Science in Christian Perspective
From: PSCF 39 (June 1987): 87-93
Sociobiology had its official birth in 1975 with the publication by E. O. Wilson of his massive work Socio biology: The New Synthesis. Through much of the dozen years of its existence, this young science and E.O. Wilson, its chief proponent, have been steeped in controversy. Some critics have charged that sociobiology is a new kind of racism and sexism, Others have feared a new eugenics or the "biologization" of the social sciences. These concerns, we think, have received adequate scientific as well as public attention.1 In spite of the visibility of sociobiology, Evangelical Christians seem to have largely ignored the potent religious implications of the new science.2 This lack of attention is not due to an absence of accessible literature, for in addition to Wilson's technical works, he has authored for popular consumption a Pulitzer Prizewinning book On Human Nature3 and co-authored with Charles Lumsden Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind.4 More recently he has published Biophilia,5 in part a sociobiology of environmentalism and in part an autobiographical sketch. In all three works, Wilson openly challenges Christian faith by offering a substitute belief system based upon scientific materialism. What should concern Evangelical Christians even more, however, is Wilson's claim that-for reasons intrinsic to current findings in sociobiology-he must actively promote the science as a new religion or mythology.6
E. O. Wilson's sociobiology has significant religious implications which have been largely ignored by Evangelical Christians. Wilson seeks to replace traditional beliefs with the evolutionary myth of scientific materialism. He claims his myth assuages an archaic, innate need to believe. However, such a claim lacks adequate data and epistemological foundation, and is, in part, a personal attack upon Christian faith. Sociobiology freed of myth might complement the Christian understanding of human nature and society,
To understand the reasons Wilson gives for wanting to promote scientific materialism as religion, we need first to examine some of the findings of sociobiology.
Wilson argues that the mind can be accounted for entirely materialistically, the product of a fourth great stage in evolutionary bistory. In Promethean Fire, Lumsden and Wilson provide one model (which they term "gene-culture coevolution") for how the mind could have come into being. This model hypothesizes that genes prescribe the rules of development, called epigenetic rules, by which the mind is assembled. The mind grows by interacting with and, perhaps, modifying existing culture. Some individuals possess epigenetic rules enabling better adaptation to the contemporary cultural environment. These more successful epigenetic rules and the genes which encode them tend to spread through the population by means of natura selection. The net result is that "culture is created an shaped by biological processes while the biological processes are simultaneously altered in response to cultural change."' Thus, they coevolve.
To track the mind's evolution, sociobiologists have begun to identify human behaviors that may have some genetic component, and to couple these behaviors with explanations of their evolutionary significance. Studies of infant behavior have yielded some clear examples of genetically influenced behavior: crying, smiling, nursing, startle response, and showing of anger are innate behaviors. Lumsden and Wilson point out that certain kinds of learning capacities also seem innate, those associated, for example, with language acquisition and with the ability to recognize certain patterns and colors. "Sociobiologists find it more difficult to distinguish innate from culturally influenced behaviors in adults. It seems clear, for instance, that basic adult emotions and human gregariousness are genetically derived behaviors. But do adult traits like altruism, incest taboos, and sexual roles also belong on a list of genetically influenced behaviors? Can these traits be shown to have enhanced evolutionary fitness in human beings? As may be expected, for sociobiologists the answer to these questions is a resounding "yes."
