Speaking of old gits with unwaxed eyebrows, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England, has a book review in the last Times Literary Supplement. And although His Reverend has no apparent training in biology, he’s been chosen to pronounce on Conor Cuningham’s Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong. I can’t link to the review, as it’s not online, and I haven’t read the book, either. Judging from reviews, it seems to excoriate evolutionists for thinking that Darwinism is a “theory of everything” and fundamentalists for espousing creationism. It seems to be a book of accommodationism, showing how God might well have used evolution as his modus operandus, and arguing that there is no conflict between religion and Darwinism. Perhaps those who have read it can give further information.
The Primate gives the book two opposable thumbs up, calling it “the most interesting and invigorating book on the science–religion frontier that I have encountered”. The review is notable for two things. The first is that the prose is absolutely dreadful; Williams writes like a theologian. One example:
We have been led to assume that there is an irreducible distinction between the “hard” facts of physical interaction and the various decorative excrescences that we think of as mental realities. To understand the former, we are often told, is to understand that the foundational truth about the universe is material happening, described in a way that excludes anything we might call purpose. We must on no account tell teleological stories about the processes we observe – and, as Cunningham says, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this proscription is there in some people’s minds chiefly in order to conserve the necessary clear blue water between science and any kind of theology.
Translation: Mind/matter monists have a position based not on science, but on hatred of religion. (“Clear blue water”?)
But buried within the leaden prose is a deep and abiding dislike for evolutionary biology and genetics in particular. Despite his apparent comity with Professor Dawkins, Williams just hates the selfish gene. And, to denigrate the gene-centered view of evolution, he drags in both C. S. Lewis (for crying out loud!) and Mary Midgley:
The gene has been presented as the irreducible monadic agent for biological science, but this begs important questions. We need to remember that the gene itself is part of the evolutionary story, not its sole motor (I was reminded of a passage in C. S. Lewis’s letters where he describes with relish hearing of a passionately enlightened schoolteacher who insisted to her students that all life forms descended from apes). If the only model for evolutionary logic we possess is the mythology of the selfish gene, we leave unanswered and unanswerable the question of the gene’s own history; quite apart from the problems in speaking of “selfishness” as the sole generator of development.
Umm. . . which evolutionist doesn’t recognize that the origin of genetic information, and how it interacts with proteins, is an intriguing but unsolved puzzle? But how does that denigrate evolution, which begins only after the first replicator has evolved? And what the bloody hell does the C. S. Lewis anecdote about apes have to with the gene? Finally, doesn’t the Great Primate recognize that he’s hoist with his own petard? Let me rewrite the above: “If the only model for God we have is the mythology given in the Bible, we leave unanswered and unanswerable the question of God’s own history.” If the origin of the gene is a hard problem for biology, the origin of God is an insuperable problem for theology.
Here’s moar gibberish:
Perhaps more seriously, the presumption of an omnicausal gene leads into the fallacy soaked morass of “misplaced concreteness”. A gene is not a thing, not a biological billiard ball: it is a cluster of information carrying material. Its unity or identity is given by the nature of the information it carries; it does not exist as such independently of the chain of “instruction” in which it functions.
For the life of me, I don’t know what Williams is getting at. The gene is a sequence of nucleotides that, in general, codes for a protein. That protein does stuff in development. How does that not make the gene something that exists independently?
And look out—here comes Midgley! (I suspect Williams gets the emphasis on “information” from the intelligent-design people.)
In ways closely paralleled in another recent essay, Mary Midgley’s The Solitary Self (2010), Cunningham deconstructs with ease the vulgar version of natural selection that is still tiresomely prevalent in popular science, noting the inescapable role in selection of co-operative and cumulative processes (he touches on the still contested idea of group selection in this connection), and the multiple and context-dependent meanings of “selection” itself.
The meaningless world of ruthlessly self-replicating monads is a fiction which has a corrosive effect on scientific research itself. . .
Yes, isn’t the idea of natural selection so tiresome? Especially the vulgar version—you know, the one that claims that cooperation and “cumulative processes” (whatever those are) can’t evolve? LOL! Is Williams’s sight so occluded by those eyebrows that he can’t see that cooperation is easily achievable by “vulgar” natural selection? And oh, that corrosive fiction of gene-based selection, which has been such an impediment in understanding evolution!
Williams’s big point, though, in which he appears to concur with creationists, is that he simply can’t fathom how mind can come from matter. And he makes this point in various obscure ways:
. . . we have to reckon with the implications of rejecting the absolute dualism of genotype and phenotype, the mechanistic naturalism, which, as Cunningham shows, is simply the old dualism of mind or soul and body under a fresh guise. If matter is “mindless”, how is it that mind is produced? The mere appearance of this alien element during the evolutionary story is as unlikely and unattractive a model as the crude interventionism of the religious creationist.
Unlikely? It happened, dude! Williams here, liberal and enlightened as he is supposed to be, is coming close here to Catholic Church’s stand that mind (or “soul”) must have been somehow injected into the human lineage by a loving God. And if it wasn’t directly injected into some hapless australopithecine (“Oh wow, I can think!”), then it was built into the evolutionary process by God in the first place.
In the end, Williams descends into postmodern gibberish:
We need to recognize that, if intelligible structure, developing and ordered complexity, is the story we have to tell, if the point of genes is to carry information, then the reality of the universe as we know it is suffused with the possibility of mind. Matter itself is pregnant with meanings, we might say – in the sense that the complexification of matter over the ages ends up in the phenomenon of consciousness. And a scheme that regards consciousness as a purely contingent thing – as it were, an accidental by-product of material processes with which it is essentially unconnected – has a lot of explaining to do; as Cunningham says, it begins to sound like the nineteenth-century zealots who believed that fossils were placed in the soil by the Devil to test our faith.
Doesn’t that mushy thought remind you of Karen Armstrong?
It’s strange: more and more scientists are seeing consciousness as a hard problem, but one that is in principle explainable. After all, when you give someone an anesthetic, consciousness goes away. When you take away the gas, it comes back. That means it’s a material-based phenomenon. Yes, we do have a lot of explaining to do, but it’s not the kind of theological waffling that once invoked fossil-planting devils. It’s scientific research, not apologetics. Doesn’t Williams see the difference?
And, in a paragraph in which words and meaning have almost parted company, Williams sees the hand of God guiding evolution:
The possibility of a first-person perspective, if it truly emerges from the unfolding logic of material combination and recombination, simply tells us that the notion of a necessarily “mindless” matter is not sustainable. If the nature of a gene is to carry a message, it is the nature of the recipient vehicle in a new generation to be able to “understand” it. To adapt the famous remark about one mythological cosmology, it’s mind all the way down. Intelligence as we define it entails self-consciousness, the first-person perspective; but something seriously analogous to intelligence has to be presupposed in matter for the entire system of transmitted patterns and “instructions” to be possible.
Despite his association with Richard Dawkins, the Archbishop still doesn’t understand natural selection. Let him officiate at weddings and give sermons, but Ceiling Cat keep him away from the TLS—and half-witted pronouncements about evolution.
And let’s add the Anglican Church to the list of those “sophisticated and liberal denominations” that claim to accept evolution but really don’t.