God, Darwin and the College Biology Class

David Barash apparently thinks it appropriate to discuss religion in his Biology class.

But his understanding of both religion and biology are flawed (ie not in accord with my own).

Stephen Jay Gould would clearly have been wrong to assume that religion always restricts itself to claims of normative rather than physical content (ie to claims about moral value rather than predictions of physical events and/or claims about the historical past), but he may have been right to say that if religion actually did restrict itself in that way then there would be no conflict with science. And since it is indeed possible for some religions to do so, there is no *essential* conflict between religion and science.

Certainly some “substantial minority” of Barash’s students will be “troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material”. And it is correct to point out both that the theories taught in his biology class make useful and correct predictions about the distribution and characteristics of species (as well as about other things such as the existence of a previously unexpected source of energy in the sun), and that no natural phenomenon has been shown to be incompatible with the best elaboration of those theories. But that should be the end of it.

Where Barash oversteps the appropriate bounds is in his attempt to engage with what religions actually say and with his understanding of their foundational “pillars”. I may actually agree with what he thinks about these matters, and with his right to assert it in the New York Times, but it is outside the scope of a Biology class and he has no business addressing it in that context.

Let me elaborate a bit on that.

With regard to the “argument from complexity”, it is perfectly ok for a Biology class to include the current best explanation for how various examples cited by creationists actually are quite consistent with a completely undirected evolutionary process, but the extent to which this has “theological” implications should be left to the student.

Attacking the “illusion of centrality” is an even more serious intrusion – compounded by the fact that it makes no biological sense to even address the question. The fact that various species demonstrate (albeit at rudimentary levels) many of those aspects of our behaviour which are often attributed to the existence of a special level of “consciousness”, “conscience”, or “soul” is certainly worth pointing out, and it may soon be possible to show that our own versions of these things could well have arisen by chance mutation, but there can never be any biological proof that they were not actually caused by some external intervenor. And speculation as to the likelihood of that is not a biological issue.

Finally, and most seriously, Barash presumes to address “theodicy” – ie the problem of evil. Here he goes completely off the rails by describing perfectly natural phenomena as “ethical horrors” when all that biology tells us is that some species behave in ways which humans reject in their peers. Whether or not this is consistent with the claimed intent of whatever various religions call “God” is entirely outside the domain of Biology and any comment presuming to attribute or interpret such claims is not appropriate from the podium of a Biology classroom.

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