One of the themes for this summer’s Lambeth Conference is science and faith. We have invited authors to reflect on what they hope the bishops will take to heart and keep in mind regarding this theme as they meet.

By Sarah Coakley

The new Anglican Science Commission is most admirably seeking to draw Anglicans worldwide, and especially its episcopal leaders, into a greater engagement with modern “science,” and with its huge potential for aiding human flourishing in the challenging years that lie ahead of us. The threat of ecological disaster is of course the greatest of these; but it is not the only danger or opportunity that here confronts us: technological and communication developments of every sort, artificial intelligence and its prospective applications, medical research to stem further global pandemics, genetic interventions to resist other disabling or fatal diseases: these are just a few of the ways in which it is vital that the leaders of the Anglican Communion connect more consciously and intentionally with what contemporary “science” has to offer, and foster an enthusiasm in the laity for engagement.

But it must be said, as the video materials prepared to advertise the new commission also acknowledge at points, that merely elevating modern “science” as an unexamined good is a problem that requires some intense critical discernment for the leaders of this year’s Lambeth Conference (and this is why I have so far here referred to “science” in inverted commas).

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First, “science” clearly has the capacity for immense destructiveness or socially inequitable application, as well as the potential for delivering immeasurable human benefits. Moreover, it is not just straightforwardly a matter of empirical or mathematical investigation, as is still so often presumed; indeed, it is often artfully presented to the public with an accompanying set of covert cultural presumptions that are taken to be intrinsic to the “science” itself, but are in fact quite open to question and debate. It can thus come front-loaded with morally reductive messages about normative “selfishness,” as the last few decades of debate about evolution, in particular, have amply demonstrated. It can also be represented as inherently inimical to Christian faith (and herein lies the problem of so much current ecclesiastical resistance to it).

In what follows, therefore, I would like to take this arena of evolution as one major object lesson in the complexity of the theological, metaphysical, and moral issues that arise when engagement with “scientific” advances are in prospect for the Church. This is, of course, not a reason for retreat: on the contrary, nothing could be more important for the Church than its development of a sophisticated and discriminating engagement with the many recent branches of scientific discovery and their potential for human flourishing. But simply learning about the wonders of “scientific” advance will not be enough. Intensive reflection on the metaphysical relation of theology and science, on the history and philosophy of science, and on ethics and meta-ethical theory, will be needed just as much.

Evolution and God: An Object Lesson for the Church in Metaphysical Decision

Lay followers of the journalistic furors about evolution and God in recent years may be forgiven for imagining that they have to choose between Darwinian theory and belief in divine providence. After all, the most vociferous current contestants in this long-running debate are either atheistic supporters of evolutionary theory, or Christian supporters of the riposte position known as “Intelligent Design” (which seeks to highlight moments in the evolutionary processes which Darwinian theory seems not to explain). Here I want briefly to suggest a way to avoid this false disjunction altogether. Then I shall move to argue that recent discoveries about the phenomenon known to evolutionary theorists as “cooperation” give us fresh reasons to regard evolutionary theory and classic Christian theism as entirely compatible, indeed richly and convincingly so. To make this case, however, we first have to clear some important theological ground.

For the main presumption insidiously bedeviling so much debate about evolution and religion, even now, is that God and the evolutionary process are somehow competing for space. “God” is perceived as a bit player (a very big one, of course) whose effects somehow have to be fitted into a system that is already close to being fully explained by science. This “God” is thus either found redundant, or squeezed into some special locus of activity seemingly not yet explained by Darwinian theory, or cut down to size as an Individual who is himself in process and development — a God with a so-called “open” future. Why are all these options theological mistakes, in my view?

The reason is that, on a classical view of divine creativity and divine providence, God’s causality is necessarily unique and sui generis. It is quite unlike any specific created causal act, because it operates on a completely different “level.” God is creator of all that is; everything else is his creation. Thus when God causes something to be or happen, there is no reason — either logical or empirical — why this should involve any conflict with what Thomas Aquinas called the “secondary causations” that are simultaneously operating at the created level.

Let us presume that we can get our minds around this non-competitive and “bi-level” understanding of God’s relation to the world and to events in the created order. So far so good. There is no metaphysical reason why God may not be operating as transcendent undergirder and cause of the entire created evolutionary process, and doing so without obstructing, or impeding, any of the particular mechanisms of evolutionary development so brilliantly outlined by Darwin.

But the atheist detractor may initially of course find this bit of theological footwork somewhat laughable and question-begging. One may, that is, invoke Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “two magisteria,” and declare the two realms (evolutionary processes and divine providence) as at least metaphysically compatible. But what would it take for belief in a divine providential causality to become both attractive and convincing philosophically, as opposed to merely one theological “hypothesis” which secular scientists, by definition, “have no need of”?

