Wednesday, January 31, 2001

For Sociobiology

This is a letter I submitted to First Things in 2001. They sent me a nice letter saying I had obviously thought long and hard about this issue, but they didn't publish the letter.

Dear Editor:

Tom Bethell's article, "Against Sociobiology" (January 2001), is wrong on so many points that I'm not sure where to begin. So, instead, I'll start with Edward T. Oakes' review of Phillip E. Johnson's new book in that same issue. Oakes cites J.H. Newman's description of a rhetorical trick favored by secular intellectuals: "They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true." In the particular instance addressed by both Oakes and Bethell, some biologists who proclaim the truth of naturalistic evolution proceed to infer therefrom that God does not exist and that religion is wrong or invalid or obsolete. Oakes is not taken in by this leap of logic, but I fear that Bethell is.

A false implicit assumption underlies the atheistic scientists' argument: That demonstrating a completely naturalistic explanation for a phenomenon is sufficient to preclude any role for the supernatural. For a Christian, however, this reasoning is not only illogical but heretical. If we begin by positing the mutual exclusivity of the natural and the supernatural, we must end by denying the Incarnation. Those of us who affirm that Christ's full divinity and full humanity coexist in him without confusion and without division should have no trouble seeing room for the hand of God behind the completely naturalistic world described by biologists. Likewise, if we can believe in both free will and predestination – that human beings, choosing freely within earthly constraints, unwittingly behave as if according to a divine script – then we should find it no stretch to suppose that a completely naturalistic process of evolution could fulfill a foreordained divine plan.

Bethell gets so sidetracked by his concern over the non-issue of naturalism that he misses the real issue at stake in the Sociobiology Wars: the reality of human nature. While Lewontin and Gould, on the one hand, and Dawkins and Wilson, on the other, agreed on the premise of naturalism, they disagreed – sometimes bitterly – on human nature. Bethell nicely exposes the political motivation of the former pair, whose prior commitment to Marxism demanded that they deny human nature in order to portray humans as blank slates who could be conformed to the revolutionary order. Therefore, Lewontin and Gould asserted an arbitrary limitation on the scope of evolution, requiring that it govern only physical development, but not trespass on the realms of mind and culture. (Ironically, this parallels the arbitrary limitation on the scope of evolution asserted by those creationists who concede the reality of "microevolution" but dispute the evolution of new species.)

Edward O. Wilson, on the other hand, carried evolutionary theory honestly to its logical conclusion. His theories do not, as Bethell contends, imply that human culture and behavior are, themselves, biologically hardwired. Rather, Wilson's theory of the coevolution of mind, culture, and environment implies that culture operates in the human mind much like language. The capacity for language is hardwired in the human brain, but the actual expression of this capacity in an individual depends on the what language(s) the individual is exposed to, particularly in childhood. The forms that human languages can take, however, are limited and defined by the linguistic structures of the mind. Likewise, the capacity for culture is an innate element of human nature. It is our nature to live in a culture as surely as it is our nature to speak. The particulars of culture will vary between different times and places, as culture adapts (evolves) to meet the demands of a given environment, but the functions that culture serves and the forms it takes are defined by the cultural structures of the human mind.

Where does this leave religion? I think Wilson would probably classify religion as a special element of culture that recurs in all human cultures because we have an innate capacity for it – and that this capacity is (or was at one time) adaptive. Wilson's charitable attitude towards religion, a marked contrast to that of Lewontin, is consistent with his sociobiological model of evolution. (And Wilson is not exactly an atheist, as Bethell seems to imply. He describes himself as a Deist, much like his heroes of the Enlightenment era.) So evolutionary biology, carried to its logical conclusion, suggests what Christianity and the other major religions have told us all along: that our religious longing for transcendence is an innate part of who we are as human beings.

Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, takes exception to this conclusion. He largely agrees with Wilson's sociobiology, but he bends over backwards to explain away the obvious implication that religion must be an adaptive characteristic of human nature. I think the vehemence of his attacks on religion reflects the feebleness of his argument. His attempts to reconcile his visceral disdain for religion with his science are utterly unconvincing.