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. In Part I of this interview, Cunningham discusses Dennett’s universal acid, naturalism, and the banishment of God. And here, in Part II of the interview, Cunningham considers memes, evolution, and the recapitulation of creation in the Sabbath.

The Other Journal (TOJ): In your new book Darwin’s Pious Idea, you highlight the work of many systems biologists in an effort to balance out the purely diachronic nature of most evolutionary accounts. As you put it, we are in need of synchrony with diachrony, that is, a biology of becoming and a biology of being. What is the significance of the research by these systems biologists and why haven’t their accounts been more prevalent in the usual discussions of evolution?

Conor Cunningham (CC): Well, these systems biologists put to the sword Daniel Dennett’s idea of universal acid, for one thing, not to mention selfish genes and all that hokum, both of which are merely there to prop up materialism, which is in the end unfalsifiable nonsense. Richard Lewontin offers us two very interesting confessions regarding the relation between science and materialism: on the one hand, “It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a materialist explanation of the world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by adherence to materialist causes to create an apparatus of investigation that produces materialist explanations.” And on the other hand, “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failures to fulfill many of its extravagant promises [. . .] in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism [. . . .] Moreover that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”[1] Imagine if a creationist had said something similar! We would all be laughing into our glasses of Oxbridge sherry.

TOJ: At a few points in your book, you remark about the creationist appeal to “special creation,” which is the idea that rejects evolution, instead positing a simple voluntarist notion that creation as we see it now was somehow zapped down a mere 6,000 years ago on a Tuesday. The big problem here, of course, is the existence of fossils, which then leads to some sort of idea that God is, at best, trying to test our faith but at worst is some kind of a trickster. The upshot of all this is that an all-powerful God who zaps things into existence as we see them would avoid what otherwise seems like a waste of time. Yet you reply, “If we conceive God in terms of power [. . .] divinity becomes a matter of something that we cannot do [. . .] rather than it being about someone we are not. The former logically includes me by default—we cannot do it, but that inability is not logically impossible, while the [latter] is simply nonsensical: Peter cannot be Paul” (172). If this is the case, there is something immensely personal about creation, not merely in the fact that it is created by a personal God, but in the sense that creation itself is personal, is it not?

CC: Pope Benedict put it well: “Creation should be thought of, not according to the model of a craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner in which thought is creative.”[2] Moreover, with regard to special creation, which is a very dubious notion, to say the least, let us take the example of painting. When we paint, we use the same materials, generally speaking, as does, say, Paul Cézanne, but while no one wants to buy our attempts, we certainly want to buy his, and we do so precisely because he uses the same materials; that’s what makes his paintings special. Indeed, if he did use different materials, we would no doubt be a bit suspicious, for the implication would be that it was the materials that were responsible for the uniqueness of the painting, and if we too were in possession of them, maybe our efforts would not be so awful. Similarly, it is the what of man that is special because the how is secondary. Of course, the how plays a role, but only a subordinate one. Take football as another analogy: we can only identify coaching geniuses because they use the same ball, and not some special ball; hence, it is the what rather than the how that matters most, but then the how comes to the fore when we realize that the football genius has been able to use the same object in a new way. Looking at it this way preserves the idea of uniqueness in a much richer fashion. Thus, it is all the more special, so to speak, that God used the same materials to fashion man, what Genesis calls “dust.” Again, it seems best to quote Pope Benedict:

If creation means dependence of being, then special creation is nothing other than special dependence of being. The statement that man is created in a more specific, more direct way by God than other things in nature, when expressed somewhat less metaphorical, means simply this: that man is willed by God in a specific way, not merely as a being that “is there,” but as a being that knows him; not only as a construct that he thought up, but as an existence that can think about him in return [. . . man] is the being who is supposed to Thou to God in eternity.[3]

After all, this is why there are two accounts of creation in Genesis. Quite simply, with the advent of Homo sapiens, the Rubicon of anthropogenesis has been crossed, whether we like it or not.[4]

TOJ: Let’s talk about memes. In your BBC documentary Did Darwin Kill God? and in your book, you argue that as memes are defined by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Susan Blackmore, they are completely nonsensical. These writers seem to understand memes as an extension of our genes, as if these memes make us who we are, yet they never really seem to say where these memes come from or how they work. Do they exist at all, and if so, what are they?

CC: With regard to mammals, and especially Homo sapiens, the idea of mimesis (biological imitation) is crucial here (one could here think of the work done by René Girard). Take fashion as an example. Oscar Wilde captured the absurdity of fashion in his own inimitable way, saying that “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”[5] For, of course, if fashion were ever actually “fashionable,” it would be the end of fashion itself. Instead, this industry is an eminent example of mimetic desire.

But as for memes, they are pure nonsense; you may as well speak of astrology or the X-Files. Not to sound too paradoxical, but if memes existed, first, we would never know, how could we? Second, how could there be more than one? Sure, we have things like fashion that some of us follow, but if, as Dawkins, Blackmore, Dennett, and company insist, we are created by memes rather than the other way around, then in a sense, there could only ever be one metameme. There could only be the selfish meme, because all thoughts, being illusory products of mimetics, would be evacuated of all content, and therefore, all thoughts would be instances of one type: small memes of the one great big meme. All thoughts would just be examples of the one “truth,” the metameme. This would have catastrophic consequences for science, because all scientific theories would be products of the selfish meme, like some great matrix; radical epistemological and ontological scepticism would surely follow.

