Friday, February 16, 2007

Joan Roughgarden: Evolution and The Bible

This is my fourth weekend commenting on the presentations given at Beyond Belief 2006. This weekend, I start with the third session of the conference, with presentations by Joan Roughgarden (professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford) and Richard Dawkins (Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University).

Roughgarden continues a theme from the first two sessions by addressing the question, “How do we get theists to embrace science?” Her suggestion is that some effort be made to go to where the critics are coming from and find ways to put biological theory in biblical terms. Specifically, she has sought to express evolutionary theory in biblical terms.

She addresses two main elements of Darwinian theory, that “There is variation generated by random mutation and then there is the process of natural selection . . . that operates on the variation and produces changes in the . . . population.”

To explain Darwinian theory in biblical terms takes two references from the bible.

The first is a story from Genesis in which Jacob makes a deal with Labon where Jacob can keep the speckled and brown sheep and the others will go to Labon. God sought to compensate Jacob for injustices inflicted upon him by having the speckled and brown rams to “leap upon” the ewes so that most of the stock became speckled and brown.

The second story she uses has to do with a story where Jesus compares his teaching to seeds falling off of a cart, landing on shallow soil and good soil. Those seeds that land on shallow soil do not grow and those that land on good soil produces fruit. Roughgarden says, “So I even use the phrase in the book that mutation is a mustard seed of DNA tossed into bodies at random, and then you see in what bodies those mustard seeds prosper, and in those bodies then fruit is produced a hundred fold.”

Her lesson then is that, “In this way, one can directly find passages within the bible that can lead to an inherently friendly narrative about what evolution is.”

Richard Dawkins will come up next and ask, “Why bother?” However, I wish to argue that there are reasons to bother (and, please note, I write under the theory that says that the only reasons that exist are desires and that moral reasons are good desires), though not reasons for everybody to bother.

The reasons to bother can be explained using another analogy that I heard repeatedly during college that draw an analogy between a person’s beliefs and a ship at sea. If somebody wants to make repairs to a ship while it is floating at sea, one cannot simply dismantle the entire ship and then put it back together again. Instead, the only option is to rebuild the ship one section at a time, attaching each new or rebuilt section to parts of the original ship that still exist. Over time, in this way, one can construct a completely new ship. However, each change still must be anchored to what already exists.

Roughgarden’s project provides a way to change some parts of the “ship of beliefs” of particularly strongly religious theists that do not require that those theists completely abandon a whole set of beliefs and construct an entirely different world view from scratch. It allows that change can only occur by attaching a set of new beliefs to a set of beliefs that remain. Those remaining beliefs can be challenged later, but then those further challenges can be built onto the first changes.

To be fair, Roughgarden does not speak about changing whole sets of beliefs. In fact, Roughgarden is clearly a very religious person who simply wants her fellow theists to be comfortable accepting evolutionary theory. For her, these expressions of evolutionary theory in biblical terms are the end of the road. Yet, they need not be.

This analogy of rebuilding a ship one plank at a time can also be applied to rebuilding a culture. In fact, cultures seldom, if ever, undergo wholesale transformations from one system of beliefs and institutions to another. Even social revolutions can find an anchor in the traditions and beliefs of the system that is overthrown. If one wants to change a culture, it makes sense to put one’s effort into changing it one plank at a time.

We can apply this model to the problem of the Islamic Jihadists. Anybody who proposes a solution that involves completely overthrowing Islam and replacing it with an entirely different belief system is being irrational. Cultures do not change that way. Instead, a more rational strategy is to find some planks of Islam that one can change – replacing it with a set of beliefs that do not lend themselves so strongly to people killing and maiming others in the name of God.

This is substantially what happened to Christianity in the last four hundred years. One step at a time, Christians removed some old planks of their religion and replaced it with newer planks that were friendlier to science and reason. At the start, they took their planks that said that the Earth was at the center of the solar system, cut them away, and replaced them with planks that said that the Sun was the center of the solar system.

They have removed planks that prohibited the collection of interest with planks that not only ignore those biblical prohibitions but which holds entrepreneurship to be a high virtue. As a result, they replaced economic stagnation with economic growth.

Planks that obligate a person to kill those who profess beliefs in other Gods and that hold that God gives his blessing and a right to rule to kings have been tossed and replaced with planks that demand religious tolerance and the right of the people to select their leaders.

The slavery plank has been replaced with an individual liberty plank.

Christian culture has replaced the plank in which heresy was punished by death with a plank that demands freedom of speech.

These types of changes have created a version of Christianity today that would not likely be recognizable to the Christian of 1000 years ago.

Granted, not all Christians have been open to change. There are many who are protesting these repairs and improvements, and some who advocate taking out certain upgrades and putting the ship of Christian culture back the way it was. Yet, change has happened, it has happened one plank at a time, and it will continue to happen one plank at a time.

