November 6, 2011

Review: Conor Cunningham, “Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong”

Title: Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong
Author: Conor Cunningham
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Genre: Religion/Science
Year: 2011
Pages: 580
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-8028-4838-3
Price: $35
Conor Cunningham wants to “move beyond the silly impasse brought about by fundamentalism (whether secular or religious)” in regards to the legacy of Charles Darwin (xi). Many atheists and plenty of Christians “tend to sing from the same hymn sheet” on this point: that “Darwinian evolution threatens to annihilate religion at its very root” (xvi). Cunningham disagrees. While Daniel Dennett has called organic evolution a “dangerous idea,” Cunningham calls it a “pious idea.” To be more precise, Cunningham outlines his understanding of evolution as promulgated by “ultra-Darwinists,” which he admits is quite dangerous—not merely to religion, but to the scientific method generally as well. He argues that religious fundamentalists and fundamentalist atheists alike misconstrue what organic evolution entails, and he outlines the boundaries of their misconstrual. Finally, he offers a different way to conceive of evolution from a Christian perspective, that evolution itself can help us understand God and ourselves. In this review I’ll briefly explain Cunningham’s main points, explain why I think he could have done a better job, and offer a few suggestions for further reading. 
Cunningham’s Basic Outline:
Cunningham’s opening chapter is a fun exercise in intellectual history. He describes some precursors to Darwin to present a basic overview of the intellectual pool Darwin was swimming in when he developed his theory of evolution. He boils Darwin’s notion of evolution down to three main elements: variation, reproduction, and heritability (20). The next three chapters cover the main debates still raging within Darwinism: the idea that natural selection works at many levels (not simply at the gene, organism, or group level); the question of whether natural selection is all-powerful or whether it is one among multiple mechanisms shaping the material world as we know it; and whether evolution involves direction or is purely random. Throughout these chapters he discusses the danger of believing in the so-called “God of the gaps,” by pointing to yet-to-be-solved puzzles of science as the places where God can be detected. Such gaps change; this is not a firm foundation, he says.
Chapter 5 extends the discussion to wider applications of Darwin’s theory to fields like eugenics, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. Here he takes a long pause to explain one of his most important points: the sketchy epistemology which an ultra-Darwinist account or evolution leaves us with. In a nutshell, if we’re merely material evolved creatures and our cognitive abilities are evolved too, then survival, not “truth,” would be the reigning principle in our thought. We could easily experience “true lies,” (215, 225).
Chapter 6 takes a glance at the “science versus religion” myth while dissecting naturalism, or the belief that all truth can be explained through analysis of and on the terms of the “material” world. Whereas methodological naturalism simply brackets the question on undetectable entities (i.e., provides explanations without resorting to God as part of the story), ontological naturalism goes a step further. Even philosophy must move aside: science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be” (266). Cunningham sees certain proponents of “Intelligent Design” operating under that same assumption—an assumption which he sees as inimical to religious faith.
Cunningham’s Rhetorical Approach:
Evaluating the rhetorical success of a book is one of the most subjective things a book reviewer can do. But the ways in which an argument is made often matter just as much, if not more, than the actual points themselves. The Lord may “looketh upon the heart,” but we’re often checking the outward appearance. How we say stuff can impact how people receive what we say. Cunningham is well aware of rhetorical issues, as when he praises the effectiveness of Voltaire’s satirical approach to Leibniz, (90-91). His own approach is often snappy and funny, as with his epigram, “Yabba dabba doo! –Fred Flintstone,” at the beginning of chapter five (179), which must refer to the way he describes Richard Dawkins’s understanding of human nature as being “Neanderthal” (236). While I chuckled about this, I also recalled his stated desire from his introduction to “move beyond the silly impasse” (xi). His snappiness is fun, but not very friendly.
Though Cunningham prizes seeking consensus (in fact, he corresponded with many self-proclaimed atheist natural scientists in the making of his book), he enters the fray with some barbs and jabs which will likely contribute more to war than discussion. In his introduction he points out that one logical end of ultra-Darwinism would be Holocaust denial (xvi), and while I think, on logical grounds he ends up sustaining this contention (220, 268), he could have named any human event there, so this seems like an unfair scare tactic.
In other words, I really liked what Cunningham was trying to do, but I didn’t particularly like how he tried to do it. Not only rhetorically, but organizationally. It seemed quite sloppy. Throughout this medley on evolution, science, and Christianity, Cunningham slips back and forth between intellectual history, philosophy, theology, advocacy, and criticism—all without placing enough signposts along the road for me and without much balance. His sometimes-funny-or-lyrical, always-verbose points can be found more concisely stated by other authors. (For instance, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article called “Religion and Science” which covers most of the important ground in much less space.) Interspersed throughout the book are discussions of all current hot topics in discussions about science and religion (memes, selfish genes, consciousness, emergence, brain science, etc.) but they appear at random. Cunningham’s final chapter is entirely an exercise of academic Christian theology, which I thought was interesting (he ties in ideas like Creation, the Eucharist and transubstantiation, forgiveness, atonement, etc.), but it somehow felt tacked on. Or perhaps the book was tacked on to it? Or I’m not quick enough to fill in the blanks.
Maybe this book is sort of like geekfan-type stuff—like the extended, live version recording of a band’s entire repertoire which die-hard fans must have, but that average listeners won’t fancy. For LDS readers in particular, Cunningham’s allegiance to the Nicene creed and creation ex nihilo won’t seem to suffice in reconciling Darwin with Christianity. Interestingly, LDS biologist, scholar, awesome-fiction writer Steven Peck has explored many of the same issues Cunningham discusses. At the end of this post I recommend a few of his pieces, alongside Cunningham’s book, which, for all its foibles, covers some fascinating ground. If you’re into that kind of stuff then you’ll enjoy Cunningham’s book. If you’re looking for an even-handed overview of the evolution/creationism debate, this book isn’t the droid you’re looking for. If you’re already part of the ongoing discussions, or if you feel like just jumping right in, Cunningham has a lot of great stuff in Darwin’s Pious Idea.
Cunningham’s BBC documentary “Did Darwin Kill God” can be found here, along with some other interesting discussions of the book.
Steven Peck, “Randomness, contingency, and faith: Is there a science of subjectivity?” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. Vol. 38 (2003): 5-24.
Steven Peck, “The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit?,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought  Vol. 38 (2005): 36-64, .pdf available here.
Steven Peck, Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here.