Sea of Faith, Yorkshire


Joint Excursion, Yorkshire and Sheffield Groups Sat 16 May 2009

Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield.

From our last meeting: Evolution vs Creationism

We had a lively and thought-provoking meeting in Bradford on 11th April. Here are some of the contributions.

Creationism versus Darwinian evolution
Joanna Dales

When Philip Gosse published his treatise Omphalos in 1857 he thought he had solved the problem of how an earth created less than 6000 years ago could contain the fossilized bones of extinct creatures which showed every sign of having been there for millions of years. Just as Adam was (presumably) created a perfect adult, complete with navel, despite not having emerged from a womb, so the earth was created with a built-in, if illusory, past. Gosse even takes the reader on an imaginary tour of the newly-created world, pointing out such things as the hippopotamus’s teeth, already ground down as by years of use, because pristine teeth could not do the job required of them.

Stephen Jay Gould, who writes engagingly about Gosse’s treatise in his essay, "Adam’s navel", says that Omphalos fell dead from the press – nobody would accept its fantastic thesis, wholly unscientific as it is because unfalsifiable. Perhaps, however, Gosse’s way of thinking is not altogether defunct: I have met somebody who said he believed in the creation of a "mature world", by which I took him to mean a world such as Gosse’s, with its "evidence" of a non-existent past.

Gosse’s work appeared two years earlier than Darwin’s Origin of species. Tennyson, too, was writing before Darwin’s bombshell fell, when, in the desolate central stanzas of In Memoriam, he tells how the "dragons of the prime" revealed in "scarped cliff and quarried stone" demonstrate the ruthless disregard of "Nature" for any of her offspring, whether individual or "type". Nevertheless, it was the Darwinian thesis of evolution by "natural selection" which then raised and still raises tempests of anger and dismay.

Tennyson, in the course of his poem, managed to work towards some kind of Christian evolutionary hope, and many devout Christians now are able to adapt their faith so as to take Darwin’s ideas on board. For many others, however, Darwinism constitutes a profound challenge not only to faith in a Creator God but also to any hopeful view of the place of humanity in the Universe, let alone literal belief in the Biblical narrative.

For if, as Richard Dawkins asserts, our behaviour, like that of all animals, is driven by our "selfish genes", impelled to replicate themselves at any cost, it follows, at least for some, that any appearance of altruism or "virtue" is an illusion. Andrew Brown begins his book The Darwin Wars with an account of the suicide of George Price, mathematician and biologist, who was putatively driven mad by his work, extending that of W.D. Hamilton, in which he demonstrates by mathematical logic that we can be generous towards others only to the extent that they share our genes and can therefore be expected to perpetuate them. Dawkins indeed sometimes denies that his thesis of the "selfish gene" implies that we are doomed always to be selfish – we can, he contends, use our reason to oppose our genes and behave virtuously.

Yet at other times Dawkins appears to endorse the views of Edward Wilson and the socio-biologists when they maintain that our behaviour is determined by our evolution as creatures in a desperate competition to survive. Moreover, since his version of evolutionary theory allows for no mechanism whereby genuine virtue, or altruism, can evolve we are left in the dark as to where this power to defy the dictates of our genes can come from. In any case, Dawkins notoriously claims that Darwinian evolution leaves no room for any concept of a creator God, let alone a good one.

There are other ways than that of Wilson, Price and Dawkins to draw conclusions about human nature and destiny from Darwinian theory. Notoriously, the social Darwinism popularised by Herbert Spencer led to support for eugenics and eventually to Nazi notions about a master race. Lynn Margulis, by contrast, has emphasized the place of co-operation rather than competition in nature, attacking those who "wallow in their zoological, capitalistic, competitive, cost-benefit, interpretation of Darwin – having mistaken him." Another more benign interpretation is associated with the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, who saw the Universe moving inexorably towards an "Omega Point" of ultimate complexity and consciousness, a view compatible with a Christian and Catholic sense of an all-determining, benevolent God, acting through evolution.

