Science and Religion: From Warfare Over Sociobiology to a Working Alliance

Kevin J. Sharpe

Science continues to confront religion. Unfortunately, religion continues to respond defensively. A new discipline of science and religion is emerging, one of whose aims is to explore constructively the interaction between the two areas. One of its current energetic topics is sociobiology's relation to religion. Sociobiology could undermine religion's and ethics' claims to truth; thus it threatens theology. Theologians frequently respond by separating its area of application from religion's, thus setting up a dualism. There are reasons, however, for questioning this response. Theology could embrace sociobiology's findings and work with it toward a better society. Current Contents 23 (24 June 1991): 5-13

During the Gulf War a fellow faculty member at the Union Institute, Audrey Faulkner, wore a black band of mourning. She grieved from the war's cleanliness. She mourned for us denied its full pain. Our high-tech weapons produced a conflict virtually bloodless for us. It did not allow us to suffer as a people ought when their armed forces are fighting. Only the Iraqis and Kuwaitis felt its full impact. Our loss was heightened by prohibitions against the media's showing our soldiers' pain and misery.

Suffering and death often have to do with religion. In this war science and technology cut our contact with a deep religious side of our being.

Other science-religion issues emerged from the war. Westerners naively think Muslim culture, especially its fundamentalist wing, does not support technological and scientific knowledge. In reality Islam is supportive, but on its own terms. It objects to science as Western scientists define it. It wrestles with how much one has to become Western to embrace technology and science (1).

There are many current interactions between science and religion besides those raised by the Middle East. The subject still causes hot debate in the pages of such scientific publications as Nature and The Scientist (2, 3).

Many of the interactions between science and religion evidence a warfare between the two. Yet scholars in the area now shy from battle imagery because they feel the two deal with distinct subjects (4). A more honest reading of history may show the two were at war and that religion lost. Religion then redefined itself so science could not touch it. But skirmishes still occur. They center on knowledge and belief (such as the Islamic example), and on the use of technology and science (as in the clean Gulf War).

A marked departure from the warfare image are the recently growing efforts at constructive relations, sometimes called the new interactionalism (5). Several theologians develop theologies explicitly dependent on scientific findings or models (for instance, Philip Hefner, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Robert Russell, and Kevin Sharpe) (6-10). Several look to science for insight into theological method (including Ian Barbour, Sallie McFague, and Nancey Murphy) (11-13). And, in the reverse, scientific models emerge in part inspired by spiritual or religious insight. David Bohm's holomovement theory and James Lovelock's gaia hypothesis are examples (14-17). Sometimes scientists pour energy into hypotheses because they feel them close to their religious beliefs. Fritjof Capra and the bootstrap hypothesis fall into this category (18). Several centers and societies from a variety of religious backgrounds have sprung up to promote such interactions (for instance, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology, and the American Scientific Affiliation). Journals and book series feed this growth. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Science and Religion News, and the Fortress Press series in theology and science, are just three examples.

The model for the relation between science and religion is, not surprisingly, another subject for exploration. Not only do scholars pursue this historically - what has been the relation. They also seek a relation toward which to work. Some suggest complementarity (for instance, Helmut Reich) and others talk of consonance between them (Ted Peters, for example) (19-21). I promote a ladder-like relation (22). A vision of how they might relate is essential for developing a constructive relation.

Sociobiology is a science whose relation to religion is controversial. It is an ideal subject for illustrating what is going on in the emerging science and religion discipline. There are several reasons for this. First, the warfare image applies to its interaction with religion. Second, religion reacts defensively to it. There also emerge chances of the two working together constructively. And fourth, it relates to the continuing debate over evolution.


Human sociobiology is a new field that takes evolutionary theory beyond the biological into the social. It stirs controversy by seeking to explain religion and ethics and to show there is a biological basis for morality. To describe the controversy I will first introduce sociobiology and then look at positions which deny it can challenge theology.

Built into the human mind are various patterns or rules by which it works. Sociobiologists call them epigenetic rules. They process information which comes into the mind from the outside as well as from internal emotions. There are two types of these patterns. Primary epigenetic rules process raw emotional and sense data. Secondary epigenetic rules assemble inner mental processes. These include conscious and deliberate decision making and the placing of values. Epigenetic rules guide people into thoughts and actions that insure human survival (23-32). Genes encode them because they have proved so worthwhile in the struggles of our human and prehuman ancestors.

