Review: Conor Cunningham, “Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong”

Title: Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong
Author: Conor Cunningham
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Genre: Religion/Science
Year: 2011
Pages: 580
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-8028-4838-3
Price: $35

Conor Cunningham wants to “move beyond the silly impasse brought about by fundamentalism (whether secular or religious)” in regards to the legacy of Charles Darwin (xi). Many atheists and plenty of Christians “tend to sing from the same hymn sheet” on this point: that “Darwinian evolution threatens to annihilate religion at its very root” (xvi). Cunningham disagrees. While Daniel Dennett has called organic evolution a “dangerous idea,” Cunningham calls it a “pious idea.” To be more precise, Cunningham outlines his understanding of evolution as promulgated by “ultra-Darwinists,” which he admits is quite dangerous—not merely to religion, but to the scientific method generally as well. He argues that religious fundamentalists and fundamentalist atheists alike misconstrue what organic evolution entails, and he outlines the boundaries of their misconstrual. Finally, he offers a different way to conceive of evolution from a Christian perspective, that evolution itself can help us understand God and ourselves. In this review I’ll briefly explain Cunningham’s main points, explain why I think he could have done a better job, and offer a few suggestions for further reading. 

Cunningham’s Basic Outline:

Cunningham’s opening chapter is a fun exercise in intellectual history. He describes some precursors to Darwin to present a basic overview of the intellectual pool Darwin was swimming in when he developed his theory of evolution. He boils Darwin’s notion of evolution down to three main elements: variation, reproduction, and heritability (20). The next three chapters cover the main debates still raging within Darwinism: the idea that natural selection works at many levels (not simply at the gene, organism, or group level); the question of whether natural selection is all-powerful or whether it is one among multiple mechanisms shaping the material world as we know it; and whether evolution involves direction or is purely random. Throughout these chapters he discusses the danger of believing in the so-called “God of the gaps,” by pointing to yet-to-be-solved puzzles of science as the places where God can be detected. Such gaps change; this is not a firm foundation, he says.

Chapter 5 extends the discussion to wider applications of Darwin’s theory to fields like eugenics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. Here he takes a long pause to explain one of his most important points: the sketchy epistemology which an ultra-Darwinist account or evolution leaves us with. In a nutshell, if we’re merely material evolved creatures and our cognitive abilities are evolved too, then survival, not “truth,” would be the reigning principle in our thought. We could easily experience “true lies,” (215, 225).

Chapter 6 takes a glance at the “science versus religion” myth while dissecting naturalism, or the belief that all truth can be explained through analysis of and on the terms of the “material” world. Whereas methodological naturalism simply brackets the question on undetectable entities (i.e., provides explanations without resorting to God as part of the story), ontological naturalism goes a step further. Even philosophy must move aside: science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be” (266). Cunningham sees certain proponents of “Intelligent Design” operating under that same assumption—an assumption which he sees as inimical to religious faith.

Cunningham’s Rhetorical Approach:

Evaluating the rhetorical success of a book is one of the most subjective things a book reviewer can do. But the ways in which an argument is made often matter just as much, if not more, than the actual points themselves. The Lord may “looketh upon the heart,” but we’re often checking the outward appearance. How we say stuff can impact how people receive what we say. Cunningham is well aware of rhetorical issues, as when he praises the effectiveness of Voltaire’s satirical approach to Leibniz, (90-91). His own approach is often snappy and funny, as with his epigram, “Yabba dabba doo! –Fred Flintstone,” at the beginning of chapter five (179), which must refer to the way he describes Richard Dawkins’s understanding of human nature as being “Neanderthal” (236). While I chuckled about this, I also recalled his stated desire from his introduction to “move beyond the silly impasse” (xi). His snappiness is fun, but not very friendly.

