October 20, 2020

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey, Chapter 10 – The Non-Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

NOTE FROM CM: I’m sorry everyone. I have been distracted this week by changes at my work and failed to notice that I accidentally put up part of the Romans post today rather than tomorrow. I have rescheduled it for tomorrow and deleted all comments. We’ll start fresh tomorrow morning. Again — sorry.

Also, don’t let this mistake keep you from reading and commenting on Mike the Geologist’s excellent post for today.

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey

Chapter 10 – The Non-Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey.  Today is Chapter 10 – The Non-Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Jon says the title of this chapter is based on a once-influential social psychology book by Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, an analysis of the human self.  But one area notably absent from Goffman’s book is the entire non-human world.  Jon says this is inevitable because the concept of “self” is entirely human, even a social human one.  Jon says:

To speak of other animals as possessing self is contentious.  To speak of plants or bacteria or viruses possessing one is absurd.  And to speak of an inanimate process like evolution being selfish is simply absurd… The reason it matters, outside of science, are legion.  The “struggle for survival” directly justified eugenic theory, two World Wars, and Holocaust.  It is held up as a natural law in economics and commerce.  Accepted comprehensively, it nullifies the very existence of all that is human, by subordinating all human values to varieties of evolutionary self-promotion.  And specifically it fundamentally undermines the Christian teaching that creation is good, leading amongst other things to an evolutionary theology in which creation means very little.

He notes the Darwin/Malthus “struggle for survival” is not anything more than a metaphor for what, in more accurate scientific terminology, is simply differential reproduction. Jon asserts that Darwin’s “competitive warfare” model was a product of his English sociopolitical background, which has far outlived the Victorian social inequalities and colonial empire-building of its time.

Since Richard Dawkins re-conceptualized adaptive evolution in 1976 with an even worse metaphor than the “struggle to survive” – the “selfish gene” – people who should know better have been taking it literally to mean that evolution itself is selfish.  But Jon also asserts that Conor Cunningham, in Darwin’s Pious Idea, comprehensively demolished that concept intellectually by showing it is philosophically meaningless.  Cunningham (and others such as Simon Conway Morris) brought to light other work, based on wider biological principles than genetics alone, that it is cooperation that is global and essential to life, and that selfishness (even if that could be a coherent concept in irrational beings with no sense of self) is always merely local and relative. Consider this: in the human body, microbial cells, from 500-1,000 species, outnumber human cells by ten to one (according to the Human Microbiome Project).  We are in our very selves a model of interdependence.

One issue that has challenged evolution since Darwin is that of “altruism”, of creatures sacrificing their lives for others.  It has usually been explained in terms of “kin selection” or giving my life for a relative will help preserve at least some of my genes.  In this way all altruistic behavior can be reduced to disguised selfishness.  Is that cynical view accurate scientifically?  Jon says that if the self-sacrifice we see in animals and experience in ourselves “emerged” from the “struggle to survive” it makes the virtue no more or less real than the practice of a science using a faculty that “emerged” from the same struggle.  If evolutionary altruism is illusionary, then so is the biology that studies it.  Jon says:

And if intellectual enterprise can, as we daily see, be pursued without any reference to reproductive success (by elderly bachelors like Alfred Russel Wallace, for example), then so can virtue be its own reward, and attributing everything to self-interest becomes meaningless.

Jon asserts that part of the artificiality of the whole discussion stems from focusing too closely on the individual organism.  Other units of evolution than the individual are possible, though, for as we have seen Neo-Darwinism, basing evolution on population genetics, represents that selfish individual by its selfish genome amongst those of the whole population.  One should, even in that case, remember that all sexual reproduction begins by sacrificing a whopping 50 percent of one’s personal genetic inheritance to one’s mate every time a sperm and egg fuse – mutual help is at the heart of sexual reproduction, even regarding evolution.  Possible units of evolution don’t end there either, we have the problem of colonial insects whose members, many sterile, sacrifice themselves willingly for the good of the colony. Jon says:

So “fitness” need not be focused on the individual and its offspring even in the lowly insect.  And if insect colonies can be effective units of selection, then why not entire species, for example, which shares a common gene pool?  After all, the United Nations has labored to pass resolutions on global warming on the basis that it’s a threat to humanity at large.  Why should that be regarded as any more odd biologically that workers in a hive seeking the common good, or individuals laboring to survive?

Again Jon brings up the fact that the human being is, biologically speaking, a colony of cells with up to 37 trillion members.  All day, every day, our individual cells die on our behalf: skin and gut cells are shed, immune cells act as suicide bombers against bacterial invaders, and so on.  We even have “sterile workers” in the form of red blood cells that never reproduce, lacking even a nucleus.  Programmed cell death (apoptosis) is a sophisticated physiological process, quite different from accidental destruction of cells, which is absolutely essential for individual development and survival.

