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Literature Survey:

Darwin's Theology

Robert J. Richards, “The Theological Foundations of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” in Experiencing Nature, P.H. Theerman and K.H. Parshall, eds. (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997), pp. 61-79.

Most historians of science take Darwin at his word in the Autobiography: although he believed in God and special creation as a young man, “disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” And historians have seen this process mirrored in Darwin’s scientific ideas, which seem to grow increasingly naturalistic — e.g., to the point of explaining by natural causes the origin of theistic belief itself — as his career advances. Robert Richards, a distinguished historian of evolution at the University of Chicago, argues, however, that the evidence requires a more subtle view of Darwin’s theology and its influence on his science. While agreeing with the usual view that Darwin came to oppose special creation implacably, Richards claims that Darwin “created natural selection in the image of God,” and “understood its action to infuse moral values into nature, not to suck them from nature.” Responding to the counter-argument that Darwin’s theological language was simply sugar coating a bitter evolutionary pill, thus helping nervous Victorians to swallow, Richards lists “six immediate consequences of [Darwin’s] theologized conception of natural selection,” among them the notion of “creation through law,” with natural selection radiating “omniscience, power, and exquisite sensitivity,” and working toward “perfection” in creatures.

One can expect Richards’s interpretation of Darwin to be strongly resisted by those commentators (e.g., Gould, Lewontin, Ghiselin) who see in Darwin’s writings the triumph of an agnostic materialism. And certainly abundant textual evidence exists to support this (more usual) view. But Richards points to patterns in Darwin’s work that indicate a kind of alternative theology, with a genuine bearing on Darwin’s scientific explanations. If real, the existence of this theology challenges naive conceptions of methodological naturalism. In other words, Darwin failed to obey his own rules about rigorously separating “science” and “theology.” Whether Darwin’s biology, as Richards concludes, was in fact “Christian” — “out of death comes life more abundantly”(p.76) — is eminently debatable. But his provocative claims about the interaction of theology with science in Darwin’s thinking merit careful study.

Is the Prettiest Theory the True One?

James W. McAllister, “Is Beauty a Sign of Truth in Scientific Theories?” American Scientist 86 (March/April 1998): 174-183.

One can almost hear the mocking schoolyard refrain, albeit slightly modified: “Scientists don’t make passes / at theories that wear glasses.” More soberly, prominent scientists have often argued that, when weighing novel theories, aesthetic criteria — like beauty, elegance, and symmetry — are trustworthy markers of truth. The physicist Paul Dirac, for instance, is often quoted as arguing that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” Other scientists (such as James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA) have quipped that certain ideas were “too pretty not to be true.”

But are aesthetic criteria really reliable? In this insightful article, philosopher James McAllister (University of Leiden) surveys the history of science, and concludes that “the evidence that any aesthetic property of theories is a sign of truth is at present scarce” (p. 183). Theories we now regard as true, such as Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, were seen by many astronomers of Kepler’s time as “ugly” — wearing glasses and braces, if you will — because they failed to meet the prevailing aesthetic criteria of the time. In Kepler’s case, his theory postulated elliptical orbits for the planets, when circular orbits, or combinations of circles, had been preferred for astronomical models since antiquity. But Kepler’s theory won out eventually, and now no astronomer (perhaps) sees ellipses as intrinsically ugly, if he or she thinks about the matter at all.

As McAllister points out, Kepler’s theory succeeded because it was empirically successful, and scientists come to attach “beauty” to those theories that succeed. This inverts the beauty-leads-to-truth claim, however. It would seem that empirical success may help scientists to overcome their initial aesthetic repugnance on encountering a novel, apparently “ugly” theory. McAllister also sounds a note of caution about placing too much weight on aesthetic criteria. “For a scientist to trust his or her aesthetic preferences in assessing whether a theory is close to the truth involves some risk” (p. 183), because standards of beauty in science may derive from scientists having been instructed in false theories — i.e., in theories not “known” to be false until new data arrive. McAllister gives examples from physics and astronomy where aesthetic criteria actually misled scientists. In short, even the prettiest theories might be false, while that homely theory in the corner, given a chance to prove itself, could turn out to be the queen of the ball.

More than the Physical

Tvetan Todorov, “The Surrender to Nature,” a review of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, The New Republic, 27 April 1998, pp. 29-33.

