacies in much of the Third World and - well - facts that are deemed 'commercially sensitive'. And does not the race go to the best and fastest, which in the West we equate with the accumulation of stupendous amounts of money? So, am I not using the talent bestowed by evolution for the best, feeding the hungry - yes, yes, on newspaper -and making myself very, very rich?

an evolutionary embedment

It is self-evident that whatever our peculiarities as humans, we are embedded in the natural world, and just as clearly we are one product of an evolutionary process that began about four billion years ago. In itself, the mechanism of evolutionary change is so unexceptional as to be almost trivial. As Martin Carrier4 has written, 'Darwinian theory plays a role in evolutionary biology that is analogous to the one Newtonian theory plays in celestial mechanics. It provides the mechanism of change; it specifies the law-governed processes that determine how species develop and adapt in a possibly changing environment.'5 Despite this simple process most biologists will freely acknowledge that both the routes and the products of evolution are profoundly fascinating. I have already alluded to a few of these, such as the problem of the origin of life itself. Probably of equal moment is to discover how it is that proteins fold so effectively and quickly. Evolution also presents what Denis Duboule and Adam Wilkins6 have termed 'bricolage', that is the surprising co-option and redeployment of biological material for unexpected uses. An excellent example is the crystallin proteins of the eye lens, which as discussed in Chapter 7 (p. 166) are routinely and independently co-opted from heat-shock and other stress-related proteins that evolved thousands of millions of years before any eye could see.

Biologists also have, in the true Darwinian spirit, immense admiration for the jury-rigging of biological design, whereby co-option and modification lead to the functioning whole. And, if they are honest, they may feel a sense of unease about the fluidity and grace of adaptation. It has an almost uncanny sense of precision and balance, which humans achieve only rarely in technology or art. Not only does one admire the pervasiveness and ubiquity of integrated organic complexity, but one cannot help but be impressed by its sensitivity, in some circumstances, to minute changes so that sometimes even a single amino acid substitution in a protein can lead to a major change of functionality, if not catastrophe. And for some - probably many -when we review the broad sweep of evolution and greet first the flickering and then the full emergence of consciousness, that is all there is to say. Science must work in a naturalistic framework, and again many appear content to live with this arrangement. Roll on that cellulose-digesting gene, and let us treat the world as open to unlimited manipulation.

Yet, there are nagging doubts. Yes, it may all be due to a few misfiring neurons, perhaps an extra dollop of neuropeptide or whatever, but the fact remains that humans have an overwhelming sense of purpose. As a species we are strangely comfortable to find ourselves embedded in a teleological matrix. So the intention of this chapter is to begin to see whether the idea of a telos7 is redundant, to ask if some of our predecessors who saw their religious faith either ebb or haemorrhage were both misinformed and over-pessimistic, and to enquire whether some common ground can be regained.

One clue is surely our admiration for moral greatness. Rather, however, than argue or defend any particular individual, although there are many such men and women, let us recall the cosmic view of G. K. Chesterton.

Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don't they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don't fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, 'Thou shalt not steal.'8

Let me conclude this introductory section with two other remarks. The first is to the effect that contrary to received wisdom I

certainly do not consider religions and metaphysics to be aberrations of the superstitious, delusions of those still enmeshed in medieval credulity, unwilling to face the boundlessly happy future; a future that, strange to say, is always just around the next corner. More specifically, although the more we explore this world the better is our understanding, this is also accompanied by a growing sense of its extraordinary strangeness and beauty. Darwin at least was no stranger to these feelings, but, as we shall see, in growing older he retreated into a gloomy agnosticism, and his world became stretched and thin. And Darwin, of course, was (and even more so today, is) not alone in this growing sense of futility. And yet just as many are possessed of a strong teleological instinct, and in the words of Arthur Peacocke9, 'Somehow, biology has produced a being of infinite restlessness, and this certainly raises the question of whether human beings have properly conceived of what their true "environment" is.'10 More often these pangs of want turn to a dissatisfaction that in turn seems to lead only to the futile and sterile, but songs and stories tell us this need not be so.

