In his recently published Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong, Conor Cunningham, the Co-Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, surveys the vast expanse of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, naturalism, and intelligent design and skillfully argues against the reductive logics of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and their creationists interlocutors. By engaging the actual scientific and philosophical claims of Dawkins and Dennett (leaving their theological claims to be rebutted by others) and recasting the science-versus-religion debate as one that only makes sense within a philosophical framework, Cunningham demonstrates that the entire debate ultimately requires a theological framework of creation that is held together in second person of the Trinity. Darwin’s Pious Idea has already received critical acclaim from a wide variety of scholars in different fields such as Charles Taylor, Michel Morange (the atheist biochemist from Ecole normale supérieure), Ian Tattersall (the agnostic curator of the American Museum of Natural History, New York), Louis Dupré, and many others. Here, in Part I of this interview, Cunningham discusses Dennett’s universal acid, naturalism, and the banishment of God.

The Other Journal (TOJ): What has been the most surprising thing that you’ve found in your research into evolution, molecular biology, virology, evolutionary psychology, systems biology, et cetera?

Conor Cunningham (CC): I have been most surprised by the diversity of complimentary perspectives that each give to the never-ending complexity and beauty that is the natural world. However, because of ideologies, the public are usually only offered one such perspective which then parades itself as if it were a complete theory.

TOJ: In the beginning of Darwin’s Pious Idea, you call into question Daniel Dennett’s notion of the “universal acid” and thereby challenge the received view of Darwinism that he helps to perpetuate. For Dennett, the universal acid that Darwin introduced “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” Moreover, it dissolves every other discourse and “also threatened to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own divine spark of creativity and understanding.”[1] What is the main reason Dennett’s universal acid fails in your view?

CC: To begin with, Dennett’s notion of the universal acid is self-defeating. Dennett talks of a “blob of universal acid,” but the idea of a blob of acid would be impossible, because to have a blob, resistance is required, and resistance is the very thing this fantasy precludes.  In addition, if the universal acid model were true, it would be the end of evolution, as there would be nothing to evolve: evolution needs something to evolve, but a universal acid would not allow for or accommodate any such thing—only nothingness would prevail. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, there would be no such thing as a thing,[2] and that being the case, with no thing available to evolve, evolution would be impossible. Moreover, Dennett’s universal acid is an ersatz version of a purely voluntaristic god and at the same time the abyss—and not even the abyss, but mere abyss. Lastly, if there were such a thing as universal acid, how would one “Daniel Dennett” know? Is he wearing a special acid-resistant outfit?

TOJ: A lot of people online are balking at your use of the term ultra-Darwinism. Care to set the record straight on that term’s origin?

CC: It has been said by some that my use of the term ultra-Darwinism is made up by me, but in fact, Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge—both atheists and professional scientific Darwinists—coined it, just as Richard Lewontin, another atheist scientific Darwinist, coined the term Darwinian fundamentalists.[3]

TOJ: Something you bring up in your book and that I have heard provocatively mentioned in your lectures is the notion of the survival of the fitter versus the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, which you acknowledge[4] was only added in the fifth edition of Origin of Species. From what I can tell, this formulation is one of your own contributions to the discussion. What is the significance of this distinction?

CC: This phrase brings out the purely historical nature of this aspect of Darwin’s theory. For example, the Yankees may win ten years in a row, but they are never the fittest; they were just fitter during that period of time. For if they were the fittest, they would never have to compete again, and after all, the Red Sox may win the next year. Or again, a political party may win an election, but they can never win the election.

TOJ: Of course everybody has heard of survival of the fittest, but another concept you bring to the forefront of the biological fitness discussion is the concept of the arrival of the fittest. When I first heard you mention this, I didn’t quite follow its implications. You quote Hugo de Vries, who back in 1904 wrote, “Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.”[5] How does the “arrival” of the fittest add to or challenge the current debate in an organism’s fitness?

