Shelving God? Implications of Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Joseph Reagle Jr. <>


The views you have acquired about Darwinism, evolution, and the struggle for existence won't explain to you the meaning of your life and won't give you guidance in your actions, and a life without an explanation of its meaning and importance, and without the unfailing guidance that stems from it is a pitiful existence. Think about it. I say it, probably on the eve of my death, because I love you. - Gould 1997, citing Tolstoy's last letter to his son and daughter, November 1, 1910.


Table of Contents

1 Abstract

2 Introduction

3 Materialistic Evolution

3.1 Evolution

3.2 Materialism

4 Intention and Consciousness

4.1 Intention

4.2 Consciousness

5 Finding meaning

6 References Cited


1 Abstract

What are the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution on man's search for meaning? In this paper I delineate a range of positions on a creation/evolution scale and identify those who still claim a limited role for a God with respect to our ultimate beginnings or our consciousness. While more palatable than most creationists, I critique these positions with respect to intention and consciousness from a material evolutionary perspective. I then review a number of attempts to reconcile the desire to find meaning in life with the modern ethos. I conclude by noting that Frankl's theory of logotherapy identifies a source of meaning in light of human suffering without recourse to supernatural claims.

2 Introduction

Religion is not within but beyond the limits of mere reason; its task is not to compete with reason, to be a source of speculative ideas, but to aid us where reason is of little aid. Its meaning must be understood in terms compatible with the sense of the ineffable ... To say that the mitzvot [commandments] have meaning is less accurate than to say that they lead us to wells of emergent meaning, to experiences which are full of hidden brilliance of the holy, suddenly blazing in our thoughts. - Heschel 1995, p. 351

It is often said that to understand the majesty of English literature one must be familiar with the Bible. For centuries it was the glue of Western culture: the inspiration and source of characters and metaphors for prose, poetry, songs, paintings, and sculpture. In the library of Western civilization one cannot understand the course of philosophy, law, governance, and history – or even science – in ignorance of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yet, since the Age of Enlightenment the placement of the Bible on library shelves has been contested. Its status as the only book, or least the primary book has changed; in the library in which I am now writing, it is but one of many holy books and commentaries in the 200s aisle.

Some Christians as well as proponents of other religions sharing the shelves would object to their respective texts' deprecation. The scope of action of these books has been severely restricted. Humankind has been turning away from religious explanations of our skies, environment, and even ourselves. For the many who still object, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution must be resisted.

The creation-evolution continuum (Scott 2000) is a spectrum of positions ranging from flat-earth literalists to those who accept most all of science. Below, I have grouped and paraphrased each position in terms of accumulating concessions made from a material evolution perspective in which no divine intervention in reality is accepted, as discussed further in the next section.

Young Earthers believe the earth is only a few thousand years old based on a literal interpretation of the Bible:

Special Creationists concede that the Earth is old but all forms of life were specially created by God:

Remnant-Creationists concede to most of science but look for places in the universe in which they can maintain an argument for God:

In contrast to those who are simply seeking meaning by reserving some role for the divine, I do not consider those fundamentalists who use arguments of intelligent design and theistic evolution as a “wedge” strategy for advancing Biblical literalism to be proper members of the Remnant-Creationists group; they properly belong in a preceding group but pretend to be otherwise. And while the above continuum is presented in light of the Christian tradition, it is relevant to other belief systems as well. For example, some Muslims resist evolution (e.g., Harun Yahya and the Science Research Foundation) while others are proud that their creation stories seemingly anticipate the Big Bang theory.

To address the question motivating this essay, finding meaning in life in light of the Darwinian “struggle for life,” I will focus on the latter position of the Remnant-Creationists around which much debate presently orbits. In particular, I will argue that the theistic evolution point of view is inappropriate in the material realm, shallow in the spiritual realm, and dangerous if conflated. But first, I wish to expand upon the implications of evolution on human intention and consciousness.


3 Materialistic Evolution

3.1 Evolution

Evolutionary theory doesn't exclude Purpose from Life, although it does remove the need for purposive design from a lot of the living realm ...., is there a universal purpose to life in general? ... science of any kind answers: Insufficient Information. That kind of answer you get elsewhere - from a personal commitment or religious belief in some revelation. - Wilkins 1997

Simply, evolution is descent with modification driven by three simple principles: variation, reproduction, and selection.

