Neither Gods Nor Beasts (RJS)

Faith-based biology is not limited to conservative Christians and other theists. Neither is appreciation of the powers of science limited to atheists and agnostics.

Recently I read a short book Neither Gods Nor Beasts by Elof Axel Carlson. Carlson is a geneticist who taught biology for decades at UCLA and at Stony Brook. He calls himself a non-theist, and has little appreciation for religious faith. He is not, however, a militant atheist. The premise of his book is that humans are distinct from other animals in possessing reason and his argument is one for science, science education, and the use of reason. The book is somewhat uneven, with some parts quite interesting and informative (whether I agreed or disagreed with his point) and others leaving me scratching my head.

The parts that left me scratching my head are those portions that dealt with religion, scattered through his overall discussion. Carlson clearly feels that religion is a human construction that we should have outgrown. It is self-evidently wrong, in his view, simply because there are so many religions and it is not possible for all of these to be correct. He acknowledges, however, that religion isn’t the only faith based view. Among other things he notes that atheism is also faith-based. In a discussion of the history of science:

Note that what has changed at this point is an ideology about the universe and not the nature of science itself. Science can work with the pious (Keppler, Vesalius, and Newton fall in that category) and the deist, agnostic, or atheist (many of the scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were deists, including Antoine Lavoisier, Claude Bernard, and Charles Darwin). Ideologies are usually faith-based, whether those ideologies are spiritual or secular. Astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology are fields of science. They depend on reason, observation, experimentation, and objectivity for their success. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Deism, agnosticism, and atheism are responses to religion that are faith-based. Democracy, Republicanism, Monarchy, Socialism, Capitalism, and Fascism, are chiefly nonreligious, but they are faith-based. (p. 40)

As an example of the reason why science is reason-based rather than faith-based he uses the example of Lysenkoism, lest we think that religion provides the only impetus for rejecting science.

A brief diversion into Lysenkoism. Lysenkoism is a view of biology with which many are unfamiliar today.  In the Soviet Union from ca. 1930 into the 1960’s genetics (and even Mendel) was rejected as incompatible with Soviet ideology and a form of neo-Lamarckian inheritance was advocated instead (inheritance of acquired characteristics).

From some comments published by Lincoln Pettit of Michigan State University in the Letters to the Editor Science 134, 872-874, 1961.

While traveling with the Comparative Education Society in the U.S.S.R. for 5 weeks in 1958, I made the following observations.

1) Young Soviet biologists have been thoroughly steeped in the assumptions of Michurin and Lysenko a kind of neo-Neo-Lamarckism. They seem to be proud of a view which “opposes the ‘Western’ gene concept,” and they cite the DNA’s as evidence to support Lysenkoism. It is impossible to discuss in a brief space the level of their sophistication.

2) Academician Lysenko is, and has been, without interruption, a very important figure in the Communist Party and in Communist biological science for 20 years, and during that time his out-look upon the inheritance of acquired adaptations has been thoroughly embedded in every biology textbook and reference book to be seen, besides appearing frequently in books on philosophy and natural science in general. … Lysenko’s views harmonize perfectly with all aspects of Communist philosophy; to remove his ideas would leave a void which the gene theory could fill only lamely, if at all.

3) Application of Lysenko’s ideas has produced results, much in the way that Burbank’s methods have, and tech-niques based on these ideas are used today in the mass cultivation of unusual roses in Arizona. Where there are results, irrespective of questions of theory, there is a certain gain: greater energy is expended to test to its limits the potential adaptability of the germ plasm in environmental situations not normally encountered by a given plant or animal.

4) Most puzzling to us who follow the development of genetics is the co-existence of Mendelism and Lysenkoism in the U.S.S.R., yet this is perhaps the most significant observation of all in dispelling conjectures that Soviet biologists are about to embrace modern genetics.

This was serious stuff. The Wikipedia article  on Lysenkoism notes that “from 1934 to 1940, under Lysenko’s admonitions and with Stalin’s approval, many geneticists were executed” and “in 1948, genetics was officially declared “a bourgeois pseudoscience”; all geneticists were fired from their jobs (some were also arrested), and all genetic research was discontinued.” Things only began to change in the mid 1960’s. I had the privilege a few years ago of having dinner with two eminent 80 year-old scientists who reflected on the impact of this era. They saw the impact of ideological control in many areas of science in the Soviet Union, of which genetics was only the most egregious. Physics was and exception, saved from the control of ideology by the importance of the atomic bomb projects.

