Duelling Dualisms

Conor Cunningham’s Darwin’s Pious Idea is a big book with big aspirations. It expects its readers to know something about philosophy, science, and theology. For those who do, it proposes a way to integrate these bodies of knowledge into a single worldview.

Cunningham’s subtitle pits his argument against “Ultra-Darwinists” and creationists, but his real target is what he thinks these two opposed groups have in common: dualism. According to dualists, the material stuff that surrounds us and constitutes our bodies is radically distinct from the immaterial stuff of our perceptions and thoughts. Most “Ultra-Darwinists” and creationists would deny being dualists in this sense, but Cunningham is out to show that they have unwittingly bought into dualism’s logic.

Christians have traditionally been suspicious of dualism, because it tends to elevate immaterial stuff as better or more real than the physical world, including our bodies (and Christ’s). Some dualists, denying the goodness of creation, have even taught that the physical world is evil. Cunningham translates God’s question to Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11) as “Who told that you were merely material or, more importantly, that matter was mere?” Why, in other words, did we ever become ashamed of our materiality, or imagine that it obscured the image of God in which we were created? The early church concluded that extreme dualism—as it appeared in Docetism, for example—was incompatible with belief in the Incarnation.

Fast forward to 1859, when Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Ultra-Darwinists are those who claim that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is capable of explaining everything about why life is the way it is, because the story of life taking on different forms and characteristics is, at root, the story of different genes being selected for or against, and nothing more. At the other extreme are creationists who reject Darwin’s conclusion that we’re descended from a common ancestor shared with the apes, because it conflicts with a literal reading of the Genesis creation accounts. Cunningham finds both these interpretations of Darwin’s discovery unscientific and non-Christian. In their place, he offers a tamer Darwinism—the “pious” kind of his title—that grants a “leading” (but not exclusive) role to natural selection in the development of life.

Cunningham thinks Ultra-Darwinism is harmful to science in four ways. First, by focusing exclusively on the interplay between random genetic mutation and natural selection, it tends to obscure the natural conditions and constraints that make life possible in the first place.

Second, Ultra-Darwinism asks science to gain its foothold by locating tiny, irreducible pieces of matter that constitute everything else—what scientists refer to as the “hard” furniture of the universe, which is supposedly unaffected by how humans perceive it, or whether we perceive it at all. But when science tries to pin down these indivisible bits of stuff, they elude it. Left empty-handed, science is faced with what Cunningham describes as a version of creation ex nihilo. Obviously, scientists do not want to admit to having gone down the rabbit hole only to discover that nature appears to pull rabbits out of its hat. Instead, it asks genes or genetic “information” to fill the gap in its account. But genes fail at this task because the flow of information in molecular biology is not unidirectional, and here Cunningham presents the relevant scientific evidence and testimony, much of it from scientists with no religious faith of their own.

This much is clear: No simple one-to-one correspondence holds between an organism’s genotype (all the genes it carries) and its phenotype (its observable traits). So it comes as no surprise that having more genes doesn’t necessarily result in greater complexity, a finding of the Human Genome Project. (A grain of rice, for example, has a larger genome than a human being.) The interplay between genotype and environment turns out to be much more dynamic and unpredictable than Ultra-Darwinism would have us believe. Genes aren’t the omnipotent selfish replicators of Dawkinsian lore. They participate in a system that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Third, Ultra-Darwinism’s imperative to break down nature into ever finer parts has the effect of disintegrating—and so destroying—many of the things it wants to understand. The threshold that must be crossed for an object to pass from the status of “nonliving” to that of “living” appears underdetermined or even arbitrary as long as one is looking at the world only through the magnifying lens of Ultra-Darwinism—as many biologists are. Cunningham cites several who are ready to dispense with the concept of “life” altogether. And it’s not just this concept that becomes meaningless in Ultra-Darwinism. Philosophically significant concepts like rationality, free will, and selfhood are all explained away as mirage-like projections of natural selection. In the end, there are only genes. The rest is just a cloud of illusions, or what scientists and philosophers call “epiphenomena.”

