Lecture and Discussant Text

Michael Ruse
Darwinism and Atheism: A Marriage Made in Heaven?
Thursday March 7 2002, 7:00- 9:00 PM

Discussant: Steven Rothstein, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology
Bruce Tiffney, Department of Geological Sciences

All text below is in unrevised form exactly as presented. Do not cite without permission of author.

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Lecture Text

In the past decade, there has been an interesting meeting of minds. One finds, as one would expect, that the Christian fundamentalists -- the biblical literalists or so-called "Creationists" -- have argued that Darwinism and Christianity are incompatible (Johnson 1991, 1995). This they have argued for the past century. For these Christians, every word of the Bible must be taken at immediate face value: the early chapters of Genesis tell truly of a six-day period of Creation but a few thousand years ago, of humans appearing miraculously at the final moment, and of a universal flood destroying all but a chosen few of those animals living in the earliest times. Hence, understanding by "Darwinism" the belief that all organisms living and dead have arrived by a slow process of evolution from forms very different and probably much simpler, and that the process of change was natural selection -- the survival of the fittest -- the incompatibility follows at once. On this version of Christianity, one simply cannot simultaneously be a true Believer and a Darwinian evolutionist. Since the fundamentalists tend to regard anyone who does not subscribe to their beliefs as denying just about anything of ontological theological worth, they therefore regard Darwinism and atheism -- the absolute rejection of God 's existence -- to be tightly linked. Indeed, for the Creationist, Darwinism is simply atheism given a scientific face, and it has to be the main reason why anyone would reject the belief in a Christian God.

What one also finds today, and this perhaps one might not expect, is that a number of articulate, prominent Darwinians agree entirely with the Creationists. They too see science and religion in open contradiction.

It is completely unrealistic to claim that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims. (Dawkins 1997, 399)


More than this, those who think in this way want to argue -- with the Creationists -- that Darwinism is atheism with a scientific face. They too want to argue that, if one is a Darwinian, then logically one should deny the existence of God. To deny this is a sad reflection of the fact that a "cowardly flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people confronted with long-established religions" (Dawkins 1997, 397).

In this essay, I shall look at this claim that Darwinism and atheism are different sides of the same coin. I shall consider what connection exists between the two. Deliberately, I shall limit my discussion inasmuch as I shall not consider the truths of either Darwinism or atheism as such. And in another way I shall limit my discussion, in that I shall not look directly at the arguments of the Creationists, the biblical literalists, on this matter. As it happens, I have written extensively on these matters elsewhere (Ruse 1982, 1988). So my silence does not imply a lack of interest. Rather, my focus in this discussion now is on the arguments put forward by the Darwinians. Or, not to be unduly coy on this matter, "by me and my fellow Darwinians." For let there be no concealing of the fact that I am as ardent an enthusiast for evolution through natural selection as anyone, not excluding Dawkins himself (Ruse 1986a, 1989, 1995). Nothing I have to say now qualifies or mutes that enthusiasm.

Although my interests are conceptual -- looking at the connections between Darwinism and atheism as put forward by contemporary Darwinians -- as an evolutionist I like to set discussions in historical frameworks (Ruse 1979a, 1996). Hence, I shall begin with a brief historical overview of the perceived relationships between evolution and religious beliefs, especially Christian religious beliefs. This will introduce the topic and provide a background against which the main discussion can occur. (There is more to evolution than Darwinism and there is more to religion than Christianity, but it is the supposed clash between these two belief systems which has been the focus of recent attention and on which I shall concentrate in this discussion.)

Charles Darwin and religious belief

Evolutionary thinking is the child of the eighteenth century: the Age of the Enlightenment (Bowler 1984; Ruse 1996). More specifically, such thinking is the direct offspring of the most popular ideology of that period, the belief in the possibility of upward social and cultural and intellectual progress (Bowler 1976; Ruse 1993). People believed that through their own efforts it would prove possible to improve the social state of humankind as well as its store of knowledge. Starting from this belief, a number of thinkers argued that one should expect to find such a progressive upward rise in the world of nature. From the most simple to the most complex, ending ultimately with humankind. This they tended to find and then, in a circular fashion, such thinkers would use the upward progress of nature as a justification for their belief in social progress!

One such early progressionist-made-flesh was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, the British physician Erasmus Darwin (1789, 1791, 1794). He was forthright in seeing upward trends in the organic world: trends of a kind which we today would label "evolutionary." (The word "evolution," meaning transformation of forms, tended not to come into general use until the middle of the nineteenth century.) Erasmus Darwin was much given to expressing his views in verse, as in the following passage:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves; First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass, Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass; These, as successive generations bloom, New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume; Whence countless groups of vegetation spring, And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.


Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood, Which bears Britannia's thunders on the flood; The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main, The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain, The Eagle soaring in the realms of air, Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare, Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd, Of language, reason, and reflection proud, With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod, And styles himself the image of his God; Arose from rudiments of form and sense, An embryon point, or microscopic ens! (Darwin 1803, 1, 295-314.)

The ideology of progress was seen (with reason) to be a challenge to a Christian view of history (Bury 1924). For the Christian, Providence is the key factor in events over time. We humans are fallen sinners, and it is through and only through God's great love -- as shown by His sacrifice on the cross -- that we have hope of ultimate salvation. On our own, we are as nothing. Indeed to think that, without God's grace, we can raise ourselves up at all is one of the oldest and deepest heresies of Christian faith (Pelikan 1971-1989). Which heresy is the very backbone of progressivism, for the doctrine or ideology is committed to the belief that upward improvement is possible in all realms at the social and at the intellectual and -- the crucial "and" - that this is something which comes about through unaided human effort. There is no need or place for outside intervention and especially not for intervention of a supernatural or divine kind (Wagar 1972).

Early forms of evolution were therefore seen to be incompatible with Christian belief. The kinds of organic progressivism which lay at the heart of Erasmus Darwin's thinking -- as well as of other early evolutionists, like the French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1809) -- were rightly taken to be at odds with Christian Providentialism. And it is worth noting that early critics of organic evolutionism, as often as not, based their critiques precisely on the perceived progressionism. Adam Sedgwick, for example, the Cambridge Professor of geology and teacher of Charles Darwin, made explicit the way in which he linked evolution and progress. "I am no believer either in organic or social perfectability and I believe that all sober experience teaches us that there are conditions both moral and physical, which must entail physical and moral pain so long as the world lasts" (letter to Herbert Spencer, July 29, 1853).

But while early evolutionism was rightly taken as a challenge to the Christian view of creation -- parenthetically, I would note that since by the beginning of the nineteenth century serious thinkers had come to realize that at least some metaphorical interpretation was demanded of the early chapters of Genesis, their possible incompatibility with evolution was not a major stumbling block (Gillespie 1950; Ruse 1979a) -- it should not thereby be assumed that the early evolutionists thought that they were therefore promulgating or promoting atheism. In fact, to a person one can truly say that all of the early evolutionists were sincere believers. However, their belief was in a God as unmoved mover, rather in a Christian providential God. That is to say, early evolutionists like Erasmus Darwin tended toward deism (Benn 1906). They endorsed the idea of God as one who perhaps creates (certainly designs) but does not intervene, rather than the theistic idea of God as both Creator and intervener in the creation. Indeed, it seems not unfair to say that for people like Erasmus Darwin the law-like nature -- "natural" as opposed to "supernatural" -- of the evolutionary process was taken as a confirmation of the deism, rather than as a general challenge to any kind of religious thought (McNeil 1987). Hence, although evolution and Christianity were pushed apart, it is in no sense true to say that evolution was taken as proof of atheism. The very contrary, in fact.

What now of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the so-called "father" of evolutionism? It is clear that Darwin -- who in 1859 published his great work On the Origin of Species, in which he introduced the mechanism of natural selection as part of his argument for the very fact of evolution -- has a more complex relationship with religion in general, and with Christianity in particular, than has often been thought to be the case. To see this, let us start at the beginning with the fact that Darwin was educated at conventional British establishments. First at one of the great public schools, Shrewsbury, and then at the University of Cambridge, he received an orthodox Anglican (Church of England) education (Desmond and Moore 1992; Browne 1995). This had its effect for, as a young man, Darwin intended quite sincerely to be a clergyman: the early Darwin was a Christian of a conventional British Protestant variety. This did not last: in the course of the voyage which he made on H.M.S. Beagle around the world (1831-1836), Darwin's Christian faith started to fade away. A major reason here was that he no longer found miracles to be overwhelmingly certain, and that having being brought up on Archdeacon Paley's Evidences of Christianity which makes miracles such a central part of Christian belief, Darwin started to challenge the beliefs themselves.

It is pretty clear, indeed, that by 1837 -- by which point Darwin had become an evolutionist -- he was no longer either a practicing or a believing Christian, that is one who took Jesus Christ as his savior. However, like his paternal grandfather, and indeed like other members of his family, particularly his uncle and his future father-in-law Josiah Wedgwood, Darwin had not slipped into atheistic non-belief. He had rather developed an inclination for some form of deism, that is to say, of God as unmoved mover. In other words, Darwin had become convinced that God works through unbroken law: for him, as for other evolutionists, the belief in organic evolution was both a consequence and a justification of his religious position. I should say also that, combined with this, in Darwin one had a strong commitment to social and intellectual progressivism (Ospovat 1981). This was very much the political philosophy of his (upper-middle-class) family's segment of society. Whilst it is true that, over the years, Darwin wrestled more with problems of organic progress than did his contemporaries, he always regarded the evolutionary process as progressive. Conversely, he took this progressiveness as a justification of his own socio-political philosophy (Greene 1982).

There is more to the story than this. Uniquely for Darwin among evolutionists, as a consequence of his education, was the major influence of the natural theology of his day. Following Paley (1802), everyone at Cambridge took it as axiomatic that natural theology reenforces the beliefs of revealed theology: one finds evidence of design or functioning throughout the world, especially throughout the organic world (Whewell 1840). The hand and the eye, to take the classic examples, were thought to be more than randomly organized: they were thought to show evidence of functioning, which was taken to be evidence of a wise, all-powerful designer, the Christian God.

Darwin never relinquished this belief that the organic world seems as if designed. It stayed with him until his dying day. And indeed, such a belief is even to this day the chief mark of being a Darwinian: no one is more strident in his commitment to the design-like nature of the living world than is Richard Dawkins (1976, 1986). (Conversely one finds the contemporary critics of Darwinism, like Stephen Jay Gould (1977a, b), are inclined to play down the design-like nature of the empirical world.) What Darwin did was to propose a mechanism -- natural selection -- which would explain how the design-like nature of the organic world could come into being without need of a direct miraculous intervention of a creator (Young 1985). Natural selection specifies that, thanks to the struggle for existence, more organisms are born than can possibly survive and reproduce and that as a consequence only a few will become the ancestors of future generations. These successful few (the "fitter") will be different from the losers and that therefore, over the generations, there will be a natural equivalent to the breeders' selecting of certain specified forms. A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.

Then, after this, we get the inference to natural selection:

Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually Can itbe thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such 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 preservation of favourable variations and rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. (Darwin 1859, 80-81)

Most importantly, this natural equivalent to the process practiced by breeders will lead not only to change, but change of a particular kind: change in the direction of design-like attributes, or (as they are commonly known) "adaptations". It was Darwin's aim, particularly as expressed in the Origin of Species, to show how through natural normal laws (working as they do in the form of natural selection) one can get design-like effects without need of miraculous intervention of a great designer in the sky.

Initially, Darwin certainly did not think that his evolutionary argument challenged the fact of a designer. Rather, what was challenged was the need of such a designer to work through special directed laws, or to intervene miraculously in his creation. In fact, there is good reason to think that right through the publication of the Origin Darwin remained committed to the belief in a deistic designer: a designer who works through unbroken law, and who is thereby that much more magnificent because he has had no need of miraculous intervention. Throughout the Origin there are unembarrassed references to the "Creator" and there is no reason to think that Darwin meant these in anything but a sincere manner. For Darwin, as for others of his time (notably the Reverend Baden Powell (1855)), a God who could work through unbroken law was as far above a God of miracles as the British industrialist working through machines is above the cottage artesian working by hand in isolation. God designs, but a distance.