Though Cunningham prizes seeking consensus (in fact, he corresponded with many self-proclaimed atheist natural scientists in the making of his book), he enters the fray with some barbs and jabs which will likely contribute more to war than discussion. In his introduction he points out that one logical end of ultra-Darwinism would be Holocaust denial (xvi), and while I think, on logical grounds he ends up sustaining this contention (220, 268), he could have named any human event there, so this seems like an unfair scare tactic.

In other words, I really liked what Cunningham was trying to do, but I didn’t particularly like how he tried to do it. Not only rhetorically, but organizationally. It seemed quite sloppy. Throughout this medley on evolution, science, and Christianity, Cunningham slips back and forth between intellectual history, philosophy, theology, advocacy, and criticism—all without placing enough signposts along the road for me and without much balance. His sometimes-funny-or-lyrical, always-verbose points can be found more concisely stated by other authors. (For instance, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article called “Religion and Science” which covers most of the important ground in much less space.) Interspersed throughout the book are discussions of all current hot topics in discussions about science and religion (memes, selfish genes, consciousness, emergence, brain science, etc.) but they appear at random. Cunningham’s final chapter is entirely an exercise of academic Christian theology, which I thought was interesting (he ties in ideas like Creation, the Eucharist and transubstantiation, forgiveness, atonement, etc.), but it somehow felt tacked on. Or perhaps the book was tacked on to it? Or I’m not quick enough to fill in the blanks.

Maybe this book is sort of like geekfan-type stuff—like the extended, live version recording of a band’s entire repertoire which die-hard fans must have, but that average listeners won’t fancy. For LDS readers in particular, Cunningham’s allegiance to the Nicene creed and creation ex nihilo won’t seem to suffice in reconciling Darwin with Christianity. Interestingly, LDS biologist, scholar, awesome-fiction writer Steven Peck has explored many of the same issues Cunningham discusses. At the end of this post I recommend a few of his pieces, alongside Cunningham’s book, which, for all its foibles, covers some fascinating ground. If you’re into that kind of stuff then you’ll enjoy Cunningham’s book. If you’re looking for an even-handed overview of the evolution/creationism debate, this book isn’t the droid you’re looking for. If you’re already part of the ongoing discussions, or if you feel like just jumping right in, Cunningham has a lot of great stuff in Darwin’s Pious Idea.

P.S.

Cunningham’s BBC documentary “Did Darwin Kill God” can be found here, along with some other interesting discussions of the book.

_______________________

Steven Peck, “Randomness, contingency, and faith: Is there a science of subjectivity?” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. Vol. 38 (2003): 5-24.

Steven Peck, “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit?,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought  Vol. 38 (2005): 36-64, .pdf available here.

Steven Peck, Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here.

Comments

  1. Nice review, Blair. I agree that Cunningham’s work here is compelling and important, but also slightly mis-executed. Definitely worth reading, but should definitely also be supplemented with Steve’s pieces you linked.

  2. Brad, how’d you come across the book, and even though we agree that it was mis-executed, what did you enjoy most about it?

  3. Thanks for this review Blair. And for the nods! I think you hit Cunningham right on the mark. A very well done review. Interestingly, I am leading a BYU faculty seminar on this book with about thirty-five professors from all over campus attending, about half from humanities and half from science, which has led to some very interesting and fruitful discussions. One thing that is apparent is that today Darwinism must be engaged with no matter what discipline you are in. It is the reigning paradigm for all biology and many other disciplines. And most important it is nothing for us to fear any more than the heliocentric solar-system was a threat to faith back in the day.

    As you point out, this book has much to offer on how avoid the current trends embracing harmful fundamentalisms–whether of a religious or an atheist mein. I love that he takes down both the militent atheists and the Intelligent Design Creationists and explains how they both miss the story. And both embrace something that is neither science or religion, or rather are bad science and bad religion. There is much to gain from more dialogue with others of faith. This summer I gave a talk at conference in Poland on exploring life in light of theology, philosophy and science. I met Cunningham and had a chance to explore with him and others the ways people are dealing with integrating the implications of Darwinism to faith. It’s an exciting time! There is some good thinking going on and this book is a great place to start exploring it.