By contrast, many working scientists, of whom Gould is representative, see evolution as in itself value-free, and "progress" an illusion imposed on the facts by the egoism of humankind. Gould uses a sage quotation from Mark Twain to illustrate the folly of a teleological interpretation of Darwinism (Twain’s figures, as Gould points out, are based on Lord Kelvin’s estimates, and all wrong):

"Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare a world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age, and anybody would perceive that the skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno."

Creationists, or proponents of "intelligent design", cannot accept that a universe as complex as ours could develop by means of random mutation. They do not necessarily begin from a religious position: Fred Hoyle, author of Evolution from space: a theory of cosmic creationism (1984), was an atheist, although his atheism was shaken by the conclusions to which his science led him. A more recent intelligent design advocate is Michael Behe, who, in Darwin’s black box, undertakes to demonstrate that at the molecular level there is an "irreducible complexity" in life forms which cannot have emerged accidentally. Fellow scientists, notably Richard Dawkins, have rejected Behe’s arguments, and Dawkins has written a whole book, Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) to confront the notion that what looks like design in nature actually implies an intelligent designer.

Dawkins is inclined to write as if any kind of non-rational belief is deeply threatening to science and to truth. Gould, despite his having had to defend Darwinian orthodoxy against those who want "creation science" to be taught in schools, is much more indulgent towards the creationists, as he is to religion in general. His Rocks of Ages (Cape, 2001), makes a plea for mutual non-interference on the part of science and religion: each has its own magisterium, its own area of competence, and neither should presume to comment on the other’s findings.
The truth, however, is that the magisteria do overlap: Darwinism does have implications for religion in general and for Christianity in particular, even if the nature of those implications is highly debatable. And the persistence of religious faith does challenge the atheistic certainties of a Dawkins, as the fervour with which he defends his brand of rationalism testifies.

The emotional heat which evolutionary theory continues to generate suggests that far from being of merely "academic" interest, it challenges or confirms attitudes cherished at a gut level. Inferences from Darwin’s theory may be widely divergent and open to challenge from within the Darwinist fold itself, but people who take their science and their religion seriously need to work out what the implications are for them. Is it, for instance, possible to be a good Darwinist and believe that there is "that of God" in everyone; that we are most fully ourselves, we "deal out that being indoors each one dwells", to the extent that we live loving and selfless lives? Can we believe that it is in some sense "natural" to us to seek to be like Christ? Or is this an instance of groundless "faith", to be jettisoned as we grow in rationality? Perhaps we can only say, with Edmund in King Lear, "Some good I mean to do despite of mine own nature."

Evolution - some thoughts

Anna Sutcliffe

1. The idea of an 'art instinct'

"Why is a certain type of landscape picture so popular? Studies have shown that landscapes with a bit of water, open spaces in the middle distance, some low-branching trees and other greenery, and an animal or two, beat all-comers in the popularity stakes. Such scenes decorate calendars and greeting cards the world over. Why? My own reply would probably start with a variation of the Kingsley Amis Principle of Aesthetic Preference: nice things are nicer than nasty ones. But a stock Darwinian response returns to mankind's prehistory in the African savannah, the habitat that meat-eating hominids evolved for."
So writes Roger Kimball, in his review of Denis Dutton's book 'The Art Instinct: Beauty, pleasure and human evolution' (TLS March 20 2009). The author ventures the possibility that art - by which he seems to mean visual art, may have afforded evolutionary advantage. The reviewer seems sceptical. After all, the term and concept - art - is very recent, not much earlier than the seventeenth century. The point at which a maker, say a practical potter or blanket weaver became a makere, the Anglo-Saxon word for a poet, is probably indiscernable. (I use the word to mean a maker of images in self-sufficient artefacts - de facto) How exactly does a person enjoying the possibility of doing checks and stripes according to the basic principles of weaving and whatever the practical or business imperatives, come to think "To hell with blankets, this is damned interesting"?

People who do not normally occupy themselves with making may under-estimate the physical joys, including those of rhythm which may be more obvious in the cases of dance and music. But, in tribal societies the making of artefacts may be too closely bound up with dance and music to be thought of as discrete - as in the case of masks, or ritual costumes that incorporate sound-making elements. Ritual performance has probably - often - much to do with sacred space, and visual art is about deployment of space. Such practices tend to induce a sense of identity in participants, and may indeed have had survival value.