Towards the end of his life, particularly under the influence of his great supporter Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's deism started to fade into agnosticism. Darwin never became an atheist, in the sense of an out-and-out nonbeliever in a deity. But increasingly he found it difficult to reconcile belief in a Creator with what he took to be the unambiguous facts of evil in the world. The early death of his favourite child, Annie, preyed constantly on his mind (Desmond and Moore 1992). Such emotions as this pushed Darwin towards some form of scepticism. Yet, not only was this not atheism but it was in no sense promoted or caused by his belief in evolution as such. Perhaps the belief in evolution made it possible to move to some form of agnosticism. Without evolution through natural selection it would be difficult to see how design comes into being, save one postulates some kind of intervention by an external deity. (More on this kind of point in the discussion of Dawkins.) But the evolutionism as such did not make Darwin a non-believer: indeed, given its stress on design was perhaps a factor in his not making this move.

Religious responses

After the Origin was published, there was much controversy over Darwin's ideas and in this controversy Christian opposition figured in a major way. The classic case of disagreement occurred in 1860 at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when the High Church Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce squared off against Huxley, then professor of geology at the London School of Mines (Desmond 1994). Their debate ranged over many factors including science, but there is little doubt that religion was a major dividing point. Wilberforce was certainly no biblical literalist; but he felt most uncomfortable at the implications of Darwinism for humankind: particularly at the suggestion that we members of Homo sapiens might have a purely naturalistic origin (Wilberforce 1860; Huxley 1863). Also, Wilberforce felt that -- for all Darwin claimed otherwise -- natural selection failed to speak adequately to the question of design.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the iconic status of the Wilberforce-Huxley clash, one should not over-estimate the extent to which there was Christian opposition to evolution in general and to Darwinism in particular. As in Falstaff's encounter with robbers, much of the opposition grew in the telling. People like Huxley were fighting at that time for a secular professional civil service and state-supported meritocracy: a meritocracy that would include science and science educators at the school and university level (Ruse 1996; Desmond 1997). It suited them therefore to portray their opponents as being more religiously bigoted then they truly were (Huxley 1893). And then, in the years to come, when Huxley and his friends came to tell the history, there was strong tendency to portray the religious opposition to Darwinism -- a religious opposition which they claimed to have conquered -- as being far more strident and formidable than it truly was. More than one Christian chided Huxley himself on his almost deliberate misrepresentation of their beliefs and of his ascribing to them far stronger opposition to evolutionism than they truly felt.

In fact, for all the opposition, historians of the period suggest strongly that Christianity - certainly main-stream orthodox Christianity in Britain, and Germany and America as well -- rapidly found an accommodation with evolutionism (Durant 1985; Moore 1979). There were two main strategies. On the one hand, there were the more liberal kinds of Christians -- theologically liberal, that is, but often also socially liberal. These were the ones who had taken to heart the critical attacks of the Enlightenment as directed towards conventional Christianity. They accepted for instance the full implications of so-called "higher criticism," which suggested that the Bible is a far more human document than hitherto recognized. They accepted also many of the criticisms of the philosophers, notably Hume and then Kant, suggesting that traditional natural theology is a lot less secure than was believed back at the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas. They saw also the need to accommodate Christianity to changing social situations, particularly the coming of industrialism, the consequent move from the countryside to the cities, the alienation of modern life, and much, much more. These liberal Christians prided themselves not simply on the accommodation with science, but their positive enthusiasm for it.

This enthusiasm included evolution. Although to be candid, the reception of evolutionary ideas by liberal Christians towards the end of the last century was in major respects not overly Darwinian. Far more influential on the theologies of such thinkers were the ideas and speculations of Darwin's fellow Englishman, Herbert Spencer (1852a, b, 1857, 1864, 1904). Particularly this shows itself over the mechanism of natural selection, which liberal Christians tended to find harsh and unfeeling. In fact Spencer had independently discovered selection, but always he put far more emphasis on a Lamarckian-fueled process (inheritance of acquired characteristics) as we strive to overcome life's challenges and thereby move progressively upwards to higher forms of life (Duncan 1908). This was much more to the liberals' tastes, especially since Spencer (1862) himself was prepared to talk of the "unknowable": which might have been a purely material base to all existence and then again might have been something more. If one thought in terms of a world-picture which was forever moving upwards, through effort, leaving the struggle behind (something to be conquered and transcended), then a Christian message could be grafted on seamlessly - or so was the opinion.
If single acts [of creation] would evince design, how much more a vast universe, that by inherent laws gradually builded itself, and then created its own plants and animals, a universe so adjusted that it left by the way the poorest things, and steadily wrought toward more complex, ingenious, and beautiful results! Who designed this mighty machine, created matter, gave to it its laws, and impressed upon it that tendency which has brought forth the almost infinite results on the globe, and wrought them into a perfect system? Design by wholesale is grander than design by retail. (Beecher 1885, 113)

People were even prepared to break into verse:
Hear me, O jarring peoples! I am one, In deep abysses or in heavens high: One law swings the long circuit of the sun, And by one law the new-fledged birdlings fly.


Religion binds thee to my law divine, And this law binds thee to thy fellow-man. 'Tis one law in the market, at the shrine: Earth, heaven, - see! they're built upon one plan. (Savage 1884, 68)

What about the ethical questions? Did not these cause problems for the liberal Christians? It is well known that there were those who took Darwinism or rather took Spencer's ideas and converted them into rather harsh neo-liberal systems of economics, so-called laissez faire. The "social Darwinians" supposedly argued that life is a bloody struggle and that in society as in nature, the weakest will and must go to the wall. Would this not sit uncomfortably for liberal Christians? As it happens however, not all social Darwinians, including Spencer himself, were enthusiastic advocates of unrestrained heartless laissez faire, although some were (as they are today) and found that this sat very comfortably with their Christianity. But, more generally at the end of the nineteenth century one finds amongst social Darwinians a range of philosophical and moral commitments, including socialism (Russett 1976; Crook 1994; Pittenger 1993)! Hence, there was generally seen as no great tension between the ethical implications of evolutionism and Christian imperatives. Overall, it was progress that counted: a progress the liberals found sitting comfortably with their theology.

If the whole theory of evolution is but a slow decree of God, and if He is behind it and under it, then the solution not only becomes natural and easy, but it becomes sublime, than in that waiting experiment which was to run through the ages of the world, God had a plan by which the race should steadily ascend, and the weakest become the strongest and the invisible become more and more visible, and the finer and nobler at also transcend and absolutely control its controllers, and the good in men become mightier than the animal in them. (Beecher 1885, 429)

This was a bastard form of evolution. Was there no one to say that this was a bastard form of Christianity? Surely there must have been some who were uncomfortable with all of the talk about progress? What had happened to Providence? And not all can have felt that any talk of pain and suffering was embarrassing to the Christian. Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly when you think about it, it was the more orthodox Christians who in respects felt more comfortable with orthodox Darwinism. After all, as they pointed out, what problems was Darwin raising that had not already been faced by the traditional Christian?

The student of natural history who falls into the modern habits of speculation upon his favorite subject may safely leave Calvinistic theologians to defend his religious faith. All the philosophical difficulties which he will ever encounter, and a great many more, have already been bravely met in the region of speculative theology. The man of science need not live in fear of opprobrious epithets; for there are none left in the repertory of theological disputants which can be specially aimed at the Darwinian advocate of continuity in nature. The Arminian, the Universalist, and the Transcendentalist long ago exhausted their magazines in their warfare against the lone camp of the Calvinist; while the Calvinist has stood manfully in the breech, and defended the doctrine that method is an essential attribute of the divine mind, and that whatsoever proceeds from that mind conforms to principles of order; God 'hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass'. The doctrine of the continuity of nature is not new to the theologian. The modern man of science, in extending his conception of the reign of law, is but illustrating the fundamental principle of Calvinism. (Wright 1882, 219-220)

Indeed, argued the most orthodox, the great thing about a Darwinian approach to organic origins is precisely that it puts design into the action of the laws themselves, thus reaffirming God's immanence throughout the universe. This was the argument of the Anglo-Catholic, Aubrey Moore.

Science had pushed the deist's God farther and farther away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. He cannot be here, and not there. He cannot delegate his power to demigods called 'second causes'. In nature everything must be His work or nothing. We must frankly return to the Christian view of direct Divine agency, the immanence of Divine power from end to end, the belief in a God in Whom not only we, but all things have their being, or we must banish him altogether. (Moore 1890, 99-100)

Fisher and Dobzhansky

Move forward now and into this century. These have not been the greatest of times for Christian religious belief: in Europe, at least, although the Christian religion seems still to thrive in America. This decline in faith has surely reflected on professional evolutionists, and I doubt that you are going to find overwhelming support for Christianity among such people. How much their actual evolutionism may have been responsible may be questioned - indeed, it is the question of this essay. Surely, evolutionists are much affected thanks to a general decline in belief for whatever reason. But, whatever the relative causes may be, the fact is that some of the most eminent and visible evolutionists of this century have been sincere practicing Christians. Two men, Sir Ronald Fisher in England and the Russian-born Theodosius Dobzhansky in America, might properly be regarded as the pinnacles. Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930) was the truly great mathematization of the subject. Dobzhansky's Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937) was the inspiration - the paradigm - for a generation of American evolutionists. They were both Christians and worked hard to integrate their religious beliefs with their evolutionism.

Fisher, a member of the Church of England, saw God as having set himself the task of creation through the process of evolution through natural selection (Box 1978). So likewise humans have a task of improvement here on earth, which for Fisher translated into the improvement of the human species through eugenics.
To the traditionally religious man, the essential novelty introduced by the theory of the evolution of organic life, is that creation was not all finished a long while ago, but is still in progress, in the midst of its incredible duration. In the language of Genesis we are living in the sixth day, probably rather early in the morning, and the Divine artist has not yet stood back from his work, and declared it to be "very good." Perhaps that can only be when God's very imperfect image has become more competent to manage the affairs of the planet of which he is in control. (Fisher 1947, 1001)

Fisher drew a remarkable parallel between faith and works and Lamarckism and Darwinism:
There is indeed a strand of moral philosophy, which appeals to me as pure gain, which arises in comparing Natural Selection with the Lamarckian group of evolutionary theories. In both of these contrasting hypotheses living things themselves are the chief instruments of the Creative activity. On the Lamarckian view, however, they work their effect by willing and striving only; but, on the Darwinian view, it is by doing or dying. It is not mere will, but its actual sequel in the real world, its success or failure, that is alone effective.


We come here to a close parallelism with Christian discussions on the merits of Faith and Works. Faith, in the form of right intentions and resolution, is assuredly necessary, but there has, I believe, never been lacking through the centuries the parallel, or complementary, conviction that the service of God requires of us also effective action. If men are to see our good works, it is of course necessary that they should be good, but also and emphatically that they should work, in making the world a better place. (Fisher 1950, 19-20)

Dobzhansky was by birth and allegiance a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, but doctrinally he subscribed to a kind of pan-Christianity. The big influence, particularly in his later years, was the French Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1955), who saw the whole of existence in an upwards progress towards something he called the "Omega Point," a peak to be identified with the godhead as manifested in Jesus Christ. In some sense, Dobzhansky like the priest saw evolution as an upward process, at least to humankind if not all the way to God.
I see no escape from thinking that God acts not in fits of miraculous interventions, but in all significant and insignificant, spectacular and humdrum events. Pantheism, you may say? I do not think so, but if so then there is this much truth in pantheism. The really tough point is, of course, in what sense can God's action be seen in all that happens. I am not foolish enough to thin that I can solve this. Perhaps Teilhard had a hint, very obscurely expressed I refuse to abstain from talking about progress, improvement, and creativity. Why should I? In evolution some organisms progressed and improved and stayed alive, others failed to do so and became extinct. Some adaptations are better than others - for the organisms having them; they are better for survival rather than for death. Yes, life is a value and a success, death is valueless and a failure. So, some evolutionary changes are better than others. Yes, life is trying to hang on and to produce more life. (Greene and Ruse 1996, 463)

Notoriously, Teilhard ran into trouble with his church, which refused to let him publish while he was still alive, so I am not pretending that this was a science /religion synthesis that would have been acceptable to every one. The point is that through this century we do see committed Christians trying - and feeling that in some sense they have succeeded in - finding a way of meshing their faith with their evolutionary science. And with this rather lengthy historical prolegomenon now completed, let me turn to today's Darwinian evolutionists who would erect impassible barriers between their theory and the Christian religion.