While epigenetic rules are important to sociobiology, they are speculative. More evidence for their reality and functioning appears necessary (33, 27, 34, 35). For the sake of this discussion, however, I assume their existence.

A second aspect of sociobiology has to do with reproductive success. From an evolutionary point of view, people are successful when they pass their genes to the next generation. One way to achieve this is through cooperative behavior called biological "altruism". "Altruistic" behavior enhances genetic success at risk or cost to oneself. For example, parents who promote their children's future success by providing an expensive college education are behaving "altruistically". People also practice reciprocal "altruism". This happens when they do something for others and their reward is that someone sometime may help them. I stop at a red traffic signal even though it slows me down, because elsewhere others stop when they have red and I have green.

Further, humans have altruistic feelings that make them behave "altruistically". These feelings come through epigenetic rules and oppose selfish inclinations which also exist for biological reasons. To make humans behave "altruistically", genes guide not only feelings but also moral reasoning. The rules give morality the feeling of objective truth. They can thus enforce "altruism"; humans feel pressure to behave as biology desires.

The above discussion of biological "altruism" and sociobiology shows they touch the way religious believers view altruism. But this assumes the ideas of sociobiology can and should interact at face value with those of theology. Several theologians think otherwise.

Theological Rejections of Sociobiology

An often-heard criticism of sociobiology is that it justifies existing injustices. For instance, segregationists say sociobiology supports the belief that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites. They believe that lower IQ scores are the result of evolution following sociobiological mechanisms. We cannot change this condition. Opponents of this view may then discard sociobiology because they feel it supports racism (36, 37). But they need not reject sociobiology - it does not in fact support the segregationists' interpretation. Biological inclinations contain what both good and bad behaviors, altruistic and evil. To discriminate between them and to emphasize the more appropriate (perhaps the altruistic, the anti-injustice behaviors) is the task of social reflection.

Most theological criticisms of sociobiology require more extensive treatment than the above. Many turn out to be variations on a few themes that continually occur in the science and religion dialogue.

The "is"/"ought" question often rises in theological criticisms of sociobiology. Many critics claim that "is" and "ought" are separate. They think scientific investigation (in this case, sociobiology) can only say how humans have behaved or can behave. That is the "is". It cannot say how humans should behave (the "ought"). This is the task of ethicists. Those who work on the "ought" assume humans decide their own actions. By distancing themselves from their feelings and instincts, people can work out the motives and reasons for what they do (38-40). This is the case presented by many who separate "is" from "ought".

To say the "is" has no role in determining the "ought" is to say genes have no control of culture. Nor do they contribute to it. There is a fear of reducing culture (including religion and morality) to being the result of biological mechanisms.

Peacocke is a theologian and biochemist at Oxford University who has this fear. He thinks sociobiologists believe genes determine most social behavior. They acknowledge only a lesser role for non-biological social properties. While Peacocke admits research may confirm sociobiology, he cannot accept that genetics will explain all of culture. He also thinks sociobiology is not reductionist if it accepts some cultural explanations of social behavior. Sociobiology poses no problem for belief in God, he says, if it only partly explains the person. Such a theory could even describe a way in which God is creating (7, 27).

The difference between the positions of Peacocke and sociobiologists is the extent to which culture builds from biology. The reductionism question becomes whether or not culture can break away from biology. Theologians such as Peacocke say it does. Social behavior has genuinely emergent features. Sociobiologists say it cannot. Edward Wilson of Harvard University is an example. He writes: "Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash." While the leash is very long, it does constrain values (26). Culture does go beyond biology but is always tethered to it.

There are several ways this fear of reductionism appears.

Peacocke responds to sociobiology by saying it has a restricted range and needs to be part of something else. This larger framework is theistic. It grows from questions like "Why is there anything at all? What kind of universe must it be if insentient matter can evolve naturally into self-conscious, thinking persons? What is the meaning of personal life in such a cosmos?" (7).

Several features of the larger framework stand out. Biology may ground spiritual and mental aspirations. But, Peacocke adds, it does not ground what they aspire to. That exists in the larger framework. Reason and reflection also have to do with the larger framework and not the biological. Reason, Peacocke says, provides non-biological support for ethics. This is especially true in developed societies (7).

