“Interactions in the Family: Can Biology Explain it All?”

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.

4 thoughts on ““Interactions in the Family: Can Biology Explain it All?””

  1. This reminded me of a book I finally got around to starting (very slow going btw..) called “Light from the East: Theology, Science & the Eastern Orthodox Tradition” by Alexei V. Nesteruk. I’m on page 30 right now and I sense some very deep waters up ahead – we’ll see if I can make it! It’s addressing these contemporary issues in a full manner from the perspective of a modern modern researcher in the areas of cosmology & quantum physics with well versed references to the the Fathers of the Church.

    Here’s a link to the book on Amazon in case you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/Light-East-Theology-Sciences/dp/0800634993

  2. This is most interesting to me in that I had set out to
    make some preliminary comments regarding Orthodox anthropology
    consistent with my training in human medicine and genetics. In
    fact, I maintain to this day that the field of human medicine has
    embarked upon a model of “symphonia” borrowed – I believe
    inadvertently – directly from the Patristic Fathers. In this sense,
    we observe the concert of biological (including genetic &
    epigenetic), psychological/psychiatric, social interactive (also
    including epigenetic). and spiritual factors that comprise
    “anthropos.” I would presume that this, in and of itself, is not a
    “spectacular” revelation until you consider that the Fathers were
    adamant and unambiguous as to the grave errors that resulted from
    “dividing the Lord” – be it into His “natures” or His “wills,” for
    example – even for purposes of “academic exercise.” He was both God
    and man, presented in the genetic “pedigree” of Matt. 1:1. And now,
    medicine is reaching a similar conclusion: you cannot understand a
    “divided” patient by examining a “factor” of their humanity in
    isolation. It will result in significant error. In my mind, the
    Church would seem obligated to champion its own anthropology. It
    involves facing some critics of whom you (and I) are quite
    familiar. There seems to be a dearth of “takers,” and I appreciate
    the sentiment; I took a “smackdown” or two myself. Nevertheless,
    the failure to re-articulate in each generation is difficult to
    understand, and I think indefensible in a living
    Tradition.

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