Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Impressions of the Claremont Conference & Ernst Mayr

[After attending a conference October 21–24, 2005, in Claremont, California, entitled "Religious Interpretations of Evolutionary Biology", John C Greene reflects on the conference in light of his recent study of work by Ernst Mayr on evolutionary biology. Greene responds to the events and presentations at the Claremont conference in terms of Mayr's perspective on the main themes in the program.]

The participants invited to the conference included eminent biologists, philosophers, and theologians and one physicist–astronomer as well. I had corresponded with a few of these participants but had never met any of them before. Since the conference was organized by two devotees of the "process philosophy" of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), David Ray Griffin and John Cobb, it seems best to begin with Griffin's lengthy paper expounding Whitehead's philosophy as a corrective to the "neo-Darwinism" of the 1930s–40s as modified and amplified by the DNA revolution, gene sequencing, and the like. In Griffin's view, "process philosophy provides a version of scientific naturalism that allows for a theory of evolution that is more adequate for science and is supportive of a religious world view supportive of morality." Here Griffin touches on the apprehensions that fuel the "scientific creationism" crusade (including "intelligent design"). "Those who wish to bring about a change in the way that evolution is taught in schools and presented ... to the public need to confront this thing called neo-Darwinism," Griffin concludes.

Griffin describes the "metaphysical doctrines" he sees as underlying neo-Darwinian biology and thereby generating the anxieties just mentioned. They are (1) the "undirectedness" of evolution, ruling out any form of theism; (2) positivistic materialism — the idea that all causes of evolution must be potentially verifiable through sensory observations; (3) predictive determinism, hence the absence of free will; and (4) nominalism, that is, a rejection of Platonic realism, according to which forms, archetypes, and ideas "are inherent in the nature of things." From these metaphysical assumptions and various neo-Darwinian scientific doctrines such as step-by-step gradualism and antiprogressionism, Griffin argues, various philosophical implications — atheism, meaninglessness, amoralism — follow. These doctrines and their implications have been spelled out, Griffin explains, in order to show that evangelical and fundamentalist objections to neo-Darwinism are not without some justification. Neo-Darwinian scientific naturalism — sensationist, atheistic, materialist — needs to be replaced by the theistic scientific naturalism of process philosophy, Griffin argues.

In Whitehead's philosophy, Griffin explains, we start from our own experience, of which we have direct knowledge, and move backward in time to envisage the actual entities with which science deals. From a panexperiential viewpoint we see them not as enduring individuals but as momentary events or happenings, as occasions of experience exercising both final and efficient causation. Thus the human brain is a society of billions of cellular experiences; the human psyche is "the unification of these experiences into an ordered society of dominant occasions of experience," resulting in the capacity for self-determination we share with all other compound individuals.

As a mathematician and logician, Whitehead, after having long been agnostic or atheistic, came to believe in the existence of ideal forms (his "eternal objects") which must have a home somewhere, namely, as components of the primordial nature of God, conceived as "the active entertainment of ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season." Thus, like the Demiurge of Plato, Whitehead's God is not omnipotent — "there are principles which the divine being cannot violate" — but acts in the world by persuasion.

The average American on first becoming acquainted with Whitehead's idea of God and his influence in nature might wonder whether this philosophy would relieve the apprehensions and anxieties of evangelicals and fundamentalists about evolutionary theory. But this did happen to one of the conference participants, Howard J Van Till, who was reared in conservative Dutch Calvinism and subsequently became professor of physics and astronomy at Calvin College in Michigan. Devoted to science, he tried various ways of reconciling it with his religious faith in his discussions with his colleagues, fending off charges of deism and materialism until David Griffin's book Religion and Scientific Naturalism came to the rescue with Whitehead's idea of non-coercive, persuasive divine influence in nature. Griffin, Van Till concludes, has identified "broad metaphysical weaknesses" in the neo-Darwinian world view, especially with regard to life, evolution, consciousness, moral and aesthetic values, and "our sense of living in the presence of the Sacred," but has identified no scientific problems that in principle might not be solved by additional research.

RNCSE readers will be especially interested in Van Till's characterization of Phillip Johnson's blurring of the distinction between maximal naturalism and minimal naturalism as "intellectually irresponsible" and his scathing attack on William Dembski's idea of "specified complexity" and the related argument from probability theory in his No Free Lunch.

