Darwin’s Pious Idea

Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. xx + 543. Reviewed by Norm Klassen.


This is an important book. It models a Christian engagement of biology that thoroughly defends evolutionary theory while challenging entrenched assumptions of what Conor Cunningham calls “ultra-Darwinians.” These assumptions now constitute core beliefs among most evolutionists, but are not actually demanded by Darwin and are contradicted by important recent discoveries in biology, as well as a significant body of theorizing on their discipline by biologists, chemists, and other scientists. On the other side, Cunningham also thoroughly critiques creationism and intelligent design as Christian attempts to “answer” evolution that neither do justice to the science nor fit with an orthodox theological understanding of the created order and God’s relationship to it. This is a book very rich in theological reflection, very demanding in terms of its philosophical rigour (by which I mean especially its careful logic), and very much engaged with the details of the science. He writes as a scientific nonspecialist, but recognizes the importance of engaging evolution in a serious way since “science’s account of the natural world has been used to challenge many of our most cherished philosophical and theological views” (xx). The onus is on the reader to familiarize him- or herself with some of the technical vocabulary. This book takes its place among the many that have critiqued unwarranted belief in the efficacy of scientific method and assumptions as worldview; however, it does so in more concentrated fashion, and in my opinion very helpfully, by identifying one of the most “pressing cases,” as he puts it, and by defending and celebrating what many people agree is one of the most important advances in scientific thought, namely the theory of evolution as promulgated by Charles Darwin.

I would like to start with one of Cunningham’s positive statements about the view of evolution that he is defending, one that may jar some Christian readers:

…there is a sense in which our history stays with us: we came from a swamp and so, no matter how high we climb, we remain at the origin of our species and indeed all life. In this way we never leave the swamp. It is our truth. (133)

There is a continuum uniting all of creation, humans included. Creation is not anthropocentric, which stresses the exclusivity of humankind. Furthermore, consonant with, though not explicit in, the above quotation is the insight that God is not a designer. Cunningham makes this point explicit some twenty pages later:

Both ultra-Darwinians and creationists believe that any existent deity is a designer “God,” the only difference being that the former think it does not exist, or that at the most it is a blind watchmaker. By contrast, orthodox Christianity has for over two millenia believed in a Creator God, who is anything but a designer. (151)

This statement involves a careful understanding of the otherness of God as invoked in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. [i]

This celebration of evolution Cunningham shares with Darwin. In The Origin of Species the latter writes,

“To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator that the production and extinction of past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining 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 Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.” (qtd in Cunningham 150-51)

Though Darwin himself came to disbelieve in God, he obviously does not view evolution as incompatible with belief in a Creator. Rather, he views his science as a study of what has been gifted to created matter. Darwin’s reverence of nature echoes that of Thomas Aquinas, who writes: “‘It is clear that nature is a certain kind of divine art impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship’” (qtd in Cunningham 151).

What Cunningham emphasizes in celebrating what all of creation shares, hinted at in the quotations from Darwin and Aquinas, is a structural or “nomothetic” dimension (121-9). One scientist calls this principle “order for free” (122); Cunningham also refers to phenomena pointing to “universal laws” (148, cf 144-9) and to “form” (149 et passim). Significantly, the author keeps this reference point bound up with matter: “It is important to realize, then, that the possibility of life did not just arise by accident, so to speak, but was rather intrinsic to the very properties of matter itself” (161). A few lines later, he writes, “we should agree with Ratzinger when he says that matter is itself rational” (161) and then, in thoroughly theological language, “we should say that the Word (Logos) became flesh, and consequently flesh became Word (or rational), but in so doing it is only ever recollecting and then repeating its origins” (162). And finally, the unity of all of creation does not preclude distinction. In recollecting and repeating its origins, “creation reflects its deepest truth: its difference is a nonidentical repetition of God’s divine difference” (162).

Cunningham very carefully embeds this discussion both in the science and in the theology of the incarnation and Trinity. He instantiates the subtlety of the relationship between matter and structure, which he also discusses in terms of organism and environment, pairings which take as their theological resonance the question of the relationship between nature and grace. (He has a beautiful fifteen page discussion, in a section tellingly titled “Transcending Nature, Naturally,” of the intelligence of plants, how “‘[N]o component of the humanum can any longer be denied to animals, although the human constellation of these components certainly can’” (165), of the dependence of all organisms upon one another, of the advent of new spheres of being). He is neither invoking Logos as cause (hence the warning about a “designer God”), nor limiting difference, a reality he treats in terms of repetition (esp. 159-63). If I have pulled out these theological points here, it is only heuristically to give a Christian reader a different kind of initial purchase (one that no doubt comes at a cost) on a big book, the integrated argument and rhetorical style of which may overwhelm or frustrate some.

Within this context of a celebration of Darwin’s “pious idea,” Cunningham challenges numerous guiding assumptions of what Darwinian evolutionary theory has become in one of its prevalent variants. This contemporary version, in some ways an extrapolation of Darwinian ideas but in important ways divergent from them, the author calls “ultra-Darwinism.” Chief among these assumptions are an atomistic construal of the natural order and a strictly linear or additive logic. Accompanying the critique of these default positions are two compelling observations: that in ultra-Darwinism biology abandons the organism as organism; and that ultra-Darwinism essentializes the biological equivalent of the atom, the gene.

