Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


A.N. Wilson, Darwin Doubter

posted by David Klinghoffer

My Beliefnet colleague and friend Rod Dreher notes the return to Christianity of A.N. Wilson, a writer I’ve long admired greatly. He’s a novelist, biographer, and literary editor. Rod is glad and I am too but I’m more interested in the seeming side note, given in Wilson’s interview with the New Stateman, that he’s also come out as a bit of a Darwin doubter, or at least a skeptic.

More than a few people in prestige circles are bold enough to call themselves believers in God, whether as a Christian or a Jew. Far fewer are bold enough to go where Wilson goes when the interviewer asks, “Can you love God and agree with Darwin?”

I think you can love God and agree with the author of The Voyage of the Beagle, the Earth Worm, and most of the Origin of Species.

The Descent of Man, with its talk of savages, its belief that black people are more primitive than white people, and much nonsense besides, is an offence to the intelligence — and is obviously incompatible with Christianity.

I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true, and whether serious scientific doubts, as expressed in a new book Why Us? by James Le Fanu, deserve to be taken seriously. For example, does the discovery of the complex structure of DNA and the growth in knowledge in genetics require a rethink of Darwinian “gradualism”? But these are scientific rather than religious questions.

Why does it matter so much to me?


There are two poles or stakes that lift, sustain and ground Biblical faith, and they are both alluded to in the sanctification over wine (Kiddush) that Jews recite weekly on the Sabbath Eve. We say it standing up because witnesses in Jewish law testify while standing on their feet. These are basic ideas. They are a) that God created the world and all the life in it, and never mind the details for now; and b) that He brought the Jews out of Egyptian slavery. In simplest terms, these ideas encapsulate the basics of theism: that God is involved intimately in both natural history and human experience, guiding and directing each.

That’s why I always find it newsworthy when a prominent person, Jewish or not, who previously seemed to be on the other side, or who you would assume was on the other side, turns out be a sympathizer with one of those twin pillars of Biblical religion.


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Turmarion

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:12 am


God created the world and all the life in it, and never mind the details for now
If the details aren’t important, then why does it matter that Wilson may have expressed mild skepticism about aspects of Darwin’s work?
I think it’s important to point out that Wilson says (emphasis added) that “I think you can love God and agree with the author of The Voyage of the Beagle, the Earth Worm, and most of the Origin of Species” and also “I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true….But these are scientific rather than religious questions.”
Wison’s objections to The Descent of Man seem from his statements here largely to involve its Victorian racism, not the concept that humans evolved from other animals. He obviously sees no contradiction between “loving God” and accepting the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He is also careful, and correct, to point out that the truth or falsity of neo-Darwinism is not a religious question. I’m not sure this qualifies him as a “Darwin doubter”.
In any case, there have been and are many eminent biologists (e.g. Francis Collins) who have been devoutly religious and who have had no problem with accepting evolution of life (including) humans and a multi-billion-year-old cosmos. As I’ve pointed out in many posts on other blogs at Beliefnet, young-Earth-creationism (the belief that Earth is only about 6000 years old or so, that the seven days of Genesis are literal, 24-hour days, and that all species were created in their present forms) is completely incompatible with everything we know of biology, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics.
In this connection I might point out that the great Maimonides, in Book 2, Ch. XXV of The Guide for the Perplexed (M. Friedlander translation), says, “[T]hose passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise.” (emphasis added) My understanding is that Nahmanides and many other great rabbis held and hold similar views.
Thus, I think it is incorrect to posit a conflict between evolution and creation of the universe by God (by some means of which only He knows). Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution is a problem for theism only to the extent that it makes the metaphysical claim that only blind chance brings about the world we see, or that methodological materialism implies metaphysical materialism. Some, such as Dawkins and company, want to make this assertion, but it does not follow. E.g., if I’m trying to figure out why my car won’t start, I am methodologically materialist in that I don’t assume that God or the Devil smote my car; I assume there is some mechanical problem that occurred as a result of natural processes, and I try to find and fix the problem. This does not commit me to being a metaphysical materialist who rejects the idea that God created the cosmos and the laws of physics that caused my car to break down. He set up the show, including physical laws, and then let them run. No contradiction.
Thus, I don’t see any conflict between neo-Darwinian evolution, properly understood, and Judaism or Christianity.