Yet for some reason we don’t see that a the same kind of red in tooth and claw struggle and God-questioning suffering that we would attribute to the cheetah bringing down the gazelle.  Instead we see it, rightly, as the harmonious operation of a harmonious constituted being.  So maybe the whole question of competition and death in the biological realm isn’t usefully regarded in the sole light of “selfish” reproductive success at all, but rather in terms of various hierarchies of cooperative “commonwealth”.  Jon concludes:

To summarize, then, since evolution, and the living world generally are found on close examination not to be steeped in selfishness at all, but overwhelmingly founded on cooperation and interdependence, human sin and selfishness may be seen for what they truly are – an aberration within God’s good creation.

Jon does seem to be promoting the idea that “the only thing wrong with creation is us”, but I think that doesn’t’ map too badly onto reality.  After all, we are the only creature we know of that “sin”, that is, deliberately with malice aforethought, disobey the revealed will of the Creator.  Does anyone think that the male lion destroying its rival’s cubs to bring the female lion back into estrus is sinning?  The materialist reductionist would argue that the women who deliberately drowned her children because her current boyfriend “didn’t want children” was motivated by the same evolutionary urge to propagate their selfish genes. I disagree.  But not on a scientific basis but on a metaphysical basis.  The question of sinning against God is a metaphysical question, and I believe disconnecting lion behavior from human behavior is legitimate.  Obviously, if you don’t believe there is a God Creator, then you are going to seek to link the lion-human behavior.  So be it –  that is why we have these discussions.


  1. “The materialist reductionist would argue that the women who deliberately drowned her children because her current boyfriend “didn’t want children” was motivated by the same evolutionary urge to propagate their selfish genes. I disagree. But not on a scientific basis but on a metaphysical basis. The question of sinning against God is a metaphysical question, and I believe disconnecting lion behavior from human behavior is legitimate.”

    The lion doesn’t consciously know any better, and has no command from God to not do what it does. Neither extenuating circumstance applies to us.

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    “Evolution” is a strange beast. Ever since the concept of ‘Evolution’ dislodged Fiat Creation from the minds of men, it has been thought of as a cage match, with each individual organism striving against every other to perpetuate its informational charge. Of course, you’ve already said that, but it has always appeared to me that there is Something far more subtle at work in Creation. The apparent selfishness we see may be nothing more that a species-wide projection of our own fears and insecurities onto the non-rational universe.

    Enter Charles Williams, one of the Inklings. His vision of the Web of Exchange is much more amenable to a Christian understanding of Creation and ‘Evolution’ than the metaphor of ruthless competition, and if we could internalize it in the same way that we seem to have internalized the Ruthless Competiton model, could lead to a more priestly human participation in Creation.

    From Elayne to Bors: On the King’s Coins

    This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
    make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
    for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
    What saith Heracleitus? – and what is the City’s breath? –
    dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.

  3. –> “Does anyone think that the male lion destroying its rival’s cubs to bring the female lion back into estrus is sinning?”

    Hmm. Well, if the lion and the lamb are intended to lie down together in peace, then I’d say that although a male lion killing its rival’s cubs may not be “sinning,” it may not be counter to God’s original intention.

  4. Christiane says

    Survival of the Fittest: the lion killing the cubs of another lion father so his mate can go into ‘estrus’ (be fertile) again is a way for the winning lion who likely defeated and drove off or killed the other male lion to have an opportunity to procreate his own cubs. . . . . .

    it’s a terrible economy if you are the mother, or ANY mother, seeing the destruction of little ones by the powerful

    no, I won’t go into a rant about the dead border children in our custody or how it is that ‘the powerful’ can get away with this and still have the support of ‘the saved’. . . . . . . . except to say that others have noted that those who claim to be fundamentalists and accept a literal meaning of Genesis often turn out to be social Darwinians, which is ironic indeed. These fundamentalists avidly support the survival of the fittest in business and in politics while abhoring social justice as a Christian ideal.

    Does this only happen in our country?

  5. The pain experienced by sentient animals matters. To disconnect the witnessing of that pain by human beings from the human intuition that something is wrong with things as they are flies in the face of millennium of human religion, not just traditional Christian ideas about a fallen creation. Among tribal people, who recognize the close kinship between human beings and non-human life, there is a pervasive recognition that there is something awry in a world where one creature has to cause pain and death to another in order to eat. Such peoples often include in their religious rituals prayers asking for forgiveness from the animal’s spirit for the actions leading to the animals death. This sense that something is wrong not only with human pain and death but also with that of animals is one of the deepest wells of human religion and spirituality. To sever the human from the animal in this is to eviscerate the compassionate human response to the suffering of not just animals, but other humans. Don’t tread down that path.