  4. I read it because Steve told me too, and I rather liked it. I’m not sure I agree with your criticisms, in part because it’s meant to be sort of sprawling and fun, which it is. I don’t see it as the definitive philosophical text on the subject, but a fun, creative attempt to respond to fundamentalisms. The science is mostly fine if sometimes slightly misinterpreted, but it is at a level consonant with the NA stuff.

  5. Sam, re: sprawling and fun. Evaluating the rhetorical success of a book is one of the most subjective things a book reviewer can do, so I knew there was some danger there. Smarter folks than me will get more out of his approach, and while I really enjoyed the book I still read it as sort of “geekfan-type stuff—like the extended, live version recording of a band’s entire repertoire which die-hard fans must have, but that average listeners won’t fancy.”

    SteveP: I’ve known people who left the Church largely due to intellectual concerns regarding evolution and what they thought was the official position of the Church on things like the age of the earth, etc. So I really appreciate what you’ve done so far and I hope to see more and more.

  6. Yes, I’ve seen many friends and young people leave as well thinking under the guidance of those who claim the two are incompatible that they must chose between science or religion.

  7. We watch the video at school. Alas, most of my students can’t get beyond the fact that CC calls God “Gorrd”.

  8. he talk funny

  9. Good Review, it reminds me that I need to ask someone to do a “Steven Peck’s Theistic Evolution For Dummies” Post.

  10. I finally finished reading the 2 links to Steven Peck. Pretty cool stuff. As much as I love this topic I still feel like such a novice. I come away having read it thinking I understood some of it but then when I try and explain a portion of it to my wife I end up sounding like a bumbling idiot.

    One other thing I just noticed that his main website got hacked: http://sciencebysteve.net/
    Anyone have an email address for him might want to alert him to that fact.

  11. Thanks for alerting us to another interesting book on this topic, which is at the crux of reconciling religion with what is regarded as consensus reality by most folks.
    As a sidebar, I think the casual dismissal by many of us of Intelligent Design bears disturbing similarities to the way that many Christians dismiss Mormonism, by associating us with the antics of polygamists and not even bothering to read what we say so they understand it. ID points to at least three issues that ought to make an intelligent investgator suspect the handiwork of another intelligence. One is the Anthropic Coincidences that make our entire universe uncannily hospitable to intelligent life, but have no reason to be at those numbers

  12. A second one is the question of how the first complex living cell with genetic information came into being, an issue Darwin cannot address, and which no one has made any appreciable headway explaining in random naturalistic terms. The third is the difficulty of actually demonstrating a feasible step-wise Darwinian path for development of all sorts of complex biological mechanisms. I have frankly not seen much in the way of specific responses from the Darwinian side to respond to the specific challenges Michael Behe laid out. In particular, there is nothing in the literature I have seen which has successfully argued that his critique lacks validity as a test demonstrating the limited power of Darwin’s theory. In general physicists seem much more honest in admitting that their theories are subject to being questioned and they don’t know a vast amount about reality, while biologists seem.much more dogmatic that there is no gap between Darwinian evolution and reality and if you say the theory is not the complete answer to everything then you are a heretic and don’t deserve to be heard. That dogmatic defense if Darwinism seems to me to indicate a lack of faith, that the theory can withstand any test. I was always taught that science was not the dogmatic defense of any theory, but the willingness to question any merely human idea, even the ones we have assumed were true.

  13. There is no dishonor to Newton that his theories do not apply at the extremes of size and speed. There is no dishonor to Darwin if his theory explains many things but not all things. Just as we are open to new revelation, we should be open to new scientific ideas, including pointing out the limits of theories that work well in many contexts.

