A Darwinian Theory of Beauty?

As I was driving home from a gig on Saturday, I tuned into the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the topic du jour was aesthetics. The program included excerpts from several different TED Talks, all centered around the question “What Is Beauty?”

Each of the segments was thought-provoking (you can listen to the entire program here), but the one that most piqued my interest was the first: “Are some things universally beautiful?” (Direct link to the audio and transcript here). The segment includes input from violinist Robert Gupta, painter/anthropologist Alexander Melamid, and philosopher Denis Dutton. The basic conclusion was that people everywhere share many of the same artistic sensibilities, and have a common notion of what beauty is. This, of course, challenges the popular (though by no means universal) claim that “beauty” is a cultural construct.

Dutton suggests that this apparently universal conception of beauty is best explained by everyone’s favorite ornithologist, Charles Darwin. I was fascinated by what I heard in the NPR segment, so I looked up Dutton’s 2010 TED Talk for more. Here it is in its entirety:

As a thoroughly convinced believer of the creation account from the Bible, I was curious to see how an evolutionist would account for the striking similarities in the things found beautiful by those all over the world. After all, this is not a problem for the Christian; in fact, it’s exactly what God’s Word leads us to expect. We believe that beauty is part of God’s nature, something that has been made plain to us. All men are created in the image of God, and so we find beautiful what God finds beautiful.

But how can Darwin’s theory of natural selection account for this uniformity and appearance of purpose? Why do people groups who “evolved” in different regions, with totally different cultural and environmental conditions for “millions of years”, understand beauty in largely the same way? What is it about beautiful music that made our primitive ancestors better suited to pass on their genes? Here’s what Dutton says:

Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance. I mean, you can’t expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape, and it would hardly do to eat your baby or your lover. Evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful… to have them exert on you a kind of magnetism to give you pleasure simply by looking at them.

Okay, so evolution “tricks” us by making things which are otherwise necessary for our survival (e.g., offspring, shelter, mates, etc.) pleasurable for our eyes? Perhaps I’m merely seeing his words through my gospel-colored glasses, but it sure sounds to me like he’s building a case for design in nature. The Designer? Evolution personified, naturally!

His specific example is the idyllic landscape preferred by people all over the planet, even in climates that have no such landscape (referring to the “art science” experiment by Alexander Melamid mentioned in the NPR segment linked above). Studies showed that paintings perceived to be most beautiful by nearly all who were surveyed contained a water source, trees, animals, and blue skies. Everything the “protohumans” needed to survive! His reasoning was that this scene is reminiscent of the “Pleistocene savannas where we evolved.” People find it beautiful because deep down inside us we remember that only those who were able to find food and shelter lived long enough to add their contribution to the gene pool.

Of course, one might also see this same landscape as similar to the Garden of Eden, which was the perfect (and perfectly beautiful) environment into which God placed our earliest ancestors. Revelation also describes the New Jerusalem as a place of stunning beauty, fed and sustained by the tree and river of life. The city from which God shines forth is “the perfection of beauty,” as Asaph wrote in Psalm 50:2.

So as it stands so far, Dutton appears to agree with Scripture in at least two ways. First, in his conclusion that “Human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.” Second, in his supposition that all human life descended from common ancestors in a garden.

His attention then moves from natural beauty to the beauty we find in man-made works of art. What might have been adaptively advantageous about a sculpture or a melody? Once again, Evolution has an answer!

Dutton’s supposition is that the earliest works of art were ancient hand axes. These were put on display, and their attractive appearance was visual evidence of the ability of the craftsman to develop tools, making him more attractive (thanks to what he calls “fitness signals”) to potential mates.

Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, and, sometimes, access to rare materials. Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them, and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable.

Eventually, this very pragmatic consideration of females looking for a resourceful mate evolved into a general appreciation of skillfulness. Thus, “We find beauty in something done well.”

Plausible? Perhaps, but this doesn’t account for the fact that some things require a great deal of skill yet are not generally regarded as being “beautiful”. For example, a virtuoso pianist might perform a recital featuring works by Schoenberg and Chopin. Listeners may well appreciate the skill necessary to play (and compose) both, but I’m guessing most of them aren’t rushing to add Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to their iPods… not even the “Chopin Waltz” movement.

