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Religion, Science, and Evolution: Confessions of a Darwinian Skeptic

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms: Darwinian Biology’s Grand Narrative of Triumph and the Subversion of Religion. This post is adapted from a Religion Forum lecture he gave at Luther College.

I would like to frame my reflections here around three representative quotations. The first comes from the noted Tufts University philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett: “If I were going to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of either Newton or Einstein.”1 This quote reflects what I call the grand narrative of Darwinian triumph, a narrative that consistently overstates the scientific importance of Darwin’s theory of evolution in service to a largely ideological agenda. The second quote is from a Chinese paleontologist, Y. A. Chen, who once quipped, “In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government; in America you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.”2 There is great truth in this statement — critics of Darwinian evolution in the West are often caricatured as scientifically uninformed, unintelligent, or beholden to fundamentalist religious ideology — or all three! The third quote is attributed to the important British population geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, who was always good for a memorable saying: “Teleology is like a mistress to the biologist. He can’t live without her but he doesn’t want to be seen with her in public.”3

An Ideological Structure

These three quotes sum up much of what I argued in my recently published book The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms: Darwinian Biology’s Grand Narrative of Triumph and the Subversion of Religion (Cascade, 2019). Through a close reading of the scientific literature of evolutionary biology from Darwin to Dobzhansky to Dawkins and many others in between, I came to the conclusion that the Darwinian mechanism of evolution — natural selection acting on the randomly produced variation in populations of organisms — has functioned much more as an ideological structure over the last one hundred and fifty years than as a well-supported scientific theory. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am not making a creationist argument. The fact of evolution is well supported by mountains of empirical data. But knowing that evolution occurred is far different from understanding how it occurred. In my view, the mechanisms driving the evolutionary process remain a mystery, while the widely accepted view that evolution is primarily driven by natural selection is part of a grand narrative of Darwinian triumph that obscures this mystery in service to the ideological agenda of making sure the biological sciences are firmly based on a naturalistic foundation (or as the Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin once put it, to prevent a divine foot from getting in the door). It is not my intention to argue this admittedly provocative thesis in detail. The argument is laid out in The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms for those who are interested. I would like to makes some remarks instead about the larger significance of this work.

First I would like to push back on the caricature that Darwinian skeptics are uninformed, unintelligent, or religiously biased. There are a growing number of such skeptics who fail to fit this stereotyped profile (I think I am one of them!), and I would like to briefly mention three in particular. Stanley Salthe is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Brooklyn College. In 1972 he published a textbook on evolutionary biology focused squarely on Darwinian natural selection as evolution’s primary mechanism. But in recent decades, he has become skeptical of natural selection’s ability to adequately account for the evolution of complex organic structures and has posted on his website 14 arguments critical of natural selection.4 

The Peacock’s Tail

Stanford University Professor Emerita of Ecology and Evolution, Joan Roughgarden, specifically challenges Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, the idea that secondary sexual characteristics like the peacock’s tail result from peahens being attracted to peacocks with slightly longer showier tails, leading to those peacocks leaving more offspring bearing this characteristic. Roughgarden believes this theory improperly imposes on the natural world heteronormative assumptions about human sexuality, a dynamic she is especially sensitive to given her own identity as a transgender woman. In her 2004 book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, Roughgarden documents the great diversity of sexuality and gender expression that exists in organisms from lizards to birds to mammals to primates, a diversity that in her view undermines the very foundation of sexual selection theory. As it turns out, humans’ closest evolutionary relatives, the bonobos, engage in homosexual activity quite frequently, demonstrating that sexual activity in nature is not always about procreation, but has important social functions. Roughgarden’s 2009 book The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness is meant as a direct response to Richard Dawkins’ best-selling The Selfish Gene. Roughgarden argues that the ruthless competition so frequently associated with Darwinian evolution is belied by the existence of a cooperative arrangements throughout the biological world.

More recently, Marcos Eberlin, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil published Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose (2019), an argument not only against Darwinian evolution but in favor of the much-vilified theory of intelligent design. Eberlin is the director of the Thomson Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of Campinas and in 2005 received the Brazilian National Order of Scientific Merit. He is the highest profile scientist to recently declare his support for intelligent design. Salthe, Roughgarden, and Eberlin simply do not fit the stereotypical image of a Darwinian skeptic — they are not uninformed, unintelligent, or beholden to religious ideology. Darwinian skepticism is an intellectually respectable and growing phenomenon. So what were the seeds of my own skepticism?

