Back to Darwin?

Cobb_Darwin2Several years ago John B. Cobb Jr. Professor Emeritus of the Claremont School of Theology organized a conference on evolution and religion. This conference eventually gave rise to a book of essays exploring various scientific and philosophical questions: Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution. The book contains contributions from a rather impressive group, Francisco Ayala, Ian Barbour, Philip Clayton, Lynn Margulis, Jeffrey Schloss, and Howard Van Till, among others. Two, Ayala and Margulis are members of the National Academy of Science. (All but one is male.) The contributors vary dramatically in outlook and position. Cobb supplemented and organized the book with an aim to highlight ideas of emergence and process theology. This book is not for the average pastor or church member – but may prove useful for one working in a graduate school environment. It provides valuable background information.

There are a few contributions worth noting.

The chapter by Howard Van TillFrom Calvinism to Claremont: Now That’s Evolution! Or From Calvin’s Supernaturalism to Griffin’s Theistic Naturalism” is sobering. This chapter contains primarily a reflection on his walk trying to reconcile his faith with the observation of the world.

Philip Clayton has contributed a chapter on process and emergence in the context of science and theology. The concept of emergence has been making the rounds lately, particularly in the dialog between Tony Jones and Philip Clayton (see Tony’s Blog). Emergence is characterized by the idea that a reductionist view of science is inherently incorrect as there are properties and functions of complex systems that are not capable of reduction to or prediction from the intrinsic properties of their component elements. Certainly there is a sense in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but much of this reasoning seems to depend on semantics (I don’t buy it – scientifically speaking).

More relevant to discussion here are the contributions by Jeffrey Schloss, Professor and Chair of the Biology Department at Westmont College, and this is where I would like to focus today.

Where, if anywhere, does scientific naturalism and purely random natural selection fail?

Jeffrey Schloss is an evolutionary biologist who has taught biology at Westmont since 1981. He lists his areas of specialization as: Physiological ecology of water relations; Evolution of altruism and moral systems; Theological implications of Darwinism. Schloss became a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, but later broke ties and of late has been outspoken against the concept of Intelligent Design in its narrow definition. He wrote a rather substantive and less than positive review of Ben Stein’s film “Expelled.”

Schloss contributed two chapters to this book. The first “Neo-Darwinianism: Scientific Account and Theological Attributions” lays a framework of definitions and options. The second “Divine Providence and the Question of Evolutionary Directionality” builds on this framework. There are several interesting conversation points here.

The term “neo-Darwinian” is somewhat loose and does not have a common technical usage. Yet it is a useful label in this book. Schloss defines “neo”-Darwinianism as a commitment to natural selection as both sufficient and true. It is non-Lamarckian (acquired characteristics are not transmitted), More to the point “evolutionary change is nonteleological and nonpurposive, and entails no intrinsic progression or indeed directionality of any kind.” (p. 102) Genes are the star actors and organisms exist only to allow DNA to make more DNA. There is no group selection in any form. The be all and end all is self replicating information units. For more detail on any of these points see almost anything by Richard Dawkins.

Neo-Darwinianism in this form is opposed to faith. (Again – see anything by Dawkins.) Schloss points out that while it is generally accepted that evolution is non-Lamarckian, the remaining points are debatable scientifically, sociologically (there is a diversity of opinion within the scientific community), and philosophically or theologically.

In particular Schloss cites the following points of conflict for consideration

    • Altruism and Love
    • Morality
    • Purpose
    • Natural Evil

The first three of these have consequences for neo-Darwinianism as defined here. According to the principles of neo-Darwinianism there is no genuine altruism or love – and “if we think that we are capable of unconditional love – extended without compensatory benefit – we are probably deceiving ourselves” (p. 108). Morality is a construct, an illusion evolved only to ascertain the survival of the biotic agent – the gene. Purpose and explanations that resort to purpose are meaningless, nature does not have purpose only effects. The very notion of purpose is a “cosmic delusion.”

Natural evil (useless traits, clumsy design, suboptimal function, predator and parasite) on the other hand is a problem for theism. For the neo-Darwinianist the world just is and the word evil in this context is meaningless. But for the theistic view – how could a good and all powerful God have created the world we see. After all Schloss points out “Hiring a drunk to drive you home after an evening’s excess at the bar is just as morally reckless as driving yourself.” (p. 114) It makes no difference if we invoke special creation or evolution as God’s mechanism, the responsibility remains.

Schloss goes on to describe possibilities for directionality and trends in evolution. The neo-Darwinian positions suggests – even demands – that evolution lacks any kind of thematic directionality. But it is not clear that the evidence supports this hypothesis – and many would say that the science does not demand it. In his second chapter Schloss looks at evolutionary trends, directionality vs adirectionality, directionality vs diffusion, directionality and destiny.

Schloss does not prove God – nor does he try to in his contributions. Nonetheless I found his essays thought provoking as we continue to wrestle with the interface between science and theology.

I have long felt that love, beauty, morality, meaning, and purpose are the most significant arguments for the existence of God. A purely natural evolution can rationalize these, explain why we think they exist, but in so doing it proves them in the end meaningless concepts, cosmic delusions. It may be a delusion, but I am convinced that such concepts are real – meaningful. As a practical realist I think we can trust the evidence in this area, just as we can trust the evidence for the general mechanisms of evolutionary development.

Where do we go with the Christian story then? The essence of Christianity is love – love from God, love of God, and love for neighbor. Read the gospels, read Paul, John, or James. The gospel is that God loves us and acted on that love, the consequence is that we turn around and love God, self, others, and the world.

The essence of the kingdom message, the gospel, is “repent and believe in me.” We forsake our way of doing things and follow God’s way even if it leads to persecution and death.

What do you think?

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