Emeritus Professor of Physics
Harry W. Ellis received all his degrees from Georgia Tech (the PhD in 1974), then stayed on there as a Research Scientist before coming to Eckerd in 1978. His doctoral dissertation was in the area of solid-state physics and dealt with optical properties of semiconductors, then from 1974 – 78 he investigated ion transport in gases. He has consulted at the U.S. Army Battelle Lab, with Oak Ridge National Lab, among others. He has co-authored more than 45 articles in scientific journals, plus various book chapters, technical reports, and contributed papers at scientific meetings. From 1987-1991 he served as Eckerd’s Associate Dean of General Education. He is married to Virginia Simmons Ellis, an ordained Presbyterian minister (PCUSA). He and Ginny are parents of three grown or almost-grown children: Luke, Rachel, and Seth. Harry has served on the Task Team on Science and Religion of the Presbyterian Church and has written articles on the relationship between faith and science. He is an avid reader (science fiction, historical novels, or almost anything that stimulates thought and reflection), runs/walks about 25 miles/week, and enjoys music (favorites include Bach, Handel, and Pink Floyd).
Thoughts on Darwin and Theodicy
Harry W. Ellis, Professor of Physics
As the natural science representative among the faculty fellows, I feel that I should comment on whatever light science may shed on the topic at hand. That topic is, of course, “THE OTHER,” and by implication (we are, after all, functioning under the umbrella of “Spiritual Life”) our concern is with the moral/ethical principles which bear on human relations. None of this is particularly within my area of “scholarly expertise,” but when has that ever stopped me before?
Scientific comments on ethical questions must be made with care. Science itself, narrowly defined as a methodology involving systematic use of observation and reason to gain knowledge of the universe, has nothing to say about ethics or morality, excepting only the need for strict adherence to truth in reporting results. I know that my claim of science’s “amorality” is controversial, but it is surely correct provided we maintain a narrow definition of “science,” which I always do. Nevertheless, science is connected to morality in several ways. First, and obviously, the knowledge generated by science can be used for moral or immoral purposes by humans who are pursuing moral or immoral ends. Secondly, scientists themselves clearly may be judged as moral or immoral just as other humans. Finally, the knowledge obtained through science may help in clarifying moral/ethical issues. The subject of this essay falls in the latter category.
There is a long history of classifying “other” humans along lines of family, clan, tribe, race, nation, or other divisions. Such was true of the ancient Greeks, for whom non-Greeks were “barbarians,” and of ancient Israelites, who subjected Canaan to “ethnic cleansing” (see Joshua in the O.T.) as directed by God, He having given the land to them. Laws found in Exodus, Leviticus and elsewhere in the O.T. are frequently generous toward the “foreigner,” but nevertheless make clear distinctions between the treatment accorded other Hebrews (“us”) as opposed to the foreigners (“them”). Such attitudes have existed to Asia, North and Central America, and Africa as well: the rules for treatment of and dealing with one’s own people have almost always been different from those for dealing with “the other.” Mencius, a Confucian philosopher of the 4thcentury BCE, raised this to a principle: while it is admirable to love all, one should reserve the highest love for one’s family (parents first), then one’s village, then country, and finally humanity in general. This tendency survives, as U.S. churches pray weekly for the safety of “our” service personnel endangered in Iraq, only occasionally noting that Iraqis might also merit God’s concern – all this in spite of the fact that Christians regularly confess the equality of all before God. Folk wisdom excuses such inconsistency with the observation that it is simply “human nature” to value those near-and-dear more highly than “others.”
Evolutionary biology has, over the last century-and-a-half, beginning with Darwin’s breakthrough and continuing to the present, shed a great deal of light on “human nature.” It is not at all an overstatement to say that the present view of evolutionary biologists is that humans are “genetically programmed” with many innate behavioral patterns. Any statements about such behavioral traits are statistical, not strictly deterministic for individuals (just as calculation of particle trajectories in quantum physics yield probabilities only) but are nevertheless significant. Much (though not all) of “human nature” appears to be genetic programming.