Ultra-Darwinism fails to be consistent in its commitment to evolution by privileging a particular “piece” of the biological puzzle, the gene and, in common parlance of human evolution, a particular stage of development, the ape. As an example of the latter, Cunningham offers the following quotation:

“Just imagine taking some normal people, and stripping them of their clothes, taking way all their possessions, depriving them of the power of speech and reducing them to grunting, without changing their anatomy at all. Put them in a cage in a zoo next to the chimp cages, and let the rest of us clothed and talking people visit the zoo. Those speechless caged people would be seen for what they really are: a chimp that has little hair and walks upright.” (Jared Diamond, qtd in Cunningham 6, emphasis mine).

As Cunningham clarifies, the logic of evolution makes it impossible to specify what any given organism “really” is. Referring to the human, the author writes, “Diamond removes what evolution has indeed given, and then claims that in so doing the real ‘human’ is revealed. In fact, our animal heritage does include language – or has that come from somewhere else?” (7). I cannot stress enough (and I do not think Cunningham rhetorically stresses clearly enough) how important this logical argument is as a reference point for understanding the argument of the book as a whole, this exposure of the failure of ultra-Darwinian logic.

Selfish Genes and Feedback Loops

It applies directly to the question of the role of the gene in the story of evolution. On the topic of the gene, Richard Dawkins is a major representative of the ultra-Darwinian position, given his popularization of the theory of the “selfish gene” and related ideas. Cunningham observes that Dawkins’s gene never changes. Rather, it continually replicates itself, merely using the organisms it constitutes as vehicles for its own survival. Given its supposed unchanged and intact survival, the gene is immune to evolution. The theory of evolution as a theory governing the entirety of the created order, however, should apply to the gene. One can see from Dawkins’s own engaging description that it cannot:

“[M]aking a living got steadily harder as new rivals arose with better and more effective survival machines. Survival got bigger and more elaborate and the process was cumulative and progressive….Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to insure their own continuance in the world?… They did not die out, for they are the past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.” (qtd in Cunningham 42-3)

So, these replicators, which do not change, inhabit vehicles which do. Aside from the failure to include genes in the actual domain of evolution, Dawkins’s understanding of replicators and vehicles stems from an understanding of the flow of information in the formation of increasingly complex machines that has been shown biologically to be problematic. His view depends on the idea in molecular biology that information flows in one direction only: DNA replicates; through a process known as transcription, it gives rise to RNA; further translation results in the creation of a protein. The protein, which is a “phenotype,” can never influence the “genotype.” This idea derives from August Weismann (1834-1914), who divided genetic material into germplasm and soma. The germplasm never changes, while the soma dies. Bodies (phenotypes) are unique, germplasm is forever. “Weismann’s barrier” states that soma can never influence germ: information flows in one direction only.

The great success of atomism in fields such as physics and chemistry encouraged scientists to think about biology in similar terms: a Newtonian physics of clear causal building blocks and an additive logic that produced organisms of increasing complexity. One irony of this development is that the model discourages consideration of the organism itself as having a vital role in the evolutionary story: it has been reduced to playing the role of mere vehicle. Mario Bunge and Martin Mahner observe that

“Population genetic theory is evidently simplistic because it focuses on the frequencies of genes and genotypes as if they were self-existing entities….Unless we also make use of the whole of developmental biology, we remain either simplistic or reductionist (or both), that is , we are not even dealing with living entities: we are not doing biology proper. (qtd in Cunningham 41, emphasis mine)

When evolutionary biology went in search of a causal unit smaller than the individual organism, it ceased to consider the role that living organisms play in the evolutionary story.

Yet matter appears to behave differently in the context of living organisms. One mid-twentieth-century physicist, Max Delbrück, contrasted the way matter in physics and chemistry “displays orderly and reproducible and relatively simple properties” with the way it behaves “as soon as it is drawn into the orbit of the living organism” (qtd in Cunningham 23). Molecular biology has shown that genes have no clear identity as self-existing entities but rather need to be considered in terms of their interactions with one another. There is no isomorphic relationship between genotype and phenotype: the relationship between DNA and protein is many-to-many, and the meaning of a gene context-specific. While every cell in an organism contains all the genes, biological complexity and difference emerge.  Furthermore, if genes were like atoms, one would expect more complex mechanisms to have more complex genomes, but this is not the case. The genome for rice, for instance, is much larger than that for humans (56). It is an essential property of organisms that they are “‘not the sort of systems that have atomistic traits as their proper parts; such traits are the products of theoretical abstraction’” (Evan Thompson, as qtd in Cunningham 53). The relationship between genotype and phenotype has been shown not to be unidirectional. Through a process called “reverse transcriptase,” RNA informs DNA. According to Jan Sapp, proteins edit the genomic sequence (50). Many genes are polyphenic (many phenotypes arising from one genotype), while many phenotypes are polygenic (resulting from more than one gene). “Consequently,” Cunningham writes, “the relation between genotype and phenotype is utterly heterogeneous” (54). As a way of summarizing Delbrück’s observation that matter appears to act differently in the orbit of a living organism, Carl Schlichtung and Massimo Pigliucci describe the nature of the transition between genotype and phenotype in the following way:

