Letters to the Editor, March 24

Masterly analysis... Sir, - Jonathan Rosenblum should be congratulated on his masterly analysis of the writings of evolutionary biologist David Dennet and those who follow in his footsteps ("Sociobiology isn't science," UpFront, March 10). Rosenblum argues convincingly that their diatribes against religion do not belong to the realms of science but are appropriately described as "scientism" - a term introduced by the famous economist F. von Hayek to denote "the slavish imitation of the method and language of science." Those wishing to pursue this topic are recommended to study chapters 17 and 18 of a recently published book, Fossils and Faith, by Prof. Nathan Aviezer of Bar-Ilan University. Aviezer describes evolutionary biologists like Daniel Dennet, Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins as "Darwinian Fundamentalists." Although they are atheists, in their treatment of science they manifest all the characteristics of a religious cult. Their minds are made up "ab initio," and they do not wish to be confused by facts which run counter to their beliefs. The serious faults in Darwin's treatment which have emerged, and which have been pointed out by top-rank paleontologists like Stephen Gould and Niles Eldredge, receive scant attention; alternative non-Darwinian theories of evolutionary biology which do not conform to the beliefs of the cult are also ignored. As for a superior morality based on evolution rather than religion, some 40 years ago Nobel prize winner Frances Crick gave us some examples of its content. Here are some points from the report in Nature of a lecture he delivered at University College London in 1968:
  • We cannot continue to regard all human life as sacred.
  • If a child were considered to be legally born when two days old, it could be examined to see whether it was "an acceptable member of society."
  • It might also be desirable to define a person as legally dead when he was past the age of 80 or 85. Crick passed away recently at the age of 88. During his final years he worked at the prestigious Salk Institute in California. One suspects that by the time he himself reached the age of 80, his enthusiasm for his last point had vanished. PROF. CYRIL DOMB Bar-Ilan University Ramat Gan ...he misunderstood Sir, - Jonathan Rosenblum opened his essay by creating a straw man, arguing that our goal is "part of a larger effort to employ evolutionary psychology to refute religious belief." Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, our goal is to assess the extent to which there are components of our moral psychology that are universal, and thus independent of religious beliefs. To make our point clear, assume for the moment that nothing about our moral psychology is universal. When it comes to making moral judgments, we are like leaves in the wind, subject to the vagaries of the environment. If we run into a convincing argument from Judaism, we flip our beliefs. If we then run into a different one from the Muslims, we flip again. And, of course, if we run into an atheist who convinces us of a non-religious perspective, we somersault one more time. This kind of perspective, which pushes environmental determinism, is as silly as one that pushes biological determinism. Our view is different. We are not out to destroy religion, or the beliefs that people cherish and derive from religion. Rather, we are interested in uncovering the sources of our moral judgments. The dominant view has long been that morality is synonymous with religion. To be moral is to be religious. We are certainly neither the first nor the last to point out the dissociation between religion and morality. But what we are the first to push, with an increasing wealth of empirical evidence, is that when it comes to a certain class of moral judgments, religious background may have as little impact on the nature of these judgments as education, age, gender, political affiliation or taste in sports, music or art. This is not evolutionary psychology run amuck. In fact, this is not evolutionary psychology or sociobiology at all. In this particular instance, we are not interested in the fitness consequences or adaptive design of certain moral beliefs. Darwin is not our inspirational God in this case. Specifically, our research, soon to be published in several journals and one upcoming book, is an attempt to uncover some of the unconscious principles mediating our moral judgments, and the ways in which cultural factors can push around the nature of these judgments. In some cases we are bound to uncover the impact of religious beliefs; in others we are likely to find instances of universality. Appreciating that both exist is certainly not a dismissal of the importance of religion. It is an acknowledgment that some aspects of our moral psychology have nothing at all to do with religion and, in fact, are immune to religious belief. This should not cause dismay to religious believers, nor should it cause atheists and agnostics to gloat. PROFS. MARC HAUSER AND PETER SINGER Princeton University New Jersey Sir, - Sociobiology may not yet be science, but it is based on general evolutionary theory which was also once ridiculed, and is now confirmed by genetics beyond reasonable doubt. Darwin's vision, like Galileo's, dealt a stunning blow to "revelation." We are neither at the center of the Universe nor specially "created," but just an evolved animal with a remarkably big brain with complex communicating skills, using rituals and symbols to build a rich language and civilization. The scientist, who knows the extraordinary complexity of nature, the number of riddles he cannot yet answer and might never be able to understand, and all the strange things that inhabit the territories of reality, is a naturally tolerant person. Art is often his hobby and he would hate to fight or destroy anything spiritual, unless he has proof that what our primitive ancestors believed was not true; in which case it should cease to be a religious belief and become a scientific discovery. ALEX HORNSTEIN Jerusalem