Religion and the Biological Sciences

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Plato and Aristotle recognized that understanding nature demands reference to factorswhat Aristotle called "final causes"that in some sense anticipate what will or should happen. In the Timaeus, Plato wrote, "From the combination of sinew, skin, and bone, in the structure of the finger, there arises a triple compound, which, when dried up, takes the form of one hard skin partaking of all three natures, and was fabricated by these second causes, but designed by mind, which is the principle cause with an eye to the future." He continued, "For our creators well knew that many animals would require the use of nails for many purposes; wherefore they fashioned in men at their first creation the rudiments of nails. For this purpose and for these reasons they caused skin, hair, and nails to grow at the extremities of the limbs" (Timaeus, 76de).

Such adaptations, organic features that demand a final-cause understanding, are the basis for (what was to prove) a very popular and longstanding proof of God's existence. The forward-looking aspect of adaptations comes from the fact that they seem as if they were designed. They are like artifacts. Why? Quite simply because adaptations are artifactsthe artifacts of a deity. Just as a couch has a couch designer, so the hand and the eye must have a hand and eye designer. There is no necessary implication that there is just one designer, or that it has the attributes of the Judeo-Christian Godeternal, all powerful, all loving, creator of all from nothingbut this Greek argument (known as the "argument from design") was taken over by the great Christian philosophers and theologians, and became one of the main supports of the route to God through reason (natural theology).

This argument continued to enjoy great popularity and force right into the nineteenth century. Archdeacon William Paley in his book Natural Theology (1802) promoted the argument: The eye is like a telescope; telescopes have telescope makers; therefore eyes must have eye makerswhat one might call the Great Optician in the sky. By this time, however, the pendulum was starting to swing the other way, with biology giving theists cause for concern. The eighteenth century saw the rise of evolutionary speculationshypotheses that organisms are the end results of long, slow, natural processes of development from very different and much simpler forms. At the most obvious level, evolutionary ideas challenge the Genesis story of creation. But though this was certainly a stumbling block for many, believers have long had resources to deal with problems caused by literal interpretations of the Bible.

Far more threatening to the theist was the connection between organic evolution and the doctrine of intellectual or cultural progress. As humans supposedly have risen up from ignorance and poverty in the cultural world to the sophisticated state in which we humans now find ourselves, so in the world of organisms, primitive forms have developed into humans. Cultural development points to biological evolution, which in turn reinforces cultural development. To quote an early evolutionist, Erasmus Darwin (a grandfather of Charles):

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!
(1803, 1, 295314)

All of this progressivism was a direct challenge to the Christian notion of Providence. For the believer, because of Adam's sin, we are in a fallen state. To earn us salvation in this fallen state, God intervened in his creation, choosing freely to die on the cross. This means that our happiness comes not from our merits, but simply as the result of God's forgiveness and grace. Progress challenges this. It carries the central message that improvement is possible and due entirely to human intentions and labors. Success comes from our own efforts, not from those of othersincluding God. As part of the picture of progress, evolution was rightly seen as challenging conventional religious verities.

Although popular in some quarters, evolution was always somewhat of a pseudoscience. As Immanuel Kant pointed out in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment, there are difficulties with final causes. Such a complex, apparently intentional entity as the eye simply could have come about through blind law. Charles Darwin addressed this issue in On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Committed to evolution, Darwin sought a cause that would speak to adaptation. This he found in the mechanism of natural selection. More organisms are born than can survive and reproduce. This brings on a struggle for existence. Organisms tend to vary naturally, and the winners in the struggle (the fit) have features not possessed by the losers (the unfit). Moreover, these features tend to be deciding factors in whether an organism is successful or unsuccessful. Hence, equivalent to the selection practiced by animal and plant breeders, there is a natural selection, where the winners pass on their favorable features. Over time this leads to full-blown evolution, a key feature of which is the development and perfection of adaptations.

Although he himself was never an atheistat the time of writing the On the Origin of Species he was a deist and later turned to agnosticismDarwin apparently drove a stake through the heart of the argument from design. The eye resulted from blind, unguided processes through natural selection. There is no need to invoke a designer. In the words of the contemporary English biologist Richard Dawkins (1986), only after Darwin was it possible to be "an intellectually fulfilled atheist." As expected, not everyone agrees that such a conclusion follows. Below are the different positions taken on the relation of biology and religion in the post-Darwinian era.