Discussion on survival, Peacocke believes, also belongs to the larger framework (41-43). Sociobiology says what needs doing if humans are to survive. Peacocke reacts: "Survival for what?" (44, 45). Is survival the most urgent value? There are higher order questions which he thinks need answers before looking to sociobiology. A religious example is the belief that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God. God's values for humans may not rule out our extinction. Similarly, Thomas King from Georgetown University asks if survival is a value. The latter is something which he thinks has no empirical proof. "Science has provided us with much, but it will give us an ethic on the same day that it gives us a square circle" (40).

Peacocke raises another issue (7). He disagrees with Wilson and the University of Guelph philosopher Michael Ruse when they say morality is "an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate....[It is] a shared illusion of the human race" (31, 46). King writes: "Just because religion enables people to survive does not mean that its content is illusion." The eyes, he suggests, are also "enabling mechanisms for survival". This does not imply, however, that what the eyes see is not there. Similarly, religion can refer to what really exists. He thinks Wilson sees religion as only adding "emotional fuzz to values developed elsewhere" (40). (Wilson and Ruse's word illusion is misleading because it raises questions of truth. They probably mean that genes project morality into the human mind.)

Cambridge University's John Bowker criticizes sociobiology's poverty. It does not allow for the qualitative or aesthetic in religion. A religion like Christianity, he says, can agree that humans are "tunes sung by the genes". But it differs by saying humans can also become "tunes sung by God" (47). He even suggests God might act along with epigenetic rules to constrain human behavior and development (35). For Bowker, culture including religion and the arts is significantly different from genetic effects. The poverty of what the genes can produce shows they do not hold culture on a leash.

Langdon Gilkey thinks sociobiologists are blind to the source of their trust in science's objectivity and of their moral position. These transcend selfishness. But, according to the University of Chicago theologian, sociobiology sees selfishness as producing and directing conscience, consciousness and reason. Further, sociobiology does not say why anyone should trust its reason and moral goals as objective and altruistic. Most of all, it does not say why it is not deceiving and manipulating. This problem is not unique to sociobiologists. Everyone and all vocations and systems of thought share this moral confusion. Gilkey thinks they all depend on God, "the power beyond all human powers" (48, 49).

Gilkey's point is similar to saying morality has precedence over what sociobiology might say. And the basis of morality is the reality of God and revelation (50). This is how Gilkey knows that studying sociobiology depends on the transcendent.

One can question the details of Gilkey's case. But perhaps more important is that Gilkey assumes God exists before he starts his review. Second to this is sociobiology and other human efforts and findings. The question then becomes why one should follow Gilkey. Should one trust the scientific method as the judge of truth? Or should one trust some other source, for instance Christian tradition? Human genes, Gilkey thinks, do not tether what he knows from Christianity.

The above objections to sociobiology say genes do not hold culture on a leash. The tethering question underlies most theologians' reactions to sociobiology. It is especially behind their strong negative responses. Their replies set up a dualism: theology deals with a world separate from science's. This belief is common among theologians when they try to defend their turf against science.

Deflecting the Dualism

I turn now to responding briefly to the belief that genes do not tether culture, including religion and morality.

1. There are several ways in which sociobiology's conclusions may already have support in religion.

In approaching the "is"/"ought" question, the theologian might start with the following. God has brought humanity along the evolutionary path. The "is" must therefore say something about God's intentions for the human species. Filling out the "ought" from a theological point of view, therefore, will draw extensively on the "is". This is God's way of working (36, 42, 43, 51, 52).

Another example is that religion may support species survival as the most important value. Karl Peters, a philosopher from Rollins College, amplifies this by describing survival as perhaps central to a religious outlook (53). Hefner, from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, also takes survival as a primary theological value (41, 42).

2. Sociobiology says culture is an instrument of genetic survival. Meaning is not separate from the biological. Biology starts and drives any cultural activity, directing it with epigenetic rules. To help human survival even more, biology deceives people into thinking meaning comes first. So Peacocke, King, Gilkey, and Bowker's genes promote their belief in a dual world of meaning beyond biology's. They think and feel according to the channels of their epigenetic rules.