Edward O. Wilson

I shall start with the Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. I am aware that much of what he wants to say is highly controversial, but this is not the topic of this paper. I and others have looked at these matters at length elsewhere. Here I am assuming that the science is well taken. I should add parenthetically that I am also aware that, in many respects, Wilson owes much in his thinking to Herbert Spencer, perhaps at least as much as to Charles Darwin (Ruse 1996). However, in the present context, the thinking is essentially Darwinian: I shall therefore ignore historical and conceptual niceties.

Wilson is an interesting case. Although he is no Christian -- indeed, as we shall see, he wants to replace Christianity by some sort of naturalistic materialism -- in many respects, he is significantly more sympathetic to religion in general and perhaps even to Christianity in particular than many Darwinian non-believers. Here, there is a stark contrast with the two men to be considered in the following sections. Wilson recognizes the importance of religion and its widespread nature: he is very far from convinced that one will ever eliminate religious thinking from the human psyche, at least as we know it. In his popular Pulitzer-Prize-winning work, On Human Nature, Wilson devotes a whole chapter to religion, beginning as follows:

The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature. Emile Durkheim, an agnostic, characterized religious practice as the consecration of the group and the core of society. It is one of the universals of social behavior, taking recognizable form in every society from hunter-gatherer bands to socialist republics. Its rudiments go back at least to the bone altars and funerary rites of Neanderthal man. At Shanidar, Iraq, sixty thousand years ago, Neanderthal people decorated a grave with seven species of flowers having medicinal and economic value, perhaps to honor a shaman. Since that time, according to the anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace, mankind has produced on the order of 100 thousand religions.


Skeptics continue to nourish the belief that science and learning will banish religion, which they consider to be no more than a tissue of illusions. The noblest among them are sure that humanity migrates toward knowledge by logotaxis, an automatic orientation toward information, so that organized religion must continue its retreat as darkness before enlightenment's brightening dawn. But this conception of human nature, with roots going back to Aristotle and Zeno, has never seemed so futile as today. If anything, knowledge is being enthusiastically harnessed to the service of religion. The United States, technologically and scientifically the most sophisticated nation in history, is also the second most religious - after India. According to a Gallup poll taken in 1977, 94 percent of Americans believe in God or some form of higher being, while 31 percent have undergone a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening, their brush with the epiphany. The most successful book in 1975 was Billy Graham's Angels: God's Secret Messengers, which sold 810 thousand hard-cover copies. (Wilson 1978, 169-170)

As far as Wilson is concerned, religion exists purely by the grace of natural selection: those organisms which have religion survive and reproduce better than those which do not. Religion gives ethical commandments, which are important for group living; also, religion confers a kind of group cohesion -- a cohesion which is a very important element of Wilson's picture of humankind.
While growing increasingly sophisticated, anthropology and history continue to support Max Weber's conclusion that the more elementary religions seek the supernatural for purely mundane rewards: long life, abundant land and food, averting physical catastrophes, and the conquest of enemies. A kind of cultural Darwinism also operates during the competitions among sects in the evolution of more advanced religions. Those that gain adherents grow; those that cannot, disappear. Consequently religions are like other human institutions in that they evolve in directions that enhance the welfare of the practitioners. Because of this demographic benefit must accrue to the group as a whole, it can be gained partly by altruism and partly by exploitation, with certain sectors profiting at the expense of others. Alternatively, the benefit can arise as the sum of the generally increased fitness of all of the members. The resulting distinction in social terms is between the more oppressive to some degree, especially when they are promoted by chiefdoms and states. There is a principle in ecology, Gause's law, which states that maximum competition is to be found between those species with identical needs. In a similar manner, the on\e form of altruism that religions seldom display is tolerance of other religions. Their hostility intensifies when societies clash, because religion is superbly serviceable to the purposes of warfare and economic exploitation. The conqueror's religion becomes a sword, that of the conquered a shield. (Wilson 1978, 174-5)

One should note that, although in this paragraph Wilson talks about cultural evolution, he makes it clear that in fact he thinks that, in some sense, religion is ingrained directly into our biology. Thanks to our genes, it is part of our innate nature.
The highest forms of religious practice, when examined more closely, can be seen to confer biological advantage. Above all they congeal identity. In the midst of the chaotic and potentially disorienting experiences each person undergoes daily, religion classifies him, provides him with unquestioned membership in a group claiming great powers, and by this means gives him a driving purpose in life compatible with his self-interest. (Wilson 1978, 188)

What Wilson argues is that, in some sense, this will remain for ever. However, Wilson does believe that giving a Darwinian explanation -- Wilson would call it: giving a "sociobiological" explanation -- does make possible to deny religion the status of a body of true claims. And indeed, given our religious needs, this means that in some sense Wilson's position requires that the biology itself become an alternative secular religion. (Wilson much admires Julian Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading evolutionary humanist in the first part of this century, who authored a book entitled Religion Without Revelation.) Wilson himself writes as follows:

But make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism. It presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion. Its narrative form is the epic: the evolution of the universe from the big bang of fifteen years ago through the origin of the elements and celestial bodies to the beginnings of life on earth. The evolutionary epic is mythology in the sense that the laws it adduces here and now are believed but can never be definitively proved to form a cause-and-effect continuum from physics to the social sciences, from this world to all other worlds in the visible universe, and backward through time to the beginning of the universe. Every part of existence is considered to be obedient to physical laws requiring no external control. The scientist's devotion to parsimony in explanation excludes the divine spirit and other extraneous agents. Most importantly, we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. As I have tried to show, sociobiology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the human brain.
If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline. (Wilson 1978, 192)

As I have said, I am not interested here in critiquing Wilson's scientific position; although, I would agree with critics that what Wilson writes here seems to be rooted in his own childhood experiences of fundamentalist baptism in the American south, as much as in any knowledge or study of empirical reality. But let us take his position at face value and ask what Wilson's implication has for Christianity, particularly vis-à-vis the whole issue of atheism.

I take it that, in Wilson's own mind, what is happening is that Darwinism is explaining religion (including Christianity) as a kind of illusion: an illusion which is necessary for efficient survival and reproduction. Once this explanation has been put in place and exposed, one can see that Christianity has no reflection in reality. In other words, epistemologically one ought to be an atheist. As I have said, what makes Wilson particularly interesting is that -- atheist although he may be - he still sees an emotive and social power in religion. He would therefore replace spiritual religion with some kind of secular religion. Which secular religion, as it turns out, happens to be Darwinian evolutionism. (Actually, although no part of my argument, I would suggest that when Wilson articulates his secular alternative -- one making progress absolutely central -- he starts to sound a lot more Spencerian than Darwinian.)

Of course, the kind of argument that Wilson is promoting is hardly new. Both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud proposed similar sorts of arguments: trying to offer a naturalistic explanation of religion, arguing that once one has this explanation in place, one can see that the belief system is false. So already I doubt the absolutely essential Darwinian component to the general form of the argument. But, this apart, is the inference in general well taken? And even if it is well taken, what of the specific case of Darwinism and Christianity?

First the general case. It is certainly true that, sometimes, an explanation of why someone holds a belief suggests that, with respect to truth, the belief is not particularly well taken. Consider for instance the instance of spiritualism, particularly as it pertained to peoples' beliefs and practices in the First World War. Many bereaved people turned to spiritualism for comfort: indeed, they derived such comfort, for they heard or otherwise received messages from the departed. However, I suspect that all of us would agree that, even in those cases where no outright fraud was involved, it was unlikely that the dead soldier was in fact speaking to those remaining. Peoples' strong psychological desires to hear something comforting led them to project and receive the desired messages, and so they heard them. Once one offers this explanation, seeing how unreasonable it is to expect that the departed were in fact speaking, the whole spiritualist position collapses. (A particularly powerful consideration here comes from those instances where people received messages, believing that the departed were speaking to them, but where, at a later point, it turned out that the departed were in fact only wounded and still in the land of the living. The messages received were just as "authentic" as any of the others.)

Yet, not all explanations of why we or how we get to believe things are necessarily such as to debunk the veracity of the belief systems. Suppose, for instance, one gives a physiological/optical explanation of sight, showing how it is that some one is able to spot a speeding train bearing down on them. The fact that one can give an explanation -- in terms of the eye's physiology and of light rays and so forth -- in no sense demotes or discredits the belief that a speeding train is indeed bearing down on one.

The question we must ask now is whether religion is more like the spiritualism case or more like the speeding train case -- and it is surely pertinent to note that this is a question which is neither asked nor answered by Wilson. This omission does not mean that Wilson's preferred option for religion -- spiritualism rather than train -- is wrong. But it is to say that some additional argument is needed, in order to show that religion is more like the spiritualism case, than like the speeding train case. The point I am making is that, in a way, arguments like that of Wilson -- as indeed like those of Marx and Freud before him -- are arguments that, to a certain extent, come after the event rather than before. One realizes religion, let us say Christianity, is in some sense, inadequate or false. Then, one is led to ask why exactly it is that people are led to believe it and one offers some kind of materialistic or naturalistic argument to explain it. I am not sure that the explanation in itself is sufficient to show that one's belief is false, or at least I think one needs some further information as to why the explanation itself shows the belief false.

This brings us to the particular Wilsonian case of Darwinism and Christianity. And here the missing elements in Wilson's case become crucial. The fact that one has an evolutionary explanation of religion is surely not in itself enough to dismiss the belief system as illusory or false. We might offer an evolutionary explanation as to why somebody spots a speeding train, but the fact that it is an evolutionary evolution does not make the existence of the speeding train fictitious. Indeed, if anything, the evolutionary explanation convinces us that we do have a true perception of the speeding train. If evolution led us think that it was turtle dove rather than a train it would not be of much survival value.

None of this is to deny that people have proposed arguments suggesting that belief in Christianity is unsound, ridiculous even. There are all sorts of paradoxes which the Christian must face. But whether or not one can defend Christianity against such charges, I do not see that the charges themselves have been brought on by Darwinism: which is the nub of this discussion. Take the problem of the tension between free will and God's grace: If indeed we are free, does this mean that we can raise ourselves up in some sense? But if we can, then what need have we of God's grace? Yet, if God Himself chooses who is to be saved and who is not to be saved, where then is the bite of human freedom? I am not saying that one cannot explain away or deal with paradoxes like this, and of course we have had two thousand years of theological attempt to do precisely this. My point is that Wilson does not in any sense show that Darwinism adds to this problem. It is a paradox whether we evolved or were created miraculously on the Sixth Day. In short, Wilson's Darwinism does not prove the inadequacy of Christian belief; rather, his Darwinism shows why one might have a Christian belief, if evolution be true. (Technically: the truth of evolution is a necessary condition for the soundness of Wilson's argument; it is not necessarily a sufficient condition.)

Try again. Could one not argue that Darwinism shows that there is something wrong with religion, since Darwinism does not have a built-in teleological progression up to a particular end? At the least, this non-directedness shows the possibility of reaching and holding alternative religious beliefs -- each one of which could do the work selection demands. But, if indeed we could as readily reach alternative religious beliefs to any that we do hold now, and if all of these beliefs could be sincerely held, then this suggests that maybe any religion as such does not exist in its own right because it is true. It, like all of its possible alternatives, is simply a fiction created by biology, to enable us to survive and reproduce. In this way, there is a difference between religion and the train example. It is true that different beings might -- and indeed do -- evolve different ways of sensing the train's approach. One uses sight, another uses hearing. But the long and the short of it is that one is going to have to sense the train in some fairly standard sort of way, otherwise one is going to be wiped out. Religion, however, might be effective in achieving group cohesion, even though it take on very different forms . It might take on one of an infinite number of forms. All of which suggests that Darwinism is more corrosive on religious belief than one suspected at first.

