Book Review: Darwin’s Pious Ideas

Dr. Ross Hastings Reviews Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans) by Conor Cunningham.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt no one who is interested in the New Atheist phenomenon or the origins debate within Christian circles can afford not to read this book. If Dawkins has for the most part refused to debate evolutionary creationists, especially those with a knowledge of state of the art genetics and molecular biology, there is a reason. His science is as suspect as his philosophy. The basic thesis of this book is that both the denial of the Darwinian theory of evolution by Christian literalists and the reductionistic extrapolation of it into a universalist philosophy (evolutionism) by Ultra-Darwinists, are errant and vacuous positions.

The former critique, Cunningham contends, is true in that its interpretation of Scripture is out of harmony with the interpretation of the Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus) and is in fact a product of Modernity, and secondly, because it simply refuses to accept the findings of science and thirdly because it is grounded in unhelpful dualisms, dualisms which Cunningham skilfully debunks (grace/nature, sacred/secular; natural/supernatural (only God is pure nature, all else exists only by participation in God by methexis)). Cunningham’s command of Patristic theology is impressive, and his view of creation as eschatological, of creation and redemption as inseparable, and of Christ as the agent of creation, and as the recapitulation of Adam (the only real Adam) the goal of creation, are all attractive elements in his profoundly Trinitarian theological sweep of reality. There are detailed discussions of Genesis 1,2,3, and of the place of death in creation by evolution, of theodicy and so on, that I cannot engage in detail here, but they are worth their weight in gold (I may write more on these later). Clearly not all will agree with his Eastern Orthodox view of original sin (Cunningham is clearly influenced greatly by this tradition and by Schmeman, though he is fond also of deLubac and Balthasar of Nouvelle Theologie also) and of sin as defined by the Christ event, but his account is coherent and substantial. Placing what seems to be the best theory of origins to date within the context of a weighty orthodox Christian theology has done all thinking Christians a favour.

It is the withering critique of Dawkins’ ‘science’ that is most impressive in the book, however. Even though Cunningham is not a biologist by profession, he has amassed the work of contemporary molecular biologists and geneticists to debunk the dualist and reductionist notion of the ‘selfish gene’ (they are neither selfish nor genes, in the simplistic sense of that term) so prominent in Dawkins’ atheistic diatribe against creation and religion. Both the replicator/vehicle dualism and the dualism of selfishness/altruism, the bases on which the biological and evolutionary world have been parsed by Ultra-Darwinists, have been demonstrated by Cunningham to be untrue. Genes have in fact been shown to be very much a product of evolution and ‘cannot be equated with evolution’ (63). Furthermore, phenotype has been demonstrated to be as influential as genotype in evolution. Indeed natural selection, as Cunningham states, ‘is itself derivative’ (63). ‘Therefore, ’he goes on to say, ‘the materialists, operating in quasi-Cartesian terms, generate what can be called a homunculus fundamentalism…’ (65).

Crucially, the Ultra-Darwinists have confused ‘the phenomenon of heredity with the physical mechanism of inheritance’ (72) which is much more complex than simple ‘genes’ based on the sequence of bases in DNA (Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, Thymine). There is ‘very good evidence for extragenetic modes of inheritance that act in conjunction with genetic modes’ (72). Cunningham cites Jablonka and Lamb, for example: ‘Molecular biology has shown that many of the old assumptions about the genetic system, which is the basis of present day Neo-Darwinism, are incorrect. It has also shown that cells can transmit information to daughter cells through non-DNA (epi-genetic) inheritance. This means that all organisms have at least two systems of heredity. In addition many animals transmit information to others by behavioural means, which gives them a third hereditary system. And we humans have a fourth, because symbol-based inheritance, particularly language, plays a substantial role in our evolution’ (72). As a chemist, I found the reference to mythalation especially interesting. This is the phenomenon within some eukaryotes by which a single methyl group [CH3] is added to some of the cytosine bases (one of a few typos in the book is ‘cystosines’ (73)) of DNA by enzymes within the cell, to influence gene expression. The directed changes are thought to be transmitted through sexual reproduction. Thus the idea of ‘simple genes’ being invoked as an equivalent to the atom in the hard sciences, and as the omnipotent agent of evolution has been shown to be wrongheaded. Current genetics is ‘more like the genetic theory of relativity’ in that many factors influence the operation of genes.

Crucially Cunningham also debunks Dawkins’ pet view that genes are selfish and that natural selection in its lack of altruism rebuts the idea of God. Without regurgitating all of Cunningham’s argument, I was fascinated by the Trinitarian overtones behind his contentions that although selfishness is a vehicle for complexification in evolution, that the increase in inclusivity is intrinsic to this process, and that in fact, selfishness is more like individuation, an acknowledgement of the ‘self’ of the organism. In fact, Cunningham argues ‘that if there were in fact real self replicators – or better, if selfishness was primary or originary – then evolution would be impossible. It would be impossible because truly, intrinsically selfish entities could not, and therefore would not, replicate at all. They would not replicate because it is only ever a type that survives, never a token, as is also the case with phenotypes. And this is some sense, requires that the replicator relinquish any monadic pretense of autarchy. To put it in Freudian terms: the only instinct of a would-be selfish replicator would be Thanatos (the death instinct) because self-identity, with its precarious, finite nature, involves a central ingredient of altruism. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is patently obvious. Persistence in grounded in endless exchange. We are therefore the product of fundamental reciprocity…. “To be” is to be vulnerable. “To be” is to be beside oneself (ecstatically). “To be” is to be open to alterity, that which is different, other (68-9).’ Whilst I am very hesitant about looking for analogies of the Trinity everywhere, I am not surprised when the fundamental nature of matter and the stuff of the mechanisms of created life reflect the fundamental reciprocity and mutuality of the triune Creator.

In the end, on Cunningham’s account, then, Dawkins is as guilty of fundamentalism as literalist creationists, and as dismissive of good science.

Monday, February 14th, 2011 Articles, Resources, Reviews

1 Comment to Book Review: Darwin’s Pious Ideas

  • jamclaurin says:

    Thank you Ross. I have the book and its size is a bit intimidating. Your post reflects the scholarship of this book as well as your own nuanced understanding of these issues. I think one of the most helpful things for the garden variety non-scientist looking at this is the idea that heredity and genetics can be compared to the difference between Newtonian physics and quantum physics. Great point and worthy of emphasizing. Heredity is nowhere near as simplistic and linear as so many surmise. At the end of the day, we find more mystery, more opportunity for exploration, and less threat to faith through understanding “hard” science.

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