Intergalactic Jesus

Jerry Coyne

  • Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion by Michael Ruse
    Cambridge, 242 pp, £16.95, December 2001, ISBN 0 521 63144 0

A recent Radio Four programme had a distinguished retired geneticist, who is also a devout Christian, pondering the virgin birth. Jesus, it turned out, is something of a biological conundrum. As a male, he must have carried a Y-chromosome, which can be transmitted only by the father’s sperm, yet apparently he had no corporeal father. Where, then, did his Y-chromosome come from? The geneticist suggested that one of Mary’s two X-chromosomes might have carried a piece of the Y. Asked whether this would make Mary abnormal, the geneticist changed the subject. He did so for good reason: this condition, sometimes seen in humans, would make Mary a sterile male and the virgin birth thus triply miraculous.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are usually doomed to failure, as in the Radio 4 exchange, because nearly all religions make claims about the real world – the domain of science – that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Faced with these difficulties, advocates resort to circumlocution, sophistry or absurd speculations that offend both scientists and believers.

Despite the difficulties involved, however, reconciling science and faith remains a popular project, especially among academics nearing the end of their careers. Apparently, the urge to take on the Big Problem becomes irresistible to those who have dedicated a lifetime to staring down a microscope at fruit flies or mastering the subjunctive in Aramaic. Many scientists enter the fray from evolutionary biology, the branch of science that conflicts most directly with religion. Their books often try to harmonise the two by declaring that they are mutually exclusive domains, or, to use Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase, ‘non-overlapping magisteria’. Gould proposes that science limit itself to studying and explaining the natural world, and religion to studying human purposes, meanings and values.

Michael Ruse’s book is an astonishing contribution to this literature. It astonishes because of the bravado of its thesis. Instead of espousing Gould’s tame view that religion and science are distinct but complementary, Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science, maintains that at least one form of science (Darwinism) and one form of religion (Christianity) are mutually reinforcing. They are reconcilable, he asserts, because virtually every tenet of conservative Christianity, including original sin, the immortality of the soul and moral choice, is immanent within Darwinism and an inevitable result of the evolutionary process. Religion and science are, to Ruse, merely two sides of the same coin. Thus he feels able to answer a resounding ‘no’ to his main question: ‘whether being a Darwinian stops you from being a Christian’.

Not surprisingly, Ruse has to work hard to convince us, for it’s not immediately obvious how evolution could produce souls or original sin. He has to muster all his rhetorical and intellectual skills to herd every stray Christian belief into the Darwinian fold. Indeed, the book is a splendid example of how a trained academic can extract himself from a philosophical thicket through the relentless chopping of logic. For example, in a chapter on ‘Extraterrestrials’, Ruse wrestles with the implications for Christianity of life having evolved elsewhere in the Universe. Would this life be human-like and blighted with original sin? If so, who would save the fallen aliens? Ruse floats the possibility of an ‘X-Christ’, who could redeem sinners throughout the Universe – an intergalactic Jesus shuttling between planets and suffering successive crucifixions. ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,’ George Orwell wrote (in a quite different context). ‘No ordinary man could be such a fool.’

Despite such gymnastics, Ruse’s attempt at a reconciliation ultimately fails – not surprisingly, given that it requires us to accept a version of Darwinism so extreme that it has practically no adherents, and a form of Christianity that would appal most theologians and churchgoers.

He begins by defining his terms. A ‘Darwinian’ is someone who believes that life had a natural origin, that existing species evolved from earlier forms and are related by descent from common ancestors, and that the main engine of evolution is natural selection. Ruse makes no bones about accepting Darwinism: ‘I think that evolution is a fact and that Darwinism rules triumphant.’ The brand of Christianity that must be merged with it is fairly conservative, and includes the view that humans, made in God’s image, were ‘the focus and purpose of creation’. Subsequently tainted by original sin, they were brought to salvation by the crucifixion of Jesus, the son of God, who was born to a virgin. Ruse sticks to the New Testament view of God as ‘an all-powerful creator who acts out of pure love’. Such a faith entails accepting miracles, though they obviously cause him some discomfort.