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Steve

posted April 15, 2009 at 2:49 pm


AN Wilson wrote: “I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true, and whether serious scientific doubts, as expressed in a new book Why Us? by James Le Fanu, deserve to be taken seriously. For example, does the discovery of the complex structure of DNA and the growth in knowledge in genetics require a rethink of Darwinian “gradualism”? But these are scientific rather than religious questions.”
I’m not sure what Wilson means by the following: “I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true.” I can’t determine whether “the jury is still out” on that, because I don’t know what he means. That some organisms reproduced is one kind of event that contributed to the differences among some organisms. For instance, some dogs were born with a mutation that caused them to be relatively small. This smallness helped these dogs reproduce. Some people liked having these small dogs as pets. Some of the descendents of these first small dogs have traits that the first small dogs didn’t have, for instance, the tails of the latter are different than those of the former. But the dogs with the different tails have the tails they do partly because their descendents were born with a mutation that caused them to be small.
However, I’m not as different as I am from my fish ancestors merely because some of my fish ancestors reproduced. I’m as different as I am from my fish ancestors partly because some of their descendents were born with mutations. We know that mutations cause the existence of new protein-causing sequences of DNA, and some of my protein-causing sequences are different than those of my fish ancestors. In addition, I’m as different as I am from my fish ancestors partly because some of my ancestors sexually reproduced with others of my ancestors. We know that sex causes differences between some organisms, for instance, I’m different from my parents partly because they reproduced with each other. Also, sex causes the existence of some organisms that are better able to reproduce in certain environments than are other organisms. For instance, if you cross red carnations and white carnations, you can get pink carnations.
David wrote: “They are a) that God created the world and all the life in it, and never mind the details for now…”
But God didn’t create the world and all the life in it, at least not proximately. Planets form all the time. There are probably billions and billions of planets in the known universe. The most reasonable theory of planetary formation that we have now is the solar nebula theory.
As for life, no person currently knows the exact sequence of events that resulted in the existence of the first simple cells on earth. Here is a quote from the late biologist Ernst Mayr’s book What Evolution Is:
“What else can we say about the beginnings of life? After 1859 some of Darwin’s critics said: ‘This Darwin may well have explained the evolution of organisms on earth, but he has not yet explained how life itself may have originated. How can inanimate matter suddenly become life?’ This was a formidable challenge to the Darwinians. Indeed, for the next 60 years, this seemed an unanswerable question even though Darwin himself had already perceptively speculated on this issue: ‘all the conditions for the first production of a living organism…[could be met]…in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present.’
“…The first serious theories on the origin of life were proposed in the 1920s (Oparin, Haldane). In the last 75 years, an extensive literature dealing with this problem has developed and some six or seven competing theories for the origin of life have been proposed. Although no fully satisfactory theory has yet emerged, the problem no longer seems as formidable as at the beginning of the twentieth century. One is justified to claim that there are now a number of feasible scenarios of how life could have originated from inanimate matter. To understand these various theories requires a good deal of technical knowledge of biochemistry. To avoid burdening this volume with such detail, I refer the read to the special literature dealing with the origin of life (Schopf 1999; Brack 1999; Oparin 1938; Zubbay 2000).
“The first pioneers of life on Earth had to solve two major (and some minor) problems: (1) how to acquire energy and (2) how to replicate. The Earth’s atmosphere at the time was essentially devoid of oxygen. But there was abundant energy from the sun and in the ocean from sulfides. Thus growth and acquisition of energy were apparently no major problem. It has often been suggested that rocky surfaces were coated with metabolizing films that could grow but not replicate. The invention of replication was more difficult. DNA is now (except in some viruses) known as the molecule that is indispensable in replication. But how could it ever have been coopted for this function? There is no good theory for this. However, RNA has enzymatic capacities and could have been selected for this property, with its role in replication being secondary. It is now believed that there may have been an RNA world before the DNA world. There was apparently already protein synthesis in this RNA world, but it lacked the efficiency of the DNA protein synthesis.
“In spite of all the theoretical advances that have been made toward solving the problem of the origin of life, the cold fact remains that no one has so far succeeded in creating life in a laboratory. This would require not only an anoxic atmosphere, but presumably also other somewhat unusual conditions (temperature, chemistry of the medium) that no one has yet been able to replicate. It had to be a liquid (aqueous) medium that was perhaps similar to the hot water of the volcanic vents at the ocean floor. Many more years of experimentation will likely pass before a laboratory succeeds in actually producing life. However, the production of life cannot be too difficult, because it happened on Earth apparently as soon as conditions became suitable for life, around 3.8 billion years ago. Unfortunately we have no fossils from the 300 million years between 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago. The earliest known fossiliferous rocks are 3.5 billion years old and already contain a remarkably rich biota of bacteria” (What Evolution Is, p. 42 – 43).
Moreover, it is overwhelmingly likely that no God exerted some power to cause the transformation of non-life into cells. For one thing, no event remotely similar to that is known to have occurred.
Finally, some people do know that was on earth about 3.8 billion years ago evolved into all the complex organisms that have lived on earth. Here is a quote from the late biologist Ernst Mayr:
“Astronomical and geophysical evidence indicate that the Earth originated about 4.6 billion years ago. At first the young Earth was not suitable for life, owing to the heat and exposure to radiation. Astronomers estimate that it became liveable about 3.8 billion years ago, and life apparently originated about that time, but we do not know what the first life looked like. Undoubtedly, it consisted of aggregates of macromolecules able to derive substance and energy from surrounding inanimate molecules and from the sun’s energy. Life may well have originated repeatedly at this early stage, but we know nothing about this. If there have been several origins of life, the other forms have since become extinct. Life as it now exists on Earth, including the simplest bacteria, was obviously derived from a single origin. This is indicated by the genetic code, which is the same for all organisms, including the simplest ones, as well as by many aspects of cells, including microbial cells. The earliest fossil life was found in strata about 3.5 billion years old. These earliest fossils are bacterialike, indeed they are remarkably similar to some blue-green bacteria and other bacteria that are still living” (p. 40).



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David Klinghoffer

posted April 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm


You need to read the rest of that chapter from the “Guide of the Perplexed,” not just the cherry-picked up quotation. See my essay in the Jerusalem Post:
http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1143498873898&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FPrinter



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