Perspectives on holistic biology

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Many people ask how Christianity relates to science - often assuming some kind of conflict.  Faith-in-Scholarship has always involved scientists, and is more about progress than apologetics - so we'd typically start by pointing out that everyone has a worldview, that the Christian and naturalistic worldviews held by many celebrated scientists are closely related, and that all kinds of worldview inevitably shape the paradigms, theories, models and hypotheses that we develop and investigate (see the Church Scientific 'ideas' Prezi - especially Arthur Jones' diagram on slide 26).  Today I want to tell you about a research project where divergent paradigms are the main focus.

Back in 2015, the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) invited me, through FiSch, to contribute to a project called Philosophical, Theological and Educational Implications of the New Biology. This rather unwieldy title represents a number of intriguing ideas:

  • There has been a move towards more-holistic and less-reductionistic perspectives in biological sciences in recent decades;
  • This philosophical shift seems to fit better with theistic worldviews, and so may have interesting theological corollaries;
  • Biology teaching (especially in schools) is likely to take a while to adopt such a new trend and could be helped to pick it up faster.

So the 'new' biology refers to holistic thinking, organism-oriented models and non-linear causation, in contradistinction from reductionistic thinking, mechanistic models and determinism.  And the project focuses on three biological sciences where such a shift is thought to be particularly evident or interesting: genetics, neuroscience and ecology.  I was asked to join the project as an ecologist, and in a future post I'll report on my collaboration with Francis Gilbert of Nottingham University, which has produced a paper and is due to yield a book chapter.

But is there really a holistic trend in biology, or is this just a matter of idiosyncratic perspectives?  Then if there is such a trend, is it disingenuous for Christians (for example) to take a principled interest in it - perhaps we're engaging in some kind of God-of-the-gaps thinking (if reductionism is inappropriate in Christian worldviews)?  And finally, shouldn't school biology just be about facts, leaving philosophical interpretations aside?  Let me address those ideas in turn.

The first question is actually a central focus of the ISSR project itself.  Our papers about epigenetics and cognitive neuroscience certainly evidence a rise in less-hierarchical, less-reductionistic models than historically prevailed.  Michael Ruse, for his part, takes a historical look at holistic thinking in and around biological sciences, from Aristotle's four causes, through Darwin to E.O. Wilson.  He shows how holism has appeared in different guises as biological paradigms change - and that Christians have taken contrasting views on its value.

That last point is pertinent to the second question - along with the fact that not all of the project participants are inclined towards any traditional religion.  For my part, however, the project's appeal surely was related to my faith and my anti-reductionist leanings - so what have I to say for myself?  Quite simply: I have no doubt that every interest I have is somehow related to my faith: from why I enjoyed maths at school, gardening at home, and learning music and languages in my spare time, to why I became a biologist and did a PhD in ecology.  And I'm equally sure that everyone's interests are connected to their broader framework of convictions, values and visions, be they traditionally 'religious' or not.  It's a common ploy of secular humanism to try and separate out 'religion' as an interfering prejudice muddying intellectual waters - but there is no view from nowhere.

So, finally, what about restricting education to scientific facts?  That, I fear, is one of the most persistent delusions of the Enlightenment. 'Facts' are proclaimed by authorities (and yes - I'm trying to be one now!), and historically they come and go.  Facts appear to exist when there is consensus, but that doesn't guarantee their correctness, and truth cannot so easily be known.  But I do believe in progress - and in the very nature of both research and teaching, new ideas need to be aired and considered on their merits - indeed discussed and debated in order to test their merits. 

So I'm excited to be part of this project, diverse and unpredictable though the outputs may be. The workshops have been stimulating and jovial - a great example of spirited, communal and humorous dialogue. And that experience goes far beyond what biological sciences could themselves account for.

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