Monday, July 25, 2005

Evolution and Religion

It's hard for me to distinguish between hard-core evolutionists and evangelists. Go to a pro-evolution site like The Panda's Thumb, for example, and browse the posts and comments. There you will find a rather large dose of strident atheism. Hard-core evolutionists seem afraid that challenges to the theory of evolution will somehow lead to proof of the existence of God -- a frightening prospect for them. They are, as Alex Tabarrok would put it, activists rather than scholars.

The late David Stove, a noted Australian philosopher, put it this way in "A New Religion":

Dolphins and some other animals have lately turned out to be more intelligent than was formerly thought, and present-day computers are capable of some amazing things. Still, if the question is asked, what are the most intelligent and all-round-capable things on earth, the answer is obvious: human beings. Everyone knows this, except certain religious people. A person is certainly a believer in some religion if be thinks, for example, that there are on earth millions of invisible and immortal nonhuman beings which are far more intelligent and capable than we are.

But that is exactly what sociobiologists do think, about genes. Sociobiology, then, is a religion: one which has genes as its gods.

Yet this conclusion seems incredible. Was not religion banished from biological science a long time ago? Why, yes. And is not sociobiology a part of biological science (even if a very new part, and a controversial one)? No. Sociobiologists really are committed to genes being gods, as I will show in a moment....

According to the Christian religion, human beings and all other created things exist for the greater glory of God; according to sociobiology, human beings and all other living things exist for the benefit of their genes. The expression ‘their genes' is probably not perfectly orthodox, from the strict sociobiological point of view; being rather too apt to suggest that genes are part of our equipment, whereas (according to sociobiology) we are part of theirs. All the same, the religious implication is unmistakable: that there exist, in us and around us, beings to whom we stand in the same humble relation as calculators, cars, and screwdrivers stand in to us....

Most people would like some religion to be true. This may seem strange, when you consider that every religion is and must be more or less terrifying. But then, there are various things which can outweigh terror. One of them is depression, and if religion is terrifying, atheism is depressing. It is an intensely depressing thought that the brightest and best things the universe has to show are certain members of our species....

Yet if the sociobiologists are right, science has actually now brought us what the human heart has always yearned for but never before achieved: knowledge of beings which, in virtue of their immense superiority to ourselves, are proper objects of our reverence and worship.
A bit later, in "So You Think You Area Darwinian?," Stove wrote:
Most educated people nowadays, I believe, think of themselves as Darwinians. If they do, however, it can only be from ignorance: from not knowing enough about what Darwinism says. For Darwinism says many things, especially about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by any educated person; or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity at all for critical thought on the subject of Darwinism.

Of course most educated people now are Darwinians, in the sense that they believe our species to have originated, not in a creative act of the Divine Will, but by evolution from other animals. But believing that proposition is not enough to make someone a Darwinian. It had been believed, as may be learnt from any history of biology, by very many people long before Darwinism, or Darwin, was born.

What is needed to make someone an adherent of a certain school of thought is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to that school, and are believed either by all of its adherents, or at least by the more thoroughgoing ones. In any large school of thought, there is always a minority who adhere more exclusively than most to the characteristic beliefs of the school: they are the ‘purists’ or ‘ultras’ of that school. What is needed and sufficient, then, to make a person a Darwinian, is belief in all or most of the propositions which are peculiar to Darwinians, and believed either by all of them, or at least by ultra-Darwinians.

I give below ten propositions which are all Darwinian beliefs in the sense just specified. Each of them is obviously false: either a direct falsity about our species or, where the proposition is a general one, obviously false in the case of our species, at least. Some of the ten propositions are quotations; all the others are paraphrases....

10. If variations which are useful to their possessors in the struggle for life ‘do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.’

This is from The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81. Exactly the same words occur in all the editions.

Since this passage expresses the essential idea of natural selection, no further evidence is needed to show that proposition 10 is a Darwinian one. But is it true? In particular, may we really feel sure that every attribute in the least degree injurious to its possessors would be rigidly destroyed by natural selection?