“Religious” Language

As I read through the scientific literature of evolutionary biology to try and convince myself of its accuracy and coherence, I was struck by the frequency with which I encountered “religious” language in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. What I mean by “religious” language is terms like orthodoxy (usually couched in the phrase Darwinian orthodoxy), heresy, blasphemy, dogma, doctrine, and creed. Such terms seemed out of place in scientific literature, but their frequent occurrence alerted me to something more going on in this literature than simply scientific discussion. As a religion scholar, I know that the terms orthodoxy and heresy are not synonyms for true and false; they arose in early Christian disputes over the nature of Christ and became ideological identity markers denoting the boundaries between different Christian communities. Since one person’s heresy can be another person’s orthodoxy, no idea is rendered true simply by being viewed as orthodox within a particular community. Could these terms be playing a similar role in scientific literature? I believe so. Let’s consider in detail one noteworthy example of this phenomenon.

Why Dogma?

Many readers will be familiar with the name Francis Crick, one half of the team that in 1953 discovered the double helix structure of the DNA molecule (James Watson was the other). Four years after this discovery, Crick proclaimed what he called the Central Dogma of molecular biology. Why would Crick, a professed atheist, use such a religiously loaded term as dogma? Why did he not profess the Central Principle of molecular biology or the Fundamental Theorem of molecular biology?5 Why dogma? To answer this question it is important to know more about Crick’s background. Crick was not originally trained as a biologist. He studied physics. While working on his doctorate in physics during World War II, Crick’s lab was destroyed by a German bomb. Crick then went to work for the British Admiralty during the war effort, and after the war decided that since he was starting over, he could study anything he liked. So he turned to biology in order to stamp out what he saw as the last vestiges of vitalism in biology. Vitalism is an idea coming out of the 19th century that biological organisms contain within them a vital force (Henri Bergson, in French, called this the élan vital) that propelled their evolution in preordained directions. This sounded too much like religion to the atheistic Crick, and destroying vitalism became his own stated motivation for turning to biology. So what is the Central Dogma of molecular biology?

In short, the Central Dogma states that genetic information can flow in only one direction, from DNA out to the synthesis of proteins, but never from proteins back into DNA. In other words, Crick was arguing that no force existed outside the nucleus of a cell that could reach back into the nucleus and alter DNA sequences in any intentional way. But of course, DNA sequences have to change over time for evolution to occur. If DNA sequences never changed, the world would be inhabited by only one-celled bacteria rather than plants, insects, birds, and mammals. But if there is no force that can alter DNA sequences in any intentional way, then DNA sequences can change only as a result of random copying errors during DNA replication, or random mutations. Crick’s Central Dogma fits hand-in-glove with Darwinian evolution; it guarantees that the variations in populations of organisms on which natural selection acts are produced accidentally, not in any purposeful way. The Central Dogma is also consistent with Crick’s stated desire to stamp out vitalism from biology. But why did Crick feel compelled to call this idea a dogma?

In the article where he pronounced the Central Dogma, Crick wrote the following:

My own thinking (and that of my colleagues) is based on two general principles, which I shall call the Sequence Hypothesis and the Central Dogma. The direct evidence for both of them is negligible, but I have found them to be of great help in getting to grips with these very complex problems….Their speculative nature is emphasized by their names.6

Few scientists today could get away with publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal stating that the evidence for their hypothesis is negligible but that it just seems to them the way things work! But by 1957, Crick was one of the most famous scientists in the world and the standards were clearly different for him. The point, of course, is that he was forced to admit he was pronouncing a dogmatic position, not an evidence-based scientific one, and he is to be applauded for his transparency. But if the evidence for this dogma is negligible (or at least was in Crick’s day), how do we know it is true?

Challenging the Central Dogma

It was not long before the Nobel Prize-winning corn geneticist Barbara McClintock began to challenge the Central Dogma. McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 (the first woman to win this award unshared) for her discovery of transposable elements, genetic fragments that can move around and relocate from one part of the genome to another. She believed that through this process of transposition, some genes acted to control the activity of other genes and that this activity might be under the control of cells in ways that violate Crick’s Central Dogma. In her Nobel speech, McClintock concluded with this striking passage:

In the future, attention undoubtedly will be centered on the genome, with greater appreciation of its significance as a highly sensitive organ of the cell that monitors genetic activities and corrects common errors, senses unusual or unexpected events, and responds to them, often by restructuring the genome. We know about the components of genomes that could be made available for such restructuring. We know nothing, however, about how the cell senses danger and instigates responses to it that often are truly remarkable.7

The teleological language here is unmistakable. McClintock raised the uncomfortable prospect of cellular cognition, the idea that cells possess some sort of primitive intelligence and ability to restructure their own genomes in intentional ways to respond to environmental challenges. This prospect takes us into realms far beyond anything envisioned by Crick and certainly by Darwin.

