Category Archives: Science

Book review: Understanding Evolution

I posted this on Panda’s Thumb, but I thought I would repeat it here.

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.


Kampourakis, a philosopher at Geneva, has compiled and discussed sensibly a range of topics concerning evolution. He begins with the conceptual difficulties people have in understanding the evolutionary process, and why. In chapter 1, he discusses how we know about evolution, what questions it answers, and considers two cases that are close to home: domestication and epidemiology, the evolution of disease.

The evolutionary questions are about why living things evolved the way they did, about speciation, the process of evolving new species, and the hypotheses that these require. He talks about explanation (especially “inference to the best explanation“) and the use of scientific method in evolutionary biology. The sections on domestication of animals and on epidemiology are satisfyingly complete.

Chapter 2 covers religious objections to evolution, including, of course, creationism and intelligent design. He discusses the arguments made by ID, especially in the context of atheism and agnosticism. Arguments from design in nature are expounded and given a thorough treatment, including “artifact thinking” and complexity.

The he discusses world views in conflict, especially relating to Richard Dawkins’ views, and then more widely the views of both theist and atheist scientists. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” and Simon Conway Morris’ inevitability thesis are also reviewed. There is a nice discussion of the differences between knowing and believing and various kinds of methodological and metaphysical naturalisms.

Chapter 3 is titled “Conceptual difficulties to understanding evolution”. Here he discusses psychological essentialism in detail, and the “design stance” that Dennett identified. The problems of conceptual change, which I have published on myself, are then discussed. An example he uses is the shift from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking, and it is a good case study. The discussion on essentialism and design thinking, especially of artifacts, appeals to the psychological literature in detail.

Chapter 4 gives a complete and up to date account of how Darwin himself came to his theories. In particular he discusses how Darwin thought varieties became species, and gives a nice timeline of Darwin’s intellectual development. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how scientists and the religious reacted to the Origin.

Chapter 5 is about common ancestry. Usually books of this type focus upon natural selection, as if that were where Darwin’s originality lay. Kampourakis knows that Darwin’s true novelty lay in this idea instead. He explains how genealogical thinking allows us to reconstruct and classify the history of nature, and how thinking in terms of a historical tree of life made all the difference (and was Darwin’s first and main problem to solve). There’s a good discussion of molecular evolutionary biology here.

He gives an account of an often misunderstood notion in biology: homology. This is followed by phylogenetic classification and construction, and a discussion of the question of apparent similarities in biology: convergences (analogy, or homoplasy). Many clear and useful diagrams make the chapter even easier to follow. Then he considers the role of developmental thinking, and how evolution often modifies the timing of development.

Chapter 6 is titled “Evolutionary change”. It discusses “deep time” and dating of taxa and their divergence. Here he notes that while selectionist accounts are important, much evolution is stochastic, that is, chance. He discusses the difference of within-species evolution (microevolution) and between-species evolution (macroevolution) and gives a good summary of scientific ideas about these, especially the “major transitions” literature. The “selection-against” and “selection-for” distinction is explained here. Speciation and extinction are also explained. Then he returns to the question of inference, in a historical science like evolution.

Finally, in his concluding remarks, he discusses what evolution does, and does not explain, especially with respect to ethical and religious questions.

Each chapter has a good reading list, and the material is up to date in both science, and philosophy and history. He takes stances throughout but does so explicitly, allowing the reader to decide what to think for themselves.

This is an excellent, and long-needed book. The education of evolution in schools is now so poor in many countries, that this can act as both a primer and as an invitation to think further, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know what evolution really is and means. It is not cheap, but neither is it as expensive as many books of its kind. Buy a copy.


Filed under Biology, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, Genetics, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Systematics

Closet Darwinism, and definitions

Every so often, somebody makes the case that “Darwinism”, “Darwinist” and “Darwinian”, being the generic noun, the individual term, and the adjective of Darwin’s name and therefore (supposedly) theory, are dead terms that cause nothing but harm (see Scott and Branch 2009). Larry Moran has just made this very argument, refusing to be called a “Darwinist” in the face of the fluffy-lapdog-bite challenge of the Intelligent Designists who want to put every one into the white hat/black hat category. We can ignore them here.

Larry’s argument is roughly this: modern evolutionary theory includes a host of ideas that do not rely upon the ubiquity of natural selection. “Darwinism” and cognates is basically a focus upon natural selection (and hence adaptationist views of biology). Ergo, modern evolutionary theory is not “Darwinian” in the main. I would say both of these premises are correct (of course – Larry is a very clever and erudite man), but that the conclusion doesn’t follow.

Scientific theories are not like, to pick a random example out of my hat,* a religious doctrine or philosophical idea, which remains constant and is defined clearly.** A theory is not a body of ideas; it is a research program as Imre Lakatos called it. It is lines of investigation, based on ideas that are continually refined and revised, often without anyone being aware that is what is happening. And it is a formalisation, usually in mathematics and techniques of analysis, of what start out as verbal formulations.

Consider modern physics. It began with some rough and ready ideas of Galileo on how bodies move, together with some mathematical formulations by Kepler of planetary orbits. When Newton came along and gave a general mathematical account of physics in the Principia, physics did not stop there. In fact, Laplace solved some puzzles (why orbits are stable) as much as 90 years later. And of course, Newton’s work, and the cumulative work of all the physicists in between, like Euler, Lagrange, and many others, occurred before Mach and Einstein came up with our present theories.

It would be hard to “define” Newtonian physics, although there would be some constant simple equations. Likewise, when Darwin proposed “my theory” as he called it, there were many elements to it, some of which did not survive Darwin himself for long (his theory of pangenesis, a theory of inheritance, was effectively dead in the water by 1910, 20 years or so after his death). It is clear that natural selection was one of his major theories, along with sexual selection, but the real novelty of his views was common descent, or as he called it, descent with modification. Natural selection was a refined version of ideas of elimination of the unfit that had a century long history before his own book. Darwin’s novelty was to include natural variation in populations, so that variations that happened to confer some advantage to their bearers would come to predominate the population, ratcheting up the fitness of the group overall.

This idea was not formalised until William Castle in the 1900s combined Mendelian inheritance with selection formally. Later, R. A. Fisher published The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection in 1930. Almost immediately, Sewall Wright introduced the notion of “genetic drift”, whereby populations would “wander” around the “adaptive landscape” due to what he called “sampling error”, where genes could be represented unequally in subsequent populations because of population size and the statistical vagaries of mating. In the 1960s and 1970s, this was further developed as “neutral theory”, whereby most mutations would be “silent” concerning fitness, and through drift could come to be dominant in a population.

All this is often subsumed under the general umbrella of “population genetics”, which was the main evolutionary research program in the 20th century. It culminated in the theoretical work of many, such as Sergey Gavrilets, showing that based on what we know about genetics, genes can evolve just as Darwin saw in nature.

So let’s ask, what counts as “Darwinism”? Sure, a great many philosophically inclined thinkers, like Dawkins, Mayr and others have treated natural selection as the be-all and end-all of “Darwinism”, but in fact the field has always been wider than that. In the 1980s, this got recast as a battle between followers of Dawkins (and indirectly, John Maynard Smith) and Gould (and indirectly, Richard Lewontin), or between “adaptationists” (Gould’s term) and “contingency theorists” (my term).

