A Failure of Nerve in the Dialogue on Science and Religion

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego, and while there, participated in a workshop sponsored by a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion). The workshop was held at the impressive Scripps Institution of Oceanography and included a tour of some of the research facilities along with several presentations by Scripps scientists and two theologians. Why were theologians there?

Since 2013, the DoSER program has been running a project called Science for Seminaries, a project designed to make scientific resources available to seminary professors in order to enhance the scientific literacy of priests and pastors. While the presentations were interesting, I was struck by the lack of critical engagement between the scientists and theologians on the issue of the relationship between science and religion and the perceived conflict between them. The two seemed to run along parallel tracks, strange for an organization that has “Dialogue” in its name.

I had a similar experience at several of the panel discussions related to science and religion at the American Academy of Religion meeting. Many religion scholars and theology professors want to engage with the science/religion relationship, but in a way that avoids holding science up to critical scrutiny. A lack of professional preparation in science seems to leave religion scholars unwilling to cross over disciplinary boundaries for fear of being ridiculed as anti-science or beholden to fundamentalist religious ideology. But I find this failure of nerve troubling.

In my view, there is a clear distinction between doing science and understanding science. The two approaches are not the same. I cannot, for example, go into the lab and sequence a genome. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Nor could I analyze the results of quantum physics experiments done in a particle accelerator. I am not trained to produce new scientific knowledge. But this does not mean that I am unqualified to read the scientific writings of the people who do do this kind of work and ponder over its larger implications for philosophical and religious questions. Nor am I unqualified to critically engage with scientific literature as literature, and subject it to the kind of critical analysis to which humanities scholars subject other kinds of discourses.

This is the approach I take in my recent book The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms: Darwinian Biology’s Grand Narrative of Triumph and the Subversion of Religion. I may not be qualified to do biology, but as a scholar trained in the humanities, I am sensitive to the marks of ideological structures embedded in scientific discourses. Bringing these to light and inquiring about their implications for larger questions of meaning and purpose is just as much a contribution to human knowledge as making the next major scientific breakthrough. I do not need to be trained to do science, for example, to notice how often major figures in the history of evolutionary biology admitted that their support for Darwinian natural selection was not based on evidence but, as August Weismann put it, “on quite other grounds.” These ideological markers raise uncomfortable questions about the status of evolutionary theory; so scientists and religion scholars alike tend to avoid them.

Interestingly, religion scholars do not experience the same failure of nerve when it comes to discourses in the social sciences. How many books have been written by religion scholars critically analyzing the role of neoliberal economic ideology and policy in our contemporary world despite lacking the credentials to “do” economics? The same can be said for issues related to race, gender and sexuality.

For example, one of the premier scholars of race today, Ibram X. Kendi, who gave a distinguished lecture at Luther College last winter, observes how the influential evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky and anthropologist Ashley Montagu published an article in the journal Science in 1947 bearing the statement, “Race differences arise chiefly because of the differential action of natural selection on geographically separate populations.” Because Dobzhansky and Montagu were rejecting eugenic ideas of a fixed racial hierarchy, they are often portrayed as providing a scientific basis for racial equality. But eugenicists could still argue that African populations contained the lowest frequency of good genes while European populations were the most naturally and culturally evolved. African peoples might over time develop toward a more sophisticated culture, but that remained only a future possibility.

In Kendi’s words, “as much as Dobzhansky and Montagu buried eugenic ideas, they ended up birthing new assimilationist ideas.” And these assimilationist ideas are just as racist as the separatist ideas they were designed to replace! This is just one example of the critical insight that can arise when a humanities scholar reads scientific discourse through a non-scientific lens.

For their part, scientists have not shied away from weighing in on religious ideas—they do it all the time, and not just noted atheists like Richard Dawkins. At the dawn of sociobiology in the 1970s, its founder E. O. Wilson proclaimed that we had come to the time when science could give a fully material explanation of its chief rival—religion—based on an understanding of how natural selection acts on the evolving material structures of the brain. “Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline,” Wilson exhorted. But forty years later, theology is alive and well!

This is not to say that scientists should refrain from analyzing religious discourse from a scientific perspective. They should (though they would be well served to familiarize themselves more deeply with the fruits of scholarship in the study of religion). But I see no reason why those of us in the humanities should shy away from engaging scientific discourse in a critical way. This kind of dialogue is what liberal arts education is all about.


Rob Shedinger

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  • December 30 2019 at 12:25 am
    Art Battson

    Darwinists have their own "god-of-the-gaps", "chance", which they constantly call upon to account for the arrival of the fittest.

    Pierre-Paul Grasse, the past President of the French Academie des Sciences and editor of the 35 volume "Traite de Zoologie" published by Masson, Paris, had this to say about the matter:

    Grasse in several different places in his book provides devastating evidence to show that "chance" cannot account for evolution. He correctly evaluates the attitude of Darwinists toward "chance" when he says: "Directed by all-powerful selection, chance becomes a sort of providence, which, under the cover of atheism, is not named but which is secretly worshipped (p. 107)."