But, obviously, one can mount this argument, even today, without really bothering too much about evolutionary biology. We know full well that different people do have different religious beliefs. Some are Christians, some are Jews, others are Muslim, and so on and so forth. In other words, what we know already is that cultural evolution, if we can so call it, has led to different religions that people maintain sincerely. And so already we seem to have at work an example of the argument based on the non-progressivist nature of the creative causal processes. Moreover, I hardly need say that there are already those today who think the argument is significant and quite corrosive on Christian belief, or indeed on any specific religious belief. I hardly need say also that there are standard replies that can be offered. One can suggest one belief is better than others, and the fact that some people have been led to mistaken beliefs does not deny the truth of this one belief. Many people sincerely deny evolution but this does not make them right. Or one can argue that perhaps there is some common core to all religious belief and that this is what counts. And note that as with the main argument, these counter-arguments have little to do with Darwinism. The point I am making is that for all that there are important issues here -- and I am sincere in agreeing that there are important issues here -- I am not sure that Darwinism is particularly relevant. Christian belief is being judged by other factors.

In any case, somewhat paradoxically, I am not sure that Wilson himself would particularly want to push this argument about the significance of the non-directedness of the evolutionary process. As I have mentioned, he is strongly influenced by Spencer. So although he clearly allows for cultural variation, when it comes to biology, I suspect that Wilson would say that all evolved religion shares a common core. Any new or hypothetical evolution must be similar to what we today regard as religion: else it would not maintain group cohesion and so on and so forth. My suspicion therefore is that Wilson would be inclined to downplay this comparative argument, at least at the biological level.

But what about a pure Darwinian, who would deny any progress or direction to evolution? Could they not launch some argument against the validity of religion. Perhaps they could, although even here whether one now has something which makes Christianity untenable on Darwinian grounds is another matter. Even if it is possible for people to be biologically (as opposed to just culturally) insensitive to religion, it is still open for the Christian to argue that those who did evolve this way are in some sense religiously blind, as we know some people are colour blind. I am not sure (without more argumentation) that this is an entirely effective response, but it is at least a response which one could make. Or one might say -- an alternative which I prefer -- that it is possible that beings might have evolved without religious sense, but whether they would count as beings like humans -- beings that a Christian God would want to cherish and put at the centre of his Creation -- is another matter entirely. Perhaps beings might have evolved which did not have a religious beliefs or even a capacity for religious belief, but who is to say that these are beings "made in the image of God"? We see lots of examples of evolution which lead to beings not particularly central to God's purpose. Would one truly want to say that God cares about the AIDS virus in the way that he cares about humans? Admittedly, there are passages in the Christian Bible suggesting that God cares for all organisms. But whether God regards all organisms as the special focus of his Creation, in the way that he regards humans, is an entirely different matter. It is not one sanctioned by Christian tradition. In short, some sort of argument against Christianity based on the non-progressivist nature of evolution change might end up with pyrrhic victory. It is not necessarily the case that evolved begins have to have religious belief; it is not necessary that even evolved rational beings have to have religious belief. But whether they would be of special spiritual importance in God's Creation is another matter entirely.

All in all, therefore, although I think that Wilson's argument is important, and one that a Christian ought to take seriously, I am not convinced that Wilson shows that Darwinism implies atheism. The atheism is being smuggled in, and then given an evolutionary gloss, which is an entirely different matter.

Richard Dawkins: Exposition

Let me start by quoting a couple of paragraphs from an interview that Dawkins gave recently.
I am considered by some to be a zealot. This comes partly from a passionate revulsion against fatuous religious prejudices, which I think lead to evil. As far as being a scientist is concerned, my zealotry comes from a deep concern for the truth. I'm extremely hostile towards any sort of obscurantism, pretension. If I think somebody's a fake, if somebody isn't genuinely concerned about what actually is true but is instead doing something for some other motive, if somebody is trying to appear like an intellectual, or trying to appear more profound than he is, or more mysterious than he is, I'm very hostile to that. There's a certain amount of that in religion. The universe is a difficult enough place to understand already without introducing additional mystical mysteriousness that's not actually there. Another point is esthetic: the universe is genuinely mysterious, grand, beautiful, awe inspiring. The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic, and measly in comparison to the way the universe actually is. The universe presented by organized religions is a poky little medieval universe, and extremely limited.

I'm a Darwinist because I believe the only alternatives are Lamarckism or God, neither of which does the job as an explanatory principle. Life in the universe is either Darwinian or something else not yet thought of. (Brockman 1995, 85-86)
These paragraphs are very revealing, not the least for showing the emotional hostility that Dawkins feels towards religion, including (obviously) Christianity. I am sure the reader will not be surprised to learn that Dawkins has recently characterized his move to atheism from religious belief as a "road to Damascus" experience (Dawkins November 1997). Saint Paul would have recognized a kindred spirit. But my purpose in quoting Dawkins's words here is not so much to pick out the emotion, as to point to the logic of Dawkins's thinking. This comes through particularly in the second paragraph just quoted. It is clear that for Dawkins we have here an exclusive alternation. Either you believe in Darwinism or you believe in God, but not both. For Dawkins there is no question for what philosophers call an inclusive alternation, that is to say either a or b or possibly both. (The third way mentioned is Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics. But neither Dawkins nor anybody else today thinks that this is a viable evolutionary mechanism.)

Why not simply slough off Christianity and ignore it? Things are not this simple: as noted at the beginning of this essay, Dawkins -- like any good Darwinian including Charles Darwin himself -- recognizes that the Christian religion poses the important question, namely that of the design-like nature of the world (Dawkins 1986). Moreover, Dawkins believes (what I suspect many philosophers would deny) that until Charles Darwin no one had shown that the God hypothesis, that is to say the God-as-designer hypothesis, is untenable: more particularly, Dawkins argues that until Darwin no one could avoid using the God hypotheses. (I am not sure that this is historically correct either, but no matter here.) In other writings, Dawkins deals at some length with the arguments of David Hume (1779), showing that although Hume offered a devastating critique of the argument from design (the teleological argument), ultimately he had to agree that there was something there which needed explanation. Moreover, as things stood at the time of Hume, that something by elimination had to be God.

When it comes to feeling awe over living 'watches' I yield to nobody. I feel more in common with the Reverent William Paley than I do with the distinguished modern philosopher, a well-known atheist, with whom I once discussed the time before 1859, when Darwin's Origin of Species was published. 'What about Hume?', replied the philosopher. 'How did Hume explain the organized complexity of the living world?', I asked. 'He didn' t, said the philosopher. 'Why does it need any special explanation?'
Paley knew that it needed a special explanation; Darwin knew it, and I suspect that in his heart of hearts my philosopher companion knew it too. In any case it will be my business to show it here. As for David Hume himself, it is sometimes said that that great Scottish philosopher disposed of the Argument from Design a century before Darwin. But what Hume did was criticize the logic of using apparent design in nature as positive evidence for the existence of a God. He did not offer any alternative explanation for apparent design, but left the question open. An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: 'I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.' I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. (Dawkins 1986, 5)


At this point, our historical survey starts to pay off. As things stand, Dawkins has provided an altogether inadequate argument. Why should we not say, with earlier Darwinians who were also Christians, that the alternation is inclusive? Why should we not say that Dawkins is certainly right -- as against say some one like Stephen Jay Gould (Gould and Lewontin 1979) -- in stressing the design-like nature of the organic world, but he is wrong in thinking that it is either Darwinism or God, but not both? At least, even if he is not wrong, he has failed to offer an argument for this, and as we have seen there have been many in the past who quite happily argued that the design-like nature of the world testifies to God's existence? It is simply that God created through unbroken law. Indeed, as we have seen, people in the past would argue that the very fact that God creates through unbroken law attests to his magnificence. Such a God is much superior to a God who had to act as Paley's watchmaker would have acted, that is through miracle. (Note that although in the hands of the deists, the ubiquity of law was taken as proof of God's distance, as rejigged in the hands of Anglo-Catholics like Aubrey Moore, the ubiquity of law was taken as proof of God's constant presence in his creation.)

In fairness, I think that at this point Dawkins does have a second argument up his sleeve. It is the venerable argument based on the problem of evil. But for Dawkins it is more than just the traditional argument (which is in itself not particularly evolutionary). What Dawkins would argue is that not only does evolution intensify the problem of evil, but Darwinism in particular makes it an overwhelming barrier to Christian belief. This argument is expressed most clearly in one of Dawkins's recent books: River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. In a chapter entitled "God's Utility Function," he starts by writing:

"I cannot persuade myself," Darwin wrote: "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars." Actually Darwin's gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had more complex causes. His reference to the Ichneumonidae was aphoristic. The macabre habits to which he referred are shared by their cousins the digger wasps, A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it but, according to Fabre and others, she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system, so as to paralyze it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh. It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim's ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose. (Dawkins 1995, 95-96)


Then, later in the chapter, Dawkins talks about organisms being excellent examples of design-like engineering. If we tried to unpack the engineering principles involved in organisms, the problems of pain and evil come to the fore. Meaning by the notion "utility function" the purpose for which an entity is apparently designed, Dawkins writes as follows:


Let us return to living bodies and try to extract their utility function. There could be many but, revealingly, it will eventually turn out that they all reduce to one. A good way to dramatize our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work it out, by reverse engineering, what the Engineer was trying to maximize: What was God's Utility Function?
Cheetahs give every indication of being superbly designed for something, and it should be easy enough to reverse-engineer them and work out their utility function. They appear to be well designed to kill antelopes. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God's purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes. Conversely, if we reverse-engineer an antelope we find equally impressive evidence of design for precisely the opposite end; the survival of antelopes and starvation among cheetahs. It is as though cheetahs had been designed by one deity and antelopes by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one Creator who made the tiger and lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is He a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? Is He maneuvering to maximize David Attenborough's television ratings? These are all intelligible utility functions that might have turned out to be true. In fact, of course, they are all completely wrong. We now understand the single Utility Function of life in great detail, and it is nothing like any of those. (Dawkins 1995, 104-105)


The point seems to be that if there be a God, then He is one who certainly is nothing like the Christian God: He is unkind, unfair, totally indifferent. And indeed, this is the point at which Dawkins ends the discussion of this chapter.

If Nature were kind, she would at least make the minor concession of anesthetizing caterpillars before they are eaten alive from within. But Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. Nature is not interested one way or the other in suffering, unless it affects the survival of DNA. It is easy to imagine a gene that, say, tranquilizes gazelles when they are about to suffer a killing bite. Would such a gene be favored by natural selection? Not unless the act of tranquilizing a gazelle improved that gene's chances of being propagated into future generations. It is hard to see why this should be so, and we may therefore guess that gazelles suffer horrible pain and fear when they are pursued to the death - as most of them eventually are. The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world us beyond all descent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.


Theologians worry away at the 'problem of evil" and a related "problem of suffering." On the day I originally wrote this paragraph, the British newspapers all carried a terrible story about a bus full of children from a Roman Catholic school that crashed for no obvious reason, with wholesale loss of life. Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question that a writer on a London newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) framed this way: "How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?" The article went on to quote one priest's reply: "The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would be no problem of evil or suffering."


On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Houseman put it:


For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither know nor care.
DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Dawkins 1995, 131-133)


Richard Dawkins: Critique

Now let us look at the worth of these arguments of Dawkins, remembering that the question at issue is not whether atheism is a sound religious position to take, but rather whether there is something inherent in Darwinism which pushes one towards atheism. My suspicion is that Dawkins still fails to make his case, although I do not want to minimize the importance of his arguments. I should say that (amusingly) my suspicion is reenforced by the fact that Jean-Henri Fabre, whom Dawkins cites in his own support, was in fact a Creationist opponent of Darwin thinking that one must invoke a designer: evolution on its own is inadequate (Tort 1996)! (Whether or not Dawkins was the first to put forth the arguments that he parades, or whether there were others who spotted these points earlier is not something with which I shall concern myself. I am not particularly interested in this question.)

First let me start by saying that I think Dawkins is absolutely right in his belief that Darwinism does impinge on the argument from design. More than this, at a conceptual level I would agree with Dawkins that in some sense Darwinism does make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, or some such thing. I agree that before Darwin conceptually it was difficult to see how design could be explained naturally and that design certainly did need an explanation. I agree with Dawkins -- and of course with Darwin and with Paley -- that the design-like nature of the organic world is a major problem standing in need of explanation. I agree incidentally that Hume saw this as an insuperable objection and this (and not some false sense of expediency) is why he equivocated after providing so many devastating arguments against the teleological argument. Thus far I go along the same path as Dawkins.