The Attack on
Wilson sees religion as a product of our genetic history. For him, belief in the supernatural is to some degree a built-in genetic predisposition or, in Wilson's own words, "an ineradicable part of human nature."" In his article, "The Relation of Science to Theology," he elaborates:
Sociobiology has given religious exaltation a Darwinian function. It is the set of enabling devices by which the individual merges his will temporarily with that of the tribe, reaffirms the value of collectivity, and survives the rites of passage and stress of personal tragedy.12
Wilson's regard for the evolutionary value of religion places him, as a scientific materialist, in a peculiar position. For whereas Wilson thinks that religious belief has in the past conferred an adaptive advantage, he nevertheless views religious belief as empirically false. The ancient myths (including Biblical Christianity) continue to hold modern man even though they "offer nothing concrete about man's ultimate meaning."13 The challenge, then, is to replace these now archaic behaviors or the epigenetic rules that produce them with more adaptive behaviors. This would involve either an unpopular genetic engineering project or a more palatable course of tricking the genes with a
Paul Rothrock is an Associate Professor of Biology at Taylor University. He received a Ph.D. degree from the Pennsylvania State University in 1976. In addition to science and faith issues, he pursues research interests in plant systematics. Mary Ellen Rothrock has a MA degree in English from the University of Wisconsin and has done additional graduate work at U of W and Pennsylvania State University. She has also studied with the late Francis Schaeffer at L'Abri, Switzerland.
This mythopoeic drive [i.e., the tendency toward religious belief I can be harnessed to learning and the rational search for human progress if we finally concede that scientific materialism is itself a mythology defined in the noble sense.14
Whereas Wilson thinks that religious belief has in the past conferred an adaptive advantage, he nevertheless views religious belief as empirically false.
At the end of On Human Nature, Wilson confidently predicts the defeat of Biblical Christianity and other traditional religions by this noble scientific mythology:
... make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism. It presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion.15
The new mythology, according to Wilson, will "explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon."16 Scientific materialism must triumph because "Man's destiny is to know, if only because societies with knowledge culturally dominate societies that lack it."17
If traditional religion and scientific materialism are competing mythologies, then scientists like Wilson must make their mythology and supporting "data" accessible to the skeptical public. Wilson consciously does so in his popular writings. In the Pulitzer Prizewinning On Human Nature, he reveals the form his mythology must take-the narrative form of an evolutionary epic. He goes on to say, "Every epic needs a hero: the mind will do."18 Mind, or the brain which materially houses the mind, is his choice for a hero because it is the most complex device we know.
Wilson develops details of the evolutionary epic in the more recently published Promethean Fire. In this epic, Mind is a kind of modern hero that, by understanding the deep connections between culture and genes, can choose the best future for mankind; i.e., Mind may "now take control. . . "19 As a result, humanity will no longer have to be held captive by the vagaries of conscience or God's will. Rather, society, impelled by faith in the new scientific mythology, will succeed in linking all knowledge into a "seamless whole" in which theory and verification run unbroken from physics, through chemistry and biology, to the social sciences. Within this knowledgeable existence the human mind may even be able to conceive how it, a mere biological device, can create purpose; and from purpose, meaning. 20
In summary, sociobiology seeks to understand
human social behavior, including religious behavior,
biologically. In sociobiology, religion is an archaic
biological need dictated by epigenetic rules emanating
from our genes. If, as Wilson believes, religion does not
provide a reliable view of the world, it follows that
societies under the guidance of sociobiology should
choose either to eliminate this archaic drive or to
subvert it by a modern substitute mythology. Scientific
materialism offers a substitute myth in the form of the
evolutionary epic that, because of its ability to explain
traditional religion as a genetic hallucination, will
ultimately replace "conscience" and "God's will" with
human knowledge. Man, having achieved this knowledgeable condition, will create his own purpose and
A Christian Critique of Wilson's Mythology
Evangelicals can critique Wilson's myth by exposing how he employs his science-turned-religion to persuasive advantage, Wilson claims that he constructs his myth of scientific materialism in order to appeal to" the deepest needs of human nature ... ""21 ; however, his myth also enables him to bypass certain otherwise insolvable problems in his argument.
