David Attenborough - Please stick to biology

I love David Attenborough. I think any Brits who have watched his fantastic nature documentaries over the past few decades cannot help but have a soft spot for him.

Well - 2009 being Darwin's big year has inspired David Attenborough to pin his colours to the mast and
(a) praise Darwin to the sky (no surprise there!)
(b) and, in the process, bash Christianity.

I don't mind DA celebrating Darwin. Indeed, it is entirely appropriate! And at least he knows what he is talking about when it comes to the natural world. (a minor qualification: Attenborough's rhetoric in praising Darwin's theory does seem to claim for for it than is reasonable - apparently the theory answers all of life's questions! Wow! Great rhetoric but, in actual fact, a gross overstatement).

Why does Attenborough find Christianity problematic? Well, he was not brought up as a theist and has never believed in God. So I suppose that socialization plays a big role. However, the reasons that he gives are

(i) Darwin removes the need for God so faith in God is made redundant
(ii) Christianity (working from the 'dominion' theme in the book of Genesis) is to blame for the devastation of the planet

All those theologians, philosophers and scientists who have time and time again refuted the simplistic argument that moves from the claim that 'Darwinism is true' to the claim that 'atheism is true' must be getting a tad fed up. Has Attenborough not read them? Or does he think that they are wrong? If so, it would be nice to see this argument. Instead we have assertions. One problem is that most people - who know less than Attenborough about theology - will just assume that the great man knows what he is talking about. And so the popular myths are perpetuated!

I just think it is a great shame when such a respected man speaks with such authority about something he does not know about. He fails to appreciate the relationship between his atheism and his Darwinism. He seems to think that the latter provides solid evidence for the former, when in fact it is merely compatible with it.

And Attenborough understanding of the implications of Genesis 1 for the environment (article in The Independent 31st Jan 09) is based on ignorance of Christian history and Christian theology. One cannot help but suspect that he simply read something once (Lynn White Jr?) which argued that the Bible was to blame for the environmental crisis, and just assumed that it was indeed so. But again - no argument is provided. Simply an authoritative assertion. You could imagine the consternation amongst scientists if a theologian read a single scientific article and felt that it qualfied them to make bold assertions on scientific issues!

My plea to David Attenborough to celebrate Darwin's genius with passion, to be an atheist if he wishes, but not to make claims about Christianity which are based on ignorance.


Simon said…
I thought the actual program was pretty objective on the question of God: Before Darwin people believed that `Genesis I' was broadly true (if not literally so). Darwin showed that the separate species arose from a process and were not individually created, and so therefore the biblical view of creation had to be abandoned. I don't think that is stepping very far from biology is it?
Simon said…
...and as far as the Independent article goes, I thought I saw a bit of an argument in the piece :-). It went something like this: the Bible states that the human race should be given `dominion' (derived from the latin, `dominium', meaning `lordship', or `right to ownership') over the animal kingdom. This biblical view is therefore problematic when it comes to the environment, because it implies that the human race is separate from the animal kingdom. Evolution shows this to not be so. We are wonderfully related to every single living thing! So, Sir Attenborough was merely saying that the scientific world view could produce a more environmentally conscious society. I don't think there is very much controversial about that. I can't see how it could be argued any other way.
Terry said…
I share your frustration, Robin. I've been enjoying watching these programmes on Darwin (and I wouldn't mind visiting Down House - it's not far from where I live), but it seems that there's never an anti-Christianity comment far away (though to be fair, none of them are vitriolic comments, such as a certain Oxford professor would volley). Can't these people read Denis Alexander, Ernest Lucas or even a basic commentary on Genesis?!

The point about 'dominion' is interesting, though. The theor of evolution rightly shows that humans must be considered part of the animal kingdom - and yet for some reason, humans still assume that they are 'responsible' for the rest of the animal kingdom. It seems to me that we want to have our cake and eat it!
Robin Parry said…

Thanks very much for those comments.

If all that DA concluded was that Darwinism made a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 problematic then few would object. In fact the majority of thoughtful Christians had abandoned a strictly literal interpretation of Gen 1 centuries before Darwin.

The problem is arguing that Darwin showed that a biblical view of creation (which should not be reduced to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1) was non-viable - he did not. And even more problematic is his claiming that Darwin made God redundant. He did not.