But what happens next? Darwinism may open the way to atheism, but does it necessitate atheism? Does it necessitate a rejection of Christianity? Rejecting Christianity is a rather weaker option than accepting atheism (one could accept deism for instance); but perhaps an argument for something along these lines influenced Darwin, particularly in his debate with his great American follower Asa Gray. One might argue that natural selection works on random variation and the very fact of randomness in some sense weakens any kind of Christian design. Gray wrote against Darwin:
So long as gradatory, orderly, and adapted forms in Nature argue design, and at least while the physical cause of variation is utterly unknown and mysterious, we should advise Mr Darwin to assume, in the philosophy of his hypothesis, that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines. Streams flowing over a sloping plain by gravitation (here the counterpart of natural selection) may have worn their actual channels as they flowed; yet their particular courses may have been assigned; and where we see them forming definite and useful lines of irrigation, after a manner unaccountable on the laws of gravitation and dynamics, we should believe that the distribution was designed. (Gray 1963, 121-2)

Against this Darwin responded that this was really most improbable. One "would have to believe that the tail of the Fantail was led to vary in the number and direction of its feathers in order to gratify the caprice of a few men." Later he added: "I to say that I come to differ more from you. It is not that designed variation makes, as it seems to me, my deity "Natural Selection" superfluous, but rather from studying, lately, domestic variation, and seeing what an enormous field of undesigned variability there is there ready for natural selection to appropriate for any purpose useful to each creature" (quoted in Moore 1979, 274)

Darwin's point seems to be that, although the world is indeed design-like, the mechanism of natural selection somehow precludes any kind of God except at a very distant sort of way: eighteenth-century deism rather than nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholicism. Darwin's argument bears on the unlikelihood that the Christian God would have been quite as indifferent to organic need as selection supposes at this point. However, interestingly, with respect to this line of argument, Dawkins stands very much in the tradition of Sir Ronald Fisher, rather downplaying the whole significance of variation. At least, downplaying the significance of the randomness of variation -- and thus coincidentally removing any bias towards deism and away from Christianity. Fisher's point was that in some sense variation is so common and so small that it swamps out or eliminates the effects of its randomness -- the randomness becomes unimportant.

A similar sort of argument is endorsed by Dawkins, particularly in a brilliant chapter of The Blind Watchmaker in which he shows how computer programmes can, very rapidly indeed, generate order from randomness. Opening this chapter, Dawkins writes:


We have seen that living things are too improbable and too beautifully designed' to have come into existence by chance. How, then, did they come into existence? The answer, Darwin's answer, is by gradual, step-by-step transformations from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance. Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance. But the whole sequence of cumulative steps constitutes anything but a chance process, when you consider the complexity of the final end-product relative to the original starting point. the cumulative process is directed by nonrandom survival. the purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate the power of this cumulative selection as a fundamentally nonrandom process. (Dawkins 1986, 43)

Precisely! The randomness of mutation is reduced to a mere technical detail. It is not something with profound implications, and certainly not something with profound theological implications. It is simply the raw material on which evolution builds: the fact that it is random is really quite irrelevant given the swamping nature of the selective process. Of course, the randomness is important for Dawkins in other respects: it does mean that there will be no pre-ordained plan which we know in advance will be fulfilled. Selection is opportunistic. Not only are there no immediate good mutations but the very standard of "goodness" is relativized -- which at the least is going to call for some deep thinking by the Christian who surely supposes that the emergence of humankind was not pure chance, but in some sense intended by God. There is the problem of all of those non-needed unpleasant mutations - more on this point in a moment -- and of the need to argue that God is really controlling his creation for all that the science suggests a lack of direction. Interestingly, however, if anything Dawkins once again takes a position more favourable to the Christian than one might think demanded by strict Darwinism. I wonder indeed whether Dawkins really thinks that selection is so very non-random, or rather non-directed. Notoriously, Dawkins differs strongly from Stephen Jay Gould over the progressiveness of evolution. Against Gould's claim (in such places as his book Wonderful Life), Dawkins argues that the evolution of intelligence is not just a matter of chance. Dawkins promotes something which he calls the "evolution of evolvability"-- something which is a kind of almost preordained upwards stepping of the evolutionary process (Dawkins 1988; Dawkins and Krebs 1979).

Whilst I am sure that Dawkins does not think that humans had to evolve exactly as they are, he certainly thinks that our evolution is more than just chance -- in the sense that, given natural selection, anything could have happened. He invokes the idea of an "arms race" where lines of organisms compete against each other, improving adaptations: the prey gets faster, the predator gets faster. Dawkins (1986, 1997) thinks that intelligence is something which virtually had to emerge out of this process, as electronic devices (like computers) have emerged from and now dominate human arms races. So as I say, I am not at all sure that Dawkins thinks that the evolutionary process is so very non-directed. In this respect, a Christian might well claim Dawkins as an ally. (More of an ally than I would be at this point, for I am with Gould and against biological progress. Historically, Dawkins is updating an argument found in Darwin -- someone I have already labeled a progressionist -- so although I deny that progress is a consequence of Darwinism, I agree that Dawkins is more in the tradition of Darwin himself than I. For more on this whole question of progress in biology, see Ruse 1993, 1996; McShea 1992.)

What about the next string to Dawkins's bow: the argument from evil? Dawkins thinks that the problem of evil is incompatible with a good God. More than this, Dawkins clearly thinks that natural selection -- relying as it does on a struggle for existence and producing adaptations which will aid organisms in the struggle for existence -- leads to an intensification of the problem. The evil was there and identified before Darwin set to work, but natural selection not only draws attention to it, but essentially suggests that evil and pain is bound to come through the selective process. This is something that one would expect from the most basic workings of nature, rather than existing (as it were) tacked on. Dawkins does not get into detailed theological argument at this point; but his case seems to be that, in the world that we have, evil is neither contingent -- perhaps a result of human action -- or something readily eliminable. It is as much a part of the essence of the organic existence as it is possible for anything to be. It is something incompatible with a good God, nor (Dawkins does not bring this out explicitly) does it seem that traditional counters will make it acceptable. It is stretching credulity to suppose with Augustine that evil is merely a privation, a lack of good. Selection positively produces evil - the parasite who exists only through the destruction of its host, for instance. Although do note that Dawkins's desperate desire to get to atheism takes him right past another Christian heresy, that of the Manicheans. He does not want to argue that natural selection points us towards the existence of an evil God. Rather, he argues that there is nothing at all. Nature is, as he says, "pitiless".

I should say that I am not entirely happy with all of Dawkins's metaphors at this point. Emotional dislike of religion rather than reasoned discussion is driving the argument at this point. Heinrich Himmler was pitiless towards the Jews. It is inappropriate to speak of the laws of nature as being likewise pitiless. Things which are pitiless are things which ought to show pity, but which do not. That is why Himmler was such an evil person. The laws of nature are not things which should in any sense show pity. To speak of them as pitiless is a rhetorical trick: straining the metaphor in directions favourable to Dawkins's atheistic conclusion. Indeed, if not straining it is stretching the metaphor even to say that the wasp which paralyzes the caterpillar is pitiless. Again that rather implies that the wasp is an entity which has the capacity for showing pity, but from which it has regretfully turned away -- which is obviously not the case. So, as I say, Dawkins's metaphors make me somewhat tense, although we all know full well why he has chosen them (Ruse 1999).

But let us go to the main argument about the problem of evil. My reaction is very much akin to that of the nineteenth-century Calvinist, whom we saw quoted earlier. The problem with evil is indeed a significant problem for the Christian believer. Moreover, Dawkins is surely right in thinking that natural selection does draw attention to the existence of evil -- an evil which is particularly acute for the Christian believer, because it involves precisely the kinds pain and discomfort which cannot be explained away by the traditional defense of free-will. Things like the caterpillar being eaten are not things where we think naturally of free will and the same goes for the cheetah and the gazelle. At least one can say this: even if the cheetah has the freedom not to chase the gazelle, an omnipotent omniscient God might have decreed things otherwise, since a vegetarian cheetah would last a very short time in the wild. Its eating apparatus is not suited for a vegetable diet, neither is its stomach. Gazelles conversely would probably suffer through over-breeding and so forth. So I do think that we have a serious problem here for the Christian believer. However, this is a problem that the Christian believer surely had all along and has had to wrestle with quite irrespective of Darwinism. Although to a certain (significant) extent Darwinism intensifies the problem and makes it more acute, it is certainly not something that one had to be a Darwinian to appreciate. If Darwinism points to atheism, it is not a new signpost.

It is worth remembering at this point that Fabre, on whom both Darwin and Dawkins are relying at this point, did not feel that his discoveries were such as to plunge him into a Darwin-inspired atheism. It is true that his position might not have been tenable ultimately, but it does make one wary of assuming that all discussion is now closed. Perhaps then the Christian does have an answer to this kind of pain and discomfort. Perhaps the Christian does not have an answer to this kind of pain and discomfort. But this is more the Christian's problem than the Darwinian's special insight. My own feeling is that such an answer can be given, then it will be one which comes in some way because of the pain and discomfort -- the pitilessness of nature in Dawkins's language -- rather than despite it. Darwinism will thus become part of the solution rather than despite it. My point is that of Kierkegaard, that without the human experience of pain and trial here on earth, faith would become altogether too easy and meaningless - the separation and alienation from God at the heart of Christianity would be a sham. The crucifixion would become unnecessary. Frankly, I am myself not at all sure that this line of argument can be pursued to its end, but if it can be done, then as I say then not only does the Darwinian position fail to negate Christianity, it becomes part of the solution. But my main point here is that, whether or not the Christian has an answer, Dawkins has not shown that Darwinism as such is a crucial motivating force towards atheism. Someone who is an atheist already on the grounds of evil would find Darwinism a comforting support; but if one rejects the atheism despite evil, I do not see that Dawkins has provided any argument for suggesting that one ought to change one's mind.

Dawkins and the Pope

Before leaving Dawkins, I want to look briefly at some new arguments he has penned in response to the "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences" sent by Pope John Paul II on October 22, 1996, in which he states that new discoveries have made the theory of evolution more than a mere hypothesis. To say that Dawkins is less than overwhelmed or grateful is to understate matters considerably. "Given a choice between honest to goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer" (Dawkins 1997,399). I suspect that someone who thinks that the Catholics have an exclusive lien on "obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink" has not be reading the Creationist literature of the past twenty years, but no matter. What of Dawkins's new arguments to make his case that Christianity and Darwinism are incompatible?

There are two anti-Christian arguments which he offers in his response, although by his admission, the first is not really one based on evolution as such. It is rather one against any claim to authority by Christianity, especially any claim to moral authority. Dawkins writes:

The question, "What is right and what is wrong?" is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistences between them. Bu the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from religion - meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition and scripture.


Unfortunately the hope that scripture might provide a bedrock, from which our otherwise sand-based morals can be derived, is a forlorn one. In practice no civilized person uses scripture as ultimate authority for moral reasoning. Instead, we pick and choose the nice bits of scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount) and blithely ignore the nasty bits (like the obligation to stone adulteresses, execute apostates and punish the grandchildren of offenders). The God of the Old Testament himself, with his pitilessly vengeful jealousy, his racism, sexism and terrifying bloodlust, will not be adopted as a literal role model by anybody you or I would wish to know. Yes, of course it is unfair to judge the customs of an earlier era by the enlightened standards of our own. But that is precisely my point! Evidently, we have some alternative source of ultimate moral conviction which overrides scripture when it suits us. (Dawkins 1997, 397-8)

Since this argument is (as Dawkins allows) an "aside" to the main issue, I will not spend long on it. What I will note that an identical role seems to be played by Darwin in Darwinism as by Scripture in morality! No one today, certainly not Dawkins, accepts every last word by Charles Darwin on the subject of organisms. His thinking on heredity, for instance, was essentially based on the quite out-dated Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. But this does not mean that Darwin is irrelevant or not a - the - major authority on matters evolutionary, or that we need never again look to Darwin himself for insight. Our thinking is based on Darwin's achievements, as refined by more than a century of study in the light of the flame he kindled, and sometimes it does help to go back to the sources. Much nonsense about selection benefitting groups would have been avoided if only people had looked at Darwin on the subject (Ruse 1981).

