October 26, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Who Explains Whom?

Picture an evolutionary anthropologist and a Biblical theologian sitting on a park bench having a lively discussion.  The theologian claims the scientist believes in evolution because of pride that came through sin at the Fall.  “Your conscience and innate knowledge of God has been corrupted,” he asserts, “therefore you choose belief systems that rationalize your desire to live autonomously from your Creator.”  The scientist counters that the theologian only believes in God because religion was naturally selected in a primitive ape-like ancestor.  “Deep in prehistory, early hominin populations reinforced beliefs in supernatural beings that provided comfort against natural mysteries,” he claims.  “But now science is shedding light on those mysteries and undermining those primitive beliefs.”  Whose position should have privileged status in a society?  Should the scientist’s explanation automatically be granted epistemic privilege by a culture simply because he is a scientist?  Perhaps some recent examples of evolutionists at work trying to explain human behavior can inform the discussion.

  1. Altruism:  PhysOrg printed a press release from UC Davis debating which kind of evolution – cultural or genetic – explains the human propensity for altruism (sacrificial charity).  “Why do people willingly to [sic] go to war, give blood, contribute to food banks and make other sacrifices often at considerable risk to themselves and their descendents?  Evolutionary explanations based on both genes and culture have been proposed for this human behavior, which is unique among vertebrates.”  The article went on to argue for social vs. genetic causes, but the statement makes it clear that non-evolutionary explanations were completely off the table for consideration.  The report in Science Daily spoke of an “equation… that describes the conditions for altruism to evolve.”  Sometimes the explanation mixes causes and results in a “gene-culture coevolution of human prosocial propensities.”  Similarly, National Geographic News tried to show chimpanzees expressing a form of altruism, saying “this adds to evidence that chimps are more similar to humans than previously thought.”  Altruism even applies to amoebas, wrote Science Daily: “In Amoeba World, Cheating Doesn’t Pay.”  It becomes clear looking at their explanation that altruism has no external essence, but is a mere manifestation of selection pressures – a “characteristic” that can be observed from ameba to man.  They did not consider the converse hypothesis.  Is it possible that the scientists are imputing human moral characteristics on non-sentient beings and interpreting animal actions in terms of internally-assumed abilities?  If altruism is a physical trait, why is not the act of explanation?  Why aren’t chimpanzees and amoebas writing papers on human behavior?
  2. Leadership:  Science Daily reported on a paper from Current Biology called “The Origins and Evolution of Leadership” that puts Darwin in the lead.  The authors “argue that due to ‘a hangover from our evolutionary past’ factors like age, sex, height and weight play a major part in the determining [sic] our choice of leaders.”  Here’s what Dr. Andrew King (Zoological Society of London) had to say:

    Evolution has fashioned principles governing leadership and followership over many millions of years.  We need to ground the complex, even mystical, social phenomenon of leadership in science.  Through empirical observation, theoretical models, neuroscience, experimental psychology, and genetics, we can explore the development and adaptive functions of leadership and followership.  This analysis of data, combined with an evolutionary perspective on leadership, might highlight potential mismatches so we can see how evolved mechanisms of leadership are possibly out of kilter with our relatively novel social environment.

    Dr. King failed to explain how science escapes being an evolved mechanism or gains any power over evolutionary “principles.”  His co-author Dr. Dominic Johnson (University of Edinburgh) thinks it’s about time evolutionary biology tackles this overlooked question, “arguably one of the most important themes in the social sciences.”  He sees overlap between human and animal leadership behaviors that point to evolutionary origins.  He said, “By identifying such origins and examining which aspects are shared with other animals offers us [sic] better ways of understanding, predicting and improving leadership today.”  His evolutionary approach goes beyond explanation, therefore, and advocates social action.1 

  3. Sex and war:  In Science this month,2 Hillard Kaplan, an anthropologist at University of New Mexico, reviewed Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden (BenBella, Dallas, 2008).  The book explores the “phylogenetic origins of human warfare” and describes armed conflict, no matter the players or their causes, in strictly evolutionary terms.  The scope of their explanatory project must be considered when evaluating every conflict from withstanding playground bullies to decisions to liberate Nazi Germany.  Kaplan opened, “They argue that group aggression by males is a fundamental feature of human evolutionary history, whose roots are well developed in our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.”  This would seem to eliminate any rationality for the concept of a “just war,” e.g., an altruistic rescue of an oppressed people (since altruism also falls within the domain of evolutionary explanation).  One can sense the tension between morality and determinism in their explanation:

    The book begins with Potts’s own experiences in 1972, attending to (and providing abortions for) women who had been raped and abused during the war in Bangladesh.  He recounts the cruelty enacted by groups of men, united in an armed struggle for power, on thousands of women.  He then presents the book’s main thesis: such acts of violence are far from isolated incidents and modern aberrations due to extreme conditions—rather they are the norm for our species.  What Potts calls “behavioral propensities to engage in male coalitional violence” are products of a long evolutionary history, in which males who engaged in such behavior produced more genetic descendants than males without such propensities.  He further argues that coalitional violence by groups of males evolved at least as far back as the common ancestor before the chimpanzee-human divergence and is a direct manifestation of sexual selection on male-male competition.  Such behavioral propensities did not evolve in females of either species.
        The term “behavioral propensity” is used throughout the book to highlight the idea that a propensity can be controlled by cultural and social means.  Propensities to form coalitions among males against other males are in some sense genetically programmed into chimpanzee and human psychology, but there are also norms for culturally appropriate behavior as well as social institutions that can serve to counteract those propensities.  In fact, the solution to decreasing violence and warfare in modern times comes from the recognition that our biological heritage has produced very different behavioral propensities in human males and females.