First of all, Wilson uses myth to lend a sense of urgency to the new science. In Promethean Fire, he frequently laments that there are few sociobiological studies yet completed. As a result, Wilson refers monotonously to a single study on incest taboo as a means of support for various points in his argument. But as Wilson spins his evolutionary epic containing colorful, if hypothetical, glimpses of evolving man's experiences, the rather sparse data begin to seem more acceptable. Even a fellow evolutionist, Stephen Gould, faults Wilson's sociobiology for lack of evidence. Gould says of On Human Nature: "The chapters are full of insight, but they do not buttress genetic claims." Instead, they draw upon a "speculative tradition ... the just-so story. 22
A second advantage which Wilson gains through writing his myth of scientific materialism is that he is able to bypass an epistemological weakness inherent in sociobiological theory. This weakness dates back to Darwin, who reported having a
horrid doubt ... whether the convictions of man's mind which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?'
Can such a mind reliably know even that it evolved in the way Darwin-or Wilson-believe it did? As Ray Bohlin observed:
how can the brain, which (Wilson] says is a construct of evolutionary processes functioning only to promote survival, be expected to recognize truth? ... The brain should be expected only to perceive the world around it in such a way as to further the survival of the species. Whether or not [the] perception is true is totally irrelevant from the evolutionary vantage point.24
Wilson responds to this serious epistemological problem by suggesting we do not need truth in an absolute sense. Mythic truth is all we can have or need to have. To quote Wilson:
What I am suggesting, in the end, is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have. It can be adjusted until it comes as close to truth as the hunian mind is constructed to judge the truth.25 [emphasis ours]
Thus, Wilson dismisses the epistemological uncertainty in sociobiology by an appeal to the supposed sufficiency of mythic truth.
Do we, as Evangelical Christians, need to settle for mythic truth? Biblical revelation should not be viewed as merely one of several competing myths. Rather, it is the vehicle by which God has delivered us from epistemological uncertainty. For, as the late Francis Schaeffer pointed out, God has spoken to us from His infinite point of view; we thereby have a basis for knowing with certainty truths external to the human mind.26
Myth gives Wilson a third advantage, namely a format through which he can attack competing beliefs. In his article "The Relation of Science to Theology," he is explicit about his antagonism toward "fundamental religion, which in its aggressive form is one of the unmitigated evils of the world [and which] cannot be quickly replaced by benign skepticism and a purely humanistic worldview."27 Since Wilson claims to have learned about "fundamental religion" from "bitter experience" and exhorts his readers to employ "liberal theology" as a "buffer" between science and fundamental "dogmatic religions," his remarks certainly include-and may primarily refer to-conservative Christianity.
In his works, Wilson implies that the epistemological foundations of dogmatic religions (i.e., conservative Christianity) will crumble as a result of future sociobiological studies. In On Human Nature, Wilson sees science as now facing "the possibility of explaining traditional religion by the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology.... If religion, including the dogmatic secular ideologies, can be systematically analyzed and explained as a product of the brain's evolution, its power as an external source of morality will be gone forever. . - ."28 In a similar vein, he writes in Promethean Fire, "All domains of human life, including ethics, have a physical basis in the brain and are part of human biology; none is exempt from analysis in the mode of the natural sciences."29 Elsewhere he claims, " philosophical dualism and transcendental ethical categories ... have been rendered vulnerable to empirical analysis and await confirmation or disconfirmation by the instruments of scientific analysis.30 By calling into question the existence of ethical norms and supernatural realities, Wilson attacks Christianity at the level of its most basic assumptions.
In sociobiology, religion is an archaic biological need dictated by epigenetic rules emanating from our genes.
What if Wilson's hope is realized and sociobiology succeeds in demonstrating some genetic basis for religion? A discovery that religious behavior arose through a mechanism such as gene-culture co-evolution in no way denies the activity of an objectively existing God. In fact, one normally understands natural selection as tracking or being constrained by something real in the environment-climatic change, food supply, availability of water or home sites, et cetera. How could sociobiologists disprove that we are likewise genetically tracking God's actual presence and revelation to us? Should conclusive evidence for a genetic basis for religion appear, Christians might find their intellectual position strengthened rather than diminished.
