Sciences and their theories of evolution

As I rather feared when I was asked to write it, the comment on my post on BioLogos has degenerated into people from, or interested in, one discipline accusing those from others (and me in particular) of ignorance, usually with an implication of moral culpability. This is ironic, given that my article was written to encourage more helpful communication in interdisciplinary discussions.

After all, why do we seek knowledge at all? “For the sake of the truth” is a pretty weak reason – the truth exists happily out there whether or not we know it. To know truth for my own sake is pretty self-centred. To find truth as a small group, such as evolutionary geneticists or Pentateuchal scholars, is purely a tribal pursuit, no more noble than being able to answer esoteric questions about the Spice Girls. “The good of mankind” is, in the end, the only particularly worthwhile reason for acquiring knowledge, apart from the worship of the Creator – which is in a separate category. Biological discoveries can, of course, be applied to medicine or some other practical field for the common good, but knowledge per se needs to be shared around. This, as I wrote in my article, requires both an attitude of generosity and a willingness to condescend to the other’s lack of knowledge.

Anyone from outside biology looking to understand the important process of evolution will soon have realised that this generous sharing seldom happens in practice. Particularly that might be so for someone coming from a Creationist background (as are many on BioLogos). Persuaded that a natural process of variation and natural selection is neither implausible, nor intrinsically contrary to faith, such a person might well be keen to understand the mechanisms better, maybe to explain them to others or even to give worship to the Creator.

You soon learn to ignore the invective of the New Atheist bloc. But even amongst “friends” you quickly find that if you mention mutation because you learned about it at school and it keeps cropping up on the blogs, you’re slapped down as an ID propagandist because mutation isn’t important to the modern synthesis. Or maybe you’re intrigued by Evo-Devo, only to find other biologists saying its mechanisms are all imagined by the Enthusiasts (of which, by implication, you are one). The following blog comment by a working biologist maybe gives some much-needed insight into one real reason it’s so hard to pin down what evolutionary theory actually is.

“I personally don’t give a flying f*** about modern synthesis, extended or shrunk. There is no single theory of evolution, and your perception of the dominant evolutionary principles changes drastically depending on your field. As a molecular/cell biologist, I can hardly maintain a discussion with an evolutionary ecologist – our take on the subject are [sic] worlds apart. As someone immersed in the microbial world, I am extremely skeptical of the mostly-zoocentric central dogmas – what works for lions may not necessarily work for microbes. To me, obviously the microbial models are vastly more representative of the fundamental evolutionary processes, but that’s because I’m a protistologist – I doubt a fish ecologist would agree with me there. Instead of maintaining an irreconcilable discipline-wide bitchfest attempting to form some Unified Grand Theory of biology, why don’t we accept there is no such thing? “

Such candour is all too rare. This, lest any of our US friends (who seem, sometimes, obsessed by the science/religion culture war over there) gets the wrong idea, has nothing to do with the Creationist claim that evolutionary theory is in crisis and will collapse. But nevertheless it refreshingly undermines the equally fictitious claim that all scientists everywhere speak with one accord on the matter, gradually developing a consensus as new data comes to light. Like scholars everywhere, they argue tooth and nail not only over detail, but over whole approaches to the subject, and will continue to do so.

 That actually doesn’t matter, unless you’re trying to maintain a myth of solidarity, maybe against another myth of solidarity, like that within Evangelical Christianity. In practice the latter is as divided on charismatic gifts, the nature of grace and many other issues as ever the biologists are on junk DNA or self-organisation. It doesn’t matter because just as there is a genuine overarching unity in Christ within Evangelicalism, there is a genuine core approach to science, and the narrative of evolution, within the biological sciences.

 It would be nice (on both sides) if it were made plainer that the enquirer is warmly invited to participate in our disagreements, rather than be found wanting for having an opinion of their own that differs from ours.

NB (The title of this piece derives from this provocatively named book from my theological studies!)

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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