CC: Back to baseball. Natural selection decides, in a sense, who will win the series that year, but there has to be something there to be fitter, there have to be teams there to compete, and for natural selection to adjudicate, so to speak, it can’t invent baseball, but once baseball “arrives,” natural selection can operate. The same is true of the natural world: selection requires a nature, and therefore it cannot account for that upon which it works and upon which it depends. To that degree, natural selection, competition, et cetera are derivative or secondary. Likewise, selfishness is derivative or secondary: there must first be something or someone that can be selfish, but that something’s or someone’s initial existence cannot be the result of prior selfishness. Indeed, if selfishness was originary, once again, evolution would be impossible—the swamp would be all there was and ever would be. And the important point is that the arrival of the fittest and the survival of the fitter work simultaneously. One does not leave the arrival behind, as it were. Think of the arrival of culture, for instance. As Hans Jonas says, “If mere assurance of permanence were the point that mattered, life should not have started out in the first place. It is essentially precarious and corruptible being, an adventure in mortality.”[6] And that adventure would not begin if selfishness was primary.

TOJ: As a follow-up question, you say that it is remote—and not proximate—causes that explain the survival of the fittest, and thus, it is proximate causes that more adequately describe its arrival (152). If that is the case, why do all the physicalists and naturalists hype up proximate causality so much, thereby denying remote or ultimate causality, when they are in fact always making remote claims about an organism’s or gene’s survival? Or am I missing something here?

CC: You are missing something to a degree. Evolutionary psychology, for example, does hype up remote causes, and it eschews proximate causes—you put on your coat to keep out the cold (proximate), but ultimately you put on the coat to survive and, therefore, to breed (remote). And they’d argue the same thing for writing poetry or going to university: ultimately you do these things to get a partner. And there is certainly some truth in that. The problem, which you are alluding to, is that what they take to be ultimate is already derivative; it is, to this degree, proximate, no matter how long ago it occurs. But on the other hand, proximate causes can mediate the idea of survival to an ultimate degree. If you think about it for a moment, if their version of ultimate or remote causation were true, why would nature let some Homo sapien pen the Origin of Species? Surely that’s giving the game away, to the degree that evolution (in this restrictive sense) would be left behind. Indeed, the whole theory of evolution, biology, and so on is a veritable nest of flies in their proverbial ointment. In other words, it demonstrates the triumph of the soma (bodily, lived life) over the sema (genes).

TOJ: If I have read the arguments of your book correctly, it seems that the logic of the ultra-Darwinists functions in a rather myopic way: they have set their sights on only looking for selfishness in nature to the point that they can’t cope with the mix of altruism and selfishness in creation. The gene is somehow only thought to be selfish, and altruism seems to be bracketed out as a starting presumption (68). Indeed, even Darwin, for all his wonderful discoveries and keen rearticulation of previous research, seemed to have been plagued with this problem. Why do you think this problem persists among interpreters of Darwinian evolution, considering that the very picking out of selfishness at the expense—and exclusion—of altruism seems to be a wholly arbitrary decision? And what is therefore sacrificed in this decision?

CC: Well, I’ve touched on this already. Ultra-Darwinist’s prioritization of selfishness is question-begging, circular, willful, and, lastly, anti-evolutionary. It is simply that they need this to be the case if their degenerate research program is to keep hobbling along. One analogy is that of a theater and a play. The play is the world series, say, and although there is selfishness, or competition, involved—otherwise what’s the point?—the play of the world series or of the natural world (in posh terms, the flux of phylogeny, or pure history) can only take place upon or within the theater of the natural world, its structures, convergences, constraints, and so on that enable that play but are not in a sense part of it. After all, Yankee stadium is not itself a game of baseball!

TOJ: Although your two main works have clear interlocutors in mind (philosophers bearing the logic of nihilism on the one hand and ultra-Darwinists on the other, who both really articulate similar logics), it seems that a real thread of continuity in your work, especially in Darwin’s Pious Idea, is an articulation of the relationship between nature and grace. I think your line that sums this up best is: “Who told you that you were merely material, or, more importantly, that matter was mere?” (23, 65, 372; cf. 314, 319–20). And to this discussion of nature and grace you add that it is God who is the only truly natural phenomenon (177) and that we and the world that are supernatural—not to mention how your recent article in Communio[7] responds to the logic of natura pura. In Darwin’s Pious Idea, therefore, what would you say is at stake in providing a theological account of this nature-grace relationship with regard to the evolutionary sciences and the evolution debate itself?