  14. I am curious as to what is out there in defense of ID, so I just did a google search (what else) to see what I could find and read 2 articles from this site which I thought were quite impressive:

    http://www.detectingdesign.com/

    http://www.detectingdesign.com/kennethmiller.html

  15. I’m not really drawn to ID myself. In fact, it seems to be like “negative theology” as “negative biology.” It doesn’t really tell us much, but it points to disagreements about how evolution really works, disagreements which regular old biologists are already familiar with. There are dogmatic Darwinists out there, Conor calls them “ultra-Darwinists,” but they actually end up sharing a few presuppositions with Intelligent Design folks, which he sees as unnecessary and perhaps even harmful to religious faith. I suggest reading this book for an interesting take on ID.

  16. Raymond,

    Your first two points aren’t really dealing directly with evolution.

    The third point does. You’d be surprised about how much research has gone into how complex biological mechanisms were formed. Biologists know a lot more about that stuff than Behe will give them credit for. For an example of his willful ignorance, see here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dover/day12pm.html.

    Behe argued that the immune system was too complex to evolve, and yet when shown over 50 scientific articles on the evolution of the immune system, he admitted he hadn’t read them. He didn’t actually do the work of finding out what current knowledge existed on the subject. Not exactly the most reliable source when it comes to evolution.

    I recommend you take a look at talkorigins for responses to much of Behe’s claims.

  17. It’s worse than negative theology. Negative theology is ultimately a claim about God’s ontological nature being impossible to understand. ID is a claim that we can understand evolution but that there’s irreducible complexity. (i.e. we can understand and there won’t be a path) The problem is that most of the examples given end up having fairly plausible paths for evolution. So it instead ends up as a kind of God of the gaps. (i.e. if we don’t understand something right now it is evident that it can’t work)

    Give me Anselm and negative theology over ID any day.

  18. “I have frankly not seen much in the way of specific responses from the Darwinian side to respond to the specific challenges Michael Behe laid out.”

    That must be from a lack of looking. All of Behe’s examples have been throughly and repeatedly dismissed. See the links in this article:

    http://sciencebysteve.net/?p=2131#more-2131

    All of them.

    Is ID a science? Then tell us where to start doing research? (as here:

    http://sciencebysteve.net/?p=2242)

    Recent advances in biogenisis are not explained yet but it is an active area of research. If you’ve hung your testimony on a god of the gaps argument (e.g., that if science hasn’t explained it (yet) God must have done it) are bad theology and science.

  19. The terminology “God of the gaps” is used by advocates of naturalism to diminish God as some kind of infestation in the House of Nature, like a mouse burrowing behind the drywall. It is a shorthand for expressing the assertion that human knowledge is on the verge of becoming complete and, by definition, making scientists collectively omniscient. It is an expression of faith that what the human collective conscious does not yet know is insignificant. Yet the real enterprise of science operates on the premise that every piece of hard won knowledge raises new questions for science to explore. Indeed, one of the principal criticisms of ID is that it cannot be science because it would allegedly stop the process of questioning. Yet the triumphalism of omni-science offers us the same bleak prospect.
    Joseph Smith affirmed that God is smarter than all of us. Most of all we are ignorant of the extent of our ignorance. To think that God is about to lose his claim on superior knowledge, the assumption that underlies the “Gap” terminology, is true arrogance. In just the last two decades, we have come to appreciate that 95% of the universe is made of matter and energy that is so unlike what we have known before that they can only be called Dark Energy and Dark Matter. God will yet reveal answers to questions we cannot even ask. To think God is fearfully hiding in the interstices of our present structure of knowledge is illogical and unscientific.

  20. As to the question of biogenesis, I am frankly not optimistic anyone will find a way for random chemicals to transition to a living cell without the application of intellugence. My training and experience are in math and computer software design. A cell is a self-replicating mechanism operated by a computer. The simplest programmung errors cause programs to crash. Creating any program requires intelligence, and creating one that is adaptive and highly tolerant of errors so it can run and elaborate on itself over a billion years is beyond human ability. There is no evidence that such intelligence resides in chemical processes. This is more remarkable than any computer devised by man but we think it was made by dumb molecules? What experiment has supported that hypothesis?

