Book Review of "Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong"


Ross Hastings

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, no one who is interested in the New Atheist phenomenon or the origins debate within Christian circles can afford not to read Conor Cunningham’s Darwin’s Pious Idea. If Dawkins has for the most part refused to debate evolutionary creationists, especially those with a knowledge of state of the art genetics and molecular biology, there is a reason. His science is as suspect as his philosophy. The basic thesis of this book is that both the denial of the Darwinian theory of evolution by Christian literalists and the reductionistic extrapolation of it into a universalist philosophy (evolutionism) by Ultra-Darwinists are errant and vacuous positions.

A critique of the Christian literalist denial, Cunningham contends, is valid in that, firstly, its interpretation of Scripture is out of harmony with the interpretation of the Church Fathers (including Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus) and is, in fact, a product of Modernity. Furthermore, such a denial simply refuses to accept the findings of science, while also being grounded in unhelpful dualisms—dualisms which Cunningham skillfully debunks (grace/nature; sacred/secular; natural/supernatural). Cunningham’s command of Patristic theology is impressive. Likewise, his view of creation as eschatological, of creation and redemption as inseparable, and of Christ as both the agent of creation and (as the recapitulation of Adam) the goal of creation, are all attractive elements in his profoundly Trinitarian theological sweep of reality. There are also detailed discussions of Genesis 1, 2, 3; of the place of death in creation by evolution; and of theodicy and so on, that I cannot engage in detail here. They are, nonetheless, worth their weight in gold. While not everyone will agree with his Eastern Orthodox view of original sin[1] and of sin as defined by the Christ event, Cunningham’s account is coherent and substantial. By placing what seems to be the best theory of origins to date within the context of a weighty orthodox Christian theology, Cunningham has done all thinking Christians a favour.

What is most impressive in the book, however, is the withering critique of Dawkins’ “science.” Even though Cunningham is not a biologist by profession, he has amassed the work of contemporary molecular biologists and geneticists to debunk the dualist and reductionist notion of the “selfish gene” (which is neither selfish nor, in the simplistic sense, a gene) so prominent in Dawkins’ atheistic diatribe against creation and religion. Both the replicator/vehicle dualism and the dualism of selfishness/altruism—the bases on which the biological and evolutionary world have been parsed by Ultra-Darwinists—have been demonstrated by Cunningham to be untrue. Cunningham establishes this fact by showing that genes are very much a product of evolution and as such “cannot be equated with evolution” (63). Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that evolution is influenced just as much by phenotype as it is genotype. Indeed, rather than being foundational, natural selection “is itself derivative” (63). “Therefore,” as Cunningham goes on to say, “the materialists ... generate what can be called a homunculus fundamentalism: they presume that the soul is like a little person inside the human, but when they don’t find such an entity, they deny the soul existence” (65).

Cunningham crucially identifies how the Ultra-Darwinists have confused the simple “phenomenon of heredity” based on DNA with the complex “physical mechanism of inheritance,” finding that there is “very good evidence for extragenetic modes of inheritance that act in conjunction with genetic modes” (72). For example, Cunningham cites Jablonka and Lamb who argue that:

Molecular biology has shown that many of the old assumptions about the genetic system, which is the basis of present day Neo-Darwinism, are incorrect. It has also shown that cells can transmit information to daughter cells through non-DNA (epi-genetic) inheritance. This means that all organisms have at least two systems of heredity. In addition many animals transmit information to others by behavioural means, which gives them a third hereditary system. And we humans have a fourth, because symbol-based inheritance, particularly language, plays a substantial role in our evolution. (72)

Thus, the idea of “simple genes” being invoked as an equivalent to the atom in the hard sciences and as the omnipotent agent of evolution is shown to be wrongheaded. Instead, current genetics is “more like the genetic theory of relativity” in that many factors influence the operation of genes.

Importantly, Cunningham also debunks Dawkins’ pet view that the selfishness of genes and the lack of altruism in natural selection rebut the idea of God. Without regurgitating all of Cunningham’s argument, I was fascinated by the Trinitarian overtones behind his contention that selfishness is more like individuation—an acknowledgement of the “self” of the organism. In fact, Cunningham argues that:

... if there were in fact real self replicators—or better, if selfishness was primary or originary—then evolution would be impossible. It would be impossible because truly, intrinsically selfish entities could not, and therefore would not, replicate at all. They would not replicate because it is only ever a type that survives, never a token, as is also the case with phenotypes. And this in some sense, requires that the replicator relinquish any monadic pretense of autarchy. To put it in Freudian terms: the only instinct of a would-be selfish replicator would be Thanatos (the death instinct) because self-identity, with its precarious, finite nature, involves a centralingredient of altruism. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is patently obvious. Persistence is grounded in endless exchange. We are therefore the product of fundamental reciprocity…. “To be” is to be vulnerable. “To be” is to be beside oneself (ecstatically). “To be” is to be open to alterity, that which is different, other.(68-9)

Whilst I am very hesitant about looking for analogies of the Trinity everywhere, I am not surprised when the fundamental nature of matter and the stuff of the mechanisms of created life reflect the fundamental reciprocity and mutuality of the triune Creator—an inherent posture of being open to the other.

In the end, then, Cunningham’s account shows Dawkins to be just as guilty of fundamentalism, and as dismissive of good science, as the literalist creationists. While literalist creationists cling to a particular reading of the Bible which opposes scientific findings, Dawkins clings to outmoded science in order to oppose a conception of the person which aligns with Christian faith. In doing so, Cunningham shows the importance of carefully reading both the book of nature and the book of scripture, and in the process brings new life to Darwin’s old ideas.


  1. Though also fond of deLubac and Balthasar of Nouvelle Theologie, Cunningham is clearly influenced greatly by Schmemann and the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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