When my dog chases the ball, does she do so with purpose? Or is she more like a windup toy, going through the motions, along with all the other atoms falling through the void?
For people who dwell on the meaning of evolution, the big question has always been how much this blind and unthinking process explains—or explains away—most of what we cherish.
Natural selection is the core of the modern theory of evolution. It accounts for how the stick insect came to resemble its environment, why our eyes are built like cameras and even how life arose out of self-replicating molecules. These incredible phenomena look purposeful, but natural selection is an entirely passive filter. Living organisms make copies of themselves with slight variations and, over long enough time spans, a process as mindless as falling dominoes leads to all the astonishing variety of life forms.
The more cheerful biologists say that it stops there: natural selection is how living things arose and diversified into different species, but it says nothing about the sorts of things we learn about in the social sciences and humanities. Some, with a gleam in their eye, claim that because evolution explains the appearance of design in nature, it renders an interventionist god unnecessary—while perhaps leaving the door open for other visions of a deity or spirit. But for the hard cases, natural selection not only nullifies the grand designer, but reveals something truly shocking: all purpose—all teleology—is illusory, including human purposes, even what most people would call their life’s purpose.
One standard assumption in modern science is that, because the future cannot pull us towards it, the present can only be caused by the past. For the present to be caused by some future circumstance would be a case of teleology. To take a schoolbook example, the giraffe’s neck is long because those ancestors who had longer necks preferentially passed on their genes, not because it desires to reach higher branches and so stretches its neck. But in the strictest reading of Darwinism, the giraffe can’t even desire to reach higher branches. It can’t have any designs on the future at all, because desires are the kinds of teleological things that cannot cause anything to happen. The giraffe’s behaviour—just as much as the makeup of its genome—can only be caused by past events. It certainly looks as if animals, including humans, have desires or goals, but, for some Darwinians, natural selection is an all-purpose explanation of how all purposes can be explained away. Darwinism, in this scheme, banishes all designs along with a designer.
Ever since the publication of The Origin of Species, people have debated how much natural selection supplants religious or traditional views of nature. At least, that’s the standard historical narrative: everybody believed in the story in Genesis until Darwin came along and the world bifurcated into credulous fools and champions of reason. In reality, there were many versions of what we would now call evolution floating around in Europe in the hundred years preceding Darwin.
There was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the French naturalist, whose ideas weren’t as crazy as they’re often made out to be and who said that species gradually transform over time to become new species. That was a big deal and a lot of people nowadays probably think that Darwin came up with that idea. There was also an 1844 bestseller by Robert Chambers, called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which tells how everything from stars and planets to species and people gradually developed from simpler forms. Darwin also encountered evolutionary ideas in his stint as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, where Lamarck’s ideas were popular. In addition, Darwin inherited ideas from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who also had a theory of evolution, although it was a bit loopy and was elaborated mainly via his poetry.
Were these pre-Darwinian theories in conflict with religion? Yes and no. Some more conservative believers in Victorian England thought so and associated evolution with radical French thought, such as socialism or atheism. But the progressive nature of these theories—most of them viewed life as evolving toward higher forms—appealed to some Christians because they spoke to the increasing perfectibility of nature and a drive to betterment instilled by God.
When Charles Darwin finally published his theory, it was because he was prompted by yet another evolutionist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently come up with the idea of natural selection. And after publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, various people came out of the woodwork and pointed to their own versions of that theory too, which Darwin begrudgingly acknowledged in later editions. Although Darwinism is now synonymous with evolution by natural selection, Darwin advocated various other mechanisms too, including use and disuse, which was one of Lamarck’s ideas. Darwin therefore believed in what we now call non-Darwinian evolution. Eponyms are clumsy.
Darwin’s natural selection-based theory also proved divisive among Christians. Some thought that the dog-eat-dog world of Darwinism was compatible with the notion of the Fall and mapped perfectly onto a Christian eschatology, or pointed to the larger lawfulness of the universe and hence to God’s guiding hand. Others worried that it obviated the need for God by leaving everything up to chance.
This last position is the one usually focused on by today’s proponents of both Darwinism and intelligent design. It has therefore been read backwards into history, so if you read a book by Richard Dawkins, like The Blind Watchmaker, or a book by Michael Behe (the intelligent design equivalent of Dawkins), you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone believed the argument for design until Darwin came along, and that everyone’s been arguing over that point ever since.