One strategy is to separate science and religion, specifically, biology and Christianity. This means that biology cannot support religion, but then again neither can it refute it. A common suggestion is that biology can tell us how things occurthat humans came from apelike creatures, for examplebut it cannot tell us why things occurwhy there should be creatures with the conscious ability to tell good from evil. The great English theologian John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert to Catholicism, had no trouble at all with evolution. It was simply not something that bore on his faith. "I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design." He continued, "Design teaches me power, skill and goodnessnot sanctity, not mercy, not a future judgment, which three are of the essence of religion" (Newman 1973, 97).

This kind of reversal of the argumentdesign because of God, rather than God because of designfound much favor in the twentieth century, particularly in circles influenced by Karl Barth, another major critic of natural theology. In the opinion of such thinkers, often labeled "neo-orthodox," evolution is true. But this does not prove anything affecting religion. In the language of the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg (1993), we must strive for a "theology of nature," where the beauties of the living world enrich our faith, rather than a "natural theology," where the living world is used as a substitute for faith. Thus, Dawkins is wrong not so much in thinking that one can be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, but in thinking that this is the end of the journey. It is the beginning. Darwin shows that there can be no proofs, and that is where faith begins.


Not every post-Darwinian thinker has been so negative about natural theology. Many think that Darwin's work is the spur to find a new natural theology, a natural theology that accepts evolution and works with it rather than against it. Instead of rejecting progress, Christians should take it on board in some fashion, arguing that we humans should work with God to achieve our salvation. The rise of organisms, from slime to humans, "from monad to man," as it was traditionally put, is proof that not all is random and without purpose. It shows that God is working out his plan, and also that we are obligated to work with him.

The thinker who tried most fully to work out a theology that stayed true to conventional Christian belief and yet made the upward progressive message of evolutionism central was the French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In his masterwork The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard saw life evolving upward through the realm of life (the biosphere), to the realm of humans and consciousness (the noosphere), and then even further onward and upward to the Omega Point, which in some way he identified with the Godhead, with Jesus Christ. "An ever-ascending curve, the points of transformation of which are never repeated; a constantly rising tide below the rhythmic tides of the agesit is on this essential curve, it is in relation to this advancing level of the waters, that the phenomenon of life, as I see things, must be situated" (p. 101).

One major problem with this whole approach is less whether the post-Darwinian Christian should accept the doctrine of progress than whether the post-Darwinian evolutionist should accept such a doctrine. If natural selection is true, then change is much relativized. Which species are fit? Not necessarily those at the top of an absolute scale. Intelligence might seem a good thing, but it has major costs, not the least of which is a constant supply of quality protein. In many circumstances, stupidity and strength might be a better biological strategy. Many evolutionists now reject progress entirely. The late Stephan Jay Gould (1989), paleontologist and science writer, argued that there is no genuine progress, and certainly no guarantee that if the tape of life were replayed, humans would inevitably emerge.

This is not the last word. Darwin himself believed in progress and thought that natural selection gives rise to what biologists of 2005 label "arms races," where one line of organisms competes and improves adaptations against the threat of other lines. Intelligence is an end result. Darwin has his supporters in the early twenty-first century, notably the English paleontologist Simon Conway Morris (2003), who argues that selection leads steadily to the conquering of one major ecological niche after another. Consciousness is the prize at the top, waiting to be grasped, and if not by humans, then by some other contender with outstretched paw.

Darwinian Opposition to Theism

Dawkins is an atheist. He thinks that Darwinian evolution is hardly neutral. Although the argument from evilthat the bad things of this world are incompatible with an all-loving, all-powerful godis not new with Darwin, his theory focuses on evil and makes it a central part of the evolutionary story. For Dawkins and others, this is confirmation that the Christian God does not exist, that other forms of deity are not worth entertaining, and hence that life has no meaning, that it just is. "In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference" (Dawkins 1995, 133).

Theists have standard counters to the problem of evil (Ruse 2001). Some theists separate moral evil (the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz) from physical evil (cancer). In the case of moral evil, it is better that humans have free will, even though they will do wrong, these theists argue, than that humans have no genuine choices at all. This may or may not be an adequate response, but if one argues for the philosophical position known as compatibilismthe position that freedom and natural law are not contradictorythen an evolutionist could in principle support this defense. The fact that we humans are the product of biological law and still subject to it does not in itself deny some dimension of freedom and ability to act on our own choices.

