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.
But they may not have to stray quite as far from that scenario as they fear. Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.
The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely—that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).
Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects—in spiritually relevant respects, you might say—was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible.
For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species—not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest—but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity.
And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.
Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?
There’s already a good candidate for this role—the chimpanzee.
Chimps, some primatologists believe, have the rudiments of a sense of justice. They sometimes seem to display moral indignation, “complaining” to other chimps that an ally has failed to fulfill the terms of a reciprocally altruistic relationship. Even now, if chimps are gradually evolving toward greater intelligence, their evolutionary trajectory may be slowly converging on the same moral intuitions that human evolution long ago converged on.
If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them—that natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them? That would be good news for any believers who want to preserve as much of the spirit of C. S. Lewis as Darwinism permits.
Something like this has been suggested by the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker—who, as a contented atheist, can’t be accused of special pleading.
Mr. Pinker has noted how the interplay of evolved intuition and the dynamics of discourse tends to forge agreement on something like the golden rule—that you should treat people as you expect to be treated. He compares this natural apprehension of a moral principle to the depth perception humans have thanks to the evolution of stereo vision. Not all species (not even all two-eyed species) have stereo vision, Mr. Pinker says, but any species that has it is picking up on “real facts about the universe” that were true even before that species evolved—namely, the three-dimensional nature of reality and laws of optics.
Similarly, certain intuitions about reciprocal moral obligation are picking up on real facts about the logic of discourse and about generic social dynamics—on principles that were true even before humans came along and illustrated them. Including, in particular, the non-zero-sum dynamics that are part of our universe.
As Mr. Pinker once put it in conversation with me: “There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just … artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them.” Comparing these moral truths to mathematical truths, he said that perhaps “they’re really true independent of our existence. I mean, they’re out there and in some sense—it’s very difficult to grasp—but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them.”
Mr. Pinker’s atheism shows that thinking in these cosmic terms doesn’t lead you inexorably to God. Indeed, the theo-biological scenario outlined above—God initiating natural selection with some confidence that it would lead to a morally rich and reflective species—has some pretty speculative links in its chain.
But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve—adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.
But believers aren’t the only ones who could use some adapting. If there is to be peace between religion and science, some of the more strident atheists will need to make their own concessions to logic.
They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power—something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts—adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.
And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained in it.
There is an episode in intellectual history that makes the point. It’s familiar to biologists because it is sometimes used—wrongly, I think—to illustrate the opposite point. Indeed, that use is what led Richard Dawkins, one of the most vocal atheist biologists, to allude to it in the title of one of his books: “The Blind Watchmaker.”
The story involves William Paley, a British theologian who, a few years before Darwin was born, tried to use living creatures as evidence for the existence of a designer.
If you’re walking across a field and you find a pocket watch, Paley said, you know it’s in a different category from the rocks lying around it: it’s a product of design, with a complex functionality that doesn’t just happen by accident. Well, he continued, organisms are like pocket watches—too complexly functional to be an accident. So they must have a designer—God.
As Mr. Dawkins pointed out, we can now explain the origin of organisms without positing a god. Yet Mr. Dawkins also conceded something to Paley that gets too little attention: The complex functionality of an organism does demand a special kind of explanation.
The reason is that, unlike a rock, an organism has things that look as if they were designed to do something. Digestive tracts seem to exist in order to digest food. The heart seems to exist in order to pump blood.
And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the “designer”—the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it—there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is “as real as purpose could ever be.”
SO in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.
There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.
The second moral of the story is that, even if evolution does have a “purpose,” imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process—playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes—that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.
At the same time, theologians can be excused for positing design of a more intentional sort. After all, they can define their physical system—the system they’re inspecting for evidence of purpose—as broadly as they like. They can include not just the biological evolution that gave us an intelligent species but also the subsequent “cultural evolution”—the evolution of ideas—that this species launched (and that, probably, any comparably intelligent species would launch).
When you define the system this broadly, it takes on a more spiritually suggestive cast. The technological part of cultural evolution has relentlessly expanded social organization, leading us from isolated hunter-gatherer villages all the way to the brink of a truly global society. And the continuing cohesion of this social system (also known as world peace) may depend on people everywhere using their moral equipment with growing wisdom—critically reflecting on their moral intuitions, and on the way they’re naturally deployed, and refining that deployment.
Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion—except this time on a global scale.
Of course, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on awe and inspiration. The story that science tells, the story of nature, is awesome, and some people get plenty of inspiration from it, without needing the religious kind. What’s more, science has its own role to play in knitting the world together. The scientific enterprise has long been on the frontiers of international community, fostering an inclusive, cosmopolitan ethic—the kind of ethic that any religion worthy of this moment in history must also foster.
William James said that religious belief is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Science has its own version of the unseen order, the laws of nature. In principle, the two kinds of order can themselves be put into harmony—and in that adjustment, too, may lie a supreme good.