When my advisor Dick Lewontin’s book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, appeared in 1974, one reviewer criticized him for equivocating about the significance of genetic variation. In his text, Lewontin seemed to vacillate endlessly between the “neutral theory,” which saw variation at the DNA level as of no selective consequence to the organism, and the “selection theory,” which claimed the opposite. The reviewer noted that Lewontin did not so much sit on the fence as pirouette on it.
A similar feat of posterior rotation has been performed by Robert Wright, who has specialized in trying to harmonize two contradictory positions: materialistic evolution and divine, teleological purpose. In his recent book The Evolution of God, which I’ve reviewed here, Wright makes the case that while evolution and natural selection may have indeed molded human behavior, behind it all we see “scientific evidence” of a divine purpose. This evidence is, according to Wright, the fact that the theologies of Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have over centuries become more inclusive, more tolerant of other faiths. Wright claims that the inclusiveness results from increasing interactions between human societies, so that each perceives a “nonzero-sum” relationship with others and decides to go along to get along. And so theology changes over time (that’s what Wright means by the “evolution of God”) ultimately promoting greater morality. I guess this much is plausible, although, as I noted in my review, there are other plausible theories that can explain the growing morality of our species.
What took Wright over the top was his claim that driving the increase in morality was a transcendent “purpose” — some unspecified but apparently divine force pulling societies towards ever-increasing goodness. And so believers can find “facts on the ground” that support the existence of a higher being. Wright did admit in his book that he “wasn’t qualified” to pass judgment on whether God existed, but he surely gave his readers plenty of “scientific evidence” for it. And indeed, that’s how many reviewers perceived The Evolution of God: as a welcome guide to how religious people can buttress their faith against the attacks of the “new atheists.”
My critique of Wright’s book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific), and above all on the supposed “empirical evidence” for divine guidance of human biological and moral evolution. Wright has complained about some of my critiques of his theology, and I will post a response here soon.
Wright’s dizzy pirouetting is on display in a long and messy op-ed piece he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times: “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.” It’s basically a précis of his book, and offers what I call the “Certs Gambit.” (If you’re of a certain age you’ll remember the television commercials for Certs mints, in which two people argue about whether the product was a breath mint or a candy mint, with the argument finally ended by a voice from above booming, “STOP! You’re both right.”) Wright’s Certs Gambit in the Times involves reconciling atheistic evolutionary biology with religious belief, showing how both can find support from understanding how natural selection molded human morality. It is a return to eighteenth-century deism: God made the universe and then went permanently to lunch, certain (because he built it into the process) that natural selection would eventually cough up his favorite species.
Like Jesus, Wright sees himself as a harbinger of universal harmony:
I bring good news! These two warring groups [atheists and religious believers] have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.
[Note the insertion of the annoying word “militant.” I guess nonmilitant atheists properly appreciate the creativity of selection.]
Here’s his solution: harmony (and maybe a Templeton Prize for Wright) will arrive when religious people give up the idea of God’s constant intervention in evolution and the affairs of the world, and when atheists accept that science is compatible with a transcendent purpose. The harmony devolves from accepting the “creative power” of natural selection.
If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.
[Note the use of the loaded words "accept that" here, words Wright uses throughout his piece. All of his pirouetting is concentrated in that phrase. "Believe that" would be epistemically neutral; but "accept that" means acquiescence to a true state of affairs.]
So where’s the evidence for a higher purpose in evolution? As in The Evolution of God, Wright sees “purpose” in the development of increasing morality in human affairs – indeed, in the fact that we have a moral sense in the first place. To many, like C. S. Lewis, it’s hard to see how natural selection could yield morality:
The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — “out there,” you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.
But Wright brings good news! Atheists and the faithful are both right! Evolution is both a God-driven and a materialistic process — two processes in one! Yes, as Wright admits, there do exist purely secular explanations of morality: evolutionary hypotheses involving reciprocal altruism as well as non-evolutionary theories based on people’s ability to recognize and build a harmonious society. But Wright’s kicker is that God still lurks beneath the surface:
. . .But they may not have to stray quite as far from that scenario as they fear. Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.
The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).
[Note again the words "accept that" instead of the epistemically neutral "believe that." Here Wright is again smuggling God into the picture!]
This goes along with Wright’s postulate in The Evolution of God that natural selection itself might have been devised by the “transcendent force” (let’s stop pussyfooting around and just call it “God”). But of course such a view is NOT consistent with scientific materialism, for there is not the slightest evidence that natural selection is anything other than the ineluctable consequence of genes competing with each another for representation in future generations. That the whole process might have been designed by God to achieve certain ends is a bullet that I, for one, am not prepared to bite. Certainly evolution is consistent with a deistic view that God made the Big Bang and then took his hands off the universe, letting everything unfold naturally and materially. But that’s not quite the same as asserting, as Wright has done repeatedly, that God designed natural selection as a way to build moral beings. The latter supposes that evolution has somehow been directed.
