Darwin and Dread

A few days ago the Owl ventured some remarks about that old bugaboo, Science and Religion. By now, one would think there is nothing fresh left to say on the subject. In spite of that we ask the reader to indulge us on an even more seductive canard, the authority of Charles Darwin, that flies in the teeth of the creation stories in Genesis. Sophomores like to point out there are two narratives on the subject in Genesis; the Biblical account is contradictory on its face.

Actually, there are at least four accounts of creation in the Bible—one in the eighth chapter of Proverbs, and another in God’s reply to Job. This is not the place for elaborate exegesis; only to address the obvious: that one can’t talk long about science and religion without Darwin’s name coming up. The fact is, there is a definite conflict between Christian faith and what is called Darwinism, but it has nothing to do with Genesis.

Everyone knows the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” which explains why some species thrive and succeed in reproducing, while others become extinct. Meanwhile, mutations occur that are more and less adapted to their surroundings, generating new species over æons of time. The successful offspring prevail over others not so well equipped.

Here is where the rub starts. Surely survival is better than extinction. Darwin’s contemporaries thought so, and we do too. But notice the word “better.” How did it sneak into this context? Is it a scientific term? No, it is not. It is a term of moral evaluation. We might as well go ahead and agree that survival is better than extinction. But is fitness for survival therefore a moral quality? Is an organism that survives better than one that doesn’t?

There are more E. coli in a single human gut than the number of human beings that ever lived. Does that make them the superior species? These questions, nothing to do with seven days of creation, are what makes people jittery around Darwin—and Darwin himself, good Victorian Englishman he. For if fitness is not a moral quality, then perhaps we are not superior to our predecessors, and then what? And if survival is not attributable to moral conduct, if altruism is not wired into us along with our sexual urges, then why bother to be good?

•                •                •

The Victorians deeply wanted this to be a moral universe, and over time many eloquent sermons have been made about moral lessons to be drawn from nature. Individual ants sacrifice themselves to preserve the colony. (They also battle fiercely across color lines.) Ducks take one mate for life. To study and conform to our better instincts would give us a handle on salvation. Then we need not contemplate our sins or Jesus’ condemnation for them. Instead we can honor him as the sinless teacher who shows us how to live.

Unfortunately, that argument holds no water. In Hens’ Teeth and Horses’ Toes, Stephen Jay Gould takes the ichneumenon wasp. These creatures kill their prey in ways which cannot be reconciled with any commonly held view of kindness. Step back just  a bit and we can see, the Victorian arguments are not really what they appear to be, attempts to extract morals from nature. It was the other way around. The rightness of their morals was taken for granted as phenomena of nature. But in truth the relation between natural science and Christian morality is was and remains highly questionable.

•                •                •

Now recall if you will, our discussion in the previous essay on science and religion. There we distinguished between (1) scientific signification of words, which works by accurate correspondence between the language and things as they are, and (2) what we might call the human, cultural meaning we assign to all sorts of things. Remember the assertion: “mankind make the only meaning there is—almost.” What of God’s meaning, of which faithful people, including faithful scientists, dare to speak? Can we speak of it at all? Yes, we can. Nothing in the scientific world-view prevents us from saying God makes meaning, as long as we remember that God judges all of mankind’s meaning-making. It is necessary while doing science, as it is while doing theology, to remember that our human limitations prevent us from ever reaching closure. In science, this may seem like a tragedy. In theology, it is not; it is the foundation of our freedom as moral agents, poets, lovers, and worshipers.

With that in mind, well might well ask, what would an authentic Christian ethics look like? But that is a topic for another day.

Leave a Reply