A Humanist's Reflections on Evolutionary Biology

Everett Hamner is Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

Editor's Note: The so-called Scopes Monkey Trial concluded on July 21, 1925, making this year the trial's eighty-fifth anniversary. HNN is pleased to present two articles, one by an evolutionary biologist, the other by a humanist, to mark the occasion.

As a whole, David Reznick’s piece is right on.  I have a few small reservations:  the history of the evolution debates is more complex than his quick summary suggests, and there are real distinctions between the current climate and that of the 1920s.  Antievolutionists today, for instance, are torn between appealing to postmodern notions of pluralism and modern ideas of objective truth.  However, Reznick’s main point is that alongside scientific colleagues, we humanists can do a major service when we directly engage the relationship between science and religion.  As an English professor who wrote a dissertation on this conjunction and teaches an interdisciplinary course on evolution, I enthusiastically agree, and would offer several suggestions about how best to proceed.

  1. Carefully distinguish between science and scientism.  When I ask my Midwestern, largely middle-class students about their attitudes toward evolution, not surprisingly the way I frame the question has a major impact on the results.  If I present evolution as the theoretical foundation of modern biology, and by extension, medicine, there is relatively little resistance.  It makes sense as a paradigm emerging from a rigorous pursuit of testable, falsifiable knowledge.  However, if I shade the question so that the overwhelming evidence for common descent and natural selection seems to slide into a metaphysical claim, one that rejects religious faith but ironically cannot be confirmed by the scientific method, there is much greater disagreement.  My students smell scientism:  the assumption that since the natural order of things can be productively examined via objective, empirical means, there can be nothing outside science’s purview.  Scientism makes science into its handmaiden, targeting whatever claims about reality or values that it perceives as threats.  Thus evolution has been co-opted historically by social Darwinism and eugenics, wherein accurate natural descriptions are twisted into dangerous moral prescriptions.  And thus more recently the New Atheism represented by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens has marketed a reductive determinism in the name of science, in the process occluding the scientific method’s openness to change, unpredictability, nuance, and variety.  Keeping this difference sharp is critical to productive discussions.

  2. Humanize Darwin and other scientists.  It is well known in advertising that a white lab coat raises an actress’s credibility with many viewers.  For all its prestige, though, this symbol also connotes an objectification that treats patients as statistics.  The wearer may become a trustworthy paragon of knowledge, but she may also seem to embody creaturely hubris in the face of divine will.  Neither image says much about most scientists, people who would peel back the unknown out of personal fascination and so that others might enjoy better lives.  Yes, they make questionable ethical decisions and serve institutions that prioritize image over substance, but it never fails to impress me how different my students find the real scientists they meet from their pop-culture-instilled visions of nerds and narcissists.  In Darwin’s case, exposing students to portrayals like those of the PBS Evolution series or last year’s Paul Bettany-Jennifer Connelly film Creation can help them look beyond the bitter old skeptic and sense his curiosity, patience, and very human timidity.  Darwin was no saint, but neither was he the ardently anti-religious man that much propaganda imagines.  Sensing his complexity helps many students begin to take his ideas seriously.

  3. Question bifurcations of the religious and the secular.  If our culture fails to distinguish between science and scientism, it is prone to distinguish too absolutely between the religious and the secular.  This is only comfortable.  We bracket politics and religion from polite conversation, letting us pretend our ideas about race, gender, and other topics proceed from the purportedly neutral standpoint of secularism.  But where is this secular no-place?  Isn’t what counts as secular defined in relation to particular traditions and practices we call religious, and vice versa?  The boundaries here are hardly unyielding:  our “secular” friends express religious devotion to sporting events and national defense, while “religious” ones routinely champion popular media and political parties.  Even more importantly, as Tracy Fessenden and Michael Kaufmann have argued, we need to see how the term “religious” indicates a very specific form of American Protestantism, while “secular” pretends neutrality, but is really only a reaction.  Why does this matter for understanding science?  Because many people will only consider the evidence for evolution after understanding how their confusion derives from a relatively recent form of Christianity.  This is not to disparage that tradition as a whole or to discount other religions’ mixed responses to evolution; as detailed by Salman Hameed, many predominantly Muslim nations also evince serious tensions about evolution and creationism.  But in the U.S., the leaders behind efforts like Cincinnati’s new $27 million Creation Museum have been mostly fundamentalist Christians, and a secularism that exists only to thwart them is unlikely to serve anyone very well.