So is it merely cultural conditioning or personal preference to identify one piece of music as more beautiful than another, or is the beauty of Chopin something that is objectively true? While the wisdom of our age often argues the former, our own experiences confirm the words of God, who tells us that there IS a standard of beauty, and it is He. When Paul told the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is lovely, he wasn’t recommending their subjective preferences. He didn’t say, “whatever is lovely to you…”

In his final analysis, then, Dutton is right in agreeing with Plato that beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder—contrary to the wisdom of the relativistic Sophists of his day—but I don’t find his theory of beauty’s origin the least bit compelling:

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No. It’s deep in our minds. It’s a deep gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.

A “Darwinian” theory of beauty—whether claiming that beauty is purely subjective or a “trick” played on us by Mother Nature—ultimately says that there can be no such thing as real beauty. This is a lie which no human heart can fully accept, though there are certainly many who suppress the truth that has been made plain to them. It’s why I believe that beauty remains one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and one of the greatest problems for those who deny Him.

[Image Credit]

Debating Who Made God

One of my favorite books of the last couple years is Edgar Andrews’ Who Made God? Searching for a Theory of Everything (my review is here). If you’re at all interested in the origins debate, I highly recommend checking out this book.

You might also be interested in two recent debates, in which Andrews took on a pair of atheists on related subjects. Andrews also famously debated Richard Dawkins in 1986. Here are links to the audio from these recent debates:

What Created the Universe? — A debate with Robert Stovold, an atheist with a background in evolutionary biology. They discuss fine tuning of the Universe, whether God could be behind the Big Bang and why the laws of nature are so elegant and intelligible to humans.

Did Man Make God, or Did God Make Man? — A debate with Lewis Wolpert, Vice President of the British Humanist Association. He argues tht belief in God is purely a result of evolution. They debate what constitutes “evidence” for God, and whether science is the only admissible type of evidence.

Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One

“The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” by John H. Walton

This book stirred up quite a bit of controversy when it was published in 2009. Unfortunately, I let it gather dust on my bookshelf for a year before I recently picked it up to read it. I wish I’d gotten to it sooner! I enjoy a challenge, and this was a challenging book for me — not because of it’s readability (it’s quite approachable) but because it forced me to think hard about a perspective on Scripture I’ve never considered. Any book that can do that is worth reading, no matter whether I end up agreeing with it in the final analysis.

I’ll admit that I approached this book with a lot of skepticism. Any time someone claims to have discovered a new (or, in this case, lost for millenia) way to interpret Scripture, my first reaction is to doubt the “new” interpretation. Though I believe Scripture to be authoritative and inerrant, I have great respect for the theologians, pastors, and scholars throughout Church history who have come before us. Though not everyone in history has come to the same conclusions (far from it!), I found it difficult to believe that someone today could have uncovered an entirely new approach to something as important as the account of Creation in Genesis 1, which every scholar for the last several thousand years has missed.

That said, Dr. Walton’s arguments are quite compelling; much more so than I anticipated. His basic proposition is that Genesis 1 is NOT an account of material origins at all, but of “functional” origins. He argues that, because in the modern world (even as far back as in Jesus’ day) we think of the word “create” in terms of physical manufacturing, we read that ontology into the Genesis 1 account. However, Genesis is an ancient document, written for an ancient audience which, according to Walton, did NOT have the same understanding of “create”. In the ancient world, creation (the Hebrew word “bara”) had to do instead with the assignment of function. Thus, Genesis 1 is the account of God giving function (specifically, “anthropocentric” functions designed to make the world suitable to human life) to an already materially-existing world.

The author does, however, affirm God’s physical creation of the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), which was something I did not expect him to say. His argument is not that God was not the material/physical Author of creation, only that Genesis 1 is not that account.

Walton calls his view the “Cosmic Temple Inauguration View”, because he contends that the language of Genesis 1 is similar to the language used to describe the inauguration of other temples, both in Scripture and in other documents of ancient cosmology (Egyptian, Sumerian, etc). One example he gives is Solomon’s temple, contrasting the building of the temple with the creation of the temple. We can read the account of the construction of the temple in 1 Kings 6-7, which took 7 years. However, the physical building didn’t “become” a temple until the temple was inaugurated (with a 7-day feast) and God came to dwell there. In Solomon’s prayer of dedication in 1 Kings 8, he tells of the various functions of the temple, and that language finds parallels in the Bible’s first chapter.

In the ancient world, Walton explains, temples didn’t have function until a deity dwelt there. Furthermore, a deity’s power was thought to be restricted to the place where his/her temple was located. It follows, then, that Genesis 1 gives the account of the entire cosmos being the temple of the one true and living God. He has assigned function to all that is, and his power is absolute throughout the universe because the cosmos is his temple. Walton sees confirmation of this in other OT passages, such as Isaiah 66:1-2, which speaks of heaven as God’s throne, and earth as his footstool.

