Avise: Theology in the PNAS?

I found this fairly stunning theological article in the PNAS, a leading scientific journal.

Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome

Intelligent design (ID)—the latest incarnation of religious creationism—posits that complex biological features did not accrue gradually via natural evolutionary forces but, instead, were crafted ex nihilo by a cognitive agent. Yet, many complex biological traits are gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers. Furthermore, such dysfunctional traits abound not only in the phenotypes but inside the genomes of eukaryotic species. Here, I highlight several outlandish features of the human genome that defy notions of ID by a caring cognitive agent. These range from de novo mutational glitches that collectively kill or maim countless individuals (including embryos and fetuses) to pervasive architectural flaws (including pseudogenes, parasitic mobile elements, and needlessly baroque regulatory pathways) that are endogenous in every human genome. Gross imperfection at the molecular level presents a conundrum for the traditional paradigms of natural theology as well as for recent assertions of ID, but it is consistent with the notion of nonsentient contrivance by evolutionary forces. In this important philosophical sense, Intelligent design (ID)—the latest incarnation of religious creationism—posits that complex biological features did not accrue gradually via natural evolutionary forces but, instead, were crafted ex nihilo by a cognitive agent. Yet, many complex biological traits are gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers. Furthermore, such dysfunctional traits abound not only in the phenotypes but inside the genomes of eukaryotic species. Here, I highlight several outlandish features of the human genome that defy notions of ID by a caring cognitive agent. These range from de novo mutational glitches that collectively kill or maim countless individuals (including embryos and fetuses) to pervasive architectural flaws (including pseudogenes, parasitic mobile elements, and needlessly baroque regulatory pathways) that are endogenous in every human genome. Gross imperfection at the molecular level presents a conundrum for the traditional paradigms of natural theology as well as for recent assertions of ID, but it is consistent with the notion of nonsentient contrivance by evolutionary forces. In this important philosophical sense, the science of evolutionary genetics should rightly be viewed as an ally (not an adversary) of mainstream religions because it helps the latter to escape the profound theological enigmas posed by notions of ID.

A Reconciliation: Evolution as a Salvation for Theology

From scientific evidence gathered during the past century, and especially within recent decades, we now understand that the human genome and the metabolic processes it underwrites are riddled with structural and operational deficiencies ranging from the subtle to the egregious. These genetic defects register not only as deleterious mutational departures from some hypothetical genomic ideal but as universal architectural flaws in the standard genomes themselves. The findings of molecular biology thus offer a gargantuan challenge to notions of ID. They extend the age-old theodicy challenge, traditionally motivated by obvious imperfections at the levels of human morphology and behavior, into the innermost molecular sanctum of our physical being.

Exactly how a fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden might have become translated into these molecular defects is mechanistically unclear (to say the least). How such genomic flaws arise and persist poses no insuperable mystery from the scientific perspectives of genetics and evolution, however. Herein, I suggest, lies a wonderful opportunity for nonfundamentalist religions.

Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation. From this perspective, the evolutionary sciences can become a welcome partner (rather than the conventionally perceived adversary) of mainstream religion (Fig. 1).

The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religions to escape from the profound conundrums of ID, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm—not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but, rather, as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters, including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritualness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.

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( Upper ) Traditional placement of evolutionary biology as the odd-man-out to the spheres of mainstream religion and ID in many philosophical discourses about the human condition. ( Lower ) Unique and perhaps enlightened perspective in which ID is the odd-man-out to mainstream religions and the evolutionary sciences (whose spheres or magisteria may overlap to arguable degrees).

This is a pretty remarkable article to find in a scientific journal…

Followed by an interesting response by Jeff Schloss and Mike Murray (friends of mine):

Finally, Avise (1) concludes that evolution constitutes “salvation for theology.” Whether this is or even could be true of any scientific theory is highly debatable. Less debatable is that rather than being made in a journal of scientific research, such a claim ought to be vetted in a venue appropriate to rigorous assessment in light of relevant philosophical and theological literature.

And a response from Avise:

Pretty interesting exchange worth reading in full.

4 posts were split to a new topic: Nelson and Swamidass: The GAE and MN

Yes, pretty interesting, and I remember it well. Avise wrote a book on the topic and I reviewed it in PSCF. Then and now, I found his “theological” argument to be DOA.

Relevant to this conversation from @pnelson:

Isn’t that 10 years old, in a supplementary issue containing symposium papers? The standards would seem to be somewhat relaxed in such a case.

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Here is Avise’s own summary, from the introduction to the volume:

However, Avise (29) asks whether the human genome actually does display the kinds of artistry of molecular design that natural theologians might wish to claim (30) as definitive proof for ex nihilo craftsmanship by a caring and omnipotent Deity. To the contrary, modern genetic and biochemical analyses have revealed, unequivocally, that the human genome is replete with mistakes, waste, dead-ends, structural and functional improprieties, and other molecular flaws ranging from the subtle to the egregious with respect to their negative impacts on human health (29, 31). These imperfections are the kinds of biological outcomes that are expected from nonsentient evolutionary processes but surely not from an intelligent designer. The author argues, nevertheless, that theologians should welcome rather than disavow these genomic discoveries. The evolutionary sciences can help to emancipate mainstream religions from the age-old theodicy dilemma (the theological “problem of evil”) and thereby return religious inquiry to its rightful realm—not as the ill-equipped interpreter of biological minutiae of our physical existence but rather as a potentially respectable counselor on grander philosophical matters that have always been of “ultimate concern” (32) to theologians and to humanity."

Avise’ membership in NAS would not in this case be relevant to the publication. All of the papers in this 10-part series were talks in colloquia.

Yep! I assume the papers were peer reviewed but they were meant to be set aside in a Supplement, one that was part of a series called “In Light of Evolution.” There were 10 in that series, and each was associated with a colloquium. It’s potentially confusing IMO to refer to a “theological article” in “a leading scientific journal” without explaining what these series were about and why they were Supplements to the journal.

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