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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lincoln's & Darwin's Birthday

Thursday, February 12, marks the 200th Anniversary of the births of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, two great names in modern world and cultural history. We speak here only momentarily of Mr. Lincoln: a hundred and fifty years after the major acts of his lifetime, there is little controversy over their significance. The culmination of their historical development now resides, even as we speak, in the American White House. To us, that says more than any paragraphs we might be able to compose here to try to celebrate Mr. Lincoln's Birthday. We're sure he would be thrilled and would feel more than a little empathy for the challenges Mr. Obama faces at present.

Mr. Darwin is another matter altogether. Thinking about him has prompted us to engage in some study about evolution and the science-religion debates, which do not lack at all for controversy. What comes from this for Ways of the World will be three articles: this one focusing on these debates, one applying some contemporary neuroscience to our individual experiences of God and one applying principles of evolution to the workings of the economy. In this pursuit, we've been looking for some answers to our own questioning, and we've found some that are most intriguing. But all is far from clear. So if you find in what follows that we misstate or gloss over any science, theology or history you are familiar with, please do use the "Post a Comment" facility at the end of each article to correct, clarify or amplify. Then we'll all learn more.

Science is younger than religion and often behaves like a young upstart that thinks it has all the answers. "Young" is a relative notion, and we cite as a fairly early example The Galileo Affair of the first half of the 17th Century. It's often popularly thought that Catholic Church leaders, blindly asserting the primacy of biblical explanations, simply dug in their heels in the face of the challenge over which, the Sun or the Earth, revolved around the other.

In fact, our reading tells us, Galileo was actually quite religious and also had the support of various Church leaders, at least in his right to publish his materials. Some went further. Cardinal Bellarmine, for instance, suggested that if science could show that a sun-centered structure was the correct version, then the Church might conclude not that science was necessarily in error, but that our understanding of Scripture might be incomplete. The eventual debate and trial of Galileo were intense and thoughtful on both sides. Possibly only Galileo's disputatious nature caused the Church to buck up against him.

Our chief sources here, Christopher Southgate and Michael Poole[1], point out one other significant factor. In Galileo's time, the Catholic Church was steeped in another struggle, the Counter-Reformation. Thus, it was likely more defensive about every question it had to address.

Such a context of challenge is also important for assessing the impact of Darwin's work in the mid-19th Century. At that time, historical biblical criticism was bringing debate to many issues in the Christian faith previously thought to be unquestionable. Further, developments in geology and archaeology were starting to indicate that the Earth is probably much older than the Genesis descriptions of Creation and later bible history imply. So in each of these situations, the Church was already in a defensive position.

But also, as with Galileo, the weakness of the Church in the face of the Darwin challenge is often exaggerated. Popular accounts of a famous debate between Darwin's spokesperson Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce highlight a sarcastic exchange about what part of Mr. Huxley's family might have descended more directly from apes. In fact, later comments about the meeting, even from Huxley's son, suggest that the Bishop argued quite well and Huxley had not come out ahead. Wilberforce had previously written a serious critique of The Origin of Species that demonstrated considerable knowledge and study on his part and the critique is said to have covered significant points in Darwin's work. So again, the consequent disagreements were largely honest ones that did not arise out of religion's blind dogmatic rejection of science's innovation.[2]

Moreover, there was outright support for Darwin from within the Church, at least in Britain. In this coming Sunday's bulletin insert from Episcopal Life, the Revs. Phina Borgeson and Thomas Lindell tell us about Aubrey Moore, an Anglo-Catholic theologian at Oxford and curator of the British Botanical Garden, who "embraced [Darwin's] work as a help in understanding how God is intimately and lovingly present to all creation."[3]

So does science need God? The 20th Century version of this dialogue sees more publicity for the "no" answer, in a train-of-thought known as "reductionism": Can aspects of "life" be reduced to purely natural, scientific concepts or explanations? Southgate shows how "it depends" on the type of question and the way it is formulated. He cites Francis Crick, who with James Watson discovered DNA and who has asserted that the "ultimate aim" of the current movement in biology is to explain all of biology in terms of physics and chemistry. Southgate agrees that this is perhaps accomplished for substances in living things: there appears to be no separate vitalism or "life force". But the accompanying issue of phenomena or processes brings a less complete answer: can we explain what goes on in life as purely the product of the interaction of atoms and molecules? The answer there is no, Southgate says: there are outside forces, such as environment, that exert a separate impact from that of physical science.