The Intriguing Patterns of Evolutionary “Cooperation”

It is here that developments in the mathematicalization of evolutionary theory are so suggestive and important, and especially as they bear on the evolutionary phenomenon of “cooperation.” In the last 50 years or so, game theorists have been trying to work out the conditions under which an evolutionary strategy which involves an immediate loss to an individual in terms of fitness (in a population in which another thereby gains) can nonetheless become stable and go on recurring in populations. To put it another way: such a strategy (known technically by evolutionary theorists as “cooperation”) ought not to work if pure “selfishness” is the sole key to success in evolutionary development. “Cooperation” surely ought to die its own natural death. But in fact it does not; and in recent years mathematical biologists working at Harvard, and building on important earlier work by Haldane, Trivers, and others, have identified five precise conditions in which such “cooperation” does work in this way.[1]

In fact this strategy works so interestingly across the entire evolutionary spectrum (from bacteria right up to homo sapiens) that some would now say that “cooperation” must be counted a third evolutionary “principle” alongside the classic Darwinian duo of “mutation” and “selection.” According to this analysis, cooperation can be shown to be a kind of contrapuntal accompaniment without which selection itself would not find constructive solutions towards increasing complexity. Darwin had already argued, in The Descent of Man, that in the case of hunter gatherers some kind of community solidarity was favored by natural selection (he even called this “sacrifice”). But he could not precisely pin down why that happened. Now, with the aid of mathematical accounts of evolutionary processes, it seems we can.

Cooperation: What Are Its Implications for Theology and Ethics?

What then do these developments in evolutionary theory mean for the discussion of the relation of God and the evolutionary process? We have to be clear and honest about a couple of things here. First, no one can compel an assent to belief in God: it is a subtle matter of many cumulative factors — spiritual and emotional as well as intellectual. But the intellectual aspects do count, and often combine with the others. Second, it is not part of empirical science, as such, to discuss the possibility of a God and that God’s relation to evolution. Nonetheless, since atheistic “science” often veers well into the realm of the metaphysical itself (quite dogmatically at times), it is reasonable for theology to put its own metaphysical cards on the table as well. And this is what it seems to me these recent discoveries about “cooperation” might do to help shift the discussion. What we now see is that “nature red in tooth and claw” has a subtle sustaining matrix of another sort. We can now give an account of it mathematically, but the question still presses: what might it mean ethically and theologically?

It is important to understand here that “cooperation” in the technical, evolutionary, sense does not have the same evocations as it carries in ordinary language use. It does not, obviously, in the case of bacteria or cancer cells, involve intentional working together, let alone good feelings, or empathy toward others. As such, then, the news about “cooperation” in evolutionary processes is not a “warm, fuzzy” riposte to the story of evolutionary competitiveness or selfishness. But what it does show us is that the whole evolutionary struggle has a “sacrificial” accompaniment which in certain conditions creatively recurs and forms a vital part of the dynamism of evolutionary development. And as this strategy is observed higher up the evolutionary scale we start to find accompaniments to its manifestation which are truly intriguing — the widespread “cooperative” (self-denying) activities of social insects, for instance, or the practice of a school of dolphins in surrounding a dying companion even at great risk to themselves. These phenomena may suggest that “cooperation” (as mathematically understood) provides a sort of evolutionary “preparation” for a higher, and fully intentional human “altruism” that can arise only once the cultural, linguistic realm is reached. In other words, ethical tendencies to self-sacrificial and forgiving behaviors, themselves productive and creative within populations, may have their preliminary roots in forms of life much lower than the human.

And So? Some Significant Moral Implications for the Church’s Thinking

And that is a very remarkable discovery indeed. If there is a God, even — ex hypothesi — a trinitarian God of compassion, providential involvement, and sacrificial love, this is the sort of evolutionary process he might well have made. Evolution delivers to us humans, made in “his image,” the greatest possible inheritance of responsibility: to crown those regular intimations of evolutionary cooperation, long established and refined, with acts of intentional sacrificial altruism that now alone can save the planet itself.

But to begin to understand and unfurl such a complex — and admittedly contentious — set of arguments as outlined here, quite apart from applying it in practical terms to on-the-ground decisions and projects, requires not only the close collaboration of working scientists, philosophers of science, ethicists, and theologians; for such work will also be “costly” in terms of the very understanding of “cooperation” here adumbrated. Fighting the ravages of global warming can have no meaning without the spiritual demands to be made on richer countries for the sake of the poorer, and on all of us for the sake of a greater good. Perhaps it is here that the Anglican Science Commission (along with the wider Church) will have to meet the most difficult political issues that it will have to face; but it could also be argued that it is only in the matrix of religious hope that the human energy and will to confront these challenges will be sustained. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the new Commission have to be thanked for the vigor with which they are tackling such an ambitious project, with all the multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary tasks that lie ahead.

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley is an Anglican priest and Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity Emerita at the University of Cambridge. She was previously Mallinckrodt Professor at Harvard, where she conducted a three-year Templeton Foundation research project with Professor Martin A. Nowak on “Evolution and the Theology of Cooperation.” Their co-edited book, Evolution, Games and God: The Principle of Cooperation was published by Harvard University Press in 2013. Coakley’s Gifford Lectures on the topic of “cooperation” can be accessed online at https://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/sacrifice-regained-evolution-cooperation-and-god.


[1] See Martin A. Nowak, “Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation,” Science vol 314, 8 December 2006: www.sciencemag.org

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Douglas Bodde
24 days ago

Fascinating discussion. Some may see this as yet another area taken from religion (ethics and morality) and given to more materialistic explanations. God as creator and sustainer really is the first assumption or rejection in human life, especially the life of the mind.