First, within a population of organisms there is variation between the members. Most variation is of no consequent, but some variations can be significant. A pigeon might have a particularly keen sense of honing. A finch might have a powerful beak. And a peacock might have particularly beautiful tail feathers. Second, as an organism reproduces, its genetic characteristics are likely to be found in its descendants.

Third, these characteristics might be advantageous, or disadvantageous, to its owner – particularly as environmental conditions change. Biologists studying finches on the Galapagos Islands showed that during one severe drought the ability to crack tougher nuts kept many of the subtlety larger birds alive; the subsequent generation had a greater proportion of large birds (Weiner 1994). And while Darwin himself failed to appreciate the minor variations among the Galapagos finches during his travels, he kept and bred pigeons and wrote of the amazing degree of variation under domestication. Consequently, he argued that the struggle for existence in natural selection yielded, “Preservation of favorable variations and rejection of injurious variations...” (Darwin 2001). Finally, since reproduction, not fitness alone – though they are often correlated – is the key principle, sexual selection has the ability to effect the characteristics found in a population of descendants.

The theory of evolution has an amazing generative power: those varied characteristics that are reproductively advantageous relative to a given environment (prey, predators, competitors, and mates) are more likely to appear in future generations.

Of course, the process of evolution is not necessarily coherent nor does it have a goal (Mayr 1998). For example, larger finches, when mature, have an advantage in eating more difficult nuts with a hard beak. But when young, with a soft beak, the large juvenile will need the most food of all and be at a disadvantage (Weiner 1994:85). This seeming incoherence is further demonstrated by the illnesses often found in “pure bred” domesticated animals and the feathers of male peacocks that can attract the attention of both peahens and predators. Neither happiness, contentment, nor purpose are necessary results of evolution: “All that we can do, is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destruction” (Darwin 1859:52). However, even absent evolutionary theory, would creationist supernatural claims still be appropriate?

3.2 Materialism

Now if you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to play. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith seriously as a way of getting to the truth, and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously). - Dennett 1995, p. 154

Materialistic evolution, the position from which I distinguished a continuum of creationist positions, looks only to the material world for explanations of natural phenomenon. Yet, "material" should not be misunderstood as a simplistic reduction to crude matter. The material world includes energy, chaos, patterns, people, and culture; what it does not include is the supernatural. By this I mean one is not satisfied by claims of intervention by forces that defy further explanation. While this is a difficult notion, it is perhaps best operationalized by the habit of replacing the posited supernatural entity with the "Easter Bunny." Any supernatural claims sufficiently generic to be possible is also sufficiently generic to be substituted with some other supernatural belief or character. John Wilkins (1997) explains that supernatural explanations break the causal chain; such explanations are essentially empty, as Darwin writes, “unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge” (Darwin 2001:153). And any claim specific enough to include material reality within its scope will fail to follow or otherwise be rationally compelling. As Hyman (1998) writes of the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel's attempts: “Connecting the experience of divine presence, understood as the ineffable, to an individual commandment, is not an easy task.” How can arguments for an Intelligent Designer be used to justify any particular doctrinal position among many?

To distinguish between supernatural and natural claims in explaining evolutionary complexity, Dennett (1995:75) offers the metaphors of skyhooks and cranes. A skyhook is a deus ex machina that is “unsupported and unsupportable;” whereas a crane facilitates the building process, including building a larger crane, and is predictable or at least explicable. Dennett argues that cranes are responsible for the accumulating complexity of life forms on this planet.

An implication of this materialistic position is support for an agnostic stance. Even absent a theory evolution, beliefs in supernatural intervention should be avoided in favor of simply saying we don't know, as “We can distinguish between our present ignorance and something that's in-principle not scientifically explicable...” (Wilkins 1997). To draw this point more clearly, Pennock distinguishes between naturalistic ontology (claims of what is) and methodology (ways of testing claims) and writes, “The methodological naturalist does not make a commitment directly to a picture of what exists in the world, but rather to a set of methods as a reliable way to find out about the world – typically the methods of the natural sciences, and perhaps extensions that are continuous with them – and indirectly to what those methods discover” (2001:84). When such a naturalistic method fails to yield answers, we must withhold judgment:

