How the new biology furthers theism

Atheist Lou Jost asks Eddie on a Biologos:

I am unsure why religious people in particular are so excited by Shapiro’s book. It mostly discusses new sources of genetic variation. These only serve to make naturalistic evolution even easier than we had previously thought. More variation means faster evolution. And as far as I can recall, Shapiro’s book does not really offer any other explanation for adaptation, apart from natural selection.

Eddie offers an answer along the lines that doubts about Neodarwinism’s sufficiency are made on scientific grounds, quite separately from any religious agenda, and that’s true. I’ve been familiar with evolution by natural selection since schooldays, before I became a Christian, and whenever I’ve examined it closely have found it intellectually unpersuasive as a complete theory.

Yet there is a theological aspect even to that, not so much because the theist is so desperate to disprove evolution that he clutches at straws, but in fact the reverse – not having to clutch at natural selection as the only defence against God makes one more open to the theory’s weaknesses, and the strength of new work. As a typical supportive quote (that I happened to encounter today and which makes a change from the perennial Lewontin passage about God’s foot in the door), witness geneticist and zoologist August Weismann back in 1893:

… we must assume natural selection to be the principle of the explanation of the metamorphoses, because all other apparent principles of explanation fail us, and it is inconceivable that there could be yet another capable of explaining the adaptations of organisms, without assuming the help of a principle of design. …We accept it not because we are able to demonstrate the process in detail, not even because we can with more or less ease imaging it, but simply because we must, because it is the only possible explanation that we can conceive.

It is easy enough to document that the reason for Darwinism’s rapid success, first with educated laymen and only later with scientists, was the apparent death-blow it gave teleology at a time when people wanted religion to be untrue. Quite apart from the “mechanical, automatic, unplanned, unconscious process” eulogised by Richard Dawkins at Reason Rallies, that has always been the commonest reading of Darwin. And the only really plausible explanation of the polemic and doctrinaire opposition of many biologists and others to any criticism of natural selection as all-sufficient explanation  is that they agree with Weismann: there is no alternative if teleology is to be kept at bay.

It’s less clear why so many theistic evolutionists fight the same battle so fiercely, but I venture to suggest it is because they have redefined their theology, in the “freedom of nature” mindset, to make lack of teleology a virtue in God. Thus their beliefs are as much threatened by it as those of atheists are. As R H Hutton wrote observantly in 1874:

The people who believe today that God has made so fast the laws of His physical universe, that it is in many directions impenetrable to moral and spiritual influences, will believe tomorrow that the physical universe subsists by its own inherent laws, and that God, even if He dwells within it, cannot do with it what He would, and will find out the next day, that God does not even dwell within it, but must, as M. Renan says, be “organised” by man, if we are to have a God at all.

The rum thing is that the appearence of ateleology in Darwinian (and Neodarwinian) theory is an illusion, as people like Asa Gray and even Thomas Huxley recognised in the beginning, and as The OFloinn’s essay , which I referred to a few posts ago, spells out in detail.

The illusion, however, has been successfully maintained for 150 years by dint of the vagueness and slipperiness of the theory’s central concepts of “selection” and “fitness”, the preponderance of narrative imagination rather than empirical evidence even after such a long time, the lack of philosophical education of many biologists, and the familiarity bred by the ubiquitous teleological language of “selection for”, “function”, “evolutionary strategy” and so on, that is breezily dismissed as “analogy”, even though there is no way of dispensing with it.

Given all that, it’s instructive to note that nearly every modification to Darwinian theory imports hefty chunks of teleology that cannot be explained away so easily. Persistent reports like this suggesting Neolamarckian mechanisms refuse to go away, though they are ignored by the ruling paradigm (as is Darwin’s own retreat into Lamarckian explanations in The Descent of Man as he increasingly perceived that NS was inadequate).

Sean Carroll has explicitly said that Evo-Devo is a challenge to the supremacy of natural selection, and it is indeed difficult to use it to account for development. Yet development is undeniably a wholly teleological process, and changes in development are key to changes in phenotypes.

Any of the theories of emergence, including convergent evolution, have built-in teleology. They are akin to cosmic fine tuning in their implications. Even an apparently stochastic process like neutral theory, once its importance in relation to selection is appreciaterd, raises huge questions of teleology, for it accounts for change towards new functions largely independent of the control of selection.

Of all the current streams, though, James Shapiro’s is one of the most significant, not only because it is backed by a large and diverse body of original research, but because it implies quite clearly that organisms “manage” their own evolution in ways that are directed. Now as Lou Jost says, Shapiro offers no underlying explanation of how his “natural genetic engineering” processes arose. But given that, if confirmed, the mechanisms would provide a directed form of evolution of which natural selection was just a fine-tuning feature, it is stretching the imagination to say that this sophisticated version of evolution would have itself arisen by natural selection. Be that as it may, the existence of teleology within the system as it stands would be undeniable, and in itself problematic to naturalistic science, however it arose. And that’s why it’s of particular interest to theists who aren’t wedded to an ateological theology.

Teleology, however, does not in itself prove the existence of God. Thomas Nagel’s recent book is evidence for that, since Nagel proposes an entirely naturalistic explantion for teleological mechanisms. What it does do, however, is to introduce a completely new dimension to the cosmos that is very difficult (as Nagel has shown) to explain naturalistically. As I think I’ve quoted before recently, emergence theories are simply the modern way of saying “a miracles happens here.”

Thomas Aquinas did not use teleology as one of his proofs for God, but he did regard it as evidence for God’s existence. And so it is, as the skeptics have realised since Darwin’s time. And you don’t actually need to discredit ateleological mechanisms completely for that evidence to exist – just a foot in the door will do. It’s often argued that Neodarwinism is quite comfortable with the existence of mechanisms other than pure random variation and natural selection, but that they are probably only of minor importance. That is true – as long as one doesn’t include the metaphysical commitment to naturalism as intrinsic to the theory. Because if there is even 1% of demonstrable teleology, then Weismann or Lewontin’s worst fears will be realised, and the edifice of naturalism is likely to come tumbling about our ears.

And I for one am not ashamed to admit that I won’t be sorry at all.

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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