  21. The terminology “God of the gaps” is used by advocates of naturalism to diminish God as some kind of infestation in the House of Nature, like a mouse burrowing behind the drywall. It is a shorthand for expressing the assertion that human knowledge is on the verge of becoming complete and, by definition, making scientists collectively omniscient. It is an expression of faith that what the human collective conscious does not yet know is insignificant.

    Raymond, I understand the term to refer to efforts at pointing to questions science can’t answer in order to rhetorically position God as holder of ultimate mysteries. As gaps close…

    Indeed, one of the principal criticisms of ID is that it cannot be science because it would allegedly stop the process of questioning. Yet the triumphalism of omni-science offers us the same bleak prospect.

    Conor Cunningham makes a persuasive case that this fault is shared by ID approaches as well as “ultra-Darwinist” approaches in the book reviewed above.

    Most of all we are ignorant of the extent of our ignorance. To think that God is about to lose his claim on superior knowledge, the assumption that underlies the “Gap” terminology, is true arrogance.

    This isn’t what I understand to be the point of speaking of a “god of the gaps.”

    To think God is fearfully hiding in the interstices of our present structure of knowledge is illogical and unscientific.

    It seems like you think various scientists (who don’t believe God exists?) are responsible for depicting God as hiding in the gaps, but it is typically certain types of theists who point to the gaps in order to claim science can’t answer everything, and thus, we need God to fill an explanatory void. That is the sort of problem Steve and Conor are saying doesn’t ultimately work well if it stops exploration. In fact, this seems to be the implication you are making by pointing to things like dark matter and the puzzles of biogenesis. Those puzzles don’t require ID to point them out, nor does ID resolve them, or even provide a suggestion for how such puzzles can be solved, aside from saying “because God did it.” That’s the problem they are describing.

  22. The terminology “God of the gaps” is used by advocates of naturalism to diminish God as some kind of infestation in the House of Nature, like a mouse burrowing behind the drywall. It is a shorthand for expressing the assertion that human knowledge is on the verge of becoming complete and, by definition, making scientists collectively omniscient.

    I don’t think that’s accurate. I think it’s much more a burden of proof argument. The whole point of the scientist is that they don’t know everything but we shouldn’t assume prima facie that any area we are ignorant of will completely invalidate all the things it appears we do know. There’s good reason for this view – it’s nearly always true. It’s quite rare there is a massive foundational theory shift as say with QM or GR. And even there neither of those really undermined past knowledge – it just showed areas where they don’t hold.

    The raising of the “God of the gaps” is much less a positive argument by scientists, and nowhere near a claim to de facto omniscience. Rather it is simply saying that because science hasn’t established a reasonably supported theory for some area doesn’t mean that it can’t. The “God of the gaps” as raised by ID proponents and Creationists is ultimately a fallacious appeal to the argument of silence and it’s quite reasonable for scientists to point this out.

    When the areas where ID proponents have made “God of the gaps” arguments tend to be filled in by scientists with clear arguments (say the evolution of the eye) then there is even more reason to think that future “God of the gaps” arguments will also be so filled in. Put an other way, the evidence is pretty strong that ID arguments shouldn’t be trusted – which isn’t to say they might not one day come up with a good argument. Merely that the burden of proof is very much on their side.

  23. Indeed, one of the principal criticisms of ID is that it cannot be science because it would allegedly stop the process of questioning. Yet the triumphalism of omni-science offers us the same bleak prospect.

    I think it a fair criticism to say that the fundamentalist attackers of evolution and sadly the nearly fundamentalist like New Atheists who defend evolution have a lot in common. There is a cutting off of inquiry for both.

    Regarding ID as science that’s a bit trickier since the demarcation problem (what is or isn’t science) is typically taken as impossible to resolve. I think the best we can say is that science is a social endeavor and what scientists, as a community, take as science is science. Thus right now Superstring Theory is taken as science even though unarguably it has no more empirical claims than ID does. However looking at Superstring also shows that what once was taken as a science can fall out of favor. And string theory is very much starting to fall out of favor.

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