Three Main Points of View Expressed at the Conference

The criticisms of neo-Darwinism by Griffin and Van Till are mild compared to the onslaught mounted by Lynn Margulis, a microbiologists, and her co-author Dorion Sagan, champions of Gaia, the science of the earth and its atmosphere proposed by the English geochemist James Lovelock. Neo-Darwinism, says Margulis, is not so much wrong as it is "intellectually anachronistic," useful only in "tracing gene flow in Holocene mammalian, avian, and tracheophyte populations" but ignoring the tendency of the earth's lower atmosphere to regulate its oxygen concentration, temperature, and alkalinity by means of the self-maintaining properties of living organisms, all of which, says Margulis, emerges from Darwin's original legacy but disappears from view in its "bastard know–all offspring" neo-Darwinism.

Far from seeking to win over apprehensive "scientific creationists" with a theistic naturalism, as Griffin hopes to do, Margulis rejects Judaeo-Christian monotheism because it identifies paternal family control with nationhood and regards the earth as made for human exploitation. To the contrary, Gaia teaches that humanity is made for the earth and is dispensable if it does not act accordingly by adopting "healthier ways of relating to our home without denial of modern scientific thought," which, in turn, like art and technology, is only "a tiny part of nature's greater whole."

At this point Margulis, borrowing Richard Dawkins's idea of the "extended phenotype" (for example, a beaver dam), launches into a discussion of the evolution of man-made machines described as "machinate extrasomatic structures" and conceived of as "one of DNA's strategies for continuation and expansion of the ancient autopoiesis (self-maintaining and self-regulating systems) of which Gaia herself is the supreme example. Machines, says Margulis, are more evolutionarily advanced than people in their rate of change, their ability to survive extreme environments, and their penetration of space and deep seas. As Darwin's critic Samuel Butler said in 1863: "… machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent on ours as ours is on the lower animals." Some of them, Margulis adds, may become our descendants.

For Margulis's co-author Dorion Sagan, energy flow dominated by the laws of thermodynamics is the key to understanding evolution. As thermodynamically open systems organisms "may merge bodies, cells, and genes in sexual, parasexual, symbiotic mixtures." They also act as complex agents of energy transformation involving selection for energy use, efficiency, entropy production, the breaking down of gradients, and the generation of flow patterns which, says Sagan, "may provide the non-genetic mechanism Samuel Butler intuited as missing from Darwin's account." With respect to God, Sagan concludes: "God as a capricious humanlike entity is dead. God as a lawful eternal being of which we are a part is still consonant with science."

The presentation by Ursula Goodenough, a molecular geneticist and cell biologist, addressed the question that John Cobb, one of the organizers of the conference, had formulated in a letter sent to her before the conference convened: "Is it possible to show that neo-Darwinism does not affirm the mechanistic world view, that it provides for the causal efficacy of free and purposive action?" In an essay entitled "Reductionism and holism, chance and selection, mechanism and mind," Goodenough rejects the term "neo-Darwinism" as obsolete and historically confusing, and endeavors to dispel the apprehensions of materialism, mechanism, and atheism Griffin outlined in his analysis of the concept. As a "bench scientist" experimenting on a type of green alga, she explains, her experiments are reductionistic with respect to higher levels of biological complexity, but they are holistic with respect to lower levels: "… the specifics reside in wholes, where wholes are emergent from parts and hence have different properties from individual parts."

As a member and a leader in the United Church of Christ and a participant in an internet listserv exploring the idea of religious naturalism, Goodenough finds that her fellow participants are looking for truth, values, and meaning beyond chance. But Goodenough finds in Darwinism a natural world "brimming with meaning" and generating "countless emergent properties that build on themselves." What more meaning could one want than "the astonishing FACT of it all?"

But what about the accusation that Darwinism is mechanistic and devoid of purpose? Here Goodenough answers that all machines, whether built by humans, like a car, or resulting from mutation and natural selection, like the bacterial flagellum, have a purpose: "organisms, like machines, are nothing if not purposive." Free will emerges from a co-evolutionary dynamic of language, mind, and cultural transmission of ideas" giving rise to the sense that we can make choices, a sense that is as natural, real, and true as the neural mechanisms that make it possible. Evolution, Goodenough concludes, has endowed humans with the "experience of experience ... apparently rooted in our unique capacity for language," a capacity as yet inexplicable in Darwinian terms.