While McClintock has become something of a forgotten figure in the history of 20th-century biology (for obvious reasons), her more radical ideas have been perpetuated by her student James Shapiro, recently retired from the University of Chicago. Shapiro has coined the term Natural Genetic Engineering (NGE) to refer to the power he believes cells possess to alter their own genetic material, and he sees NGE as a replacement for — not an addition to — natural selection as a primary driver of evolution:

A shift from thinking about gradual selection of localized random changes to sudden genome restructuring by sensory network-influenced cell systems is a major conceptual change. It replaces the “invisible hands” of geological time and natural selection with cognitive networks and cellular functions for self-modification.8

As far as I can tell, the jury is still out on the truth of Crick’s Central Dogma. But the fact that he had to pronounce it as dogma speaks volumes about the ideological battles encoded within the scientific literature. Any suggestion of purpose or direction in evolution will be quickly marginalized because of the religious implications. As Haldane noted, biologists do not want to be associated with teleology in public, even when the evidence might point in that direction. To seriously entertain teleological processes would be tantamount to undermining the foundations of biology as a naturalistic science. This is what I refer to in the subtitle of my book as the subversion of religion. 

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Of course, not all biologists hold to the anti-religious commitments of a Francis Crick. In the 1990s the late Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that religion and science be viewed as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) such that they cannot, by definition, be in conflict. Science deals with the workings of the physical world; religion with ethics, morality, and faith. Their respective areas of concern do not overlap. Many find Gould’s NOMA solution attractive, at least in theory. Unfortunately, few adhere to it in practice. 

In 2014, evolutionary biologists Francisco Ayala and John Avise edited an anthology of seminal papers titled Essential Readings in Evolutionary Biology. In their editorial comments, they lay out a NOMA understanding of the relationship between science and religion:

The scope of science is the world of nature, the reality that is observed directly or indirectly by our senses….Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life, the proper relation of people to the Creator and to each other….It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that science and religious belief appear to be antithetical.9

But in another part of the book, when discussing what they see as design flaws in biological organisms they write:

This scientific revelation is but one of many reasons why the findings of evolutionary biology are highly relevant to philosophical discourse on numerous topics traditionally reserved for theologians and other religious practitioners.10

Even those who explicitly endorse a NOMA understanding of the relationship between religion and science fail to adhere to it in practice! And Ayala and Avise are not alone. Evolutionary biologists have been violating the supposed boundary between religion and science for as long as evolutionary biology has existed. Four examples will make the point.

Mayr for the Defense

Few figures are more important in the history of the development of evolutionary theory than the Harvard zoologist Ernst Mayr. He was a central figure in the development of the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory in the 1940s and was still publishing books defending Darwinism almost until his death in 2005 at the age of one hundred. Mayr characterized Darwin’s theory as follows:

Thus, the Darwinian revolution was not merely the replacement of one scientific theory by another…but rather the replacement of a worldview, in which the supernatural was accepted as a normal and relevant explanatory principle, by a new worldview in which there was no room for supernatural forces.11

For Mayr, evolutionary theory has direct implications for the validity of religious thought. Darwinian evolution ushered in a new atheistic worldview. Douglas Futuyma of Stony Brook University, author of a widely used graduate level textbook on evolutionary biology, puts it this way, “Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms — but this seems to be the message of evolution.”12 And the nihilism does not end here.

The late William Provine, former Professor of the History of Biology at Cornell University, put it like this:

Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws, no absolute guiding principles for human society. We must conclude that when we die, we die, and that is the end of us….Finally, free will as it is traditionally conceived — the freedom to make uncoerced and unpredictable choices among alternative courses of action— simply does not exist. There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make moral choices.13

So much for the teaching of ethics at Luther College! Finally, the father of sociobiology, the well-known E. O. Wilson, really ups the ante by proposing that science can now explain religion:

We have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. As I have tried to show, sociobiology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the brain. If this interpretation is correct, the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific materialism will come from the capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.14

For Wilson, religion is science’s chief competitor and must be vanquished. There is no attempt at all here to hold to Gould’s NOMA solution. For these influential scientists, evolutionary theory has direct, and very negative, implications for religious thought. 

