Scientists and Christians have been at war since Darwin introduced his theory of evolution in the 1800s. Now, after almost 160 years of bitter fighting, a groundbreaking new book promises to reconcile the two camps and even heal old wounds, writes Lucy Bryson.
When Charles Darwin introduced the theory of evolution through natural selection in 1859, the scientists and theologians of the day argued over it fiercely. Today, almost 16 decades later, that wide-ranging debate on evolution continues as they battle for leadership and for human hearts and minds.
For some, palaeontology, genetics, zoology, molecular biology and other fields of science have already debunked religious explanations for the origins of man in all its forms. Echoing the Enlightenment scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace, they assert that the notion of a divine entity is not required for this hypothesis.
Others, such as creationists, refute all or part of Darwin’s theory of evolution and instead assert that God created reality, including the universe and its contents, through divine intervention.
But somewhere between strict Darwinism and the fundamentalist view that evolution simply didn’t happen lies what the Irish academic and theologian Dr Niamh Middleton believes is the truth: science and Christianity are complementary.
Her new book, Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who is Love, makes a compelling argument that the long-standing gap between evolutionary theory and Christianity can not only be bridged but also reconciled. The two, she says, work in synthesis to provide a deeper understanding of the origins of evil and the existence of an altruistic, beneficent deity.
Contrary to the assertions of Neo-Darwinists, evolutionary theory provides empirical evidence that supports, rather than undermines, the notion of ‘original sin’ that has left Christianity fighting what Middleton describes as a “rear-guard action” to hold onto its purpose. She posits that there are evolutionary explanations for ‘sinful’ behaviour and that the scientific position (reference is made to the ‘selfish gene’ as identified by Richard Dawkins) does not in any way contradict Bible teachings. Her introduction adds, “It is my profound conviction that the reconciliation of science and the humanities on the question of human nature and how it should be defined is the most important task now facing both fields”.
Middleton, a lecturer at Dublin City University, Ireland, spent fifteen years (meticulously) researching the book, which falls broadly into the popular science genre. Comparisons can be drawn between Middleton’s work and that of the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Sapiens and Homo Deus’. Both critically examine how moral events have impacted the course of history and how ongoing scientific advances could, if not used with caution, lead humanity on a dark path to a not-too-distant dystopian future.
But while Harari approaches the subject from an atheist perspective, Middleton writes from a Christian viewpoint arguing that mankind’s descent into ‘sin’and its wide-reaching consequences was not inevitable; it was the free choice of early humans that led to what the Bible calls ‘the fall of man’.
She also argues, passionately, that with scientific power and political progress comes great responsibility and the need for religious governance. The rise of ‘scientism’ – a blinkered belief in power and truth of scientific knowledge and techniques – is dangerous. A “head in the sand” Christian viewpoint that refuses to engage in dialogue with science is also unhelpful.
Only by reconciling the two (which includes Darwin’s theories and discoveries, which are referenced throughout) can we make progress. “As Darwin himself pointed out, if God is responsible for designing human morality either directly or indirectly, then God is responsible for human evil”. Middleton engages fully with Darwin’s challenge, and in so doing achieves a productive synthesis between the scientific and Christian accounts of human nature.
At a time of increasing unrest and political instability, the message in Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who is Love is more apt than ever. There are nods to #MeToo (and to the arrogant bravado and bluster of powerful males), and some powerful descriptions of behaviour in the animal kingdom that will fascinate anybody with a passing interest in the natural world (one fascinatingly gruesome example being the description of ‘altruistic suicide’ among aphids attacked by parasitic wasps).
Whether you are a sceptic of Christianity or a Christian who needs to be better equipped to defend the faith in light of the latest scientific advances, Middleton’s work is an engaging must-read.
Dr Niamh Middleton is a lecturer in Moral and Systematic Theology at Dublin City University (DCU), and a leading authority in the study of human origins. Her new book, Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who Is Love, is described as a scholarly but accessible reconciliation of evolutionary thinking with Christian belief. Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who Is Love by Niamh Middleton (Deep River Books) is available on Amazon UK from today priced £11.44 in paperback.
