Science in Society Archive

Lives of Meaning

Can biologists find spirituality without finding a creator? Prof. R.I. Vane-Wright

My position as an evolutionary biologist

Despite a Christian upbringing, I am an agnostic. God, if it does exist, is ineffable, knowable only through personal conviction. I do not believe science is capable of proving or disproving either the existence, or the non-existence of God. I therefore disagree with fellow scientists when they suggest human logic will eventually reveal some materially-based answer to everything. Science cannot offer such assurance – which would be just another act of faith [1]. With others, I am also sceptical about any certainty of science [2], and even its unity [3].

This lack of belief in science as a source of ultimate, objective truth does not lead me, however, to insist on some divine creator. I am content to be a tiny part of the cosmos, a small nexus in the great web of life on Earth, one of the current 7 billion living individuals of Homo sapiens. Others seek “the meaning of life” and “salvation” in something beyond. While I personally find this unnecessary, I do not object to their recourse to faith to satisfy their spiritual yearning.

As a natural scientist, my task is to contribute to describing the universe (pattern), and understanding how it works (process). I use no more assumptions than necessary, and depend on the minimum number of seemingly inexplicable factors – such as the physical constants that make life on Earth possible (see [4] Does God Have a Monopoly on Spirituality? SiS 49). I also try to explore specific elements of the universe by abstraction from the whole, and not to derive the whole or subsystems by abstraction from its parts. In other words, while reductionism may offer the scientist a valuable tool, it does not provide a satisfactory framework for explaining complex phenomena.

Thus, although I do not see science as the ultimate source of wisdom or understanding, I still find myself in opposition to those who believe that evolution without the intervention of some supernatural force or “intelligent designer” is incapable of bringing about the adaptation seen throughout the living world. Such a belief rests on an outmoded view of adaptations as perfect, each “meticulously designed for its function”, carried over from natural theology [5]. This mistaken view is encouraged by an understandable reaction against normal-science when it reductively insists that organic evolution is a process driven solely by genes – selfish or otherwise.

As the late Brian Goodwin suggested [6], whole organisms act out “a life of meaning” based on a mixture of inherited and some learned understanding of their world. Each organism, in its own special way, is highly intelligent. To me, specific organismal intelligence is the source of the seeming “design” seen in all living things [7]. Each individual organism contributes, through its own particular life of meaning, to the adaptation of the evolutionary lineage to which it contributes – the evolving, adaptable and adapted species. Although mediated, constrained and ultimately passed on by the selection of available mutations working within genetic mechanisms, this process is not controlled by genes alone.

Once life has begun, intelligence about the surrounding environment leads inevitably to the sequential, cascading adaptation of living organisms as an emergent process. While mutation may be blind and perhaps random, once started, even though it is not pre-determined, the course of evolution is not driven by chance alone [4, 7]. The ‘eyes that see’ are the sensory perception systems of the organisms themselves, which are not passive but creative. As Richard Gregory [8] put it: “Perceptions may be compared with hypotheses in science.” I believe this applies as much to the perceptions of a jellyfish as those of a Nobel prize winner.

Can biologists find spirituality without finding a creator?

Being concerned with the nature of biological reality, my question is inevitably metaphysical. And, potentially, it leaves me marooned in an “excluded middle” – lost between those on the one hand, including numerous fellow scientists, who still operate in an essentially logical-positivist framework in which it is believed there will ultimately be a material or rational answer to everything [e.g. 9, 10], and those on the other convinced that the universe can neither exist nor make sense without a non-material creator [e.g. 11, 12]. Is it rational for me to accept that there may not be an ultimate creator while, at the same time, not accept that conventional materialism (as expressed, for example, by the hard-line neo-Darwinism of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) is sufficient to make sense of “life, the universe, and everything”? Is my position hopeless, am I a boneless mediocrity simply flapping around in the middle? [10, p. 46].

There are those who believe that consciousness may be a fundamental property of the universe [13]: “Thus we could come to the germ of a new notion of unbroken wholeness, in which consciousness is no longer to be fundamentally separated from matter.” As stated above, I believe that creativity, or problem solving, is a fundamental property of biological systems, ultimately responsible for all adaptation seen in the living world. For physicist/philosopher David Bohm consciousness is framed as a property of the implicate order, the “immediate and primary actuality” from which the familiar material world of the explicate order can be derived “as a particular, distinguished case” [13]. For me, as a biologist, what links the two is simply what I propose to call connectivity – or just connection.

