7 min read

Not just red in tooth and claw: biology's big debates

In the second of a series, biologist and priest, Andrew Davison, examines why it’s important to keep up with biology’s big debates.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

An osprey, in flight, holds a fish in its claws.
‘Wherever there’s water or air to navigate, the laws of fluid dynamics are bound to throw up wings, and bodies shaped like fish.’
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash.

There’s hardly been a livelier time for evolutionary science than today; indeed, passions can run high. It’s not that Darwin’s vision of evolution is fundamentally in doubt: species adapt by natural selection, there’s variation between individuals, and those better adapted for their environment survive more often, passing on their genes to their children. In that, the theory of evolution stands, but many other parts of the evolutionary picture from the second half of the twentieth century are coming under criticism. That includes the following maxims:  

‘the only significant form of inheritance involves genetic code’, 

‘nothing that happens to an organism during its lifetime is passed on to its progeny’,  

‘we agree what we mean by “species”’,  

‘genes pass down the branches of the tree of life, not between them’,  

and ‘evolution is fundamentally all about competition, not cooperation’. 

Among the excellent crop of writers on these themes, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb stand out for their elegant prose, and a gift for communicating complex ideas clearly. As they recognise, the standard mid-twentieth century model of evolution might be worth criticising, but it’s also landed all sorts of important basic points. (They list ten.) The shortfall of the earlier, dominant theory was in being too narrow, with each insight too quickly eclipsing others.  

Here are two examples. First, the classic twentieth century picture saw inheritance in terms of DNA and genes, passed on by ‘germline’ cells, such sperm and pollen. That’s all true, but it shouldn’t restrict our wider view of inheritance to that. Today, writers such as Jablonka and Lamb stress that organisms inherit from their parents (or parent) in all sorts of ways.  

A second plank of the twentieth century picture is that evolution involves descent from a common ancestor. Again, that says something vital, even central, accepted by evolutionist old and new. The twentieth century position, however, added a restriction: that’s all that’s important on this score. The newer perspective recognises that while genes are – of course – central, and passed on from parent to child, organisms also swap genes between themselves (between branches of the tree of life, not just along those branches), even between very different species. 

If we’re not careful, what’s written and taught (not least by theologians), even with the best will in the world, will be thirty or even fifty years out of date. 

There’s a lot of excitement around these sorts of claims (and, remember, Jablonka and Lamb make eight more), and that can get quite noisy. Defenders of the older, narrower picture typically say that the newer themes are simply fuss over minor points. Advocates of the newer perspective disagree, saying that the twentieth century picture risks missing some important features of biology, which are now coming into better focus. 

Why such debates matters 

Why might this ferment among biologists matter for a site like this one, and for theologians, and discussions of religious matters? Well, for one thing, as I pointed out in my previous article, nothing quite dissolves the supposed animosity between science and religion (which is, after all, a relatively recent invention) like theologians and religious people getting excited about biology. It’s also important that any humanities scholar, the theologian among them, who’s engaging with science should keep up to date. If we’re not careful, what’s written and taught (not least by theologians), even with the best will in the world, will be thirty or even fifty years out of date. 

But there’s more at stake. As we have seen, the twentieth century picture, for all it brought an admirable clarity to evolutionary thought, was reductionistic. We see that in Jablonka and Lamb’s exhortation to scientists: ‘yes, stress x, but don’t think that means you have to deny y.’ A religious vision tends to be an expansive one. It wants to recognise the reality and value of all sorts of things. Yes, there’s matter, atoms, molecules, and genes, but there’s also organisms, agents, cultures, groups, economies, hopes, loves. They’re all real. We can’t reduce one to the other: not organisms to genes, or agents to economies. A turn from reduction is welcome. 

More than that, almost everything in the emerging twenty-first century view of evolution is fascinating from a theological perspective.  