E.O. Wilson is the Pellegrino University professor of biology at Harvard and one of the best-known evolutionists in the world. He is also a best-selling author whose newest book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, was recently excerpted in the Atlantic Monthly. In Consilience, Wilson argues that since “nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced.” Everything — even human history and behavior — is rooted in, and ultimately reducible to, the physical. Thus, free will (for instance) is only a happy illusion, and morality came to be naturally, from ultimately physical causes, just like every other human trait. “All tangible phenomena,” Wilson writes, “from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”

But Wilson’s argument, reviewer Tzvetan Todorov contends, “does not pass the empirical tests that it has prepared for itself.” While human beings are plainly part of the natural order — the tumbling boulder crushes the unwary climber just as flat as it does the shrubs in its path — we are also plainly capable of rising above and challenging the natural order. As Todorov observes:

Is war natural? But it is human also to seek to avoid war. Hierarchy is natural, says Wilson; but many of us seek to live in democratic states that diminish, and in some ways abolish, the effects of natural hierarchies. The cult of the charismatic leader, says Wilson, is natural; but we may also decide to choose our leaders by means of full and free debate, and to see in this choice the fulfillment of our idea of humanity. Who can seriously believe that the choice between dictatorship and democracy, forms of government that are contradictory to each other, has anything to do with our genes? The ethnic group is perhaps more natural than the ideological group; but Christianity has nonetheless structured the states and societies of Europe for almost fifteen centuries. So none of his examples confirms Wilson’s thesis. (p. 30)

Nor is morality easily reduced to physical regularities; indeed, in so doing, we will find ourselves confronted with intuitively repugnant consequences:

If one is content with the demands of nature, as sociobiology [and Wilson] recommends, then one will certainly come to reduce all of morality to the odious and well-known maxim that “might makes right.” (p. 32)

Wilson does offer a “softer” and more agreeable version of his theory, Todorov notes, which seems devised “to enable him to respond to objections” in a “rhetorically clever [but] logically untenable” way, because the hard-core physicalism Wilson defends throughout the book does not brook any exceptions (i.e., either morality is reducible to physics or it is not; if it is not, then Wilson’s bold claims about the primacy of the physical are out the window). “What is original in Wilson’s book,” Todorov concludes (p. 33), “is indefensible, and what is true is banal.” Todorov challenges Wilson to come to grips with the meaner and nastier products of a materialist worldview:

I have a proposal for Wilson’s next book. I propose that he deliver, not an ambitious synthesis of all the sciences, but a precise and profound analysis of Social Darwinism, the doctrine that was adopted by Hitler, and of the ways it differs from sociobiology. (p. 33)

Uncovering the Hidden Meanings of the Genome

John W. Bodnar, Jeffrey Killian, Michael Nagle, and Suneil Ramchandani, “Deciphering the Language of the Genome,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 189 (1997):183-193.

Chiou-Hwa Yuh, Hamid Bolouri, and Eric H. Davidson, “Genomic Cis-Regulatory Logic: Experimental and Computational Analysis of a Sea Urchin Gene,” Science 279 (20 March 1998):1896-1902.

Probably one American reader in twenty of this publication knows what the phrase “wir wissen es nicht” means, while perhaps not one in a hundred thousand knows what “khâw rian khanídtasàad” signifies.* When certain extinct languages were discovered, however, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, no one knew what they meant. “Nothing in particular” is always a possibility, of course. As some argued at the time, maybe the owls, cartouches, papyrus rolls tied with string, and other figures in hieroglyphics were simply decorative patterns or at best hopelessly inscrutable mystical symbols. Yet in fact the figures inscribed on obelisks and tomb walls record a decipherable language, with a grammar and syntax of its own, conveying a meaning. That meaning was found, however, only by assuming that some meaning was there — awaiting discovery — and then by a lot of hard work.

John Bodnar and his colleagues argue that biologists face a similar situation with the genomes of organisms. The vast stretches of DNA of unknown function mapped by genome-sequencing projects, they contend, may contain a biological language whose meaning we should try to decipher:

We should keep in mind that the language of the genome is not enciphered or encoded like a military message as a transform done intentionally to hide its meaning from all but its intended recipient. Rather, it is a language whose meaning is currently unknown as hieroglyphics, or Linear B [the Minoan Greek script of the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.], once were. (p. 183)

Indeed, applying crytographic and linguistic methods, Bodnar et al. propose a meaning for DNA of unknown function. “The non-coding DNA in eukaryotic genomes,” they write, “encodes a language which programs organismal growth and development. We show that a linguistic and crytographic approach can be used to deduce the syntax of this programming language for gene regulation and to compile a dictionary of enhancers which form its words” (p. 183). And a spectacular, experimentally-supported example of such genetic deciphering can be found in Yuh et al.’s recent Science research article which painstakingly teases apart the logic of a complex genetic system in sea urchins. This system, the Endo16 cis-regulatory module, functions in the growing gut of the sea urchin embryo and larva. The complex DNA sequence, Yuh and colleagues argue, “specifies what is essentially a hard-wired, analog computational device” (p. 1902). As they continue,

The requirement for this logic device is that there are many different inputs to the regulatory system that must be sorted appropriately. It is to us a remarkable thought that every developmentally active gene in the organism may be equipped with devices of this nature. (p. 1902)

Get out your magnifying glasses and notepaper, genetic sleuths. There are biological meanings — i.e., specific functions — to be uncovered out there.

*”We don’t know it” [German] and “He studies mathematics” [transliterated Thai].

Copyright © 1998 Access Research Network. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 7.10.98

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.