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Robert Wright's "Grand Bargain" on Evolution? Maybe Not So Grand After All

I like Robert Wright and enjoyed his recent book The Evolution of God. One thing I value about him is his candor. Thus in his New York Times op-ed on Sunday proposing a "grand bargain" between religion and science (i.e., Darwinism), he can't help but blurt out what would be asked in this bargain even of religious believers who think they've already managed to square God with Darwin. These believers, notably adherents of "theistic evolution," with their minimalist view of the Deity, should be prepared to "scale back their conception of God's role in creation." If I'm reading Bob Wright correctly, even the theism-lite of theistic evolution can be reconciled with a full-bodied Darwinism only at the cost of further "scaling back" any remotely traditional estimation of God's role in the history of life. Have I not said that to you before?

Wright is smart, honest and likable, yet, I think, misses some key points. For one, contrary to the first sentence in his essay, there's no "war" going on between science and religion. There is, however, a struggle between two visions of science -- one that keeps its mind open to evidence of purpose being worked out in detail ("intelligent design") in nature, and one that rules out such evidence on principle (represented by a range of perspectives from theistic evolution to atheist materialism). The former vision asks questions of evolutionary theory that the latter can't answer. How did the first life begin? Where did the information coded initially in the genome come from? Given that this same information is grossly inadequate to explaining the levels of organization that most interest Robert Wright and other believers in evolutionary psychology, namely those levels associated traditionally with the operation of the soul, and given that natural selection has only genetic information to operate on, how can Darwinian theory explain the development of those features of human life that set us apart from animals? For that matter, how does it explain certain levels of organization in animals that simply can't be explained by DNA coding for proteins? In genetic terms, what exactly is being selected?

Over at my Beliefnet blog, we were discussing astrology. On evolutionary psychology and its peculiar parallels with that ancient art, David Berlinski had this to say several years ago in The Weekly Standard:

As so often happens in the sciences, molecular biology has resolved its mysteries by magical thinking. Whatever the process, it is DNA, according to official doctrine, that is still crucial, still in charge, an agency capable of achieving every biological effect. Evolutionary biologists now assign to the human genome full responsibility for altruism, date rape, aggression, eating disorders, and a taste for Mansfield Park. The truth is we do not know how the genome achieves any effect beyond the molecular. Although more powerful by far than astrology, molecular biology is not appreciably different in kind, the various celestial houses having about as much to do with human affairs as the various genes.
We're supposed to be believe that DNA, while directing only the production of proteins and other cell components, is ultimately in charge of everything else about us too -- as Berlinski puts it, "altruism, date rape, aggression, eating disorders, and a taste for Mansfield Park," and much else. An infinity of "much else."

Allow me to put the issue in perhaps unexpectedly personal terms. I was adopted and did not meet my birth mother until I was in my mid 20s. She and my adoptive parents have very little in common -- not religion, not background, not country of origin, not tastes. Almost nothing. (You can read more about the story in my first book, The Lord Will Gather Me In.) I inherited from my adoptive parents many culturally rooted preferences. Of course I did. But I inherited from my birth mother other things, as I've come to realize over the years since we developed a relationship. Hair color and complexion. Yeah sure, big deal. But also attitudes, habits, tastes -- not for Mansfield Park but Graham Greene, whom she was reading when pregnant with me, for one example. Just a lot of things that if you're Robert Wright, you'd have to assume were granted through the coded language of DNA, a language that codes for cell components and nothing else.

This is what's meant by "magical thinking."