Genes as Gods

September 1999By Paul C. Fox

Paul C. Fox, M.D., is a family physician in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, and a member of St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church.

The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief in Human Affairs.  By John C. Avise. Harvard University Press. 287 pages. $30.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, when I entered medical school, I was an agnostic, in large measure because years of indoctrination in the public schools and by the media had left me convinced that Darwin’s theory of evolution was true beyond question. Therefore there was no need for the “God hypothesis” and no intellectual justification for it. Agnosticism was comfortable; it allowed me to feel smugly superior to believers without having to make the effort to be a reasoned unbeliever. Moreover, since human moral codes were mere byproducts of material evolution, I felt free to improvise my own standards of behavior. I could do pretty much anything I wanted.

My cozy and convenient world was shaken when I began to study biochemistry in the first year of med school. Exposed to the full intricacy of even the most “primitive” bacterium, I began to have the uneasy feeling that all this complexity at such a fundamental level could not be the product of mere random events, even events over billions of years. This suspicion, as I began to look into the matter, ripened into the conviction that life originated by design rather than by chance. Design meant a Designer. And so began for me the long and convoluted search that led me first to Theism, then to Christianity, and in the end to Catholicism. It is a journey that not a few have made before me and that many more (I hope) will make in the future.

Reading The Genetic Gods was thus an opportunity to revisit a state of mind that I left behind a quarter of a century ago. I found the experience a rather distasteful one — like returning to a shack one had inhabited in abject poverty, and finding it even colder, leakier, and draftier than memory had painted it.

John C. Avise, a professor of genetics at the University of Georgia, is an apologist for evolution of the old school, in the line of T.H. Huxley, George Gaylord Simpson, and Richard Dawkins. He makes his premise clear in the first paragraph: “Human beings, like all other species on earth, are biological products of evolutionary processes, and as such are physical expressions of genes, the ‘genetic gods.’ Genes and the mechanistic evolutionary forces that have sculpted them thus assume many of the roles in human affairs traditionally reserved for supernatural deities.” He offers his book as “a simplified discussion of recent evolutionary-genetic findings.” But he has more ambitious aims for it as well. He wants to “increase communication…between theology and evolutionary biology,” to “diminish the hostility between these differing epistemological approaches,” and in some way to reconcile critical scientific thought with “the sense of purpose and fulfillment that a rich spiritual life can provide.”

As a popularization of classic evolutionary theory, The Genetic Gods is fairly standard fare. Avise begins by presenting what he calls the three “doctrines” of evolution — an odd word in the mouth of someone as averse to religion as he shows himself to be. These doctrines are mechanism (all processes in living organisms, including humans, can be explained solely in terms of physical and chemical events), natural selection (all traits of living organisms arise from the operation of natural selection on randomly occurring mutations) and historicity (new adaptations are built upon previous adaptations, and are not designed de novo to meet particular environmental challenges).

Avise does not actually make a case for these “doctrines.” He simply asserts them as matters of undisputed fact, making uncomplimentary asides about theistic views of life as he goes along. In discussing mechanism, for example, he makes it clear that the “interventionist deity” of Christianity is simply ruled out. Perhaps, he concedes, the universe might have been the work of “an omnipotent god with a grand design for life,” but he insists that such a god must long ago have left the scene, allowing the world to develop mechanistically. “If so,” he comments, “a wise bet might be on scientists (rather than shamans, priests, rabbis, or Sufis) to be the first to achieve an objective understanding of this god.”

This smug tone is representative of Avise’s approach to “improving communication between theology and evolutionary biology.” In discussing natural selection he comments that “the evolution of humankind through natural causes can be viewed with a sense of awe and inspiration…perhaps even more so than had we merely been created under the direct auspices of a deity.” “Merely”? And in discussing the dogma (pardon me, “doctrine”) of historicity, Avise takes the opportunity to trot out a list of “design flaws” — errors that, in his opinion, no intelligent creator would have made. On the list as one of the Creator’s major oversights is our lack of a second heart (in case the first heart fails).

The cataloguing of God’s bloopers grows tedious with repetition throughout the book. A whole chapter is devoted to “Genetic Maladies,” the subtext of which is the refrain, “How could a loving and omnipotent God permit” whatever defect is under discussion? Avise seems unaware that such questions were being debated long before modern genetics was invented, and he gives no indication that he would be interested in any answers that may have come out of those discussions. That he can ask the question seems to him sufficient warrant to dismiss the existence of a God in whom he does not believe in any event.

Avise’s irenic statements about improving communication and decreasing hostility between science and theology are shown to be a disingenuous rhetorical device, given his unrelenting attacks on religion and theology. For example, he quotes with approval Gore Vidal’s assessment of monotheism as “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture” and his charge that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are “anti-human.” Avise evidently concurs with Bertrand Russell’s contention that “all religions [are] abhorrent constructs motivated by fear” and that they necessarily lead to cruelty. Nor does he neglect to bash the Catholic Church for “promoting unrestrained human reproduction” and, of course, for mistreating Galileo.

Avise’s hostility to religion, especially theistic religion, is so palpable that it is hard to imagine that he is himself unaware of it, or wishes to “diminish the hostility” in any personal way. His notion of “improving communication between theology and science” is equally one-sided. He gives away his game at the end of the seventh chapter, in which he invites theologians to “gather at the discussion table” with scientists “to consider rational, humanitarian courses of action” in response to the ethical challenges posed by new biological and genetic technologies. “In such deliberations,” he goes on to say, “perhaps the only mode of argument to be firmly censored — the only ‘wrong’ approach — is that in which the moral authority of a god is asserted.” In other words, theologians are warmly welcomed at the discussions — so long as they leave their theology at home.

And what does Avise offer in return for the surrender of religion? How does he, in fact, from a purely mechanistic view of life derive “the sense of purpose and fulfillment that a rich spiritual life can provide”? Ironically, he appears to accomplish this by a sheer leap of what can only be called faith. That is to say, he arrives at comforting conclusions that may indeed fill his personal need for a sense of purpose and fulfillment, but which in no way can be logically derived from his naturalistic premises. For example, he concedes that, by a purely naturalistic reckoning, “no exercise of will can be truly free.” Yet he finds a quasi-freedom in the notion that evolution has granted humans “an unprecedented scope for varied behavioral responses” and from this he derives the conclusion that we bear “some measure of responsibility” for our actions.

“Responsibility”? To whom? Not to God, since there is none. Not to our “genetic gods,” since they are blind and deaf. Not to our human species, since it is of no more intrinsic value than a bacterial species. Not to the Future, since the Future holds the certainty of a cold and lifeless universe. If there is no ultimate meaning and value (and there is none in a godless world) then there is no rational reason why I, as an individual, should inconvenience myself even slightly for some illusory greater good.

From a purely logical point of view, then, Avise’s “genetic gods” leave us in a much greater quandary than the “theistic god” when it comes to the question of why anyone should behave responsibly or morally. The theist may not always make good moral decisions, but he at least knows that goodness and morality are absolutes which derive not from the material universe but from a source that transcends it. In Avise’s view, on the other hand, moral standards are no less a product of amoral evolution than hair color, in which case we are justified in doubting that they are in any real sense moral. An amoral genesis of morality is even more problematic than an abiological genesis of life.

In the end Avise must resort to pulling, somehow, the moral rabbit out of the materialist hat. He calls for theologians to give up the doctrine of a personal God “and avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself.” Evidently he is able to convince himself that by capitalizing words he is able to create absolute, transcendent values in a relativistic, materialistic universe. (Or perhaps his Upper-Casing Gene is dominant?)

This would be almost laughable, if it were not for the fact that Avise uses such fictitious absolutes as moral cover for some very serious social proposals at which he cautiously hints in his book. He looks forward to a time when societies might identify and promote “systems of understanding that contribute to personal enrichment and minimize harm to others,” which certainly suggests the promotion of some carefully designed synthetic religion (based, of course, on his Scientism) and (by implication) the suppression of the old, harmful religions such as the “anti-human” faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Under the banner of such “systems of understanding,” Avise envisions a future in which “societies” (meaning, no doubt, committees of scientists and tame theologians) would consciously determine such things as “the composition and distribution of landscapes, the sizes and organizations of towns,” and ominously enough, the “religious climates that might permit the greatest flowering of human possibilities.” This brave new world would include also a “new eugenics” dedicated to eliminating “deleterious genes” by the use of selective abortion, gametic screening, genetic counseling, and “financial and other incentives” — and most likely “financial and other” penalties as well. Of course, Avise piously condemns the “horror of eugenics under the Nazi regime,” and proclaims that the new eugenics must bear no resemblance to it. He gives no clue as to how such a resemblance is to be avoided.

Perhaps it is because he is so intent on establishing the new, rational religion of Scientism that Avise concentrates his attacks on the proponents of traditional religions, imagining that they are the greatest threat to his “system of understanding.” Strangely enough, while most mainstream theologians have made their peace (perhaps prematurely) with the theory of evolution, a mounting challenge to Darwinian and other evolutionary theories has been coming from science itself.

Although their numbers are still small, more and more biologists and other scientists have been following the same line of reasoning which led me, so many years ago, from agnosticism to theism — and have been pursuing it with far more erudition and detailed knowledge than I ever had. Dean H. Kenyon is one. He literally “wrote the book” on prebiotic evolution in the 1960s, summarizing all the experimental and other evidence for the theory that the origin of life was from nonliving precursors. Years later he wrote quite a different book, Of Pandas and People, in which he presents both the evidence in favor of evolution and the evidence against it, and argues that there is at least as much evidence in favor of the theory of intelligent design in the origin of life as for life’s simply random occurrence.

More recently we have seen Michael Behe’s remarkable Darwin’s Black Box. Behe, a biochemist, applies the concept of “irreducibly complex systems” (systems that require all parts to be present in order to function) to such diverse biochemical systems as the flagellum of a bacterium and the immune system of a human, and concludes that evolutionary theory is powerless to explain the existence of such systems in living things. Not unlike Kenyon, Behe arrives at the conclusion that life is most likely the product of intelligent design.

What is significant about these and other such writers is that they did not set out from a religious position in order to arrive at these conclusions — nor do they now promote a Christian “creationism” or any other organized religious point of view. They simply did what scientists are supposed to do — namely, without any preconceptions as to what the answer should be, they followed the evidence to what seemed to them (perhaps to their dismay) an ineluctable conclusion.

It is likely, now that the trail has been broken, that other scientists will follow the same path and reason their way to the same conclusion. It may well be that the coming century will see the last of the three reigning ideologies of the 20th century — Freudianism, Marxism, and Darwinism — toppled by real science from its Scientistic throne.

Avise sees himself as a courageous promoter of scientific truth against religious superstition. He may instead be one of the last defenders of an increasingly foundationless faith.

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