11 April, 2009

Don't Lose The Faith

Did Darwin Kill God? aired a few weeks ago. Being produced by a member of the theology department here at Nottingham, it caused a buzz among many of my theologian friends! I had a few reactions and ideas at the time, typed a few out, but didn't click the publish button then. Belatedly, and after a re-watch, here are some thoughts, cleaned up and influenced in no small amount by several people I've discussed it with since. It's no longer on the iPlayer, but you can find it easily on Youtube. Apologies, this is gonna be long!

First, a confession: I am no longer watching for the science. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly hard to remember a point in the BBC’s Darwinian double-anniversary coverage at which I was captivated by the obligatory re-hash of Darwin’s theory of evolution that must precede any discussion. I have a developing awareness that it is not normal behaviour to watch every one of these Darwin docs. It’s not a useful adaptation.

It’s OK this time, however, because we know what we’re really here for: a fight. In Did Darwin Kill God? University of Nottingham theologian Conor Cunningham promises to delve into the question of extremism on either side of the evolutionary ‘debate.’ Thus plugging directly into the reason we love this quarrel anyway – stupid rednecks vs snobby uber-atheists. There’s a voyeurism in observing this conflict. We want harsh words. We want blood.

Unfortunately, this is a BBC documentary through and through. Nothing terribly remarkable about the way it looks, the tone held the right side of respectability, but often flirting with cheesiness. Cunningham cuts a presentable and affable figure, and is lit dramatically while he whispers his way through Genesis. Establishing that Genesis was not taken as a literal account of creation, he travels to Israel and Oxford, tracing the roots of biblical literalism to the reformation, and explains that geology and Christianity were perfectly compatible in Darwin’s time – indeed, many of the top geologists were clergymen. This is all useful stuff. It’s good to put the current spasm of mouth-frothing evangelical protestantism in some sort of context. Heavyweights such as St Augustine are in his corner, after all.

We also have a brief look at the course Darwin’s own faith took following publishing the Origin. This thread of reasoning always bemuses me: the originator of the theory was a Christian, and became an atheist, so is atheism inevitable following understanding of his theory? The question is stupid; the undignified bickering over the beliefs of the late biologist by believers and atheists alike awfully ugly. Alongside whether or not “Hitler believed in evolution,” this is neither of scientific nor philosophical import. At least this segment was brief.

Enough of this moderation. Let’s go to America, where hillbilly music plays as we delve into the Scopes trial and an increasingly fundamentalist reading of the Bible in the 60s. We get to see inside a creationist museum and listen to some daft claims; it’s all rather predictable fare. More interesting is Cunningham’s contention that by treating the Bible as a science textbook, the creationist is effectively worshiping science. The transition to intelligent design raises the question for Cunningham of why an interventionist designer would allow evil to occur in the world. Unfortunately, this seems something of an own goal; it’s certainly not clear that his God allays suffering either. Indeed, one might say that natural selection is as suffering-intensive as creation is likely to get.

Similarly, Cunningham states he sees God operating through evolution, in a way that leaves one wondering: is this divine evolution still automated, unguided, without direction? If God is responsible for mutations that grant us intelligence, sight or even flight, is he also responsible for the mutations that cause Cystic Fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease? If he was not the active evolutionary force, then what function does he serve in the Creation? Cunningham’s role for God in evolution seems no more robust.

Asserting that the ‘clash’ between Christian belief and evolutionary theory is an artificial one, Conor turns his attention to a different group of fundamentalists. Immediately the use of terms ‘Darwinian’ and ‘ultra-darwinists’ bother me. Generally speaking, these terms flag a less-than-amicable relationship between the speaker and evolutionary theory. They are also meaningless: modern ‘Darwinians’ have a very different view of evolution, one that involves genetics, for one thing. But I suppose, no-one does like labels. They are necessary evils. My main criticism here would be that having used ‘ultradarwinian’ as a slur for the final twenty minutes of his documentary, Cunningham ends imploring us to “let Darwin rest in peace.

While discussing the atheistic side of evolutionary theory, the central argument is that scientific theory can tell us only about things material, and so cannot disprove God. It’s a pretty elementary point – indeed most atheists accept this but counter that “he who asserts must prove” – but a key one. Michael Ruse puts it best, saying “If one goes into the lab…to do science, one is, as a scientist, not looking for God.” Francis Collins agrees.