“It seems clear that, no matter how strong our belief in the power of reductionism as an explanatory scheme, the nature of the phenotype of any organism cannot be mechanistically deduced, even if we possess a complete DNA sequence of its genome. The elucidation of the utterly fascinating (and mind-numbing) gymnastics that comprise transcription and translation has definitely crushed that hope. Thus ‘emergence’ arises somewhere between DNA and the phenotype.” (qtd in Cunningham 77)

The fact that genes can replicate does not automatically qualify them as the unit of selection. Dawkins himself admits as much. Elliott Sober points out that both gene complexes and phenotypic characters also share the feature of longevity that qualify them as possible units of selection.

“Emergence” is the word that captures the inscrutable relationship between differing levels of evolutionary complexity. Cunningham observes that emergence has a prominent place in group selection. Group selection plays an important role in the evolutionary story, one which Darwin noticed, though he handled it tentatively. Cunningham both begins and ends his chapter on the selfish gene with it. In the first section, he provides pictures of what group selection looks like from empirical studies: among chicks, the “‘most frequent clutch size is that which gives rise to the greatest number of eventual survivors among the young’” (David Lack, qtd in Cunningham 36); more generally, according to Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards, animal species seem to operate with a homeostatic system like a thermostat that helps them to “‘control their own population’s densities’” and “‘keep them as near as possible to the optimum level for each habitat they occupy’” (qtd in Cunningham 36). These observations, once discredited but now being revived, indicate that selection is operating at a level higher than the individual: the activity promotes the survival of the species. Like Darwin, Wynne-Edwards also considered the survival of eusocial insects, which in terms of individual survival cannot be favoured, for they cannot reproduce. Group selection goes against atomistic logic, particularly a strict logic of the survival of the fittest.

However, the individual plays an important role as that which appears in evolutionary transition. The survival of the species eventually creates the conditions of possibility for emergence through the complex feedback loop of lower and higher evolutionary forms. The evolutionary chain has been described by Richard Michod as “‘from individual genes to networks of genes, from gene networks to bacteria-like cells, from bacteria-like cells to eukaryotic cells with organelles, from cells to multicellular organisms, and from solitary organisms to societies’” (qtd in Cunningham 66). Group selection gives rise eventually to the formation of individuals on a higher level. As Cunningham puts it, “that which could live on its own – freely, as it were – subsequently cannot” (66). In a multicellular organism, single cells cannot survive alone, and in their emergence as a multicellular organism they form a new individual: “all biological units are traces of a past community that, through solidarity over time, became an individual” (68).

It is completely arbitrary and non-falsifiable to say that this activity is “selfish.” The concept accompanies Dawkins’s conception of replicators and vehicles. A truly selfish gene would not replicate; replication aids the somatic cells, which themselves are “‘pursuing increased replication within the somatic environment’” (Leon Buss as qtd in Cunningham 68). An individual on a new level emerges, making the selfishness of the cells altruistic, though one can always look to the emergence of a self as “proof” of selfishness. When one does not look at the activity in this non-falsifiable way, one can say that the cells transcend themselves; they sacrifice themselves through group cooperation for the sake of the emergence of a new entity.

The phenomenon of emergence can also be called self-organization: “the very properties of matter manifest a richness of potentiality that includes inherent capacities for organization or emergence” (118). William Wimsatt goes so far as to say that “‘one does not need special circumstances – or selection – to form self-organizing states or properties: one needs special circumstances to prevent them’” (qtd in Cunningham 118). Crucially, such order arises from within, though it is not a blueprint. Rather, “‘pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from numerous interactions among lower level components of the system’” (Scott Camazine as qtd in Cunningham 118). The global pattern does not even dictate the nature of the interactions between the components. Rather, that pattern is entirely emergent. Yet in organizing, the components become something new, something other than the sum of their parts.

As Cunningham makes clear, such emergence puts pressure on a strictly linear or additive logic. Biology must resist abstraction and respond to the phenomena to which molecular biology points. The emergent entity, because existing at a higher level, redescribes the activity that has occurred at a lower level. As Michel Morange writes, “‘Each level of life’s organization imposes its own logic’” (qtd in Cunningham 77). For biology, “‘The recourse to higher levels of analysis is utterly indispensible’” (qtd in Cunningham 76). Such analysis is contrary to atomistic reductionism. As Cunningham writes, new levels “give rise to higher levels of complexification and novel forms of causality. These new and irreducible levels are evident in the central transitions in which evolution consists” (77).

