Recently on this blog, I reviewed physicist Karl Giberson’s new book, Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story. The book, featured this month in the Patheos Book Club, is an exercise in creative storytelling, but with a purpose: Giberson hopes to recast the traditional Judeo-Christian creation narrative in the context of modern cosmological and evolutionary theories. The resulting entwining of science and faith tries to make a scientific account of the origins and trajectory of the universe more palatable to young, religiously involved readers – many of whom may be apprehensive of losing their faith as they learn more about science. I definitely support the aims of Giberson’s project, but we found some areas of disagreement. Below is an interview I conducted with Giberson as a follow-up to my review of his book.
First, let me sketch the contours of the debate. My complaint about Seven Glorious Days is that while it’s a fun read and tries to do some important things, I think it paints much too rosy a picture of the process of evolution as described by Darwinian theory. In Chapter Seven, for instance, Giberson claims that the evolution of life on earth “was remarkably effective…at building love into the process wherever possible.” As my understanding of evolution stands now, I don’t this is an accurate statement. I side with the neo-Darwinians, who specify that evolution is remarkably effective at solving fitness-related problems with adaptive solutions, and nothing more. From this perspective, love only evolved wherever and whenever it boosted the overall fitness of the organisms that experienced it – mostly mammals, whose offspring generally need substantial parental investment to survive. In short, evolution is not a directed or purposeful affair: it merely solves individual adaptive challenges with whatever genetic tools it happens to have at hand. The process often isn’t even very efficient: see the human knee for the best (and most aggravating) example of evolution’s essential clumsiness.
Thus, rather than try to impute a sense of direction or purpose onto evolution, I think religious thinkers ought not to deny the basic meaninglessness of evolution, but instead respond to it. This response would be in the tradition of Ecclesiastes, who laments in the Bible that “everything is meaningless,” but then goes on to celebrate the glory of God despite this meaninglessness. Similarly, much Hindu and Buddhist philosophy – if you have any sympathy for such perspectives; I certainly do – assert that the recognition of the biological world’s pointlessness is actually the necessary starting point for real religious wisdom. In other words, I think religion and evolution can be reconciled, but only if religions acknowledge that the biological world is essentially amoral, and that evolution on its own is not a source of meaning. Religion needs to pick up where evolution – amoral, often cruel, and inevitably stained with pain and waste – leaves off.
Karl Giberson, on the other hand, thinks – and I hope I’m characterizing his position correctly – that if there is a God who created the world and who has a purpose in mind for us, then that purpose ought to be in evidence – even covertly – in the actual physical processes of life on Earth. Thus, evolution is best seen not as a random process of step-by-step adaptation, but a grand process, a slow and awesome blossoming towards the realization of love in the world: the Kingdom of Heaven. It would make little sense, according to this perspective, for the physical world to be basically meaningless, while God’s love is found only in the abstract realm of religion and philosophy. In fact, in the clear light of Giberson’s teleological vision of the cosmos, my own perspective is revealed as a bit Manichean: hopelessly black and white, needlessly – even dangerously – disparaging of the biological world.
Let me be clear here: I have a deep respect for Giberson’s essentially religious vision of the cosmos, which comes most fully to the fore in the final pages of his book. Here, he claims that “saints call us to rise above the selfish and parochial dimensions of our instincts.” I wholeheartedly approve of this statement. Giberson aslo writes that “(t)o fail to reach out to those in need is to fail to love Jesus.” He seems to be claiming that our religious yearnings inspire us to contravene the simplistic Darwinian calculus of “success equals goodness.” I can also get behind this assertion. The difference between our positions, I think, is this: while Giberson believes that the story of biological evolution can be told so that our higher natures come naturally rising out of it, I fear that the counterintuitive logic of religion fundamentally contravenes that of Darwin. In other words, evolution happens, but it’s purely utilitarian, and is ultimately oriented not toward relationship, but toward blunt, endless genetic striving. Evolution is thus a pointless game, one that no one wins. Religion, if done correctly – and that’s a big if – therefore doesn’t cap off the Darwinian game. It calls us to play a different game.
But that’s just my opinion. And now here’s the interview:
CW: In your book, you imagine what a retelling of Genesis would look like if it were written by a scientist. This retelling is deeply teleological – you describe cosmic and biological evolution as purposeful, even if we can’t always see the purpose. Was this a narrative tool, or an expression of your own hard-won beliefs?
KG: Neither of these. I don’t think teleology or dysteleology is a compelling inference from natural history from the perspective of science. Science can’t address that question. I am taking a central Christian belief—the world has a purpose—and asking if one can credibly discern that purpose in history. Is there a place to stand that makes teleology defensible? I answer yes. But I am not saying this is the only place to stand.