On the contrary, the proposition is (saving Darwin’s reverence) ridiculous. Any educated person can easily think of a hundred characteristics, commonly occurring in our species, which are not only ‘in the least degree’ injurious to their possessors, but seriously or even extremely injurious to them, which have not been ‘rigidly destroyed’, and concerning which there is not the smallest evidence that they are in the process of being destroyed. Here are ten such characteristics, without even going past the first letter of the alphabet. Abortion; adoption; fondness for alcohol; altruism; anal intercourse; respect for ancestors; susceptibility to aneurism; the love of animals; the importance attached to art; asceticism, whether sexual, dietary, or whatever.

Each of these characteristics tends, more or less strongly, to shorten our lives, or to lessen the number of children we have, or both. All of them are of extreme antiquity. Some of them are probably older than our species itself. Adoption, for example is practised by some species of chimpanzees: another adult female taking over the care of a baby whose mother has died. Why has not this ancient and gross ‘biological error’ been rigidly destroyed?...

The cream of the jest, concerning proposition 10, is that Darwinians themselves do not really believe it. Ask a Darwinian whether he actually believes that the fondness for alcoholic drinks is being destroyed now, or that abortion is, or adoption - and watch his face. Well, of course he does not believe it! Why would he? There is not a particle of evidence in its favour, and there is a great mountain of evidence against it. Absolutely the only thing it has in its favour is that Darwinism says it must be so. But (as Descartes said in another connection) ‘this reasoning cannot be presented to infidels, who might consider that it proceeded in a circle’.

What becomes, then, of the terrifying giant named Natural Selection, which can never sleep, can never fail to detect an attribute which is, even in the least degree, injurious to its possessors in the struggle for life, and can never fail to punish such an attribute with rigid destruction? Why, just that, like so much else in Darwinism, it is an obvious fairytale, at least as far as our species is concerned.

(Simon Blackburn's attempted refutation of this article was followed quickly by James Franklin's successful defense of it.)

Stove wasn't writing as a person of religion, for he evidently had no use for religion of any kind. Now, I don't know about the religious views of Frederick Turner (a professor at the University of Texas-Dallas), but he is an evolutionist. Here's what he has to say:

The evolutionists' three sins rolled into one....

The third sin is...dishonesty. In many cases it is clear that the beautiful and hard-won theory of evolution, now proved beyond reasonable doubt, is being cynically used by some -- who do not much care about it as such -- to support an ulterior purpose: a program of atheist indoctrination, and an assault on the moral and spiritual goals of religion. A truth used for unworthy purposes is quite as bad as a lie used for ends believed to be worthy. If religion can be undermined in the hearts and minds of the people, then the only authority left will be the state, and, not coincidentally, the state's well-paid academic, legal, therapeutic and caring professions. If creationists cannot be trusted to give a fair hearing to evidence and logic because of their prior commitment to religious doctrine, some evolutionary partisans cannot be trusted because they would use a general social acceptance of the truth of evolution as a way to set in place a system of helpless moral license in the population and an intellectual elite to take care of them.

And that is my issue with strident evolutionists of the ilk that frequent The Panda's Thumb. They're not only pushing evolution, they're also pushing atheism -- as if the two must be bound. The irony of their position is that atheism is unscientific: It is a belief in an untestable hypothesis, namely, that there is no God.

Scientists should be concerned with knowing the knowable. When they claim to know the unknowable they are simply worshiping a different god than the God of Creation.

Related posts:

Scientists in a Snit (08/04/04)
Atheism, Religion, and Science (01/03/05)
The Limits of Science (01/05/05)
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable (01/15/05)
Beware of Irrational Atheism (01/22/05)
The Creation Model (02/23/05)
The Thing about Science (03/24/05)
Science in Politics, Politics in Science (05/11/05)

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