Did Darwin Kill God? 2

This is another archival repost from the old blog — this time from april 2009.

I found on the iPlayer the latest in BBC2’s series of Darwin documentaries, Did Darwin Kill God? This is theologian Conor Cunningham’s attempt reconcile science and religion, and show that their differences are all just a misunderstanding deliberately promoted by 20th century American christian fundamentalists, and 21st century atheist fundamentalists.We could play count the mistakes, but I’ll try to keep it to the most illustrative examples. Firstly, Cunningham wants to show that Darwin himself has nothing to say on science versus religion. In correcting the simplistic idea that Darwin lost his religion entirely because of evolution, Cunningham suggests that Darwin instead lost his religion entirely because of the personal tragedy of his daughter’s death. Uh. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than either of those. And it’s true that Darwin did, for various reasons, generally try to keep quiet about God and religion, but he knew his work did have a bearing on the field, and, for example, made quips about a loving creator god and the design of parasitic Ichneumonid wasps.

Worryingly, it is not just his history of science that is oversimplified so far as to be plain wrong: his characterisation of his own field looks no better. He seems to think that throughout history creationism was an obscure aberration, taken seriously only by the eccentric fringes of theology — you know, like James Ussher, mere Primate of All Ireland, or theologian William Paley. Real members of the One True Faith followed the “mainstream” teachings of Augustine, and took Genesis as allegory. I am not, and have no interest in being, a theologian. I don’t know enough about the subject to be able to say whose ideas have attracted the largest following throughout history. But I am slightly concerned. In my experience, a theologian placing an idea on the fringe means that modern European academic theologians don’t take it seriously, but that it has probably been the dominant dogma of their church and its laity for most of its history.

Meanwhile, Cunningham’s idea that American creationism was invented during the Scopes trial as a reaction to eugenics is an entirely new one to me, along with the ideas that American creationism was all old-earth creationism until the 1960s, and that young-earth creationism was invented as a reaction to sixties liberalisation of values. Biblicalliteralists are indeed motivated by perceived threats to their moral systems, but I think you’ll find that the history of the movement is a bit more complicated than that — to the extent that Cunningham’s version of history is just plain wrong.

The best part of the programme though, is Cunningham’s attempt to characterise the state of current thinking in evolutionary biology, and show how “ultra-Darwinists” are discredited. Perhaps if I knew as much history and theology as I do biology my jaw would have dropped as far in those sections as it did in this one. The dropped jaw soon turned to laughing out loud, though, when I realised that the work was merely one of incompetence rather than deliberate misinformation. I’ll skip over his bizarre attempt to introduce the selfish gene theory and how the human genome project has disproved it (!), and move on to the part that really had me rolling on the floor: one of the most fantastically absurd non-sequiturs I’ve ever heard.

The topic was memetics: the idea that ideas are replicating units that evolve as they spread from one mind to another. Memetics was originally just a thought experiment about hypothetical units of evolution analogous to genes, but was fleshed out, for example by Daniel Dennett and Sue Blackmore. Now, Sue Blackmore is great, but if Cunningham really knew the state of evolutionary thinking, he would know that she does not really represent even “ultra-Darwinists”. But Cunningham drags her to Salisbury so that they can do an interview in the station car park. Brilliantly, he discovers a fatal flaw in the theory of memes — one that he seems to think somehow has important consequences for the credibility of Richard Dawkins and the God hypothesis: if memes are true, evolution is itself a meme!

… so what?

Well, think about it. If evolution is a meme, it’s just a parasite in our mind, and not true! Memes destroy the truth of evolution!

Uhm. But-

Ultra-Darwinists have never been able to answer this problem!

Oh … kay.

Cunningham clearly really does truly believe that his brain has just done something brilliant. I suspect he is correct in stating that “ultra-Darwinists” have never been able to answer the “problem”, since I have difficulty believing that anyone would ever before have managed to think of it and say it out loud before noticing what an utterly and humiliatingly ridiculous thing it would be to say.

As an aside, it is interesting to consider truth and memes. Under the theory of memetics, the idea that truth is of value would itself be a meme (and a very meritorious one). In the Selfish Gene, Dawkins talks about the need for genes to cooperate, or to put it another way, selfish genes have to be able to survive in an environment that contains many other selfish genes. Analogously, memes have to survive in an environment of other memes. Scientists, for example, host a series of memes for methods of filtering the non-true memes that might be trying to infect them. Skepticism, rationalism, logic, reason, and empiricism are memes that are also meme filters. But many people do not host them. Others fail to recognise the truth in a meme because it conflicts with false memes that they are already hosting. Some people do not even host the truth-valuing meme.

Cunningham’s thesis — and, it would appear from the website, the thesis of the executive producer of the BBC2 Darwin season — is that creationists and “ultra-Darwinists” are extremists: two different kinds of fundamentalists abusing Darwin to promote their sinister agenda. Richard Dawkins, for example is an extremist because he believes that there is no need for God. (Not because he believes that religion is a bad thing: merely believing that there is no need for God is enough to get you branded an extremist.)

Cunningham is showing us the two unreasonable, frightening, even dangerous extremes, and telling us that the truth lies in the middle — bang on the spot where Darwin and the Bible are both right, in their own ways. This is apparently the reasonable position. Life on earth evolves, and Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. That’s the reasonable, moderate, non-extremist middle ground position to hold.

Perhaps next the Beeb could help us reach a nice reasonable and moderate middle-ground position between those extremists who either demand that pi is ~3.14159 or that it is exactly 3.

Comments on the original post:

Tris Did Cunningham really think that memes are necessarily parasitic? If so, how can the beeb lend legitimacy to such ill-researched piffle?

I’m going to watch it later, but I’ll be on the lookout for any actual reconciliation between a simultaneously deliberate and undeliberate means of creation. My hopes aren’t high.

Posted at 2009-04-06 21:45:36
Jon d It was a production of the religion and ethics department and imo it showed. I was watching this last week as it went out but I started to tire when he appeared to be setting up his reasonableness fallacy and wandered off to make a cup of tea when he was getting onto memes. Though I remember reading something in the new scientist about the Scopes trial and how it wasn’t motivated by the same sort of young earth creation crowd who are making the running these days, years ago, book review I think.
Posted at 2009-04-07 09:21:57

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2 thoughts on “Did Darwin Kill God?

  • Joe Forde


    Your piece above is embarrassingly ad hominem: mere polemical comment rather than evidence based counter point. I suggest you read Cunningham’s new book on Evolution where he has more time to develop out his arguments, which he does with considerable evidential support and analytical originality.

  • Joe Post author

    embarrassingly ad hominen? unashamedly, certainly. i think i put in just the amount of effort that a programme like that deserved.

    the guy’s written a book about evolution? christ. and the theologians complain about ignorant evolutionary biologists writing books about god…