With due respect to Ursula Goodenough's sense of "the sacred depths of nature," it seems unlikely that her answers to the questions raised by John Cobb will satisfy the Whiteheadians, much less the apprehensions of the "scientific creationists," who are looking for intelligent direction or (in the case of Whiteheadians) influence in biological evolution and are not content with anthropocentric metaphors such as "opportunistic" and "tinkerer" to describe the process of "natural selection."

The other conference champion of "mainstream" Darwinism (he, too, rejects the term "neo-Darwinism") was the eminent population geneticist Francisco Ayala. Linking the Darwinian revolution in biology to the Copernican revolution in astronomy, Ayala proclaimed that "science encompasses all of reality and ... we owe this universality to Charles Darwin." Somewhat later, after reiterating that "nothing in the world of nature escapes the scientific mode of knowing," Ayala concedes that the scientific view of the world is "hopelessly incomplete," having nothing to say about "matters of value and meaning that are all-important for understanding human nature and our place in the universe, and for conducting a meaningful life." On these subjects, says Ayala, philosophical inquiry, theological reflection, literature, and the plastic arts have "illuminated human nature and its relationships to the world beyond." These latter statements seem to this reviewer to be in open contradiction to Ayala's earlier dictum that "science encompasses all of reality."

Dismissing the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Bergson as "metaphysical," an objection that presumably applies to Whitehead's process philosophy, Ayala argues that Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species chiefly to refute William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), a book that Ayala, like Darwin before him, finds admirable for its close reasoning and command of biological facts, but subject to the same flaws as Michael Behe's argument from "irreducible complexity". The chief flaw is failure of this view to account for superfluous, defective, and dysfunctional organs and its attempt to explain them away by invoking the inscrutability of the Creator's thoughts and purposes, whereas Darwin's natural selection "can account for design and functionality but does not achieve any sort of perfection." Here Ayala overlooks Darwin's statement that "as natural selection works only by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection" — a result brought about by "the laws imposed on matter by the Creator." Also missing is any reference to The Descent of Man and to Darwin's gradual transformation from a relatively optimistic deist into an unhappy agnostic assailed by the "horrid doubt" (as he described it in a letter to William Graham in 1881) that his "inward conviction" that the universe and the wonderful nature of man could not be the result of "mere chance" could not be trusted, nor could the deliberations of his own reason be trusted in view of the evidence that human mental faculties had developed from "a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal."

In Ayala's view, natural selection, formulated as "a statistical bias in the relative rate of reproduction of alternative genetic units," is a creative process because it generates otherwise extremely improbable genetic combinations and their phenotypes such as "humans who think and love, endowed with free will and creative powers, and able to analyze the process of evolution itself that brought them into existence." Extremely improbable indeed!

Responding to the presentations, conference organizer John Cobb commends Margulis for broadening the study of evolution to include symbiogenesis and the concept of earth and its lower atmosphere as a self-maintaining and self-regulating system made possible by the activities of microbes and other life forms. But Cobb draws the line at the implication that this system (called Gaia) is a living organism and "somehow divine". Cobb also regrets Margulis's "belittling" of humans as exploiters of nature doomed to a brief tenure on earth. Humans may be a liability to Gaia, Cobb concedes, but they are at the same time its greatest achievement in richness of experience and in power to mold their own future. The evolution of the cosmos from the Big Bang to the appearance of purposeful human beings implies, says Cobb, a "powerful cosmic intelligence" as a plausible explanation providing a solid basis for human freedom and responsibility and "the call to realize such values as we can" — a much firmer basis, Cobb adds, than the neo-Darwinian view that these values are "by-products of materialistically determined processes." Thus we return to the apprehensions and anxieties about "neo-Darwinism" outlined by David Griffin in his essay.

A Perspective from the Work of Ernst Mayr

Considering the three main points of view discussed by the participants at the conference, I find myself wondering what centenarian Ernst Mayr, whose recently published book What Makes Biology Unique? I had just finished reading before attending the conference, might have had to say had he been there. One thing can be said for certain. Mayr would have aligned himself with the defenders of the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Germany in 1904, Mayr abandoned Christianity and theism generally in his mid-teens. He began as a medical student but was soon drawn by his love of ornithology to the University of Berlin. Examined on positivism for his PhD, he was then sent off to explore the natural history of New Guinea, taking with him Hans Driesch's Philosophie der Organischen and Henri Bergson's L'Evolution Creatrice, both of which he rejected as being "vitalistic". In the 1930s he was invited to come to the American Museum of Natural History in New York to write up and publish the Museum's burgeoning ornithological collections. In 1942 he capped his growing reputation as a systematist with the publication of his Systematics and the Origin of Species, one of the founding treatises of the new evolutionary synthesis sometimes called "neo-Darwinism" although Mayr prefers plain "Darwinism". Called to Harvard in 1953, he became a champion of the new synthesis and began to study the history and philosophy of science in reaction to the domination of those disciplines by scholars trained in the physical sciences. His The Growth of Biological Thought appeared in 1982, his Toward a New Philosophy of Biology in 1988.