When Wilson was asked whether human beings might be tracking a set of ethical precepts which actually exist "outside of the human mind and the idiosyncrasies of human evolution, he replied that he had no answer. His mythology of scientific materialism is, as he freely acknowledges, a matter of faith.
As a scientific materialist. . ~ I prefer to go my own materialistic route of assuming, as a working hypothesis, that we will eventually explain all of ethical behavior and ethical precepts as the outcome of genetic evolutionary processes; but I certainly respect and am greatly bemused by the alternative explanation.... 34
We have seen that Wilson employs his mythology of
scientific materialism to persuasive advantage. He
bypasses problems of sketchy evidence for his assertions
and an inadequate epistemology by appeal to a myth
he claims is destined to triumph over traditional religions. It is noteworthy that Marx's materialistic religion
likewise predicted its own eventual triumph. Wilson's
myth of scientific materialism may have a similarly
powerful appeal. Christians should take more seriously
the potentially religious character of sociobiology.
Contribution of Sociobiology to a Cbristian World View?
The religious form Wilson has given sociobiology unfortunately makes the science of sociobiology seem inaccessible and even irrelevant to Christian thought and practice. However, as data accumulate to bolster the basic theses of sociobiology, that human behavior has a genetic leash35 and that genes and culture can interact with each other in profound ways36, the impact on Christian faith may be positive rather than negative,37 There are several areas in which confluences may exist between Wilson's sociobiology and our Christian faith. In this section we will consider some propositions that both sociobiology and the Biblical view of man seem to share.
1. Natural man's goodness is corrupted.
According to Wilson's On Human Nature, sociobiology has built a case that altruism is not only genetically influenced but is, at its core, a selfish gene-preserving activity. Wilson views human altruism as more subtle and flexible than the hard altruism of ants and bees. Social insects will sacrifice their lives, but only for those they recognize as being biologically related to them.
Presumably, the sacrifice is otherwise not genetically profitable. According to Ruse and Wilson, human altruistic behavior depends upon: 1.) bow closely the recipient is related to oneself, and 2.) how likely one's altruism will be reciprocated in the future (so that one's genes are preserved either directly or through one's children). To be sure, we do not calculate genetic return consciously. Rather, Ruse and Wilson argue that our epigenetic rules governing mental development serve as a foundation for moral altruism, predisposing us to feel as if certain courses of action are "right."38 One recent report seems to support the concept of there being a genetic basis for altruism in humans."39 This study of twins measured a heritability of altruism as high as 50%. If, as it appears, moral altruism has a biological core, it cannot violate the genes. We are inclined to behave altruistically because "it is in our biological interests to cooperate."40
In the New Testament, Jesus seems to call us to practice an altruism unfettered by biological necessity. We are asked to help those who are least able to pay us back and to take on the role of the servant. To make such indiscriminate altruism possible, Jesus promises us eternal rewards. Anything less than this indiscriminate altruism falls short of God's glory and has, at best, only an earthly reward (Matthew 6:1-4). Since we are unable to live according to this standard, we require a new nature. 41
Should conclusive evidence for a genetic basis for religion appear, Christians might find their intellectual position strengthened rather than diminished.
Sociobiology seems to indicate that each of us carries temptations toward certain sins as a result of the particular epigenetic rules we inherit. Do recent studies tend to confirm this contention? Adoption studies demonstrate that crime and delinquency have a significant genetic component. 12 Twin studies have measured the heritability of aggressiveness at well over 50%.43 Likewise, a variety of social attitudes including those toward feelings of racial superiority, white lies, and divorce show a marked genetic component of transmission. Apparently, particular temptations toward sin haunt each of us in varying degrees.
We would like to speculate that this program of genetic manipulation has
already been attempted, and that its unsuccessful outcome is recorded for
us in the Biblical history of Israel.
Our knowledge of genetic influence behind sinful
behaviors of any kind may help us to realize anew that
for one to conquer temptation requires more than a simple decision of the will. The struggle with sin
requires God's grace and power.
