[Note for bibliographic reference: Melberg, Hans O. (1997) Evolution or
Creationism: Does science and religion compete in the same arena?, http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/papers/970116.htm]
Evolution or Creationism
Does science and religion compete in the same arena?
by Hans O. Melberg
River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
Basic Books, New York, 1995
Richard Dawkins' book River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life is wonderful
reading. It is well focused, stimulating, and well argued. One by one Dawkins deals with
commonly held beliefs - such as the belief that everything has a purpose - and destroys
these myths by careful reasoning. Yet, the book is not perfect. First, I do not believe
the conflict between science and religion is as great as Dawkins appears to believe since
they two are only partially competing in the same arena. Second, I am slightly less
confident than him about the claims he makes on behalf of Darwin. Before I go into the
details of these argument, academic honesty forces me to reveal two facts: I am a
Christian, and I am not a specialist in biology.
Science and religion
Dawkins clearly thinks religion and science compete in the same arena and that this is a
battle science deserves to win. As he writes "Science shares with religion the claim
that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But here
the resemble ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results.
Myths and faiths are not and do not." (p. 33). My first topic is then: Is science and
religion mutually incompatible?
To answer this we should ask ourselves which questions science tries to answer and
which questions religion tries to answer. One commonly made distinction is to say that
science answers the "How" questions while religion tries to answer the
"Why" questions. Dawkins rightly disagrees. The basis for Dawkins argument is
that "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect is there
is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless
indifference." (p. 133). The mere fact that we desire a purpose, or that it is
grammatically possible to pose the ultimate "why" questions, does not imply that
there is an answer.
This is all true, a creationist may admit, but does not the beauty and complexity of
nature itself indicate that there is a God? Against this Dawkins argues that the theory of
evolution is perfectly capable of explaining the complexities of nature. One of his more
interesting arguments in this chapter deals with the somewhat sophisticated argument that
"'X must have been designed by a Creator,' people say, ' because half an X would not
work at all. All the parts of X must have been put together simultaneously; they could not
have gradually evolved.'" (p. 59) The example used by one creationist in the book is
that of an orchid which both looks and smells like a female wasp. Imagine that both the
smell and the look has to be perfect for the wasp to be fooled. If this is the case, then
it would be difficult to use evolution to explain the existence of orchids. The reason
being that evolution would probably only make one small change at a time - say look would
come before the smell - and this would not be enough for the orchid to survive. It would
not be enough because orchids - by implicit assumption - need both qualities to attract
the wasps necessary for the fertilisation of this orchid.
The simple and obvious counter-argument to the above is the falsity of the implicit
assumption that perfect resemblance is necessary for survival. Animals are often
"fooled by chance resemblance" and consequently survival of the orchid does not
"have to be perfect in all dimensions to work" (p. 62 and 61). Take the example
of sticklebacks (a fish). Female sticklebacks have a red spot which triggers the reactions
of the male. However, the male sticklebacks are easily fooled, as research by Niko
Tinbergen has showed. They even react on a red mail van - the ultimate stickleback
sex-bomb. Thus, the requirement of perfection first time is far too strong in this
example. Instead evolution is perfectly capable of explaining how the characteristics of
an orchid has developed towards better and better resemblance to a female wasp by gradual
selection of those orchids which bore the closest resemblance. In sum, orchids do not
prove the existence of God or any intentional Creator.
One may try to find other examples. Some say that the eye could not have developed
gradually, but once again Dawkins convincingly argues that the gradual development of the
eye is fully possible. In the same way he explains in detail how the complex bee-dance -
first discussed by Karl von Frisch - could have evolved gradually. Overall, I think
Dawkins is convincing, but I lack the detailed knowledge of biology to scrutinise the
argument more closely. Maybe there are examples of animals, plants or relationships which
is difficult to explain by gradual evolution which Dawkins does not mention? He claims
that he did not manage to find a single example of a "brittle" (Dawkins name of
a device which has to work perfectly or it would not work at all) in the non-human sphere.
In fact, only one man-made "brittle" device comes to his mind: the arch. The
arch could not have evolved gradually by evolution because half an arch would not be
stable. Now, there may be some non-human "brittle" devices unknown to me, but
until I get to know these Dawkins, Darwin and evolution must remains my best bet.
One may try to throw some doubt on the theory of evolution by arguing that there has
simply not been enough time to develop the complexities we observe within the time-span
starting from when life first developed until today. Take one example such as the
mentioned eye. How long time would it take for simple cells to develop into an eye?
Dawkins refers to research by the Swedish scientists Dan Nilsson and Suzanne Pelger which
shows that the gradual development of an eye is well within the time range available (p.