darwin's priesthood

As I have already indicated, such views as those expressed by Peacocke and others may strike a chord in places, but I suspect that they will also be widely regarded as quaint and antiquated. Indeed these views are under full-scale assault by a group that allows a unique priority to Darwinian mechanisms and, in most cases, the primacy of the gene. These ultra-Darwinists are highly prominent, not least because the shoulders on which they stand include Huxley, Simpson, and Mayr, all giants in their various ways within the Darwinian synthesis. Let me make some initial observations, which in today's climate of accommodating pluralism and relativism will, I suppose, seem deeply unfair. I am driven to observe of the ultra-Darwinists the following features as symptomatic. First, to my eyes, is their almost unbelievable self-assurance, their breezy self-confidence.11 Second, and far more serious, are particular examples of a sophistry and sleight of hand in the misuse of metaphor, and more importantly a distortion of metaphysics in support of an evolutionary programme. Consider how ultra-Darwinists, having erected a naturalistic system that cannot by itself possess any ultimate purpose, still allow a sense of meaning mysteriously to slip back in. Thus, the philosopher of science John Greene12 remarks,

Not all of the champions of the modern synthesis have been as open as [Julian] Huxley in acknowledging the religious aspect of their devotion to evolutionary biology, but most of them, especially those who reject religious and philosophical approaches to the problem of human duty and destiny, manage to smuggle in by way of simile and metaphor the elements of meaning and value that their formal philosophy of nature and natural science excludes from consideration.13

Despite this, such scientists have no foundation for their reaction against pointlessness other than the not unworthy and intuitive sense that the world should be built as it is; embedded in the Universe are not only neutrons but such edicts as, to echo Chesterton, 'Thou shalt not steal.' Greene has other trenchant comments that are also surely apposite. As he remarks, in the field of evolution the term 'progress' must be value-free and can only mean 'survival'. He continues, 'One would like to feel optimistic about the scientific mythology that has grown up around the theory of evolution, but it is hard to do so.' And he reminds us that in the hands of some practitioners the analysis of evolution is more like that of a myth, and one that is intellectually dishonest, 'employing teleological and vitalistic figures of speech to describe processes that are advertised as "mechanistic" and pretending to derive from evolutionary biology values that stem from classical, Judaeo-Christian, and Enlightenment sources. It deifies science, denigrates philosophy and religion, and panders to Western culture's penchant for regarding science and technology as the guarantors of indefinite progress toward some hazy but glorious future paradise.' And Greene pointedly continues, 'Worse yet, it fosters dreams of genetic manipulation and control designed to reshape imperfect human nature according to some scientistic ideal.'14

Third, as has often been noted, the pronouncements of the ultra-Darwinists can shake with a religious fervour. Richard Dawkins is arguably England's most pious atheist. Their texts ring with high-minded rhetoric and dire warnings - not least of the unmitigated evils of religion - all to reveal the path of simplicity and straight thinking. More than one commentator has noted that ultra-Darwinism has pretensions to a secular religion, but it may be noted that, however heartfelt the practitioners' feelings, it is also without religious or metaphysical foundations. Notwithstanding the quasi-religious enthusiasms of ultra-Darwinists, their own understanding of theology is a combination of ignorance and derision, philosophically limp, drawing on cliches, and happily fuelled by the idiocies of the so-called scientific creationists. It seldom seems to strike the ultra-Darwinists that theology might have its own richness and subtleties, and might - strange thought - actually tell us things about the world that are not only to our real advantage, but will never be revealed by science. In depicting the religious instinct as a mixture of irrational fundamentalism and wish-fulfilment they seem to be simply unaware that theology is not the domain of pop-eyed flat-earthers.

So does this matter? The world ticks along, and someone, somewhere is presumably busy trying to manufacture that cellulose-digesting gene. As a day-to-day activity science is highly pragmatic, but it also makes much wider claims to describe the world as it is. But to assume that science itself can produce or verify the truths upon which it depends is, as many have pointed out, simply circular. On this basis and as a human activity science is ultimately imperilled. The discoveries of science, as is also widely acknowledged, are not short of ethical and moral implications. Nowhere is this more true than in biology, and it is pertinent to make some reference to some of the real giants of the field as the implications of evolution sank in: Darwin, the Huxleys (Thomas Henry and Julian), and more uneasily Haeckel. Here I offer only a series of snapshots. Concerning Darwin and Huxley, there is, of course, a huge literature, but as above I draw especially on the work of John Greene.15 This is mostly because his admiration for these individuals is also set in a metaphysical framework that declines, courteously, to be browbeaten by naturalistic dogmas. Darwin, the chief architect of evolution, whose genius is not in doubt, had a strongly theistic background, and as a young man had an admiration for Paley's arguments for biological design reflecting the hand of the Deity. Yet, as is equally well known, when the implications of his theory on evolution began to sink in, he descended (and I use that word advisedly) into a sort of pantheism, dogged by half-articulated fears, if not terrors. For him belief seems to have slowly ebbed, almost against his will.