Natural Selection and the Generation of Novelty

The concept of emergence has implications for one’s understanding of natural selection, providing the latter with a more clearly defined context in which it operates. Emergentism concerns new individuals. This is evolution’s “existence problem” (110). “‘[T]he origin of life is but the first in a progression of origins….Multiple levels of organization have emerged in the history of life, and each such emergence raises the same existence problem as does the origin of life itself’” (Leon Buss and Walter Fontana as qtd in Cunningham 110). Once one is dealing with an actual organism, then the question of natural selection arises. Like organisms themselves, selection as a mechanism has an origin and evolves. This is one instance of what it means for Cunningham to say that what happens on a higher level redescribes what happens on a lower one. It is an example of how not only elements like genes but ideas like selfishness or selection cannot be abstracted from the evolutionary story.

Natural selection does not itself generate novelty. Darwin himself indicated as much in distinguishing the question of origins from that of natural selection:

“Let an architect be compelled to build an edifice with uncut stones, fallen from a precipice. The shape of each fragment may be called accidental; yet the shape of each has been determined by the force of gravity, the nature of the rock, and the slope of the precipice – events and circumstances, all of which depend on natural laws; but there is no relation between these laws and the purpose for which each fragment is used by the builder. In the same manner the variations of each creature are determined by fixed and immutable laws; but these bear no relation to the living structure which is slowly built up through the power of selection.” (qtd in Cunningham 85)

Selection deals with variations once given. Some variations are more adaptive than others. These have a better chance of surviving, thanks to the guiding hand of natural selection. On any given evolutionary level, the strong survive and eventually combine to create a new level, so that natural selection can be seen to be a major cause of evolution, probably the leading one, but it is not the sole cause. It also does not control how the individuals on any given level interact, nor what may emerge on a new level, facts also limiting its role in evolution. Darwin himself admitted, in the Descent of Man (1871), that he had attributed too much power to natural selection and was in fact a causal pluralist (83).

Natural selection as the sole cause of evolution leads in the direction of abstraction away from organisms and their interactions with their environment. Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin make the argument that, by insisting that each part of an organism’s phenotype is the result of natural selection, adaptionism begins by atomizing the organism and ignoring its reality as an integrated whole. Cunningham accuses Daniel Dennett of putting in place an algorithm for mutation: “His algorithmic conception of Darwinism abstracts away from biological description, preferring a wholly immaterial, functionalist account of evolution rather than the messy world of actual biology” (113). On the other hand, selection and emergence can be seen as working together: “If we leave vulgar Darwinism behind, we can understand self-organization and natural selection in a relation more in keeping with a cooperative marriage than an acrimonious struggle” (119). As Stuart Kauffman writes,

“Much of the order in organisms may not be the result of selection at all, but of the spontaneous order of self-organized systems. Order, vast and generative, not fought for against the entropic tides but freely available, undergirds all subsequent biological evolution….If this idea is true, then we must rethink evolutionary theory, for the sources of order in the biosphere will now include both selection and self-organization.” (qtd in Cunningham 119).

There are other problems with sheer adaptationism as well. Gould and Lewontin dislike the logic, finding that it is too easy to invoke adaptation as an explanation for every trait. Natural selection becomes the equivalent of a designer God. Gould observes that the intent of explanation by genetics narrowed from the 1930’s through the 1940’s from a pluralist account to a mono-causal, adaptationist one. In addition to Gould and Lewontin’s concerns, adaptationism does not account for sexual selection, which favours the survival of the species rather than the individual (83-5); it is not invoked to explain everything, when there are in an organism at any given time both adaptations and dysfunctional traits (105); it cannot notice, as Darwin did, that there are many structures which appear to be neutral (83).

Cunningham relates two images that help one to think of the power of form, not just function. What a heart is for cannot credibly be deduced by examining the organ in isolation. While many, perhaps all of its functions could be identified, it can only be properly identified in the context of the biological agent as a whole. As Cunningham says, “A physicist could never discern the heart’s function without becoming a biologist” (124). The second image is of a tractor, which Stuart Kauffman and Philip Clayton use to illustrate the emergent pattern of things without a blueprint or program. When engineers were trying to build a tractor, an implement with a massive engine, it kept breaking the chassis. Finally, the idea of using the engine itself as the chassis was proposed. As Cunningham says, “it was possible only because of its inherent capacities that were at this point not employed, at least in this way” (120).

By now, hopefully one can discern Cunningham’s program and strategy. Within a Darwinian evolutionary framework, he is appealing to contemporary molecular biology and related scientific debates to present the case that a certain variant of Darwinism, what he calls ultra-Darwinism or vulgar Darwinism, fails to provide an adequate explanatory framework because of its atomistic conceptualization of the gene and over-reliance on natural selection as the sole explanation of evolution. This emphasis, he shows compellingly, deflects attention away from the biology of organisms considered as wholes and away from their having a role in evolution as organisms. Furthermore, ultra-Darwinism is actually anti-evolutionary, for it essentializes one element in the evolutionary story, the gene, and requires a logic abstracted from that story. By contrast, a more consistent evolutionary story refuses to turn away from organisms considered in terms of both form and function. It eschews a unidirectional model of information flow, which as Cunningham shows is indebted to and a form of mind/matter dualism. Rather, it recognizes the apparent complex feedback loops postulated as a result of work done in molecular biology, including the Human Genome Project. It offers an explanation of evolution by expanding the modern genetic synthesis to include emergence or self-organization. Finally, it very rigorously calls for logic consistent with the reality of evolution, not only non-essentializing and non-reductive but also willing to subject itself to a nonlinear and nonadditive dimensionality as part of what evolution can bring.