But science doesn’t have a safe container for Ultra-Darwinism’s universal acid. Indeed, Cunningham argues, no such container could exist. Ultra-Darwinism dissolves science itself, by leading its proponents to doubt the veracity of their own minds. This is because natural selection is only about reproductive success; there is no reason to suppose it will produce minds with true—as opposed to merely adaptive—beliefs. (Troubled by this fact, Darwin once asked, “Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind?”)

Fourth, Ultra-Darwinism is actually antievolutionary, says Cunningham, because it rules out any substantial change in the realm of the observable phenomena we call “nature.” From a strictly Darwinian perspective, nature cannot support the idea of fixed kinds (or stable “species” of plants and animals) because the natural world is in perpetual flux. Biological taxonomists operate by freeze-framing particular historical moments in the film of evolutionary history. But there are no good reasons to privilege these moments over any others, and that is why Ultra-Darwinism sinks the “Tree of Life” (never mind the Great Chain of Being) into a primordial swamp, where all changes brought by evolution are reduced to their origins.

Creationism doesn’t fare any better than Ultra-Darwinism in Darwin’s Pious Idea. Whereas Ultra-Darwinists draw a bright dividing line between genes and everything else, creationists draw one between the ordinary (or natural) and the sacred (or supernatural). Cutting up reality this way makes creationists prone to picture God as an object existing outside of creation and exercising his influence over it by a kind of magic.

The Ultra-Darwinist and the creationist are more alike than either would like to admit in other ways, too. Though creationists like to think of themselves as crusaders against the false authority of secular science, they are actually its loyal promoters. They assume the Genesis creation story cannot be true unless it “gets the facts right,” precisely in the way a theory of science would. There is also a similarity in the way both Ultra-Darwinists and creationists throw up their hands and say, “But that’s all there is,” whenever their theories fail to explain something. Stubborn creationists claim “the devil must have done it,” when they are asked to account for dinosaur fossils. Likewise, Ultra-Darwinists answer “natural selection must have done it,” when asked to account for human consciousness.

Cunningham pays little direct attention to the theory of Intelligent Design (ID). In his view, the ID camp is correct in saying that Ultra-Darwinism cannot sufficiently explain certain aspects of the natural world, but it uses this fact wrongly to infer a designer. What is required, instead, is more scientific research. ID has theological problems, too. More like the gods of Homer than the God of Abraham, its God converts skeptics and demands worship by coyly leaving behind puzzles in nature that science can’t figure out.

There is, Cunningham insists, a much better way of thinking about how God is involved in creation. Judaism and Christianity have both traditionally taught that God does not impose order on matter from the outside. Instead, order (or logos) is intrinsic to matter from the beginning. Cunningham traces this teaching through patristic and medieval theology, especially the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Creation has always unfolded rationally, not in the way a watchmaker makes a watch, but “in the manner in which thought is creative,” as Benedict XVI nicely put it.

What this means for evolutionary biology is that purpose did not suddenly arrive on the scene with the advent of consciousness or human beings. If purpose was ever there, it was there the whole time. For it makes no sense to say that purpose arose from nonpurposeful structures. How could it? The creationist answers that God stepped in and added something extra to creation (for example, our souls, or intentional minds); at that moment, purpose sprang into existence. The Ultra-Darwinist answer is even less attractive: that there never has been and never will be anything in nature with purpose, period. Ultra-Darwinists believe this to be the verdict handed down by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. By extension, Homo sapiens is not only an accident; the speicies is no different in kind from any other form of life—and, indeed, no form of life is different in any absolute sense from any other object in the universe. Cunningham finds this logic sloppy and question-begging. What would it look like, he asks, for the opposite to be true? That is, after all, the question science always asks about a theory. 

Darwin’s Pious Idea is a long book full of names and information, but it reads quickly, thanks to the wit and energy of Cunningham’s prose. And if some readers find some of the science and philosophy too hard a slog, they should at least skip ahead to the last chapter, a dazzling theological crescendo to this passionate and original work.

Published in the 2011-12-16 issue: 

John Rose is a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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