Back to Darwin? (RJS)

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Several years ago  John B. Cobb Jr. Professor Emeritus of the Claremont School of Theology organized a conference on evolution and religion. This conference eventually gave rise to a book of essays exploring various scientific and philosophical questions: Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution. The book contains contributions from a rather impressive group, Francisco Ayala, Ian Barbour, Philip Clayton, Lynn Margulis, Jeffrey Schloss, and Howard Van Till, among others.  Two, Ayala and Margulis are members of the National Academy of Science. (All but one is male.) The contributors vary dramatically in outlook and position. Cobb supplemented and organized the book with an aim to highlight ideas of emergence and process theology. This book is not for the average pastor or church member – but may prove useful for one working in a graduate school environment. It provides valuable background information.

There are a few contributions worth noting.

The chapter by Howard Van TillFrom Calvinism to Claremont: Now That’s Evolution! Or From Calvin’s Supernaturalism to Griffin’s Theistic Naturalism” is sobering. This chapter contains primarily a reflection on his walk trying to reconcile his faith with the observation of the world. 

Philip Clayton has contributed a chapter on process and emergence in the context of science and theology. The concept of emergence has been making the rounds lately, particularly in the dialog between Tony Jones and Philip Clayton (see Tony’s Blog). Emergence is characterized by the idea that a reductionist view of science is inherently incorrect as there are properties and functions of complex systems that are not capable of reduction to or prediction from the intrinsic properties of their component elements.  Certainly there is a sense in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but much of this reasoning seems to depend on semantics (I don’t buy it – scientifically speaking).

More relevant to discussion here are the contributions by Jeffrey Schloss, Professor and Chair of the Biology Department at Westmont College, and this is where I would like to focus today.

Where, if anywhere, does scientific naturalism and purely random natural selection fail?

Jeffrey Schloss is an evolutionary biologist who has taught biology at Westmont since 1981.  He lists his areas of specialization as: Physiological ecology of water relations; Evolution of altruism and moral systems; Theological implications of Darwinism. Schloss became a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, but later broke ties and of late has been outspoken against the concept of Intelligent Design in its narrow definition. He wrote a rather substantive and less than positive review of Ben Stein’s film “Expelled.”

Schloss contributed two chapters to this book.  The first “Neo-Darwinianism: Scientific Account and Theological Attributions” lays a framework of definitions and options.  The second “Divine Providence and the Question of Evolutionary Directionality” builds on this framework. There are several interesting conversation points here.

The term “neo-Darwinian” is somewhat loose and does not have a common technical usage. Yet it is a useful label in this book. Schloss defines “neo”-Darwinianism as a commitment to natural selection as both sufficient and true. It is non-Lamarckian (acquired characteristics are not transmitted), More to the point “evolutionary change is nonteleological and nonpurposive, and entails no intrinsic progression or indeed directionality of any kind.” (p. 102) Genes are the star actors and organisms exist only to allow DNA to make more DNA. There is no group selection in any form. The be all and end all is self replicating information units.  For more detail on any of these points see almost anything by Richard Dawkins.

Neo-Darwinianism in this form is opposed to faith. (Again – see anything by Dawkins.) Schloss points out that while it is generally accepted that evolution is non-Lamarckian, the remaining points are debatable scientifically, sociologically (there is a diversity of opinion within the scientific community), and philosophically or theologically.

In particular Schloss cites the following points of conflict for consideration

    • Altruism and Love
    • Morality
    • Purpose
    • Natural Evil

The first three of these have consequences for neo-Darwinianism as defined here. According to the principles of neo-Darwinianism there is no genuine altruism or love – and “if we think that we are capable of unconditional love – extended without compensatory benefit – we are probably deceiving ourselves” (p. 108). Morality is a construct, an illusion evolved only to ascertain the survival of the biotic agent – the gene. Purpose and explanations that resort to purpose are meaningless, nature does not have purpose only effects.  The very notion of purpose is a “cosmic delusion.”

Natural evil (useless traits, clumsy design, suboptimal function, predator and parasite) on the other hand is a problem for theism. For the neo-Darwinianist the world just is and the word evil in this context is meaningless. But for the theistic view – how could a good and all powerful God have created the world we see. After all Schloss points out “Hiring a drunk to drive you home after an evening’s excess at the bar is just as morally reckless as driving yourself.” (p. 114) It makes no difference if we invoke special creation or evolution as God’s mechanism, the responsibility remains.

Schloss goes on to describe possibilities for directionality and trends in evolution. The neo-Darwinian positions suggests – even demands – that evolution lacks any kind of thematic directionality. But it is not clear that the evidence supports this hypothesis – and many would say that the science does not demand it. In his second chapter Schloss looks at evolutionary trends, directionality vs adirectionality, directionality vs diffusion, directionality and destiny.