The point though, is that this is an internecine debate within evolutionary biology, and even more, that both sides claim to be “Darwinians”. I think that from the outside, it appears that evolutionary biology (which certainly derives from Darwin) is like a religion, in that these schisms and schools are all Darwinian. Just as Christianity has a slew of sects, so too does Darwinian biology. The difference is that in the end, biology is determined by empirical evidence, whereas in religion the battles are won by the use of the sword or gun, or more rarely, persuasion based on rhetorical skill.

We might take a term of religion here: “Darwinism” is a big tent. It can include these “non-Darwinian” or “post-Darwinian” ideas because that is exactly how science proceeds. Just as Newtonian physics came to include ideas very unlike what Newton himself had held, so too has Darwinian biology.

Given that Larry is a constant advocate for processes and ideas other than natural selection in evolutionary biology, he might well be seen as not Darwinian in the manner that the adaptationists (whether they think that only natural selection matters, or simply ignore or run roughshod over other processes) are, but historically, he is well within the Darwinian research program, and I suspect he would agree to this. The broad version of “Darwinism”, not the simplistic version of popular science. Larry is Darwinian.

A large part of the problem lies in the way some (for example, Daniel Dennett) have made natural selection the only thing that matters, in any arena let alone biology. Natural selection certainly does matter, but so too do the other implications of a population genetical approach to biology, drift and neutral evolution. Gavrilets has even shown how populations under strong selection can “drift” in high dimensional fitness landscapes of thousands of genes. All this is coming together in ways nobody had thought possible decades before. “Darwinism” is evolving. I take Larry to be a Darwinist, Darwinian in his ideas, and promoting the broad sense of “Darwinism”.

As to the ID folk, basically they do no science, and think very simply. We should ignore what they say as warmed over creationism (creationism also evolves, in this case into ID).

* Not.

** In fact, neither are religious doctrines or philosophical positions, if you ever actually read any history of these fields. Ideas are protean and, dare I say it, evolve.


Castle, William E. 1903. “The laws of Galton and Mendel and some laws governing race improvement by selection.” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 39:233–242.

Castle, William E. 1910. “The effect of selection upon Mendelian characters manifested in one sex only.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 8 (2):185-192.

Castle, William E. 1911. Heredity: In Relation to Evolution and Animal Breeding. New York, London: D. Appleton and Company

Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fisher, Ronald Aylmer. 1930. The genetical theory of natural selection. Oxford UK: Clarendon Press, (rev. ed. Dover, New York, 1958).

Gavrilets, Sergey. 1997. “Evolution and speciation on holey adaptive landscapes.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 12 (8):307-312.

Gavrilets, Sergey. 2004. Fitness landscapes and the origin of species, Monographs in population biology; v. 41. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford, England: Princeton University Press.

Lakatos, Imre. 1970. “Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes.” In Criticism and the growth of knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 91-196. London: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, Eugenie C., and Glenn Branch. 2009. “Don’t Call it “Darwinism”.” Evolution: Education and Outreach 2 (1):90-94.

Wright, Sewall. 1931. “Evolution in Mendelian populations.” Genetics 16 (2):97-159.

Wright, Sewall. 1932. “The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in evolution.” In Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics, edited by Donald F. Jones, 356-366. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


Filed under Creationism and Intelligent Design, Evolution, History, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Theories

Accommodating Science overview

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.

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Filed under Accommodationism, Book, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Education, Epistemology, Evolution, General Science, History, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Accommodating Science: the backfire effect, and conclusion

[This is the final section of the book. I will return to the section on neurobiology and religion later.]

The backfire effect

If science is to be communicated to the wider community in a way that will change how people think, then it would seem an obvious idea to look at the actual science of communication itself. A type of psychological research is into motivated reasoning, which seeks to understand how it is that people respond to challenges to their beliefs, and it has some surprising and counterintuitive results for us here.

When people are reasoning about things they are motivated strongly to defend, it turns out that evidence to the contrary will typically not reduce their confidence in these beliefs, but in fact cause them to strengthen their beliefs against the evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect”. This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement. It is why when study after study shows that vaccines do not cause autism, or that humans are causing global warming, those who are motivated to defend these ideas increase, rather than decrease, their certitude in those claims. It is why, when no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda shown to exist, supporters of the Bush administration still think that Bush was right to invade and there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. As philosopher Jonathon Haidt noted (2001),

Research in social cognition also indicates that people often behave like “intuitive lawyers” rather than “intuitive scientists”

who argue in favour of their previously-chosen position rather than investigating it to find out what is right.

It cannot be that people will never change their minds, so what is going on? The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that the function of reasoning is not to find the truth, but to give reasons for what it is that we otherwise want to believe (Mooney 2011). It implies that what really matters is how people feel about beliefs, not what they critically think. In short, the rationalist is wrong. That is, they are wrong about why people use reason, not about the importance of good reasoning.

A recent paper by Mercier and Sperber (2010) argues that the “function” (I always air quote the word function, because there are a multitude of functions for anything, and which one you are most interested in tells the hearer more about you than about the thing you are talking about) of reason is to convince people, not to find the right things to believe. In short, the rhetorical aspect of reasoning is what we first evolved to employ, not the rational and logical aspect.

This must affect how we communicate science to the wider community, and how the community receives that message. Let me use an analogy: suppose you have a criminal element in your neighbourhood. You seek to remove or otherwise deal with that criminal element, so you enact through your local legislative body some harsh anticrime laws. You might expect that crime would drop, but instead it rises, and the criminal acts become more violent and extreme. It turns out that “law and order” campaigns are counterproductive, because all they do it strengthen the motivations of both law and crime doers. It effectively ramps up the tension and hence the violence (Beckett 1999). This is sometimes called the Untouchables Effect:

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! [The Untouchables, 1987]

Now the reasonable response would be to remove the tension and deflate the intensity of the game, for example by disarming the police so that the criminals no longer need to carry weapons. Instead, our tendency is to up the ante each time, ramping up the cost of the game until it becomes very serious indeed, and a kind of war breaks out between gangs and the police. It would also be reasonable to address the underlying social reasons for crime, such as a lack of access to basic resources and fair treatment, but again, in law and order arms races, the exact opposite happens.

This is exactly analogous to the ways in which those who are proscience and those who are anti-science, whether for religious or other reasons, behave. Instead of taking a slow, measured and agreeable approach, our initial tendency is to confront aggressively, and the outcome is not that one side or the other gives way in the face of force majeure but that they both entrench themselves in increasingly malign positions. That is the Chicago way.

This leads to a tragedy of the commons. Each individual actor in this struggle seeks to maximise their own return on cognitive investment (and the reasons have to do with social status), but when all act this way, we end up with a highly polarised negative-sum outcome. Everybody loses when science and political and religious motives are at odds. We end up with anti-science becoming a test of moral purity in some quarters, and thus we stop vaccinating, dealing with the environment, and going into space. A reasonable mind would see this as a problem to be solved, not a mere fact of life.

When communicating to somebody, it is obvious that we must take the audience with us, rather than force feed them at a speed they cannot absorb, and when the audience has prior expectations that run counter to the message, you must gently deconstruct those expectations. Otherwise, you end up reinforcing the motivated reasoning that got you into this mess.