  4. Cultivate more careful readings of scriptures, not their dismissal.  Blanket statements about the Bible and other scriptures remain frequent in our culture, even among academics.  A still-common assumption among those outside religious studies is that the purpose of discussing Genesis or the Gospels is either to do theology or to debunk it.  To be sure, this mistake has become less prevalent over the last decade than it once was, but I suspect it remains even where unstated.  I mention this not as a plea for greater tolerance, but as an invitation to more extensive engagement with the world’s scriptures, which can prove a very significant step toward the open-mindedness Reznick seeks.  Too often Americans refuse to read from the library we call the Bible with as much attention to genre, historical context, and intertextual relationships as they extend to popular fiction, news radio, and Facebook postings.  Challenging this inconsistency does not require a choice between biblical literalism and raging heresy, but only a willingness to become wiser believers, doubters, and knowers.  To encourage this shift is merely to appreciate that setting the writings of an amazingly resilient ancient Near Eastern tribe or of a sixth-century Meccan revolutionary against a product of Victorian science is to compare apples and oranges.  When people grasp the differences in purpose between the Bible, the Qur’an, and The Origin of Species, major stumbling blocks on the path to consilience begin to dissolve.

These suggestions are no more exhaustive than the brief list of books on evolution and religion that I’ll close by recommending.  For one of the most compelling overviews of this relationship, I like Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin (its subtitle, How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, unnecessarily limits its audience).  Also providing excellent broad treatments are books by Eugenie Scott, Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, and David Sloan Wilson.  For good examples of the historical work in this area to which Reznick alludes, see Michael Lienesch’s analysis of the Scopes Trial and Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s look at Darwin and slavery.  Those interested in biblical studies will appreciate William P. Brown’s latest volume.  And to begin imagining how better understandings of evolution could reshape my own discipline of English, Brian Boyd’s new contribution to Darwinian literary criticism is worthwhile reading—even if many will be more provoked than convinced—and the science novels of Richard Powers are simply stellar.

HNN Special: The Scopes Trial at 85

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Nat Bates - 8/6/2010

It is the consensus of scientists and scientific philosophers that Americans are becoming increasingly ignorant. I happen to agree with them. I notice that old movies had references to Relativity, parallel lines, and Quantum Physics while newer movies are ever more stupid. I share with Biologists a sincere concern that young Americans are ever less educated about scientific facts, including Evolution. Regardless of what one believes, one should at least know enough of what Darwinian biology is predicated on, that Darwin did not teach that "man comes from monkeys" or that "we are gorillas." One should understand the idea of natural selection, sexual selection, speciation, homologous evolution, et al, even if one holds other views on life. And, most importantly, one should understand why Darwin came to the conclusions he did based on observation. Failure of Americans to successfully reason, even about beliefs that we do not share, is frightening.

However, most scientists and scientific philosophers believe that the problem is the spread of either "Scientific Creationism" or New Age beliefs. Supposedly, that turned a nation founded on Enlightenment Reason in to a superstitious country on the way to Taliban domination. I suggest that, in fact, "Scientific Creationism" and "Quantum New Age Science" are actually mirror images of Scientism. They make claims of absolute certainty based on what (admittedly non-establishment) "scientific experts" claim, proof that Americans trust so-called experts too much. In a way, mainstream science was beaten at its own game of obtaining public trust by way of being "expert."