In the case of physical evil, recourse is often made to an argument of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), namely that such evil is an unfortunate but unpreventable consequence of a world governed by natural law. Here too the evolutionist has a defense. Somewhat paradoxically, Dawkins himself supports this counter, for he argues that if organisms were created naturally, then adaptive complexity could have been achieved only through the action of natural selection. "The Darwinian Law may be as universal as the great laws of physics" (Dawkins 1983, 423). One might still argue that given the consequent pain, it was a pity that God created at all, but this is a different claim totally independent of evolution. From the viewpoint of biology, if God did create and did so through natural lawand there may be good theological reasons for thisthen Darwinism does not refute this, but shows rather why physical pain is bound to occur.

Intelligent Design

Notoriously, from the beginning many American evangelical Christians have rejected all forms of evolution. The best-known clash between such Christians and evolutionists occurred in 1925 in the state of Tennessee, when the young school teacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. As it happened, although Scopes was found guilty, his penalty was overturned on appeal, and that was the end of so-called creationism for several decades. Yet thanks to a number of dedicated fundamentalists, people who insist on taking every verse of the Bible literally, opposition to evolutionism started to grow again, particularly after the publication in 1961 of Genesis Flood, a work by the biblical scholar John Whitcomb and the hydraulic engineer Henry Morris defending every verse of the Bible. This led to renewed efforts to get literal biblical teachings into publicly financed American schools, and again the matter ended in court, this time in Arkansas in 1981, where it was ruled that "creation science" is religion and as such has no place in school biology classes.

More recently, those who oppose Darwinian evolution on religious grounds have been promoting a more sophisticated form of creationism. Supporters of intelligent design argue that the organic world is just too complex and tightly functioning to have been produced by natural forces. The world, particularly at the micro level, exhibits what they call "irreducible complexity," and hence cannot possibly have been the result of something like natural selection. In the words of Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, an "irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution. Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on" (p. 39).

As an example of something irreducibly complex, Behe turns to the micro world of the cell and of the mechanisms found at that level. Take bacteria that use flagella, driven by a kind of rotary motor, to move around. Every part is incredibly complex, and so are the various parts in combination. For example, the flagellin (the external filament of the flagellum) is a single protein that forms a kind of paddle surface contacting the liquid during swimming. Near the surface of the cell, one finds a thickening, just as needed, so that the filament can be connected to the rotor drive. The connector is a hook protein. There is no motor in the filament, so it has to be located somewhere else. And so on. Such an intricate mechanism is much too complex to have come into being in a gradual fashion. Only a one-step process will do, and this one-step process must involve some sort of designing cause. Behe and his supporters, including the mathematician-philosopher William Dembski, are careful not to identify this designer with the Christian God, but the implication is that the designing cause is a force beyond the normal course of nature. Biology works through "the guidance of an intelligent agent" (p. 96).

Evolutionists strongly deny that there are irreducibly complex phenomena, and they strive to show that the adaptations highlighted by intelligent-design theorists could in fact have been produced by natural selection. Of course, often mechanisms as we see them today could not function if a part were removed, but this is compatible with their coming into being through blind natural law. Perhaps formerly essential but now redundant parts have been removed. Think of a stone arch. Build it without supports, and the center keystones will fall before they are secured. Build supports and then build the arch, and the completed structure will stand even after the supports are removed.

In any case, argue critics of intelligent-design theory, there are significant theological problems with the theory, which is little more than Paley's natural theology brought up to date with some modern examples. If an intelligence intervened to produce the irreducibly complex, why does the intelligence not intervene to prevent life's simple but devastating occurrences? Sometimes a simple change in the structure of DNA can have horrific effects on an individual. Why are these sorts of occurrences not prevented? One might say that the intelligence is not interested in doing everything, but if this is true, then it at least seems that the intelligence pointed to by intelligent-design theory is far removed from the traditional Christian conception of God.


There is more debate at the beginning of the twenty-first century than perhaps at any other time about the relationship between science and religion, and in particular between biology and Christianity. It is neither static nor philosophically uninteresting.

See also Religion and the Physical Sciences.


Behe, Michael. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Conway Morris, Simon. Life's Solution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

Dawkins, Richard. A River out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Dawkins, Richard. "Universal Darwinism." In Evolution of Molecules to Men, edited by D. S. Bendall. Cambridge, U.K.: University of Cambridge Press, 1983.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

Newman, John Henry. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman. Vol. 25, edited by Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1973.

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Whitcomb, John C., and Henry M. Morris. The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1961.

Michael Ruse (2005)

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