Much of the book is devoted to addressing the topic of evolution. Walton stresses that his book is not intended to support biological evolution, though many will undoubtedly read it this way. His point is that if his interpretation of Genesis is correct, there is no reason on theological grounds to reject biological evolution as a method; science should be able to speak for itself without being forced to fit into perceived biblical restrictions that aren’t there. He is careful to describe several very nuanced positions, such as differentiating between “methodological naturalism” and “metaphysical naturalism”. The first is a biological process that may or may not be substantiated by scientific study, but would not necessarily conflict with biblical teaching if found to be true (though he does appear to hold out Adam & Eve as historical figures who, as the first humans, were specially created in God’s image and did not evolve; this point was a bit unclear to me on my first reading). Most modern scientists, though, subscribe to “metaphysical” naturalism (what most people think of when hearing the word “evolution”), which begins with a presupposition that the universe is “dysteleological” — it has no ultimate purpose. This, says Walton, is NOT science but faith, and is not compatible with Scripture.

Along the same lines, Walton does not estimate age of the earth, because he believes the Bible does not address the issue. I have become increasingly unwilling to be dogmatic about the earth’s age myself, but this is bound to be a problem for readers with strong convictions on this particular issue.

The book’s greatest strength, in my view, was a distinction Walton makes between exegesis and theology:

“Even if the reader is not inclined to adopt the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1, his or her theology could still be greatly enhanced by the observations offered here by embracing a renewed and informed commitment to God’s intimate involvement in the operation of the cosmos from its incipience and into eternity. We all need to strengthen our theology of creation and Creator whatever our ciew of the Genesis account of origins. Even though it is natural for us to defend our exegesis, it is arguable even more important to defend our theology.”

He goes on to list four theological affirmations that are expected of us once we come to see that God’s role as Creator is more than simply the “builder” of everything; He is also the ruling sustainer of the cosmos. Each of these ought to be able to be affirmed by Christians of all different exegetical persuasions, and I agree that this book was helpful in focusing my attention more on these ongoing aspects of God’s creative work:

  1. The world operates by Yahweh’s design and under his supervision to accomplish his purposes.
  2. The cosmos is his temple.
  3. Everything in the cosmos was given its role and function by God.
  4. Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of people who are in his image.

In comparing his view to other views (including Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and the Framework Hypothesis), the Cosmic Temple Inauguration View comes across as a “miracle” interpretation, offering answers to the problems offered by the other views. It certainly seems to “work”; that is, it is internally consistent. Personally, though, I’m not interested in whether something “works”. I want to know if it’s true, and here I’m just not sure I can come to full agreement with John Walton.

Perhaps it’s just because material ontology is so engrained in my thinking, but I am not fully convinced by Walton’s claim that Genesis 1 is about only functional and not material origins. Unfortunately, my knowledge of science, ancient cultures, and the Hebrew language are insufficient to allow me to do much more than rely on other experts in such fields to interact with Walton, and see whether his research can be refuted or corroborated. And so it is with great interest that I will watch the ongoing dialogue between theologians and other intellectuals more knowledgeable than I that will inevitably crop up in response to this book. (For instance, this exchange between the author and respected biblical scholar Vern Poythress.)

In the meantime, I highly recommend reading this book yourself. At the very least, it will give you plenty to think about! Buy it here.

Is It Fair to Compare Abortion to the Holocaust?

As I anticipated, there were some who weren’t happy with my comparison of abortion supporters to Hitler in Sunday’s post. It’s true that comparisons to Hitler are so common they are almost cliché; it’s become the go-to accusation when someone holds a position contrary to one’s own. So, is this abortion-Hitler connection an ad hominem attack, or is this a legitimate comparison?

My claim was that Hitler’s Darwinist beliefs provided the rationale for his killing of 9 million people (over half of whom were Jewish) and that this is the logical extension of the same type of thinking that justifies abortion by claiming that pre-born children are not persons. Let’s see if this turns out to be true.

In Descent of Man, Darwin began to apply his theory of natural selection to human beings. He believed it was possible for the human race to “degenerate”. With domesticated animals, people control which traits continue through selective breeding; could this be done with humans? “Excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” What are the implications of this line of reasoning?

If various checks do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule.”