So it is that I believe that the true enemy of science and the spirit of open exploration is not "Scientific Creationism" or "New Age" ideas. The real enemy of science is the appeal of authority, a meme imbedded in mainstream science itself. That is the enemy of Enlightenment Reason, even if it is predicated on Enlightenment Reason as a foundational ideology (Marxist-Leninism, Behaviorism, One-Dimensional Man, Bentham's Panopticon...).

The real problem with science education lies with the education system itself. The education system was founded on the Prussian model of obedience to authority. We cannot blame "Scientific Creationism" for the breakdown of authority and thus of trust, since they were on the side of authority during the 60's and 70's. Nor can we even blame New Age liberal goopiness, since New Agers were not particurly radical and often not involved in politics. We have to look at deeper issues as to why people believe the claims of alternative experts more than mainstream scientific experts. In particular, it is telling that the more adamant the phony expert is that his or her claims are the only truth, given them by aliens or purported higher beings, people believe them more than if this person were to promote a pluralistic view of reality in which their view might share a stage with other views.

Science is based on experimentation and openness. Scientific education is based on training people for specific slots in society, a society in which Corporations and Governments do not want openness. Freedom and openness is an inherent contradiction in an age of NCLB testing and ever more conformity. Real science has to be based on creative thinking. Could Newton, Darwin, or Einstein even be able to publish a paper today? Think about that question before you cast stones as a presumed irrationalist tide that is really more of an authoritarian tide than anything else.

So, in summation, I agree with Evolutonary Biologists that Americans are ever more stupid about basic scientific facts. However, they are too keen to scapegoat the vast Christian Conspiracy, just as old McCarthyites had the Vast Communist Conspiracy. The truth is that people of faith have believed in Evolution. Most of them believe in their faith for reasons of deep personal reasons, often not related to claims that would compete with science. The spread of anti-scientific and authoritarian attitudes really begins in other domains. Deeper causes need to be studied, among them the institutionalized nature of power and the fact that irrationalism is often more rewarded as a trait in hierarchies than an honest questioning of the claims of authority.

Nat Bates - 8/6/2010

Well, I don't know what you mean by a "bridge." However, just as religions have been misused for oppression, so has the "selfish gene" concept. Eugenics laws were justified by the evolutionary biology of the time, backed up by the key intellectuals of the time.

A key question pops in to my mind. For Neo-Darwinists, life is powered by the continuation of the selfish gene. This was not necessarily the view of Darwin, but it is said to be the most crystalized and completed form of his views given modern genetic science. OK, so we have the "selfish gene" powering the increasing complexity of certain organisms, at least as imagined by the Chief Pontificators of the For Horsemen.

Now, on the one hand, we are told that teleology is out of the question. Bacteria are just as adapted as crocodiles, perhaps even more so. So, there is no order or teleology in Nature. But, on the other hand, it is strongly suggested that life is about offspring and the diffusion of genes (not directly stated, but intimated, as an imperitive). The idea that life becomes increasingly complex and eventually reaches for the stars is what has attracted people to evolutionary philosophies the most, even if evolutionary biologists disclaim the idea of the some organisms are more evolved than others. This increasing complexity is believed to be a result of adaptationism (contra Lewontin), which results in some lines of life becoming dominant and directing the future of life. Eventually, reason evolved, and with reason we adapt to life even beyond the planet.

So, on the one had, there is no teleology. But, on the other hand, there appears to be a hidden teleology that is imbedded in the philosophy. Yet, it is never admitted as a teleology. It is never admitted that there is a kind of philosophy of meaning involved.

That philosophy of meaning implies a moral imperitive, to be mutualist on the left, or to be individualist and competitive on the right, based either on what is good for the whole species (mutualism) or the more conservative Neo-Darwinist idea of selfish individual genes. Yet, we are then told that Platonic notions of meaning are not to be imposed on Nature.

There is a real paradox here. Either meaning exists as a reality, or it does not. If our meaning is to pass on our genes, and to favor our kin, then King, Gandhi, Aristide, and others who have made incredible sacrifices for broader concepts of justice are seemingly out of place in Nature.