It has happened substantially because of the efforts of those people who have said, “Let’s upgrade and repair – not the whole ship of cultural beliefs, but this set over here that is in the greatest need of upgrade.”

Though it is possible to praise those who go through this effort, and to recognize the value of their contribution in bringing about change, I do have to confess that I have no interest in taking up the job of changing Christian culture. When I write, the vision of the reader that I have in my head is that of one who does not believe in God (thus, I spend absolutely no time arguing for or against the existence of God). I have no interest in joining the task of reforming Christian culture.

I can explain this lack of interest in terms of what got me into this business to start with. As an atheist high school student, I wanted to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, and I needed to know what ‘better’ was. This sparked my interest in moral philosophy. One could say that I became more interested in the design and architecture of ships than in their actual construction and repair.

Yet, one of the virtues of desire utilitarian theory is that it makes sense of a system that allows different people to choose different roles in society. Classical act utilitarianism, for example, has only two moral categories – the obligatory (that which maximizes utility) and the prohibited (that which does not maximize utility). Desire utilitarianism has room for three moral categories; (1) the obligatory (that which a person with good desires would do), (2) the prohibited (that which a person with good desires would not do, and (3) the permissible (that which a person with good desires might or might not choose to do).

A society has a need for architects and, with this, a need for people whose desires will draw them into the profession of architecture. It also has a need for people who do refit and repair, and reason for some people to have desires that attract them to this profession. The desires that draw people into architecture or construction are not for everybody, so they fit in the category of ‘permissible’.

I can argue for the value of having some people engaged in the task of bringing about a refit and repair of parts of the traditional Christian ship of beliefs. As a moral architect, I can identify the parts that are in the greatest needs of repair – because what we have is a threat to life and limb at best, and a threat to the seaworthiness of our society at worst. Yet, I confess that I lack the skills (and the interest) to convince Christians to make the repairs that most need making.

At the same time, I argue that the atheist ship is also in need of refit and repair in some areas. There are some refits that I argue for simply because what I see annoys me (e.g., the idea that ‘atheism’ is ‘the lack of a belief in God’ as opposed to – what I would refit it into – ‘the belief that the proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is almost certainly false’). Others, I hold, are as dangerous and absurd as the worst parts of Christian beliefs (that there is no such thing as moral truths and that one can make meaningful references to ‘reasons for action’ that are ‘subjective’ in the sense that one does not have to go to any effort to prove that those ‘reasons for action’ actually exist).

In all cases, it is unreasonable to expect any type of change that does not result in anchoring new beliefs to a framework of beliefs that remain (at least for the moment) fixed. This is simply one of those facts that a rational person will keep in mind as he argues for social change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don’t think that comparing natural selection to Jacob’s wildly weird and obscure attempt to get even with Laban by inducing sheep to give birth to speckled ewes by placing black and white rods in front of them as they reproduce will ever convince staunch christians of the respectability of the scientific theory.

In this case i would actually side with Dawkins, who Alonzo Fyfe said countered the idea with a “Why bother?” Indeed, the part of theism and religion in general that we specifically don’t want to encourage, are the incredibly superstitious elements. Christians might be brought to accept evolution by explaining that the stories in the bible are not scientifically true but metaphorical descriptions of reality, or any such non-scientific interpretation. Condescending to erroneous beliefs will not help, but will only serve to taint the scientific endeavour in many peoples’ minds.

Christians’ beliefs in the literal truth of the bible are wrong premises that inevitably lead to wrong conclusions. Science would do much better to try and find out why certain people cling so hard to fundamentalist ideas and then figure out some way of weaning them away from this easy milk and supplying them with a more appropriate fare. Science must stick to what it does best - and that is not dwadling in magical metaphors. Science understands things so that it can then change them, if necessary. Science needs to do religion, not by talking religious nonsense but by understanding religion and fixing it.

Don’t mix science with religion. Alonzo Fyfe uses the analogy of repairing a ship at sea, and encourages us (though he will have no part in it) to repair religion one piece at a time. He is right that religion has been slowly evolving and adapting itself to new ways of thinking. But describing science in religious terms won’t do. There are planks in the religious ship that must be simply jettisoned because they are completely rotten and useless. We must not encourage christians to take silly stories seriously.

We must not either, à la Dawkins, raise scientific atheism to the status of a religion. That irks the religious for no good reason. We must rather diffuse the tension between science and religion by distancing both of them, by explaining that they have little to do with one another and that Genesis has nothing to do with biology - just as science has nothing to do with god. It is the belief that religion is supposed to be scientific and the just as wrong belief that science answers religious questions that is causing all the trouble. We must enforce a separation of science and religion just as we have successfully and happily enforced a separation between church and state. And that goes for both christians and atheists alike.