Science communication is not, I believe, the solution to our anti-science social problem. This has to do with the nature of mass media, rather than any failings of science communicators, so let me discuss this a little.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and then failed to give that any real definition or sense. Here is my take on it. Broadcast media, meaning any kind of “publishing abroad”, as they used to call it, where something is written, said or done once, and then sent to many readers or viewers simultaneously, as a medium has some limitations. Since the audience is targeted at the lowest common denominator for the size of audience that is sought, it follows that broadcast media are generally quite information poor. This is equally if not more true of the internet media. A common tag is “tl;dr” – “too long; didn’t read”. Quite apart from the (questionable) claim that reading on a screen is less effective than reading on a physical copy, there is simply so much on the internet that if you want a large audience, you have to make the material bite-size and straightforward.

Yet, there is a lot of content even if there is not much information in broadcast media, so what is it all doing? I believe it is doing one thing only: manipulating attitudes. Broadcast media makes you feel good or bad about things. So the best outcome of good science communication in broadcast media has to do with manipulating the attitudes of the readers and viewers to feel positively disposed towards science. And if you can make people feel good about it, you can make people feel bad about it, as the anti-vaccination and global warming “skeptics” demonstrate. The techniques of manipulation are the message, even when the topic is science.

So when we engage in public debate about science, we are either trying to manipulate attitudes, or we are shouting into the wind. And I think that it is not a virtue to manipulate anyone. Instead, you should express yourself so that a reasonable and honest hearer can follow where your argument leads, even if they end up not agreeing with you. Motivated reasoning is deflated when you treat people with respect and civility, or at least, more so than with any other technique of public debate. It is not infallible.

When motivated reasoning backfires, though, and civility fails, then the strategic issue moves from “convincing others about science” to “preventing others from blocking science and science education”. And this means that one need not be so civil (although I would suggest civility is always the right starting point). However, when we are considering advocacy roles, I do not see why those who are pro-science, even when they are religious believers, must be excluded from active engagement in science. Those who are anti-science may very well be treated in a hostile manner if civility fails, but why treat the pro-science religious believers that way?

So I think that the prohibitive advocacy form of non-accommodationism is a bad strategy, and that we should encourage rather than discourage the involvement of religious believers in science advocacy. And this is purely a political decision. There are few if any philosophical aspects to this: we know that religions that are not empirically testable are compatible with science, and we know that one can believe in scientific ideas and religious ideas when there is no conflict. Our decision to encourage the religious to advocate for science is about raising the knowledge temperature of a society so that decisions are made upon good rather than bad ideas.

Consequently, adopting the exclusionary view that some of the more extreme new atheists have advocated indirectly is counterproductive. If you exclude religious belief from inside the scientific arena, you will find this backfires, and makes science less, not more, influential in society, while at the same time setting up conditions in which anti-science becomes identified with religious belief. And given that religious belief in never going to disappear, this is just stupid behaviour.


Throughout this book I have argued for a kind of accommodationist perspective. Let me summarise it now.

It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion. It is also my view that religions have always done this to some extent. It is not my concern to suggest how this may be done, since that is for believers to decide. It will not be all that easy, but it can be done, so long as the religion manages to make their beliefs independent of empirical data.

I do not think that science and religion are at war, and in my historical survey, I find that what happens is that science battles science, with some sides being represented by religious figures and institutions. I note some exceptions to this, particularly with respect to the brain and the mind. Here, more than anywhere else, I think religion has trouble with science.

I argue that if we exclude religious believers from science advocacy, we run the risk of increasing the motivated reasoning that will exclude science from general social policy and the community, to our combined detriment.

Arguments against religion in science do not depend upon scientific arguments or evidence, as no such arguments of evidence against religion exist. Only by adopting a philosophical stance, such as the belief that religion must function like a scientific theory of explanation, or that the probabilities of science favour philosophical positions like atheism, can this be made out. When atheists argue against religion on scientific grounds, either they are arguing against empirically sensitive beliefs, which ought to be science in any case, or they are arguing in a philosophical, and thus unscientific, manner. I don’t mean by this that their conclusions are unscientific, but that the arguments are. They aren’t scientific arguments, but rather they are philosophical arguments that use science as the context in which they are delivered.

Science is neither atheistic nor religious. It is neither an apology for a socioeconomic status quo, nor an argument for a revolution. Consider the scientific claim that global warming is human-caused. This, if established (and I think that it has been established), doesn’t give us a course of action. For that to be derived, we also need the ethical value that we should avoid global warming because of its consequences for us and the environment. This ethical value is not itself scientific. It is a philosophical value.

While some like Dawkins may argue that science makes religion ridiculous, or like Stenger that it shows that it is false, this is neither the implication of science alone, nor is it historically sustainable. What is being argued for in such cases is not science as such, but atheism or positivism. This is of course fine, and within the rights of those who argue, but it is misleading to call this arguing for science. These are philosophical arguments for a philosophical position regarding science. And to say they are implied by science is disingenuous and at best bad philosophy.

On the other hand, the attempts by religious writers to claim science for themselves is equally disingenuous. Ranging from the complete disavowal of any and all science that does not match the prior conclusions drawn (often with great straining) from scripture, to the surreptitious view that a certain philosophical reading of science will support some religious metaphysics, this is the abuse of reason and science. Science doesn’t support Buddhism, nor does it support Christianity, nor the Kabbalah, nor any other fashionable religious view.

A more sophisticated attack upon the philosophical autonomy of science is that of Alvin Plantinga and others, who argue that there is a special kind of science where human reason is subjugated to religion, and so only that sort of science (Plantinga calls it “Augustinian” science) is acceptable to Christians. In this approach, one can use miraculous explanations in science when theology dictates it. I hope I don’t have to argue here against this. The onus is on the theist to justify in a secular context whatever they wish to do under the rubric of “science”; and in ways non- believers can accept, or else it isn’t science; it is theology and only theology. They can think whatever they wish to think as Christians; if it isn’t secular, it isn’t science. If they believe faith supervises reason, that is fine. Nobody else has to. And yet science works very well – just as well as for believers – in the absence of that belief, so perhaps that belief is of no consequence when doing science.

To return to the atheist critics of religion in science, the same argument applies to them. They may believe that faith is excluded by reason and science, and yet science works very well – just as well as for nonbelievers – in the absence of that belief too. In short, science is philosophically neutral.

And this is the take-home message of this book. Science isn’t religion or anti- religion. Religion isn’t science, nor is atheism. All these conceptual entities and social groups are what they are, and they aren’t science. Nothing useful is served by mixing them.

In the end, science matters because the more we know about the world we all inhabit, religious or not, the better we can make our way through it. If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.

I have not been a friend to religion in this book; but neither have I been a friend to exclusivism. I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so. Nor have I tried to show that religion must be excluded from science, because it is my view that this is just wrong. Instead, I have argued for a principled accommodation of religion to science: believe whatever you like, but don’t believe that science is anything else but the best way to know the world around us.


Beckett, K. (1999). Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

Mercier, H. and D. Sperber (2010). “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.

Mooney, C. (2011). The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones.


Filed under Accommodationism, Epistemology, Journalism, Media, Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Accommodating science: Strategy

[This is part of the final chapter. It is unfinished, but I have to move on to some other activities, so it may not be completed for a while. Also, the chapter on neuroscience and religion will take a while to work up. So expect one more section soon, and then nothing for a while.]