Darwin was, to put it mildly, a retiring figure, and for a more public, if not melodramatic, view of another trek away from Damascus then it is inevitable that we turn to his staunch supporter, Thomas Henry Huxley. Interestingly, for Huxley, the adoption of the Darwinian world-picture also took on more than a tinge of theology. Thus the religious imagery that accompanies Adrian Desmond's Huxley: From devil's disciple to evolution's high priest16 is revealing,17 and while it acknowledges Huxley's secular enthusiasm, perhaps it also distorts the sort of man he really was. It seems that, at first, Huxley was content that any sense of an underlying meaning could be eroded from the fields of biology and evolution. These regions of science fell into a realm of blind chance and unconscious agony, but one that at least allowed a deistic notion that conceded, however feebly, a cryptic arrangement of forces and laws. But in the end this, too, was insufficient: Huxley had to become something for which he had also to coin a name, that is, an agnostic. This was not the decorous scepticism with which the term is usually associated: for Huxley his position reflected genuine and unresolved intellectual doubt. Even so, there is little evidence that he was willing to entertain, let alone discuss, serious theological statements, and he had an ill-disguised contempt - no doubt well earned in some cases - for the clerics. Yet, Huxley was a man of transparent goodness and deeply felt morality, and was happy to recruit such Old Testament prophets as Micah to his cause, provided of course that they were shorn of any religious dimension. Even so, it is not clear that living in a metaphysical vacuum brought him much peace, and towards the end of his life it seems that he dimly discerned that the new science that he had helped so ably and energetically to popularize was opening a Pandora's box.

Thomas Henry Huxley was not the last of the Huxley clan to struggle with the implications of evolution, yet arguably the vagueness never dissipated. Most notably his grandson, Julian Huxley, returned to the fray, but he adopted a view of evolution that was akin to what is referred to as process theology. Here in the younger Huxley's view the grand scheme of things was, as he wrote near the beginning of one work,18 'unitary; continuous; irreversible; self-transforming; and generating variety in novelty during its transformations',19 sentiments echoed at the end of the same volume when he hoped that 'I have given you some feeling of the unity and sweep of the process ... some insight into its nature as a self-transforming process, constantly generating new patterns and novel qualities, building its future by transcending its past.'20 And, as Greene notes, in his stimulating Huxley to Huxley (note 15), this view of life 'excludes from the process all these elements - aim, purpose, creative ground - which run counter to the positivistic grain of modern science and which alone could make such a process [i.e. evolution] intelligible.' Greene continues and concludes that 'The result is that Julian Huxley ... propounds the paradox that nature, though devoid of aim and purpose, yet moves towards ever higher levels of order and value.'21

As Julian's grandfather had dimly perceived, the naturalistic programme would open the door to the manipulation of a world from which meaning had fled. Thus the march 'towards ever higher levels of order and value' remained a chimaera. In reality, as Greene observes, 'The multiplication of devices and techniques for controlling the natural environment and influencing human behavior seems only to aggravate man's lack of control over the general course of events and to intensify the moral problems connected with human freedom ... the possibilities for evil multiply as rapidly as the possibilities for good, and history affords little assurance that men or women, either individually or collectively, will choose the general welfare of mankind in preference to immediate personal or national advantage.'22

heresy! heresy!!

Let me continue this brief review with two other episodes that in their different ways are almost comic, but in at least the first case have a much darker side. Otherwise each is very different. The first concerns Ernst Haeckel, the keeper of the Darwinian evangeliarium in Germany, and the second the farce of the Dayton 'Monkey Trial' in 1925. In the mind of Haeckel, Darwin was the greatest of heroes, and Darwinism the new beacon to lead the world from its benighted obscurantism. There is an amusing, at least to the English, story of Haeckel crossing the Channel and visiting Down House: a metaphorical, if not literal, genuflection between Teutonic adorer and English gentleman scientist. There was, however, no meeting of the minds. The German was effusive, gushing, bombastic, enthusiastic, and Darwin? well ...

