A Grand Bargain Over Evolution

The “war” between science and religion is notable for the amount of civil disobedience on both sides. Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight. Whether out of a live-and-let-live philosophy, or a belief that religion and science are actually compatible, or a heartfelt indifference to the question, they’re choosing to sit this one out.

Still, the war continues, and it’s not just a sideshow. There are intensely motivated and vocal people on both sides making serious and conflicting claims.

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

The believers who need to hear this sermon aren’t just adherents of “intelligent design,” who deny that natural selection can explain biological complexity in general. There are also believers with smaller reservations about the Darwinian story. They accept that God used evolution to do his creative work (“theistic evolution”), but think that, even so, he had to step in and provide special ingredients at some point.

Perhaps the most commonly cited ingredient is the human moral sense — the sense that there is such a thing as right and wrong, along with some intuitions about which is which. Even some believers who claim to be Darwinians say that the moral sense will forever defy the explanatory power of natural selection and so leave a special place for God in human creation.

This idea goes back to C. S. Lewis, the mid-20th-century Christian writer (and author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”), who influenced many in the current generation of Christian intellectuals.

Sure, Lewis said, evolution could have rendered humans capable of nice behavior; we have affiliative impulses — a herding instinct, as he put it — like other animals. But, he added, evolution couldn’t explain why humans would judge nice behavior “good” and mean behavior “bad” — why we intuitively apprehend “the moral law” and feel guilty when we’ve broken it.

The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — “out there,” you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.

Since Lewis wrote — and unbeknown to many believers — evolutionary psychologists have developed a plausible account of the moral sense. They say it is in large part natural selection’s way of equipping people to play non-zero-sum games — games that can be win-win if the players cooperate or lose-lose if they don’t.

So, for example, feelings of guilt over betraying a friend are with us because during evolution sustaining friendships brought benefits through the non-zero-sum logic of one hand washing the other (“reciprocal altruism”). Friendless people tend not to thrive.

Indeed, this dynamic of reciprocal altruism, as mediated by natural selection, seems to have inclined us toward belief in some fairly abstract principles, notably the idea that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished. This may seem like jarring news for C. S. Lewis fans, who had hoped that God was the one who wrote moral laws into the charter of the universe, after which he directly inserted awareness of them in the human lineage.

[Read the full article; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/opinion/23wright.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a27%5D


One response to “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution

  1. I look at this way. Evolution demands aggression; survival of the fittest involves being endowed by mutations which surmount adverse environmental factors; it also presents males and females with attractive qualities which threaten the stability of bonding and of child rearing. Therefore in order to modify this aggression, reality and reason have developed so that life is sustained, not ruined, by chance brutish encounters. The exception may be seen, sadly, in those sub-cultures of criminal activity which continue to exist because they are socialised to attack those in society whom they perceive to be “fair game”. One may find these amongst bankers ,
    bandits,or bishops ; each century presents a new crop ! I see no point in atheism because it is just as much a belief as theism and based solely
    on a priori conclusions – the test comes at death, “that unseen bourn from which no traveller returns” ! It is surprising what little beneficial effect religion seems to have upon so many adherents; for the most part good pastors are good humanists – only motivation distinguishes one from the other. Science has so much to explore and teach us about the brain but it has not yet stumbled upon a soul which is why I like Freud’s concept of the ID !

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