Schloss does not prove God – nor does he try to in his contributions. 
Nonetheless I found his essays thought provoking as we continue to
wrestle with the interface between science and theology.

I have long felt that love, beauty, morality, meaning, and purpose are the most significant arguments for the existence of God. A purely natural evolution can rationalize these, explain why we think they exist, but in so doing it proves them in the end meaningless concepts, cosmic delusions. It may be a delusion, but I am convinced that such concepts are real – meaningful. As a practical realist I think we can trust the evidence in this area, just as we can trust the evidence for the general mechanisms of evolutionary development.

Where do we go with the Christian story then? The essence of Christianity is love – love from God, love of God, and love for neighbor. Read the gospels, read Paul, John, or James. The gospel is that God loves us and acted on that love, the consequence is that we turn around and love God, self, others, and the world.

The essence of the kingdom message, the gospel, is “repent and believe in me.”  We forsake our way of doing things and follow God’s way even if it leads to persecution and death.

What do you think?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

  • Rick

    Interesting thoughts from Alister McGrath:
    “The natural sciences rightly protest about the smuggling of preconceived teleological schemes into scientific analysys. But what if they arise from the process of reflection on observation? What if they are “a posteriori” inferences, rather than “a priori” assumptions? Conway Morris’s evidence and analysis suggest that a form of teleology may indeed be inferred a posteriori, as the “best explanation” of what is observed. This may not directly map onto a traditional Christian doctrine of providence; nevertheless, there is a significant degree of resonance with the notion which merits closer attention.
    This is not necessarily, it should be noted, a matter of discerning “purpose”- a heavily metaphysically freighted notion- with the evolutionary sequence and inferred from this to a divine ordainer of purpose. Rather, we are reverting to the approach that is summarised in the theological John Henry Newman’s enlightening, yet curiously understudied remark: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design….might not the evolutionary process, despite its contingency, still be consonant with the achievement of purpose on the part of a creator God?
    Darwin’s theory certainly indicates that it is no longer “necessary” to appeal to a creator God to account for the apparent design of living things, in that this can be argued through a complex and distinctive interaction between chance and necessity, between random and deterministic processes, in the process of natural selection. Yet while this demonstrates that a theistic account of biological design is not entailed, it does not entail the much stronger, and rather more significant, claim that either theism itself, or a theistic account of biological design, is “false”. As a result, theists are free to agree that natural processes are adequate to explain biological design, but they are also free to insist that theism provides another equally rational and plausible explanation which may ultilmately proved to be the best explanation…
    My argument throughout this section is that some notion of teleology emerges from the study of the evolutionary process itself. Such a teleology is empirical, grounded in “a posteriori” discernment, not “a priori” imposition.”
    http://www.abdn.ac.uk/gifford/uploads/files/2009%20Gifford%20Lecture%204.pdf

  • Phil

    I have heard Schloss lecture before as a guest at Houghton College when I attended there in the mid-90′s, I remember he was contending that the creation/evolution debate was long over, we evangelical’s need to consider how a good God, a God who is Love could use what we consider natural evil, predator/prey relations & death as part of his creative designs.
    It was enough for me to come to terms with the loss of dispensationalism & an ancient earth over a young one; I just couldn’t accept and still can’t, that naturalistic evolution without divine guidance could bring all this about:)
    I am really enjoying these posts, and am in the middle of the recommended book from Calvin, The Bible Rocks and Time.

  • http://kriscanuck.wordpress.com Kris

    I had Howard van Till for astronomy at Calvin College in the early 90s. It was at a time when he was dealing with significant criticism over his book ‘The Fourth Day’, a book that tried to make sense of the creation story and what science had to say about the origins of the universe. It was difficult to watch him by hurt deeply by the church he loved because they feared so many questions that science asks. Any book that Howard van Till has helped author is worth reading in an age that requires us as Christians to take out faith and science seriously.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    “Purpose and explanations that resort to purpose are meaningless, nature does not have purpose only effects.”
    People who complain about Christians speaking to science should remind science to stay out of metaphysics. It is fair to say that science cannot determine purpose, but to say that there is none goes beyond what science is capable of studying.
    Is “lack of purpose” a natural result of evolutionary theory? Only if one also assumes there is no god.
    “Natural evil (useless traits, clumsy design, suboptimal function, predator and parasite) on the other hand is a problem for theism.”
    I think many “useless” and “suboptimal” features have already, like “junk DNA,” been shown to be more than what we had originally thought, but I think biblical theology leaves room for these in the “thorns and thistles” — parts of the world that are meant to teach or remind us that all is not right with the world and cause us to seek God.

