I’m back again, after a long weekend catching the first spring sun and the pageantry of Palm Sunday in Sicily.
Just before I left, I caught a fascinating documentary on the BBC entitled, ‘Did Darwin Kill God?’ that seems particularly pertinent to contemplate this Easter weekend.
The documentary was written and presented by philosopher and theologian Conor Cunningham of the University of Nottingham, and it was a refreshing look at what Darwin really wrote, and whether it is at odds with a theory of God.
Cunningham aimed to examine in detail the received wisdom about Darwinism: that the theory of evolution must ultimately undermine religion and serve as ultimate refutation of the notion of God.
Although the documentary is no longer on the BBC site, the hour-long show, divided into six parts, has now been posted on YouTube. There’s also an excellent interview with Cunningham on his own University of Nottingham site:http://www.theologyphilosophycentre.co.uk/
War of extremes
In the documentary, Cunningham, author of a new book called Evolution: Darwin’s Pious Idea, takes the line that the culture war that now exists between scientific atheists like Dan Dennett, on the one hand, and Christian fundamentalists, on the other, is essentially a divide of two equally extremist groups, both of which have ignored history, science and philosophical argument.
Indeed, their hijacking of Darwin’s theories, and reasons for support or denunciation of them, bear little resemblance to Darwin’s original thesis – or indeed, to the scientific or historical evidence.
Cunningham traveled around the world, interviewing eminent Biblical scholars, historians and scientists, to unearth the roots of Creationism and its opposition to Darwinism, i.e., that the seven-day creation of the universe, as described in Genesis, should be accepted as literal fact. He then deconstructs the theories of the Ultra-Darwinists, who believe that natural selection applies to all aspects of life, including our culture.
The selfish meme
Many scientists, such as Susan Blackmore (The Meme Machine) and Richard Dawkins, advance what has been called ‘Universal Darwinism,’ through the theory of ‘memes’. This theory proposes that all human belief and endeavor, from popular culture to religion and morality – indeed, any information that can be copied from person to person with variation and selection – is a form of natural selection.
As Blackmore put it, “ Memes are competing to use our brains to get themselves copied.”
According to Universal Darwinists, everything, including our sense of self, is an illusion – the simple result of our being colonized by memes.
Cunningham’s position is that Christian fundamentalists demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of Christian belief and tradition, in that many Biblical scholars, from St Augustine onward, encouraged Christian followers to understand Genesis as having metaphorical, not literal truth.
Indeed, Darwin himself did not believe his theories to be inconsistent with belief in God.
As for the Ultra-Darwinists, says Cunningham, their view – that all aspects of culture and belief, as well as genes, are evolutionary – cheapens natural selection as a true science.
It also shoots itself in the foot. If there is no final truth to anything – if it is all a contagion of ideas, whether true or not true, and the only point is that an idea survives, whether true or not – then how do we know evolution has any truth to it? Or is it simply another popular meme, not substantially different than a catchy pop song?
For me, the most fascinating and thought-provoking aspect of the show had to do with evidence provided almost parenthetically. Cunningham traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with Francis Collins, who’d been director of the Human Genome Project between 1993-2008. Collins emphasized that our current understanding of the gene as the Renaissance man of human evolution is fast going out of date.
“A gene is just a packet of DNA,’ he says, ‘We don’t even quite know what the boundary is of that packet anymore.’
While working on the Genome Project, says Collins, he finally learned how few genes are present in the human body.
“First of all, came the shock that we didn’t have as many genes as we thought we did. People had been saying 100,000 for a long time. It’s probably only about 20,000, now that the dust has really settled.”
Even more astonishing was the evidence that human beings, supposedly the most complex organisms on the planet, don’t have as many genes as most things. A grain of rice, for instance, has some 49,000 genes – nearly twice as much as the average person.
Cunningham went on to speak with Simon Conway Morris, from the University of Cambridge, who is one of the world’s pre-eminent evolutionary paleobiologists. Morris’s specialty is to study how divergent life forms with entirely independent evolutionary paths produce markedly similar results.
What fascinates him, for instance, is the universal need for and form of music.
“Animals,” he says, “have music remarkably similar to ours. Some birds have drumming, for example, plus harmony, melody and invention just like ours.”
There are even cultures of music, he says; in the oceans, for instance, whales swap songs.
The presence of, and similarity between, the music produced by species of such disparity suggests that there is a ‘universal music’ out there — in which case, says Morris, evolution is more akin to a search engine. ‘
In that case, each species is “actually discovering something which arguably is even pre-existing.”
Both of these comments are revelatory, in terms of our current understanding of life.
If human beings are supposed to be the most complex life form on the planet, and yet our genomes are half the size of that of a grape, then the gene cannot be the primary instrument of complexity and adaptation.
And if utterly diverse species of living things have universal commonalities that cannot be explained by natural selection, each species may ultimately evolve by tapping into a universal force or intelligence – a Field of information.
As Morris puts it: “The very fact that music is discovered in this way suggests that . . .in fact we’ve hardly begun to understand who we are and why we’re here.”
As Conor Cunningham reminds us toward the end of the documentary, all science is provisional. Newtonian physics was ‘true’ until it was amended by general relativity, and then amended again by quantum mechanics.
“The question isn’t, is evolution true?” says Morris. “The question is: is evolution as a theory complete? It’s as true as far as it goes, but we are very much dealing with unfinished business.”
Cunningham, the model of an intelligent inquiring theologian, defines God as “the source of life . . . he in whom we live, move and have in our very existence.”
Nevertheless, he uses a theory like evolution, he says, as a reminder — to “stop my understanding of God from becoming too domestic, too cozy, too small”.
The question should not be whether Darwin killed God. The question we should be asking is whether God – that is, the magnitude of the central intelligence being tapped into, including the science we periodically download to explain ourselves – has in fact killed Darwin.