Haeckel had seized upon the Darwinian explanation and vigorously and tirelessly promoted it in Germany. Not only was this done with books, but also with lavishly illustrated lectures. Concerning the latter, Daniel Gasman23 refers to a poster for one such lecture in Berlin, and remarks how this example of Darwinismus-Kunst provided 'a sinister environment for a Darwinian Passion Play.'24 It is, moreover, Gasman who has done much to reveal the rottenness at the heart of Haeckel's project.25 As I remarked elsewhere26 when drawing upon his work:

The reality is very different and ... much darker. Haeckel's pursuit of Darwinism went far beyond any scientific formulation, even further than Herbert Spencer's uneasy rhetoric usually referred to as Social Darwinism. Haeckel's role as a spokesman for these malign influences was encapsulated in the so-called Monist league, of which he was the effective founder. This mish-mash enshrined a set of pantheistic beliefs of supposedly cosmic importance. Haeckel and his fellow Monists were dedicated believers in organic progress, the end-point of which, unsurprisingly, was the Aryan ideal. Nowhere was Haeckel's influence greater or more charismatic than in his book The Riddle of the Universe. Vastly popular, endlessly reprinted and translated, it nevertheless 'appealed to a pseudo-educated mind ... without much sophistication who had sought an authoritative yet simple account of modern science and a comprehensible view of the world'.27 Behind the bearded sage and devotee of the little town of Jena, was an intolerant mind wedded to racism and antisemitism. After initial reservation, Haeckel's admiration of Bismarck and his autocracies grew. Predictably his support for the German conquest of Europe was fervid. Unrepentant of German aggression he died, still revered, in 1919. His farrago of ideas, however, not only lived on but found a warm reception with the Nazis. Just how much Hitler knew of Haeckel's actual work is not clear, but the influence of his philosophy is obvious. Eavesdropping at Hitler's table talk, with its hypnotic mixture of rant, bluster and threats all set in a half-baked philosophy, constantly echoes the monistical Haeckel.28

In the Scopes (or Monkey) Trial in Dayton, Tennessee29 the issue was as much the long-standing loathing between the principals for the defence and the prosecution, respectively William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Darrow was at that time the most famous lawyer in America, already notorious for his risky and ingenious defence of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two Chicago teenagers who abducted, bludgeoned to death, and then mutilated with acid a schoolboy and neighbour, a luckless fourteen-year-old known as Robert Franks. This murderous pair were bunglers of a high order, but had it seems undertaken the atrocity in the belief that they would escape detection. There was, ostensibly, no other motive. At the trial, Darrow undercut the prosecution by an unexpected change to a plea of 'Guilty', followed by a rhetorical harangue to the effect that Leopold and Loeb retained their innocence because of the environment in which they were nurtured, one of intellectual stimulation, but emotional starvation, and in the case of Leopold, the corruption of a young mind that inevitably results from being made to read Nietzsche. This libertarian argument, delivered as a thrilling speech that concluded with a quotation from Omar Khayyam, has plenty of resonances today. As one writer on the Scopes Trial, Kevin Tierney, notes, at the end of the speech, 'many in the audience were crying. Darrow had taken the case far beyond the bounds of reason and logic ... It was his most masterly oration, rousing his audience to display emotion openly beyond what the conventions allowed ... The spellbinder has cast his spell once again.'30

Thus Darrow embraced a moral perspective, as exemplified by the Leopold and Loeb trial, which led to Dayton and his battle against Bryan. Here was a very different man. No fool: as a Democrat, he had been quite close to winning the American presidency, and at the time of Dayton was America's greatest defender of fundamentalist Christianity. Like Darrow he, too, was a brilliant orator. And it was this engagement, between Bryan and Darrow, rather than either the teaching of evolution or its scientific truths, which lay at the heart of this trial. To be sure, the action began as a defence of the protection of civil liberties and the necessary separation of Church and State, and this was initiated as a test case by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). To their dismay, Darrow effectively imposed himself, offering to waive fees in his determination to ridicule and thereby crush the forces of religious obscurantism and, quite incidentally, maintain his public profile. Before long, the ACLU effectively lost control of events as Darrow hijacked the circus for his own good purposes. Opposed to him, with Bryan as its senior spokesman, was a largely rural constituency that possessed a heartfelt, if largely inarticulate, belief in a fundamentalist Christianity that seemed imperilled on all sides by the secular agents. Kevin Tierney spells out the real nature of this trial:

