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Genes, Genesis and God

University of Edinburgh

1.  Genetic Creativity: Diversity and Complexity in Natural History

Central to the contemporary Darwinian view is emerging diversity and complexity. Genes are critical in this historic composition. In physics and chemistry, there is matter and energy, but in biology there is proactive information. Scientists divide over whether such evolution is contingent or directional. Elements of trial and error are incorporated in a searching generative process, analogous to genetic algorithms in computing.   

This lecture was recorded and is online as streaming media.

2.  Genetic Values: Intrinsic, Inclusive, Distributed, Shared

Genes can be interpreted as loci of intrinsic value, defended in individuals and also inclusively present and distributed in family, population, and species lines.  Biologists speak of inclusive genetic fitness, an interesting term for such "fitness," partly because of the parallels in social circles.  A paramount force that keeps enlarging the family is sexuality, combined with the pressure toward outbreeding in larger communities.  The result is distributed and shared genetic values.  Earth is the planet with genetic, storied natural history, several billion years worth of producing and defending life in its myriad species.

3.  Genetic Identity: Conserved and Integrated Values

Genetic identity is a cybernetic identity superimposed on a material identity that shifts over time.

The know-how of the organism is "distributed in parts," or "shared" by many genes. This participatory vocabulary is more descriptive than to interpret each gene as "self-interested," or "selfish."  Genes in organisms are integrated and self-actualizing.  Genes have their kin, their kind, and their places.   Every organism, plant or animal, lives in a biotic community.  The organismic self is as much entwined with its community as is the single gene entwined within its organism.  Alternative genes (other alleles) are found in an ever widening circle of interspecifically and intraspecifically shared genes. Genes play their valuable roles in organisms in communities caught up in a creative evolutionary epic.

4.  Genes and the Genesis of Human Culture

Animals do not form cumulative transmissible cultures, made possible by the distinctive human capacities for language. The cognitive endowments achieved in Homo sapiens, including the brain, the neurology, and the experiential psychology, have an evolutionary history.  Surprisingly, only one species has reached self-conscious personality sufficient to require gene-mind coevolution, a dual inheritance system and an adapted mind.  Ideas develop, cumulate, evolve, independently, if also depending on genes.  This is the human genius (Geist), recalling the Latin genius, "spirit."  Historical and universal explanations are found in both nature and culture, but narrative accounts are dramatically expanded in human culture.  Humans the only part of the world free to orient itself with respect to a theory of the whole, as is undertaken in these lectures.

5.  Genes and the Genesis of Science

Science is a new chapter in the generation and distribution of value on Earth, with a logic transcending both nature and any specific culture.  Scientists operate in an if-then mode logically, which is a generate-and-test mode practically.  Science can partially be naturalized, with parallels to the Darwinian generating and testing in natural history.  There is abstractive, discursive, inferential, representative, performative power unprecedented in the genes. Scientific facts become theory-laden, and these theories generate new facts.  Science is socialized, but can also escape social determinants.  Science has adaptive significance, yet the fittest theory is not the one that helps its holders to reproduce, but the one that reproduces itself because it best withstands critical attack.  In that sense, science is transcendent.

6.  Genes and the Genesis of Ethics

Ethics is distinctively a product of the human genius, remarkable from a biological perspective. We need accounts of how morality evolved out of precursors in animal behavior, of  how morality today can and ought to operate in society, especially as this relates biology to ethics.  Both biologists and ethicists are challenged to give an account of the origin(s) of altruism, the genesis of generosity.  Love, justice, and respect have survival value, yet genuine morality detects values outside oneself, and comes to embrace these in freedom and love because it is right to do so.  Ethics confronts the ideal and real, also moral failure.  Expanding the circle, others are aided by intention of the agent, who also benefits, and all parties remain well positioned for future offspring.  In such a universalized ethic, there is no longer any differential survival benefit, and Darwinian and genetic explanations are inadequate.

7.  Ethics Naturalized and Universalized

The Good Samaritan spent time, energy, and money helping an alien (nonkindred) genetic line.   Such an "idea(l)" can be transmitted nongenetically, as has happened, since the story has been widely retold and praised as a model by persons who are neither Jews nor Samaritans.  Accounts of naturalized ethics as an illusory,  Darwinized morality are unconvincing.   Scientists face the dilemma of moving from is to ought, both in others and in themselves.  Their naturalized theories of ethics cannot explain their own behavior.  Evaluating ethics, values are both defended and shared, resulting in a more global and universal morality.  The genesis of ethics, especially in the genesis of generosity, distinctive to the human genius, continuing but exceeding the genesis in the genes, reveals transcendent powers come to expression point on Earth.

8.   Genes and the Genesis of Religion

Religious behavior in any specific form is culturally acquired, not innate; but there seems a genetic tendency to acquire some religion or other.  The fittest--in this case, the religious--survive, because they are fertile. Yet in successful religions altruism is as frequent a theme as increased fertility.   Such altruism does bind kin group loyalty and facilitate tribal group reciprocity.   In effective proselytizing, however, the new adherents soon cease to have any genetic relationship to the proselytizer. Missionary activity, evangelism, helping to insure the replication of foreign genes is the worst mistake you can make from a genetic viewpoint; and yet it has been the secret of success of all the world's great religions.  Of the functional faiths, those that give life the most meaning are competent to survive, shared around the world, truth that is "blessing" all nations.

9.  Genes and the Prolific Earth

Humans reside on a fertile Earth, a wonderland of evolved fauna and flora.  To put the challenge we face alliteratively: species, spirit, sin, and suffering.  These four are the most philosophically challenging results of the genes and their creativity.  The prolific Earthen "fertility," "fecundity," or generative capacity, including our own genesis of spirit (Geist) is what most needs to be explained.  Can the human genius--manifest in our spirits in their struggle to generate religious worldviews, with ethics urging our regeneration and renewal of spirit--be detecting the divine?  Life is indisputably prolific; it is just as indisputably pathetic (Greek: pathos).  The fertility is close-coupled with the struggle. The system historically uses pain for creative advance. The way of nature, like that of history, is a via dolorosa.  The cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly, just because of this element of struggle, not in spite of it. 

10.  Genes, Genesis, and God

Humans can detect sacred presence in the epic of life.  Biology leaves space for such complementary explanations.  The story becomes memorable--able to employ a memory--only with genes.  The story becomes cumulative and transmissible. There is escalating, serendipitous generation of value.   The Earth narratives must be understood in the light of the cybernetic complexities to which they lead, resulting from emerging novel possibility space. God is a Generator of such possibilities. God is the Ground, Ambience of Information.  The divine gift of grace is life regenerated in the midst of its perpetual perishing, generating diversity and complexity, repeatedly struggling through to something higher, a response to the brooding winds of the Spirit moving over the face of these earthen waters.

This lecture was recorded and is online as streaming media.



Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History


Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History

Cambridge University Press
  • University of Edinburgh