To show that natural selection is indeed a teleological process designed by God, Wright resorts to the “convergence arguments” familiar from the writings of Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris. These assert that built into the evolutionary process was the consequence that selection would produce rational, moral beings capable of apprehending and worshiping their creator — in other words, us. The argument rests on “evolutionary convergence”: the observation that natural selection has sometimes produced similar results in completely independent lineages (a classic example is the physical eye, which has evolved several dozen times).
Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects — in spiritually relevant respects, you might say — was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible.
For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species — not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest — but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity.
I have criticized elsewhere the assertion that the evolution of a fully moral, religious “humanoid” species was inevitable. All we can say is that such a species did evolve — but only once, so that convergence arguments are completely irrelevant. It’s just as plausible — indeed, I think more plausible — to argue that such beings were not inevitable consequences of evolution, and might very well have failed to appear were the tape of evolution to be rewound and replayed.
Here’s why Wright sees morality as inevitable:
And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.
Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?
But the truly scientific answer to Wright’s question is “we don’t know how unlikely it is.” Yes, we see the rudiments of morality in other species, but only one species went all the way to developing an explicit moral code. We cannot assume that just because we see rudiments of some trait in some species, its full evolution was inevitable. That’s like saying that evolution must produce fully volant fish because flying fish have already gone part of the way by evolving the ability to glide. It doesn’t take an intellectual giant to see that just because something evolves, its appearance need not have been inevitable were life to begin again.
Wright also claims that repeated evolution of “moral behaviors” is evidence for the preexistence of moral rules – i.e., the Transcendent Purpose formerly known as “God.”
If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them?
His implicit answer is “yes,” but it’s Wright’s intellectual style to make his points in the form of questions whose answer is rather obvious. In that way he can claim that he’s on the side of both atheists and the faithful without having to take a stand himself. This is the same thing he’s doing by using the weasel-word “accept” rather than “believe”.
I’m not convinced that such convergence of altruism says anything about its “out there” existence. Instead, it is evidence only for the following proposition:
If a species evolves to be social, and individuals interact repeatedly with one another, natural selection may (but need not) mold individual behavior in a way that leads to reciprocal altruism.
Although Wright cites Steve Pinker as accepting the possibility of pre-existing moral rules, I think Pinker probably meant something closer to the proposition I constructed above. Altruism isn’t really a pre-existing “thing” out there, it’s a solution that selection can arrive at if 1) the conditions of sociality and repeated interactions among individuals are of the right type, and 2) the relevant genetic variation exists. Without that, altruism can’t evolve.
Indeed, you can make another proposition about “immoral rules” as well:
If it is to the reproductive advantage of individuals of a species to kill the young of other individuals, or to engage in other behaviors that violate what humans see as morality, then “immoral” behaviors like infanticide can evolve.
Indeed this is exactly what happened in lions and langur monkeys. (Some evolutionary psychologists have claimed that these behaviors are “rudiments” of an immorality that we find in humans: the murder of step-offspring by their adoptive parents, but I won’t address that here.) Does this mean that infanticide is an immoral rule floating out there in space? The point is that in some cases natural selection produces behaviors that we see as “moral”, but in other cases behaviors we find “immoral.” It all depends on the circumstances. This is not evidence for pre-existing “rules”, but simply for the multifarious ways that natural selection can mold the behavior of social species.
And here’s a third proposition:
If members of a species gain a reproductive advantage by helping members of a second, unrelated species, then we could see the evolution of two species helping each other.
This, of course, is why we have mutualisms between organisms like algae and fungi (lichens), between leafcutter ants and fungi, and between termites and their gut symbionts. These mutualisms could be considered interspecific “moral” behaviors, since they merely extend the principle of “selfish altruism” (aka the “golden rule”) towards members of a different species.
Natural selection can create all kinds of behaviors, including those that humans would find immoral were they to occur in our culture. All that matters is that the behavior gives individuals a reproductive advantage and the right kinds of mutations are around. Indeed, humans may well have evolved some immoral behaviors, such as the propensity to cheat when you can escape detection.
At any rate, the evolution of altruistic behaviors in some animals does not count as evidence that that somehow morality pre-dated those behaviors. How could it? It’s like saying that the “goal” of detecting vibrations in fluid somehow pre-dated the evolution of hearing and lateral lines. Would we have been able to predict that hearing would some day evolve had we been present at the formation of the first primordial replicator 3.4 billion years ago? I don’t think so. The “prediction” is made retroactively! As in the theological and biological changes described in The Evolution of God, Wright has a tendency to see whatever has happened as inevitable.
Thus, the “good news,” as Wright calls it, is merely an attempt to make a theological virtue of empirical necessities, which, of course, is the basis for all apologetics.
. . . natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them? That would be good news for any believers who want to preserve as much of the spirit of C. S. Lewis as Darwinism permits.