The law of “natural selection” is very often misunderstood. I will not attempt a formal definition at length, but do want to comment on the famous characterization of the theory, apparently first stated by Julian Huxley, as “survival of the fittest.” This phrase is a fair summary of the theory only if one clearly understands what it is that “survives” and what is meant by the words “survival” and “fittest.” That which “survives” is emphatically not any individual organism. (A “fit” organism may indeed be more likely to survive, but that has nothing to do with the theory of natural selection.) What “survives” are genetically determined characteristics: light or dark fur or feathers, long or short beak or teeth, susceptibility or resistance to particular parasites. Such characteristics “survive” by propagating into future generations.
Viewed in this way, the theory of natural selection is simple: any genetic characteristic favoring an increase in the number and fertility of progeny will, over time, become more common in future generations (this is almost a tautology). Darwin’s theory further states that the “selecting” features that determine which characteristics lead to increased progeny (thus “surviving”) depend on the organism’s environment: for example, in the arctic snows polar bears with whiter fur are more successful hunters than those with darker fur, thus are healthier, thus produce more cubs (which are better fed and thus healthier). Over generations, white-furred polar bears come to dominate the polar bear population. It is in this sense that “white fur” is more “fit” for predatory mammals in the arctic environment and thus “survives” at the expense of darker fur.
Such physical examples are commonly used to illustrate how traits leading to reproductive success come to characterize a species. But in recent decades much interest has arisen in how genetically influenced behavioral traits also come to characterize organisms. What folklore has called “instinct” in animals is widely recognized as genetic programming: fish, birds, or insects find their way over thousands of miles to breeding grounds they have never before visited, for example. Other examples are more bizarre. Ridley1 discusses an interesting case:
The Australian brush turkey builds the best compost heaps in the world. Each male constructs a layered mound of two tons of leaves, twigs, earth, and sand. The mound is just the right size and shape to heat up to the perfect temperature to cook an egg slowly into a chick. Female brush turkeys visit the males’ mounds, lay eggs in them, and depart. When the eggs hatch, the young struggle slowly to the surface of the mound, emerging ready to fend for themselves.
. . . . How does he know that he is the father of the eggs in the mound? The answer, discovered recently by Australian scientists, is that he does not know and, in fact, is often not the father. So why does he build vast mounds to raise other males’ offspring when the whole point of sexual reproduction is for his genes to find a way into the next generation? It turns out that the female is not allowed to lay an egg in the mound until she has agreed
to mate with the male; that is the price for the use of the mound. Her price is that he must accept an egg. It is a fair bargain.
. . . . From the male’s point of view the mound is . . .his way of attracting female brush turkeys to mate with him. Sure enough, the females select the best mounds and therefore the best mound makers, when deciding where to lay their eggs. The males sometimes usurp one another’s mounds, so the best mound owner may actually be the best mound stealer.
Even if a mediocre mound would do, a female is wise to pick the best so that her sons inherit the mound-building, mound-stealing, and female-attracting qualities of their father.
This rather extended quotation illustrates what biologists call “sexual selection,” which is beginning to be recognized as a very important mechanism. If the object of the game is to pass one’s genes into future generations, and if one is a member of a sexual species (e.g., birds, reptiles, and mammals) then there can be few things as important as making oneself attractive to the opposite sex. Thus, those physical or behavioral traits that achieve this objective are strongly selected in future generations. And it is to the benefit of the “opposite” sex to play this game too, competing for those mates whom others pursue, so that her/his progeny inherit the “attractive” features and will thus be able to procreate a generation later.
Ridley, along with Richard Dawkins,2 E. O. Wilson,3 and others, attribute many of the differences between the sexes of a species to such causes. I cannot rehearse the entire argument here, and some of it is still being debated, but in almost all sexual animals – and certainly in primates – it is the males who “compete” for access to females, and females who “select” from among males. The biological basis is simply that usually a female’s optimal reproductive strategy is to invest heavily in nurturing and caring for her relatively few offspring (her ova are limited in number, the gestation time is long, and her investment is high in each one), so as to ensure their ability to survive and reproduce. By contrast, a different strategy is often available to males: to produce as many offspring as possible (sperm are plentiful, he is not burdened by gestation) so that, even if most die or are infertile, many will survive and reproduce. The two are competing strategies: energy, time, and resources used to care for existing offspring are unavailable for generating more progeny, and vice versa. Mathematical models based on “game theory” may be used to compute an optimal strategy to maximize reproductive success for a given physiology and environment. Among humans, the differing outcomes for males and females has often been dramatic: it has not been uncommon for “successful” males (Charlemagne, Solomon) to sire hundreds of children, a feat simply not possible for a human female. It has also not been uncommon for the female, whether widowed or simply abandoned by her mate, to bear the heavier burden of child-rearing.
