The following post is part of a series of responses to the Sophia Institute conference on Love, Marriage, and Family in the Orthodox Tradition, December 7, 2012.
Second Keynote: Dr. Andrei Holodny, “Interactions in the Family: Can Biology Explain it All.”
The second plenary paper was delivered by Dr. Andrei Holodny, a practicing doctor and professor of medicine. His talk explored the interaction of evolutionary biology and family life, and it considered the extent to which biology is capable of explaining both our good and bad human behaviors.
A number of years ago, Stephen J. Gould had written that science and religion should keep to their two separate spheres. Holodny disagrees with this view for a couple of reasons. First, it does a disservice to science by accepting the premise that science can only address questions of the way things are, not the way things out to be. In fact, Holodny noted, many scientists care a lot about moral issues, and science can help us understand why we are inclined to behave in certain ways. Relatedly, it obscures the moral presumptions behind many of the public statements scientists make when it comes to the rightness or wrongness of human behaviors.
For instance, when a male lion takes over a pride, the first thing he does is kill all the cubs. Biologically, this makes sense. The new male does not want to expend energy taking care of someone else’s genetic stock. Similarly, the child of a single mother is more likely to be murdered by her new boyfriend or stepfather than other children are to be murdered by their biological parents. Most biologists would condemn such behavior, which is proof that they draw upon extra-biological sources to make moral judgments.
Holodny concludes that biology can help us understand the reasons behind certain tendencies we have as humans, but it is ill equipped to explain why we condemn some behaviors and not others. We are spiritual beings acting on the options evolution presents to us.
I am inclined to agree with Holodny, but I was inclined to agree with him before I heard his talk. Thus I am not entirely sure he made his case. For one, I do not think he relied upon very good research. Gayle Woloschak (a geneticist whom I write about here) was present and challenged his reliance upon Dawkins’ fairly debunked research about the “selfish gene,” which is the idea that the basic unit of evolution is the individual gene, trying to pass itself from one generation to the next. (For the record, I am not entirely certain if that was the challenge because someone was asking me a question at the same time I was trying to listen to Woloschak. But I think I got the gist of it.) Furthermore, I am always suspicious of conclusions drawn from comparing people to other animals, because the evidence one draws upon tends to be selective. It might sound persuasive to note that both male humans and chimpanzees puff out their chests and raise their voice when they want to be heard, but chimpanzees also throw their feces when they get angry. Most humans don’t.
What I found most interesting about Holodny’s talk was his critique of Gould’s views on science and religion. I agree that we should not think of science and religion operating on two different spheres. This is a loaded assertion. Both science and religion make affirmative statements about reality, but if science and religion are two different things, then either there must be two different realities, or only one set of affirmations can be true. Theology does draw upon science, and science does make moral judgments, but neither can operate independently of the other. We need each other. Thus I find Holodny’s argument to dovetail nicely with what Cardinal Newmann said about faith and reason. Faith and reason are concerned with the same “content,” but faith attempts to see farther than reason, and thus its affirmations are less certain. Biology can explain a lot, but it cannot explain everything. The same is true of theology. Religion needs science to help it understand why we tend to behave in certain ways, and science needs religion to explain why some behaviors are better than others.