Similarly it is open to us to look at the Bible as a font of moral learning, without at all feeling that we must accept every last word which is within it. Indeed, in respects it seems to me easier to extract moral messages for today from the Bible than it is to discern the lasting worth of passages from Darwin, because the Bible is so clearly a historical document in which one can see a maturing of moral sensibility as one moves from early Old Testament times to the Christian era. (I am not now saying that only Christians have morality, or that those who do not take the New Testament as canonical are morally handicapped. Simply, in line with my overall interests, I am concentrating on Christianity.) I think Dawkins does make a point which should be taken seriously - indeed, as you will see later, I myself have concerns about Darwinism and Christianity on the moral front. But as it stands, what Dawkins writes invites a tu quoque counter-argument.

Dawkins main argument against the Pope, one which does see explicit conflict between Darwinism and Christianity, comes over the evolution of humankind. Dawkins quotes the Pope's message, commenting on it:

Revelation teaches us that [man] was created in the image and likeness of God if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, and ontological leap, one could say (John Paul II 1996, this issue p 383)

To do the Pope credit, at this point he recognizes the essential contradiction between the two positions he is attempting to reconcile:
However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry? (John Paul II 1996, this issue p383)

Never fear. As so often in the past, obscurantism comes to the rescue:


Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being (John Paul II 1996, this issue p 383)

In plain language, there came a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened and injected a human soul into a previously animal lineage (When? A million years ago? Two million years ago? Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens? Between "archaic" Homo sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens?) The sudden injection is necessary, of course, otherwise there would be no distinction on which to base Catholic morality, which is speciesist to the core. You can kill adult animals for meat, but abortion and euthanasia are murder because human life is involved.


Catholicism's "net" is not limited to moral considerations, if only because Catholic morals have scientific implications. Catholic morality demands the presence of a great gulf between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. Such a gulf is fundamentally anti-evolutionary. The sudden injection of an immortal soul in the time-line is an antievolutionary intrusion into the domain of science. (Dawkins 1997, 398)

In Dawkins's thinking, the coming of the soul not only infringes on the domain of science, it is profoundly anti-evolutionary. It makes for the arrival of a new entity in a way incompatible with a Darwinian perspective. But is this so? The answer obviously depends on what precisely one is supposing to have arrived. Unfortunately at this point the English translation of the Pope's message is not very helpful, or rather is distinctly unhelpful to the side of the reconciler. The suggestion is that it is the mind which separates man from beast and which thus cannot be a product of evolution. To requote a pertinent passage:
Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person. (John Paul II 1997, 383)

I shall shortly (in my section on Dennett) go more into the relationship between body and mind; but, however one regards this scientifically, qua Darwinian one is indeed going to think that it is a product of evolution and came about naturally and gradually. There is no such ontological gap between humans and animals. There does here seem to be a clash between Darwinism and Christianity. But in fact -- for all the influence of Greek thought (which as against Jewish thought did identify the mind as the distinguishing and separable characteristic of humankind) on early Christianity -- it is not part of Christian theology that it is the mind which separates us from the beasts. Rather it is our souls. New-born babies have no minds but they have souls. In fact, speaking of minds, the Biblical term is less that of "mind" and more that of "spirit"; although even with this clarification, there is no clear guidance on the exact relationship between spirit and soul - trichotomists separating them (with body as the third element) and dichotomists putting them together. (The Fourth Council of Constantinople AD 869-879 condemned the trichotomous view, but there is Biblical support for it.)

One helpful student of "Christian anthropology" writes on this whole matter as follows:

What is distinctive about human beings is not that they have a 'soul' which animals do not possess, nor that they have a 'spirit' which other creatures do not possess, but that, as 'ensouled body' and 'embodied soul', the 'spirit' of that existence is opened towards God in a unique way as the source of life. The whole of human life, body and soul, is thus oriented towards a destiny beyond mortal or natural life. This endowment of life is experienced as the image and likeness of God. While the physical body itself is not held to be in the image of God, human beings as 'embodied souls' are in the image of God.


The consensus of modern theologians seems to be that the human spirit should not be viewed as a third aspect of the self, as distinguished from body and soul. Rather, the human spirit is the existence of the self as ensouled body and embodied soul as the particular moral and spiritual agent responsible for loving God with all one's heart, mind and soul, and one's neighbour as onself (Matt. 22: 37-9). The 'life' which is constitutive of human being is at the same time a bodily life, a life of the soul, and a spiritual life. It would not be the life of the spirit if it were not for the fact that body and soul in their interconnection constitute a living person. Because there is a precedence which the soul exercises with respect to the body, the soul becomes the primary orientation of the spirit in this life. This allows for a duality of human being without creating a dualism and opposition between body and soul. In the resurrection, there will be a 'spiritual body', suggesting that the concept of a disembodied soul is alien to a biblical anthropology even through the experience of death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15: 44; 2 Cor. 5: 1-10). (Anderson 1993, 7)

What is clear from this discussion is that the Christian notion of soul and/or spirit is not simply that of mind - which latter is the natural entity (whether or not material) which is the subject of evolution. You may not think that the notion of soul is coherent or makes much sense - I am not sure that I do. But that is another matter. The point is that the Christian notion is very clearly not something which is a natural entity and as such is not subject to scientific understanding. I agree that the Christian now has problems about when exactly humans got souls and whether it was a one-shot event for a limited number of humans or whether (contrary to the Pope) souls evolved in some way. Do dogs have souls? Did the Neanderthals have souls? But these are surely theological questions which, although they may be influenced or constrained by science (if full intelligence is needed for souls then one doubts that four million years ago there were beings - beings such as Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis - which had souls), are not themselves scientific questions. In other words, I do not see that Dawkins's critique is well taken. (I would feel more confident of this conclusion if Dawkins had made more effort to wrestle with Christian theology - starting by trying to understand it. The discussion is so sparse that one is not really sure that one knows what Dawkins is - or thinks he is - attacking. Having spent many years complaining that Creationists do not understand Darwinism, I find it ironic - although true - to be complaining now that Darwinians do not understand Christianity.)

(I should say that this whole discussion of the Pope's message is made more difficult by the sloppy English translation of the official French text. One clear mistranslation is where "nouvelles connaissances conduisent a reconnaitre dans la theorie de l'evolution plus qu'une hypothese" is wrongly rendered as "new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution" rather than as the more correct translation of "new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis." In the key passage where the Pope denies philosophies which "consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter" , the French word is "esprit". But while this English version is technically correct - distinguishing mind/esprit from soul/ame - it is clear from the passage given immediately before, where the Pope approvingly quotes Pius XII "if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God", that the meaning of "esprit" in the key passage is better given by "spirit" or "soul". The point is that the Pope is not talking simply of what Dawkins and I would both take to be the natural entity of "mind".)

Daniel Dennett

It would be unfair to describe the philosopher Daniel Dennett simply as cleaning up loose ends from Dawkins's position, but it is certainly fair to say that Dennett follows very much on from Dawkins. He accepts the science in the way that Dawkins does and he accepts the same kinds of philosophical inferences. In fact, in the mid 1970s, long before Dawkins began his anti-God campaign, Dennett was putting forward some such argument as Dawkins later endorsed:
Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is, to be sure, mechanistic but - more fundamentally - utterly independent of "meaning" or "purpose". It assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist's sense of the term: not ludicrous but pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition of any non-question-begging account of purpose. Whether we can imagine a non-mechanistic but also non-question-begging principle for explaining design in the biological world is doubtful; it is tempting to see the commitment to non-question-begging accounts here as tantamount to a commitment to mechanistic materialism, but the priority of these commitments is clear One argues: Darwin's materialistic theory may not be the only non-question-begging theory of these matters, but it is one such theory, and the only one we have found, which is quite a good reason for espousing materialism. [Dennett 1975, pp. 171-72] (Dennett 1995, 153)

Now in his most recent book on the subject, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett follows up on this. With approval, he reiterates Dawkins's point about Hume being caught in the fix of knowing the fallacious nature of the argument from design but of not having a satisfactory alternative.
Hume caved in because he could not imagine how anything but an Intelligent Artificer could be the cause of the adaptations that anyone could observe. Or, more accurately, Hume's Philo imagined several different alternatives, but Hume had no way of taking these imaginings seriously. Darwin describes how a Nonintelligent Artificer could produce those adaptations over vast amounts of time, and proved that many of the intermediate stages that would be needed by that proposed process had indeed occurred. Now the challenge to imagination was reversed: given all of the telltale signs of the historical process that Darwin uncovered - all the brush-marks of the artist, you might say - could anyone imagine how any process other than natural selection could have produced all these effects? So complete has this reversal of the burden of proof been that scientists often find themselves in something like the mirror image of Hume's predicament. When they are confronted with a prima facie powerful and undismissable objection to natural selection they are driven to reason as follows: I cannot (yet) see how to refute this objection, or overcome this difficulty, but since I cannot imagine how anything other than natural selection could be the cause of the effects, I will have to assume that the objection is spurious; somehow natural selection must be sufficient to explain the effects. (Dennett 1995, 47)

Even more than Dawkins -- perhaps because he is a philosopher -- Dennett endorses the kinds of critical comments made by Hume:
Only a theory with the logical shape of Darwin's could explain how designed things came to exist, because any other sort of explanation would be either a vicious circle or an infinite regress (Dennett 1975). The old way, Locke's Mind-first way, endorsed the principle that it takes an Intelligence to make an intelligence. This idea must always have seemed self-evident to our ancestors, the artefact-makers, going back to Homo habilis , the "handy" man, from whom Homo sapiens, the "knowing" man, descended. Nobody ever saw a spear fashion a hunter out of raw materials. Children chant, "It takes one to know one," but an even more persuasive slogan would seem to be "It takes a greater one to make a lesser one." Any view inspired by this slogan immediately faces an embarrassing question, however, as Hume had noted: If God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod? Or did God create Himself? Was it hard work? Did it take time? Don't ask! Well, then, we may ask instead whether this bland embrace of mystery is any improvement over just denying the principle that intelligence (or design) must spring from Intelligence. Darwin offered an explanatory path that actually honored Paley's insight: real work went into designing this watch, and work isn't free. (Dennett 1995, 71)

Where Dennett goes beyond Dawkins is in criticizing of anyone (like me above!) who wants to argue that, although Darwinism may be correct, one can still accept design. He wants to counter the person who wants to say this design can be accepted on faith or some such other nonscientific grounds. About this, Dennett writes as follows:
Now if you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reasoned-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to play. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth, and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously). But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify. Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side. You are sightseeing with a loved one in a foreign land, and your loved one is brutally murdered in front of your eyes. At the trial it turns out that in this land friends of the accused may be called as witnesses for the defense, testifying about their faith in his innocence. You watch the parade of his moist-eyed friends, obviously sincere, proudly proclaiming their faith in the innocence of the man you saw commit the terrible deed. The judge listens intently and respectfully, obviously more moved by this outpouring than all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Is this not a nightmare? Would you be willing to live in such a land? Or would you be willing to be operated on by a surgeon who tells you that whenever a little voice in him tells him to disregard his medical training, he listens to the little voice? I know it passes in polite company to let people has it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign arrangement. But we're seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into this issue than any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself. (The ball is now in your court.) (Dennett 1995, 154-15)

To reply to this line of argument, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record which simply repeats itself, let me say again what I have said above: Although I think that Dennett certainly puts his finger on significant problems for the Christian theist, I fail to see in any way that these are problems which are brought on by Darwinism specifically. I would grant that there are problems with -- certainly questions which need answering about - Christian faith. I would grant Dennett that, all too frequently, faith is simply a form of irrational commitment to believe something because you want to believe that something, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Faith in the promise of eternal life is often much akin to faith that one's lottery ticket will win the grand prize: in both cases one wants something very much and so one has willed onself to believe that one will get it.

But suppose one takes the position that there is more to faith than -- as at the end of the last paragraph -- autobiographical references to the hopes of the infant Ruse. Suppose one argues that existence poses questions which are simply unanswered by science -- Why are we here? Why do good people suffer? And so forth -- and that the fact that science fails to answer them is no good reason for saying that they are unanswerable or that we should not seek answers. Suppose that one says that it is appropriate to turn to something outside of science and that faith (however construed) can start to bridge the gap. Even if one disagrees with this move, I do not see that Dennett has shown that Darwinism strengthens the disagreement. Dennett seems to think that Darwinism implies materialism, but he has given no grounds for believing that this is so. Apart from the fact that, in this day and age of electrons and so forth, materialism is a bit of an old-fashioned philosophy anyway, it certainly seems to me possible for someone to be an ardent Darwinian evolutionist and yet argue that the mind is not something which can be reduced to material entities. The late Karl Popper (1976), for one, was both a Darwinian and a mind-body dualist.

