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Saintly ethics: Norwich lecture on science and God  

Sarah CoakleyProfessor Sarah Coakley, the first woman to hold the prestigious Norris Hulse Chair of Divinity at Cambridge University, gave the 2014 Science and Faith in Norfolk Annual Lecture to over 120 people in Norwich Cathedral on May 8.

‘God, Evolution and Cooperation: Saints from Selfish Genes?’

Report by Patrick Richmond, Chair of Science and Faith in Norfolk

How do we get from evolution, described brilliantly but misleadingly by Richard Dawkins as a matter of ‘selfish genes,’ to saintliness? Coakley underlined the need for sacrificial cooperation for the very survival of evolutionary life. Unless genes, cells and organisms can work together, sometimes sacrificing their own benefit, complex organisms are impossible.

This role for ‘sacrifice’ stimulates Christian reflection.  She then explained how evolution can produce and sustain ‘cooperative’ and ‘sacrificial’ behaviours. Drawing on her work with Harvard mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, she outlined particular conditions under which sacrificial ‘cooperation’ can help pass on one’s genes. For example, a bee might sacrifice itself for close relatives in the hive that share many of its genes, or someone might benefit in the long run if their sacrificial acts are reciprocated or give them a helpful reputation. Nowak has modelled such strategies for survival and reproduction mathematically.

Coakley wanted to distinguish unthinking ‘cooperation’ from intentional ‘altruism’. Interestingly, Dolphins show something like human intentions.  The cases of Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who rescued a stranger by throwing himself  under a subway train, and the actor Sean Penn, who helped victims of Hurricane Katrina but hired a photographer to publicise it, show the importance of purity of intention to human saintliness. Different ethical approaches can draw on different parts of the scientific picture. Followers of Aristotle and his Christian interpreter St Thomas Aquinas, reflect rationally on what makes for flourishing, a notion informed by biology but not reducible to it. Some following the lead of philosopher Immanuel Kant see our evolutionary past as a possible source of moral sentiment and intuition, but we also require a rational grasp of ethical principles we don’t find easy.  

Finally, she suggested that a saintly ethic that takes its cue from Jesus’s demand to ‘love one’s enemies’ and his dying for others cannot be reduced to the mathematical calculus of ‘cooperative’ flourishing but points to God. Indeed, if humanity is to survive the challenges facing the globe, it will need more of this saintliness, not less. During questions Coakley stressed that she was steering between the ‘god of the gaps’ and Dawkins’ ‘God Delusion.’ While Dawkins might see saintliness as merely the result of historical accidents and in some sense an evolutionary ‘mistake,’ this isn’t how such saintliness appears and its rightness can be defended with intellectual integrity.

You may also be interested in hearing the Rev’d Dr Alisdair Coles, leading clinical Neuroscientist and Anglican priest, talking about Mind, Brain and the Search for God at 7.30pm on Monday 24th November at Holy Trinity Church, Essex Street NR2 2BJ. All are welcome. More details are available here or contact the secretary on sfnorfolk1@gmail.com.

A thought-provoking sprint through recent evolution theory

JohnMyhillWebQuaker and Network Norfolk columnist John Myhill provides an alternative view of the lecture

This was a thought provoking sprint through recent developments in Evolution theory, presented by a Professor of theology who is also a practicing priest.   Below are just a few of the questions that came to me whilst I was listening to this very clever presentation:-
If you believe with Dawkins that altruism is a rare error with no survival value, why would you sacrifice yourself to help others?  If you believe with Sarah Coakley that  altruism is the human version of a genetically programmed tendency, which is evolving, like brain capacity, as a basis for the survival of the fittest; you may be happy to sacrifice yourself to help others.

If you believe that altruism has been genetically programmed you may be more likely to believe in an altruistic creator.  And, if you believe that, you may be more likely to seek a personal relationship with that creator, as promised in the Gospels.

Sarah Coakley did make clear some of the ethical assumptions, about the mechanical workings of genetics; which are built into Evolutionary theory.  But, just as some people make huge sacrifices to save lives of strangers, so others sacrifice themselves in order to kill those close to them.  Why believe that one is genetically programmed and the other is not?

Science has difficulty answering the question: “how does this work?”; without also implying: “and there is nothing you can do about it.”  Given the opportunity to manipulate human genes, most people would want to remove hereditary diseases and extend healthy human life, making us stronger and more intelligent as a species.  But how many would want to make humans more altruistic or materialistic, given that such tendencies must be tied up with many complicated patterns of behaviour.

The objective of thinking about Science, should be to understand ourselves better, rather than to genetically change human nature.  Understanding Science may increase our appreciation of creation and make us aware of our capacity for selfless compassion.

For Sarah Coakley’s full Gifford Lectures see www.abdn.ac.uk/gifford

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