Like other people, scientists hold various religious beliefs about the origins of the universe, life, and the human mind (Grinnell 1992; Larson and Witham 1997). These beliefs are not "scientific," however, just because they are held by scientists. Rather, scientific judgments are withheld from areas beyond the realm of naturalistic, scientific investigation and inference (National Academy of Sciences 1998). Conversely, when it comes to unraveling scientific problems, most practicing scientist, regardless of the religious beliefs, refused to invoke the existence of unknown supernatural forces -- even in the absence of known naturalistic mechanisms. This suspended judgment is accompanied by the hope that human minds will eventually find the crack in the apparently impenetrable surface of the mystery. Such a crack will lead to new approaches to the problem and, eventually, to its solution. (Brauer and Brumbaugh 2001:325)

To fail to refrain from supernatural speculations leads to an impediment to material genuine progress a degradation to the character of spiritual practice. Yet, saying we “don't know” in face of the suffering is difficult; and simply “standing in affirmation of [nature's] magnificence” (Dennett 1995:520) – a common rhetorical flourish of materialists – might not mitigate fears of pain and death. I will return to this point in the last section.

4 Intention and Consciousness

Now, since much of the world we interact with on a day-to-day basis can be explained by science, the realms in which we find the Remnant-Creationists putting forth their arguments is in those domains in which science has yet to provide satisfactory answers, such as human consciousness, or that for which it will never be able to, such as the purpose and meaning of our lives.

4.1 Intention

Religion is an answer to man's ultimate questions. - Heschel 1995, p. 1

However, Dennett (1995) argues that the mind itself is as much a product of evolution as any other natural phenomenon. In fact, he faults linguists who seek to understand human language for failing to appreciate a fact that might aid their work: the mind was not created sui generis as a sort of puzzle, but is itself a product of evolution.

This is true not only for cognitive functions such as our reflexes, pattern recognition, or even social interaction, but intention itself. To make this case, Dennett provides a scenario of an autonomous robot that has been built to provide a "safe passage into the future" for its human payload. This robot is not a time machine, but a cryogenic freezer on legs. Because businesses fail and governments fall, it is best to build an intelligent robot capable of securing for itself energy and safety in an uncertain future. The future might be populated by other robots or creatures wishing to cooperate or compete. Consequently, it must be a remarkably sophisticated robot, capable of developing sub-goals, planning, and perhaps even falling astray from the strict dictates of the original intentionality of its charge as the millenia past. (Isaac Asimov wrote a science-fiction series around this point: a schism of robots uneasily permit a human to be harmed, their programmed primary prohibition, if it keeps humanity as a whole from harm, their self-derived “zeroth law.”)

Of course, humans are just this sort of organic robot: "Our intentionality is derived, after all, from the intentionality of our selfish genes" (Dennett 1995:425). We are survival machines that are here today because many of our traits are expressions of the genes that permitted our ancestors to live and have children. (While we might know people who do not have children, none of our ancestors ever – obviously – made this choice!)

Yet, because our own intention can be described as being derived from our genetic heritage, it does not mean we are limited by it. In fact, many religions acknowledged this in that they teach why, and how, one should transcend one's biological imperatives.

But what of consciousness? Is this something we all – presumably – have an immanent sense of (qualia) but never expect science to be able to explain? Given this, can we not credit this marvel to a God? We would not be the first to face such a temptation. When Alfred Wallace, Darwin's co-theorist, began to regress to “natural theology” and exempt consciousness from the scope of evolution, Darwin wrote to him, "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child" (Dennett 1995:67).

Yet, there is a difference between explaining something, and appreciating it. We can marvel at the universe, our consciousness, or the sometimes noble spirit of our fellow beings while still wanting to understand; yet understanding need not deprive us of our joy. To provide another example, consider a scenario that some might even find more cold than a universe without a God: one that is completely determined.

4.2 Consciousness

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes. The avenues for entry and departure are modified to suit local conditions, and strengthened by various artificial devices that enhance fidelity and prolixity of replication: native Chinese minds differ dramatically from native French minds, and literate minds differ from illiterate minds. What memes provide in return to the organisms in which they reside is an incalculable store of advantages - with some Trojan horses thrown in for good measure... - Dennett 1991, p. 24

In a universe, four and a half billion years ago, every atom's future is predictable given its present characteristics (state, position, speed, polarity, etc.). In this deterministic universe, on a planet at the fringe of a newer galaxy, in a “warm little pond” as Darwin alluded to, a molecule exhibits an interesting behavior: the presence of certain chemicals and sun light causes the molecule to duplicate itself. Hundreds of millions of years later, through evolutionary processes, an organism, a descendant of the original molecule, has developed locomotion in addition to chemical and photo-sensitivity. This ability is advantageous in replicating itself and its descendants come to dominate their environment.

