EVOLUTION is the headline challenge to Christianity in the
so-called culture wars. Various apologists make the case that there
needn't be a clash, but the fact remains that humans are apes, life
is a bloody struggle, nature produces great variety but even
greater waste, and where believers foolishly sense design, there
are really only random processes.
Biologists seem to know as much. Research from YouGov published
last month concluded that almost half of British biologists are
atheists, compared with less than one in five of the general
population. A smaller proportion of atheists is found among
And yet what this story of stand-off often fails to note is that
the theory of evolution is far from settled. Moreover, unease about
neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, the version of Darwin's theory championed
by Professor Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, has been
growing in recent years. There are a number of figures in the field
who, although they wholeheartedly accept that life evolves, are now
Take the problem of "missing hereditability", the suggestion
that genes can account for only a fraction of what we inherit from
our forebears. It has become impossible to ignore this since the
sequencing of the human genome in 2003. This impressive achievement
has, none the less, dramatically failed to deliver on its promise
to account for human diseases and behaviours through genetic
A handful of breakthroughs have been made, and modern science's
efficient PR machine ensures that newspapers still carry headlines
about genes for this and that. Massive funding is at stake. But, in
truth, the stated goals of the project have not materialised.
BUT something far more interesting, particularly for theists, has
emerged. The failure has led to the mainstreaming of the new
science of epigenetics. This acknowledges that the environment and
nurture - even a parent's experiences - directly influence what is
passed on to offspring. It undermines the idea that inheritance
happens only via DNA, and that evolution is built solely on random
mutations. To put it simply, life is far more complicated and
responsive than "selfish-geneism" allows.
Genetic determinism was, in fact, challenged from its inception
by a now forgotten biologist, Walter Weldon. He argued that the
environment and nurture were required to account for the inherited
variations within species observed in nature. Further, Weldon's
view might have won the day, and saved us from a century of
biological reductionism; but he died young. What is known as
Mendelian genetics had better PR and, then as now, that often
matters more than pure science.
Epigenetics might interest believers because it is one step away
from the mechanistic interpretation of evolution which appears to
land such blows on theism. It is a new piece in the puzzle of life
which raises the possibility that evolutionary processes many not
be blind and random, but might have direction, even purpose.
To that extent, it chimes with another critic of the status quo,
the NYU philosopher, Thomas Nagel. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the
materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly
false, he asks whether life may tend towards the emergence of
consciousness. When you immerse yourself in all the extraordinary
intricacies and syntheses at play in biological systems, it can
certainly seem as if the universe wills itself to become aware of
itself in the organism Homo sapiens.
AT A recent conference, "The Uses and Abuses of Biology",
organised by the Faraday Institute of Cambridge University, Dr
Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Palaeobiology at Cambridge,
speculated that we might do well to return to the insights of the
co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.
Right from the start, Wallace argued that human consciousness
was far more sophisticated than would be needed merely to afford
human beings survival advantages. We don't use language just to
warn our fellows of danger but to compose sublime, searching poems.
We don't use sound just to attract a mate but to nurture the
ecstasy and insights of music.
Neo-Darwinism puts language and music down as an evolutionary
by-product or excess. But that is scientifically unsatisfactory,
because it is, in effect, saying that there is no direct
explanation. It also feels humanly inadequate, leading to comments
such as those of the Harvard professor Stephen Pinker, who
describes music as "auditory cheesecake". Don't sit next to him
during a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion.
Theists can be intrigued by this sort of debate, since it might
change the narrative of a "clash" with science. But they also
shouldn't get too excited. As Professor Conway Morris continued,
biology would have to become an unimaginably different science were
it to embrace any teleological dynamics. The taboo against
directionality is strong.
Then again, paradigm shifts occur regularly in the history of
science. Perhaps biologists are about to make an evolutionary
Dr Mark Vernon is a writer and the author of God: All
that matters (Hodder).