As is well known, it is true that Dennett himself is a materialist with respect to minds, thinking that minds are somewhat akin to the software used by the hardware of our brains. But others, most particularly the Berkeley philosopher John Searle (1997), would dispute this strongly. And I too see no reason at all why one should not be a Darwinian evolutionist and think that in some sense minds involve the nonmaterial in some sort of way. Not a mysterious nonmaterial substance akin to a life force or vitalistic entelechy or elan vital, and certainly not necessarily a supernatural nonmaterial substance. But more than just material physical objects. And analogously -- if the nonmaterial is not ruled out by fiat -- it seems quite open for someone to argue that they are a Darwinian but that they think that this proves design, rather than detracts from it. I am certainly not saying that you should go this route. What I am saying is that, if you want to go this route, there is nothing in Dennett (other than blunt assertions) to stop you. Indeed, there is nothing in Dennett to stop this person from arguing that Darwinism confirms and strengthens the inference rather than the other way around.

As I leave Dennett, let me reiterate my already-made qualification agreeing that Darwinism is relevant to Hume's argument and agreeing that after Darwin it was possible to be an atheist. The question is whether one has to be an atheist. I still see nothing which suggests that if one is a Darwinian then necessarily one must be an atheist.

Richard Lewontin

I am not sure if it is truly appropriate to include the eminent population geneticist Richard Lewontin in this discussion, because his pronouncements on Darwinism tend more often than not to be critical. He is scathing in his assessment of the work of Wilson and Dawkins. But he has recently entered the science/religion discussion in a way which certainly bears on the Darwinism/atheism issue, and since if for no other reason that his ideas have been seized greedily by the Creationists, it is worth quoting his most pertinent passage on the subject.
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is a key to the understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill extravagant promises of life and health, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not theat the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary that, we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen. (Lewontin 1977, 31)

At least some of this argument, the final part where Lewontin quotes Beck, seems to parallel that of Dennett, so I will say no more about this here. Certainly it is not an argument which involves Darwinism. It is the first part, the main part, of the argument which interests me. Essentially Lewontin is saying that one can have science or religion but not both, which means that one can have Darwinism or Christianity but not both. Unfortunately neither here nor elsewhere does Lewontin go into varieties of Christianity to see if this conclusion holds through all that people have wanted to claim in the name of the religion. Later in the article from which this passage just above was quoted, Lewontin talks of the clash between the fundamentalist religion of the American South and the evolutionism of the American North, but he shows no awareness of (or at least insufficient sympathy to discuss) more sophisticated forms of Christianity, including those which have tried to accommodate the challenge of science.

And this is surely a weakness - a fatal weakness in our context - for Lewontin does not argue against the Christian who would argue that science has its sphere and religion its sphere and the two do not necessarily clash. He does not argue against someone like the Pope who sees no conflict between science and religion. He does not argue against someone claiming either that science is bounded by religion (the person who thinks that the laws of science hold, but that there were genuine miraculous interventions involving the breaking of law as in the Resurrection) or that science is unbounded but only speaks to one domain of experience (the person perhaps who thinks that even the Resurrection required no breaking of law, for it was an event of a different kind - something felt in people's hearts perhaps). Paradoxically, not only does Lewontin not argue against these people and their positions, but he even allows that in other societies and at other times people have combined scientific and religious belief.

The mutual exclusion of the material and demonic has not been true of all cultures and all times. In the great Chinese epic Journey to the West, demons are an alternative form of life, responsible to certain deities, devoted to making trouble for ordinary people, but severely limited. They can be captured, imprisoned, and even killed by someone with superior magic. (p. 31)

Why is this not an option, here and now, in North America and Europe?

In the absence of further argument and in the light of our history and our subsequent discussion which shows that there were and are people who hold both to science and religion (including Lewontin's own teacher Dobzhansky!), we can pass on from Lewontin's somewhat dogmatic pronouncement. In a way, it is not surprising that he has become the darling of the Creationists, for not only does his great authority give support for and credibility to their claims, but at bottom he shares their premises and conclusions. They (Phillip Johnson particularly) argue that science is materialistic and as such necessarily precludes religious commitment. When challenged on the grounds that they confuse the methodological assumption of the scientist that the world works as if it were simply brute material following blind law with the metaphysical belief that there is truly nothing more than brute material following blind law, they respond that ultimately methodological materialism collapses into - reduces to - metaphysical materialism. Such seems also to be the position of Lewontin, although apparently it is so obvious to him as not to need any argument at all in its favour.

Michael Ruse

Somewhat immodestly let me elevate myself up to the status of Wilson, Dawkins, Dennett, and Lewontin, and consider a Darwinism-based argument which I have myself put forward against Christian belief. This is an argument which centres in on the moral aspects of Christian belief: in particular, the claims by the Christian, based on the sayings of Jesus and his followers, that one has a moral obligation to love one's neighbour as oneself. (There are of course other aspects to Christian moral law, but let us centre right in exclusively on the Love Commandment.) Basically the argument which I have given can be divided into two. The first part of the argument centres on the whole question of substantive ethics, that is to say on the question of what one ought to do. The second part of the argument centres on questions of metaethics, that is to say on foundations: why one ought to do what one ought to do?

As far as the substantival ethical question is concerned, my worry is that there are good biological reasons for thinking that morality will be a differential affair. That we will (and do) have a moral sense which leads us to think that we have special obligations to our closest relatives. Then we will feel lesser obligations to those further from our central bloodline. Next, to our own particular group of acquaintances. Finally, we reach out morally to strangers in other lands. I am not saying that Darwinian biology suggests that we have no obligations whatsoever to total strangers. What I am suggesting is that we will feel that we have stronger obligations to close relatives and that this is the way that morality functions. And my worry is that this belief or conclusion clashes with the Love Commandment there is a clash here: Jesus intends us to love everyone, friend and stranger indifferently, not just our children and siblings. (See Ruse 1986a, b, 1989, 1995.)

As far as the metaethical or foundational argument is concerned, what worries me is some version of the comparative argument that I introduced when dealing with Wilson. What I have suggested is that, since evolution is non-progressive, we could as well end up with one of a range of entirely contradictory ethical codes: hate your neighbour rather than love your neighbour, because you know he or she will hate you. Not merely that you do hate your neighbour, but that you feel a positive sense of moral obligation to do so. But since there are these possibilities, and since ethics evolved simply to allow social beings like humans to get along, hopes of metaethical justification become remote. Who is to say that one system is superior to any other? Ethics is, in my words, "just an illusion of the genes" (Ruse and Wilson 1985, 1986). To this offensive conclusion, I have added the twist that recognizing that ethics is (at the metaethical level) just an illusion would lead to a rapid collapse of substantive ethics as a functioning social facilitator. Hence, evolution is surely going to make us think that ethics is more than an illusion, that substantive ethics can be given objective backing. So, although in fact metaethically speaking ethics is nothing more than emotion, we "objectify" this emotion, thinking that it is given to us from above or some such thing. And if this is not all counter to conventional Christianity, then nothing is. The Love Commandment is intended to be something absolutely binding on all humans, at any place and at any time.

How does one set about countering these claims? Obviously, I am not the best of all possible people to do this; but let me at least try to probe weaknesses in my own position. At the substantive level, there are two tacks that one can take. One is simply to agree that the Love Commandment has a somewhat restricted differential import. One suggests that when Jesus told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, He was not telling us to go off and seek out absolute strangers, willy nilly. Certainly Jesus intended us to care for strangers when they come into our orbit: remember the parable of the good Samaritan. But, basically, what Jesus expected of us was good behaviour towards those in our immediate group. The centurion did not get a dressing down because it was his own daughter which caused him concern. Jesus obviously intended that we should look after our children and our aged parents and the like, and then our friends in distress and so on and so forth, as the circle widens out. This kind of interpretation of the Love Commandment fits in absolutely with the biological interpretation and seems to cause no tensions whatsoever.

The other way in which one could set about to try to solve this problem would be by agreeing that the Love Commandment does reach out over all people indifferently: I have as much of an obligation to the unknown starving child in central Africa as I have to my own children. Here, one has to recognize that the biology does not fit well with the Christian imperatives. But surely it is open for someone to say that that is precisely the point! When Jesus was preaching the binding nature of the Love Commandment, he was not preaching to the converted. He was rather addressing people who fell badly short of this. The relevance of biology at this point lies in the way that it points to our limited nature: in some sense, one might say that it picks up on the Christian notion of original sin. Not that biology supports the idea of a literal Adam and Eve eating the apple that God had forbidden; but rather that Darwinism picks up on the essential truth behind the doctrine of the original sin, namely that we humans fail abysmally against the moral standards that God has set. Here then one could argue that far from Darwinism undermining the Christian position, in a way it could be seen to support it.

I rather like this second argument. It takes the offensive, making Darwinism a positive part of the solution, not merely something to be excused and explained away. But is it adequate? One might argue that the whole point about original sin is that this is something that we humans freely choose. Of course, there are questions about why those of us who are descended from Adam continue to be tainted with original sin, even though we did not ourselves originally taste the apple. But, the point about original sin is that it was a free and conscious choice at some level, whereas the whole point about the Darwinian explanation is that this is something laid on us by our evolution: which the Christian must ultimately put down to God's responsibility. So in a way, the original sin is not our fault but God's!

I expect that there is some way around this problem, but I draw attention to it to show there is going to be some tensions at this point. What happens when we go on to the metaethical discussion? Here, I think it is open to the Christian to make a number of moves in defense of his or her position. First of all, one can surely agree that there is no reason to think that morality has to be objective in the sense that it refers to something "out there": the foundations of morality like the axles of the speeding train. Even if one is a Christian, one can take some sort of Kantian position for instance: one argues that morality is a necessary condition of humans interacting, and that is where the objectivity comes rather than in reference to some external thing. Indeed, one can point out that, even if one is a Christian, the suggestion that morality is an externally existing phenomenon runs one into all sorts of paradoxes. Suppose one argues that morality is grounded in the (externally existing) will of God. At once the Euthyphro problem raises its ugly head. Does God will what he wills because it is good, or is it good because it is God's will?

All this being so, it would seem that the fact that evolution suggests that morality is grounded in the emotions or something like that -- not a reflection of external objective fact -- is no great worry to the Christian. Building on this, one might argue that the whole point about morality is that it is a social adaptation and as such must be one which is shared. It is no good if I am moral if you are not likewise moral: in the absence of reciprocation, everything breaks down. In this respect, morality is a bit like language. I may speak far more beautiful English than anyone else, but if no one can follow me my perfect accent is totally wasted. Better by far that I have the appalling accent of my fellows and that they and you can follow me. In the case of morality it is essential that we all share common imperatives, or it will come to naught.

This being so, it is open to the Christian to point to the fact that our evolutionary explanation of morality points us away from the appalling relativism one often finds in works offered by social scientists: it demands at least a more absolute morality across human beings. Does this mean that this morality must hold of all rational beings elsewhere in the universe? As you might suspect from my discussion of Wilson, my feeling is that this is not necessarily the case. Elsewhere in the universe, it is possible that one might have beings who hold to an entirely different sort of morality, perhaps one based on hatred rather than love. I suspect that on this basis one could get some kind of stable situation where people interact socially. After all, this happened here on earth between nations during the Cold War. America not only hated Russia but felt an obligation to hate Russia, and conversely: because of this balance, no nuclear war occurred. So it does seem possible that a very non-Christian morality might have evolved elsewhere in the Universe, thereby casting doubt on the absoluteness of Christian morality.

I am sure that by this stage you can almost predict the two responses which suggest themselves! First, one might argue that, even here, necessarily one has certain formal rules of reciprocation. If one does not have these, then any kind of morality will break down and people will no longer try to cooperate together. So, if nothing else, Darwinism points to some kind of ultimate absolute formal reciprocation, even if this is not an absoluteness with an objective external existence. This being so, even with a weird non-human morality, one still possibly has a place for things like duty and obligation. I have a duty to behave in certain ways towards other people just as much as Mother Theresa felt a duty towards the poor of Calcutta. The fact that my ways on my world are not her ways on her world is irrelevant. The point is that at least some of the Christian virtues are possible, even on a very different sort of morality.