CC: I think that ultra-Darwinism, ontological naturalism, and so on are progeny of natura pura, which is the idea that there exists a nature that is devoid of the supernatural, to the point that a desire for the supernatural comes later, if at all. Indeed, I think it is maybe a very American problem, especially among Catholics (though liberal Protestants are very keen on the idea too) who want to adhere to capitalism and the Church-state divide. Quite simply, some religious people have bought into the idea that faith is something of a lifestyle choice, like marathon running or Pilates. And others have bought into the idea that an individual’s salvation is a ticket that gets us somewhere else, namely, heaven, a bit like that very special holiday we have always been saving for. And here the new atheist is in complete agreement: religion is indeed something extra. The supernatural is therefore considered over and above the purely natural, and in the name of economy or Ockham’s razor we can just ignore it, setting it adrift, to the point where it becomes irrelevant. For we can indeed imagine its absence, and thus, we can get along without it very well, thank you very much. And why not? It doesn’t seem to do very much.

But the banishment of God, something enabled by the strict opposition of the natural and the supernatural, has come at an enormous cost. We have ended up in a world, a supposedly natural world, which is devoid of that which we presume to be natural: people, free will, first-person language, color, ethics, organisms, and, indeed, life itself. Talk about cutting you face off to spite your nose! Now you may think I’m overegging the ontological omelette a tad. But here is a taster sample. As François Jacob, a Nobel-winning biologist, put it, “Biology no longer studies life.” And as Michael Ghiselin, a philosopher of science, tells us, if we ask the question, “When did human life begin?” The answer is “never.”[8] Here are four more philosophers—first, Paul Churchland asks, “Could it turn out that no one has ever believed anything.” And Thomas Metzinger is even more to the point, saying, “No such things as selves exist in the world: Nobody ever had or was a self.’ And it is not just the self that is lost, for we are told by Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson that “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes.” Following in the wake of the demise of ethics, Ruse constructs the following formal thought: “Biological fitness is a function of reproductive advantages rather than of philosophical insight. Thus if we benefit biologically by being deluded about the true nature of formal thought, then so be it. A tendency to objectify is the price of reproductive success.”[9] Rather tellingly, W. V. Quine once compared the simple belief in objects to belief in the gods of Homer.[10] How, if matter is all there is, can we discern real difference between matter thus and now matter so, even if, in our folk language, that change might be termed (parochially and indeed colloquially) as murder, cancer, and so on. This is, therefore, the very liquidation of existence. In short, natura pura, or pure nature, is rather the purification of nature; it is an act of ontological cleansing, one that is, as said, a product of very bad theology.


[1] Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), 4–5, 132, and 274; and Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 63.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London, UK: Fontana, 1961), 22.

[3] See Gould, “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” New York Review of Books 44.10 (June 12, 1997), 34–37; Gould, “Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism Debate,” New York Review of Books 44.11 (June 26, 1997), 47–52; Gould, “More Things In Heaven and Earth,” in Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, eds. Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (London, UK: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 101–26; Eldredge, Reinventing Darwin: The Great Debate at the High Table of Evolutionary Theory (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1995); Gould and Lewontin, “Against ‘Sociobiology’,” New York Review of Books 22.18 (November 13, 1975), 182–86; and Lewontin, “Sociobiology as an Adaptionist Program,” Behavioral Science 24 (1979): 5–14.

[4] Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 21-22.

[5] de Vries, Species and Varieties: Their Origin by Mutation (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1904), 825–26, cited in Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 109.

[6] Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, with a foreword by Lawrence Vogel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 106.

[7] Cunningham, “Natura Pura, the Invention of the Anti-Christ: A Week with No Sabbath,” Communio: International Catholic Review 37 (Summer 2010): 243–54.

[8] Jacob, The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, trans. Betty Spillman (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1973), 299. Also see Ernest Kahane, La vie n’existe pas! (Paris, France: Éditions Rationalistes, 1962); and Stanley Shostak, Death of Life: The Legacy of Molecular Biology (London, UK: Macmillan, 1998); and Ghiselin, Metaphysics and the Origin of Species (New York,, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), 1.

[9] Churchland quoted in Lynne Rudder Baker, “Cognitive Suicide,” in Contents of Thought, eds. Robert H. Grimm and Daniel Davy Merrill (Tuscon, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1988), 1; Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 1; Ruse and Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, ed. James Huchingson (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310; and Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1986), 188.

[10] See Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1951), 44. Widgets Widgets