So, at this point we need to summarise. I wish I could have given you a simple and straightforward answer to the question Is religion able to accommodate science? but it has no simple or straightforward answer. I can, however, give you my conclusions:

When a religious opinion contradicts our best science about matters of fact and explanation, science wins. That is, science should be deferred to, especially in the secular sphere (in the wider community than the religious community that rejects the facts). If you do not defer to science in these cases, you cannot fairly claim to be interested in knowing about the way things really are.

When a religious opinion has no empirical consequences, then no amount of scientific reasoning can show it to be false or unacceptable, most especially when dealing with matters of value. Consequently, claims that science has shown God to be a failed hypothesis only work when God was intended to be an explanation of some particular aspect of the natural order. Since many if not most modern versions of religion no longer make that assertion, their version of their religion is not in danger from science, and it is simply wrong to assert otherwise. And moreover, scientific results can in no way affect the claim that the reason for the existence of the universe itself is the intent or action of a deity, since that cannot be tested. While there is no empirical evidence to suggest a deity is needed (that would be another book, not this one, so take my word for it here), neither can there be any empirical evidence against such a deity, so long as nothing about that deity changes the expectation of the way the empirical world will be from a scientific one.

Religion is not a single unitary phenomenon that can be blamed or praised all at once. Like any human institution it has degrees, varieties and loose and strong interconnections, and moral culpability does not transfer without loss from one part of a religion to another. To say otherwise is to blame very human being for every bad thing any human being has ever done, by parity of reasoning. Claims that “religion poisons everything” end up as vapid as “everything is affected by everything else”, and pay little to no attention to the actual research on the function and influence of religious ideas. I will stick with my own view that religion is a banner under which socioeconomic interests gather, and almost never the direct cause of institutional processes. However, religious ideas can and do affect the beliefs and actions of individuals, and that is enough to be worrying about. It pays not to oversell the problem if we want to deal with it effectively.

So the final issue is what the right strategy should be for pro-science advocates to deal with the actual, not the imagined, religious interference in science and science education. To resolve this, let’s consider some recent research on how people do or do not change their minds in a public debate.

How to change people’s minds

When Chris Mooney wrote a piece for Mother Jones, entitled “Seven reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution”,[60] he was simply reporting the arguments made by a range of cognitive scientists of religion and psychology that certain types of belief are more “natural” for human beings than belief in some of the more arcane or distant results of science. The argument has also been made by Robert McCauley in his recent book Why religion is natural and science is not (McCauley 2011). The argument runs like this: our evolved cognitive dispositions did not evolve to understand the truths of science, but instead to adapt to social agency. Religion, which is a cultural expression of our social dispositions and cognitive biases, is therefore something very natural for us as a species to adopt (given the many meanings of “religion”, this may be overstated). Science, on the other hand, deals with large numbers, long periods, the very large and the very small, and these are things we did not evolve to deal with.

The reaction of some bloggers, such as PZ Myers, whose blog Pharyngula is one of the most widely read new atheist blogs in the US,[61] and Lawrence Moran, whose Sandwalk is a Canadian equivalent,[62] was therefore rather surprising. Mooney was accused of “selling” accommodationism, and making out that atheists were somehow mutants. It was a great over-reaction, and had an obvious agenda behind it: to denigrate any hint that accommodation is a respectable strategy. Why is this? After all, a fact is a fact, and the fact that something like religion is in general a natural default mindset for human beings doesn’t therefore mean one must accommodate religion in science.

The reason has to do with longstanding opposition to strategies that are in some fashion conciliatory to religious believers. It is thought that this “tone” debate defangs opposition to religion in science, and makes critics seem shrill when in fact aggressive argument is called for. Often, parallels are drawn with minority rights movements like the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. And there is real substance to this. To be an atheist in modern America is matched only by the costs of being an atheist in Turkey or Indonesia in the modern industrial world: atheists are less well trusted than politicians, used car salesmen and rapists! This is not the case in most of the rest of the industrial world, however. Atheists are regularly elected as leaders or representatives in other countries, including my own, although there is a worrying trend towards public religiosity among the majority parties even in Australia.

This goes right back to the origins of religious toleration in the United States. In the famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” by the philosopher John Locke, offered to the American colonists as a defence of secular government, he basically exempted atheists from all civil rights, because

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

In other words, atheists can’t be trusted since they have nobody to swear their oaths by. This is one of those “If you don’t believe what I believe, there’s something wrong with you” moments. Nonbelievers aren’t fully human, and can’t be expected to be honest.

But in a secular society, where religious exceptionalism is not established as law of the land (which one could hope were every industrialised nation, although it isn’t the case), discussion between religious and areligious interests has to be carried out without the privilege either of religion or the unquestioned authority of science, and so the debate rages either as political warfare, or as civil debate. Neither approach works well in every case, but I aim to argue that civil debate is the right starting point. 

[60] 26 November 2013 < people-deny-evolution>

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Filed under Accommodationism, Politics, Religion, Science

Accommodating science: Faith and reason

[This is the penultimate chapter. I can’t be bothered trying to get the references or footnotes included in the posts, so you’ll have to wait for the book. Some of this has appeared on the blog before in less well written form, so don’t worry about the deja vu]

All religious systems, it is confessed, are subject to great and insuperable difficulties. Each disputant triumphs in his turn; while he carries on an offensive war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete triumph for the Sceptic; who tells them, that no system ought ever to be embraced with regard to such subjects: For this plain reason, that no absurdity ought ever to be assented to with regard to any subject. A total suspense of judgement is here our only reasonable resource. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, VIII]

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Filed under Accommodationism, Cognition, Creationism and Intelligent Design, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Religion, Science

Accommodating science: Evolution and change

Robert J. Berry is a geneticist at University College London. He is also an evangelical Christian and has written a number of works on the compatibility of religion (his kind, anyway) and evolution (Berry 1975). He was moved to write to the science journal Nature, in which he took to task their editorial (Berry 2009):

The Church in England did not generally react so “badly” to Darwin’s ideas as readers of your Editorial may be led to believe (Nature 461, 1173–1174; 2009).

Reverend Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK, wrote in 1863 “God’s greatness, goodness and perpetual care I never understood as I have since I became a convert to Mr Darwin’s views.” The Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, proclaimed after Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey “It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.” In 1884 Frederick Temple, Bishop of Exeter and future Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote “The doctrine of Evolution restores to the science of Nature the unity which we should expect in the creation of God.”Aubrey Moore, a leading theologian at the University of Oxford, welcomed Darwinism “as a friend in the disguise of a foe” because it struck at the heart of nineteenth-century deism.

Ironically, in view of later developments, even some of the authors of Fundamentals (a series of Christian booklets published in the United States between 1910 and 1915) were happy to see evolution as the method that God used in his work of creation.

The assumption that there must be conflict between evolution and religion was (and is) the result of the distorting “cultural lenses” that you mention. Modern creationism was born only in the twentieth century, largely through the efforts of the Canadian adventist George McCready Price. There has probably been less conflict in England than in most other countries.

None of this is to claim that all religious people view evolution in a positive light, nor that all evolutionists are objective about religion. But we need to remain aware of our cultural lenses.