Thus there is no complete release from genetic survival pressures to make really free decisions. Ethicists follow the "is" when debating what the "is" means. They also follow it when discussing what the "ought" should be in different situations. The "is" requires deciding the "ought". In part also the "is" directs the "ought" through its epigenetic rules. The rational bases chosen to justify an ethical code result from epigenetic rules whose function is to lead to "altruistic" behavior.

Similarly, genes require that theology and similar cultural activities work out and promote what humans might aspire to. Biology through its epigenetic rules encourages humans to raise and answer the meaning questions. It pressures them to do this so they will want to survive and reproduce. In trying to make sure his gene line continues, Peacocke's biology makes him ask "Survival for what?". And it makes him insist that the truth of religious ideas comes before what sociobiology says.

Human biology makes us ask larger framework questions. It also in part directs our answers.

3. There is only one way for an "is"/"ought" separation to remain. There is also only one option for the position that says theology has a strictly larger framework than sociobiology's. Proponents have to insist on their stand against all other explanations. They have to back separating science from religion and morality. Such positions put the two areas into separate worlds or compartments or levels with theology higher in the hierarchy. They believe they have thereby sidestepped a challenge such as sociobiology's.

I have discussed in other publications why I believe this strategy is dangerous and inadequate (15, 22, 54). Further, modern society accepts the scientific method as the way to approach truth more than it does traditional theology's. In the end what else is the judge of truth and the assumptions people make?

Dualism does not stand. Genes tether and steer all that humans do. Culture adds to what the genes bring. And it enforces what they require. To insist there is no leash from genes to culture or religion is to disagree on world views. Most moderns, I imagine, prefer one informed by science rather one than dominated by a traditional religion.

Then theology can seek to build on and with sociobiology rather than be afraid of it. This constructive dialogue has started, with Hefner taking the initiative (6, 43, 55, 56).

From Warfare to a Working Alliance

The debate over reductionism of religion or culture by sociobiology is confusing. Sociobiology looks reductionist. On the other hand, culture does have a role in expressing and shaping biological behavior.

A significant problem in solving the reductionism question is the image of a line drawn between biology and culture. Peacocke and others may think all below some level is biological, all above is cultural. There is, however, no clear-cut dividing line. For instance, the epigenetic rules which people feel as cultural are biological mechanisms (27). It is not a matter of culture above a certain point; rather, the genetic and the cultural are inseparable.

The problem is being more precise over how much the genes determine and how much culture constrains. Bowker calls this "a very distant goal". Perhaps it is a hopeless goal because the relation between cultural and genetic evolution is so complex (47). I more than agree. It is not "a very distant goal"; it cannot exist.

Unknown to him, Peacocke already has a model on which to base a solution to the biology/culture problem. It is his epistemological stand over objectivism and subjectivism, what he calls critical, qualified realism (57). This says scientific theories do reflect the structure of reality. But one cannot isolate all sociological and psychological factors from them. If Peacocke applies a similar approach to his problem with sociobiology, he could say both genes and culture determine human behavior. He could also say biology comes through culture, making the two inseparable. (In fact, Peacocke's epistemological problem is a more general version of the biology/culture one. To translate, note objectivism is sociobiology, and subjectivism is culture.)

Gene-culture coevolution says much the same. Genes affect the direction of cultural change. Natural selection, in part working from culture, shifts the frequencies of these genes. This then opens new channels for cultural evolution. And the circle goes around again (32, 58). Biology and culture work together. They are inseparable.

This biology/culture model also applies to the science/religion relation. The two have their place with their respective functions. But, ideally, they are inseparable.

I emphasize ideally. The relation between religion and science is still mostly one of warfare. Sometimes they battle. More common this century are skirmishes against religion by backers of science. Ruse's and Wilson's atheist attacks under the guise of sociobiology are examples (28-32, 40, 58). Theology shelters in its underground bunkers safe from the advance and missiles of science. But to stay there is the end of theology's relevance to the modern world. It is also to lose the vigor and wealth of the wisdom from the past.

Alternatively, religion might engage and form a partnership with science. Together they could build a culture which speaks to the range of human needs, including the moral and religious (22, 58). This has already started with sociobiology (6, 43, 55, 56, 59, 60).


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Copyright 1991 by Kevin Sharpe.