    • Grasse, Pierre-Paul (1977)
      Evolution of Living Organisms
      Academic Press, New York, N.Y.

    Remember that natural selection  cannot select anything that doesn't already exist and it can inhibit major evolutionary change by eliminating useless incipient and transitional forms unless they appear functional. A Theory of Macrostasis or Theory of Conservation would do a better job of explaining the key features of natural history: sudden appearance and stasis.

    Bottom line? A scholar of religion has every right to point out the impotence of Naturalism's god-of-the-gaps.

  • January 21 2020 at 2:07 pm
    Puck Mendelssohn

    "I am not trained to produce new scientific knowledge. But this does not mean that I am unqualified to read the scientific writings of the people who do do this kind of work and ponder over its larger implications for philosophical and religious questions. Nor am I unqualified to critically engage with scientific literature as literature, and subject it to the kind of critical analysis to which humanities scholars subject other kinds of discourses."

    That's fair enough.  But it is very important to recognize that this type of critical analysis is useful for some things and not for others.  One may be able to judge from a text whether its author is a voice crying aloud in the wilderness.  But only an analysis that deals with the underlying subject matter can tell you the difference between the bringer of great revelations and a madman hollering at trees.  Likewise, all scientists have motives and worldviews, and these undoubtedly shape their characterization of the things they study; but if the critique is aimed at the things they study, no amount of textual criticism and fine parsing of authors' motives will do substitute duty for careful analysis of the thing itself.  Going the "Full Derrida" on a scientific topic is worse than useless. 

    "I do not need to be trained to do science, for example, to notice how often major figures in the history of evolutionary biology admitted that their support for Darwinian natural selection was not based on evidence but, as August Weismann put it, 'on quite other grounds.'" 

    But, you know, they didn't say this all that often.  More often, they did research and wrote works about the biological phenomena in question.  And often these statements are rather obvious little things anyhow -- any empiricist has got to admit that empiricism has limits and that there are categories of questions which lie outside of its capabilities, either for philosophical reasons or due to the sheer lack of access to data.  But what is sometimes galling to the empiricist is that while he will admit that empiricism has limits, people whose disciplines are much less rigorous, and much less susceptible to correction by contrary data, seldom admit that their disciplines have limits -- despite those limits being far more severe.

    "'Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline,' Wilson exhorted. But forty years later, theology is alive and well!" 

    It is, indeed.  And in forty more years it still will be.  But will it progress, in any sense other than changing?  Look at biology.  Forty years ago we had never seen a complete genome -- or, indeed, very much of any genome at all.  We had very few fossils to shed light on certain major transitions, e.g., the rise of the tetrapods or the rise of the birds.  We did not understand the relationship between genes and development in any but the most rudimentary sense.  The data have killed some old favorite hypotheses, and livened others. 

    Now, perhaps novel insight is not what theology is meant, by its practitioners, to be about.  But I cannot help but feel like the Cheshireman in the old song, answering the Spaniard's boasts about Spanish fruit with his own about Cheshire cheese:

    "Your fruits are ripe but twice a year,
    As you yourself do say;
    But such as I present you here
    Our land brings twice a day,
    Our land brings twice a day."

    But, to a more important point: these tools of analysis which you bring to bear upon evolutionary biology are available to others, too.  In your book, you make this interesting statement:

    "Those who argue that a Darwinian microevolutionary process can account for the origin of higher taxa base their view on imagined scenarios, not documented evidence, such as when we are told that the bones of the reptilian jaw evolved into the bones of the mammalian inner ear."

    This statement is shot through with difficulties.  The most common definition of "microevolutionary" is change within species, not speciation.  By that definition, nobody thinks that a "microevolutionary" process can give rise to higher taxa -- indeed, higher taxa would be precisely what, by definition, microevolutionary phenomena cannot solely and directly account for (which is not to say that they are not an important part of other evolutionary phenomena such as speciation).  What you seem to mean here is something more like "gradualist" rather than "microevolutionary."

    Meanwhile, you misunderstand the evolutionary sequence.  Nobody thinks mammals evolved from reptiles; rather, basal amniotes diverged into two lineages: diapsids and synapsids (there are also anapsids, so perhaps there are three -- but there now is some reason to believe that these are diapsids who lost their temporal fenestrae after this divergence).  What you call the "reptilian" jaw is the basal amniote jaw.  Its main features were retained more in reptiles than in mammals.  But this does not mean that the mammals evolved from reptiles.  Older literature will use the term "mammal-like reptiles" at times, but this usage has fallen out of favor because in cladistic terms, mammals are not, and never were, reptiles.    