Reproductive strategy explains much about traditional sex roles. For example: historically women have rarely hunted or fought in wars. Women who risk their own lives also put their children’s future at risk, and, biologically, they have little to gain in the way of increased numbers of offspring. Males, however, may gain much through such competition, mostly in the way of status and wealth, which aid their reproductive success. If fighting means only a 50% chance of survival, but a four-fold increase in progeny upon surviving, then the gamble is (mathematically, at least) biologically worthwhile. Obviously such calculations are not consciously made, but the behavior is favorably “selected” as a result of the underlying statistical laws of reproduction: those genes whose organisms take such a gamble will multiply in future generations at the expense of those genes whose organisms do not. Future generations will feature aggressive, risk-taking, violence-prone males.
Arguments such as this provide insight on the origins of “human nature.” Without citing research to support each claim (but see Dawkins and Ridley), there appear to be good evolutionary reasons why women seek out wealthy, powerful males to sire their children even if the male does not participate in or contribute economically to the child’s upbringing. The “good genes” thereby obtained for her children improve the chances that those children will, in turn, be reproductively successful. (In fact, Ridley cites research across many cultures showing that women paired with low-status men often have “illicit” sexual affairs, almost always with higher-status men4.) Men, meanwhile, are attracted to youthful and beautiful women, these characteristics implying physical health and a promising reproductive future. Standards of beauty vary, but female beauty is always that which a culture interprets as signifying health and fertility. Similar arguments explain much about why the sexes have such different viewpoints: Jim MacDougall has said that in virtually every survey questionnaire (“instrument”) used in social science research, the greatest differences in a binary division of the results occur along gender lines. That is, one can find statistical differences in most surveys along division by economic class, race, political party, or age, but the greatest difference is consistently between sexes.
Ridley cites scores more examples of human behavioral traits which seem to derive from our evolutionary history. It is fascinating to examine each one. Furthermore, doing so is crucial to the central argument since (as in Darwin’s day) the argument stands or falls based on the massive accumulation of factual minutiae, any small portion of which, in and of itself, proves little. But we must cut short our survey and attempt to summarize: evidence from evolutionary biology supports the theory that much of what is called “human nature” has arisen from strategies which led to successful reproduction in our ancestors. It is seen to be no accident that control of most human societies has been by males, who are (statistically speaking) programmed to compete for resources, power, and control of others. In fact, successful males often possess exaggerated male characteristics, tending to be aggressive, domineering, territorial, even potentially violent. Females cooperate by finding males who succeed in such pursuits sexy – cheerleaders date class presidents and star athletes, not nerds and cowards.
Related Theological Issues
But these genetically-influenced male traits are precisely those that major world religious teachers have said we must resist. It is the core of the Buddha’s four “noble truths” that we should quench desire for power, for wealth, and even for existence. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught that “the meek” would inherit the earth, that one should not pursue worldly wealth or power, and that we should “resist not” those who did so. Mohammed also taught the futility
of pursuing worldly gain. Karen Armstrong,5 one of my favorite authors on religion, has said that true religious faith is “about losing your ego” (I think she means “ego” in the sense of “self.”)
Obviously, males who “lose their ego” diminish their chances of reproductive success, and are less able to ensure success for their children, so such a characteristic should, when it appears, fade away in a few generations. Ridley writes6 that “there is no other way for evolution to work except by competitive reproduction. Those strains that reproduce persist; those that do not reproduce die out.” An individual male may choose non-competition and nevertheless reproduce, but such a choice is statistically unlikely to become a major feature of “human nature.”