The Rise of Sociobiology

Wilson’s comments are especially important. His founding of sociobiology in the 1970s touched off a wave of scientists who have taken up the challenge of explaining religion in purely naturalistic terms, but in many cases absent any engagement with the work of religion scholars themselves. For example, in Dean Hamer’s best-selling 2005 book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes, Hamer considers the possibility that the Apostle Paul’s visionary experience on the road to Damascus resulted from a temporal lobe epileptic seizure. People with temporal lobe epilepsy do frequently have visionary-like experiences during seizures. Hamer’s explanation could be taken seriously if not for the fact that few biblical scholars today read Paul’s experience in the book of Acts as an historical account. Paul describes his own “conversion” experience in his letter to the Galatians in very ordinary terms. And it has been well established that the book of Acts is written in the style of a first-century Greco-Roman romance novel complete with all kinds of exaggerated adventures. Just a little engagement with modern biblical scholarship could have prevented Hamer from making a rather embarrassing mistake. Paul’s experience does not need to be explained naturally or supernaturally because it likely never happened.

The Evolution of Religion

In November 2017, I attended the Second International Conference on the Evolution of Religion in New Mexico. This was a serious academic conference of scientists from around the world dedicated to the prospect of an evolutionary explanation of religion. I was not surprised to hear a presentation dedicated to the use of temporal lobe epilepsy as a naturalistic explanation for all the world’s religions. According to this presenter, Moses, Jesus, Paul, Muhammad, and the Buddha all had visionary experiences as a result of temporal lobe epileptic seizures, and these experiences gave rise directly to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. For me as a religion scholar it is difficult to take this kind of scholarship seriously. Religious traditions are complex socio-historical phenomena that consistently resist any attempt to boil them down to the singular experience of a singular founder, an idea almost cartoonish in its simplicity. But in the evolution of religion discourse, engagement with the complicating work of religion scholars is simply ignored, but at the cost of developing scientific insights that might be of value in the study of religion.   

Most recently I became aware of a new collaboration between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Association of Theological Schools called the Science in the Seminaries program. Through this collaboration, the AAAS is providing resources allowing theology professors to bring cutting edge scientific research into the seminary classroom. The goal is to produce a new generation of scientifically literate pastors and priests. Greater scientific literacy among religious leaders is probably needed, but there is no comparable program designed to address the poor levels of religious literacy among too many scientists. A participant in the Science in the Seminaries program, Howard Divinity School Professor of Theology Frederick Ware, puts it this way:

A presupposition of the project is that no theologian and/or minister can claim the cultural fluency necessary for true professional competence without a basic knowledge of science and its implications for the practice of faith….The question is: can we also say that no scientist can claim the cultural fluency necessary for true professional competence without a basic knowledge of religion/theology and its implications for the practice of a scientific vocation? If this is a thoroughly legitimate question — and I am convinced that it is — then it raises immediate concerns regarding what, if anything, is being done or proposed to revise curricula in the sciences. The Science for Seminaries initiative addresses a very real deficiency in theological curricula, but to the exclusion of what I would argue is an ontologically related deficiency in science curricula.15

Sadly, I don’t expect to see a Religion in the Sciences program develop any time soon. But this double standard must be recognized.

The Light of Evolution

Returning now to the issue of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria, there are certainly evolutionary biologists who do not adhere to the atheism of a Dawkins, Mayr, Futuyma, or Provine. A noteworthy example is Theodosius Dobzhansky. With the publication of his seminal Genetics and the Origin of Species in 1937, Dobzhansky was hailed as one of the most important figures in evolutionary biology after Darwin. He is credited with bringing the disparate sciences of genetics and systematics together into a grand synthesis of evolutionary theory. Dobzhansky is also known as being the most conventionally religious of the major figures of evolutionary theory, a man deeply invested in his Russian Orthodox Christian faith. Somewhat surprisingly, Dobzhansky was also very interested in the work of the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who Dobzhansky called “One of the great thinkers of our age.”16 Teilhard is well known for developing a grand evolutionary scenario in which evolution had a goal of producing human beings endowed with reflective thought, allowing them to reflect on the Creator that made them. Teilhard’s evolutionary theology has been harshly — even brutally — criticized by many evolutionary biologists, but Dobzhansky served a year as president of the North American Teilhard Society. 