Evolution, Progress, and Laws

The observation that natural selection operates together with emergence brings to light another relevant fact, that “similar morphological design solutions arise repeatedly in phylogenetically independent lineages” (112). Phylogenesis concerns common ancestry. The fact of similar design, also known as convergence or homoplasy, in phylogenetically independent lineages raises the question of what it is that may be leading to similar design solutions. The octopus and the human share a similar morphology of the eye, yet they do not share a common lineage. Convergence indicates constraint: “there are only a finite number of viable avenues for [natural selection] to take, and thus it is forced to adopt certain solutions to biological problems” (144). Convergence and constraint for some evolutionists suggest that progress inevitably accompanies evolution, working on the basis of underlying laws within the structure of matter itself. Inorganic chemists R.J.P. Williams and Fraústo da Silva write that “‘Life was a physical tunnel and there was only one way to go’” (qtd in Cunningham 145). For Christian de Duve, “‘Life was bound to arise under the prevailing conditions, and it will arise similarly wherever and whenever the same conditions obtain’” (qtd in Cunningham 146). Nobel prize winner George Wald reports that “‘The universe breeds life inevitably’” (qtd in Cunningham 146). Conway Morris writes that “‘What was impossible billions of years ago becomes increasingly inevitable’” (qtd in Cunningham 147). Quite beautifully, Morris refers to “‘silver roads of vitality’” (qtd in Cunningham 148) that lace the wildernesses of maladaptiveness, like chaos theory’s attractors. George McGhee, reflecting on the improbability that the porpoise and the ichthyosaur should convergently devolve their four legs and tails back into fins, predicts that

“if any large, fast-swimming organisms exist in the oceans of the moon Europa – far away in orbit around Jupiter, swimming under perpetual ice that covers their world – then they will have streamlined, fusiform bodies, that is, they will look very similar to porpoises and ichthyosaur, a swordfish, or a shark.” (qtd in Cunningham 147)

Cope’s rule states that there is a predictable increase in the size of an organism over time:

“Newly appearing species are on average…9.1% larger than older congeneric species….[T]he only clear-cut hypothesis that predicts such a pattern is the most narrow and deterministic interpretation of Cope’s rule, namely, that there are directional trends within lineages.” (John Alroy, qtd in Cunningham (148-9)

Cunningham summarizes this view of the evolutionary evidence by saying, “We simply cannot ignore the influence of generic physical mechanisms, which genetic structures must always take into account” and that “the coarse-grained behavior of organisms appears to display quantifiable universal laws” (148).

Besides addressing the question of the gene and natural selection as mono-causal, then, on the basis of current reflection on the biological evidence Cunningham takes up the idea of inevitable progress and, through progress, the question of inherent laws in the created order. The stakes remain high. Cunningham cites trenchant critiques of the idea of progress with reference to history. Against the notion that history progresses necessarily, Emil Fackenheim writes, “‘…Nazism was a total blackout. History is regarded as necessary progress only by those who are relatively remote from the evils of history’” (qtd in Cunningham 135). Gould similarly associates progress with anthropocentrism, colonialism, and imperialism: “‘We crave progress as our best hope for maintaining our arrogance in an evolutionary world’” (141). Cunningham identifies the logical fallacy of judging an idea by its possible outcomes. He also shows how many evolutionary scientists do not share the view of Gould and others. E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett are among those evolutionists who argue that the empirical evidence points to evolutionary progress.

In appealing to universal laws, Cunningham invokes chemistry and physics as opposed to biology. He specifically takes up the phenomenon of protein folds. Michael Denton and J.B. Edelmann describe protein folding as “‘a phase transition between the initial disordered chain and the tightly packed 3D crystal of the native conformation’” (qtd in Cunningham 123). For them, this is a process that reveals self-organization and the presence of a principle from physics: “‘adaptations are clearly secondary modifications of a primary form given by physics’” (qtd in Cunningham 123). Cunningham extrapolates: “If something so sophisticated as protein folding is an intrinsic feature of nature, then a great deal of higher biological form will also fall under the explanatory reach of laws – laws given by physics and not arising initially from biology, especially selection” (123).

Cunningham is aware that this insistence on form and law not arising initially from biology brings out a tension with his emphasis on the importance of biologists’ concerning themselves with the study of organisms. He shelters this tension in several ways. For one, he discusses the importance of appreciating the relationship between an organism and its environment as part of what it is to study an organism. Darwinists cannot speak of the fitness of an organism for the environment without simultaneous explaining the fitness of the environment. The two go hand-in-hand. Cunningham first brings up this issue in the context of natural selection relying on a preadaptive world (112-117). In this context he quotes Mario Bunge and Martin Mahner:

“[natural selection] takes the concept of (ad)aptedness for granted – in other words, it treats (ad)aptedness as a black box, and thus leaves the very essence of selection unaccounted for, namely, the organism-environment interaction. The latter can only be explained with the help of functional morphology and ecology.” (qtd in Cunningham 113)