Interestingly, this brings me to what I believe should become one of the major theological questions for any God-centered religion. God (by which I mean “that which is responsible for existence”) has apparently structured the rules in such a way that organisms will, over time, evolve to possess characteristics which God finds undesirable! Or, to phrase it in a human-centered manner: humans find themselves in a universe where, to thrive, they must oppose God’s will (at least as taught by religious leaders). To live by the teaching of Jesus or the Buddha is to withdraw from contributing to the future of the race, which goes merrily on its way competing for wealth, power, and control over others. Not every devout Christian or Buddhist must be celibate for this to be true; statistically, over time, the meek and unresisting will lose the genetic race.
I am not sure exactly how, but I believe that this question is intimately related to the question of theodicy: the existence of evil. I am certain that you all have heard the “proof” attributed to Epicurius that God cannot be both omnipotent and benevolent: If He is benevolent he detests evil and if he were also omnipotent would eradicate it. But evil persists. Thus either He cannoteradicate evil (in which case He is not omnipotent) or he can eradicate evil butchooses not to, allowing it to persist (in which case He is not benevolent). Applied to our argument, the question becomes: How can a loving Creator design the fundamental physical laws of nature (yes, physics, for biology is, finally, based on chemical principles which are, in turn, based on physics) in such a way that His creatures are inevitably led into a “sinful” state? And can it be “fair” (much less “realistic”) to expect His creatures to successfully resist the very laws which produced them?
Unfortunately, I have no good answer to this question. I have thought about this a lot, and have arrived at a tentative private resolution, but I am not ready to share the details. I will give hints: Remember that “God” is creator of everything that is. There is no concept (including “nothing”) that is not included. (The clever critic will ask: Ah, but can God create God? But read on.) Among God’s creations are space and time, good and evil, logic and chaos.
As a teenager I spent many hours wondering if it was conceivable for there to be a universe where “God” (the Creator of that universe) was evil rather than good. Phrased another way: is the statement “God is good” a tautology? Would not the “definition” of “good” always be “that which is favored by the Creator?” If this is true then anything God does is “good” by definition. Later I found that no less a thinker than Plato had written on this question, and had concluded7 that, in fact, the principles of “good” and “evil” were more fundamental that “the gods.” As Bruce Foltz expressed eloquently in one of my favorite Western Heritage lectures (unfortunately, no longer given), Plato believed that “God” (or “the gods”) were capable of being judged; that good and evil lay beyond their level of reality.
It is a little scary to disagree with such a thinker as Plato (and, in fact, I consider myself a Platonist in most things), but I do disagree. Or maybe I just mean a different thing by the word “God.” For, if the principles of good and evil are more fundamental to reality than “God,” it is those principles that we should be worshiping. Or, more precisely, it is those principles that we should mean when we use the word “God.” In any case, I use this word to refer to the Creator ofevery aspect of reality, every concept, including good and evil.
Logic is also a creation. God is not constrained in any way (if so, we should worship whatever constrains Him), and it was only by His choice/decision/word that the universe is governed by what we call “rational” laws, or that “logic” exists in any way whatsoever. God, being God, is not bound by logic. Or by good and evil. Or by time.
So faith really must be a matter of trust: that the nature of ultimate reality is good, not evil. This in spite of the fact that “evil” seems everywhere triumphant, and that the very laws of nature seem to favor it: the rich and powerful of the world are successful and admired by all, the young and beautiful are desired by all, the “meek” and powerless have little voice or influence, the elderly and poor are shunned. And yet, as the Qu’ran claims, “God is great.” Or, as Matthew writes (19:26) “for God all things are possible.”
One of my favorite scenes in literature occurs at the end of Goethe’s Faust. Part II of this play is long and mostly boring, almost never performed, and seldom read, but has a really loaded punch-line. Faust has, much earlier, made a covenant with Mephistopheles, signing over his soul in exchange for worldly experience. Cleverly, Faust includes in the bargain the stipulation that his soul comes due only when (and if) the moment comes when he (Faust) feels truly happy and content – a moment Faust is sure will never arrive. Most of the play’s Part I is concerned with Faust’s devil-enhanced experience of the world, leading to the tragic death of Gretchen, whom he mistreats but comes to love. At the end of Part II, however, Faust has rehabilitated himself somewhat, and achieved happiness, whereupon (of course) Mephistopheles immediately claims his soul. There is absolutely no question of who is “right” here: Faust’s soul belongs to Mephistopheles fair and square. And Faust is dead: he is in no position to bargain or play games or trick the devil a la Daniel Webster. But Gretchen, in heaven, has been praying for Faust. And God saves Faust’s soul. This is, of course, unfair. The agreement is violated. God gives no explanation. God is not constrained by rules of “fairness.” The rules derive from God.