Two things about this. One is that Berry is absolutely right about the conventional religious response to Darwin prior to 1920 or so. For the first 50 years, Darwin was generally seen as a friend to religion. Second, he is right also that we tend to read back into the past the battles of today, or overgeneralise one minority opinion of Christianity – the modern, post-1960, fundagelicals.

In this section I aim to discuss the real relations between religious institutions and doctrines on the one hand and the ideas that Darwin either did or was read to have held by his contemporaries. As always, it turns out that the truth is more complex than the simple textbook stories we usually hear or see on television. In fact, even some historians have been so overblown in the ways they have framed Darwin’s relation to religion that they have overlooked the actual evidence in favour of seeing the patterns of their favourite thesis, and this has found its way into popular culture, just in the past few decades.

What is philosophically objectionable to Darwin’s theories? It cannot be that they explain biological phenomena without reference to the deity, or every scientific theory that appealed to lawful explanations would be in the same boat. It cannot be that he appealed to unknown laws of variation, which he called chance, or the same thing would be true of dice games. It cannot be that Darwin assigned humans to the same taxonomic group as apes – Linnaeus did this over a century earlier, and he was quite convinced this was a Christian thing to do. So, what was the problem?

We had better first ask what it was that Darwin actually did theorise. It is important to realise that the categories we now use to define and delineate theoretical differences in science are properly applicable only to modern schools of thought. Just as nothing good comes of calling the Levellers and Diggers of the first English Civil War “Marxists”, nothing good comes from calling a scientist in the nineteenth century by the terms developed to cover scientists in the twentieth. This is a sin in history, known as Whiggism (Butterfield 1931).

Unfortunately, most emphasis by modern scientists and philosophers has been given to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I say unfortunately, because in my view, it was neither original to him, nor the key idea of his theories. He came up with it, without much in the way of influence apart from some economic reading that derived from Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, but he was anticipated by several writers. One hastens to add: the idea of a winnowing out of unfit varieties is old, very old. But Darwin saw that it could cause change if the nature of what was fit changed due to external processes. Apart from a few authors who had little impact, the notion that a selection process could cause rather than retard change in a population was Darwin’s.

But what was in fact his greatest achievement was the idea of what we now call common descent, or the evolutionary tree. Taxonomists had for some time represented the diversity of plants and animals in a treelike schematic of indented lists of taxa that were closely related, with braces used to indicate grouping. This naturally formed what any computer scientist today would call a binary tree structure, where each taxon (a node in the graph) is subsumed under one other node. For Darwin, this was how you explained that all mammals grouped together apart from birds or lizards, and why groups of each of these were divisible out of that larger group: they were all descended from a more recent common ancestral species than the others were. Darwin took this common representation and asked whether it was the structure it was because of genealogical relationships between taxa: in short, did a treelike representation derived from an actual historical process of descent and modification? This was both his core problem and his crowning achievement. The notion of descent with modification, which we now call evolution, resolved and explained this apparent pattern in the world, which is what any good empiricist wants to achieve.

Darwin thought that selection would fit any population of organisms to the novel features of a new environment, either due to migration into new territory for the taxon, or external changes in the environment itself. However, he went even further – he believed that selection was what caused new species. This is now very much a minority opinion in evolutionary biology, although all agree that some new species are the result of selection for varieties that are adapting to some novel or fragmented environments. Most biologists think, though, that the majority of new species are formed through a process known as vicariance. Here a subpopulation becomes isolated from the main populations, and through adaptation incidentally acquires changes in its mating and developmental lifecycle, so that when the populations come back into contact, if they ever do, they are now unable to interbreed freely. [1] Selection did not cause the new species to form, except in the sense that it caused the new species to adapt. Being a new species is an incidental side effect, happening at random. And chance was probably the most concerning issue for the nineteenth century intellectual.

I make out six theories that were argued for by Darwin, one of which is now debunked (pangenesis) and several more that are later additions. When we consider the conflicts between evolution and religion, we must ask which of these theories was in play at the time of the conflict. For instance, many objected to the role that variation played Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and argued that since it was unknown how that occurred, Darwinian evolution was not to be accepted over such alternatives as God’s direct intervention. Now we have the story of mutation and variation right down to the molecular level, and so that objection no longer holds (not that this stops some people from using it). The following table lays out the main theories. There are of course new approaches being advocated, such as epigenetic inheritance and systems theories, but they don’t change how Darwinian evolution was received in the past.

Post-Darwin theories of evolution

Theory and author Content Opposing view
1. Transmutationism (evolution); old view, first scientifically proposed by Pierre Maupertuis in 1745 Species change form to become other species Fixism (creationism)
2. Common descent (Descent with modification); Charles Darwin – some limited earlier examples Similar species share common ancestors Lamarckian
3. Struggle for existence; everyone since the Greeks who did natural history More are born than can survive and organisms compete in a zero sum game Mutualism
4. Natural selection (too many to count; Darwin first to make it an agent of universal change) Relatively better adapted have more offspring and come to dominate a population ?
5. Sexual selection; Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, and possibly
More “attractive” organisms of sexual species mate more (and have more offspring), causing otherwise unfit traits to spread
6. Biogeographic distribution; Alfred Russel Wallace Species occur close by related species, explaining the distributions of various
Centres of origin (species were created at one place and then spread and changed from there)
7. Heredity All Darwinian theories of heredity involve the natural occurrence of variation
in a population
Typology: populations come in fixed types that do not change
a. PangenesisDarwin Particles from the body cause some traits to be more strongly inherited if they
are used by an organism
No longer accepted; replaced by Mendelism
b. Weismannism; August Weismann after 1894 Germ cells (sex cells such as sperm and eggs) do not inherit the organism’s experience Lamarckism (organisms inherit their parents’ experiences)
c. Mendelian synthesis; Morgan and the Mendelians after 1900; Fisher and the Modern Synthesis after 1928 Genes are the bearers of heritable information, and are not modified by the
organism’s experience
8. Random mutation; arguably Darwin held this. “Mutation” just means “variation of heritable form” Changes in genes aren’t directed towards “better” alternatives; in other words, mutations are blind to the needs imposed by the ecology in which organisms find themselves Orthogenesis (changes occur based on either the needs of the organisms, or to a pre-directed end point)
9. Genetic drift/neutralism; Sewall Wright in the 1930s; Kimura and Ohno in the 1960s Some changes in genes are due to chance or the so-called “sampling error” of small populations of organisms. Molecular neutralism is the view that the most genes are about the same fitness, so changes are random “Panadaptationism” (a view ascribed to those who find selective advantage in every case of evolution)

Philosophically, and therefore theologically, there are three main conflicts with accepted ideas before Darwin, and one which was never the accepted view but is often wrongly said to be. The three main objections are change, chance and mindlessness. The wrongly attributed idea is essentialism.

Change: while naturalists before Darwin did not accept the idea that kinds are fixed, they also did not accept that there were long term changes in living kinds over time. There are two reasons for this: one is that until quite recently, as we have seen, the age of the earth was supposed to be short. There simply wasn’/span>t time. However, evolutionary change had been in the scientific air for a century before Darwin took it up, and there were all kinds of theories as to how it happened, including one by Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who unfortunately used bad poetry to get his ideas out. A more famous evolutionist before Darwin was Lamarck, who held that there was a physical driving force that caused lineages of organisms to become more complex. The other reason why evolution was not adopted earlier is rather obvious when you think of it: there were no scientific notions of fixed kinds until the seventeenth century. Only after the Ark became a scientific topic did it occur to anyone to give the Latin words species and genus a scientific definition.

