Is Evolution Just another Religion?

The noted American evolutionist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould argues strenuously that science and religion occupy different domains and speak to different issues.  Properly understood therefore they cannot be in conflict: the ongoing American controversy about the literal truth of Genesis versus the claims of the evolutionists must be predicated on mistaken understandings of either religion or science or both.  In his ecumenical tolerance, Gould apparently stands in sharp contrast to the no-less-noted British evolutionist and popular science writer Richard Dawkins.  He sees science and religion in stark opposition, finding that a “cowardly flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people confronted with long-established religions.”  He thinks that Darwinian evolution (natural selection in particular) makes Christianity quite untenable, and he concludes that life is quite without ultimate meaning.

Closer examination of the writings of the two evolutionists suggests that on the science/religion relationship they may not be as far apart as a surface reading suggests.  Gould certainly thinks that achieving mutual respect and understanding will be a one-way process: the retreat of religious believers from just about every existence claim that they hold dear and sacred.  Not only will such believers have to give up the literal truth of Genesis “ which of course most Christians have long relinquished” but they will even have to forgo general speculations about God’s method of creation.  When Arthur Peacocke -- both a physical chemist and an Anglican priest -- made the neo-Augustinian inference that evolution suggests that God created sequentially rather than all at once, Gould sharply commented that there is here an illicit transgression of the science/religion boundary: “Is Mr. Peacocke’s God just retooling himself in the spiffy language of modern science?”  Even religious claims about the objects of creation themselves will have to be rethought.  Gould is famous for his insistence that human evolution is a one-off occurrence which came purely by chance.  Little comfort for the Jew or Christian who thinks that we are in some wise made in the image of God and that our appearance here on earth was very much not accidental.

It seems, in fact, that Gould allows little more role for religion than that of (as the poet Matthew Arnold once put it) “ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling”: something perhaps acceptable to Christians on the extreme liberal wing but hardly to others.  If this be science extending “a hand of fellowship” through “the right combination of education and humility,” then perhaps the believer might prefer to stay friendless but with pride and belief intact.  But, whether or not Gould is being entirely forthright in his intentions and commitments, people are entitled to their opinions.  If evolutionists want to exclude what many would regard as meaningful religion, then that is evolutionists’ business.  In the West, at least, it is a free world.

Yet there is somewhat more to this whole issue, as literalistic evangelicals complain bitterly.  And even though one may have little sympathy for the general position of these critics “to deny the basic fact of evolution in this day and age is scientifically silly and religiously unnecessary” one ought to be prepared to listen to objections whatever the source.  In particular, argue these conservative Christians, evolutionists are not content with simply asserting the truth of their theory and the falsity of religion: they want to substitute their theory as an alternative religion.  Its proponents promote evolution as a kind of secular alternative for more traditional faith.  This is not merely a science versus religion issue, but a religion versus religion issue.

Of course, no one claims that evolutionists want to found an alternative religion rather as the positivists in the last century founded a whole new church, with secular saints and worship and other paraphernalia of the social side to religion.  Rather, the claim is that evolution becomes more than mere science and turns into a source of meaning and optimism and renewal and so forth -- not to mention moral dicta -- to help us to move forward through life.  And to be honest, prima facie, given the writings of today’s evolutionists, one fears that the critics may have a point.  A recent editorial by Gould in Science, for all that he tells us that “factual nature cannot, in principle, answer the deep questions about ethics and meaning,” is redolent with language that would fit comfortably in a preacher’s sermon.  We learn that evolution “liberates the human spirit,” that “for sheer excitement” evolution “beats any myth of human origins by light years,” that evolution combines “truth value and visceral thrill,” and (quoting Darwin at the end of the Origin on the grandeur of the evolutionary view) that we should “praise this evolutionary nexus a far more stately mansion for the human soul than any pretty or parochial comfort ever conjured by our swollen neurology to obscure the source of physical being...”

 Is this simply overblown rhetoric or is it symptomatic of something more significant?  As evolutionists, we have learnt that the secrets of the present lie often in the past.  Turning to the history of evolutionary theory, we find that at the beginning “the speculations by eighteenth-century thinkers about organic origins” there is good reason to think that evolutionism (if anachronistically one may so call it) was rather less than sober professional science and rather more a vehicle for ideology and philosophy and those aspirations which one does associate with religious yearnings.  Erasmus Darwin -- British physician, friend of industrialists, widely read poet, and grandfather of Charles -- speculated that all life developed upwards through time from primordial blobs, and that civilized (that is, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, English-speaking) humans are the apotheosis of the process.  Relying on scattered bits of real evidence, about fossils for instance, and on a great deal of non-evidence “the phalli, which were hung round the necks of Roman ladies, or worn in their hair, might have effect of producing a greater proportion of male children” infused by an enthusiasm for social and scientific progress, backed by a deistic belief in a god who is an unmoved mover working through unbroken law, through the medium of rhyming couplets Darwin presented his gallimaufry of fact and fiction to an eager public.

“Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,

Of language, reason, and reflection proud,

With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,

And styles himself the image of his God;

Arose from rudiments of form and sense,

An embryon point, or microscopic ens!”

This was not merely a story about the past but an eschatological vision of how the world might be perfected if everyone adopted the tools and attitudes of the British capitalist in order to raise the general welfare of all.  Moreover, the real point is not simply that we today might judge this stuff to be the excrescence of a kind of secular religion (not that secular actually), but that that was the reaction of Erasmus Darwin’s contemporaries.  The great comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, himself incidentally a practicing Protestant, was scathing about the very form and context and intent of evolutionism.  Rather than progress brought on by human effort, he thought that our real salvation lies in God’s Providential grace bestowed in response to our prayers.  He thought evolution was empirically wrong; but, with an eye to the greater danger, Cuvier could see that it was intended as a religion substitute and not just as mere science.

Surely Charles Darwin changed all of this?  In a sense he did, for with the Origin evolution was upgraded to the status of something that one could in theory judge on its empirical merits.  No longer was evolution a mere pseudo-science, a faith masquerading as a reflection of true reality.  But, the Origin itself had hardly shaken off all traces of the past.  Darwin shared with his grandfather a deistic-backed optimism about the evolutionary process: all of those comments about the Creator were meant sincerely, and the end passage highlighted by Gould about the grandeur of the evolutionary perspective was modified from a natural theological passage by the Scottish man of science, David Brewster.  More significantly, never forget that it was not Darwin who was the chief Victorian proponent of evolutionary thought.  That role fell to his self-appointed ‘bulldog,’ episcopal debater, Thomas Henry Huxley.  And here we come to one of the most fascinating aspects of evolution’s history.  Although (having first been its sternest critic) Huxley adopted evolutionism with the enthusiasm of Saint Paul for Christianity, as with Saint Paul Huxley’s version of the truth was not exactly identical to that of its founder.  As Paul took Jesus’ teaching and adapted it for his audience, so Huxley took Darwin’s teaching and adapted it for his audience with significant consequences for the future status of evolutionary thought.

Huxley was a great professionalizer of science, biology in particular, and he realized that for success he had to find support money for the disciplines and jobs for the students.  Physiology, Huxley sold to the medical profession: doctors were desperate to change from killing patients to curing them, and (more self-interestedly) they were not insensible to the social advantages of professional scientific training possessed only by those within the fold.  Morphology, Huxley sold to the teaching profession as a proper substitute for the out-dated classics: it is no accident that Huxley sat on the London School Board and that he sponsored summer schools for teachers.

Evolution was different.  Knowledge about the dinosaurs does not mend broken legs and in any case the subject was too metaphysically loaded for simple classroom use.  But it fit perfectly into another role.  Huxley and his friends wanted to do more than provide jobs for scientists.  They wanted to reform Victorian Britain: to clean up the civil service, to introduce universal education, to promote science-backed sanitation and urbanization generally, and much more.  Evolution was the perfect platform for the ideology “secular religion if you like” that Huxley and his friends could use, as an alternative to the established Anglicanism that they saw supporting the establishment they wanted to overthrow.

And so it proved.  To the amazement of his students, Huxley never talked about evolution in class, but he lectured non-stop on the subject from podia in working men’s clubs and at general meetings like those of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and in the popular media.  He promoted an evolutionism that is upward-looking and optimistic and a philosophy for a new age.  There is an intentionally Biblical ring to his famous dictum that one should sit down before the facts, without preconception, as a little child.  It was equally intentional that Huxley’s famous clash with the Bishop of Oxford “where supposedly, upon being asked whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side, he replied that he would rather be descended from a monkey than a bishop of the church of England” achieved mythical status.  (Like most myths, the reality of the debate was quite other than it later seemed.)