There was a further, more sinister animosity between Bryan and the defense. Bryan, failing though he was, was still probably the greatest public speaker then living in the United States. The defense team (including Darrow) wanted to pitch themselves against him so as to seize the crown. Darrow recognized Bryan's power over his audience. He was a worthy competitor, to be confronted in a final battle in which Darrow's superiority would be displayed. Thus the entire Scopes trial was colored by a personal rivalry as well as a difference of opinion.31

There were (and are) indeed serious objections to fundamentalism, rural or otherwise. But for that matter, so there were to Darrow's childish conception of theology, which was in its way was as dated and credulous as Bryan's.

The trial itself has further ironies, which while quite well known are seldom spelt out, especially by those who regard it as a test case between the shining uplands of science and the snarling religious reactionaries. This is not to defend the idiocies of legislation designed (then or now) to prevent the teaching of evolution or any other science, however uncomfortable the findings might appear to be. Societies that ignore what we discover do so at their peril, but if they imagine that on occasion the discoveries of evolution are neutral in their implications, again societies delude themselves. Even so, the technical defendant, John Thomas Scopes, was a physics teacher at the school in Dayton. It is not even clear if he taught anything on evolution, and his own knowledge of this area was vestigial. So far as Darrow was concerned, Scopes was a pawn, if not a stooge, and once the trial started, he was ignored. The trial was a simple test case. Scopes had received no warning from the School Board not to teach evolution in defiance of the State Legislature; the Board could not care less. The entire dynamic came first from the ACLU and thereafter from a ruthless Darrow. Again to quote Tierney: 'As Darrow had gained in years and confidence, he became not only merely an unbeliever, but a militant agnostic.'32 Ultimately his animus against religion became almost obsessional, as in later years Darrow 'continued to sift through the religious outpourings of the day, intent upon uncovering literalism, absurdity, and contradiction with the same energy that a devotee of the faith might seek out heresy.'33 Underpinning the beliefs of what Tierney has aptly described as 'the last village atheist'34 was a fundamentalist Darwinism. Thus 'The theory of evolution was close to Darrow's philosophy about life in general, not merely to his anti-religious bent. He believed life to be cruel, and mankind to be un-regenerate... Darwinism also had appealing deterministic aspects. No man could step aside from the march of history, which was inexorable and inevitable.'35 Yet, in the long term, Darrow's rhetorical brilliance and intelligence proved a poisoned chalice. As the years slipped by he became 'more and more a performer, a mouther of scripts, and less a thinker ... as he fed his appetite for glory while travelling from city to city for one-night stands.'36

The trial, which resulted in the jury being absent for less than ten minutes and Scopes receiving a $100 fine, achieved little, other than to increase the rancour and suspicion between the religious fundamentalists and the scientists. In America the skirmishing continues unabated, with one side unable or unwilling to comprehend the methods of science, and the opposing party all too often exhibiting a lofty arrogance, mingled with contemptuous disdain, which presupposes that any religious instinct is a mental aberration. The former know in their hearts that something is out of kilter, but their cause is hopeless. Not only are they overly simplistic and credulous, but they are not averse to selective quotation divorced from its context, and even more seriously outright twisting and distortion of the evidence. So, too, they seem unaware that theology involves rather more than scriptural inerrancy, especially with respect to the Creation myth. Such a polarization is not only regrettable; it is intellectually poisonous. For those wedded to sociological relativism the solution is to allot each their sphere of influence, but such apparent generosity merely conceals a strategy for sidelining religion and a road to philosophical incoherence. Despite the antagonisms, however, there are also attempts to find common ground between sciences and religions, most notably in the field of cosmology. In part because of the apparent absence of law-like properties, biology and evolution have remained largely excluded from this search for common ground, a stance that has been reinforced by the myth of contingent forces driving the evolution of life. Yet despite this, strange to say, biology and especially genetics have their own fundamentalisms. These, in turn, reveal a disquieting agenda that has curious echoes of the very systems they purport to despise.