Lysenkoism ruled for a bit, but ultimately could not survive because it did not stand the test of experiment, mechanism, observation and reason. This is the basis for Carlson’s categorization of science as an objective reason-based endeavor. Ultimately the truth will out.

And back to Carlson and Who We Think We Are. With respect to the title and primary subject of this post Carlson sees neurobiology and evolutionary psychology as having a long way to go before they can offer tested and accepted views of mind, brain, and human creativity. He does not fear these topics, but notes that what we have today is dominated by incompletely understood experiments and observations, sometimes influenced by ideological considerations.  He sees the “blank slate” view where environment and experience control most responses, the human nature view (all is simply human nature – e.g. original sin and other views fall in this category) and  the biological determinism view (that built in programs determine our actions) to be fallacies each incomplete in describing what it means to be human.

Carlson sees the essence of what it means to be human in the ability to reason, to learn and teach, and the ability to form communities. All of these may have precursors in other species but none are developed to the necessary extent to approach the human experience.

Human communities are dependent on learning and reason. This is not mimicry, but intentional purposeful teaching and learning. Spoken and, later, written language set us apart in ways that are not replicated in other species.

Human communities also depend on trust. “Human communities have a capacity for trust and empathy. They can imagine situations and see themselves in a community.” (p. 128)

Human communities also require a moral code, but Carlson disagrees with the idea that morality must be based on some sort of faith (i.e. religion)  believing that it can be based on reason rather than faith. Most of the ten commandments (the last six at any rate) do not need deliverance from on high.

Immanuel Kant proposed an empathy-based test of morality. He argued that if a reasonable person asked “Do I want anyone to kill me?” the reasonable person would say no. If all reasonable persons said the same thing, then killing is universally recognized as immoral and should not be done. The same line of argument would be applied to stealing, lying, or fornicating (by someone else) with one’s spouse. I am not sure coveting would have met Kant’s test because a reasonable person might tolerate another person’s envy rather than condemn it. (p. 141)

Carlson disagrees both with biologists who argue that consistent morality is impossible (incompatible with natural selection) and with religionists (his term) who argue that original sin prevents consistent morality.  Whether faith-based or reason-based, it is essential for us to be moral beings. This morality must not be simply utilitarian.

You do not do good things in expectation of reciprocity. You do good things because they are right and you feel good about it. Reciprocity has an element of selfishness to it. … Doing good as part of your being or world view is an expression of what it means to be fully human. You are in tune with your capacity for empathy.  (p. 142)

And the Outlook for the Third Millennium. Carlson sees the third millenium as time for opportunity – and a potential for disaster. He sees science as providing an opportunity for optimism because it can expand and provide a norm for understanding who and what we are as a species. This includes an understanding that women can learn and lead, that racism is without objective foundation, that we are all kin in an important sense, that sexuality and sexual expression are complex biological and social phenomena. He also sees an increasing role for science and for science education. This cannot be divorced from the humanities however. A liberal education must include humanities and sciences. He suggests that science education for the general audience in humanities (and some areas of social sciences) must be generalist and specifically designed for this audience. It does not work well as watered down courses for majors.

But he concludes with a sketch of how science and reason can shape our future.

Being fully human requires the union of values and a science-based awareness of who we are. Human nature is not just words and ideas debated back and forth by theologians and philosophers who lived centuries or millennia ago. Human nature is the realization that humans have evolved a self-awareness, a use of reason to survive, an imagination that gives us values allowing us to live together, an empathy to understand the triumphs and tragedies others experience, and the potential to be creative. (p. 173)

I find much to agree with in Carlson’s sketch (of which I’ve only skimmed the surface), but his view and understanding of religion leaves much to be desired. I agree with Carlson (along with John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, and many others) that science is based in reason and reality with a truth that will ultimately out no matter what the ideology of the practitioners. Detours and dead ends are to be expected (we are human after all) but these will be abandoned or proven false. I disagree with Carlson’s dismissal of religion which reflects a rather flat view and an impatience with the young earth, anti-evolution movement in the US. But this latter is a topic to which I will return in a future post.

What do you think science has to teach us about the nature of being human?

Is it compatible or incompatible with a biblical understanding?

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

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