3. A bizarre duality exists in human nature.
On the one hand, sociobiology exposes the self seeking and sinful tendencies in human nature as observed above. On the other hand, Wilson says we seek after God. Although he interprets this universal hunger as a genetically induced hallucination, Christians can spot in sociobiology some evidence for innate knowledge of God's existence and claim on our lives (see Romans 1: 19). Even though sociobiology as a form of scientific materialism is antagonistic to Christianity, the reality of human nature can be made plain under both systems.
4. Man is an ethical being.
On Human Nature and Biophilia both suggest that we contain within us a universal set of cardinal
values-a moral sense. It is too early to do more than speculate on how extensive and significant these values
may be. Wilson suggests that there are three basic ethical values: preservation of the common human
gene pool, maintenance of the diversity of that gene pool, and recognition of universal human rights."46 From
these cardinal values one may find a link to other basic ethical norms which find acceptance in a wide range of
human cultures.47 Sociobiology, then, seems not only to support the notion of humans as ethical beings but even to argue for there being a shared, nonrelativistic ethic. Having said that, we still must wonder how adequate this naturalistic ethic will prove to be, especially when compared to God's perfect ethic revealed through the life of Jesus. Remember, since sociobiology assumes genetic link, any human institution or rule for behavior will be founded on "enlightened self-interest."48
5. Man is a part of nature and has a unique guardianship toward nature.
Sociobiology is built upon the assumption that humans are biologically rooted in the natural world. Tc paraphrase Wilson: our humanness in good part derive, from the way we affiliate with other organisms.49 Scripture likewise strongly links us to the earth through a proximal origin from dust and from Adam. (Ir. addition, though, we have an important link to the Creator in whose image we have been made.) Science and Scripture are also much concerned with man's stewardship of nature: Adam was told to till and to keep the garden; the Jews were commanded not to destroy trees under emergency conditions; even the comman~ to have dominion (Genesis 1:28) implies a guardianship of nature. In Biophilia, Wilson seeks a basis for a modern environmental ethic-a "knowing stewardship." Although Wilson thinks the development of an environmental ethic is still in an embryonic condition. he hopes sociobiology will demonstrate that the preservation of nature is essential to the protection and nurture of the human Spirit.506. The perfectability of man's behavior is a crucial
In conclusion, human sociobiology has the potential of becoming a religion of scientific materialism. Within it, mechanistic explanation and evolutionary myth replace traditional religion. This we utterly reject.
However, areas of complementarity between Christianity and the science of sociobiology have been largely ignored by Evangelicals. A sociobiology freed from its mythological overtones could deepen our understanding of human nature and God's activity in His creation. On the other hand, because sociobiology focuses solely on man, it can tell us nothing about the nature of God, why we are the special objects of his love, or the potentialities of Christ-redeemed people.
1Wilson presents his own version of the controversy and appropriate references
in Chapter 2 of Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind by
Charles J, Lumsden and E.O. Wilson. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).
2Bohlin, R. "Sociobiology: Cloned from the Gene Cult," Christianity Today (January 23, 1981), pp. 84-87 mentions in passing the religious implication of sociobiology.
3Wilson, E.O., On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).
4Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire.
5Wilson, E.O., Biophilia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).
6Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 201.
7Barlow, G.W., "The Development of Sociobiology: A Biologist's Perspective," pp. 3-24 in G.W. Barlow and J. Silverberg (eds.), Sociobiology: Beyond Nature/Nurture? AAAS Selected Symposium 35 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, Inc., 1980).
8Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, Chapter 1.
9Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, pp. 117-118; see also Charles J. Lumsden and E.O. Wilson, Genes, Mind, and Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981). M.W. Feldman, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, and J.R. Peck, "Gene-Culture Coevolution: Models for the Evolution of Altruism With Cultural Transmission," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 82(1985), pp. 5814-5818 offers a competing model to that of Wilson and Lumsden.
10Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, p. 107 and pp. 67-68; see also C.J. Lumsden, "Color Categorization: A Possible Concordance Between Genes and Culture," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 82(1985), pp.5805-5808.
11Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 176.
12Wilson, E.O., "The Relation of Science to Theology," Zygon 15(1980), p. 426.
13Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, p. 7.
14Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 208.
15Ibid., p. 200.
16Ibid., p. 201.
17 ibid., p. 214.
18ibid., p. 211.
19Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, p. 165.
20Ibid., p. 173.
21 Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 217.
22Gould, S.J., "Sociobiology and Human Nature: A Postpanglossian Vision," in A. Montagu (ed.), Sociobiology Examined (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 287-288.
23Darwin, F., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters (New York: Dover Publ., Inc., 1978), p. 68.
24Bohlin, p. 86.
25Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 209.
26Schaeffer, F.A., He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publ., 1972).
27Wilson, "The Relation of Science to Theology," p. 433.
28Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 208.
29Lumsden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, p. 181.
30Wilson, "The Relation of Science to Theology," pp. 427-428.
31Lunuden and Wilson, Promethean Fire, p. 48.
32ibid., p. 19.
33Ibid., p. 175.
34Maddox, J., et al., "Discussion: Genes, Mind and Culture," Zygon 19(1984), p. 222.
35Bouchard, T.J. Jr. and M. McCue, "Familial Studies of Intelligence: A Review," Science 212(1981), pp. 1055-1059; Rose, R.J., et al., "Genetic Variance in Nonverbal Intelligence: Data from the Kinships of Identical Twins," Science 205(1979), pp. 1153-1155; Buss, D.M., "Human Mate Selection," American Scientist 73(1985), pp. 47-51; Rushton, J.P., et al., "Genetic Similarity Theory: Beyond Kin Selection," Behavioral Genetics 14(1984), pp. 179-193 (and also Rushton, J.P. and R.J.H. Russell, Behavioral Genetics 15(1985), pp. 575-582). Also see references 39, 42, and 44.
36Aoki, K., "A Stochastic Model of Gene-culture Coevolution Suggested by the 'Culture Historical Hypotbesis for the Evolution of Adult Lactose Absorption in Humans," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 83(1986), pp. 2929-2933; Rushton, J.P., et al., "Gene-culture Coevolution of Complex Social Behavior: Human Altruism and Mate Choice," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 83(1986), pp. 7340-7343. Also see Lumsden, "Color Categorization," reference 10.
37See also Peacocke, A., "Sociobiology and Its Theological Implications," Zygon 19(1984), pp. 171-184.
38Ruse, M. and E.O. Wilson, "Moral Philosophy as Applied Science," Philosophy 61(1986), pp. 173-192.
39Rushton, J.P., et al., "Altruism and Aggression: The Heritability of Individual Differences," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50(1986), pp. 1192-1198.
40Ruse, M., "Evolutionary Ethics: A Phoenix Arisen," Zygon 21(1986), pp. 95-112; see p. 99.
41Kauffman, D., "Genes and Grace: A Christian Looks at Sociobiology," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 32 (June, 1980), pp. 118-120.
42Mednick, S.A., et al., "Genetic Influences in Criminal Convictions: Evidence from an Adoption Cohort," Science 224(1984), pp. 891-894.
43Rushton, et al., reference 39.
44Martin, N.G., et al., "Transmission of Social Attitudes," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 83(1986), pp. 4364-4368.
45"A Biological Basis for Homosexuality," Science 84 (Dec, 1984), pp. 8,12.
46Wilson, On Human Nature, pp. 204-206; Wilson, Biophilia, pp. 119-140.
47Ruse and Wilson, "Moral Philosophy as Applied Science," esp. p. 188.
48Ruse, M., "Evolutionary Ethics," p. 101.
49Wilson, Biophilia, p. 81.
50Ibid., p. 140.