The next time you want to stop a conversation among the soi-disant enlightened, ask what has atheism ever done for science. It’s one thing to admit that religious dogmatism has periodically halted the march of scientific progress but quite another to argue that atheism has actually advanced science. The difference matters. Richard Dawkins plans to spend his retirement spearheading a foundation (bearing his name) that aims to be the atheist equivalent of the John Templeton Foundation, a charity that supports science-religion collaborations.
In his evangelical atheism, Dawkins finds several fellow travellers including Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Their confidence in atheism has extended to suggesting – and not in jest – that religious instruction is so potentially corrosive of the mind that it be left to secular authorities.
Open declarations of atheism have never been so fashionable, especially among scientists. A poll of members of the US National Academy of Sciences found that 85 per cent do not believe in God. But again, it is one thing for scientists to deny the existence of God and quite another for atheism to actually advance science. It may also be that 85 per cent of the National Academy’s membership is male or belongs to the Democratic party. So the question returns: what has atheism done for science? While evolutionists have been busily trying to explain our propensity for religion, they have neglected science itself. From an evolutionary standpoint, why have we done science at all – and why are we still doing it?
The ease with which we accept banal non-answers to this question is breathtaking. The most popular non-answers usually involve some vague appeal to “innate animal curiosity”. But this hardly distinguishes science from, say, gossip or sheer nosiness – let alone religion. It also doesn’t explain why we persist in doing science even when trails grow cold or, worse, dangerous. Most evolutionary explanations account for a trait’s persistence in one of two ways: it either increases our chances for survival or it is the by-product of something that increases our chances for survival. But does science fit either description?
Here we need to be clear what is meant by “science”. Those aspects of science that overlap with technology might seem self-explanatory from an evolutionary standpoint. They qualify as what Dawkins calls our “extended phenotype”, the means by which organisms transform the environment to their reproductive advantage. But even here our efforts at extending the phenotype go well beyond the call of natural selection. The measure of success in medical science has been the capacity to sustain the largest number of healthy humans in the widest variety of environments for the longest period – even at the cost of eliminating other species. We act as if no natural obstacle is too great to be overcome.
To be sure, when medical scientists have taken Darwin to heart, they have diagnosed the urge to go forth and multiply and dominate the planet as a monotheistic residue. Only the religions descended from the biblical Abraham – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – accord humans, as beings created “in the image and likeness of God”, such an overriding species privilege. In contrast, Darwinists update the sense of death’s naturalness found in the ancient Greek sceptics and religions of the East. Death is not an affront to our supremacy but an instance of natural selection’s maintenance of the ecosystem.
Existentialist authors used to say that death is the ultimate personal experience. Evolutionists respond that the only thing personal about death is its experience, since any individual death is best understood as part of the process by which populations are brought into equilibrium. The “racial hygiene” movement inspired by social Darwinism, and ascendant in the half-century prior to Hitler, adopted just such a stance. Echoes of it continue to this day in, say, scepticism towards mass vaccination and disease eradication schemes. So, while evolution might be able to explain technological advance, it cannot easily explain, let alone justify, science’s signature interest in having us know and control everything.
Consider physics, which at least since Newton has been taken as the gold standard of intellectual achievement. But why? This is a science that unabashedly aspires to adopt what the monotheistic religions recognise as God’s point of view, whereby all natural phenomena – most of which are irrelevant to human survival – are understood under a common theoretical framework that only very few of us grasp. Moreover, physics has been pursued not merely as an elite hobby but as the basis for practices that have put us all at risk.
It may come as no surprise that the history of physics is full of monotheists, typically heterodox ones who hid their views at least as much to avoid religious as scientific persecution. Perhaps more surprising is that the same is true of the history of biology, both before and after Darwin: Linnaeus, Cuvier, Lamarck, Mendel, Wright, Fisher and Dobzhansky were among the most distinguished contributors to the study of heredity. All were Christians with rather considered views of how their faith impinged on their science. Indeed, against this backdrop, Darwin himself is not unreasonably regarded as a failed Christian.
But given the vexed relations between politics and science in the 20th century, a Darwinist with the courage of his convictions would now declare the leading tendencies in the medical and physical sciences “counter-evolutionary” and call for a scaling back in their funding and significance before they contribute to the extinction of our species.
Clearly we have hit upon a paradox. Hardcore Darwinists are right that their version of biological evolution requires no belief in the kind of deity endorsed by the Abrahamic religions. However, it is unlikely that human societies would have devoted the time, effort and material resources needed to make that point in all its empirical detail, had they not also believed in the capacity of science to transcend species boundaries and acquire a comprehensive grasp of nature. Yet from a strict Darwinian standpoint, such a belief is unsustainable and perhaps ultimately lethal.
More generally, atheism has not figured as a force in the history of science not because it has been suppressed but because whenever it has been expressed, it has not encouraged the pursuit of science. The general metaphysical idea underlying Darwinism – that a morally indifferent nature selects from among a variety of organic possibilities – has many secular and religious precedents across the world. In each case, it has led to an ethic of equanimity and even resignation, certainly not a drive to remake the planet, if not the universe, to our own purposes. Yet, so far we have got pretty far on that drive. The longer we continue successfully, the stronger the evidence that at least human life cannot be fully explained in Darwinian terms.