Exclusive Q&A with Dr Niamh Middleton
We sit down with the author of Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution and the God Who Is Love to chat about the dangers of scientific advances and the terrible prospect of a dystopian future.
Q: For those unfamiliar with the concept of ‘Original Sin’, can you outline what is meant by the term and how it is relevant in today’s society?
A: ‘Original sin’ literally refers to a deleterious moral event that occurred at the origin of our species. It is more or less synonymous in the public mind with the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve as depicted in the Old Testament. Since Christianity advocates an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God, it has to explain the existence of evil and suffering in the world. It does this by asserting that God gave humans free will and they chose to disobey Him, hence releasing the forces of evil into the world. With the emergence of the doctrine of evolution in the 19th century, much of Christianity has accepted that the Genesis accounts of direct creation and a first sinning pair are largely mythological. We now know that God creates through natural processes, and that the first humans were most likely to have been a group rather than a pair.
The scientific doctrine of evolution has caused much controversy, and not just in those Christian sects that reject evolution and insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis. In the academic humanities where I teach, for example, as well as to much of the general public, the evolutionary perspective on human behaviour is unpopular. This is because it could be used to justify sexism, racism, white supremacy and the patriarchy generally. Yet the evidence in its favour is overwhelming which is why writers of the calibre of Yuval Noah Harari are now claiming that in order to progress as a species and avoid dystopian scenarios we have to take account of our prehistory, which he terms ‘biology’. He argues that the walls in universities between biology departments and those of law and politics must come down. For me, this is where the doctrine of an original sin comes in.
I believe that it has attained a new relevance in today’s society, due to the fact that it is near identical to the Darwinian account, yet its explanatory power for human behaviour is so much greater. Evolutionary science just presents us with bald facts. This is how we evolved, we are genetically determined to a high degree. The doctrine of a primal ‘Fall’ however reassures us that the traits of greed, aggression and the lust for power that have caused so much damage to our species can in no way be justified. Further, they did not have to evolve and can be healed by God’s grace. They are not set in genetic stone.
Q: What was your motivation for writing the book and who do you think it will appeal to?
A: I have written the book mainly to argue that for the future progress of our species, collaboration between religion, science and politics will be necessary. I originally intended it to be an academic monograph, but as time went on I grew hopeful that it would appeal to a wider audience, given the popularity of the subject. For this reason I have written it to be accessible to all who like popular science and are interested in the religion/science controversies. I have also written it to place the arguments of the many books of popular science that have been published on these topics in direct relationship with the corresponding theological arguments. Whereas difficult scientific theories have been skilfully simplified for the general public, the same is not true for the relevant theological and philosophical arguments.
Q: The subject matter has the potential to be controversial - do you have any concerns about negative reaction from either the Christian or scientific communities?
A: The creation/evolution debate is highly polarised, and the religion/science controversies generally can also arouse strong emotional reactions. I would expect a book like Homo Lapsus to be controversial therefore both within and outside Christianity. However controversy means engagement with the book and lively discussion which I would welcome.
Q: What potential dangers do you foresee if humans continue to make scientific ‘progress’ without a religious input?
A: Due to rapid scientific and technological advances, our species is now at an important crossroads in its history. It so happens that at just this time we are also being inundated with new information on our origins. Our new knowledge about origins certainly has the potential to be very helpful in guiding the future direction of societies. I am in agreement with evolutionary commentators such as Richard Dawkins who argues that knowledge is power, and now that we know about our selfish genes, we can take steps to rectify the damage they have done. Unfortunately the evidence he and others have presented concerning the extent to which we are genetically determined implies serious limitations in our ability to undo the damage. Already other evolutionary commentators are suggesting that in order to solve our problems, genetic engineering or other prosthetic means such as drug therapy may be necessary. There is also the real danger that elites in the fields of science, medicine and politics will have the power to decide how the various genetic technologies currently being developed should be used. Since such elites would undoubtedly be male dominated, this would also mean that definitions ‘good’ and ‘evil’ would be formulated by powerful males, and such a scenario would only reinforce the patriarchal injustices that have always bedevilled human societies. Technological progress could actually lead to moral regress. In the book I show that it is only from a revelation inspired theological perspective that we can understand what needs to be done and how it can be achieved. I am convinced that without a religious input into future definitions of progress dystopian scenarios will ensue that may cause catastrophic harm to our species, rather than the great good that it is now certainly possible to achieve.