But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.
Of course these godly speculations are compatible with the “standard scientific theory of human creation”! This is just the standard idea that God designed evolution to achieve a certain aim — in this case, morality. What is new here? Nothing; it’s the same 200-year-old deism — a deism that didn’t harmonize science and religion for most people then, and won’t now. Many religious people like to see their god as continually acting in the world rather than having gone to lunch after the Big Bang. I don’t, therefore, see devout Muslims, fundamentalist Protestants, or Orthodox Jews accepting these speculations and ending their conflicts with science.
And what are we atheists to do? Wright says we must admit the possibility of a Higher Purpose:
But believers aren’t the only ones who could use some adapting. If there is to be peace between religion and science, some of the more strident atheists will need to make their own concessions to logic.
They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.
[Note the word "grant," which, like the word "accept", presupposes a pre-existing truth that we must acknowledge.]
And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained in it.
Engrained in it? Sorry, Mr. Wright; I’m not willing to acknowledge that any god had a hand in designing the process of natural selection. There’s just no evidence for that. Natural selection is simply what happens when replicators compete for representation in the next generation. Yes, it’s formally possible that God brought the whole complicated process into being, but why complicate matters by positing an unnecessary layer of divinity atop a process that works fine on its own?
And I’m even less willing to grant that “natural selection’s intrinsic creative power” adds any plausibility to this “remotely creative god” (note how Wright sneaks “god” in there!). If we’re going to quote Darwin on the role of divinity in natural selection, here’s a place where he definitely abjures celestial intervention or any “principle of improvement”:
I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition “of new powers and attributes and forces,” or of any “principle of improvement” except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.
Finally, Wright tries to give believers solace by saying that organisms do have a purpose: to spread their DNA.
And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the “designer” — the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it — there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is “as real as purpose could ever be.”
So in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.
As I noted in my New Republic review, this is truly creationism — or intelligent design — for liberals. This would all sound very different if Wright used the word “function” instead of “purpose”. “Purpose” sounds, well, so . . . intentional! And of course that is what Wright want the reader to think. In my dictionary, the definition of “purpose” is “the reason why something is done or created or for which something exists.” Again, Wright is using words to sneak God into his argument. This is the same tactic used by Kenneth Miller when he lectures about how natural selection produces “design” instead of saying it produces apparent design.
But Wright is asking a lot of the faithful here. I doubt that many believers will be satisfied in learning that their “purpose” is to spread their genes. For that is the “purpose” of every species, be it fungus, gnat, or tortoise. A theology based on propagation of DNA leaves nothing special for humanity. How many believers will find comfort in that?
Wright is a cagey man. He ends his op-ed piece with some furious pirouetting, as he did in the final chapter of The Evolution of God. Note how, in the following passage, he simultaneously claims that God is not necessary but at the same time invokes a “higher-order creative process.”
There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.
The second moral of the story is that, even if evolution does have a “purpose,” imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.
I’m not sure what Wright is trying to say here, unless he’s invoking a kind of anthropic principle: in some universes natural selection gave rise to beings who, through evolved rationality, evolved altruism, or both, became moral. And we live in such a universe. (But of course it is conceivable to have a universe containing smart, rational beings that lack sophisticated moral codes.) But this scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on,” what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As Many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.
In his peroration, Wright claims (somewhat cynically, I think) that even if there’s no god, believers can nevertheless shoehorn one into his scenario:
Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.
Such is Wright’s intellectual style. Without ever admitting what he himself believes, Wright weaves a narrative in which he sees both atheists and the faithful attaining philosophical harmony. But that won’t do. This is not a “grand bargain over evolution,” but a Faustian bargain for both scientists and the faithful. The price of Wright’s bargain is that both scientists and believers must abjure critical elements of their craft and belief. The faithful must abandon most of the trappings of conventional religion: the belief in a divine and providential power who interacts with the world and listens to prayers, and belief in an afterlife and divinely ordained prophets and scriptures. Wright’s church is Our Lady of the NonZero Sum, the Power That Drives Morality. Gone are Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses, replaced by the “awe-inspiring story” that through our Purpose of Spreading Genes, an undefined transcendent source has pulled us all towards the good.
And we scientists – well, we must give up our crazy notion – and all the supporting evidence — that evolution is a blind, contingent, materialistic process that is not externally directed toward certain goals. We must “accept” the idea that there is “scientific evidence” for a higher purpose/higher order/transcendent reality. We must accept the idea that natural selection and evolution give real evidence for a “remotely creative god.”
This is nonsense. Wright’s utopian solution fails for the same reason that accommodationism always fails: any genuine harmony between science and faith requires that the faithful give up essential elements of their supernatural beliefs, and that scientists accept some elements of the supernatural. The Certs Gambit for science and faith may sound warm and fuzzy in the liberal columns of the New York Times, but in practice it doesn’t work. Still, it may just earn Wright a Templeton Prize.