Morphology, again, refers to preexisting shapes. The issue is, as Cunningham says, “tricky” (113). Yet the difference lies in the abstraction away from nature, in the case of ultra-Darwinists like Dennett, to the recognition of a morphological, formal, rational principle within, or better, intrinsic to nature. As Cunningham says more than once in the book, “Who said that matter was mere?” Putting the point more formally, quoting Morris he writes that “the viability of life’s adaptive forms is in some sense ‘predetermined from the Big-Bang’” (148). Even more tellingly, Lawrence Henderson writes, “‘The properties of matter and the course of cosmic evolution are now seen to be intimately related to the structure of the living being and to its activities….[T]he biologist may now rightly regard the universe in its very essence as biocentric’” (qtd in Cunningham 160). As Cunningham says, “What we need (and is now evident in subdisciplines such as developmental evolution and systems biology) is a biology of being, a field that accompanies neo-Darwinism’s biology of becoming” (152).

From another angle, Cunningham addresses the logical problem of locating being entirely in phylogeny (the diachronic, contingency). Rationality itself would become arbitrary. This argument has been used before by some Christian apologists to pit rationality against evolution, or at least with the effect of collapsing the discussion of the intricacy of the natural order. Such Christian apologetics invoke or can provoke dualism. Cunningham identifies creationism and intelligent design theory among those theories that attempt to defend rationality in a way that is ultimately dualistic. What is crucial to understand about Cunningham’s own approach is his entire commitment to evolution, properly understood. In this he stands in a tradition that includes recent famous apologists such as G.K. Chesterton as well as the tradition represented by the church fathers. He is not trying to vanquish evolution. Rather, he is saying that a view of evolution that privileges atomism and sheer contingency vanquishes evolution, because the theory loses its credibility as a rational explanation: rationality counts for nothing. In order for rationality to be relevant, it must stand outside of the subject matter it is being invoked to explain. He cites philosopher Thomas Nagel on this point: “‘Whatever justification reason provides must come from the reasons it discovers itself….[T]hey cannot get their authority from natural selection….[T]his means that the evolutionary theory hypothesis is acceptable only if reason does not need its support’” (qtd in Cunningham 112). Without recourse to rationality, evolutionary theory collapses. This is why Cunningham can say in his Introduction, “Ultra-Darwinism, if true, leaves us bereft of rationality, ethics, philosophy, science, and even turns us, by implication, into Holocaust deniers” (xvi). The idea is not to escape evolution but to return it to its properly scientific and empirical basis, which in turn provokes further questioning about feedback, cooperation, emergence and, perhaps above all, what a robust biology of being to accompany a biology of becoming needs to look like.

That biology of being involves overcoming a view of matter as mere matter. In Christian terms, to return to observations cited near the beginning of this review, it means acknowledging the rationality of matter and of appreciating the comprehensive applicability of trinitarian-incarnational logic. This will involve not treating the incarnation as a datum in the world but as the expression of the self-giving nature of God and form of all rationality, all understanding of the world. A discussion of these issues, encompassed under the rubric of the nature-grace question, is not only “tricky” but requires both patience and a willingness not to press formulations too hard. For instance, Cunningham takes care to invoke “good Platonism” but to distance the discussion from dualistic “vulgar Platonism” (123). He invokes law, system, and structure, but takes pains to clarify that “this is not some sort of vulgar idealism” (159). In his review of Darwin’s Pious Idea for the Times Literary Supplement, appropriately entitled “Such a thing,” theologian Rowan Williams approvingly refers to the non-dualistic continuity between the ideas to which Cunningham gives expression and the ancient belief that “the body is ‘in’ the soul rather than the soul in the body” (22 April 2011, 8). However, Paul Fiddes has recently taken C.S. Lewis to task for envisaging, in Letters to Malcolm, the life of the senses as being inside the soul. Fiddes interprets this sentiment as suggesting that, for Lewis, “a new world could be created out of the spirit alone, which carries the sensations created by matter within it” (The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis 96) and that “Thus far has Lewis moved away from his beginnings in Idealist philosophy, but no further” (Companion 97). Fiddes may be right. My point here is only that discussion of how matter is not mere (but rather such a thing) is breathtaking and vertiginous.

Cunningham pursues the organism-environment evolutionary relationship in astonishing directions. He makes the observation that, if the argument for laws is correct, then life can be defined as “an efficient way to degrade available energy. That is, life evolved ways to transform the environment into a life-giving and sustaining adventure wherein energy is released, thus feeding and enabling ever-greater complexity” (161). He pursues the idea of “adventure” and “complexity” in terms of danger: “with increasing complexity comes increasing danger” (163). On the one hand humankind experiences increasing emancipation from nature through culture and as a symbolic creature, an increased potential for cooperation, as well as an ever-greater reliance on the entirety of the created order and therefore vulnerability to its networked functioning. As Cunningham puts it, “all life on earth, all organisms, are dependent; we humans, the most sophisticated of all, are the most dependent” (167). A chief danger arises from self-consciousness, which ironically can foster the illusion that the bonds with nature have been severed (169). On the other hand, the interactions that betoken rationality can be found in the plant world itself and throughout the continuum of nature. An extended discussion of the work of Deiter Wandschneider hints at the extent of the interdependence.

