Tuesday, May 11, 2010

PNAS publishes theology paper

Well, this is different. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has published an openly theological paper. Don't believe me? Check it out:
Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome
John C. Avise

Intelligent design (ID) - the latest incarnation of religious creationism - posits that complex biological features did not accrue gradually via natural evolutionary forces but, instead, were crafted ex nihilo by a cognitive agent. Yet, many complex biological traits are gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers. Furthermore, such dysfunctional traits abound not only in the phenotypes but inside the genomes of eukaryotic species. Here, I highlight several outlandish features of the human genome that defy notions of ID by a caring cognitive agent. These range from de novo mutational glitches that collectively kill or maim countless individuals (including embryos and fetuses) to pervasive architectural flaws (including pseudogenes, parasitic mobile elements, and needlessly baroque regulatory pathways) that are endogenous in every human genome. Gross imperfection at the molecular level presents a conundrum for the traditional paradigms of natural theology as well as for recent assertions of ID, but it is consistent with the notion of nonsentient contrivance by evolutionary forces. In this important philosophical sense, the science of evolutionary genetics should rightly be viewed as an ally (not an adversary) of mainstream religions because it helps the latter to escape the profound theological enigmas posed by notions of ID.
The article's keywords include "theodicy," and just for kicks I confirmed that it is the only PNAS paper that deals with theodicy. Not only that, but it's not even an original paper. It seems to be just a summary of his book Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design. From OUP's description of the book:
He also develops a case that theologians should welcome rather than disavow these discoveries. The evolutionary sciences can help mainstream religions escape the shackles of Intelligent Design, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm - not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence, but rather as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters of ultimate concern.
From the conclusion of the PNAS paper:
The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religions to escape from the profound conundrums of ID, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm - not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but, rather, as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters, including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritualness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.
Wow. Here I thought PNAS published original science papers. I also thought science was not supposed to even be able to deal with theological claims.

OK, so it's a colloquim paper, so maybe that explains these weird features. People get away with stuff in colloquia that would not normally get by the regular journal editing. What about the argument?

Eh. It's not new. Darwin made the same basic argument in Origin (without the DNA, of course):
Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, - ants making slaves, - the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, - not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, - namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. (pp. 290-291)
I do think that Darwin and Avise have an important point to make, though. It's one that I've raised again and again: We creationists cannot underestimate this problem of natural evil. On the other hand, I also think we need to take Avise's argument with a grain of salt (actually, with a ten-pound bag of salt). For example, these "pervasive architectural flaws" are grounded on two dubious assumptions: (1) that we understand these features sufficiently to call them flaws, and (2) that we can judge God. I'm reminded of Psalm 73:
... I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
They say, "How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?"
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.
We think we're clever judging God and His actions, but that's a pretty dangerous thing to do. As for me, I'm going to stick with God. My understanding is imperfect, to say the least, but I know that God will be the final judge.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.

Avise. 2010. Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome. PNAS 102:8969-8976.