Christians have good reason to feel uncomfortable about Darwinism. The fossil record shows that the Genesis version of creation is manifestly wrong if read literally, and one is left either questioning the authority of the Bible or recognising that it is a prolonged exercise in metaphor – and as such open to endless interpretation. Moreover, it is difficult for a committed Darwinist to view humans, who form one side branch of the primate lineage, as the principal object of creation. For many biologists, the knowledge that Homo sapiens is only one of many evolved species – albeit one with a large brain and an extensive culture – makes it difficult to find any preordained meaning or purpose in human existence. Finally, if one applies the same empirical standards to Christianity as scientists do to Darwinism, religion suffers: we have far more evidence for the existence of dinosaurs than for the divinity of Christ.

Ruse is inconsistent in his treatment of faith and science. He believes that religion (or at least Christianity) is amenable to logical and empirical exploration, but some religious questions elude such an approach. While admitting that ‘assuming the existence of God really solves and explains nothing,’ he tries to prove that existence by rhetorical fiat: ‘God’s existence and nature is not subject to or in need of the explanation that the contingent objects of the world demand. God exists necessarily, and is immune to all acids, no matter how corrosive.’ At moments like this, Ruse looks to be throwing in his lot with Gould and the idea of separate magisteria. But it turns out that the existence of God is a special case, and that the rest of Christian belief can happily cohabit with science in a single magisterium. As to why science must be reconciled with Christianity rather than, say, Islam, Ruse slyly suggests that ‘one belief is better than others.’ Alternatively, he proposes that ‘one can argue that perhaps there is some common core to all religious belief, and that this is what counts.’ But this cannot count, for most other religions do not subscribe to the key tenets of Christianity that concern Ruse.

Among faiths, Christianity is probably the one that rests most heavily on potentially verifiable claims about reality. As Richard Dawkins observes,

Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims. The same is true of many of the major doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. The Virgin birth, the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, the survival of our own souls after death: these are all claims of a clearly scientific nature. Either Jesus had a corporeal father or he didn’t. This is not a question of ‘values’ or ‘morals’: it is a question of sober fact. We may not have the evidence to answer it, but it is a scientific question, nevertheless. You can be sure that, if any evidence supporting the claim were discovered, the Vatican would not be reticent in promoting it.

Indeed, the Vatican acts in a quasi-scientific manner when determining sainthood: canonisation requires at least two ‘proven miracles’, verified over the opposition of the officially appointed sceptic, the original devil’s advocate.

Along with many creationists, Ruse contends that science, as part of its commitment to ‘methodological naturalism’, deliberately excludes the supernatural; but this is not so. Science contains no a priori refusal to entertain supernatural explanations. Rather, these have been abandoned because they have never helped us to understand nature. Science could, in principle, accept the supernatural. If a 900-foot Jesus appeared to every resident of London, as he supposedly did to the American evangelist Oral Roberts, few would doubt Jesus’s divinity. Similarly, verifiable messages from the beyond, or repeated cases of faith healing, would also convince many scientists. But these phenomena do not occur. As George Bernard Shaw is said to have remarked after observing the objects cast off by visitors to Lourdes, ‘all those canes, braces and crutches, and not a single glass eye, wooden leg or toupée.’

Ruse’s preferred method of reconciling Christianity with Darwinism is theistic evolutionism, or the view that evolution was God’s way of creating humans and other species. He started the process, presumably with the Big Bang, and, foreseeing the eventual evolution of H. sapiens, did not interfere further (although Ruse does allow a bit of divine fiddling, for otherwise he couldn’t explain miracles).

Theistic evolutionism isn’t new: it existed in Darwin’s time, and is accepted today by many liberal Christians and most religious scientists. Ruse, however, takes it much further by claiming that much of Christian belief, such as the existence of the soul and the sinful nature of humans, arises naturally from evolution, and not supernaturally by God’s intervention. Before proceeding, however, he must try to answer the big question hanging over theistic evolution: why did God choose such a tortuous process? His answer is the usual one: as limited beings, we’re unable to fathom the mind of God. But this raises other questions. If we’re so ignorant, how could we know that God is ‘all-loving’ and ‘could only want what is best for us’? Here, Ruse turns necessity into a virtue: ‘one might think that God’s magnificence is confirmed as one realises that He does so much with so simple a mechanism as natural selection.’