It wasn’t change as such that most objected to. Throughout the middle ages popular and technical naturalism had monsters formed of interbreeding between species, which was a view put forward by Aristotle. For example, the giraffe was held to be a hybrid of the leopard and the camel (hence its medieval name camelopard), and the hyena a cross between a dog and a lion. What the problem was for most religious people was the idea that all animals, including humans, shared a common ancestor. Human exceptionalism was a strongly and emotively held belief. Previous evolutionary views held that humans evolved from some existing species like chimps (and modern chimps from some other existing species of ape, etc.) so that the rather stupid modern creationist slogan “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” made sense then: if there was a monkey species, then it had to evolve all at once into a chimp, which in turn had to evolve all at once into a human, and so there should not be any monkeys or apes left once humans evolved. Lamarck’s solution to this was that there were many lineages each evolving at their own rate, and not historically evolved from each other or a shared ancestor.

Darwin’s solution to what we might call the problem of biodiversity was that only parts of species evolved into other species (if they didn’t go extinct first), so that where there had been one species (say, of a monkey that lost its tail) now there were two, and the group “apes” was formed. Species multiplied. But this meant that apes were not some primitive kind of thing that happened to resemble us, but were instead our second cousins, and modern apes were just as evolved as humans, only they were adapted to a different sort of lifestyle and ecology. The older versions of evolution always had the Europeans, and usually the actual nation of which the writer was a member, at the top of a ladder that different lines were attempting to climb. Darwin’s was more like groups spreading out and exploring a territory. No location was “more evolved” than any other. This more than simple evolution is what bothered many religious writers. It meant that the comfortable colonial assumption of superiority could not be easily maintained.

Chance: Despite the exhortations of the Preacher (“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” [2]), the most objected-to notion by the Christian tradition was the notion of randomness. Darwin’s idea that “fortuitous variation” occurred at random was seen as a major challenge to a lawful universe, and thus to a lawgiver. Chance undercut the power of God and his plan, and worse, for many rationalistic believers, our ability to understand and predict it. Darwin was immediately compared to that old “atheist” Epicurus. And as we have seen, theologians immediately began to call Darwinian evolution “atheistic”.

Darwin’s sense of random was pretty standard: it equivocated between “causes as yet unknown” and “indeterminate”, which was the way chance was framed in educated discourse of his day. He never relied upon one or the other exclusively, although he tended to think that variation was accidental in the sense of being as yet not understood. But what he most required, as we will shortly see, is that the variations were not correlated with the needs of either the organisms or some deity or plan. They happened, for whatever reason, and then they were successful or not.

This was the period in which statistical thinking was being developed, and notions of chance were often debated. Chance as a degrader of order and progress was well understood, but Darwin treated it as a source of novelty and progress (even if of only a limited kind towards the best solution for present purposes). This was very hard to assimilate. Nowadays we know that chance plus what artificial intelligence researchers call “hill climbing” algorithms can solve multivariate problems, not perfectly, but well enough. In the 1860s, this was not at all so obvious. There was order and there was chaos, and chaos destroyed, not created.

Natural selection was seen as a disorder eliminator, as a winnower of accidental variation, and so many religious and philosophical writers argued that it could not be the cause of novelty in the world. Something else was needed to account for progress than natural selection. Ironically, given that we now associate Darwin with natural selection (his “dangerous idea” as Dennett has called it, 1995), it was in fact not widely adopted as a force in evolution for nearly 50 years after Darwin published the Origin. Religious critics were simply following the scientific trend until around 1908. It took perhaps another 20 years for selection to become understood as a creative force in biology, in part as new experiments were done to show that it was effective.

In another irony of history (this subject is loaded with them), “scientific creationism” developed just at about the time that scientists themselves were starting to see Darwinian evolution as a fact, shown by experiment and new mathematics to be the best theory, even if it took them time to work out the role that chance had apart from selection, as well as within it. George Macready Price, a seventh day adventist, published his “flood geology” from 1906 onwards, in which he claimed that science supported the book of Genesis. This view was very eccentric until the 1960s, when Henry Morris and John Whitcomb published their book The Genesis Flood in 1960 (Numbers 1992). The probability is that as science became less uncertain on these matters, the reaction against it increased to combat the loss of the faithful.

Mindlessness: Religious thinkers since the scientific revolution began have always had problems with undirected natural processes. When such laws were held to be the creation of God this was explained as part of God’s providence, in creating a natural order that allowed humanity to flourish. But some outcomes could not be the result of mechanical laws, and mind was, quite literally, one of them. An implication soon spotted within Darwin’s ideas had been spotted earlier in the writings of radicals and materialists who used a mechanistic evolutionary approach: it implied that our mind, and hence our intelligence, and all that made us special (in the eyes of God), was the outcome of mechanical processes, and not so special at all.

One reason this was so objectionable is that if complex mental powers could be caused by mindless processes like evolution by natural selection, then this tended to deprecate humanity’s special status in the natural world. As well as the obvious loss of status, this meant that we simply could not justify exploiting the natural world without regard for the outcomes, just as industrial capitalism needed to do exactly that (and still does). There was, I believe, a strong economic and political motivation for the objection to the idea that we are after all, animals come from animals.

There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem with this, and I do not mean whether a literal egg preceded a literal chicken, evolutionarily. Does religion object to the mindlessness of nature because it undercuts the socioeconomic structures of the day that it is a servant of (as the sociologists would argue), or do socioeconomic interests mirror the views of an authoritative religious philosophy, as critics of religion tend to say? Or is it a two-way interaction? I feel that religion tends to follow and confirm the ideas and interests of socioeconomic processes in society, but still ideas have consequences.

There is also the view held by many if not most religious adherents that there is “something more” to the world than just the physical-mechanical. It is often stated that this is, in fact, the default view of humans, that we are dualistic entities of mind and body, and that there is a spiritual realm as well as a material one. Personally, I doubt this. The default view is, I think, that we are bodies, and if you destroy the body, you destroy the person; only in later, very influential, times and traditions (including of course the Christian) does it become accepted folk wisdom that we are mind-body complexes. An argument might be made, in fact, that even in the “Abrahamic” religions, that idea came from the Indus Valley via Persia. Nevertheless, as the religious traditions stood when science took off, mechanical explanations were seen as somewhat shabby and disreputable, a kind of tradesman’s explanation only to be let in through the kitchen, and not through the hallowed front door of philosophy.

These three main objections represent tendencies rather than elaborate and sustained arguments against “Darwinism”, which is a protean entity in its own right. Many people held many views that were called “Darwinian” – most particularly “social Darwinism”, which predates Darwin by centuries and was so named during the second world war by historian Richard Hofstadter (1944) to make a polemic point against the fascists of his day. It was never a movement, and is little more than a term of disapproval (Bannister 1988). The social implications of Darwin were always at issue though, starting even before Darwin died. In the end, the major motivation for the rejection of Darwin is one of consequentialism: the morality of competition.

