Tag Archives: Christopher Howell

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

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).

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Between Darwin and Dostoevsky
Lessons from a Russian Orthodox Scientist, Part 1

by Christopher Howell | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Theodosius Dobzhansky

When he was young and Russia was in the throes of revolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) felt the “urgency of finding a meaning of life…in the bloody tumult.” But he was stuck between two poles that drew him equally: religion and science. He loved Darwin and he loved Dostoevsky. “The intellectual stimulation derived from the works of Darwin and other evolutionists was pitted against that arising from reading Dostoevsky,” he wrote towards the end of his life (Dobzhansky, The Biology of Ultimate Concern, 1967, 1). Resolving this tension became one of the driving forces of his career. In the coming decades, after he fled to America and became a “nonperson” in the USSR, Dobzhansky would emerge as one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, and his work would be characterized not by conflict but by the search for syntheses. There are three that stand out as lessons to be remembered: synthesis of natural selection and genetics, of democracy and politics, and of religion and science. In this post, I want to first look at the way Dobzhansky’s Eastern Orthodox background informed his science and contributed to the history of evolutionary biology.

Theodosius Dobzhansky’s unusual name was consequence of his mother’s prayers. As recounted by Dobzhansky’s daughter Sophia, “My father’s parents were childless for quite a while after their marriage and tried to remedy their condition by prayer and pilgrimage” (S.D. Coe, “Theodosius Dobzhansky: A Family Story,” Adams 1994, 13) Their prayerful journey took the Ukrainian couple to the shrine of St. Theodosius of Chernigov, and when they soon found themselves with child, they christened him with the saint’s name. Dobzhansky was thus enmeshed in Orthodox religious culture from his birth and before. He was descended from a long line of priests on his mother’s side (something he always felt important), and his affinity for Dostoevsky was as much genetic as aesthetic, for he numbered the great novelist among his maternal ancestors as well.

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George Seferis and the Freedom of Tradition

by Christopher Howell | ελληνικά

George Seferis

“I belong to a small country,” said the great Greek poet George Seferis in his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1963. “It is small, but its tradition is immense.”

As wrangling over the word “tradition” has become an idle pastime, particularly on that domain of debauchery known as social media, Seferis’s thoughts warrant consideration, despite his unorthodox Orthodoxy. Tradition, for Seferis, has three elements: it is alive; it is universal, but only because it is particular; and it is, above all, liberating.

Introduced to the West in Henry Miller’s 1939 travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, the poet and diplomat (whose real name was Giorgos Seferiades) was larger than life. Miller described him as “a wild boar which had broken its tusks in furious onslaughts born of love and ecstasy.” When Orthodox lay theologian Philip Sherrard first met Seferis in person, he wrote in his diary that he radiated “profoundly direct and simple human warmth and spontaneity.” The British poet and Jesuit priest Peter Levi wrote that Seferis “was the sun in the sky to all of us who lived in Greece.”

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Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart

by Christopher Howell

One might not expect Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart to agree on much, but they do share one crucial perspective: that modernity is essentially nihilistic. However, while their diagnoses of modernity may be similar, their prescriptions are diametrically opposed. To stem the tide of modernity’s nihilistic encroachments, Rose rejected ecumenism as a modernist heresy, and he later promoted a patristic style of young Earth creationism against evolutionary biology. Hart, on the other hand, promotes instead ecumenical unity and the importance of creation as a philosophical and theological doctrine, not a historical event per se, that can be harmonized with science (provided science is rescued from its tendency to reductionism). Such distinct responses highlight the degree of variability within the American subspecies of Eastern Orthodoxy.

In Rose’s view, nihilism is the “root of the revolution of the modern age,” and this nihilism is not just a lack of faith but rather an active belief in nothingness: “No man…lives without a god,” and the god of the nihilist is “nihil, nothingness itself” (Rose 2001, 68-70). It begins with the rejection of God but manifests itself in four modern schools of thought: liberalism, realism, vitalism, and destruction. His clearest critique is on liberalism, which he describes as a more urbane nihilism—tempting, but ultimately flawed, because it cannot evade its own fundamental problem: its inability to justify its own existence (Rose 2001, 33). Likewise, Hart has written that the modern predicament is to “believe in nothing,” which he clarifies is not a faith in just anything, but rather “in the nothing, or in nothingness as such” (Hart 2009, 1-2). Hart shares Rose’s view that contemporary political liberalism is a “soporific nihilism,” but his discussion traces a different intellectual genealogy (Hart 2017, 323). Continue reading