The story of Aldo Leopold and the dying wolf is a dramatic example. Leopold, now acknowledged as a founder of the deep ecology movement, started out in a US government wolf eradication programme. One day in New Mexico he shot an old wolf. As he ran to it in its dying moments, he recalls “. . . there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and the mountain. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf, nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” This experience, which I would call a connection, profoundly altered Leopold’s worldview, and everything that he did subsequently [14]. Such a shift in perception could represent a step in the evolution of a new moral understanding that underpins deep ecology [15] – a higher dimension of existence realised directly through experience [16].

In my worldview, connection is more “spiritual” than the separation of mind-body dualism – which seems to me like a devaluation of my own life experience. The feeling of connection to the rest of the universe and its entire unfolding – atoms in my body that could only have come from a supernova [17], a physiology inherited from pre-Cambrian oceans, an ecology that involves the entire biosphere [18], and a culture going back beyond stone-age ancestors that continues to develop in the living community of which I am a part, all ongoing and ever changing – is to me the supreme spirituality: protean connection.

While I do not deny the possibility of an ultimate creator, my sense of what is right and wrong, and emotions such as joy and sadness, can come simply from being part of the universe. This realisation, this sense of connection, is for me sufficient – and a source of liberation. Those committed to dualism or materialism will say that I am deluded, that I am denying God or the power of hormones. But for me the connection I have tried to describe is my spiritual reality. Do other biologists share the same feeling?

The author is a Scientific Associate of the Department of Entomology, Natural History Museum, London, and Honorary Professor of Taxonomy at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

Article first published 16/04/12


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  2. Peat FD. From Certainty to Uncertainty. The story of science and ideas in the Twentieth Century, Joseph Henry Press, Washington DC, 2002.
  3. Dupré J. The Disorder of Things. Metaphysical foundations of the disunity of science, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, 1993 (1995 paperback edn).
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  6. Goodwin B. Nature’s Due. Healing our fragmented culture, Floris, Edinburgh, 2007.
  7. Vane-Wright RI. Lives of meaning: organismal intelligence and the origin of design in nature, in Quenby J & MacDonald Smith J (eds), Intelligent Faith, O Books, Ropley Hants, 2009, pp. 23–48.
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  9. Wilson EO. Consilience. The unity of knowledge, Vintage (Random House), New York, 1998 (1999 edn).
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  12. Meyer SC. Signature in the Cell. DNA and the evidence for intelligent design, HarperCollins, New York, 2009 (2010 paperback edn).
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  14. Harding S. Animate Earth. Science, intuition and Gaia, Green Books, Totnes UK, 2006 , pp. 42–44.
  15. Vane-Wright, R.I. Are attitudes to life changing?—the emergence of new moral intuitions, in Spurway N (ed.), Theology, Evolution and the Mind, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2009, pp. 189–198.
  16. Wilber K. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The spirit of evolution (2nd edn), Shambhala, Boston, 2000, pp. 421–422.
  17. Swimme B & Berry T. The Universe Story. From the primordial flaring forth to the Ecozoic Era. A celebration of the unfolding of the Cosmos, HarperCollins, New York, 1992 (1994 paperback edn).
  18. Lovelock J. Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

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There are 10 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Lindsay Comment left 16th April 2012 13:01:49
A great article, I share your feelings whole heartedly and infact it was so nice to read what is nearly my own veiwpoint so eloquently expressed

Prof ASmyan Macfadyne Comment left 16th April 2012 13:01:40
As another academic bioogist I find myself in practically full agreement with the auhor of this article. I am primirily and ecologist although trained in the old tradition of zoology and comparative anatomy.After much further experience under field conditions I do not find views such as those expressed preveent me from enormous aesthetic appreciation of the biological attributes (anatomy, physiology, ecology, behaviour) of plants and animals. Amyan Macfadyen

Konstantin Comment left 16th April 2012 13:01:25
"This realisation, this sense of connection, is for me sufficient – and a source of liberation." I totally agree. This idea of being part of the whole is more satisfying than any "rational", scientific theory.

John Shacklefree Comment left 16th April 2012 19:07:21
Appears plausible by allowing both points of view their own space but it commits to nothing. Science is not claimed as the ultimate source of wisdom but he cannot accept that evolution is incapable of bringing about adaptation. At least on this point he displays commitment. He gives no reasons why he cannot accept this and it appears to come down to a faith or gut feeling or maybe just a determination to reject creation. He has also chosen an example which is not controversial. Everyone knows that adaptation occurs within species; the question is whether it can carry over the species barrier and that has never been demonstrated and he gives us no reason to suppose it can. The evidence from the fine tuning of the Universe, tells us that evolution by chance is statistically impossible and so far we only have one other logical possibility i.e. creation by an intelligent designer. The author of the article gives no other hypothesis and appears to rely on the idea that maybe at some time in the future a better hypothesis will be postulated. To be a scientist means to look at the evidence such as it is at the present time and come to a reasonable conclusion. Sitting on the fence can sometimes be merely an unwillingness to follow where the evidence leads. It is all very vague and tries to be democratic by giving credibility to all views but in essence this means that every point of view is nonsensical and absolutely true at the same time. Nice to have your cake and eat it.

