Steven Pinker tweeted about an op-ed article in the New York Times today that drew my attention. In the article, David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington argues that evolutionary biology and religious belief are incompatible. Barash’s article apparently meets with deep respect from Pinker (and probably many other atheists that believe that science and religion are incompatible). However, I believe there are reasons to believe that Barash’s article should be taken with caution. What he describes to be doing in his biology class seems not so different from what creationists intend to do…
Nothing that Barash writes in his essay is really new, so I don’t see why the New York Times thought the arguments by Barash were worth publishing. Barash argues that there are three arguments that evolutionary biology has demolished: the argument from complexity (or rather: the argument from design), the “illusion of centrality” (the idea that humans “are distinct from other life-forms”), and, finally, Barash argues that evolutionary biology delivers a fatal blow to theodicy.
Read the article. The arguments are terribly week. First of all, the argument from design has never been the central argument in Christian theology. It was merely one of the five arguments of Thomas Aquinas. The argument from design is perhaps of central importance for creationists, but these are an invention of modernity anyway and definitely not representative for Christian theology (unless one lives in the US and believes that the forms of Christian belief in the US are representative for Christian theology globally – another form of “the illusion of centrality”, I would say).
Moreover, the idea that humans “human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block” (what does that mean anyway?) has never been central to Christian theology either. Perhaps Barash meant to say that Christian theology has traditionally invested in the idea of human uniqueness. That may be so, but the idea of human uniqueness is not in any way compromized by evolutionary biology. (To be honest, I’m actually not much of a fan of human uniqueness arguments, but I do agree that evolutionary biology does not in any way impinge on the idea that humans are unique creatures, depending of course on what one means by “uniqueness”.)
Finally, I don’t understand Barash’s argument that evolutionary biology demolishes theodicy. Evolutionary biology shows that “although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things.” Yeah, so? This is exactly in line with creationist ideas that suffering is built into the nature of things after the Fall.
In other words, why such a prestigious newspaper as the New York Times publishes this article is a mystery. But there is a more troubling aspect to it. Barash writes in the beginning of his essay:
Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.
His essay describes in effect the arguments that Barash uses to convince his students that religion and evolution are incompatible. But, as I argued, his idea of what Christians belief or what Christian theology entails is hopelessly naïve. In other words, Barash is not stating the facts in his teaching, but is proclaiming an opinion that is not backed up by facts. Barash is telling his students nothing less than fairy tales. What he is doing, in effect, is not so different from what creationists intend to do: teach religion in the science classes. I find this highly dubious.
Even more, there seems to be a personal agenda involved. Barash recently published a book at Oxford University Press with the title: Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science. You should never judge a book by its cover, but this reeks like the biological analogy to Capra’s and Zukav’s The Tao of Physics books, that hooked up quantum mechanics to Eastern mystical ideas. I haven’t read Barash’s book, so I’m not going to say anything about it. But apparently Barash is a Buddhist, so a religious believer himself (although he has religious beliefs that are of a different kind than Christian religious beliefs). It seems then that he uses his classroom as the space to argue that one religion is scientifically inferior to another. Apologetics for buddhism perhaps? Anyway, Barash clearly takes his religion into the science class room. Again, highly dubious if you ask me.
Barash initially dismisses Stephen J. Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria. Barash believes to have shown that the magisteria were not so non-overlapping after all. The point of Gould however, may not have been so much as to describe the status quo, but to preach sound scientific practice: don’t mingle science and religion because you end up deforming and thus hurting both. Barash is doing exactly that, or so it seems to me. He makes Christian theology into a straw man that is easily attacked, and in the process he implicitly claims that evolutionary biology has taken the position that religion has vacated. That “he shows that there are numerous places where Buddhist and biological perspectives coincide and reinforce each other” which “highlights the intriguing common ground between scientific and religious thought, illuminating the many parallels between biology and Buddhism, allowing readers to see both in a new way” (I’m quoting the blurb of his book on Amazon.com), to me sounds very much like defending just another religion instead of keeping science and religion apart.
I don’t know what Barash is really teaching, since the essay may be a rhetorical tour de force in which the author takes the liberty to tinker with reality as he sees fit, but I do think that if Barash thinks that his Talk is a way of science education, he is seriously misguided.
Read here: David P. Barash, God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.
Update, 06/10/2014: Biologos now has an inventory of responses HERE.