The continuity of all of creation does not necessitate the denial that humans are made in the image of God. As with a number of his other ideas, Cunningham has already hinted at this distinction several times. After acknowledging that “we never leave the swamp” (133), he writes that “On a strictly materialist reading, however, we are only agitated matter” and that “if this is all we can say…then we should ask if we are guilty of something analogous to the genetic fallacy (133, emphasis his). Employing a similar logic, he reminds the reader a few pages later that “chance does not exclude inevitability” (146). He also approvingly quotes Vittorio Hösle and Christian Illies’ observation that “‘it is not only parochial anthropocentrism to see in the human spirit something of unique importance, for it alone could develop Darwinism and a general theory of life’” (141). This observation also recalls the ongoing dicussion of downward causality and nonlinear logic. He refers to humanity as the “cross and crown” of creation (150). For Cunningham, a main shelter from anthropocentrism is the presence of form in progress and inevitability in evolution, which reinstate the great chain of being: “This claim precludes, rather than accommodates, anthropocentrism, for it is a matter of participation (methexis) rather than exclusivity” (150). In this vein he refers obliquely to “more intense forms” (163). In a chapter subtitled “‘We have never been modern,’” he returns to this theme: “we wait expectantly, never thinking to disparage that which arrives just because it comes from the womb of time and soil” (180).

Evolutionary Biology, Other Disciplines, and the Nature-Grace Question

The context for this elaboration is a revaluation of those disciplines beyond biology that have attempted to apply Darwinism to humanity. Other well-established themes are prominent here, especially the anti-evolutionary, essentializing feature of ultra-Darwinian logic. Cunningham has put himself in a position to point out, simply and compellingly, the “gnostic disgust of the body” (182) that informs much of the work in those fields. He especially effectively shows the poverty of the selfishness thesis as applied to human interactions and the circularity involved in the theory of memes, which purportedly create mind but have a pupal state in the mind (206-10).

In his penultimate chapter, Cunningham assembles the many preceding reflections on the severe limitations of ontological materialism and offers a long meditation on the relationship between science and religion, embarking from the false separation of facts and values. It evolves into an analysis of subjectivity, consciousness, and the relationship between “‘tenseless laws and tensed phenomena’” (328) that hinges on active human involvement. The final irony that concerns Cunningham lies here: “When naturalism is ontologized…one of the major consequences is cognitive suicide” (336). Reason itself becomes “a wholly local affair…subordinated to the utilitarian principle of mere survival” (336). Riffing on the earlier theme of the problem of using reason to assert sheer selection (and to discredit rationality), of the biological move to deny consciousness, Cunningham writes, “The immaturity is most notable when these proto-arts forget the very source and ground of their activity, of their abstractions…and in turn forget that their sciences are theory-laden – not in a bad way but in a human way” (352). One simply cannot dispense with the first-person perspective, awareness of intentionality, and mentalistic concepts. Dennett asserts that “‘intelligence must be explained by non-intelligence’” (362). He must be held to this assertion, which cannot be fulfilled. By contrast, thoughts must be owned. Only by embracing the first-person perspective can the naturalism of nature be salvaged. Simone Weil calls this attention, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls attention “‘the active constitution of a new object which makes explicit and articulate what was until then presented as no more than an indeterminate horizon’” (371).

In the last chapter, “Another Life: ‘We Have Never been Medieval,’” Cunningham explicates the patristic and medieval doctrine of creation and participatory ontology. Focusing on typology and the figure of Adam, he points to the Irenaean doctrine of recapitulation. Typology locates the whole of reality in Christ, who is both beginning and end; it takes little interest in a linear concern for origins. For Irenaeus, the Fall does not connote a doctrine of original sin but rather disobedience arising out of childish immaturity. The imago Dei is not lost, though a certain spiritual likeness to God is. The emphasis, in the idea of paradise, is resolutely on the future, not on a past state that has been lost: “paradise is eschatological, as it suggests life in its fullness, a fullness that only comes through union with Christ” (379). Creation itself (and all history with it) is destined for such plenitude: “creation is not finished but ever in statu viae – ‘on the way.’ Creation is thus a matter of akolouthia, a gradual unfolding of God’s purpose” (379). One can easily see how evolution is a “pious idea” that describes what Irenaeus’s theology of recapitulation anticipates.