Marx and Engels dismissed Darwin’s work as “crude” and “English”, doing little more than making British commerce a law of nature. This view has been repeated by many subsequent authors. However, while it is clear that some of Darwin’s thinking was derived from the economist Adam Smith via David Ricardo, it is best to see it not as the affirmation of economics so much as using the new conceptions of how populations (“markets”) behave, taking ideas from Malthus (Young 1985).

Christian socialists also tended to see Darwinian thought (though always careful to exclude Darwin himself, at least when he lived) as a kind of apologia for rapacious capitalism. The consequences of social policy based upon unfettered competition led to effectively allowing the poor to die; which Darwin himself did not argue for – indeed, he argued weakly against it in the Descent of Man (Darwin 1871, 133f). Darwin cites a paper published about 5 years earlier by W. R. Greg, who argues that natural selection is not active among humans (or, as the convention had it then, “Man”). It is most interesting that he does, because Greg is the intellectual father of all those who think that civilisation, and in particular medicine and poverty relief, leads to a degradation of health and virtue. In short, Greg is the real father of social “Darwinism”. What is Darwin’s response? First he spends a dozen or so pages showing that in fact civilised human beings are still subjected to (different but active) selection pressures. Then he argues that this neither leads to progress nor decline.

If the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. It is very difficult to say why one civilised nation rises, becomes more powerful, and spreads more widely, than another; or why the same nation progresses more quickly at one time than at another. We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of the men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties, as well as on their standard of excellence. Corporeal structure appears to have little influence, except so far as vigour of body leads to vigour of mind. [p140]

Was Darwin a racist? Maybe. But Greg certainly was. [3] Darwin’s comments are somewhat moderate in contrast to this, at the time uncontroversial in its attitudes to negroes and other native ethnicities, popular essay. I particularly like Darwin’s summary:

Natural selection follows from the struggle for existence; and this from a rapid rate of increase. It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase; for this leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide and many other evils, and in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent. But as man suffers from the same physical evils as the lower animals, he has no right to expect an immunity from the evils consequent on the struggle for existence. Had he not been subjected during primeval times to natural selection, assuredly he would never have attained to his present rank. [p142]

Essentialism: it is a myth that prior to Darwin, the dominant view of religious and philosophical thought was “essentialistic”, which meant that in order for something to be a member of a kind, it had to have all the defining properties of the kind, and no other kind had just those defining properties. In short, according to the essentialist story, if an organism was born of parents from which it differed in essential traits, then it was a new species all at once. The first human was born of ape parents, in this view. Only it never existed. It was caused by confusing the logical sense of a “species” with the use of that word by naturalists. Religious naturalists as much as more secularly inclined ones noted that organisms varied in the wild and under domestication. This is a distraction from the real issues of religion and evolution, and ultimately is incorrect. [4]

Was Darwin an atheist, an agnostic, or a bad Christian?

The subject of Darwin’s religion is in one sense quite irrelevant to the truth and relation of his several theories to the dominant religions views of his day, but in another sense it is rather illustrative. There is a well-trodden myth that Darwin lost his faith after the death of his beloved daughter Annie (Keynes 2001)but this has been roundly debunked (Van Wyhe and Pallen 2012). It is a classic case of looking in the sources for what was expected before you went looking. Darwin is a hook on which many prior expectations are hung. Another example is the so-called “class traitor” myth, that Darwin held off publishing for twenty years because he felt like a traitor to his class, given that evolution was associated with radical politics (Desmond and Moore 1991). Instead, Darwin had a plan that he kept to, to ensure that he had done his scientific due diligence before offering up a radical theoretical structure (van Wyhe 2007)

Darwin began his studies at Edinburgh in medicine, but he didn’t complete his degree, and so went to Cambridge to do an arts degree in order to qualify for ordination in the Church of England. He was, by all accounts, rather diffidently orthodox. At some point, Darwin began to have doubts. According to his autobiography, this happened in the years 1836–38, which occurred simultaneously with his formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which culminated in October 1838. The more he developed his scientific ideas, the less he was religious, until he admitted to himself that he was an agnostic (a term later coined by his future friend, Thomas Henry Huxley). Annie did not die until April 1851, by which time he was already firm in his lack of faith.

What is much more interesting is Darwin’s attitude to religion after he developed and published his material, and had become agnostic. He steadfastly refused to draw any conclusions about religion in public or in private. He never ever claimed that his theory was incompatible with Christianity (perhaps in deference to the feelings of his devout wife Emma). In correspondence he wrote a number of telling comments (Darwin 1888, vol I, ch. 8):

Now I have never systematically thought much on religion in relation to science…[16 November 1871]

…the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came, and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty. [2 April 1873]

Mr. Darwin begs me to say that he … considers that the theory of Evolution is quite compatible with the belief in a God; but that you must remember that different persons have different definitions of what they mean by God. [1879, written by a family member]

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic. (Darwin 1969)

One letter that has been widely misused by opponents of evolutionary naturalism, especially Alvin Plantinga, includes this passage:

You would not probably expect anyone fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. … But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? (Darwin to Graham, July 3 1881, Darwin 1888 I:315)[5]

Plantinga (2008) makes much of this comment about monkey brains as a defeater for evolutionary naturalism. But what neither he nor his commentator in the same journal (Mohrhoff 2008) go on to note is what subject Darwin is worrying over. It is not whether evolution is something a monkey brain can acquire knowledge over: it is God. Only about that does he suggest that a modified monkey’s brain is inadequate to the task of reasoning, about divinity and design. The irony is that Darwin in no way worried that such a brain was adequate to the task of uncovering the laws of nature themselves. This is rather disingenuous of Plantinga, and points up both Darwin’s rather careful abstract reasoning despite his disclaimer, and the fact that modified monkey brains may learn quite a lot about the world in an evolved naturalistic manner.

Darwin was visited by Marx’s daughter’s partner, Edward Aveling near the end of his life, in the company of a German atheist, the zoologist Ludwig Büchner. Darwin asked them “Why do you call yourselves Atheists?” Aveling reported (Aveling 1883, 5f) that

…we were Atheists because there was no evidence of deity, because the invention of a name was not an explanation of phaenomena, because the whole of man’s knowledge was of a natural order, and only when ignorance closed in his onward path was the supernatural invoked. It was pointed out that the Greek ?was privative, not negative; that whilst we did not commit the folly of god-denial, we avoided with equal care the folly of god-assertion: that as god was not proven, we were without god (?????) and by consequence were with hope in this world, and in this world alone. As we spoke, it was evident from the change of light in the eyes that always met ours so frankly, that a new conception was arising in his mind. He had imagined until then that we were deniers of god, and he found the order of thought that was ours differing in no essential from his own. For with point after point of our argument he agreed; statement on statement that was made he endorsed, saying finally: “I am with you in thought, but I should prefer the word Agnostic to the word Atheist.”

Upon this the suggestion was made that, after all, “Agnostic” was but “Atheist” writ respectable, and “Atheist” was only “Agnostic” writ aggressive. To say that one did not know was the verbal equivalent of saying that one was destitute of the god-idea, whilst at the same time a sop was thrown to the Cerberus of society by the adoption of a name less determined and uncompromising. At this he smiled and asked: “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind? It is all very well for educated, cultured, thoughtful people; but are the masses yet ripe for it?”