Ruse sees three major problems needing to be addressed. The first is that of human uniqueness. As a strict Darwinian, he accepts that humans are one of many products of the evolutionary process that began about 3.5 billion years ago. This means jettisoning much of Genesis, but he insists nonetheless that one section be taken literally: the status of humans as the special objects of God’s creation (1.26-28). For Ruse, this requires ‘humanlike creatures’ to be an inevitable product of the evolutionary process. That is, if the process were repeated on Earth, such creatures as ourselves would always evolve. Because he considers that our formation ‘in the image of God’ connotes a moral and intellectual rather than physical resemblance, ‘humanlike creatures’ need not be identical to today’s humans, but could be any animal having high intelligence, consciousness, a culture and the ability to tell right from wrong.

To support his thesis of inevitability, Ruse argues for the existence of a special ‘humanlike creatures niche’ to be filled by evolutionary ‘arms races’ that place a reproductive premium on large brains. However, given that the course of evolution can be drastically affected by random mutations, unpredictable environmental changes and even collisions with asteroids, it takes a brave Darwinian to see the evolution of humanlike creatures as inevitable. Had dinosaurs not been annihilated by an asteroidal impact, mammals, as Gould has noted, might still be small, nocturnal insect-eaters unable to evolve higher intelligence. Moreover, the modern evolutionary view of ‘progress’ is not of an inevitable march to bigger brains and consciousness, but only that natural selection often makes organisms better adapted to their environment. (Even this is not guaranteed: natural selection can make cheetahs run faster, but it can also do the same for their prey, so there may be no net improvement in adaptation.)

The odds on the ‘humanlike creatures niche’ being filled increase if one assumes the Earth to be only one of many planets where evolution could have occurred. Given many tries, it becomes more likely that the combination of consciousness, intelligence, culture and moral choice would have arisen at least once. Indeed, humans on Earth represent one such lucky roll of the evolutionary dice. But in the end, we simply cannot calculate the probability that, if the Universe began again, at least one planet would evolve a form of life requiring salvation. Ruse needs not just a high probability, but a probability of one, for otherwise there would be no point in God’s having created the Universe. As he notes, ‘for the Christian we humans are not contingent beings.’ But the proper scientific answer to the question ‘Was the evolution of humanlike creatures inevitable?’ must be that we don’t know.

Ruse also brings the soul under the Darwinian umbrella: ‘We can assert that the soul of man was something which was transmitted, not just from the first man, but up from the animals. The soul, in other words, evolved along with everything else.’ Ruse sees it as ‘intelligence . . . linked with freedom of moral choice’. Since he sees moral choice as a product of evolution, the problem of the soul’s origin seems to have been solved. But one important difficulty remains. Ruse’s soul is a material construct residing in the human brain. As such, it dies with its owner and cannot be immortal. Ruse maintains a judicious silence on this issue.

In fact, there is no logical fit between his worldview and the notion of an afterlife. This is clear from the discomfort he evinces when discussing (or more accurately, avoiding) the theologically critical issues of a heaven and a hell. Ruse makes only a single oblique reference to God’s distinction between moral sheep and goats, observing that only the former end up in the ‘divine barnyard’. Presumably there is also a divine abattoir.

The second problem, that of miracles, poses special difficulties because these clearly violate natural law and the non-interventionist scheme of theistic evolution. Yet miracles such as the Resurrection and Jesus’ raising of the dead are essential parts of Christian belief. Ruse offers two solutions, neither of them satisfactory. First, he posits that these miracles may not actually have taken place. Lazarus might not have been dead, but merely in a trance; the Resurrection could have been a mass delusion: ‘One can think of Jesus in a trance, or more likely that he really was physically dead but that on and from the third day a group of people, hitherto downcast, were filled with great joy and hope.’ Second, for Christians unwilling to swallow these alternatives, he suggests that miracles were indeed divine interventions, but necessary exceptions to God’s evolutionary plan. Ruse explains the Incarnation thus: ‘Because and precisely because we as free beings had sinned, a special intervening act was required of God . . . It goes without saying that the creation of animals and plants was an entirely different matter and that there was no call here for miraculous intervention.’ But if you buy one miracle, why not buy them all?