Regarding 'dominion'. Well Genesis was written in Hebrew not Latin and so the etymology of the English word 'dominion' is not directly relevant. And besides, the issue is how the concept of human 'dominion' function in Genesis and in Jewish and Christian history. Did it function to give humans permission to do whatever they like with the natural world? Attenborough said that it did but here he is simply wrong. Responsible and wise care is mandated - not uncontrolled abuse of the earth. Genesis 1 is good for the environment not bad.

Regarding the idea that humans are different from other animals. Well, the Jewish and Christian traditions - rooted in Genesis - have affirmed that humans are both like and unlike other animals. Thus it is that Thomas Aquinas, for instance, would refer to humans and 'other animals'. The insight that we are related to other animals is hardly a fresh revelation of Darwinism. Indeed not even the genealogical nature of the relationship was a Darwinian insight (there were evolutionists before Darwin).

But whilst we humans are animals it does not follow that we are not different in some significant ways from other animals. The Bible says that we are but then so does pretty much every scientific, philosophical and religious system of thought in human history. Clarifying exactly what is different is not always easy but it does seem pretty obvious that we are. How many other animals, for instance, would be capable of creating artificial intelligence? Is it bad for the environment to affirm so? I cannot see that it must be.
Robin Parry said…

Genesis speaks of human 'rule' over the rest of creation. This need not make us responsible for everything that happens on earth - indeed I know of no Jew of Christian that has ever supposed that we were.

I do not see what is problematic with the idea that humans are animals but a special kind of animal with a special kind of responsibility. Why is that having your cake and eating it?

In fact I think that the message of responsible 'dominion' (for want of a better word) is very much what humans need to hear right now. We certainly have a lot of power to affect the environments in which we live - we need to behave responsibly and Genesis calls us to precisely that.
Simon said…
Ah, interesting. Yes, I understand that for a very long time sensible Christians had decided that Genesis could not be literally true (someone once told me that this was the case as far back as the twelve hundreds (?)). However, I was also under the impression that, even when taken as an allegory, it is difficult to square biblical creation with the process of the emergence of species via evolution (which has a certain amount of randomness associated with it), and I thought that's what Attenborough was getting at - i.e. the human being is not a necessary consequence of evolution. I don't think this was supposed to disprove the possibility of a `first cause' kind of God though.

This reminds me of a conversation I once watched between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins (yes, okay, I know :-)), where the Archbishop was asked how he could interpret the Bible, in light of the discoveries of Darwin, and he didn't seem to have a very convincing answer - which he readily admitted. Of course, the program could have been badly edited, and the Archbishop might well have had a convincing interpretation of Genesis.

The thing is, and you obviously find this very annoying, this Darwin-compatible interpretation is not the one taught to us in schools, and I still haven't found out what it is.
Terry said…
Robin, I agree with you. My point about dominion is against those who think that as we're part of the animal kingdom, there's nothing 'special' about human beings. But if there isn't, why do we still feel as though we're responsible?
Robin Parry said…

sorry for the delay in replying. Non-literal readings of Genesis long predate the 12th C. e.g., Origen in 3rd C and Augustine in 4th-5th took a non-literal line.

The issue of randomness and evolution is not a major problem. The randomness may simply be a comment on our epistemic limitations. We simply do not possess enough info to be able to predict then outcome of mutattions. An all-knowing being could predict - indeed direct - such things without a problem. Alternatively, randomness might be part of the design. And the end results are quite possibly not as hard to predict as you might imagine. Simon Conway Morris, a specialist on convergent evolution at Cambridge University argues that the fact that we can observe the same basic designs evolving independently over and over again (e.g., eyes, wings, legs) suggests that evlutions goes down certain limited tracks. God could use such a system to create intelligent life even if he was not over fussed about whether that intelligent life was precisely like us or simply rather like us. Perhaps the number of limbs, for instance, was a secondary concern.

For a far more sensible set of comments than my own and for some details on a Darwin-compatible interpretation of the Bible I can do no better than recommend the following book by Denis Alexander (another biologist in Cambridge).

Denis Alexander, "Creation or Evolution" Monarch, 2008

It is a brialliant defence and explanation of evolution as well as a good case for it being Bible-compatible

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