genetic fundamentalism

That biology can be co-opted for agendas, if not ideologies, that promise an ever-more-perfect future, albeit across piles of corpses, is evident from the lunacies adopted by totalitarian states. Such madness is, of course, a thing of the past - or is it? Now new distortions beckon, not least those to be allowed by assigning a protean malleability to life as engendered by genuflection to the primacy of the gene. Now the gene is all-powerful. Susan Oyama37 describes genes as 'molecular agencies that are immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, and even immaterial'.38 In a related vein, Peter Koslowski's39 critique of this view, as it has been offered by Dawkins, defines an approach that 'concedes a faculty for aspiration, intentionality and consciousness to the genes. In doing so, he [Dawkins] falls into a genetic animism, which apportions perception and decision to the genes and oversubscribes by far to the efficiency and the speed of Darwinian selection mechanisms.'40

Such critiques differ greatly from the popular notion of the gene, which does indeed seem to be able to act as a universal agency. The spectacular examples of genetically controlled defects, not to mention the generation of ectopic monsters with hideously sprouting organs, reveal the potency of the gene. So, too, in examples of caste structure, especially in eusocial animals (p. 142), the paradox of sterile workers ceaselessly toiling for the benefit of the hive or nest is explicable by a proportion of their genes surviving41 even though they themselves either cannot or will not reproduce.

A closer examination, however, reveals that these particular examples fall far short of allowing the gene per se a universal application. In her essay 'The gene is dead - long live the gene!' Eva Neumann-Held42 argues that regarding the genes generally as particulate objects of heredity is hopelessly simplistic. The genes make sense only in a known context, but in reality to know in sufficient detail a context that will provide the sought-after predictability may be very difficult, perhaps impossible. That is why it is so misleading, if not dangerous, to speak of genes for, say, schizophrenia or aggression. Given the right set of prompts (who knows, perhaps plenty of junk food?) then the risk could increase - or decrease. And what else are we meant to expect?

Outside its cellular milieu the DNA is biologically inert, if not useless. Genes may provide a switchboard for life, but the complexity of life will depend on something else: how the same genes may be recruited to make different products, how the developmental networks change and evolve, and how apparently trivial events such as gene duplication and protein isoforms open immense new territories for biological exploration. Life may be impossible without genes, but to ascribe to them powers of intentionality misses the mark.

Despite these qualifications, however, the hard-core view that claims primacy of the gene holds sway. In some hands, perhaps most notably those of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, it is a vehicle of unbounded faith both in its power and in terms of its implications, not least for the human prospect. This is spelt out, for example, in Consilience,43 which is an extended belief-statement in an overarching system where all will be explained - society, art, religion - by the gene. Wilson expresses himself with fervour and conviction, but a more dispassionate reading of Consilience leaves me more impressed by Wilson's faith in the argument, accompanied by leaps in logic, unwarranted assumptions, and over-simplification.44 And the world picture of genetic primacy has a well-known parallel, that is, the mental equivalents of genes. They too are all-purpose, if elusive, little things that are known as memes. Perhaps that irritating little tune that continues to bounce around your head is a meme? One cannot but notice how trivial many of the examples presented are, unless it is to portray the sheer wickedness of religious beliefs inculcated into the brains of morally helpless humans. Happily, the alternative religions of consumerism and shopping are arrived at by the exercise of human dignity, unpersuaded by anything remotely like a meme. So, too, in a way reminiscent of the notion of 'junk' DNA, one cannot help but notice that the discussion of memes is often pejoratively associated with some notion of 'mind-parasites'. But memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context they are hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic. To conjure up memes not only reveals a strange imprecision of thought, but, as Anthony O'Hear45 has remarked, if memes really existed they would ultimately deny the reality of reflective thought.

These views on genes and memes matter very much, because granting such molecular (or memal) hegemony puts us back firmly on the path towards the Abolition of Man.46 And yet the rot started at an earlier stage. As John Greene opines:47 'To the very end, he [Darwin] failed to appreciate the morally ambiguous character of human progress. He failed because, like many social scientists today, he had no adequate conception of Man.'48 As Greene also remarks, humans are very peculiar creatures indeed; clearly a product of evolution, yet a species that has, or has been allowed, to know mental states that transcend (so far as we know) any other sentience on the Earth. Again to quote Greene, 'science becomes pointless and even destructive unless it takes on significance and direction from a religious affirmation concerning the meaning and value of human existence.'49