Q: What would you say to those who argue that traits classed as ‘sinful’ by Christianity can be explained by science, and were inevitable developments of the human character?
A: I would say that from an atheistic perspective it’s perfectly acceptable to say that, but not from a Christian one. If they were inevitable, serious doubt would be cast on the Christian concept of an all-loving, beneficent Deity since it would mean that God is the author of evil. I would also point out that since they synchronise with the Christian depiction of human nature after the ‘Fall’ of man, it’s possible they are providing scientific corroboration of that doctrine. Which is why I undertake a detailed review of the evidence from primatology, palaeoanthropology and archaeology to see if they really were inevitable developments. The evidence strongly indicates that the evolution of evil was not inevitable, which amounts to empirical evidence for the Christian belief in an ‘original sin’ and in a beneficent Deity who gave us free will as regards our moral evolution as a species.
Q: The book makes a convincing argument for the importance of a cohesive approach to religion and science. Do you think religions other than Christianity should also be involved in debates around morality, ethics and science?
A: In the age of scientism which sees science as the only valid form of knowledge, I think religion has attained a new relevance. Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection was very eloquent on this topic. Although an atheist as a young man, his discovery of natural selection impacted greatly on his attitude to religion. As a socialist, he would initially have been in agreement with Marx that religion was just another tool of repression of the masses. Nevertheless, he did allow that orthodox religious belief as it had developed in civilized societies up to his own era had acted as a restraining influence on human behaviour. Such religious belief was, however, being eroded by the rise of science. Wallace, aware as he was of the way that natural selection has impacted on human behaviour began to fear what he termed the ‘ghastly’ prospect of might constituting right on a huge scale if religion was discredited by science. Without belief in an afterlife, there would be nothing to stop ‘the bad man, or the selfish man’ from systematically seeking out his own welfare at the cost of others. The five major world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have much in common ethically, especially in encouraging consideration for others. Equally importantly, the religious view of humanity which perceives the individual as having a supernatural destiny beyond this life and hence as more than an economic unit and/or a product to be perfected scientifically will ensure a much richer, more balanced and holistic view of what constitutes progress and the good life than one generated purely by science. Therefore I would answer your question in the affirmative.
Q: The book mentions the #MeToo movement. To what extent, if any, do you think the prevalence of predatory sexual behaviour among males is down to evolution?
A: Darwin himself has written lyrically on this topic, and his work has been further developed by contemporary evolutionary psychologists. Whether you are a believer or a non-believer, I would say that in order to understand the #MeToo movement we have to go back to our origins and how we evolved. For example, the species currently in existence to which we are most closely related, Bonobos, a species of chimpanzee with which we share over 98% of our genes, is matriarchal. Coalitions of older female bonobos are in overall charge, restraining the behaviour of young male bonobos. The alpha male of a bonobo troop is always the son of the alpha female. Why are we so different? Darwin puts it down to the triumph of one form of sexual selection over another. Sexual selection is considered to be an auxiliary mechanism to natural selection since, in evolutionary terms, survival is more effective if the genes that facilitated it are passed on. Sexual and natural selection are distinguished from one another in that the latter is a result of the differential abilities of individuals to adapt to their environment, while the former results specifically from the differential abilities of individuals to acquire mates. There are two kinds of sexual selection operating on males. One is an aggressive type that causes them to fight among themselves over females, the other is called ‘the male power to charm’ and is a peaceful one where the male tries to charm the female by performing tricks for her and singing to her. Darwin frequently uses the courtship tactics of birds to illustrate the peaceful type of sexual selection. This type of sexual selection still exists at the individual level in the courtship process which involves men trying to impress women with their various charms, buying presents for them and making a fuss of them on dates. As regards singing, a striking example of this is the power of male singers and bands to attract a huge amount of female attention and admiration. Darwin believed that at the outset of our