  • Rebeccat

    Off in left field here, but I sometimes wonder if we don’t over value perfection and undervalue imperfection. It has never made sense to me that we would be told that God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden with no precautions, knowing what was going to happen if there had not been some intentionality on His part. (FWIW, I am not a literalist – I just read the story we were given and assume that the ideas and questions it provokes are illuminating. That is to say, I think we are to interact with the story seriously even if it does not offer an account of literal events.) Perhaps this world is not meant to be perfect and there is a purpose in what we perceive as imperfection. Just because God can create a perfect world, does not necessarily mean that it fits His good purposes to do so. Maybe we need something to struggle with an against. Anyhow, just my thoughts on theism and the imperfection of creation.

  • http://darrenbrett.wordpress.com/ Darren King

    RJS,
    You wrote:
    “Certainly there is a sense in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but much of this reasoning seems to depend on semantics (I don’t buy it – scientifically speaking).”
    That whets our appetites, but not much more. Could you expound?

  • Randy

    “I have long felt that love, beauty, morality, meaning, and purpose are the most significant arguments for the existence of God. A purely natural evolution can rationalize these, explain why we think they exist, but in so doing it proves them in the end meaningless concepts, cosmic delusions. It may be a delusion, but I am convinced that such concepts are real – meaningful.”
    I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. When I have discussed ID with pastors enamored with it, I try to point out how dry reduction to science is, and instead point to these aesthetic but no less real aspects of God’s Creation. I would always prefer to get a scientist into the field rather than the lecture hall or lab.
    Peace,
    Randy

  • Richard Olsen

    “The essence of Christianity is love – love from God, love of God, and love for neighbor.”
    Our pastor, John Ortberg has been hammering this home ever since he came to Menlo Park. It’s slowly been seeping into my 64 year old computer. But a novel called The Shack took me over the edge and nailed this concept home. We are beginning to see fruits of this in our church. We’ve seen God’s love for many years, have learned to love God thanks to faithful teaching and now are beginning to understand the love for neighbor concept. In two weeks we will be cancelling services in our church to go out and touch the community in hundreds of acts of love and service. Our prayer is that this becomes a way of life for each and every one of us. Maybe then, some of the silly controversies we have amongst ourselves over the wrappings of doctrine will be overcome with overwhelming love for each other through Jesus Christ our Lord.
    God bless and thank you.
    Rich

  • RJS

    Darren,
    I need to read a bit more before expounding too much. But off the cuff – while the properties of a complex system are not simply the sum of the properties of the individual pieces – the properties are predictable from and explicable using the properties of and interactions between the individual pieces. (properties and predictable potentialities) I don’t see any reason to give up on reductionist ideas properly understood. Certainly this is true until we hit consciousness and abstract thought.

  • http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog dopderbeck

    Great post! Schloss is certainly an interesting thinker. Re: Howard Van Til — not sure if it comes out in this book, but unfortunately he seems to have left any kind of Christian faith, from what I understand. Re: Ayala — also an interesting character, with, again from what I’ve read and heard, a theology that seems pretty syncretistic.
    Re: emergence: I think this is an extremely important concept, both in the philosophy of science generally and in science-and-theology discussions. The reason to avoid reductionist ideas is that they remove any notion of agency — whether human or divine — and they remove any notion of any “spiritual” component of human nature. If we confess that God and humans are in some sense free moral agents, and we confess that humans in some way are spiritual beings (whatever precisely we might say about the concept of “soul”), some notion of emergence and non-reduction seems to me essential to mediate between those confessions and empirical observations of how physical laws and processes influence what we commonly think of as agency.
    The other major option seems to be to assign the “spiritual” or non-deterministic aspects of Divine and human agency to the quantum level (this is, e.g., Nancey Murphy’s approach — not only a leading thinker in this field, but a woman!). But this seems overly problematic to me, because it can become a sort of God of the gaps argument. Proponents of this view argue that it isn’t God of the gaps because quantum mechanics really is probabilistic, but would it really be surprising if 200 years from now the paradigm for physics includes a set of laws even deeper and more explanatory than quantum mechanics (a unified theory)?

  • RJS

    dopderbeck,
    I called the chapter by Van Till “sobering” on just this account. The title itself tells a lot. I think the comment by Kris in #3,4 is telling – when she says that it was “sad to watch the church he loved hurt him deeply.” Many of us struggle at times – and to struggle alone in the face of ostracism cuts deeply – it produces wounds that are slow to heal and hard to ignore.
    I will look a bit more into emergence – but I think that the philosophers go overboard in enthusiasm at times.

  • Colin

    I haven’t finished reading the post yet, but was compelled to post. You said: “Certainly there is a sense in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but much of this reasoning seems to depend on semantics (I don’t buy it – scientifically speaking).” Speaking as a physicist, I have never felt totally comfortable with Clayton and Jones on this “emergence science.”