One last point, ultra-Darwinism, which gave birth to this pure fantasy (and, again, how did they know, are they outside the world of memes?), already offered an earlier version of this. For the ultra-Darwinists, truth had become subordinate to survival, which of course means that function has ascendency over veracity. In other words, anything, any belief that gets the job done, namely, survival or, less delicately, sex, is good to go: who cares whether it’s true or not. This means that all beliefs are empty except in terms of use, whether they are from the Bible, the Origin of Species, or Mein Kampf. All roads lead to Rome! After all, Columbus never thought he had discovered America—he had, but that’s beside the point. In short, isn’t the idea of a meme a meme itself?

TOJ: In the last chapter, you switch into a full theological register and say, “Following the six days of creation there is a day of rest, the Sabbath, but this is not meant to signal that God is tired—of course not. It indicates that creation is a personal, deliberate act, more a work of art than a forced production or emanation from some impersonal power. The Sabbath is, therefore, the meaning of creation, for creation is meant to have rest; it is to repose within divine purpose, a purpose that is free of necessity and that is instead a matter of utter generosity” (386). This may be a daft question, but what role does evolution play within your articulation of the Sabbath?

CC: I intend there to be theology throughout, but yes, the last chapter brings theology to the fore. We are, as I argue, a species of the Sabbath, and that is what the first two chapters of Genesis are really about—it is not a protoscientific text. Indeed, I don’t even think science is really possible without a transcendent, personal God, otherwise the aforementioned skepticism and pure functionalism sets in. The Sabbath signals that creation is utter gift, not emanation, thus it is not necessity, and moreover, it signals divine simplicity and eternity. In addition, the fact that every week begins with the Sabbath, and in a sense ends with it, tames all the utilitarian logics of the world.

With regard to evolution, for something to change, as Plato pointed out, something has to stay still, so quite literally, without the Sabbath, without God, there is only pure flux—there can be no evolution. To that end, evolution is only possible within religion, and I would argue further, within Christianity. After all, from Israelites to Bethlehem there seemed to be a sense of unfolding. According to Christianity, creation is not finished, but ever is in statu viae, or “on the way.” Creation is, then, a matter of akolouthia, a gradual unfolding of God’s purpose. This unfolding recalls Irenaeus’s famous doctrine of recapitulation (anakephalai?sis), according to which Christ consummates the entire history of the one human race in himself: “When the the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). Timing here is paramount—hence, Christ’s protest at the wedding of Cana that his time had not yet come, “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things to him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8–10).[6]

TOJ: Lastly, can you help me clarify something in regards to death. I know a lot of people, while accepting evolution, still have an issue with things like death and predation (I count myself among such people!). In a recent Christian Century article—which is an excerpt from the last chapter of your book—you downplay the primacy of the notion of the fall, arguing that original sin isn’t as original as we usually make it out to be, highlighting various church fathers who make the point that our sin is part and parcel of our mortality, our fragility, our freedom. But as Paul points out (Rom. 5:12; cf. Rom. 6:23), death itself stems from our sin. So if our mortality or immaturity (to use Irenaeus’s phrase) somewhat “implies” that we sin, then doesn’t death “naturally” follow? Basically my confusion is this: is death natural?[7]

CC: That article was not my doing and was edited without consultation, and that was annoying as it made it sound like I naturalized death or domesticated it. But quite the reverse! My point was that all those who are horrified by death (which includes me) are kidding themselves, because if there is no God, death does not exist—quite (metaphysically) literally. If there is no God, there is just matter thus and now matter so, and there is no one to non-arbitrarily judge the difference or, in truth, the supposed difference. And it is only with the passion of the Christ that death is truly revealed for what it is: wholly unnatural and an abomination in terms of God’s intention for creation. And this revelation allows us for the first time to truly speak of death as a reality and yet, in so doing, to begin to speak of overcoming it.

One last point, many religious people balk at evolution or are repulsed by evolution because of the idea of common ancestry, in other words, because we share a more recent ancestor with the great apes than we do with other creatures. This, to them, seems a slight. Yet they quite happily go to church and talk about God becoming man. God can become man, but we fear to be related to animals! Something is wrong here. Man shares a common ancestry with all life, yes, and this, rather than being an ontological slight is instead all the more amazing and central to the mystery of man. After all, we Christians have no problem in thinking that a first-century Palestinian Jew, crucified from a tree among the refuse of a city was God incarnate and that this Jew had, beforehand, like us all, undergone mammalian birth.

[1] For more on universal acid and selfish genes, see Part I of this interview. Lewontin, quoted in James Le Fanu, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2009), 232; and Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons,” review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books 44.1(January 9, 1997): 31.

[2] Pope Benedict quoted in Stephen O. Horn and Siegfried Wiedenhofer, eds., Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, trans. Michael Miller, foreword Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008), 13.

[3] Ibid., 15–16.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Wilde, Essays, Criticisms, and Reviews (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 1901), 119. And see the works of René Girard for more on mimesis.

[6] All Scripture is quoted with permission from the Revised Standard Version.

[7] Cunningham, “What Genesis Doesn’t Say: Rethinking the Genesis Story,” Christian Century (November 10, 2010), On Irenaeus see Irenaeus, Epideixis 12, in Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 16, trans. J. P. Smith (New York, NY: Paulist, 1952).