Religion and Science, Theology

The Camel and Needle
Lessons from a Russian Orthodox Scientist, Part 2

Published on: August 27, 2021
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by Christopher Howell | български | ქართული | ελληνικά

Read Part 1: Between Darwin and Dostoevsky

Headshot of a camel

Freedom mattered to Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was concerned to articulate a scientific worldview in which Darwin buttressed free will, and he felt it helped answer the problem of evil (offering an early version of the “free process defense” to natural evil, similar to John Polkinghorne’s). But he was also concerned to protect political freedom, both from totalitarianism and from hereditary aristocracy. Dobzhansky’s second synthesis was, then, to merge democracy with science (and religion) in order to defend all three from their conservative critics, whether of the religious, social, or economic bent.

A hierarchical, aristocratic, class-based society was, in Dobzhansky’s view, a defense mechanism designed to allay the fears of the wealthy when confronted with Jesus’ harder sayings. “Christ’s parable of the camel passing through the eye of a needle is too explicit to be easily interpreted away,” he wrote, “To assuage their consciences, the Creator is blamed for having made some people nobles and others commoners, some wise and others improvident, some talented and others incompetent. Different people are thus born to occupy different stations in life. Such, allegedly, is God’s will, and to go against it is sin” (Mankind Evolving, 1962, 52). Don’t blame us, say the rich and the powerful, it’s God’s fault for endowing us with superior genes. Wealth, power, influence, and so on, are simply inevitable under such circumstances, and no amount of political equality would change it. Such hereditarians, observed Dobzhansky, were often political conservatives who believed “genetic conditioning of human capacities would justify the setting up of rigid class barriers and a hierarchical organization of the society” (247-248).

But this was a misunderstanding of genetics and reflected a poor knowledge of inheritance. There is, he argued, no one-to-one relationship between genotype and phenotype, there is no “gene for” intelligence or any particular skill; rather, genes allow for a “norm-of-reaction”—a pattern of phenotypic expression that flows from the genotype, but which can result in highly variable development in each person as they grow, develop, and evolve. “A newborn infant is not a blank page,” he wrote, “however, his genes do not seal his fate.” The environment plays a crucial role (76). Freud may have claimed that “biology is destiny,” but Dobzhansky rejected this notion. “Heredity…is destiny,” he argued, “largely in proportion to our biological ignorance” (quoted in D.B. Paul, “Dobzhansky in the ‘Nature-Nurture’ Debate,” Adams 1994, 223).

Ironically, Dobzhansky argued, a rigid, caste-based society premised on stasis and a lack of change for the moneyed aristocracy would induce a great deal of genetic diversification at the top. Those with “superior” genes would easily beget offspring rather less like the Übermensch than they are wont to claim. In an ossified system, where natural selection could not operate, stagnation and devolution would be the name of the game. This was obvious to anyone who encountered the luxuriant upper-class “snobs”, self-styled elites who were certainly “better endowed financially than genetically” (Mankind Evolving, 334). Dobzhansky was likewise contemptuous of any suggestion that there must be a social aristocracy of elite minds who stewarded culture and safeguarded it from the unwashed hordes, singling out T.S. Eliot for criticism. “I, for one,” he wrote, “do not lament the passing of social organizations that used the many as a manured soil in which to grow a few graceful flowers of refined culture” (Dobzhansky 325).

The solution to this was equality and its political expression: democracy. Inequality of opportunity hides genetic change and allows for those ensconced at the top to maintain their status (248). Equality, on the other hand, reduces “genetic wastage,” and would create a more diverse society, which would be beneficial to the entire species (324-325). A static, changeless society—a non-democratic one—would in essence be conservative, but “the foundations of all conservatisms was undermined by the flood of scientific discovery” (Ultimate Concern, 113). Dobzhansky was, in the end, a liberal with a tilt towards social democracy and a deep revulsion toward totalitarianism and hereditary authority. Despite the focus on democracy, however, he was suspicious of communism, which he termed a “Christian heresy” (99).

While he placed a high emphasis on human equality, Dobzhansky felt that it was an ethical precept and not one that could be reduced to a scientific postulate. “People do not need to be biologically (genotypically or phenotypically) alike to be equal before God,” he argued (Mankind Evolving, 52). Equality is, in essence, a Christian theological concept (219). It is a good in and of itself, not because it may or may not be scientifically provable; good and evil, after all, are concepts beyond the capacity of science to articulate. Julian Huxley and C.H. Waddington may have labored mightily to find an ethics based on evolution, but they failed. “The force of these strictures has never been overcome,” contended Dobzhansky. Evolution by natural selection could, at most, “explain how we develop our belief that certain things are good and others evil; it does not explain why we ought to regard them good and evil” (343). In the end, no one could answer Ivan Karamazov; the existentialists were right (Ultimate Concern, 101). Instead, the knowledge of good and evil was given by revelation (Van der Meer, 111), and it is well we remember that “the highest wisdom of all was at one time entrusted to a group of unlettered Galilean fishermen” (Mankind Evolving, 345).

In such a fashion, Dobzhansky hoped to vouchsafe human equality, political freedom, and a society of open movement by grounding democracy in both science and Christian ethical concepts. Such was the second of his three syntheses, but these multiple strands often seemed in tension, especially to his scientific colleagues, who mostly did not share his sympathy for religion. And so, Dobzhansky desperately hoped to find a third synthesis, one which would encapsulate, explain, and defend the other two: a harmony between science and religion.

Christopher Howell holds a PhD from Duke University in Religion.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University