CW: I’d wager that most evolutionary biologists would tend to reject the teleological story you tell in Seven Glorious Days, because Darwinian theory states firmly that biological evolution is purposeless and directionless. Do you hang out with many evolutionary biologists? Do you think this is an accurate read of how they’d react to your book?
KG: I think you exaggerate the extent to which Darwinians emphasize purposelessness. This is their stance but I don’t see a uniformly high level of either assent or emphasis. And I think Simon Conway Morris and Robert Wright and some others offer correctives. I certainly think they would reject the story I tell but I would reject it as well if I were asked to evaluate it purely on the basis of science. My book is not intended to explain to readers what science has learned. It is a speculation about how we would talk about creation today, as religious believers. Of course atheists are not going to get on board.
CW: Methodologically Darwinian theory depends on a lack of direction. Your Christian commitments insist that there is a direction, a purpose, to the world. Is there a point at which you’re willing to admit, “Yes, my version of evolution is actually different from Darwin’s, and I’m okay with that. Darwin’s theory centrally states that there’s no purpose in the biological world, and I think otherwise.”?
KG: I just don’t think this is true. E.O. Wilson says that evolution moves in the direction of sociality; Robert Wright says it moves toward complexity; Conway Morris sees directionality in convergence. I think you are oversimplifying Darwinism.
CW: I think there actually are some fairly deep tensions between Western religious worldviews and Darwinian theory. Those tensions don’t necessarily arise from conflicts with the Bible, but instead from deeper, psychological and spiritual issues – such as the conflict between Darwinian purposelessness and most people’s need for purpose and meaning. Would you agree? Would you need to qualify that agreement? Or do you think I’m barking up the wrong tree?
KG: I think you are barking up the wrong tree. Much of purposelessness claimed for Darwinism is done in the name of fighting religion, not understanding science.
CW: Many Christian thinkers argue for the compatibility of a scientific worldview and Christian beliefs. But most of those – including yourself – add a teleological gloss onto the scientific cosmic story in order to do so. A great example is Tielhard de Chardin: he was a paleontologist, and obviously took evolution seriously, but claimed that the entire universe was evolving toward a greater expression of God. Do you think there will ever be a serious Christian thinker who will say, “Yep, the scientific materialists are right, and the universe is pretty much purposeless. We’ve got to find our meaning and purpose somewhere besides the physical cosmos.”?
KG: I don’t see this happening. It would require a religious believer to claim that a theological inference had been established by science. That seems unlikely to be done by any serious thinker.
CW: As I’ve thought more about the existential ramifications of modern cosmology and evolution theory, I’ve begun to wonder whether the right thing to do is for religious believers to accept those sciences as partial knowledge. That is, evolution obviously does happen, and the cosmos is very, very old and expanding rapidly. So those things are right. But when neo-Darwinians claim that evolution means life is essentially purposeless, religious people have the right and responsibility to say, “Um, no. Sorry. Life has purpose, even if you can’t see it.” In other words, is it all right for there to just be a real disagreement between worldviews? (CW’s note: This opinion doesn’t contradict what I say above. I think neo-Darwinians are right when it comes to evolution, but they’re wrong if they say the (genuine) purposelessness in evolution implies a concomitant purposelessness in human life itself.)
KG: Yes. This is OK. There will certainly be disagreement. But again I think you are exaggerating the purposelessness aspect of evolution.
CW: In my review of your book, I claimed that it was better to emphasize the dark elements of the evolutionary worldview – the competition, struggle, and essential aloneness of Darwin’s vision – and then let religion be a response to that darkness. What’s your biggest disagreement with that claim?
KG: I would claim that would be another book! You obviously wanted me to write a different book than the one I did. I was “rewriting” the first chapter of Genesis which is not about the dark side of reality. Whether the different book you wanted me to write would be better or worse than the one I did write is an open question. I think it would just be a different book. (CW’s note: I think this is a fair criticism of my review.)
CW: I saw a talk here in Boston the other night on evolution. One of the lecturers wrapped up his talk by saying that the meaning in evolution isn’t in the death, the suffering, or the competition. Instead, it’s in the winning: for instance, the fact that every member of the audience present was the descendent of an unbroken line of genetic winners. This illustrated my growing sense that, at its heart, Darwinian theory has no answer to the problem of suffering and death. Once you’re washed out of the gene pool, that’s it. You’re done. But it’s hard not to notice that Jesus cared most for the people who were probably least well-positioned to win Darwin’s game: lepers, outcasts, the poor. What do you make of this? Is Christianity – or even religion in general – a way to answer the problems that leave Darwinians stumped?
KG: The point made in that talk in Boston is not mainstream evolutionary science. Darwinians are not stumped by this because they are not trying to explain this. Even Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, notes that we have the capacity to transcend our evolutionary history. I would say that Christianity answers important questions that Darwinism does not address, as opposed to questions that Darwinism addresses unsuccessfully.