existence as a species, it would have been the peaceful type of sexual selection that predominated and he conjures up delightful scenes of pre-historical courtship with males using all their charms including singing to court the desired female. He surmised that this state of affairs would have lasted until females began to be preoccupied with wealth and social status, which would have led to competition for resources among males up to and including warfare. Contemporary evolutionary psychologists argue however that in trying to understand the origins of patriarchy, we are presented with a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which evolved first, male power and control of resources or female preferences for that power? Evolutionary psychologist Donal Symons says that early Homo sapiens females evolved in a milieu in which physical and political power was wielded by adult males, and the evidence of the ethnographic record is that men will use their power to control women. As a result societal structures have evolved in which the power of social position carries its own in-built force; men in positions of power can bestow or withhold the resources they control depending on the sexual compliance or otherwise of women. At group level it is the aggressive form of sexual selection that predominates, leading to inbuilt forms of sexual coercion in society. In Homo Lapsus I argue that this did not have to have been the case, and that if the peaceful form of sexual selection had triumphed over the aggressive type, we would have evolved into a far more ‘charming’ and peaceful species.
Q: Alfred Russel Wallace has not been as widely recognised as Charles Darwin in terms of his contribution to science. How might his own faith have given him a different viewpoint from that of Darwin?
A: Darwin’s discovery of natural selection caused him to lose faith in his religion. Interestingly, the atheistic Wallace’s discovery of natural selection set him on an opposite trajectory to Darwin’s, since he became convinced that there had to have been divine intervention in the evolutionary process. Though never conventionally religious as an adult, Wallace advanced scientific arguments of striking logic and rigour for his claim of supernatural input into the evolutionary process. Whereas Darwin believed that human nature in its physical, and cognitional dimensions was developed from the lower animals by means of the same laws of variation and survival, Wallace felt that there is a qualitative difference between our cognitional abilities and those of other species. He simply didn’t believe that natural selection could have bridged either the intellectual or the spiritual gulf between the ape and the human species. For Wallace it was the very fact that the same great laws that had caused the evolution of all life were so obviously active in our evolution that provided evidence of a ‘Power’ greater than natural selection that was also involved, Wallace remarked that any inquiry into such a higher power is as thoroughly scientific and legitimate as that into the origin of species itself. It is an attempt to solve the inverse problem, to deduce the existence of a new power of a definite character, in order to account for facts which according to the theory of natural selection ought not to happen. Wallace’s belief in the involvement of a higher power in our evolution that was responsible for our spiritual and intellectual capacities made him far more optimistic than Darwin about the possibilities for moral progress. Although his work was suppressed by the scientific establishment of the time due to the developing controversies between religion and science, I believe that Wallace’s work has a significant contribution to make in resolving the creation/evolution debate. In Homo Lapsus I develop his thought on the subject in light of new evidence, and argue that a combination of his and Darwin’s insights into the implications of natural selection for humanity expands our knowledge of human nature in a way that can facilitate cooperation between religion and science in defining the future progress of our species.
Q: Why do you think that many people who believe in evolution are quick to dismiss the idea of ‘original sin’ and the ‘fall of man’?
A: Probably because evolution seems to explain how we came into existence and how we evolved behaviourally, hence dispensing with the need for belief in a Creator. It also explains the existence of evil in a way that can substitute for the Genesis account of the ‘fall of man’, albeit in a very pessimistic way. I am hoping that my book can contribute to changing atheistic views of evolution and vice versa. Religious views of evolution have led to certain Christian sects taking the Genesis accounts literally.
Q: What do you think mankind as a species ought to do now, to avoid a dystopian future?
A: I believe a religious input into scientific definitions of progress is essential to avoid the kind of catastrophic mistakes that ongoing technological inventions can facilitate. For this reason I am convinced that Christian engagement with science on the subject of evolution has attained a new urgency.