Culture & Ethics
Jane Goodall Meets the God Hypothesis
Last week, the Templeton Foundation announced Jane Goodall as its Templeton Prize laureate for 2021. The press release hails her as a “singular figure” and a pioneering researcher in the quest to answer “humanity’s greatest philosophical question, ‘What does it mean to be human as part of the natural world?’”
As Evolution News has covered before, Goodall’s answers to that question leave behind a darker legacy than you would gather from Templeton’s effusive encomium. Her “vision for a harmonious world” is cast in a rosy-golden hue, but Wesley Smith has rightly pressed the same point Chesterton once made, that “where animals are worshiped, humans tend to be sacrificed.” Today, Louis Leakey’s famous declaration that Goodall’s research forced the scientific community to “redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human” seems prophetic. Goodall’s fellow GAP (Great Apes Personhood) activists such as Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins are famous for excusing selective abortion, even infanticide.
Yet Goodall herself does not present as an angry atheist. Indeed, spiritual language suffuses her speech as she accepts the award. She concedes that the truly “deep mysteries of life” lie “forever beyond scientific knowledge.” She underlines this with a quote from the Apostle Paul’s famous anticipation of heaven: “Now we see through a glass darkly; then face to face.”
A “Spiritual Power”
Goodall’s parents were not especially devout, but at 87, she is of a generation where even casual churchgoers could pick up biblical language by cultural osmosis. She tells Religion News Service that she occasionally attended a Congregationalist church in her home town of Bournemouth. As a teen, she fell “passionately and platonically” in love with the minister, though her own take on religion was private, personal.
This spiritual instinct grew while she was conducting her groundbreaking research in the Tanzanian forests of Gombe. She tells Templeton that here she “felt very, very close to a great spiritual power.” She again draws from Paul’s epistles to refer to that “in which we live and move and have our being.”
But she’s mixing and matching, and her new color has more shades of pantheism than theism. All living things, she believes, have a “spark of divine energy” that could be called a “soul,” including not just animal life but plant life: “The trees, they have a soul too. They’ve got a spark of that divine energy.”
A Life of Purpose
As a young scientist, Goodall was able to overcome her fears of untamed nature through a conviction that she was “meant to be there.” Her life’s work has always felt purposeful, guided by some unseen force beyond her control.
Goodall likewise sees purpose in the “tapestry” of nature: “The most important part of being in the rainforest is the understanding of the interconnection, how every little species has a role to play.” When a species goes extinct, it’s as if a thread has been pulled out of the tapestry. Pull out too many threads, she says, and the tapestry’s grand design will unravel.
“Magic” is the word that comes to mind for her when she attempts to describe the grandeur of this design. Only spiritual language suffices as she looks at the surrounding forest: “It’s something so powerful and so much beyond what even the most scientific, brilliant brain could have created.”
Materialism Bad, Human Exceptionalism Also Still Bad
Science can’t explain everything, Goodall is convinced. “We’ve got finite minds,” she tells RNS, “And the universe is infinite. When science says, ‘We’ve got it all worked out — there’s the Big Bang that created the universe.’ Well, what created the Big Bang?”
She believes reconciliation between religion and science can only be achieved by rejecting materialism. She agrees with her friend Francis Collins that “chance mutations couldn’t possibly lead to the complexity of life on earth.” She’s glad that scientists are becoming “more willing” to talk about the possibility of intelligent purpose behind the universe.
Yet whatever or whoever this intelligence might be in Goodall’s mind, she still maintains He/She/It hasn’t created human beings as uniquely valuable. She dismisses her simplistic childhood view that our species is “elevated onto a pinnacle, separate from all the others.” Like Darwin in his Descent of Man, she would say it’s far humbler for us to see ourselves as “created from animals.”
Enter the God Hypothesis
There’s nothing wrong with arguing against materialism. But Jane Goodall proves that rejecting materialism is not the end of the story. Even opening up the floor for intelligent design is not the end of the story.
This is where the value of books like Stephen Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis becomes apparent, by going beyond the hypothesis of design to compare competing “profiles” for a designer. Goodall seems to lean towards some kind of pantheistic “life force” that imbues the world with “energy.” But it can easily be shown how this hypothesis pales by comparison with the explanatory power of traditional theism. And not only does theism better explain the structure of the universe, it provides a way to ground the exceptional nature of the human species that we instinctively intuit, even though brilliant scientists like Goodall have sadly conditioned themselves to reject it.
The line between religion and science may indeed be “blurring,” as Goodall enthusiastically observes. And yet, there are many ways to be religious. There are many ways to worship. Goodall certainly worships, in her own way. She might even tell you she worships a designing power. The question is, has it made her in its image? Or has she made it in hers?