Reading Darwin in the Divinity School

The Cambridge Darwin Festival was an ambitious attempt to mark the great man’s (and his great book’s) anniversary year. In setting up a Festival, not an academic conference, the organisers made a bold move to combine lectures and seminars with exhibitions and artistic responses, and gave attention to the man and the history as well as current scientific and philosophical work underpinned by the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Big names from the neo-Darwinian vanguard (Dennett, Dawkins) received star billing. But quite a lot of time was given over to theologians (not to mention one or two non-tenured god-botherers cashing in on the margins) and the core message from them has been the same: not just the compatibility of Darwinian allegiance with a theological perspective, but the necessity of theology as bringing something additional to the discussion.

Leading the theologians’ charge was Philip Clayton, Professor at the Claremont School of Theology, California, in a session headed “Theology in Darwinian Context”. A couple of good insights from Clayton – on pain and moral agency as two sides of the same coin, for example – didn’t make up for the false steps in his main arguments.

From the start his rhetorical strategy made the crass, frequent, and unpleasant equivalence between the false assumptions of Intelligent Design, on the one hand, and the alleged errors of the “New Atheists”, on the other. The latter amounted to the straw man accusation of “scientism”: accusing atheist opponents of the belief that science can answer all meaningful questions, narrowing the field of human enquiry and the tools available to it. The tragedy of Dawkinsian influence, according to Clayton, is not its atheism but its dismissal from the field of debate of the big human questions, of deep reflections on the human condition using modes of thought appropriate to them. He quoted Wittgenstein – to the effect that philosophy exceeds science – and E.O. Wilson, on the need to understand some issues as matters of aesthetics, not knowledge. This is right, but irrelevant, as the authors in his sights make no such claims (see, for example, Dawkins’ statement “[s]cience has no methods for deciding what is ethical” from “Science, Genetics and Ethics” in A Devils Chaplain.)

More helpfully Clayton noted that the set of “big questions” has itself been changed by Darwin’s ideas and made a good stab at suggesting what these might now be. Some of those set out had an unexpectedly empirical focus: what features of humans are qualitatively different to those of other species? Where has culture played a co-evolutionary role with biology and behaviour? Others straddled the border where empirical answers are likely to fight with interpretative preferences: is there a direction to evolution? If so does the direction have purpose?

But, following the assertion that contemporary atheists dismiss such questions, Clayton didn’t think it necessary to demonstrate what theological tools offer to give us some traction on their complexity. Challenged from the audience by Dennett to explain what help theology can give that secular philosophy can’t, Clayton retreated to a definition of his discipline so broad it seemed an imperial attempt to annex Wittgenstein’s philosophy, E.O. Wilson’s aesthetics, and anything else on the arts faculty side of campus. Theology should not be thought of in terms of its history, Clayton said, but as human reflection on the big questions. Having fallaciously accused the “New Atheists” of disparaging the expertise of all non-scientific approaches, Clayton’s attempt to ditch God – and anything else that might put the theo into theology – from this non-definition of his discipline (itself a favourite word), gave the impression of staking territory in an academic cat fight rather than an attempt to create common ground on which to consider the big questions.

Other speakers in the session were willing to place God, and their religious tradition, at the core of theological thinking, but with the inevitable side effect of pre-supposing a common religious position. So Professor J Wentzel van Huyssteen began with a lengthy, evidence-light speculation on the evolution of human minds within human bodies, and ended by asking what this meant for an understanding of Jesus as a man carrying, like us all, the history of human evolution in his genetic inheritance. You can see the issue, but not really one of the big questions if Jesus isn’t also the son of God.

Fraser Watt, from Cambridge, had a lot on his mind. Between further swipes at straw man versions of atheist arguments, he wanted to take “evolutionary Christology” (which interprets the arc from Fall to salvation as a description of evolutionary developments starting with early humans’ first conceptualisation of good and evil) and purge it of assumptions about evolutions’ necessarily progressive nature. There are some real issues about the idea of progress in evolution – a gain in structural complexity in biological organisms? a move towards intelligence? – and Watt’s review of how this played out amongst different nineteenth century Darwinians was nice, but “evolutionary Christology” turns out to be the irrelevance it sounds. In questions Watt conceded his was an interpretation of science, not science, but left implicit that it adds nothing to our understanding if one is not committed to Christ as redeemer. His own reasons for rejecting progression were never that clear – a strong sense that the idea was a little embarrassing for the modern theologian, with an odour of empire and the pre-post-modern.

Making up the quartet of post-Darwinian theologians was Dr Denis Alexander. Alexander placed himself as, first and foremost, a practising scientist, and his argument was very different.
Rather than defending theology on the basis of (unproven) insights into aspects of the human condition beyond biology, or posing (falsely) as the reasonable centre ground of inter-disciplinary insight, Alexander made a more robust – though cautiously worded – attempt to undermine atheist argument on its Darwinian home territory.

Again the issue was progress – and more specifically purpose – in the evolutionary process. Alexander’s argument was that recent findings suggest that it is less plausible than has been believed that evolution is a mere chance process, with no necessary direction or purpose. Some of this evidence is straightforward – the biological record shows ever greater structural complexity with passing evolutionary time – and some more specialised. So protein structures show a limited variation in their structural motifs, evolution appearing to discover the same structures repeatedly, whilst a surprising number of instances are being discovered of evolutionary convergence, where separate evolutionary pathways produce similar results.

This is a fruitful line of thinking, but a hundred metres off Alexander’s target. Though he never quite said it, implied was that an emphasis on chance in evolution leans to the atheist pole, whilst evidence of direction is one up for the theists. But this holds no water. His flag bearer for contingency was Stephen Jay Gould, the theologians friend and coiner of the concept of non-overlapping magisteria for science and religion; whilst the champions of evolutionary convergence include Dawkins. Nor, I think, is there a case in logic. The existence of complex, cognitive humans is something any serious atheist needs to account for. Dawkins tackles the problem with his “ultimate 747” argument, in essence that any explanation of complex beings through intentional design leads to infinite regress, as the designer itself needs explanation, whilst a blind process – step forward natural selection – can do the job and is complete in itself. That the operation of natural selection in nature may be constrained to certain outcomes in no way undermines that. Undeniably, the parameters operating in our universe produced us. Whether that’s the result of constraints within the evolutionary process, aspects of the physical properties underlying matter, the existence of an infinite set of universes, or extra-ordinary luck is a big scientific question. But which is the right explanation of the fact of our being has no bearing on the existence of God, above and beyond the fact itself, and that requires no supernatural explanation – just natural selection.

So, did any of this matter? Watt, van Huyssteen and Alexander made specific arguments, which, in themselves, were unlikely to trouble anyone outside the divinity school. But it was Clayton’s more general manifesto which set the tone, and all, at least implicitly, aligned themselves with it. And this seemed to be the strategy: a bogus claim to theology’s central, cross-disciplinary relevance from the standard bearer, based on a definition of the subject so broad as to be meaningless (with some caricature of one’s opponents and a pinch of victimhood thrown in), then God, Christ and the works smuggled back in by the following troops. Does “strategy” overstate the intention? Possibly, but it’s worth noting the institutional weight bearing down: the Templeton Foundation (sponsor), the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (Alexander), the Starbridge lectureship in Theology and Natural Science (Watt), the Princeton Professorship of Theology and Science (van Huyssteen). It’s a strategy worth resisting.

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