Late in life, Dobzhansky published a now widely cited essay titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” Here he tries to find a synthesis of the two aspects of his personality, his support for Darwinian evolution on the one hand, and his very pious Christian faith on the other. But how successful was he? Dobzhansky stakes out his position by calling himself both a creationist and an evolutionist, noting that “Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s, method of Creation.”17 He then demonstrates his Darwinian bona fides by stating, “There is, of course, nothing conscious or intentional in the action of natural selection.”18 But just a few lines later, commenting on the fact that humans can make conscious decisions, he calls humans “the apex of evolution.”19 The problem should be clear. A process that has no larger direction or end goal by definition lacks an apex. If natural selection is undirected, then no species can ever be termed the apex of evolution, for evolution has no apex. Dobzhansky’s desire to hold to an orthodox Darwinian view and an Orthodox Christian view simultaneously dissolves into contradiction. But Dobzhansky is not alone.

The Language of God

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is an avowed Evangelical Protestant. In 2005 he published The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. He seems to agree with Gould that science and religion operate in different realms with little overlap between them:

If God exists, then He must be outside the natural world, and therefore the tools of science are not the right ones to learn about him….the evidence of God’s existence would have to come from other directions, and the ultimate decision would be based on faith, not proof.20

As a scientist in good standing, Collins does not want to violate the sacred principle of modern science — methodological naturalism — the idea that scientists must restrict themselves to the search for naturalistic explanations in their scientific research (even if they hold to a belief in God in other aspects of their life). Unfortunately, while Collins affirms methodological naturalism in his own field of biology, he does not necessarily extend it to other fields of scientific inquiry, writing:

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.21

Many cosmologists do believe that the universe could have been self-creating. By positing the direct action of God in one branch of science — cosmology — while rejecting it another — biology — Collins seems to fall into a similar kind of contradiction as Dobzhansky. 

Given the difficulty that atheistic scientists and religiously oriented scientists both have in maintaining a clear distinction between the realms of religion and science, perhaps we should heed the sage advice of Harvard University astronomer Owen Gingerich:

If someone tells you that evolution is atheistic, be on guard. If someone claims that science tells us we are here by pure chance, take care. And if someone declares that the magisteria do not overlap, just smile smugly and don’t believe it.22

The visceral feeling that religion and science are mutually implicated, no matter how much we may want to think otherwise, is what has fueled the modern intelligent design movement — the idea that some kind of intelligent agent is directly involved in the evolutionary process. I do not have the space here to talk in depth about this unfairly maligned movement but I do want to point to two markers of its growing influence. 

Inroads for Intelligent Design

The institutional home of the intelligent design movement is Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, Washington. Until recently, no reputable research university would be caught dead providing support to intelligent design ideas or to Discovery Institute. But in May 2017, Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a highly respected research university, opened Discovery Institute, Mackenzie. This is the first intelligent design program to be affiliated with a major research university anywhere in the world. I doubt it will be the last. There are signs that intelligent design thinking may be making some inroads into academic biology in Spain and Germany as well.23

The second marker of intelligent design’s growing influence comes from an article regarding the origin of life published in the Journal of Molecular Evolution in 2017. In commenting on the difficulties inherent in accounting for the origin of life by natural processes, Jan Spitzer writes:

Since the subject of cellular emergence of life is unusually complicated (we avoid the term “complex” because of its association with “biocomplexity” or “irreducible complexity”), it is unlikely that any overall theory of life’s nature, emergence, and evolution can be fully formulated, quantified, and experimentally investigated.24

BIO-Complexity is the title of an intelligent design journal and “irreducible complexity” is an idea firmly associated with intelligent design thinking. So Spitzer is saying that he cannot use a common word like “complex” because he cannot risk being associated with the intelligent design movement! If establishment biologists feel it necessary to monitor and police their own language choices in this way, you have to wonder who is getting the upper hand. 