77ff). More specifically they have calculated, using pessimistic assumptions about the
rate of mutation and other variables, that to go from a few cells to a the complexities of
a fish-eye takes 400 000 generations which would mean 500 000 years since fish live
shorter than humans. Thus, there is plenty of time and evolution is once again vindicated.
Our retreating creationist may eventually accept evolution, but he has one argument
left: Evolution, surely, cannot explain the existence of life itself. Clearly, evolution
has to start from something - a live creature - and this something cannot be explained by
evolution. Once again Dawkins mercilessly attacks the implicit assumption that there must
be a God at the beginning of the chain. As he writes "At the inception of the life
explosion there were no minds, no creativity and no intention. There was only
chemistry." (p. 149). To establish this claim Dawkins refers to an experiment by
Julius Rebek in which he created self-replicating molecules from the combination of two
"dead" chemicals. Moreover, the "offsprings" of the combination of the
two chemicals mutated (i.e. all the children were not alike) when the experiment was
conducted under ultraviolet light. This is one indication that there is nothing mysterious
about life itself. It is possible for life to arise from a chance combination of
To better understand how this is possible Dawkins emphasises the fact that the DNA code
- first discovered by Crick and Watson in 1953 - is simply a line of "dead"
digital information. All that was needed for life to arise, was a chance combination of
atoms - of dead materials - which produced a new material with a self-replicating
property. The self-replicating property is simply a function of the digital information in
the DNA. As Dawkins write "this digital revolution at the very core of life has dealt
the final, killing blow to vitalism - the belief that living material is deeply distinct
from non-living material." (p. 17).
I admit that I am convinced by many of Dawkins arguments. Yet, Dawkins sometimes
exaggerates his case. Take, for example, his claim that "Not only is Dr. Marguli's
theory of origins - the cell as an enclosed garden of bacteria - incomparably more
inspiring, exciting and uplifting than the story of the Garden of Eden. It has the
additional advantage of being almost certainly true." (p. 46). I will certainly
concede that the Biblical stories of the beginning of life are not literally true but I
refrain from the unnecessary and highly contestable overkill of announcing that the
stories of science are more beautiful - even incomparably so - than the stories found in
The above example is part of a pattern in which Dawkins seems unable and unwilling to
hide his contempt for religion, or "primitive tribal superstition" (p. 161) as
he calls it using three strongly emotionally laded words to produce another overkill. Note
here that I do not defend creationism or the relativistic argument that 'science is just
the religion of the Western civilisation.' Incidentally, Dawkins deals effectively with
this last argument in his book and I largely agree with him. My argument is that science
and religion are not mutually incompatible in all dimensions. For example, one of the main
themes in religion is ethics - how we as intentional beings should act in different
One may argue that pure reason would be a competitor to the rules of religion even in
the realm of ethics, or more generally when we decide how to act. However, as Jon Elster -
a leading social scientist - has showed, there are many situations in which it is
impossible to use rational reasoning to determine what we should do (for more on this see
his article "Unresolved problems in the theory of rational choice" in Acta
Sociologica, 1993. Also available at the Jon Elster Page at http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/elster.htm).
For example, consider a person who is trying to decide how much and in what company he
should invest his money. In order to do so he must collect information in order to
determine which company has the highest probability of giving the largest reward. However,
he also has to decide how much information to gather before he makes up his mind. But -
and by now you probably understand that we have an endless regression - before he does
this he has to collect information on how much information to gather before he takes his
decision. In short, it is theoretically impossible to make a rational decision in this
Another example is the allocation of a child after a divorce. We simply do not have the
information necessary to make a rational decision since we - in many instances - do not
know who would be the best parent for the child. The point is then that sometimes
rationality cannot guide us to a uniquely best decision. To follow rules whatever their
source - such as "give the child to the mother" - in these circumstances is no
less rational than to attempt a rational evaluation. On the contrary, the attempt to be
rational in a situation where there is no rational solution (hyperrationality), is a form
of irrationality. In so far as apparent scientific reasoning has been used as
hyperrationality, science deserves the label "just another religion" or
"just another form of irrationality" - no more valuable than other kinds of
reasoning. The argument is thus that we must distinguish between those questions which may
be answered relatively reliably and those which simply do not have reliable answers within
In sum, scientific reasoning cannot give us all the answers and this leads me to
believe that there is room for religion. In no way, of course, do I believe this proves
the existence of God. The fact that not all actions can be rational do not prove that God
exists. My claim is more modest: It is not always "primitive tribal
superstition" to use the ten commandments or other religious rules to guide my
actions. Now, to justify my belief in God is much more difficult. I am tempted to throw my
hands up and admit that I cannot do so. But I still, maybe irrationally, believe in God.