Since Darwin’s writings really did not provide much by way of moral guidance, it is no chance that an evolutionist who did write at length on morality “fellow Englishman Herbert Spencer, enthusiast for laissez-faire, fanatic for progress” was taken up and cherished and promoted.  (Later in life, in tune with a general fin de siÈcle sense of decline, Huxley’s vision grew more sombre and the two old friends fell out.)  It is no chance either that, as an alternative to the cathedrals of the Church, museums of natural history were just then being founded.  Stocked with wonderful displays of fossils (including the newly uncovered American dinosaurs) and conveying unambiguous messages of progress, they were excellent places of sober entertainment and instruction for the young and impressionable.  Expectedly, the British Museum (Natural History) was headed by one Huxley protÈgÈ, E. Ray Lankester, and the American Museum of Natural History was to be headed by another Huxley disciple, former student Henry Fairfield Osborn.  It is little wonder that, in the popular press, Darwin’s bulldog was known as ‘Pope Huxley.’  (Being, like all good Englishmen, deeply prejudiced against foreigners, he would probably have preferred to have been Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Although there was a weak and rather unsuccessful German-based evolutionary morphology which existed alongside all of this popularization and value promotion, essentially evolution kept its non-professional, religion-like status right up through to the third and fourth decades of this century.  Then, thanks to the mathematical work of the great theoretical populational geneticists “notably R.A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane in Britain and Sewall Wright in America” evolution was ready to upgrade from its museum-based, low standing.  And this it did, thanks to the synthesizers and students of the empirical biological world men like Julian Huxley and E.B. Ford in Britain and Theodosius Dobzhansky and his associates in America.  Finally, in neo-Darwinism or the Synthetic theory -- as modern evolutionism became known -- one had a science which could stand on and only on our understanding of the world of nature and which did not need or much want an infusion of ideology or philosophy to give it meaning or purpose.

But this does not mean that evolution-as-religion got up and went away.  Indeed, almost to a person (Ford was perhaps one exception), the synthesizers of the 1930s and 1940s wanted both their professional value-free science and at the same time the old ideology-laden evolutionism which would give significance to life and existence.  This is well born out by the fact that, along with their professional works, the neo-Darwinians turned out one popular book after another, full of philosophy and meaning.  The titles speak for themselves: The Biology of Ultimate Concern (Dobzhansky), The Biological Basis of Human Freedom (Dobzhansky), The Meaning of Evolution (G.G. Simpson, the paleontologist), The Basis of Progressive Evolution (G.L. Stebbins, the botanist), Religion without Revelation (Julian Huxley), and more.

And so it continues down to the present.  However one interprets the somewhat ambiguous position of Stephen Jay Gould, his fellow Harvard evolutionist Edward O. Wilson is categorical in his determination to make of evolution a religion: one which will challenge and replace the older conventional religions like Christianity.

“The evolutionary epic is mythology in the sense that the laws it adduces here and now are believed but can never be definitively proved to form a cause-and-effect continuum from physics to the social sciences, from this world to all other worlds in the visible universe, and backward through time to the beginning of the universe.  Every part of existence is considered to be obedient to physical laws requiring no external control.  The scientist’s devotion to parsimony in explanation excludes the divine spirit and other extraneous agents.  Most importantly, we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences...


“If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon.  Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.  [Wilson 1978, 192]”

 As with Herbert Spencer ‘a Wilsonhero’ evolution is used to support a moral message.  Less the laissez-faire individualism of the nineteenth century, and more a concern for such things as biodiversity and the preservation of tropical rain forests.  Wilson believes that we humans have evolved in symbiotic relationship with the rest of living nature.  Save we preserve such nature, we ourselves will perish and die.  With something of the enthusiasm of the Baptist preachers of his childhood, in a nigh-dispensationalist fashion Wilson begs us to repent our profligate ways before it is too late.

So what do we conclude?  There is surely today a dimension to evolutionary thought and work which is regular professional science, value free and ideology past.  One thinks for instance of the speculations of William Hamilton about the significance of parasitism for the biology of sexuality.  Hamilton may or may not be right, but his claims are simple science.  Nothing more.  Conservative Christian critics who argue that the whole of evolutionary thought is merely a religion alternative or substitute are wrong, willfully so.  There is however another dimension to evolutionary thought: a dimension which does go beyond straight science.  Here one might indeed say that values and philosophy and ideology -- perhaps even a religion or religion substitute -- thrives and gives people meaning and purpose.  This is not necessarily synonymous with popular writing about evolution, but it is work which does tend to fall in the popular domain, or in places (like the commentary section of Nature!) where scientists can be a little more expansive in their thinking.

Is it bad that there is this religious-like dimension to evolutionary thought?   I see no reason to say that it is.  If someone like Wilson -- who feels strongly that our nature will always demand a religious perspective and commitment -- wants to make a religion of his science, then this is surely his right as much as it is our right to accept or reject it as we will.  But it is important to realize that evolutionary thought does have this dimension and not to confuse this with other, more ideology-free work.  And, although we may and must let others know of our enthusiasm for the wonderful idea of evolution, we must make sure that others are not led into confusion either.

Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!