The third and final problem is the existence of physical pain and evil, a great mystery of Christianity which is easily solved in Ruse’s schema: they are natural results of natural selection. Having chosen evolution as His method, God ‘was now locked into a path which would lead to physical evil. It comes with the method employed.’ There is then no need to ask why nature is red in tooth and claw, or why we have birth defects, or suffering in general: these are byproducts of God’s ‘hands-off’ policy.

Evolution also solves the problem of moral evil and original sin, although the solution requires the Darwinian to adopt an extreme form of sociobiology: the view that much of modern human nature, culture and behaviour resulted from natural selection acting on our ancestors. According to Ruse, such selection gave us two conflicting tendencies. The first is the product of ‘selfish genes’: our self-aggrandising desire to reproduce at the expense of others. In modern society, this translates into avarice, wrath, lust, gluttony and the other deadly sins. The second tendency is for societies to erect moral codes, which often frown on behaviour encoded by our selfish genes. Ruse sees moral codes as the genetic result of natural selection (presumably such selection acts among groups: those societies whose members had genes for superior moral codes were more harmonious and thus more likely to survive). Natural selection has given us not just the tendency to develop morality, but also the specific tenets of morality, which Ruse sees as universal. The universality of moral beliefs is necessary because ‘for the Christian moralist, relativism is anathema.’ Each person, then, is a battleground between two evolved tendencies. For Ruse, ‘original sin’ is the victory of selfish over moral behaviour: ‘Original sin is part of the biological package. It comes with being human.’

The problems with this argument are numerous. On the biological side, while we may indeed have genetic leanings towards, say, lust and greed, it is far less certain that moral codes also reside in our DNA. Such codes may in fact stem from cultural evolution, with societies constantly revising their moral principles to improve their ability to regulate behaviour or incorporate changing views. In fact, given the wide disparity among societies in what is considered moral, and the drastic change over time in what is considered ethical within a society, it is far more likely that moral codes are malleable, not fixed products of evolution. In response, Ruse simply denies this variation: ‘Morality has to be something shared or it will not function, and, inasmuch as it is biologically based, since we are all the same species there probably is not much variation.’ The greater problem, however, is on the Christian side. Who among conservative Christians would accept that moral choice is the outcome of a genetic battle, and original sin the tendency for selfish genes to overcome altruistic ones? Such beliefs leave no room for genuine moral choice resulting from free will. The spiritual meaning of sin and salvation is trampled in Ruse’s rush to reconciliation.

There are many Christian evolutionists, and many ways to reconcile Christianity with Darwinism. One is the liberal route of accepting the conclusions of science while interpreting the Bible, where necessary, in metaphorical terms. Another, a less extreme version of Ruse’s theory, sees God as having started the Universe and then let it run according to physical law, without intervening. Still another is to compartmentalise religion and science and allow them to coexist in an amiable dissonance, with faith as a realm of mystery that need not be reconciled with science. All of these variants pose philosophical problems, but Ruse’s solution is the worst of all, and may well be counterproductive. It is easy to imagine that a perplexed Christian, seeing the compromises with his faith that Ruse requires, would abandon the whole enterprise and return to undiluted fundamentalism.

Perhaps aware of the weakness of his arguments, Ruse makes a final evolutionary plea to sceptics: ‘We are middle-range primates with the adaptations to get down out of the trees, and to live on the plains in social groups. We do not have powers which will necessarily allow us to peer into the ultimate mysteries. If nothing else, these reflections should give us a little modesty about what we can and cannot know, and a little humility before the unknown.’ One can only wish that Ruse had heeded his own advice. In the words of the physicist Richard Feynman: ‘I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.’