The behavior of this organism is still predicated on underlying and deterministic physical laws: if it stops receiving photons, squiggle a bit (move) until it start receiving them again. Jump forward to within a couple of million years of today. Evolution has led to the development of a surprisingly intelligent organism with the capability to learn; stimulus/response is not the only predicate to behavior. Rather, memory and abstractions upon it regarding the likelihood of a stimulus are possible, as is analysis with respect to the possible consequences. This creature might think, "Eating shell fish is bad, it gives me a stomach ache." Or, “Having sex with my older brother's mate is bad, it makes him angry.”

Furthermore, this analysis comes to be applied to the very process of learning. When the creature repeats his performance with his younger brother's mate, he realizes he did not properly abstract to relations with any of his siblings' partners. In order to save his own offspring such trouble, he tries to communicate such rules to them. It is argued that such rules are memes, a notion introduced by Richard Dawkins (1989) in the Selfish Gene as evidence of another thing that might evolve given variation, reproduction, and selection. Memes often form a symbiotic relationship with their host and propagate given their ability to advantage the propagation of their host.

This simple scenario tells of the development of rationality from a deterministic universe through the lens of evolutionary (genetic and memetic) theory. This creature, humanity, has developed a facility which seems to conflict with the deterministic universe it lives in, that of consideration and consciousness. This facility clearly originates from the ability to learn, and to retrospectively apply that learning to the past as well as hypothetical future scenarios. It is this abstraction that leads most to believe we are conscious beings with free will.

Consciousness, free will, and conscience might be an abstraction: an emergent phenomena of a system which seems to be chaotic at our level of understanding, but could be determined never-the-less. Even given a deterministic world, the facility of consideration might develop. Yet we need not despair.

5 Finding meaning

Does that mean that religious texts are worthless as guides to ethics? Of course not, they are magnificent sources of insight into human nature, and into the possibilities of ethical codes. - Dennett 1995, p. 476

I hope I've presented a compelling argument that notions of intention and consciousness do not require supernatural intervention. Interestingly, Sigmund Freud posed this same argument in a novel form nearly a century ago. In The Future of an Illusion Freud (1989) posited that religious impulses emerged with self-consciousness itself. He argued that religion helps us brace ourselves from the suffering of our painful existence. And while suffering is key to my conclusion with respect to meaning, materialists such as Freud and Marx, both highly influenced by Darwin – Marx dedicated Capital to Darwin – perhaps did more harm than good with their prescriptions of psychoanalysis and communism.

In any case, contemporary religious writers have made significant steps in reconciling religion with materialist philosophy by recognizing two distinct realms. For Marcus Borg, this reconciliation is representative of his own transition between the states of naiveté (a superstitious child), critical (a skeptical adult), and post-critical naiveté (an open heart). (See Gillman (1998) for a discussion of a similar notion in Heschel's situational thinking, Marcel's secondary reflection. and Ricoeur's second or willed naivete.) As a post-critical scholar Borg (1997) distinguished between two conceptions of religion:

Supernatural Theism


the after life

this life

transcendent divinity

immanent awareness



preoccupation with salvation

liberation from self-preoccupation

righteous boundaries

inclusive compassion

supernatural being who is “out there”

a present sacred reality

In the particular context of contemporary Christianity, James Spong (1998) argued in the provocatively entitled Christianity Must Change or Die the notion of a supernatural and patriarchal God sitting in judgment of humans must be abandoned for a less superstitious and progressive conceptualization; Borg (2003) subsequently cast this as a transition between a new and old paradigm of Christianity.

Centuries ago, de Spinoza (1670) objected to the doctrinal character of formal religion as, “Degrading rational man to beast, completely inhibiting man's free judgment and his capacity to distinguish true from false, and apparently devised with the set purpose of utterly extinguishing the light of reason.” More recently, Karen Armstrong (2000:xvii) distinguished between logos (the rational, pragmatic, and scientific way of thought) and mythos (making sense of one's life) to argue that their conflation leads to fundamentalist faith “routed in deep fear and anxiety that could not be assuaged by purely rational argument .... Fundamentalists were trying to create a new way of being religious in an age that valued the logos of science above all else” (2000:178) . The result is that, “Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos, either by insisting that there dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into streamlined ideology” (2000:366).