Darwin’s final comment is to adopt what we have called strategic compatibilism. Authority counts for nothing, of course, but those who think it is pandering to take the strategic accommodationist line should note that they must exclude Darwin himself from the morally pure set of Darwinians. This is a common thing, of course: Jesus was no Christian, and Marx no Marxist, by all appearances.

Providence and plans

The problem for theists is that most theisms assume that God has a plan. This is sometimes called providence: God provides for goals he has, for the benefit of the organisms, and in particular for humans, and for the achievement of his purposes. As soon as Darwin published, this became an issue, especially among evangelicals in America. Charles Hodge, the famous Princeton theologian, published his What is Darwinism in 1874 in which he argued that there were only three alternative views available to Christians: God created everything, God intervenes in physical processes, or atheism, and Darwinism was atheism, because it eliminates design from the universe.

Not all theisms are providential. Some, for example Japanese Shinto, or Buddhism, allow that the universe is a process in which things happen according to their natures, and humans either have to find ways to survive this or find redemption or nirvana themselves. But the major theisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are providentialist, and for them, Darwinism seems to present the conundrum that Hodge engaged. He decided that the existence of physical law itself was a providential act, but that was insufficient: God had to have done more than provide “chance and necessity” to create. He had to act personally.

Darwin, on the other hand, argued that giving credit to God undercut the very need for natural selection as a physical process. In the final chapter of the Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1875), he took Asa Gray to task for suggesting that God made available to selection the variations it needed to achieve God’s plan

…if an architect were to rear a noble and commodious edifice, without the use of cut stone, by selecting from the fragments at the base of a precipice wedge-formed stones for his arches, elongated stones for his lintels, and flat stones for his roof, we should admire his skill and regard him as the paramount power. Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensable to the architect, bear to the edifice built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of each organic being bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by its modified descendants.

Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being.

The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;— many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,—if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,—no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,”like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation. If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination. [volume 2, pages 430-432]

By way of this parable, Darwin is arguing by analogy that if we grant that the theory of natural selection is sufficient to explain adaptation, then we have no need to impose God’s plan, and indeed God would need to be responsible for every “injurious” variant as well as the “beneficial”, which seems impious. However, in his last sentence, the final sentence of that work, he leaves open a solution, and it is a solution leapt upon by many theologians.

One such theologian is William Temple, who once said

I prefer a God who once and for all impressed his will upon creation, to one who continually busied about modifying what he had already done.

In his Gifford Lecture, Nature, Mind and God (1934), Temple expanded upon this:

…no Law of Nature as discovered by physical science is ultimate. It is a general statement of that course of conduct in Nature which is sustained by the purposive action of God so long and so far as it will serve His purpose. No doubt it is true that the same cause will always produce the same effect in the same circumstances. Our contention is that an element in every actual cause, and indeed the determinant element, is the active purpose of God fulfilling itself with that perfect constancy which calls for an infinite graduation of adjustments in the process. Where any adjustment is so considerable as to attract notice it is called a miracle; but it is not a specimen of a special class, it is an illustration of the general character of the World-Process. [Lecture X]

For Temple, God’s plan is the choice of a world process that delivers his goals, although he can act upon it differently if he chooses, which is a form of occasionalism. More recently theologian Holmes Rolston III has argued that while the world is able to generate information, and hence purpose, without an “informer”, still

[t]he creation of matter, energy, law, history, stories, of all the information that generates nature, to say nothing of culture, does need an adequate explanation: some sources, source or Source competent for such creativity. … This portrays a loose teleology, a soft concept of creation, one that permits genuine, though not ultimate, integrity and autonomy in the creatures. (Rolston 1999, 367)

So we are left with several options. We can say God is actively involved in the provision and maintenance of natural law, and may vary it at any time, or that God set up a world which would realise his aims, and if the latter, either he knew ahead of time that it would do so, or he ensures that it does. The choice is between necessity created by God, or chance.

Perhaps the final word on final causes should be left to Darwin’s supporter and friend, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, in the introduction to his sermons:

We will tell the modern scientific man—You are nervously afraid of the mention of final causes.You quote against them Bacon’s saying, that they are barren virgins; that no physical fact was ever discovered or explained by them.You are right: as far as regards yourselves. You have no business with final causes; because final causes are moral causes: and you are physical students only.We, the natural Theologians, have business with them. Your duty is to find out the How of things: ours, to find out the Why.If you rejoin that we shall never find out the Why, unless we first learn something of the How, we shall not deny that. It may be most useful, I had almost said necessary, that the clergy should have some scientific training. It may be most useful—I sometimes dream of a day when it will be considered necessary—that every candidate for Ordination should be required to have passed creditably in at least one branch of physical science, if it be only to teach him the method of sound scientific thought. But our having learnt the How, will not make it needless, much less impossible, for us to study the Why.It will merely make more clear to us the things of which we have to study the Why; and enable us to keep the How and the Why more religiously apart from each other.

But if it be said—After all, there is no Why.The doctrine of evolution, by doing away with the theory of creation, does away with that of final causes,—Let us answer boldly,—Not in the least.We might accept all that Mr Darwin, all that Professor Huxley, all that other most able men, have so learnedly and so acutely written on physical science, and yet preserve our natural Theology on exactly the same basis as that on which Butler and Paley left it.That we should have to develop it, I do not deny.That we should have to relinquish it, I do. (Kingsley 1881, xxif)

At the very least it is clear that some leading theologians in the western world attempted to deal with the science of evolution as it was. They did not always grasp it well, however, and often criticised Lamarck, or Huxley, or Haeckel as if these were all of the same mind morally, methodologically or theoretically. However, Huxley himself objected to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, adopting instead a kind of physical necessity not unlike the hated Owen had earlier proposed. Lamarck used mechanisms of “want” (besoin, it has the same ambiguity in French that “want” does in English) – what an animal was in want of was what would be acquired and passed on. Neither much liked any unguided process like natural selection. Haeckel, although he was all for selection, tended to raise its causal action to the level of types, groups or even races, unlike Darwin, who allowed selection to occur only at the level of the individual competing in a population, or at the most, a village or tribe in cultural evolution. This confusion was increased in the period after Darwin’s death, when a group that came to be known as “Neo-Lamarckians” came to the fore until the end of the 1920s; much of the criticism of evolution was targeted at these authors, who had a kind of vitalistic materialism in mind, and which was often very progressivist (in a crass and racist kind of way). The Scopes Trial, for example, was aimed at a kind of mishmash of Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism, with elements of Haeckel’s anticlericalism and pantheism.

I have spent a lot of words on evolution largely because it looms so large in American anti science movements, and in many ways it has set the scene and strategy for much religious objection to science since. But it also returns us to where we started: the NCSE’s strategic decision to not exclude religious believers from the pro-science community. So one more example before we return to the argument: neurobiology and the mind.


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[1] They may be able to do what geneticists call “introgress” – have occasional successful hybrids that permit genes to flow one way or both. This is very common in flowering plants and ferns, for example.
[2] Ecclesiastes/Koheleth 9:11.
[3] I have reproduced the entire essay, which is rather hard to get access to, at my website:
[4] For a summary of the different meanings of “essentialism”, see my essay “Essentialism in biology” (Wilkins 2013)
[5] Also available in a newly-edited version on the Darwin Correspondence database <>


Filed under Accommodationism, Evolution, Philosophy, Religion, Science