The God Squad: The ant man, R.I.P.
The most remarkable fact about religion in all its forms is how its critics have failed to refute it. From the beginning of human culture until this very moment, human beings have turned with trust and love to the teachings of religious traditions and sacred scriptures to provide hope and salvation from the sin and brokenness of the world. Religion has survived the pre-Socratic materialistic philosopher Democritus and the early modern David Hume and, of course, Marx and Lenin and Mao and Stalin and Freud and today’s gaggle of new atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennet. In this full bag of thinkers and tyrants no one in all of history posed a greater threat to the claims of religion than Charles Darwin. His theory that evolution and natural selection were fully capable of explaining the diversity of animal life was an intellectual arrow aimed at the heart of faith, although Darwin did not develop the full atheist implications of his theory. He preferred to be called an agnostic rather than an atheist, though he did write. "Science has nothing to do with Christ, except insofar as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For myself, I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities."
The man who took up the evolutionary cudgel against religion was the brilliant heir to Darwin, the biologist E.O. Wilson who died last week. An etymologist who studied ants, Wilson evolved a new science based on Darwin called sociobiology in the mid-’70s. Essentially Wilson believed that all the traits (or most of the traits) religious folk we think of as unique to human beings like altruism, love, courage, and especially free will are actually the result of genetic determinism. What we believe is a gift from God is actually a gift from deoxyribonucleic acid — DNA. Natural selection gave humans with those genes a selective advantage over other animals and allowed them to survive and pass on their virtue genes to their offspring.
To simplify this: suppose two groups of Neanderthals were attacked by saber-toothed tigers. One group banded together, formed a circle and with their spears pointed out. They defended each other and they were able to fight off the tigers. The other cowardly group ran away, each one in a different direction, but then the tigers could just track each of them down and eat them at their leisure. The group with the courage gene survived while the cowardly group became tiger lunch. The point is that if Darwin and Wilson were right, then we can explain every human trait genetically. We are not made in the image of a non-materialistic God. We are simply the result of the natural selection of genetic goo.
This theory does not refute God. It makes God irrelevant. That is why Darwin and Wilson are the most important critics of religion in all human history. Wilson wrote, “I had discovered that what I most loved on the planet, which was life on the planet, made sense only in terms of evolution and the idea of natural selection.”
The NYT reported that, “Dr. Wilson later told the historian Ullica Segerstrale, ‘…that this was a far more interesting, richer and more powerful explanation than the teachings of the New Testament.’”
Wilson was also attacked by Marxists who were also materialists and atheists because they believed that his theories of sociobiology could lead to racist conclusions like eugenics which believe that some races are genetically superior to other races.
Wilson’s main critics at Harvard were the paleontologist Stephen J. Gould and the population geneticist Richard C. Lewontin. Gould said, ''Behavior that works need not have a specific genetic ground.”
This is why religion is still the most humanizing and most protective force in the world. The belief that all people are equally sacred and equally made in the image of God is the one belief that can keep us all from falling into the trap of atheism and materialism. Our consciousness has no gene. Our love of the stranger has no gene. Our charity to the needy has no gene. Our free will has no gene, and our belief that death is not the end of us has no gene. These are gifts from God who is not created but who has created us all.
In a 1986 article in the NYT Ms. Segerstrale said after interviewing Wilson, ''Human sociobiology was not his prime interest. It was ants. He's in love with ants.''
I hope that there are ants in Heaven, and I hope that the soul of E.O. Wilson is in Heaven and most of all I hope that he is amazed at both.
Rest in peace, ant man.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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