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Darwin and Spirituality: An Exchange

In response to:

Three Questions for America from the September 21, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

In his essay [“Three Questions for America,” NYR, September 21] on the teaching of Darwinian theory and “intelligent design” in schools, Ronald Dworkin rightly condemns those scientific theories that are “dictated” by religious convictions. But he fails to notice that Darwinism itself is such a theory.

The scientific evidence is clear. Each human being is a blood relative of every known living organism on the planet, implying that all life derives from a common ancestor. For this to be the case there must have been a series of transformations of species, both progressive (advancing in complexity) and lateral (deviating in accidentals). The fossil record appears to confirm this, although it does not tell us whether the transformations were gradual or abrupt. Recent discoveries concerning the modular format of DNA suggest that the progressive transformations were typically abrupt. The extensive human experience of animal and plant husbandry (a particular interest of Darwin, incidentally) suggests that the lateral transformations were typically gradual.

If we turn now to Darwinian theory itself, which purports to explain these discoveries and which is taught in most schools and colleges in the developed world, we find that it is based on, as Darwin puts it, “the unguided processes of random variation and natural selection.” Take the first part: random variation. By random is meant, presumably, accidental, and clearly accidents do happen, but there is no scientific evidence to the effect that the transformations that took place in evolutionary history were always, or even typically, accidental.

The second unguided process, natural selection, is yet more curious. Let me propose, for an example, an alternative. One of the processes by means of which successful variations are selected is love, in all its varieties but in particular maternal love. An animal that is loved will survive, prosper, and reproduce. Love selects. If we take this idea to a Darwinist, however, he or she will say, no, what happens is that love is selected for: those animals that are loved will have an advantage over those that are not and, over time, will multiply, while the others, unloved, will die out. Thus, natural selection selects love. But therein lies the real scientific scandal of Darwinism: the effect is claimed to be the cause of the cause of the effect. Such an idea, when allowed, is immune to refutation.

I suggest that the reason why such an unsatisfactory theory as Darwinism is placed at the center of biology is that it is “dictated” (in Dworkin’s sense) by the religious (or quasi-religious) convictions of materialists, who hold that the universe is at bottom objective, material, meaningless, indifferent, unaware, unthinking, and without purpose. To a materialist life and consciousness must be secondary properties that emerge only when especially complex aggregations of matter form, and the subjective and value-laden ideals such as love, beauty, goodness, and freedom must be illusions generated by “natural selection” for the competitive advantage of one complex aggregate of matter over another.

Many people quite reasonably consider materialism to be absurd and unbelievable. But where does that leave us? I suggest science should once and for all abandon its four-hundred-year disdain of spirituality and the subjective, confront its fears (it will not “disappear”), invent new procedures, and search elsewhere for the origin of the world, life, consciousness, and all the rest. If the debate over “intelligent design” can begin that process then it might help to end, rather than begin, Dworkin’s “black, know-nothing night of ignorance.”

Danis Rose

Dublin, Ireland

Ronald Dworkin replies:

Danis Rose’s letter reminds us of the importance of distinguishing science from scientism. The latter claims that nothing that cannot be measured and explained through the methods of the physical and biological sciences exists, so that “love, beauty, goodness, and freedom must be illusions.” Scientism is indeed dogmatic and a great many people, myself included, do consider it unbelievable. But scientism is no part of science; in particular it is no part of neo-Darwinian biology. The conception of science I defended does suppose that explanations of phenomena that rely on supernatural assumptions are not scientific explanations, and must not be taught to students as such. But, as I emphasized, it does not follow that scientific explanations are the only respectable explanations or that nothing exists except what science can demonstrate or that Darwin proved that God does not exist. Those claims are themselves distinctly nonscientific: a scientist who said that since science cannot measure goodness or beauty nothing is good or beautiful would be guilty of bad science.

I do not understand Rose’s specific critique of Darwinism, or what he takes to be that doctrine’s “scientific scandal.” He wants to contrast what he claims are two different views: first, that “love selects” those species that survive in evolution and, second, that “love is selected” by the process of evolution. But the explanation he gives of the former claim—that animals that are loved will survive, prosper, and reproduce—is a Darwinian explanation. It is, in fact, exactly the explanation he gives of the latter, so the difference between his two formulations is only verbal. Nor does his mysterious suggestion about cause and effect help to make the distinction he wants. If we accept that animals that are loved by their mothers have an evolutionary advantage, then that proposition does help to explain both why those animals survive and why the emotion of maternal love is common among animals. There is no circularity in the claim that the emotion is, in that sense, both a cause and an effect in the evolutionary process. It would, however, be a scandal to suggest that a Darwinian explanation debases what it explains. Flowers can be beautiful and love can be wonderful even if there is a good scientific explanation of why they exist.

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