On the other hand, mystical traditions have often succeeded in keeping these two realms distinct. Jackowski (2004:107) advocated a reformed Christianity and praised the mystical traditions of early Christians such as the Beguine: “The mystical tradition rises out of the Catholicism's darkest ages, like a pure divine light that not even the most errant Popes with their most evil inquisition could not extinguish” (2004:51). The implications of her arguments regarding Apostolic succession, infallibility and celibacy as structural reifications of power and property (e.g., orthodoxy, hierarchy, maintaining property within the Church, female obedience, etc.) are examples of the abuses likely to arise absent an agnostic stance. Other mystical traditions, such as some Sufi sects, and many Buddhists and Taoists, focus on spirituality rather than supernatural material interventions. While not dominant, non-intercessionary prayer can be found in most traditions, such as the Christian Serenity Prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...”

Consequently, the ontological and epistemological arguments of Spinoza, Heschel, Marcel, Ricoeur, Armstrong, and Borg about ways of knowing and being co-extensive with the divine, are arguments attempting to reconcile faith with materialist principles of modernity – and need not be incompatible with Darwinian evolution. Yet, this is not a new project, Newton himself, “had no time for mystery, which he equated with ignorance and superstition. He was anxious to purge Christianity of the miraculous, even if that brought him into conflict with such crucial doctrines as the divinity of Christ” (Armstrong 1994:305). (See Gatherer (1998) for a summary of the efforts of Cudworth, Tindal, Trenchard, Newton, Hume, Diderot, Voltaire, Thiry, Ayer, and Dukheim to do the same.)

These arguments are for the ineffable and a distinction between the profane and sacred. And while I need not conclude whether such arguments are ultimately successful, clearly the arguments are intended to express a compatibility with materialistism by supposing a co-extensive but non-material realm within which the divine operates: this realm inspires but isn't the basis of material claims.

Futhermore, the divine need not be invoked at all. For the question of meaning most often arises in light of life “suffering enormous destruction at some period...” (Darwin 1859:48). (Within Buddhism, suffering (dukkha) is the first of the four noble truths as expressed in the Dhammacakkappavattana-Sutta, “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.”) This is the problem that must be addressed, and reliance upon the divine is but a single option.

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, observed how some victims were able to maintain a hold on hope while others succumbed to despair. This informed his theory of logotherapy in which he notes that, “Everything can be taken from a man but ... the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way” (1992:75). Because, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an irradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be completed” (1992:76). The meaning of life is not to be found in preoccupations with the supernatural and metaphysics but, “taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual” (1992:85). Such a sentiment is echoed by many. Spong (1998:166), still relying upon but redefining the notion of divinity, writes, “This God is rather a power, a presence that calls me into responsibility, into adulthood, into self-alliance, into a bidding for others and into contributing to the well-being of humanity ... so long as I possess life, I will live it deeply, richly and fully ... I will expect no reward for my commitment to these ethical principles save the reward of a life well lived.” Even Dennett (1995:18) concedes:

Not all scientists and philosophers are atheists, and many who are believers declare that their idea of God can live in peaceful coexistence with, or even find support from, the Darwinian framework of ideas. Theirs is not an anthropomorphic Handicrafter God, but still a God worthy of worship in their eyes, capable of giving consolation and meaning to their lives. Others ground their highest concerns in entirely secular philosophies, views the meaning of life that stave off despair without the aid of any concept of a Supreme Being – other than the Universe itself. Something is sacred to these thinkers, but they do not call it God; they call it, perhaps, Life, or Love, or Goodness, or Intelligence, or Beauty, or Humanity. What both groups share, in spite of the differences in their deepest creeds, is a conviction that life does have meaning, that goodness matters.

Frankl has reduced this problem to its essence. If evolution is simultaneous with the struggle for life, and materialism deprives us of supernatural protections and rewards, what is still within our power is how we compose our perception and disposition towards the world.

Consequently, faith and spiritual practice illuminates the path, but do not to intercede on our behalf. To keep the realms of logos and mythos distinct furthers our ability to achieve the best possible material world while remaining serene in face of inevitable struggles.

6 References Cited

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Borg, M. (2003). The heart of Christianity : rediscovering a life of faith. Harper, San Francisco, CA.

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