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Some Issues of Science and Religion
for Biology Teachers

Martin Nickels
Anthropology Program
Illinois State University

"What do anthropologists say about the evolution of the soul?"

This was the very first question I was ever asked as a teaching assistant/discussion leader when I was a first-year graduate student in Physical Anthropology. At one level, the question indicated a clear misunderstanding of the nature and realm of legitimate scientific inquiry, but, at another level, it reflected a widespread concern about the impact that science has had on religion in the last few centuries. (I hope it does not come as a surprise to any of you that this concern is still very widespread.) The fact that the question dealt specifically with humans and human nature is not surprising since there is probably no idea more troubling to so many people than that of biological evolution and its implications for understanding human nature.

This on-line seminar will deal with the relationship between science and religion with a particular focus on the various problems that revolve around the modern scientific idea that, being animals, humans are both a part of the natural world and a product of it.We'll consider how different religions have dealt with the idea of evolution in contrast to the idea of creation (I'll rely on many of you to provide the particulars here), how science and religion differ as ways of knowing, and whether there is, indeed, a "conflict" between science and religion today. Related questions may well come up, such as, to what extent humans are morally responsible for their behavior if such behavior is both genetically-based or influenced and inherited. This particular question is gaining growing attention among theologians as genetic research reveals more and more about the biological basis of behavior.

I don't know of any more persistent theological, intellectual, or emotional concern in the last century than that of how scientific discoveries in general have affected our image and idea of ourselves. The impact that the biological idea of humans being animals having an evolutionary natural history that has shaped our nature over time has had on traditional religious thinking about human nature and origins is summed up nicely by George Gaylord Simpson (noted paleontologist and regarded as one of the architects of the so-called "modern evolutionary synthesis" of our 20th century understanding of genetics combined with Darwinian evolutionary thinking) in this passage from 1969:

The question "What is man?" is probably the most profound that can be asked by man. It has always been central to any system of philosophy or of theology....The point that I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.

I'll come back to Simpson's "point," but right now let's just ask "What's so important about 1859?" The answer, of course, is that that was the year Charles Darwin published ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES and forever changed the way that Western Civilization viewed humans and our place in the universe. But this "change" was perceived by most as really being a challenge to the centuries-old idea that humans were really something different and not merely another organism sharing this planet with countless others. The idea that humans were set apart from (and given dominion over!) the rest of the world's creatures was deeply rooted in Judaeo-Christian thinking and central to Western theology. Darwin's notion that humans shared a very real biological kinship and genealogy with the rest of the biological world was both repugnant and blasphemous to the great majority of his contemporaries, as well as to a great many (most?) people living today, some 135 years later. The notion that if humans are only animals, then we are demeaned is a common complaint from critics of Darwin. In his 1871 book THE DESCENT OF MAN, Darwin cited the work of several of his contemporaries for concluding that humans are, indeed, animals "no matter how much the conclusion may revolt our pride." He knew how unsettling the idea was to his readers. The implication, of course, is that animals are anything but noble in their behaviors (which is questionable) and that humans are the epitome of nobility (also highly questionable).

Darwin's own attempt to reconcile the prevailing view of a created natural world with his idea that it had evolved over time is captured in this passage from the last chapter of the first edition of ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES: Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator [sic], that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

But, clearly, what was an "ennobling" view to Darwin has been rejected by most people born since then to be rather more like an insult and abomination. To even the most charitable of Darwin's critics, his ideas were troubling and posed a challenge for traditional (religious) Western intellectual, religious, political, and moral thinking. Consider Edmund Sinnott's (1857) thoughts about the impact that many different scientific ideas have had on traditional thinking:

The crisis of our day comes from the fact that [the] traditional appraisal of man's nature is now gravely challenged, and from several directions. Whether in light of modern knowledge he can maintain [his traditional] high estimate of himself or must give it up for something very different, something far less exalted and godlike, is the deepest question that he has to face.

Here the great traditions of the past come most sharply into conflict with man's new scientific insights about himself and the universe. How this conflict will be decided and what man's true nature will finally prove to be are questions that shake the world today. It is not the change in our ideas about God that is so ominous, important as this is, but the change in what we think about ourselves, for this will finally be reflected in our philosophy and our religion.

Is man simply the paragon of animals or is he something more?...Until man comes to know himself, all other knowledge that he gains is incomplete.

Simpson's position on what Sinnott characterizes as the conflict between "the great traditions of the past" and "man's new scientific insights about himself" is blunt:

It is the biological nature of man, both in his evolutionary history and in his present condition, that presents us with our only fixed point of departure....The other nonbiological, nonscientific fields can still contribute [to answering the question "What is man?"], or can now contribute anew. But unless they accept, by specification or by implication, the nature of man as a biological organism, they are merely fictional fancies or falsities, however interesting they may be in those nonfactual categories.

If you want to start one very interesting class discussion, try giving your students the passages from Simpson to read; I guarantee a lively discussion will follow! After reading the Simpson quote on page one of this paper, the great majority of my students almost invariably reject his "point" that all pre-Darwinian answers to the question "What is man?" are worthless and we are better off ignoring them. Such rejection is hardly surprising. If the students' own lives mirror that of our society in general, then they have likely had a lifelong exposure to one of the religious traditions that has shaped Western civilization. Reading Simpson is oftentimes the first encounter that the students have had with the idea that is seen by most people as challenging the traditional idea that humans are special and somehow set apart from (really "above") the rest of creation. To read the suggestion that all traditional answers should be abandoned in favor of the Darwinian view is not only unsettling, it is perceived as both arrogant and outrageous. This "gut rejection" of one of the most provocative implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory is a major barrier to even getting many students to understand the theory and mechanisms of evolution, let alone accepting its scientific status as the most likely explanation for the existence of every species--including our own--on this planet.

How would you respond if a student were to ask "What do biologists/scientists say about the evolution of the soul?"

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