Then, think of such phenomena as native Australian 'art'. I am no scholar here, but I believe these forms have much to do with comprehension and use of space in a culture without strong use of the built environment, with a need to, in a way 'reduce' the natural space in, as you might say, a culinary sense, not in the sense of a depletion.

All this is, I suppose, truistic. We should not forget that the elevation of tribal masks to the status of art owed much to Braque and Picasso. But - our author seems to be considering such renaissance-derived art as European landscape painting as a distinct genre. Such a thing entered European culture at any rate long after Homo Sapiens had evolved as we know it. I find the thesis puzzling - I must read the book!

I quite see how a certain formula with its best foot forward may provide refreshment and nourishment, psychologically. Though it should be noted that few may be equipped by education to tell a 'great painting' from one less great, given that the ingredients of the formula are present, presenting an organised 'reduction' (in my sense) of a kind of landscape. Thence, of course, works of art, being both cultural tropes and purveyors of idiosyncrasy, beam back - in our perception - upon the 'real' world, so educating, or conditioning our sense of landscape. In walking through parts of Leeds on a night one may say "Look! an Atkinson Grimshaw!" Such 'reductions' seem to make the world comprehensible and manageable - however stylised and economical, we feel that the world may be our home, despite the selection of beauties that we seldom see in reality. What we do see is tutored both by enhancing perception, and - in another sense, reducing possibilities even as a sense of 'otherness' may be conveyed.

Maybe all this is indeed a growing point of a coping technique that has been going on since the beginning. How much kinetic suggestion there may be, given our biological career - (do some muscles twitch at the sight of a high frowning mountain depicted?) I don't know. I suppose all or most works contain hints in the form of symbols, 'hooks' for the observer - castles, cottages, feral beasts, boats, many with mythologies as mere excuses.

Though highly determined, it may be interesting to note that these things come from late-ish, complex societies which, whilst enabling the formula permit much in the way of idiosyncrasy. Note, also, that, however innovatory some of the later (and still popular) forms may be (Turner, for instance), the works from which the formula derives were made for polite, often aristocratic, society - one touch of a certain formula, perhaps, makes the classes kin? Claude Lorrain worked for classically educated patrons, Monet was a revolutionary. Today, both appeal to people of serious education, or more or less none. If you enjoy Stubbs, you may differ less than might be thought from the Lascaux painters - but that may be simplistic.

All children have the physical impulse to draw, if they can. Most people in our society do not draw as adults. But maybe the contemplation of (putative) works of art does act as a release for many, of a physical sort. My emphasis here on the physical, the kinetic, may be due to a suspicion that scholars may underestimate such impulses though those may take us farther back in our history.

Bear in mind that few works of art have been undetermined by people in power. Romantic notions of how art got done may mislead. (Can anyone tell me of a form of art done by the 'top people' other than Chinese Mandarin landscape painting?) Some powerful people have been great enablers - in some cases despite themselves.

2. The idea of 'The City of God' - Can this mean anything to a non-realist religious person?

Maybe The City of God is - those things which we consider as good which may go - have gone - against evolutionary advantage? Certain kinds of altruism such as the use of time, energy and resources to help the old, the ill and the handicapped, may have impeded, one supposes - or are those part of an altruism that, by and large, does have evolutionary advantage?

In our society, as presumably, in most others past and present, it is difficult to love people, and one notes, almost daily, how the disadvantaged, though cared for, mostly, are elected as not really of us, as in: "Granny gets very naughty in the care home" or "Does she take sugar?". I do fear that these strategies go back a very long way.

3. Patriarchy an evolutionary advantage?

I do suspect that patriarchy had evolutionary advantage. Maybe there are groups today for which there is no other hope of stability. All the same I have hoped for societies in which gender relations might be negotiated in something like freedom. That would be a portion of The City of God, but I fear the likely thing will be a victory for the Taliban and further persecution of women.