    The book makes the point that the males’ evolutionary propensities to be violent can be restrained by “empowering women to be leaders in cultural, social, and political spheres.”  This seems to beg the question of the origin of morality.  Why would the products of an evolutionary process restrain what the process produced?  The reviewer and the authors differed only on the methods likely to be most effective.  Kaplan said, “We still lack a definitive understanding of group-level violence and its variation in different societies and during different historical periods.  But I agree with Potts that such an understanding will likely require a joint theory of our biology and social history.”  In evolution, though, is there a difference?

PhysOrg also reported on “When Being a Cuckold Makes Evolutionary Sense.”  We’ll leave it as an exercise whether or not “evolutionary sense” is an oxymoron.


1.  Science can say, “The earth appears to be warming.”  Explanation says, “The earth is warming because of human industry.”  Activism says, “Because humans are warming the earth, we need to redistribute the wealth and start a depression.”
2.  Hillard Kaplan, “Anthropology: Sex and War (and Ecology),” Science, 9 October 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5950, pp. 232-233, DOI: 10.1126/science.1176071.

These three examples (plus one) can be considered representative of a long history of evolutionary speculation about why we act the way we do.  A strong underlying assumption is that these evolutionary explanations are somehow better than the old Biblical ones because they fall within the domain of “science,” and only “science” leads to “understanding.”  The gaps don’t matter; though we “still lack a definitive understanding” of this or that aspect of a phenomenon, someday we will, because “science” is in the business of explaining.  Science explains everything.  When you hear about the evolution of war, the evolution of leadership, or the evolution of altruism, you “understand” it.  Now, using your rationality, you can “control” it.
    The inherent tension and contradiction in that mindset should be evident in the above examples.  As we have pointed out numerous times, these scientists are plagiarizing Judeo-Christian presuppositions to engage in the act of explanation.  Rationality refers to concepts that lie outside of naturalism.  Naturalism is impossible.  To explain something, you have to believe that your sensations correspond to external reality.  You have to assume that your explanation contains the possibility it may be true.  How can anyone believe anything, including one’s own brain, that is the product of an unguided process like evolution?  To believe in truth, furthermore, you have to exercise morality – the assumption that truth is good.  None of these things come with the evolutionists’ explanatory toolkit.  If they are there, they were stolen.  In fact, the whole toolkit was stolen.  Using stolen implements, they construct impossible arts and humanities: tales of millions of years of monkey screeching and pounding morphing into Bach (10/17/2009), opera extolling a world without violent males, with moral leaders, with charity for all.  (They forget that Milton wrote the libretto to Paradise Lost, not Darwin.)
    Here again we find that explanation is the domain of theology.  The bigotry of modern science is to exclude the contractors who own the tools.  Theologians have answers to why males tend to be violent, why we share traits with chimpanzees, why we are attracted to strong leaders, and why we care about the suffering of our fellow human beings.  None of these phenomena have escaped the notice of great theistic scholars.  None of them lie outside the domain of Scripture.  In our day, imposters have usurped the role of theology.  Evolutionary scientists presume to engage in explanation using tools they did not and could not manufacture.
    It’s not clear from any philosophy of science if scientists can, or should, try to explain anything, or how they would do so.  Bas van Fraasen rejected explanation as a function of science.  It should be noted that “folk psychology,” the common-sense version we all practice that attributes reasonings and feelings to our fellow human beings as causes of their actions, works just as well, if not better, than any advanced scientific explanation – thus the popularity of Dr. Laura Schlesinger (who, by the way, advises from an Old Testament presuppositional foundation).  We all assume explanation is what scientists do because we were taught simplistic positivism in middle school.  It’s time to graduate to the real world.  Science does best trying to cure cancer, imitate design in nature, predict earthquakes and the weather, explore space, measure, observe, study, classify, organize, falsify, predict, learn, find relationships, derive equations, and inform technology.  Anyone presuming to explain nature without a theological premise is engaging in self-refuting nonsense.  Go re-read those three entries above in that light.  Now it all makes sense.  They engage in counterfeit explanations because they are prideful, irrational sinners, in rebellion against their Creator.
    If scientists really want to understand human nature, if they want to do something about war and brutality, and increase levels of charity, nothing can beat the record of transforming lives by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ: Example 1: from gang banger to soulwinner; example 2: from proud evolutionary biologist to joyful Christian; example 3 from terrorist to liberator of souls; example 4: from genocide torturer to repentant follower of Christ.  Don’t look to science for results like this.  Open the Operations Manual and get people back on track, one life at a time.

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Categories: Bible and Theology

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