The other argument is that directly invoked in the case of Edward O. Wilson: one suggests that beings which did not have something recognizably like a Christian morality and the ability to respond to such a morality would not be at the center of God's attention anyway. The kind of morality we have here on earth is only going to be found in beings roughly like ourselves. Hence, perhaps God has no interest or inclination to regard other beings, even if they be rational, as particularly worthy of His special attention. So in the end, perhaps the Darwinian position points to -- is happily consistent with -- the special standing of humankind: a conclusion which, for many Christians, meshes neatly with a significant element in their faith.

I do not offer these as definitive refutations of my own position. It is always easier to find moats in the eyes of others, than beams in the eyes of oneself. But these are some attempts at critiquing the arguments that I have given. Once again, the result seems to be that a Darwinian position does not necessarily led to atheism. (I am not sure that my arguments were ever intended to prove that Darwinism implies atheism, although were certainly intended to throw some doubt on the existence and workings of the Christian God.)


My conclusion is clear. For all that several of today's most prominent Darwinians have argued that their scientific theory throws significant doubt on Christian belief, even to the point of inviting one to embrace atheism, ultimately none of the arguments are definitive. The Christian ought to take Darwinism seriously and this may well demand modification of some of the beliefs that the Christian held before the Origin of Species was published. But, ultimately, nothing in Darwinism absolutely forbids a belief in Christianity. Perhaps indeed there are things in Darwinism which the Christian might find comforting.

This being said, let me leave you with one final thought -- something made most clearly by the great twentieth-century evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane (1932) - one on which anyone, Darwinian or Christian, ought to reflect most carefully. Haldane pointed out that there is absolutely no reason to think that mid-range primates -- such as we humans -- have evolved the ability to delve into the ultimate mysteries of reality. He argued that not only may the real world be stranger that we think it is, but it may even be stranger than we could possibly think that it is. Haldane concluded that accepting Darwinism ought to instill in one a sense of modesty, not only about our abilities, but about the range over which our abilities can reach and grasp.

This reflection by Haldane does not in itself now mean that Christianity at once becomes a reasonable position. Indeed, I think it points one towards a modest scepticism. But this is a scepticism (perhaps not so very modest!) which ought to be extended also to atheistic pronouncements by people like Dawkins and Dennett. Perhaps there is nothing beyond our ken, and perhaps the atheists are right. But as a Darwinian I think that one ought to be very careful in making such pronouncements. I have yet to be convinced that Darwinism and atheism is a marriage made in heaven.


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Commentary: Steve Rothstein

I would like to thank Jim for inviting me to participate in this event and Michael for his presentation. As a practicing evolutionary biologist, I have known and deeply respected the giants of the modern synthesis of evolution, such as Fisher and Dobzhansky, for most of my life without being fully aware of their religious backgrounds. There is certainly a value to reconciling belief in Christianity and other religions with evolution, even at the practical level of educating college students. For many years, I taught the evolution segment of the general biology course here at UCSB. I was occasionally greeted with hostility by fundamentalists who demanded that I give Creation Science at least some attention in my lectures. There really was nothing I could do to satisfy these students. As Michael points out a literal reading of Genesis is not compatible with evolution and other major branches of science.

Sometimes though I would get students coming to me who wanted help with a painful conflict they were experiencing. They were convinced that evolution had occurred but were troubled by the apparent conflict with their religious beliefs. I told such students that they needed to separate their thought processes related to evolution and to religion and to try and forget about conflicting religious beliefs when they were dealing with evolution and vice versa when they were in a religious setting. I think this provided some comfort to these students but not as much as Michael’s essay showing that there is some compatibility between evolution and some approaches to Christianity.

This said, I have to admit to being somewhat closer to Dawkin’s views on the incompatibility of religion and evolution than to Michael’s. But I don’t share Dawkin’s need to be openly hostile towards religion because I know that religion does improve the lives of many people who are believers. However, I do think it is reasonable to ask whether religion is beneficial overall to humanity given the present day, and past, deadly conflicts over much of the world that are or were inspired at least in part by religious differences.

My own particular specialty in evolution is behavioral ecology, which looks at the naturally occurring behavior of animals within the paradigm that behavior has been shaped by natural selection. An overarching result of behavioral ecology is that nature is pervasively cruel and underhanded. In fact, what is so striking about animal behavior and antithetical to Christian values is not that there is so much evil in the natural world but that there is no good in it that can’t be explained by natural selection favoring individuals that selfishly advance their own genetic interests, typically at the expense of other individuals. This of course does not mean that we should emulate nature and behave in a similar manner. Just because some horrible behavior like infanticide occurs naturally and has adaptive value for the perpetrator, does not mean that it is something humans should practice.

One can argue that these examples of horrible, unethical behavior in nature are God’s means of achieving certain ends but surely there are nicer, more humane ways to achieve those ends. OK, I can not refute the arguments that we can’t understand God’s purpose or that there has to be suffering and bad things to make it clear that there are good things. But there is no reason why one would make such arguments other than a predisposition towards accepting religion.

Where does that predisposition come from? Historically it comes from the fear that ancient humans had of trying to understand terrible experiences like earthquakes that were inflicted upon them or even why obviously powerful everyday things like the sun exist. Having an explanation for the origin of such things must have provided some comfort. Then as Wilson has argued, a common belief system, in this case a religion with its own particular doctrine, added to group cohesiveness and this likely enhanced group survival.

The historical explanation for the origin of a belief in religion and God dealing with humans in general is easy but what about events shaping an individual’s life today? Given that we have materialistic scientific explanations for virtually all phenomena that humans can directly experience with their own senses, why would someone who believes in Darwinism also believe in Christianity or any other religion? I don’t think that the ultimate basis for such a belief in religion lies in the fact that Darwinism can not disprove all of the tenets of Christianity or because some aspects of Christianity are compatible with evolution.

My guess is that people are predisposed to take the dualist view of believing in Darwinism and Christianity because of early experience, which is a major shaper of the behavior of humans and other animals. But what shapes early experience? Researchers studying animal behavior have a powerful type of experiment that can be applied to tease apart what an individual learns, either early in life or at a later time versus what it is innately predisposed to do without experiencing another individual’s behavior. Applied to the current discussion, the human behavior in question would be a belief in Christianity or some other form of religion or any type of supernatural entity. Where does this come from in the modern world?

The experiment that biologists do is simple. It is an isolation experiment. An infant individual is removed from its parents before it could have experienced anything related to the behavior of interest. It is reared to maturity and then one determines whether it exhibits the behavior in question. Of course, the experiment can’t really be done on humans because it is not ethical. Nevertheless, we would ideally take an infant, isolate him or her from human contact or at least all human contact other than that needed to make the child literate. Then as a teenager or young adult, we would expose him or her to the basis for believing in evolution and for believing in Christianity. We would ask them to use their powers of deduction to determine whether they believed in evolution, Christianity or both. Surely after hearing the background information, the subjects would believe in evolution. Does anyone really think that such people would choose to also believe in Christianity, in the absence of early exposure to religion that made them sympathetic to religion?

So my point is that the main reason we are having this discussion is because people’s views are shaped by their early experience. After all, little children don’t go to evolution school or even general science school on their religion’s day of worship, whether it is Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Without the sympathy for religion and the lifelong biases that are created by early experience with religion, I think very few people would choose to believe in both evolution and Christianity.

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Commentary: Bruce Tiffney

Thank you Professor Ruse, for an enlightening presentation. By its nature, science is a cumulative undertaking, each generation building upon the ideas and observations that have survived attempts at invalidation by past generations. As a result, scientists generally focus on the future, and few take the time to trace the intellectual growth of their discipline in the historical past. I think that this is shortsighted, and that all scientists should be required to be familiar with the history of their area of enquiry. At a practical level, this would allow scientists to avoid repeating past errors. But on a more important level, a historical perspective allows recognition of the degree to which science in influenced by the societal norms and expectations that surround it. Prof. Ruse's talk makes this explicit - In a Christian culture, the growth of natural science answered Christian needs and ends, even while it formed the underpinning for our present and future knowledge.

Of all scientists, evolutionary biologists should take this most to heart, because evolution is a matter that deeply influences human self-perception. A consistent thread throughout Prof. Ruse's summary has been how evolutionary biologists (whether they were called so at the time or not) sought to use their understanding of the natural world to explain man's place in it. Darwin himself was raised and trained in an environment imbued with the concept of natural theology, the perception that the study of nature, including its driving mechanisms, was an extension of the Christian need to know and understand God. Of course, since this theology taught us that man was the pinnacle and goal of God's creation, it was only natural that natural history should seek to explicate the processes by which we arrived there.

However, as Prof. Ruse notes, the late 19th century was a turning point in biological thought. Natural history evolved from an extension of theology to a free standing endeavor, becoming a "science" as we know this mode of enquiry today. By "science", I mean a cumulative, group process focused on explaining the functioning of the natural world through repeated observation , testing, and falsification. In its modern sense, science requires that the observations and hypotheses be as free of philosophical preconception as is humanly possible. Thus, explanations of "purpose" and "meaning" sought by natural theology are no longer acceptable, and we should look Darwin's theory, evolution by natural selection, directly in the eye.
What is evolution by natural selection? Many envision natural selection as a force that favors the "survival of the fittest" to use Herbert Spencer's unfortunate phrase. While deeply ingrained in the popular culture in the present day, this perception is wrong. Wrong, because it implies that perfection is achievable, which it is not in a changing world. Wrong because natural section is not the survival of the fittest, but the elimination of the least fit. In addition, natural selection suffers from a further misapprehension - that natural selection is actual force, a goon with a baseball bat that picks off the unsuccessful.

In fact, natural selection is the phrase that we use to describe the outcome of the interaction of two factors that occur "at random". By "at random", I mean not under the conscious control of the organism. The first of these is random genetic variation - the fluctuations in genetic information that arise from mutation, meiosis, recombination and a host of lesser factors. Each organism, as it is born, cannot choose what its genetic complement is - it simply receives it. The second of these is random environmental change. You cannot, nor any other organism, choose where it comes into this Earth in time or space. If you come into this world as a mammal with no fur and the environment has just swung back to glacial, well, the interaction of your random genetic composition and random environmental circumstance dictates your genetic solution will likely be frozen out.

This concept of natural selection just given has evolved through the past two hundred years, and may well evolve in the future. But at the present time, it is the most powerful hypothesis to explain the patterns we observe in the past history of life, and the processes observed into present biological world. From studying past and present life in the context of natural selection we can develop an idea of why we have come to be here. But unlike our predecessors who then sought to use this insight to justify human interactions and behavior, we must observe the other side of the coin - That just as we have come to be highly specialized organisms, so have others - but specialized differently.

It is all well and good to exalt our intellectual and creative abilities, but we need to realize they suit us to our particular solution to life. Consider the lowly clam, buried in a foot of mud and subsisting by filter feeding through an elongate neck. Certainly the clam would be bored to sit through this talk, not to mention highly stressed to be out of water. But by the same token, I suggest that there is not a member of this audience who could successfully change places with the clam and make a career out of filter feeding in 20' of water off Goleta Pier. Because evolution by natural selection involves the interaction of environment and genetics, all organisms become associated with particular environments, and no one organism is really better than another. Just different.

Thus, the concept of progress, suggesting there is a goal to evolution (which we would like to think is ourselves) is but a fallacy. Evolution happens. Its outcome at any particular point is but a snapshot of a work in progress. It is possible that in 100 million years, humans and mammals in general will have passed and that the world will become dominated by insects, and in the eyes of the dominant Earthly residents, God shall possess 6 legs and compound eyes. But even that would be a passing stage, as both genetics and environment would continue to change as long as their is energy and life to consume it on this planet.

To come full cycle, a historical perspective has brought us repeatedly face to face with the human tendency to use science to justify human preconceptions about our place on the Earth. An acceptance of evolution by natural selection - the product of the history so eloquently and insightfully recounted by Prof. Ruse, must lead us to realize that we are but one, albeit very successful, form of life. In the context of the Templeton Lectures, I would argue that this insight places a very great burden on humans as the first organisms to realize their place in the grander scheme of evolution. From this comes a burden to protect and honor the other organisms who are no less advanced, each in their own way, but who lack our present voice and vision.

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