To be clear, I believe that the evolutionary process exists, and I am quite comfortable with the idea that I am a cousin to the Great African Apes. In fact, I have read the claim that we are considered one of the four African Apes ourselves. Actually, the thought gives me a feeling of identity, one compatible in my mind with a belief that we are made in the Divine Image and possess inherent dignity. So, please don't go down the road of quoting a bunch of scientific facts that I may well know already. I am talking about a real contradiction in the philosophy of the Neo-Darwinists who have claimed to reduce all of Nature to mechanism. The more that all of Nature is reduced to mechanism, the more corporations are justified in exploiting Nature, and then human beings are next.

Please watch "Food Inc." for more on this question.

Everett Hamner - 8/2/2010

Dear Dr. Hughbanks,

Thanks for your comment. Please understand, though, that I am no way challenging the validity of scientifically-achieved knowledge. The scientific method is something I am celebrating. What you hear me contesting in the article, I think, is the same mistake to which you are objecting: the conflation of science as a methodology and scientism as a metaphysics or ideology. It is precisely because I agree with you on your comment--that what you can know about molecular structures is derivable only from reproducible evidence, for instance--that I am arguing for the science/scientism distinction.

If that distinction needs to be made more clearly, however, I also think the distinction between the religious and the secular is often made too absolutely. We have the holy vs. the profane, the supernatural vs. the natural, the sacred vs. the ordinary, etc., and what I'm following other postsecular thinkers in arguing is that these binaries are very commonly the unconscious product of our equation of "religion" with a particular brand of American Protestantism, whether we are followers of that tradition or not. One reason this is problematic is that it makes people assume that "science" is not just secular, but secular_ist_, that it necessarily competes against "religion," when in fact many world religious traditions (and in fact other threads of Christianity) have never made this assumption.

Does that help?

Best wishes,


Timothy Hughbanks - 8/2/2010

While there may be things which don't "count as secular", evolutionary biology isn't one of them. It's is science, and as such what we can say that we "know" (or find to be very likely) has nothing with religion - period. As a chemist, what I know about the structure of a molecule has nothing to do with my religious views - or at least is doesn't if I'm a chemist worth listening to. What I know about the structure of a molecule has only to do with reproducible evidence I have gathered to make well-supported inferences about the structure of the molecule. It is not different with evolutionary biology and only the stubbornness of religious people obscures the obviousness of that fact.

Nat Bates - 7/30/2010

I am looking at the recent explosion of theories on "recent evolution" (title of book: Ten Thousand Year Explosion) as a reference. Some, though not all, focus on IQ differences between the races, as if the IQ test were objective in any way. So, you may disagree with the term Social Darwinism, but the reality on the ground is such that theories once expunged from academia are regaining ground.

Donald Wolberg - 7/28/2010

One can only agree that there is much to think about and discuss across the lines of science and the humanities as suggested by Dr. Hamner. Such efforts are to be encouraged and continued, to be sure, but I question the value if less than accurate notions of the history of ideas are used as discussion points. This of course is true from either end of the discussion, but I doubt if a true middle can be found no matter what the efforts. This is not because of lack of conviction in the trying, but because of the very different premises of each. I suggest there is little commonality to be found. Perhaps here Steve Gould's now much critized view of equal separate spheres left as independent as possible is the best we can do or expect. For example, there really is not a lot more than superb science that can be extracted from looking at the biostratigraphic record of Late Cretaceous Western Interior ammonites so superbly documented by the career of William Cobban. There really is no need for a "bridge" between the humanists and paleontologists in this example--the rocks exist and have ammonites and the ammonited tell us about shorelines and ammonite evolution in an ancient seaway. I sugegst that the same is true for the entire history of life over the last 3.6 billion years, and only is an issue or cause for discussion for only one lineage of countless millions that have existed. One would not contemplate Equus concerned about the meaning of Hyracotherium.