Despite the sleights of hand, special pleading, and sanctimoniousness as the ultra-Darwinists attempt to smuggle back the moral principle through the agency of the gene, only the most hardened cases would suppose that a map of the genome will provide the blueprint of this millennium's equivalent to the Code of Hamurabi. And yet these myths of genetic determinism, set in a dreary world of reductionism, are being used to drive new agendas, most notably in eugenics. At present it is the natural world, which according to some, should be treated as a sort of genetic play-dough. Now vanished is the notion that the world we have been given might have its own integrity and values. Rather the prevailing view of scientism is that the biosphere is infinitely malleable. Again the moral high ground is hijacked on the assumption that all this is for our perceived good, although in reality the benefits are far more likely to fill the coffers of the corporations and erode the diversity of crop species, to be followed by who knows what? There is no doubting that in at least some cases this manipulation is possible. Two research, workers Temple Smith and Harold Morowitz,50 remark 'As a consequence of reflective thought, we have today within our grasp the ability to assemble genetic combinations that have nearly zero probabilities of ever being sequentially assembled by nature.' Yet, these writers seem unenthused as they remark of this genomic programme, 'now a gambler's game [is being] played by those who may not be fully aware of the stakes'.51

What follows from the genetic meddling in maize and soon pigs, will, it may be safely assumed, be applied in due course to humans. It is interesting to recall that T. H. Huxley, in contrast to the ever-confident Galton, whom we met in Chapter 7 doing arithmetic by smell, drew back in horror from this eugenic prospect, arguing simply that no man could possibly know enough to decide. Let us recall, in the words of C. S. Lewis,52 the prophetic voice of the head of the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, better known as N.I.C.E. Listen to the recently ennobled, and hideous, Lord Feverstone:

'Man has got to take charge of man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest ... we'll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain ... A new type of man.' Regrettably there are still a few dunderheads, 'old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity', but happily all this can be dealt with. Feverstone knows what's going on when he addresses the naive Mark Studdock: 'You are what we need; a trained sociologist with a radically realistic outlook ... We want you to write it down - to camouflage it ... It's nothing to do with journalism. Your readers in the first instance would be committees of the House of Commons.' Of course the dunderheads need to be manipulated also, but fortunately there is 'Jules ... a distinguished novelist and scientific populariser whose name always appeared before the public... He's all right for selling [N.I.C.E.] to the great British public in the Sunday papers and he draws a whacking salary. He's no use for work.'53

a path to recovery?

The corrosive view that all in this world is to be bent to our pleasure or whim is hedged in reality with expediencies and half-truths, and in the view of many represents the royal road to catastrophe. So how might we begin to think about, let alone achieve, a Recovery? First, we need to recall the limits to science. It is no bad thing to remind ourselves of our finitude, and of those things we might never know. Practically, we should not be afraid to acknowledge that there are areas that Roger Shattuck calls Forbidden knowledge,54 too dangerous in our present state of understanding to explore. At its simplest it is a precautionary principle, and more significantly a belated acknowledgement that the architecture of the Universe need not be simply physical. We should also recall, as if we needed reminding, that we are mortal and limited, and thus should remember that the old myths of unrestricted curiosity and the corruption of power are not necessarily fables.55

Second, for all its objectivity science, by definition, is a human construct, and offers no promise of final answers. We should, however, remind ourselves that we live in a Universe that seems strangely well suited for us. In earlier chapters I dwelt, all too briefly, on the paradoxes of the origin of life (Chapter 4) and the many peculiarities of the Solar System (Chapter 5) which seem to be prerequisites for our existence. On a cosmic scale it is now widely appreciated that even trivial differences in the starting conditions would lead to an unrecognizable and uninhabitable universe. The idea of a universe suitable for us is, of course, encapsulated in the various anthropic principles. These come in several flavours, but they all remind us that the physical world has many properties necessary for the emergence of life. Of these probably the best-known are those connected to the synthesis of carbon in the interior of stars, and the many strange properties of water (and ice).

Less widely appreciated, but of equal moment, is Howard Van Till's56 insistence that 'It is not simply the numerical values of certain parameters that must be "just right" in order for life to develop. No, it's the entire formational economy of the universe that must be "just right". The full menu of the universe's formational capabilities must be sufficiently robust to make possible the actualization of carbon-based life ... I would argue that the formational capabilities of the universe are more fundamental than the numerical values of certain physical parameters.'57 Not only is the Universe strangely fit to purpose, but so, too, as I have argued throughout this book, is life's ability to navigate to its solutions.