This is a big part of what historians of science call the conflict thesis or conflict narrative. It frames all the major signposts along science’s journey from the Enlightenment to now as a series of clashes with religious authorities. The classic examples are Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. But it’s a lot more complex than that. In the case of Darwin, in particular, the conflict with religion was never a pitched battle: instead his books met with a range of receptions. As far as Victorian religious controversies go, it wasn’t even as big a deal as the truly contentious 1860 Essays and Reviews or the evolutionary bestseller Vestiges a few decades earlier.
Dawkins and other well known Darwinians, like Jerry Coyne, say there is a conflict between religion and science. Their interlocutors on the faith side (intelligent design advocates, young earth creationists) say there is a conflict. Even Dawkins’ secular critics (philosophers like Mary Midgley, John Gray and Thomas Nagel) say there is a conflict. And yet, when the general public are polled about their attitudes towards the compatibility of religion with science, and with evolution in particular, most don’t perceive a conflict. Some do—mainly atheists—but most believers, unsurprisingly, think their religion is compatible with the theory of evolution and a lot of people have simply never thought about it.
To some extent, a conflict is based on perception. If disputants think they’re in conflict, they are. And perhaps religious visions of the world are metaphysically incompatible with a worldview built out of basic science. But if this is true, most people haven’t heard the bad news and happily believe in whatever combination of ideas they hold, without marching in the streets or attacking one another for their views. Religious authorities aren’t actively trying to crucify biologists or ban evolution. Admittedly, in certain school districts in America they are trying to ban the teaching of evolution, but that’s something of an anomaly. Overall, people’s views are insulated from the content of scientific theories—as we can see with attitudes towards climate change.
This disconnect between the rhetoric of spokespeople for Darwinism or intelligent design and mainstream attitudes raises a bigger question. Rhetoric generally has less impact than we often suppose. The Darwinism versus intelligent design debates are just one example of the way in which commentators often mistake what is written by experts—who are, by definition, more interested in and motivated by a topic than the general populace—for a reflection of public opinion. Either that or they assume that any reader who encounters these books will be helplessly swayed by their framing of the argument. It’s the same impulse that makes people worry about the influence of video games, pornography, fake news, conspiracy theories, school syllabuses, advertising, politicians’ gaffes, etc. Those things may have some effect, but a growing body of research is sceptical of the basic model whereby people simply imbibe what they’re exposed to.
This boils down to an is versus ought question. Is there a conflict today between Darwinism and religion? The answer seems to be no. Ought there to be one? The answer is evidently yes for most of the people who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. This is fitting because the whole debate hinges on an is–ought dilemma of another kind. Science is said to provide answers to the is-questions, the ones that concern neutral facts about how the world is. Religion is said to be in the business of oughts: how should we live? what are our values? how do we want the world to be?
Stephen Jay Gould, a more irenic Darwinian, tried to separate science and religion into “non-overlapping magisteria,” arguing that they simply answer different questions, so they needn’t be in conflict. This is wildly wrong for multiple reasons. First of all, religions clearly pronounce on factual questions all the time. Second, science often pronounces on ought questions. Third, what about all the other domains, like the arts, humanities and social sciences, where do they fit in? Fourth, is it even possible to separate is and ought?
These are tricky questions, but they get to the heart of what science is and whether it is a worldview or religion in its own right. Let’s take Dawkins’ view. He thinks that the worldview offered by modern science is a constraint on what other kinds of knowledge we can have. Darwinism, for him, says that the blind mechanism of natural selection accounts for everything complex in the universe. Does that extend to human designs and purposes? Not exactly. He certainly thinks it rules out religious and folk ideas about the world. But he also thinks that humans, and only humans, have reached some kind of escape velocity and can now rebel against the otherwise binding orders of our genes. People can decide on their own goals, purposes or values beyond those of mere survival and replication. So, for Dawkins, the facts of science tell us what is and isn’t possible in the world of human concerns. Or, as some critics have argued, Dawkins starts with a liberal ideology of individualism and projects that onto the nature he studies, conveniently finding that the actions of self-interested genes control everything, except human freedom.