Possibly this is a problem with the documentary as a whole. The notion that Darwin could have “killed God” is garbage! Rather, evolutionary theory is key in this battle of beliefs because i) it is the clearest example we can point to where material evidence contradicts the literal word of the Bible and ii) belief in God is functional, regardless of fact, and understanding our origins and place in the universe better diminishes the functional utility of belief.

The descent into meme theory in the final ten minutes is confusing. We are truly through the looking-glass here, and Cunningham seems rather lost himself, telling us that at its heart meme theory tells us “there is no me or you,” and “everything is an illusion.” This is somewhat misleading. Unfortunately meme theory is at its heart no more than a philosophical analogy that shows how ideas could be spread like genes. It certainly lacks the power to bring down religion – it should be obvious that describing an idea, for instance that of a crucified and resurrected deity, as a ‘meme’ does not alter the actuality. If it took place, then it took place, meme or otherwise. For the same reasons, Cunningham’s supposedly damning attack on meme theory – that it is tautological – ultimately falls flat.

‘Memetics’ merely describes the way the idea or belief has spread, although its proponents have been guilty of doing so with some fairly emotive language, it’s true. Maybe this grants meme theory too much credibility anyway. It’s not a truly scientific concept. But it is amusing to imagine that Conor is actually so aghast at Rickrolling, or the notion that LOLcats have ended belief.

From the start cards were laid on the table. Conor Cunningham is a Christian and an evolutionist, and through to this last section we have little reason to doubt it. But as we get in to the realms of more modern theory, a flicker of doubt takes life in my mind. Little instances of innuendo creep in, such as when Francis Collins vaguely denies that evolution is “all about genes”. There is an underlying hostility towards the “selfish gene theory” that is not at its heart scientific. (Here, the rather clunky faux-dialogue interview style employed throughout does really grate. When a point is made that feeds into Cunningham’s argument, the camera cuts to him so he can smile and nod encouragingly. It comes across a trifle smug.)

It’s natural for a theist to be hostile to the idea that we are nothing but the sum of our selfish genes. The implications for our moral grounding seem dire – although we do exhibit many separations from our natural origins, after all. Our understanding of genes should broaden in years to come, but this ‘selfish model’ is still the closest approximation we currently have. What rankles is that Cunningham’s criticisms are not scientific in nature – they pounce on perceived “dissent in the scientific community” and take this as their evidence.

Oh well. It is perfectly natural to pick and choose which bits you want to believe, when there’s no practical reason to get it 100% right. And there really isn’t, in this case.

The worst horrors should always be saved for the final reel. So it was for an atheist and scientist who so far can agree, if grudgingly and with however much nitpicking, with some of our conclusions so far: Science and Religion are two different things. Christians are not normally quite so belligerent, only Americans. Darwin cannot disprove God. Meme theory certainly does not disprove God.

Enter Simon Conway Morris, who also sees evolutionary theory as incomplete, much to Conor’s glee. But more importantly, he considers evolution might be the method nature uses to reach underlying, (dare we say divine) conclusions. This mysticism seems a pretty unforgiveable attempt to shoehorn God into evolution, and it violates Cunningham’s own scheme of separate science and faith. Our truce is broken. It’s a shame.

It’s a shame because there was some good stuff in this documentary. A condemnation of extremism (which is ludicrous on both sides), and a reminder that Christianity isn’t all about what happens in Colorado Springs. A few examples of theists who can get behind evolution. And an attempt at reconciliation. I fear I have dwelt overlong on the contentious aspects. But the key is this: evolutionary science is incomplete, and we must test it and understand it. It will take us wherever it will. And one gets the feeling that just as Conor Cunningham has an idea of the kind of God he can believe in, so too can he deal with evolutionary theory – on his own terms.

There, maybe that will be it for Darwin for the time being. I only just bought a copy of The Origin of Species, actually, so probably not (You may be surprised to hear that it's far from essential reading for the modern science student. Maybe you shouldn't be). Apologies to anyone's ideas I have pinched, most of these thoughts were my own, as far as I can tell. Maybe they were no more than memes. If you missed it on TV and iPlayer, Youtube has your back.

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