Donald Wolberg - 7/27/2010

I'd be curious finding out who amongst evolutionary biologists preaches an archaic or modern "social Darwinism." Biological evolution over the 3.6 billion years or so of life history on this 4.6 billion year old planet planet explains the diversity of 1.2 million species currently described, and perhaps 10 times that number that actually exists today. This number is but a poor reflection of the 99.9% of everything that once lived being extinct and only one species of that entire record needs a term like "social Darwinism." As for the political creeping in of the concept amongst conservatives, Republican Party members or not, Democrat of not, I do not believe George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Victor Davis Hanson, and others, all biological evolutionists, are "social Darwinists" in a 19th century or any other context. I do suggest the term has nothing to do with Darwin's world world view, is over-used or misused, and is better seen as "social Galtonism", perhaps. I don't think that Thomas Henry Huxley, who I think first used "Darwinism" as a term, ever noted a societal meaning.

Nat Bates - 7/27/2010

I don't recall claiming that Darwin was a Social Darwinist. If I did, then kindly quote those words and I'll either retract them or try to put them in context. You stated that there is not much Social Darwinism around these days. I agree, but it has crept back in through the intellectual margins and is poised to become respectable again. More and more evolutionary biologists are accepting the view that poverty is the result of less ability instead of the result of racism and inequality. This is a big sea-change since the twentieth century. I believe that it deserves a discussion.

Donald Wolberg - 7/26/2010

Mr. Bates raises a number of interesting points, although many if not most are less than firmly based in fact, I think. There is not mucg "social Darwinism" around these days and. of course, Darwin would likely be the last to be a "social Darwinist"--most likely he would be a classic "liberal" socially although a strong proponent of fiscal responsibility. I find a statement that, "today, Republicans may doubt evolution, but social Darwinism remains a plank of that Party," odd to the point of being as meaningless as stating: "all Democrats are evolutionists and believe in the redistribution of wealth." Sometimes, we get careless with words or what we think things are all about. Confusing what we think evolutionary theory is all about today, simply because we associate Charles Darwin with the term can be misleading. By the same token there are not many Herbert Spencers, or Ernst Haeckel type folks around these days, either.

Nat Bates - 7/26/2010

Darrow and Bryan would both be out of place in today's intellectual climate. Both were defenders of the underprivileged and weak, Bryan the poor farmer and Darrow the defendant. Bryan would have sore words for the Creationists of today, who care more about thousands of years ago than the poor and oppressed of today (as they are regular listeners of Limbaugh, Hannity, et al). Bryan was friends with radicals and union organizers. His opposition to the Social Darwinism of his time was well thought out, and he made it clear on the witness stand under questioning that he could accept evolution but not strict Darwinist-probablist interpretations.

Today, the Republicans may doubt evolution, but Social Darwinism remains a plank of that Party. Democrats have also moved closer to Wall Street than in the time of the Bryan Progressives. In any case, it is sad that Bryan did not challenge racism. In that sense, he compromised with the very Social Darwinist spirit he challenged. We have to accept that a lot of evolutionary thinking of the time was racist and eugenicist, and that this fact is the historical context for an admittedly stupid decision on Bryan's part to take part in the Scopes Trial (he opposed criminal penalties, by the way). Eugenic thinking has made a comeback among both Creationists and Evolutionists. "Bell Curve" anyone?

No, I am not "anti-science." Honestly, quite the contrary. I believe that the latest discoveries of how bacteria can alter DNA show a model of evolution that does not rely simply on members of a species dying out, leading to speciation. It is a lot more nuanced, and in line with how First Peoples see Nature in that there is synthesis and symbiosis. We have to accept that civilization in the last ten thousand years has departed from the wisdom of hunter-gatherers, both in the name of science and religion alike.

Getting back to the main point, Darrow and Bryan are both necessary for today. Sadly, we have FOX news instead. Note how Dawkins promotes his selfish genes, and Limbaugh promotes his selfish economy. Americans, being fools by our own decision, eat it all up.

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