Dr. Michael Godfrey Comment left 16th April 2012 19:07:35
An awareness of "I am that I am" instead of merely a physical body with a thinking brain is a prerequisite for the first step in the journey to spirituality. That an ongoing consciousness exists has been demonstrated beyond doubt by extensive academic research into the near death experience (NDE) as well as the late Prof. Stevenson's decades of research into birth marks and reincarnation. It may well be good to be born into a religion but not to die in one due to their respective sectarian constraints, just as a life without spirituality could become a life wasted in ego or sense gratification. However, just as one has to first discover that honey exists before one can taste it, the same applies to spirit.

Rory Short Comment left 16th April 2012 19:07:19
As a convinced and practising Quaker, for some nearly 50 years now, and a person who has never felt comfortable with the theism which was part of my Anglican upbringing I am in full agreement with the author of this article. Weekly attendance at Quaker meeting for Worship opens the way for me to experience the connectedness to the whole that the author speaks of. I do not say 'my'connectedness because it is an experience that is open to absolutely everyone and more particularly if they want to join with us in the simple silence of a gathered Quaker Meeting.

Berthajane Vandegrift Comment left 17th April 2012 23:11:36
I'd prefer to think of myself as an active participant in a creative universe than as an impotent observer of a mechanical reality.

Nancy Oden Comment left 19th April 2012 17:05:24
I really appreciate this articulation of communication between and amongst life forms other than human, and the refusal to be absolute. It's obvious to me that we're all related; all one has to do is observe that we're more alike than different (thanks, Steven Jay Gould)and it becomes apparent. Furthermore, there seems to be "something," which I think of as the "universe," to which we can appeal for help when in extremis, and perhaps get helped, and with whom we can speak in our minds. The author states, "Each organism, in its own special way, is highly intelligent." Yes, I find this so. As someone who has raised animals on a farm, and has also lived alone in the Maine Woods, I have seen this to be true many times over. People think of sheep, for example, as not too bright. But they are intelligent in ways that ensure their own survival. Their intelligence is different from ours because, as prey animals, they have different needs from us in order to survive. A rather prosaic example: houseflies in my house do not get killed, but shooed out the window or simply ignored. Somehow the fact that I am not out to kill them has been communicated, and they will allow my hand to approach them within 1/2 inch before they take off. Did they impart the information that this "large being is non-lethal" to their eggs? I don't know, but, silly as it sounds, each succeeding generation seems less wary of me. Same with spiders that take up residence in my house. I never kill them (they eat flies and mosquitoes)so the few that survive these Northern winters hang right around near where I function, usually in upper corners where they can keep an eye on things. They watch me, but show no fear, even when I approach with a magnifying glass to study them closely. There are so many different spiders - they're endlessly fascinating. I have met the eyes of many animals, both wild and domestic, and we have communicated. People who keep domestic pets know this is true, too. I can no longer look into the eyes of creatures that humankind is cruelly poisoning and destroying. It's too painful.

Todd Millions Comment left 22nd April 2012 09:09:23
My people speak- that once there was a totality That Became aware-and so a God, Just as he blew up. Since then all things perceptable are fragments of this sundered one. Us,our world and that and those we share it with The stars we dance round and with-all things creatures men and gods. Turn on your radio to fm-go between the stations You can still hear the sigh as his awareness orwelmed him.

John Shacklefree Comment left 20th April 2012 18:06:25
A few comments on the above. I really appreciate this articulation of communication between and amongst life forms other than human, and the refusal to be absolute. Have you the authority to insist there are no absolutes? It's obvious to me that we're all related (all living things are related by the gift of life. I don’t think that was an accident? Could it be that our sense of unity and respect for all living things comes from our creation rather than an accidental combination of atoms? Furthermore, there seems to be "something," which I think of as the "universe," to which we can appeal for help when in extremis, and perhaps get helped, (you seem unsure) and with whom we can speak in our minds. (to appeal to it for help implies the “universe” has a personality. Would you agree, or can we appeal for help to something impersonal?) They [spiders] watch me, but show no fear, even when I approach with a magnifying glass to study them closely. (maybe this is something not learned by the spider but something emanating from your compassionate nature) There are so many different spiders - they're endlessly fascinating.

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