    But if we re-read your "microevolutionary" as "gradual," the attribution of these views to "imaginary scenarios, not documented evidence," says rather more about the author of the statement than it does about the evolutionary hypotheses in question.  The homology here was described in detail before Darwin wrote the Origin.  The observation of embryonic development shows that these bones start in the same place, attached to the rear of the dentary (our mammalian jaw bone), whether the embryo is a mammal or a reptile, but that in mammals they detach, while in reptiles they fuse to the dentary. 

    Meanwhile, what do the fossils teach?  You read Kemp's excellent The Origin of Higher Taxa, but if you had read his Origin and Evolution of Mammals -- just the kind of work a curious inquirer might turn to, if he had this in mind -- you would know that we see the transformation of these structures in deep time.  Early synapsids -- pelycosaurs and therapsids -- have the compound jaw, but in some lineages these rear jaw bones start to diminish.  Moving from the old to the new jaw structure not only requires the liberation of these bones, however, but also requires relocation of the jaw articulation point.  And what do we find?  Right there, where it ought to be: Diarthrognathus, or "two-jaw-joint," the creature that has both jaw articulations available.  Extensive work has been done around this transition, not only on Diarthrognathus but on other fossils. 

    Here again: your statement sheds no light on the underlying material, of which I assume you must not have known.  But it does shed light upon you.  Why would a man make such a statement?  The bold claim that biologists have no documented evidence but only "imagined scenarios" as a ground for their views is not one that can be defended using the type of scholarship in which you engage.  It can only be made, defended, or defeated with reference to the underlying literature.  Your plea that "I am not trained to produce new scientific knowledge" is no defense here because you are making a claim not about the thoughts and motives and philosophical prejudices of biologists and paleontologists, but about the product of their labors.  And indeed, as you then note:

    "But this does not mean that I am unqualified to read the scientific writings of the people who do do this kind of work and ponder over its larger implications for philosophical and religious questions."

    Not unqualified, no.  But incurious, surely.  Not willing to actually look up easily-discovered sources, surely.  What you accuse biologists of here is outrageous, and false.  Note that I do not say you are lying; it is enough to say that you are very badly wrong and that you could easily have discovered the truth in half an hour of investigation. 

    But how did you get to BE wrong?  Let us turn to another tool in the kit of the theologian: textual criticism.  Information about sources may sometimes be gleaned from content when examining Biblical passages, and this holds true for other sorts of writing as well.  There is a technical error in your statement which is very interesting, and which sheds light on your sources for this extraordinary, and demonstrably false, statement. 

    The ossicles, of course, do not end up in the "inner ear" as you say they do.  They end up in the middle ear, resting AGAINST the inner ear, not in it.  One who had read biological source material on the ossicles would not make this error -- it stands out, for an informed reader, from the text, like a passage from the Septuagint which an NT writer has misconstrued because he did not have access to the original Aramaic.  And just as such an error tells us that the writer had access to the Greek, but not the Aramaic, your error tells us that you read Jonathan Wells -- who repeatedly makes this mistake in his writings (which are, by the way, among the most dishonest and disreputable works in the ID portfolio, despite Wells' pleasant personal manner and charm) -- but not Kemp (I mean by this his work on mammals; I am not suggesting that you did not read The Origin of Higher Taxa), and indeed not any source in the primary scientific literature. 

    I do not mean to be harsh here.  I take you to be an honest man and I think that you do want to get these things right.  But you make a mistake when you assume that you may draw conclusions about the soundness of evolutionary biology purely from an analysis of the views and motives of its notable scholars, without ALSO engaging in deep study of evolutionary biology itself.  You make a mistake when you trust the output of the Discovery Institute, whose authors have been incredibly dishonest in their depictions of evolutionary biology.  And you make a mistake when, before making a claim like this statement about mammalian jaw evolution, you neglect to check the facts with an actual biologist instead of with a man who has no scientific credibility, does no scientific work, and went to graduate school in biology purely to "devote my life to destroying Darwinism."   

    A voice crying aloud in the wilderness may, as I have said, be the bringer of great revelation; he may be delusional and shouting at the trees; or he may be a huckster, trying to sell pseudoscience to people whose religious views make them eager customers.  Which of these, if any, is the DI?  The only way to tell is to study the scientific work itself, to the best of your abilities.  The path here is the path of Bacon, not the path of Derrida; the text, in a scientific context, is NOT all there is.  There are also data, and data do not care whether they violate our views or wishes.     

  • January 21 2020 at 4:29 pm
    Puck Mendelssohn

    One small point regarding my post above: when I suggested that anapsids may be diapsids who have secondarily lost their temporal fenestrae, I meant MODERN anapsids.  There are undoubtedly "true" anapsids in the fossil record, because the original basal tetrapod, then primitive amniote, condition was anapsid (the Field Museum in Chicago has some wonderful fossils on display that illustrate this nicely).  The only question is whether modern anapsids simply retained the ancestral form or whether they became diapsids and then reverted to the ancestral form.  

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