Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin (b. 1929) once opined, “The problem is to get [people] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.”
This seemingly scientific assertion is remarkable not for its science but for its philosophy. Lewontin, a self-proclaimed Marxist, utilizes tacit biblical language in order to make a profound epistemological statement. According to Lewontin, science isn’t merely an arbiter or interpreter of truth; it is the “begetter of truth.” Ironically, this is precisely where Lewontin sheds his lab coat and ascends his own atheistic bully pulpit. His diatribe characterizes Carl Becker’s observation of modern science: “When philosophy became a matter of handling test tubes instead of dialectics everyone could be, in the measure of his intelligence and interest, a philosopher.” (The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, 58) With decades of teaching experience and erudition in population genetics, Lewontin’s social commentary is often mistaken for expertise. Therefore, in some sense, his polemic against supernatural religion has overstepped his professional and academic bounds as an evolutionary biologist. On the other hand, Lewontin is astute to recognize the philosophical presuppositions that undergird every step of scientific method. All of science, creationist or evolutionary, requires “a social and intellectual apparatus.” Lewontin’s philosophy of science rests on certain assumptions about God and the universe. Therefore our discussion must begin here if we wish to expose the epistemological lacunae in Lewontin’s argumentation.
Like Karl Marx, Lewontin’s worldview is consonant with the belief that material being is the very essence of reality. Thus it comes as no surprise that he would treat the words “irrational” and “supernatural” synonymously. Lewontin isn’t simply a Marxist economist; he is also a Marxist materialist. Therefore, unlike Newton who saw the sovereign hand of God in the mechanistic laws of nature (e.g. gravity), Lewontin instead looks upon God’s eternal power and divine nature in creation and exchanges the truth about God for a naturalistic falsehood. Nevertheless, his scientific assertion is as theological as it is biological, and for that reason he is “without excuse.” By ascribing sovereignty to science as the “begetter of truth,” Lewontin “has worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” (1:20-25) As a geneticist, he is a man of science. As an empiricist, he walks by sight.
However pragmatic Lewontin’s theory may seem, however, Carl Becker records a dramatic sea change in scientific philosophy that undercuts any notion of scientific common sense: “The ‘Newtonian philosophy’ was, accordingly, as familiar to common men in the middle eighteenth century as the ‘Darwinian philosophy’ is in our day.” What began as Deism became Atheism. What was once Cartesian duality had been replaced with Hobbesian materialism. When the natural realm can be explained independently of the spiritual, God becomes superfluous. Therefore, Lewontin’s Marxist suspicion of political power is simply a corollary to his atheistic aversion to creative order. In reality, his evolutionary science is the intellectual progeny of the intermarriage between Humean empiricism and Kantian transcendental philosophy. As a result, deductive reason is repudiated, and knowledge is found exclusively in that which is gathered by sensory experience – Lewontin’s “begetter of truth.” However, what he conveniently overlooks is the fact that even scientific induction comes with certain underlying presuppositions. Not even a man of science is exempt from faith.
In his book Idols for Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg captures the measure of subjectivity endemic to scientific procedure: “Natural science, therefore, shares an important feature with historical studies. They both have noses of wax, to be twisted whichever way the scholar’s assumption and personal predilections impel him. Science does not possess an objectivity denied to other investigative activities, because scientists cannot fully insulate their critical faculties from the other aspects of their personalities.” (145) Contrary to Lewontin, human “imagination” isn’t simply relegated to the supernatural. While the postmodern ethos has infiltrated almost every form of thinking in the twenty-first century, many scholars continue to exalt science as sacrosanct by failing to acknowledge that even science is subject to preponderances and interpretations. However, this isn’t a novel idea even in the scientific community. In 1962, physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn introduced the world to the idea of a “paradigm shift” in his standard work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it he exposed the consistent possibility for another “Copernican Revolution” in the scientific field – one that exposes the previously overriding assumptions behind our tendentious approach. Kuhn’s analysis was, in many ways, a recalibration of Hume’s skepticism – a skepticism that also falls upon Lewontin’s molecular biology. According to Richard Tarnas,
“With these philosophical and historical critiques and with these revolutions in physics, a more tentative view of science became widespread in intellectual circles. Science was still patently effective and powerful in its knowledge, but scientific knowledge rendered was relative to the observer, to his physical context, to his science’s prevailing paradigm and his own theoretical assumptions. It was relative to his culture’s prevailing belief system, to his social context, and psychological predispositions, to his very act of observation. And science’s first principles might be overturned at any point in the face of new evidence… Above all, the bedrock certainty of the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview, for centuries the acknowledged epitome and model of human knowledge…had been shattered.” (The Passion of the Western Mind, 361-2)
If science is the “begetter of truth,” then what serves as its interpreter? Every question of post-Kantian philosophy is simultaneously one of epistemology. Philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell was a staunch critic of religion. However, in his Religion and Science (1961), Russell concedes, “In so far as religion consists in a way of feeling, rather than in a set of beliefs, science cannot touch it.” (17) In other words, even Russell acknowledged an inevitable existential category untouched by propositional science – a category that Lewontin’s dogmatic materialism does not seem to accommodate. By his very language, however, the Harvard geneticist makes hermeneutical assumptions when he speaks of science as “social.” The word itself denotes the presence of multiple parties with multiple perspectives. In a sin-stained world, truth must be explained and interpreted. Even the Scriptures bear witness to this sad truth. When Christ declared to Pontius Pilate that he had come into the world to “bear witness to the truth,” the Roman governor replied with a question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) As a professor at Harvard, a university that embodies the pluralistic zeitgeist of the modern age, Lewontin’s dogmatic definition of truth is almost commendable. Nevertheless, he continues to drink from the modern well of humanism. This is ostensible in Lewontin’s dismissal of any explanation of the world apart from his own “intellectual apparatus.” Ironically, however, Lewontin is subject to the same social sciences he invokes against Christians and other groups of faith.