Taking a leaf from an earlier essay by Francisco Ayala, Mayr sets out to show that biology is an autonomous science deserving an autonomous philosophy of biology quite different in important respects from the philosophy of the physical sciences. Physics and chemistry, Mayr says, are addicted to mathematics, universal natural laws, determinism, reductionism and typological thinking, which cannot account for variation and which breeds racism. Functional biology, Mayr continues, shares many of these characteristics of physical science, but evolutionary biology is a historical science based on concepts and historical narratives that are tested, not by experiments, but by observations confirming their predicted consequences. Evolution is controlled, not by universal laws, but by genetic programs generating emergent properties. Thus biological phenomena have "dual causation," the law-bound proximate causes of functional biology and the evolutionary ultimate causes regulated by genetic programs.

Two basic ontological principles, vitalism and cosmic teleology, says Mayr, have prevented the acceptance of biology as an autonomous science. Vitalism died slowly from lack of experimental confirmation and because of progress in genetics and molecular biology. Darwin exploded cosmic teleology with his theory of natural selection. By the 1930s–40s, "no competent biologist believed in any causation of evolution or of the world as a whole," but belief in this sort of causation lingered on among philosophers like Whitehead, Bergson, and Polanyi. Evolution, says Mayr, is not teleological, although it does lead to "progress and improvement" through "emergent properties" that are empirically observable, not the result of a metaphysical principle such as Bergson's élan vital.

In Mayr's view, the basic structure of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has emerged victorious in the battles surrounding it, "though with some modifications." Some of these modifications, it should be noted, are quite substantial. Darwin, says Mayr, never explained the origin of species because he rejected Moritz Wagner's emphasis on the importance of geographic and reproductive isolation in the production of new species. Worse yet, he failed to note that animal breeders improved their stock not so much by selecting and breeding the best animals but by culling out the worst individuals. By doing this, says Mayr, they preserved a large gene pool capable of producing evolutionary novelties, including the possibility of "a single individual that is the progenitor of a new species or higher taxon." From Mayr's argument one might conclude that Darwin should have entitled his earth-shaking treatise On the Origin of Varieties, Or the Elimination of Inferior Individuals in the Struggle for Life.

From this account, it should be apparent that Mayr's participation in the Claremont conference, had it occurred, would have lent support to the so-called "neo-Darwinian" synthesis and done little or nothing to assuage the apprehensions and anxieties of the organizers of the conference or those of the supporters of "creation science" and "intelligent design". For my own part as an unofficial participant in the proceedings, I would have been troubled by Mayr's deep antipathy to theism and "the ideology of natural theology," leading him to ignore John Ray's role as one of the founders of systematic natural history and classify him simply as a natural theologian because of one book he wrote in that vein. This perspective perhaps arises from Mayr's assertion that "a literal interpretation of every word of the Bible was the standard view of every orthodox Christian in the early nineteenth century." This would be laughable news to the majority of scientists and clergy in Britain and the United States during that time who were busy accommodating their interpretations of Scripture to the findings of geology, paleontology, and other sciences.

Finally, as a lifetime member of the National Center for Science Education I am led to wonder whether the struggle to turn back creationist efforts to inhibit the teaching of evolution in the public schools is doomed to have only limited success unless "evolution" is given some kind of religious meaning and students are given a chance to discuss the question freely. The organizers of the Claremont conference are to be commended for presenting Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy as one way of giving evolution religious significance and for submitting the question to open discussion. There may be other ways more accessible to the average American's understanding, as, for example, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century, by Denis Alexander, a molecular immunologist — both an ardent Christian and an ardent Darwinian — who is a Fellow of St Edmund's College, Cambridge University. Alexander finds the biblically-based critical realism of the Bible a solid, intellectually coherent, and morally inspiring framework for both science and religion.

A world of possible interpretations lies open for discussion. Bring the students into the discussion, if not in biology classes then in special classes taught by open-minded teachers familiar with the issues and skilled in drawing out student opinions on controversial subjects. Let the experiment be tried!

By John C Greene
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.