If pressed harder I might try to argue that I rely on Jesus' words. Either he was mad -
which I find unlikely - or he was telling the truth. But, this is a digression. Here I am
satisfied to prove that actions based on religious beliefs need not always be irrational.
For this to be true, I do not have to prove the existence of God.
Dawkins' anti-religious sentiments are matched by a corresponding overconfidence in
science, tending towards the mentioned hyperrationality. Consider, for example the
statement that "Nineteen fifty-three [i.e. when the DNA code was discovered] ... will
come to be seen as the end of mystical and obscurantist views of life ..." (p. 20) or
"... how everything makes sense once you assume that DNA survival is what is being
maximized." (p.106). I am in no doubt that both the discovery of the DNA and the
development of Darwin's theory of evolution are important scientific milestones, but I am
nevertheless not as firm in my scientific optimism as Dawkins. Because I am no expert in
biology, the following remarks must be read with caution, but I believe they present some
problems for the theory of evolution and more generally for scientific optimism.
Consider first Dawkins' statement that "All earthly living things are certainly
descendent from a single ancestor. Nobody would dispute that ..." (p. 12). I do not
wish to dispute that species evolve, even to the extent that two new species form as with
gray and red squirrels. However, I have to confess to some doubts about whether all
differences can be explained only by evolution from one source combined with accidental
geographical separation. For example, in my scientific naiveté I ask myself the following
question: how did the differences between men and women develop? Evolution explains why
things change and geographic separation explains why not everything changes in the same
way (i.e. why there are still apes even when some slowly turned into humans). If we all -
male and female - come from one source then at one point a geographical separation must
have occurred which in turn led to the development of two somewhat different entities.
These two entities must then have met again and become capable of producing offsprings.
Moreover, they eventually lost the capacity for isolated self-replication (i.e. without
the aid of the other sex). My problem is that I find this story unconvincing. Could
sex-differences like this evolve gradually? I suspect that my failure to explain the
differences between the genders reveals my lack of biological knowledge, but as long as it
is a mystery for me I am less confident than Dawkins that evolution can explain
everything. (See below for an update on this issue. I am probably wrong, the gender issue
is no problem!)
Another small detail is that evolution surely cannot explain the existence of matter in
the first place. Then again, this may be a false question. We should we assume that there
once was no matter? The assumption of "a beginning" may rest heavily on a
mistaken conception of "time"? But, these are matters best left untouched since
they are well beyond my intellectual power.
Finally, I believe evolution should be used very carefully - if at all - to explain
social phenomena. In this respect biologists may learn some from the persuasive force of
Jon Elster's critique of functionalism in the social sciences (See, for example, Jon
Elster (1982), A Paradigm for the social sciences? Review of Philippe van Parijs (1981),
Evolutionary explanation in the social sciences, Inquiry 25:378-385. See also Jon Elster
(1982), Marxism, functionalism and game theory: The case for methodological individualism,
Theory and Society 11 (4):453-482 and the debate in the next issue). The main point being
that humans are intentional (thus they - unlike evolutionary change - may take one step
back in order to go two forward at a later stage), that there is no general analogue to
natural selection in the social life and even if there were (such as bankruptcy in
economics) the speed of the selection mechanism is too slow to explain the characteristics
of the population.
I still maintain that Dawkins has written a very good book which deserves to be read. It
is both sophisticated and widely accessible - even scientific illiterates (as me) will
gain from his arguments. Subtract the emotional outbursts against religion and the
corresponding slightly exaggerated belief that science already provides reliable
explanation of everything, and the book is close to my ideal of a perfect book.
More on the gender issue: An e-mail received from Lee Altenberg
The difference between the sexes began as anisogamy i.e. not-the same-seeds. There was an
advantage in producing more but smaller haploid cells that would get a free ride on the
material in the bigger haploid cells. In other words, isogamy was evolutionarily unstable.
A gene that produced the right perturbation toward a smaller but more numerous haploid
(which then became known as male) was able to spread in the population. Once it got to a
frequency of 50%, it is stable---with exceptions that are detailed in the theory of sex
Of course, once there were two sexes with different reproductive strategies, all manner
of fun and games is possible.
For more information on evolution, see Boston Review at
[Note for bibliographic reference: Melberg, Hans O. (1997) Evolution or Creationism:
Does science and religion compete in the same arena?, http://www.oocities.com/hmelberg/papers/970116.htm]