In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom excoriates the liberal education system of which Lewontin is a part: “The difficulties about the truth of science raised by positivism, and those about the goodness of science raised by Rousseau and Nietzsche, have not really penetrated to the center of scientific consciousness. Hence, no Great Books, but incremental progress, is the theme for them. Social scientists are in general hostile, because the classic texts tend to deal with the human things the social sciences deal with, and they are very proud of having freed themselves from the shackles of such earlier thought to become truly scientific.” (345) The modernist university, epitomized in Lewontin’s Harvard, is one that places inordinate weight in novelty at the expense of antiquity. Hence it should come as no surprise that Lewontin looks upon an antiquated document like the Bible with such derision.
Still, as Bloom observes, the Bible isn’t the only classical text indicting Lewontin’s scientific dogmatism. It was in fact Aristotle who accentuated the necessary link between ethics and aesthetics, between right living and the “supreme good.” Lewontin’s naturalism leaves these kinds of significant moral questions unanswered. For instance, if science is the “begetter of truth,” where is its conscience found? Who is the arbiter of right and wrong in a naturalistic worldview? Furthermore, apart from a supreme moral Creator and Judge, how is morality defined? Objectivity cannot be claimed in a system where each does what is right in his own eyes. Is might necessarily right in an evolutionary scheme? As a corollary to his evolutionary biology, Lewontin’s positivism operates on fluctuating societal principles – not natural law. However, when Lewontin also commits to the existence of a singular, abiding truth (science), he must somehow navigate his evolutionary ethics between postmodern relativism and Romans 2 moral theology. Ultimately, Lewontin crashes against the former. He also fails to account for the teleological nature of morality. Aristotle asks, “Does it not follow, then, that a knowledge of the good is of great importance to us for the conduct of our lives? Are we not more likely to achieve our aim if we have a target?” (Nicomachean Ethics, 4) Puritan philosopher Jonathan Edwards appeared to echo Aristotle when he famously contended, “the will is as the greatest apparent good is.” (The Freedom of the Will) Lewontin’s purely scientific worldview is not built to account for such aesthetically driven ethics.
Ultimately, Lewontin’s assertion reveals the absence of two salient concepts in his thinking: sin and Savior. Evolutionary biology doesn’t simply eschew the language of sin; it has no category for it. In his book Whatever Became of Sin? (1973), Psychiatrist Karl Menninger attests to this willful ignorance when he observes, “In all of the laments and reproaches made by our seers and prophets, one misses any mention of ‘sin,’ a word which used to be a veritable watchword of prophets.” As a self-deemed social prophet of sorts, Lewontin views human corruption in a much different light. Today, in a secular worldview, sin is no longer the rebellion against or falling short of a glorious God. Instead it is given other scientific and psychological pseudonyms vouched for by “experts” at the university level. As a geneticist, Lewontin identifies moral shortcomings in biological terms – not theological. His “social and intellectual apparatus” demands this kind of explanation for human behavior. However, such an atheistic explanation of human depravity offers no comforting solution to the real moral problem.
When G.K. Chesterton identified a similar brand of liberalism among his contemporaries, he remarked in disbelief, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” (Orthodoxy) In reality, Richard Lewontin doesn’t need a Bible to believe in human sinfulness. If evolutionary scholars such as himself didn’t claim such intellectual superiority over their academic forbears, they would recognize an ominous continuity to human history: sin. The socially and intellectually “evolved” man is no less sinful today than he was in the Garden. (Rom. 5:17) The human heart has not evolved at the molecular level so much as remained in rebellion against God, storing up wrath for the Day of Judgment. (Rom. 2:5) For this reason, unlike Lewontin’s naturalistic and humanistic worldview, Christianity offers up a solution in the form of a gracious, external source. (John 1:10-14) Whereas evolutionary biology contends for social and intellectual ascendency through science and human knowledge, the Christian worldview proclaims salvation through the knowledge of an incarnate God who descended from heaven to save a people who could not save themselves.
Lewontin’s evolutionary biology eviscerates God from any plausible worldview and upholds self-enhancement as the primary vehicle of meaningful change. The Gospel, on the other hand, is a message of self-denial and redemption by a God who is immaterial. (John 4:24) Contrary to Lewontin’s demeaning portrait of supernatural religion, science is not the “begetter of truth.” Rather, the Scriptures attest that God the Father begets His only Son, who is the “way, the truth, and the life.” (14:6) This is where sinners find salvation. The supernatural explanation to sin in the cross of Christ is clearly foolishness to Richard Lewontin, who claims that the Gospel worldview spawns “demons” that exist solely in our “imagination.” However, it has been sufficiently demonstrated that Lewontin’s assertions require their own measure of trust in a scientific worldview – fallible and shifting as it is. Furthermore, Lewontin’s philosophy of science fails to offer plausible answers to the epistemological questions of truth and morality. His conclusions only serve to strengthen the apologetic case for the Christian worldview and the sufficiency of Christ as a Savior of men.