As is well known the anthropic principle, in whatever guise, has largely attracted the interest (or scepticism) of cosmologists and physicists. Biologists, on the other hand, have generally been content to take such features as carbon or water as givens, with life as an emergent inevitability on any suitable planet. But there are connections, because at the heart of the study of evolution are two things. One, emphasized throughout this book, is the uncanny ability of evolution to navigate to the appropriate solution through immense 'hyperspaces' of biological possibility. The other, equally germane and even more mysterious, is the attempt to explain the origins of sentience, such that the product of ultimately inanimate processes can come to understand both itself, its world, and, as I have already noted, its (and thus our) strange sense of purpose. We need also to remember that scientific explanations need not be all-embracing, and indeed it would be surprising if they were. As Michael Polanyi, a philosopher of science who took religion seriously, noted, other descriptions have their own power. In Personal knowledge58 he writes:

The book of Genesis and its great pictorial illustrations, like the frescoes of Michelangelo, remain a far more intelligent account of the nature and origin of the universe than the representation of the world as a chance collocation of atoms. For the biblical cosmology continues to express - however inadequately - the significance of the fact that the world exists and that man has emerged from it, while the scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our most vital experience of this world. The assumption that the world has some meaning which is linked to our own calling as the only morally responsible beings in the world, is an important example of the supernatural aspect of experience which Christian interpretations of the universe explore and develop.59

So, at some point and somehow, given that evolution has produced sentient species with a sense of purpose, it is reasonable to take the claims of theology seriously. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the connections that might serve to reunify the scientific world-view with the religious instinct. Much of the discussion is tentative, and the difficulties in finding an accommodation remain daunting, but it is more than worth the effort. In my opinion it will be our lifeline.

converging on convergence

The principal aim of this book has been to show that the constraints of evolution and the ubiquity of convergence make the emergence of something like ourselves a near-inevitability. Contrary to received wisdom and the prevailing ethos of despair, the contingencies of biological history will make no long-term difference to the outcome. Yet the existence of life itself on the Earth appears to be surrounded with improbabilities. To reiterate: life may be a universal principle, but we can still be alone. Whether or not this is literally true may never be established, and, as many of us have argued, it is far more prudent to assume that we are unique, and to act accordingly.60

Yet now we are faced with a special dilemma. The very scientific method that allows us to study the natural world, be it interstellar organic molecules or memory in dolphins, also gives us tools that treat the world as endlessly malleable, ostensibly for the common good but as often as not for the enrichment of the few and the impoverishment of the many. Such attitudes fly in the face of traditional wisdoms, and in part explain the existing antagonisms between scientific practices and religious sensibilities. Mutual misunderstandings, fuelled by naivety and ignorance, can only lead to warfare. Although science may emerge triumphant, it will be a pyrrhic victory; the conquered kingdom will lie in ruins, strewn across a plain of infinite melancholy. Constructive approaches are more difficult, and are usually viewed with contempt, but I believe promise far more. In essence, we can ask ourselves what salient facts of evolution are congruent with a Creation. In my judgement, they are as follows:

(1) its underlying simplicity, relying on a handful of building blocks;

(2) the existence of an immense universe of possibilities, but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work;

(3) the sensitivity of the process and the product, whereby nearly all alternatives are disastrously maladaptive;

(4) the inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the rearrangement and co-option of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se;

(5) the exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence;

(6) the inevitability of the emergence of sentience, and the likelihood that among animals61 it is far more prevalent than we are willing to admit.

Having already quoted G. K. Chesterton once in this chapter, let me return to this wisdom by way of a conclusion. As he writes,62

Turning a beggar from the door may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories the beggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practically the claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtain knowledge. A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man - the matter awaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of which a man is entirely ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he is not a beetle. The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietzsche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly, and the ignorant.63

So the beetle, no longer the butt of Haldane's jibe,64 is an example of the richness of a Creation. Whether we shall always remain 'entirely ignorant' of what a beetle (or a bat) thinks is open to discussion. Even if we do, the complexity and beauty of 'Life's Solution' can never cease to astound. None of it presupposes, let alone proves, the existence of God, but all is congruent. For some it will remain as the pointless activity of the Blind Watchmaker, but others may prefer to remove their dark glasses. The choice, of course, is yours.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Power Of Charisma

The Power Of Charisma

You knowthere's something about you I like. I can't put my finger on it and it's not just the fact that you will download this ebook but there's something about you that makes you attractive.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment