This issue of Zygon continues papers from the 1979 Star Island conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. The conference brought together scientists, philosophers, and theologians to discuss the views published by Edward O. Wilson in Sociobiology and On Human Nature and to appraise appreciatively yet critically the role of genetic factors in human behavior and the advantages and disadvantages of the myth of scientific materialism in relation to values and religion.
Jerre Levy advances the viewpoint of scientific materialism by describing recent work on lateralization of the brain as an example of the increasing success of the scientific method in explaining complex aspects of behavior in neurobiological terms. Philip Hefner takes up the problem of the naturalistic fallacy from a philosophic perspective, while J. Robert Nelson defends the need for transcendence. Daniel R. DeNicola, writing from the discipline of technical philosophy, strives to improve communication by clarifying ambiguities in Wilsons terminology, especially on such topics as free will. Wilson himself concludes this September and December set of Zygon by electing not to rebut various criticisms directly but to amplify the reasons for his confidence in scientific materialism and his hope for an effective interaction with liberal theology.
The core of any social structure, from ant to man, is the differentiation of social roles such that each member of the group contributes his special skills and abilities while receiving from others the benefits of theirs. It is this role differentiation and mutual interdependence that constitute the definition of social organization and that provide for its maintenance, stability, and quality. In the case of the social insects we have a pretty fair understanding of the mechanisms responsible for the critical diversity of roles, but in the case of our own species there has been little attempt to acquire evidence since, for the most part, the answer has been assumed.
Typically man has been viewed as an infinitely plastic clay to be molded at will by social forces, and the diversity of human social roles has been seen as a direct consequence of the social system. Even from the perspective of sociobiology, although the social structure itself is attributed to evolutionary factors, the human infant born into that structure is perceived as having an invariant set of characteristics that define his species identity and that make it possible for him to be conditioned by the extant social forces into any role demanded by the culture. In this view the etiology of human social differentiation is assumed to differ little from that of the social insects. Indeed what we call moral or ethical behavior, or more narrowly altruistic behavior, is, as for the insect, a result of kin selection: There is no real altruism, only the selfish genes attempt to preserve itself. …
Jerre Levy is associate professor of biopsychology, University of Chicago, 5848 University Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60637.
Is/Ought: A Risky Relationship between Theology and Science by Philip Hefner
The venerable problem of relating is and ought is that of reconciling our sense of what is to be valued and what is to be done (on the basis of what is valued) with the way things really are, with what we believe to be the objective character of reality. The identity of is and ought, of description and evaluation, or even the easy transition from one to the other has been challenged strongly by philosophers and theologians in the past two hundred and fifty years on various grounds. The most important reasons given for insisting on the discrepancy between is and ought are (1) that there is no evaluation possible which does not include an element of personal preference or bias, and therefore it cannot claim to be pure description, and (2) that simply to describe something is not to command or to render it an ought. The logic of these objections to a direct move from is to ought has been amply set forth in British and American philosophy since 1900, while existentialists have described the tension within the human spirit that results from the basic gulf between what we know is objectively true and the will to act in accordance with that truth. …
Philip Hefner is professor of systematic theology, Lutheran School of Theology, 1100 East 55th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60615.
A Theologians Response to Wilsons On Human Nature by J. Robert Nelson
Sitting at my typewriter, surrounded by books and papers on genetics and sociobiology, pondering what to say about the religious and ethical implications of Edward O. Wilsons remarkable theories, I see a spider. At first, though, I cannot even tell it is a spider. It is so small. Half the size of a pinhead. It floats below the lampshade, resembling a speck of dust. But it does not blow away as dust would. It seems to be suspended. Of course there is a filament. But where is it? Even though I am wearing strong reading glasses, I cannot see it. I twist the light against a dark background. Still invisible. So I slowly pass my ballpoint pen between the lamp and the floating speck of life. Now, although the filament is still too thin to be seen, I can wind it around and thus raise the tiny creature toward the lamp. But in a split second it drops five inches. I calculate that this movement, if done to a distance proportionate to my own height, would mean that I would instantaneously drop twelve hundred feet. But almost as quickly its minuscule body takes up the slack, and it is near enough to the lamp so that for the first time I can see the movement of legs. It is a spider, for sure. So within that semipinhead organism is a nervous system, a digestive tract, and a reproductive mechanism. My eyes can tell my mind nothing about this; only the entomologists can.
But what does small mean in the even finer realm of microbiology? Somehow my untrained mind must think below the level of visibility in the lens of the standard microscope, down into the regions where only the prodigious magnification of the electron microscope can distinguish variations of light and dark. Here are the cells, molecules, viruses, chromosomes, and genes that we have learned to analyze with facility.
In recent years the word boggle has had to be used to express the effect of macro- and microscientific data upon our minds. They may or may not induce wonder, awe, or even reverence, but they invariably make us uncomfortably aware of the limits of our mental powers of ordinary commonsense conceptualization.
More mind-boggling than matter measured in angstroms and millimicrons is the effect that the genes have upon our human organisms and behavior. Geneticists have made prodigious strides in their ability to demonstrate how physiological characteristics and mental competence are determined by those minute and countless bits of coding which are strung along the double twist of DNA molecules. Thus they have led us to the brink of the abyss of nonempirical and nondemonstrable knowledge about human life. …
J. Robert Nelson, professor of theology, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215.
Sociobiology and Religion: A Discussion of the Issues by Daniel R. DeNicola
I have been asked to synthesize the discussions of this conference, to provide the weeks conversation with a sense of culmination rather than termination. That is an audacious assignment. Of course it would be a grand thing to produce a sweeping synthesis in the Hegelian style: to reconcile the scientific and religious theses and antitheses of the conference in a fuller, more inclusive synthesis that would articulate better the purposive activity of Reason. But such a high reach far exceeds my grasp. My aim is simply to elucidate the controversies of the conference by identifying pivotal issues, by delineating and discussing briefly those areas in which, as they say in law, the issues are joined. …
Daniel R. DeNicola is dean of the faculty and associate professor of philosophy, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida 32789.
The Relation of Science to Theology by Edward O. Wilson
Science has demythologized most of human experience by disproving traditional religious accounts of the origin of the world and substituting in their place a network of precise and experimentally testable, materialistic explanations. The discussion of interest now is between scientists and liberal theologians. It consists of an exploration of the residual domain of ethics and metaphysics.
The possibility remains that the physical constants, the taxonomy of subatomic particles, and the exact initial conditions of the big bang are all expressions of a divine will. If such fundamental properties had not fallen within a certain narrow range of values, the universe would differ radically from its present form; neither solar systems nor sentient organisms able to contemplate the meaning of existence could have evolved. Surely then one can interpret the universe as the creation of at least a cosmological god who has fine-tuned the physical laws in order to achieve his own adoration. But on the other hand perhaps there is a Borgesian infinitude of universes, and sentience arose only in that infinitesimal subset which by a kind of natural selection among universes possesses the essential properties for its contemplation. At this level of reflection we deal with metaphysics in the true sense. …
Edward O. Wilson is professor of science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.
The Heretical Imperative by Peter L. Berger, reviewed by Kenneth Cauthen