A Debate and Its Consequences

This debate over religion, science, and evolution is not just an academic debate. It has practical consequences, and I want to close by briefly noting one of them. One effect of our adherence to naturalistic explanations for all evolutionary phenomena has been to marginalize the experience of subjective awareness and reduce it down to the physical structures of the brain. This reductionist approach to mind and consciousness has in turn underwritten a movement in psychiatry beginning in the 1970s to medicalize the experience of negative mental and emotional experience, or mental illness. With the rejection of Freudian and Jungian psychodynamic approaches, the American Psychiatric Association, with the 1980 publication of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III, reframed mental and emotional disorders as discrete illnesses caused primarily by disruptions to the brain’s biochemistry — the chemical imbalance theory of mental illness. One advantage to this medicalization narrative was expected to be a reduction in stigma associated with mental illness. If mental illnesses are basically biological illnesses, there should be no more stigma associated with them than with any other physical illness. Surprisingly, recent studies indicate that stigma as risen under the influence of this medicalization narrative.

A “Broken Brain”

According to psychologist Philip Yanos in his 2018 book Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential, the medicalization narrative has especially increased self-stigma, as sufferers of mental illnesses come to see themselves as biologically defective (they have a “broken brain”) and therefore consigned to a lifetime of continual struggles and psychiatric treatment. This undermines the motivation to live a full and meaningful life, leading to the loss of human potential that Yanos speaks of. Many of the great musical, artistic, and scholarly landmarks of the past were achieved by those who would be diagnosed today as mentally ill. Even Abraham Lincoln rose to become this country’s greatest president despite a well-chronicled struggle with depression. But in the age of medicalization, the motivation to strive to reach life goals is often undercut by the message that the person experiencing mental or emotional disturbance has a diagnosable medical condition that will require a lifetime of treatment and reduced functioning. 

Jo C. Phelan of Columbia University (who replaces the term medicalization with geneticization) writes:

…the most prominent expectation about the consequences of geneticization is that it will reduce stigma, and public education campaigns and direct-to-consumer advertising currently promote the idea that mental illnesses are biologically-based. The present findings do not confirm these positive expectations, and enthusiasm for this idea and practices based on it should be reevaluated.25

If our reductionist view of mind and consciousness is providing a scientific foundation for a medical movement that may doing more harm than good, it may be time to reevaluate our reductionist and naturalistic assumptions about the nature of mind and the deeper question of what it means to be a living being. It is not as if our naturalistic assumptions are themselves forced on us by science, for as Harvard geneticist Richard Lewinton said so well:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot let a Divine foot in the door.26

Fear of the divine foot may be warranted, given the long legacy of war and oppression linked to religion. But maybe we have allowed our fear to push us too far in one direction; maybe it is time to open that door just a crack and let in some additional light. We might be better for it. 


  1. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) 21.
  2. Quoted in Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? (Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 2000) 58.
  3. Quoted in Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: Norton, 2012) 107.
  5. After all, the important population geneticist, Ronald Fisher, had proclaimed the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection in the 1930s.
  6. Francis Crick, “On Protein Synthesis,” Symposium of the Society of Experimental Biology 12 (1957): 152.
  7. Barbara McClintock, “The Significance of Responses of the Genome to Challenge,” Science 226 (1984): 800.
  8. James A. Shapiro, Evolution: The View from the 21st Century (Saddle River, NJ: FT Press Science, 2011) 145.
  9. Francisco J. Ayala and John C. Avise, eds., Essential Readings in Evolutionary Biology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) 273.
  10. Ibid., 44.
  11. Ernst Mayr, “Evolution and God,” Nature 248 (1974): 285.
  12. Douglas J. Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (New York: Pantheon, 1983) 12.
  13. William B. Provine, “Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics,” Marine Biological Laboratories Science 3 (1988): 27. 
  14. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) 192.
  15. Frederick L. Ware, “Undercurrents in the Deeper Waters: Reflections on Science, Theology, and Professional Competency,” Spotlight on Theological Education (Spring 2019).
  16. Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 129.
  17. Ibid., 127. 
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006) 30.
  21. Ibid., 67.
  22. Owen Gingerich, God’s Planet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 153.
  23. A new German-speaking scientific society has recently been formed called the Zentrum für BioKomplexität und NaturTeleologie.
  24. Jan Spitzer, “Emergence of Life on Earth: A Physicochemical Jigsaw Puzzle,” Journal of Molecular Evolution 84 (2017): 2.
  25. Jo C. Phelan, “Geneticization of Deviant Behavior and Consequences for Stigma: The Case of Mental Illness,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 46 (2005): 319.
  26. Richard C. Lewinton, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books (Jan. 9, 1997).

Photo: Bust of Charles Darwin, by Andy Carter, via Flickr (cropped).