Similarly with E.O. Wilson. Wilson, author of Sociobiology (1975), argues that in fact life processes are tied solely to evolution. Even such an attitude as altruism is not inspired purely by religiosity, but can be reduced to the greater likelihood for survival by those who are altruistic: "I'll scratch your back and someone will scratch mine and we'll all live longer and have more kids." Here again, though, Southgate counters, many aspects of behavior can be understood only in economic and social terms that have little to do with reproductive success.[4]

The trend in thinking that the only purpose in life is to survive and reproduce has perhaps found its strongest expression in the work of Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986). In the first of these, he explains, according to Southgate, that genes only want to survive and reproduce and the body they are in is nothing more than a "survival machine". The Blind Watchmaker carries a step further the approach from the Enlightenment era that God merely made the clock and got it going and now he stands back to see it run; by Dawkins's account, God seemingly doesn't even pay attention or care.

John Polkinghorne can help us with this. Professor Polkinghorne, physicist and past president of Queen's College, Cambridge, has been mentioned in this column before, when we noted his status as a recipient of the Templeton Prize for research in science and spiritual matters. "The theologian's response to the biologist's [Dawkins's] unbelief", he writes in Belief in God in an Age of Science [5], "must lie in proposing an alternative interpretation of the history . . . of the universe. . . . This . . . corresponds to a transition from a natural theology to a theology of nature. We are not now looking to the physical world for hints of God's existence but to God's existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have. . . . God has self-limited divine power by allowing [the world] truly to be itself. . . . It is in the nature of dense snow fields that they will sometimes slip with the destructive force of an avalanche. . . . It is the nature of humankind that sometimes people will act with selfless generosity but sometimes with murderous selfishness. That these things are so is not gratuitous or due to divine oversight or indifference. They are the necessary cost of a creation given by its Creator the freedom to be itself."

[1] Christopher Southgate and Michael Poole, "An Introduction to the Debate Between Science and Religion", Chapter 1, God Humanity and the Cosmos. Christopher Southgate, Ed. London: T & T Clark International. 2005. Pp. 22-25.

[2] John Hedley Brooke, "Learning from the Past", Chapter 3, God Humanity and the Cosmos, pp. 64-66.

[3] The Revs. Phina Borgeson and Thomas Lindell, "Charles Darwin, Christian faith and The Origin of Species", Episcopal Life Weekly. February 15, 2009.

[4] Christopher Southgate, "Theology and Evolutionary Biology", Chapter 6, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Pp. 175-188.

[5] John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998. Pp. 12-13.

We were directed to Mr. Southgate's materials by Phina Borgeson, "Evolution and faith in dialogue", Episcopal Life, February 2009, p. 9. We commend the article to you, along with the numerous other resources the Rev. Borgeson lists. Thanks much for Mother Borgeson's helpful work!


Blogger Big Huge Matt said...

Check out the Newsweek web article below for some amazing (and quick) follow-up reading on Evolution vs. the "New Lamarckism". Water fleas (Daphnia) have been found to inherit traits based solely on parental experience. Keep in mind that Daphnia live no more than 1 year.

2/10/2009 11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. We're having an adult forum session on the Galileo controversy led by a parishioner who is also an astronomer. I'm going to suiggest she read your essay.

2/11/2009 4:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A book I read after reading a few of Richard Dawkin's less recent books, which of course, could easily be seen to lead to the denial of the Deity, was one by the late Stephen Jay Gould, essayist and paleontologist: Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life . His explanation is simple, elegant, and convincing. Science and religion, in short, concern themselves with different domains. I'd highly recommend it.

2/16/2009 6:06 PM  
Blogger P.C.Chapman said...

Yet again Stephen Jay Gould's "Individual Magisterium"is used to justify the "throw sand in the air" arguments for a Deity. He had no acceptance what so ever that "God did it" as valid in evolutionary biology explanations! Homo Sapiens Sapiens evolved to seek patterns. Food here this time... Food here next time conditions are same..I will note conditions now and come back here when conditions are similar. My Father died.. where did he go.. to visit the River God ..The Rain God ..The Blueberry God?? Human consciousness and intimations of mortality led to attempts to answer "What Just Happened?" Man invented God to answer these questions he could not find a way to properly formulate in "his" pre-causistic brain.

1/03/2013 4:29 PM  

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