Take convergence, for instance. It turns out that evolution isn’t just driven by randomness, or by the demands of the surroundings. Also important are various features of physics, or mathematics – the contours of reality – that throw up elegant solutions to evolutionary problems, which are adopted by evolution time and again. Wherever you need to sturdy and space-efficient packing of cells (as in a honey comb, or a a wasp’s nest), the hexagon is ready and waiting.  Wherever there’s water or air to navigate, the laws of fluid dynamics are bound to throw up wings, and bodies shaped like fish, dolphins, and penguins (which are all quite similar in shape).  

How do we know this? Because evolution has converged on wings and that body shape independently, many times, as also on eyes, and everything else that Simon Conway Morris lists in the nine closely printed columns of convergences in the index to his book Life’s Solution. Evolution certainly involves randomness and need, but alongside them is something more like Plato’s forms: timeless realities, there to be discovered and put to work. Among the more theological of these eternal verities, covered in Conway Morris’s book, are perception, intelligence, community, communication, cooperation, altruism, farming, or construction 

 Exceeding a zero-sum game 

Then there’s cooperation. Ever since Darwin’s Origin was published, and, even more, ever since Tennyson wrote about nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, theologians have been embarrassed about the place of cooperation in their vision of the world. Now, however, it turns out, competition isn’t the only force at work in biology or evolution after all. One of the features of reality that evolution discovers and puts to work again and again is cooperation, and ways to exceed a ‘zero-sum’ game. We see that in cooperation within a species, but also in cooperation between species, which is ubiquitous in nature: called mutualism, it’s found everywhere. As a rule, once two species stick around in proximity for the long run, down many generations, their relationship will turn to mutual benefit.  

Ethicists are often wary of the suggestion that we can look at the way things are, and read a moral code there (getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’), but it’s an unusual person whose vision of right and wrong isn’t shaped, to some degree, by a sense of what the world is like. Well, it turns out that nature bears witness to the enduring worth of cooperation, and not only to competition.   

In the first of these articles on biology, I pointed out the significance of ethics in thinking about biology, and about evolution in particular. For better or worse, and often for worse, thinking about evolution has been an ethical, social, political story. The evolutionary has been put to work for immoral, ends. It turns out to be wrong twice over to suppose evolution commends only competition. It’s wrong, first of all, because we are rational creatures, who can aspire to an understanding of good and evil that transcends the realm of nature. But also, as we now see, it’s wrong even to suppose the nature is only red in tooth and claw. There’s competition, but there’s also a lot of cooperation.  


Suggested further reading 

Archibald, John. 2014. One Plus One Equals One: Symbiosis and the Evolution of Complex Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An accessible introduction to biological mutualism, with an emphasis on the role of hybrid organisms (one living inside another) in major evolutionary transitions. 

Bronstein, Judith L., ed. 2015. Mutualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The new standard treatment of biological mutualism. 

Morris, Simon Conway. 2008. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A comprehensive discussion of convergence in evolution. 

Day, Troy, and Russell Bonduriansky. 2018. Extended Heredity: A New Understanding of Inheritance and Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. An engaging introduction to a broadened picture of inheritance. 

Davison, Andrew. 2020a. Biological Mutualism: A Scientific Survey. Theology and Science 18 (2): 190–210. An accessible survey of some of the science of biological mutualism. 

———. 2020b. Christian Doctrine and Biological Mutualism: Some Explorations in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. Theology and Science 18 (2): 258–78. A foray into some of the significance of mutualism for Christian theology. 

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion Lamb. 2020. Inheritance Systems and the Extended Synthesis. Cambridge University Press. A short discussion of many of the more expansive aspects proposed for contemporary evolutionary thought. 

Jablonka, Eva, Marion J. Lamb, and Anna Zeligowski. 2014. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. One of the most substantial discussions of the new perspective. 

Laland, Kevin, Tobias Uller, arc Feldman, Kim Sterelny, Gerd B. Müller, Armin Moczek, Eva Jablonka, et al. 2014. Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink? Nature 514 (7521): 161–64. MA short two-sided piece, asking whether a transformation in evolutionary thinking is under way.  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.