Debate Magazine

Barash, Biology & Balderdash

By Cris

I feel sorry for David Barash’s undergraduate students at the University of Washington. Why? Because when Barash teaches his animal behavior class, which is grounded in evolutionary theory, he feels compelled to give them “The Talk.” Barash worries that the evolutionary aspects of the course will cause consternation among his religious students. With this in mind, Barash prefaces the course by giving them a talk which strikes me as both gratuitous and wrongheaded. In this recent New York Times piece (“God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”), Barash gives the particulars of this talk:

As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed: It has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on. Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this, it goes way beyond the bounds of a biology class and amounts to theological argument. If Barash were teaching a philosophy or religion course, this kind of talk would be fair game. But in a biology class, without any further exploration or interrogation of what are major issues in the philosophy of biology and social science, it is out of place.

There is a much simpler, and intellectually honest, approach to all this. While I’m sure Barash is aware of this approach, the fact that his talk does not mention it is revealing. Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive. There are in fact many evolutionists who are religious. So why doesn’t Barash mention evolutionary theism or variants of this idea?

At first blush, it may appear that Barash is concerned about the psychological sensitivities of his creationist students. But I suspect not. Creationists tend to avoid courses that either teach or entail evolution. Those who take such courses may or may not be persuaded, but in either case the theory and facts should speak for themselves without being given atheist or anti-religious glosses by the professor.

At second blush, it may appear that Barash is concerned about the psychological sensitivities of his students who believe in Intelligent Design. But again I suspect not. ID is just another form of creationism, and like creationist students, most ID-believing students are either going to avoid the course or not believe what is being taught. So what? When teaching a biology course, it’s not Barash’s job to persuade them that evolution and religion are hostile or incompatible.

In fact, they are compatible and evolutionary theists prove the point. When I teach my anthropology of religion course, I always tell the students that we will be using evolutionary approaches. I am always quick to add that there is nothing inherently atheistic, or anti-religious, about such approaches and that several scholars working in this area are religious. Many of these scholars, whose work we read and discuss, believe that God works through evolution.

Why doesn’t Barash mention this in his talk? I suspect it’s because Barash is stuck inside the artificial confines of theism/atheism and arbitrary binaries of belief/unbelief. This is a common problem among New Atheists, some of whom should just stick to teaching biology, which is what they know and do best.


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