There is a long and proud history of this kind of projection. Consider Gould. His politics—a soft Marxism—seem to have informed his view of evolution, as he sparred with Dawkins over the primacy of adaptation in life’s history. Gould always emphasised the environment side, the historical contingency of evolution. This seemed to align with his dialectical materialism, which says that real world economic conditions determine social reality, more than the drives or consciousness of individuals.
Evolution is a particularly spiky issue. Not only is it a field in which you can find support for many different ideologies, but it arguably determines what ideology, morality, politics and the entire normative realm can be. Dawkins says it’s natural selection all the way up, until you hit human purposes. But other Darwinians say that the acid burns through everything. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett argues that the Darwinian algorithm (replication plus variation) accounts not only for the origin of species but for the origins of anything interesting: cultures, languages, technologies, reasons, norms, meanings. Alex Rosenberg takes an even starker view. He says Darwin’s algorithm explains all the seeming design in nature—including that which is expressed in our thoughts and actions—in a purely physical way, thereby precluding all the human stuff we care about. In a Darwinian world, even human purposes are illusory.
In other words, depending on your own worldview, you might think Darwinism itself is a worldview or that it actually negates other worldviews.
This raises an awkward question for science communicators and educators. What should be taught in schools and communicated to the public? There is a pretty good consensus about how evolution works. (Of course, there is a whole raft of fascinating evolutionary mechanisms that need to be added on to the bare-bones Darwinism of natural selection. These include horizontal gene transfer, symbiosis, epigenetics, niche construction and gene editing and are often grouped under the heading of the extended evolutionary synthesis. But, to my eye, none of them undermine or contradict the anti-teleological impact of natural selection. Although many would debate that too.) So what should be said about Darwinism’s implications? Here are some options.
- It can only describe the natural world, so keep it separate from human concerns, which you learn about in civics class or Sunday school. (Gould’s view.)
- It explains everything in nature and rules out God, but we can make our own purposes because we evolved to do so. Phew. (Dawkins’ view.)
- If Darwinism were true it certainly would destroy all human purpose and meaning, and we’d be left with nihilism. Luckily it isn’t true and the irreducible complexity of living things is evidence of a designer. Phew. (Intelligent design.)
- The neo-Darwinian orthodoxy is too harsh. We need to promote a non-supernatural but still more expansive version of Darwinism that allows for life’s creativity and agency. (Some advocates of a scientifically respectable version of vitalism and some people’s take on the extended evolutionary synthesis.)
- Darwinism appears to be nihilistic because it is. Its baleful implications for politics and morality are an important part of the theory and the sooner we take the bitter pill the better. (Rosenberg’s view.)
Most science communicators would defend a version of 1 or 2. A lot of science communication is underwritten by a democratic ethos. The public ought to be informed about science so that they can have more agency in their lives and participate in a scientifically advanced democracy. Admirable. But this is exactly the kind of ought statement that science is supposed to be silent about and also the kind that Darwinism—if the hard cases are right—eliminates. That democratic ethos works well for something like vaccinations, where the public clearly benefit from knowing that they’re safe and from being equipped to debunk conspiracy theories. There is a clear policy application. Amazingly, in the case of Darwinism, it’s not considered to be in the public’s interest to know whether or not most of what they believe in is a mirage.
For more mundane reasons, I think the traditional science outreach position is misguided because it’s very difficult to get the public engaged in anything—rhetoric generally doesn’t work. So why bother writing this article? Frankly, because I assume that my readers are self-selected, already interested in the topic and probably have an opinion on it. That makes science outreach something of an elite discourse, communicating only with a group who already have access to roughly the same information as the communicators.
If evolution works merely as a giant sieve, that’s worth knowing about. Whatever is around today simply hasn’t been filtered out yet and is sustained only because of a reliable flow of free energy from the sun. All our adaptations to our environment stem from accumulations of chance variations that just happened to aid survival. Genes—and other entities—that were good at copying were copied more than others that weren’t: there were no plans, no aims, no foresight, no teleology—nothing but a crazy tangle of causes and the fulfilment of the second law of thermodynamics (contrary to popular opinion, life is the most entropy-accelerating process in the universe, not a reversal of the tendency towards greater entropy).
If this stark reading is the best way of thinking about evolution, does it conflict with religious views and is it incompatible with secular life philosophies? I believe it is. My own response is to try and have a worldview that isn’t in direct conflict with the most robust ideas about how the world works; but isn’t totally pegged to them either, because scientific ideas keep changing.