CornellEvolutionProject.org Questionnaire
Information About The Project

Evolution, Naturalism, and Religion

Evolution and religion may not be at war, but no agreement seems possible in their most basic tenets. Traditional religions are based on dualism, and evolution is strictly materialist. Dualism is founded on a belief in the supernatural. The materialist position forms the basis for belief in naturalism, which holds that "the empirical procedure of exploration and verification is the only known reliable method of discovering truth" (Smith, 1952). For the materialist, the supernatural has no basis in reality but instead is an unwarranted distraction brought about through mythology.

The idea that naturalism might be a kind of modernist religion has been advanced in recent years (Johnson, 2000). Evolutionary biology enjoys a privileged position at the core of this belief system because it offers explanations about why and how humankind originated. Any teacher of evolution is by default a teacher of a deeply philosophical world-view, one that differs dramatically from that of traditional theistic religion.

The proposition that one must "believe in evolution" as people blindly believe in God is easily discounted. Still, much of modern evolutionary biology today is sprinkled with tinges of dualism. Notions of progress, purpose, emergent properties, optimality, and increasing complexity in evolution all contain vague hints of dualism, and are debated in symposia and published in books and journals by today's most active evolutionists. These architects of modern naturalism have traditionally shunned the ideas of religions, but to what degree they discount the supernatural remains to be seen.

The most important feature of evolutionary biology is its integrated view of humankind's place in nature that easily lends itself to a deeply satisfying metaphysics based entirely on materialist principles. This provision, coupled with the observation that theology has lost so much of its appeal to the average citizen, leads to the controversial conclusion that, in the modern world, Naturalism is a substitute for, and provides all the benefits of, traditional religion. If the naturalists have their day, theism is effectively dead.

We still live in a world, however, that is predominantly theist, particularly in America where 95% of the citizens believe in God (according to the Gallup Poll of 2001). In this environment, many evolutionary biologists are reluctant to carry the implications of Darwinism to their logical extent. Theists vote, pay the taxes, and support the research institutions where most naturalists work. Theists do not appreciate hearing the vulgar truth of evolutionary theory, that mankind is no fallen angel, has no immortal soul, nor free will, and was not specially created. So what is a naturalist evolutionary biologist to do in this climate?

The options are many. Either support the controversial conclusions above (as E.O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins do ), or try to erect a world-view that incorporates elements of theology and evolution (as Ruse, Miller, Ayala, and countless deists of the past have done), or suggest the mutual exclusivity of the two magisteria (as Steven Jay Gould does), or simply lay low and not even enter the arena of discussion, and merely hope for the best when the uneducated voters determine the relevance of evolution.

Questions must be asked to resolve these disparate strategies and conflicting world-views. Evolutionary biology as a unified field is at stake. So is the credibility of Darwinian theory in the public eye. Indeed, naturalism is at stake, and ultimately the truth about human origins is at stake. By the time the current work is finished, we will know where evolutionary biology stands on the matter, and to what degree belief in naturalism is backed by its practitioners at the highest level.

The Project

The purpose of this study is to determine the degree to which the world's leading evolutionary biologists believe in traditional religion, naturalism, and the philosophical implications of their science. A further goal will be to understand how they reconcile these disparate and often conflicting beliefs with their teaching and practice of evolutionary biology.

The foundation of the project is a questionnaire that will be sent to the most highly esteemed members of the evolutionary biology community, namely, those who are members of the National Academy of Science in the USA and evolutionist-members of national academies in other countries as well. The questionnaire is composed of three sections: 1) Statement of Belief, 2) What Evolution Teaches/What it Ignores, and 3) Reconciling Belief with Scientific Practice. By polling evolutionary biologists on these issues, the project will yield very satisfying results. It will tell us the degree to which evolutionary biologists believe in naturalism, and whether evolutionary biology can form the basis for an ethical system that is devoid of supernatural reasoning.

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR: Greg Graffin (Zoology) graffin@ucla.edu
ADVISOR: William B. Provine (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Zoology) wbp2@cornell.edu