Cunningham teasingly challenges the reader that “just as we have endeavored to understand evolution as best we can…it is important to have at least some sense of what Christianity does in fact profess” (380). This applies to both non-Christians and to those Christians who tacitly accept dualism. He challenges readers with the implications of creation as ontological dependence on God, a denial of pure nature, and the necessity to think of the material world in terms not of possession but of gift. He cites widely from Christian sources throughout this chapter, not only from ancient ones but from contemporary Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theological commentators as well. Some of these are particularly arresting. For instance, on the plenitude of being he shares a lovely observation by Josef Pieper: “‘things are so utterly knowable that we can never come to the end of our endeavours to know them. It is precisely their knowability that is inexhaustible’” (qtd in Cunningham 398). And from Alexander Schmemann: “‘Even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called ‘sacred’ (‘spiritual,’ ‘supernatural’) as opposed to the world as ‘profane’” (qtd in Cunningham 408). He closes with a final observation that represents a challenge to ultra-Darwinists and creationists alike:

Like the digital dance of Dawkins’s DNA, the creationist is prone to the same species of bloodless abstraction, producing a pale copy of his enemy’s discourse. And in neither is there any room at the inn for Christ as second person of the Trinity, the cosmological liturgy of all life. (421)

This is a big book on a topic, evolution, that shapes many people’s approach to science and theology alike avant la lettre. Cunningham not only effectively identifies the dualism that informs contrary approaches to Darwin’s core insights, he also puts the story of evolutionary theory into two historical contexts: the one after Darwin and including the spread of evolutionary theory to fields beyond biology; and the Christian church’s ancient and ongoing interpretation of and entry into the mystery of the incarnation. Furthermore, or rather in this latter determinative context, he defends and instantiates philosophical rigour – a nonlinear, nonadditive logic to be sure, but identifiable logic nonetheless. This is one of the aspects of the book that may challenge those who in their engagement of culture have become habituated to a vague suspension of logic in the name of deconstruction, “negative capability,” or an impoverished understanding of negative theology. For many humanists, an Arnoldian spiritualization of culture (what Charles Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”) represents a persistent threat. On the other hand, it is always necessary to distinguish between ratio, the work of the discursive intellect, and a more receptive intellectus. Vigilance is salutary. Nonetheless, some potential readers who could most benefit from the comprehensive project on display here may not give it the attention it deserves.

This is one reason why I have written such a long précis. Another is the rhetoric. One cannot always tell if Cunningham is addressing a problem in ultra-Darwinian ideology or a weakness in some Christians’ theology. Sometimes he switches tack mid-paragraph. Even if one accepts that their problems stem from the same source, dualism, this rhetorical movement can be disorienting. Sometimes it is not clear whether a problem rests in interpretation of Darwin, or is implicit in Darwin’s own assumptions. Other times it is unclear why information is presented where it occurs. The idea of Weismann’s barrier is very important in the exploding of Dawkins’s idea of the selfish gene, yet it appears in the preceding chapter. Here Cunningham is perhaps simply assembling key points to which he will return, yet the argument already has a complexity and force that made this reader wonder how specific points fit where they were placed. In the case of Weismann’s barrier, it does not help that the author says, in the middle of a two-page paragraph, “The important point in this chapter is that Darwin, unlike Lamarck, took the route of pylogeny…” (17), an equally important point not clearly or concisely related to Weismann’s barrier. Finally, Cunningham typically introduces key ideas for the chapter to follow in the one at hand, especially in the crucial chapters on the gene, natural selection, and evolutionary progress. Sometimes, illustrative quotations appear early when they might be more apposite later, as part of the main argument rather than advance billing. At times, one gets the sense that the whole argument is in each chapter, with only a different emphasis in each. There is an important sense in which the argument of the book ought to be presented this way: Cunningham rhetorically embodies the nonadditive logic, the need to see the problem whole, and indeed the experience of emergence. Yet some readers may not appreciate this fruit of the rhetoric.


This is a very exciting and helpful book. It offers a provocative, coherent interpretation of data that, even internally to biological and scientific discourses, challenges received wisdom. One recognizes early on that one is in the hands of a seriously gifted guide. And one finds oneself, as a Christian reader, constantly being returned to the tradition and to the mystery of Christ incarnate.


[i] Cunningham quotes William Carroll on the logic of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo: “Creation as a proper theological concept refers to the origin of the universe in an absolute or unqualified sense of origin and of nothing. Such an origin is not, indeed, cannot involve, a change: otherwise we would be referring to a qualified and not to an unqualified origin….No theory in the natural sciences can contradict the doctrine of creation, since what creation accounts for is not a process at all, but a metaphysical dependence in the order of being” (qtd in Cunningham 151).

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis discusses the otherness of God in the following way: “The man who does not regard God as other than himself cannot be said to have a religion at all. On the other hand, if I think God other than myself in the same way in which my fellow-men, and objects in general, are other than myself, I am beginning to make Him an idol. I am daring to treat His existence as somehow parallel to my own. But He is the ground of our being. He is always both within us and over against us. Our reality is so much from His reality as He, moment by moment, projects into us. The deeper the level within ourselves from which our prayer, or any other act, wells up, the more it is His, but not at all the less ours. Rather, most ours when most His.” One does well to note especially the similarity between Carroll’s emphasis on “a metaphysical dependence in the order of being” and Lewis’s on the theological insight that “He is the ground of our being” (Letters to Malcolm 71). Compare also Terry Eagleton: “Creation ‘out of nothing’ is not testimony to how devilishly clever God is, dispensing as he can with even the most rudimentary raw materials, but to the fact that the world is not the inevitable culmination of some prior process, the upshot of some inexorable chain of cause and effect. Any such preceding chain of causality would have to be part of the world, and so could not count as the origin of it” (Reason, Faith, and Revolution 8-9).

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