Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson gave Case Western Reserve University’s annual Distinguished Lecture on March 3, 2009 in Severance Hall, the magnificent building where the equally magnificent Cleveland Orchestra plays, was packed for the occasion. It seemed to underscore the community’s support for, at least interest in, the theory of evolution.
I had read Wilson’s book Consilience; The Unity of Knowledge (1998) in which he urges that we should seek the unity of knowledge, starting with looking for the biological basis of human nature and behavior. Although his talk did not deal with this particular topic (being instead a more general talk about Charles Darwin and his work) I did get to meet him the next day as part of a small group and to discuss some of those ideas.
After his public lecture and in the small group discussion, the inevitable question came up as to whether he thought that the theory of evolution by natural selection ruled out belief in god. In his book, he is clear about what his personal beliefs are.
But the split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists. It is between transcendentalists, those who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. (p. 238)
I am an empiricist, On religion I lean towards deism but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics. The existence of a cosmological God who created the universe (as envisaged by deism) is possible, and may eventually be settled, perhaps by forms of material evidence not yet imagined. Or the matter may be forever beyond human reach. In contrast, and of far greater importance to humanity, the existence of a biological God, one who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs (as envisaged by theism) is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences.
The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin of ethics, and it meets the criterion of consilience: Causal explanations of brain activity and evolution, while imperfect, already cover the most facts known about moral behavior with the greatest accuracy and the smallest number of free-standing assumptions. (p. 240)
It is pretty clear that he is a materialist and does not believe in god as popularly conceived. But in his public responses to the question of god’s existence, I was surprised that he seemed to duck the question altogether. He avoided giving a direct answer, saying that he was not interested in making pronouncements on this issue because his primary concern is saving the planet and its biodiversity from extinction, and in order to do that he needed allies from the religious communities since they are so large in number.
So Wilson was taking a tactical position, similar to what I described earlier amongst those people who downplay the anti-god implications of science in general and evolution in particular because they seek to form alliances with religious people in their attempts to create support for science and the theory of evolution. Such people, even though they themselves do not believe in god, perpetuate for political purposes the fiction that science and belief in a (non-deist) god are compatible. Other scientists also refrain from pointing out the incompatibility of science with religion out a misplaced sense that the religious sensibilities of people have a special status that we should respect by refraining from pointing out its lack of any empirical content.
But even allowing for that, is Wilson pursuing a good strategy? I think not because I do not think religious people are likely to be consistent and reliable allies on the issue of saving the planet.
The reason is that if you believe in any god other than a deistic one, one cannot help but have a fatalistic attitude towards big questions like the future of the planet. While more sophisticated religious people might believe that god does not micromanage each person’s life, all believers in god believe that there is some grand cosmic plan. That is usually why they believe in god after all. How can such a plan not include the fate of the Earth?
I suspect that all religious people must have some sense that the future of the Earth must be part of god’s plan, that whether the environment is eventually destroyed by humans or saved is determined by god. This attitude removes any sense of real urgency to personally take steps to deal with this issue.
On the other hand, people who do not believe in god know that only our own policies and actions can make the difference between a premature destruction of the ecosystem and long-term survival. There is no deus ex machina to rescue us.
So if we wish to really get action to save the planet, beliefs in the existence of god will, in the long run, be a hindrance and so Wilson might be better off joining other materialists is seeking to convince believers that god is dead.
POST SCRIPT: Life is a job
Father Guido Sarducci reveals the secret of the meaning of life and what happens to you after death.