  • Doug Allen

    RJS,
    I’m confused. You say, “Certainly there is a sense in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but much of this reasoning seems to depend on semantics (I don’t buy it – scientifically speaking).” Are you saying that you a reductionist? If so, then I don’t understand your coments about “love, beauty, morality, meaning, and purpose” which I mostly agree with.
    Doug

  • http://communityofjesus.blogspot.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    RJS,
    Interesting post. I still would like to read much if not all of this book- have read parts of it.
    I do wonder about the dependence on David Ray Griffin (well, I guess he only does have two chapters) who evidently had a profound impact on Howard Van Til with his Theistic Naturalism (over which supposedly he left Calvin’s Supernaturalism behind). I have to admit, I was rather taken back some time ago, when I read Van Til’s chapter, how he succumbed for a time to what seemed to me to be a kind of Deism before he opted for this Theistic Naturalism which seems to me to fall short of the Theism we find in Scripture.
    It is interesting to see how they postulate Darwinian science to fall into some kind of metaphysical error which in turn not only impacts Christian theology, or Theism for ill, but also could impact their science, or at least their interpretations of the scientific data.
    And I wonder about David Ray Griffin’s and John Cobb’s adherence to Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Theology. Seemed to me like there may be some viable truths in Process Theology without swallowing the whole.
    My take of the book is that it was quite an interesting view of scientists in evolutionary study trying to put their understanding of evolution together with their faith. I thought this was a case in point when they (or each) would have benefited from having a Christian theologian to help them.
    I wonder too if you are closer to Francisco Ayala’s view, which if I’m not mistaken would accept more of a Christian orthodox view, to go along with his view more along the lines of Darwinian evolution (than the other scientists contributing in the book). Though at the same time, some of the critique of Darwinian evolution in the book does seem to have possible justification.

  • AHH

    Since Howard Van Till’s story has come up, we should not get the impression that his move away from orthodoxy and into process theism was primarily driven by his desire to reconcile science/faith issues. His idea of a “fully gifted creation” (see for example his chapter in “Three Views on Creation and Evolution”) was formed in the context of Christian orthodoxy, and as phrased at the time was similar to many of the rest of us in science who see evolution as a tool of the creative process of our sovereign God.
    As Van Till has explained it (or at least this was how he was talking about it a few years ago; I haven’t read this recent writing), his move into things like process theism had very little to do with science/faith issues; it was primarily driven by theodicy. Secondarily, he points to the hurtful and sometimes vicious reactions to his science/faith views from many in the Evangelical camp as something that gave him additional reasons to leave that camp.

  • Kyle

    “his move into things like process theism had very little to do with science/faith issues; it was primarily driven by theodicy. Secondarily, he points to the hurtful and sometimes vicious reactions to his science/faith views from many in the Evangelical camp as something that gave him additional reasons to leave that camp.”
    Thanks AHH for pointing this out. I, too, was under the impression that his movement into process theism was much more about theological issues and his being virtually exiled by those in his particular brand of Reformed churches.
    It’s a shame, because it has been told differently online (for instance, at Uncommon Descent), and this discourages some who may be open to seeing how evolution/faith are not at odds from reading his earlier work, which is very good.

  • RJS

    AHH,
    I said above – he was trying to reconcile is faith with observation of the world, and this is more than science. Both theodicy and the behavior of the Christians are part of this observation (and experience) of the world.
    Scot keeps stressing civility (and love of neighbor) – if this doesn’t come first why should anyone believe what we say? The most powerful apologetic we have is in the life lived – and this includes how we handle difference and disagreements with each other.

  • RJS

    Doug,
    In one sense I am a reductionist – I think that God made an intelligible world and we shouldn’t look for proof of his intervention in inanimate objects or processes, and this includes “emergence”. God created – but because it was created orderly and functioning it will look natural. I think that “scientific” emergence is mostly a matter of semantics – and theological emergence is possibly true but not scientific.
    This is disconnected from the issue of love, beauty, morality, and such. I think that these are real – not delusions, not relative, not limited to perception – and this points to something beyond the natural.

  • Doug Allen

    Thanks RJS,
    I’ve really enjoyed your Darwin series. My only small criticism is that I don’t think you make it clear that even before the recent genome research, human genome project, etc. there was overwhelming evidence for evolution, and almost all biologists were evolutionists when I studied college biology in 1960 and way before that.
    Doug

  • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

    This was a really great book. I discussed it with John Cobb and posted some clips of the conversation on my blog. Thanks for highlighting this great work.
    tripp
    videos here: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2009/02/23/a-darwin-compilation-featuring-john-cobb/