The claim by Wilson, Dawkins and others that much of human behavior is “genetically programmed” created a storm of controversy. Critics portrayed Dawkins’ position as “genetic determinism,” wherein humans lacked free will and were therefore not accountable for their actions. Dawkins and his supporters fired back, denying such implications, and distinguishing “statistical cause and effect” from determinism. Thus, as Dawkins points out8, one can claim that “cigarette smoking ‘causes’ lung cancer” while recognizing that not every case of lung cancer is related to smoking, and that some smokers don’t get lung cancer. Even so, there is clearly strong statistical correlation, and reasons for assuming a cause-and-effect relationship.
I suspect that, cast in Freudian (or, better, Platonic) language, one can say that our genetic makeup is responsible for much of our “id” (Plato’s “desire”). Humans nevertheless have “ego” (Plato’s “reason”) with which to control these impulses. It may even be possible to link Freud’s “superego” (Plato’s “spirit?”) to an individual human’s identification with “humanity,” thus giving rise to behavior which sacrifices the interests of an individual organism or even his/her genes to those of others. This latter behavior would then correspond to the “altruism” which Dawkins so vehemently argues is not a part of genetic programming.
So, roughly speaking, I see “genetic” programming as giving rise to “id” (“desire”), while Freudian “ego” (“reason”) looks out for the interests of the individual organism, and Freudian “superego” (which may be related in some mysterious way to religious faith) creates identification with a “greater reality,” which may be humanity or perhaps even Creation. The Buddha’s teaching that we should quench “desire” is then equivalent to saying that our ego/superego should renounce our id. This is also suspiciously similar (though not identical) to Plato’s teaching that a “just” soul is one in which reason/spirit team up to “control” desire.
But why are things set up like this? While one may explain, formally at least, how genetic programming is rooted in physics, it is more difficult to see how such gene self-interest gives rise to “reason,” and seemingly impossible to understand a mechanism whereby a faith-inspired altruism, involving sacrifice of one’s genetic and individual well-being, could evolve from such a base. Yet this is what both the Buddha and Jesus say we must strive to do.
In my response to Bruce’s paper I cited Leibniz’s “ultimate philosophical” question, which was “Why is there ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing?’” I said that “God” was the word I used to answer that question: the word “God” refers to whatever is the answer for “Why existence?” Now I want to propose a candidate for the “ultimate religious” question: “Is ultimate reality at its heart ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or simply ‘neutral?’” If the latter is correct, then “good/evil” may simply be a human invention with no ultimate significance at all. If we have to judge from how natural laws have led humans to gene-influenced greed, xenophobia, and violence, we might conclude that reality possesses a designed-in “evil” – as that word is currently understood.
On what basis, then, have teachers such as Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha looked beyond surface reality to discern that God wills “good;” that loving-kindness (Buddhism) or love-of-neighbor-as-self (Jesus) is superior to the biologically selected pursuit of self-interest? Must “genes” play by one set of rules (reproductive self-interest) while “organisms” are expected to play by another, almost diametrically opposed, set (altruism)? How can a loving rule-maker construct a seemingly “unfair” set of rules? And from whence cometh my sense of “fairness” that would lead me to question those rules? I hope that someone smarter than I am can figure this out and explain it to me.
- Ridley, Matt, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, HarperCollins, New York (1993), pp. 131-132.
- See especially The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press (1976) but also other works by Dawkins, especially The Extended Phenotype, Oxford University Press (1982).
- Wilson, E. O., Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Harvard University Press (1975).
- Ridley, p. 223ff.
- The quotation comes from an interview of Karen Armstrong by Deborah Solomon in The New York Times Magazine, 4 April 2004. See also Armstrong’s A History of God (Random House, New York, 1993).
- Ridley, p. 5.
- Plato, Euthyphro. One translation has Socrates say “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.” Socrates apparently believes the former, implying that “the holy” would be holy even if not beloved by the gods.
- See Ref 2, The Extended Phenotype, p. 12.