To be fair to Darwin, he never advocated killing anyone. He did, however, believe that some humans were “inferior” while others were “better”, and introduced the idea of Man being able to control his own “evolution” through selective breeding; if lesser men were allowed to reproduce, it would lead to the retrograde of human development, rather than progress.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took this a step further. If Darwin’s theory was true, then it followed that men (little more than “barbarians” and “beasts” to Nietzsche) had thrived and risen to the top of the food chain the same way that other beasts thrive: by the strong willing themselves to power and destroying the weak. In Beyond Good and Evil, while outlining his philosophy for the elevation of a “noble caste” over the “barbarian caste”, Nietzsche writes:

The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy… is that it accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. Their fundamental faith simply has to be that society must not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being.” (emphasis mine)

This led to Nietzsche’s concept of the “übermensch”, the “over-man”, introduced in his book Also Sprach Zarathustra (which, incidentally, inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem of the same name, a dramatic musical picture of the rise of a super-man; it was made famous in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). Reflecting upon what this meant for humanity, Nietzsche famously pronounced that “God is dead”, and therefore correctly predicted that the 20th century would become the bloodiest century in history. After all, the only thing preventing the strong from exterminating the weak was a lingering sense of morality based on the (to him) foolish notion of a transcendent Creator. Now that men had realized the “truth” about their origin, the ascent of the übermensch was sure to come, leaving the blood of the weak in its wake… which, according to Nietzsche, must be accepted with a good conscience.

Nietzsche prophesied that in order to revive Europe to prosperity, the continent must “acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe“. Enter Hitler.

Frustrated with Germany’s impoverished condition following the Great War, Hitler and members of his National Socialist (Nazi) Party were motivated by the concept of the übermensch to see this ruling caste (or in their terms, “Master Race”) return Germany, Europe, and the world to the path of progress. Their political philosophy flowed naturally from their understanding of Darwin, Nietzsche, and others. In the words of Hitler’s Deputy in the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess: “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”

Once they came to power, the Nazis simply carried out their biological duty as the strongest members of the human race. They began to systematically eliminate the weak and undesirable: the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, gypsies, Jews, and anyone else they deemed to be “untermensch” (sub-human). This was not cruel bloodlust or simple anti-Semitism; it was, according to the philosophical worldview that grew out of the work of Darwin and Nietzsche, the morally virtuous act of those who sought the greatest benefit for the human race.

For in a world which would be composed of mongrels and negroids all ideals of human beauty and nobility and all hopes of an idealized future for our humanity would be lost for ever.” ~ From Hitler’s Mein Kampf

Evolutionary/modernist thought allowed Hitler and others to classify — in good conscience — some members of the human race as inferior and disposable. This is not conjecture; it is history. The question, then, is whether it follows that abortion advocates do the same.

Today, it is politically incorrect to label someone as “sub-human” or “inferior”. Instead, scientists and philosophers (so often the same thing) have developed something called “personhood theory”. This theory posits that there are members of Homo sapiens who, while biologically human, are not “persons”. Notice that almost no one says anymore that a fetus is not human or not alive; the lingo is almost always that a fetus is not a person. It is an indisputable scientific FACT that pre-born children are 100% human and 100% alive.

For a recent example of how this lingo is used, check out this article published Tuesday. Notice two things. First, the author’s use of the term “anti-choice”, a term I addressed in the blog post that prompted this one. Second, and more importantly, his claim that “science clearly shows that personhood does not [begin at conception].” Really? Does science “clearly” show this? Is it an empirical FACT that some forms of human life are not persons? No. Science cannot show this because demonstrating “personhood” does not fall under the realm of science but of philosophy.

The truth of the matter is that “personhood theory” is just the latest manifestation of the philosophical idea that some human beings have the “right” to decide which human lives are better and which are inferior. Without an objective understanding of human life’s value being based on God’s creation of it in His own image, the determination of the value of an individual life will always come from subjective human criteria. And, as Nietzsche knew, this will always take the form of natural selection: the strong being advantaged at the expense of the weak. Who is weaker than an unborn life?

Furthermore, what is to keep “personhood theory” from being extended from the debate over abortion into other avenues of determining the worth of a human life? Indeed, this is already happening. How else can one explain things like assisted suicide, or the Terri Schiavo case?

Abortion advocates have — whether consciously or not — bought into the exact same philosophical worldview that allowed Hitler to consider certain forms of human life as disposable. They have accepted with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings. Nietzsche would be proud.

So, is it fair to compare abortion to the Holocaust? Based on the evidence, I believe that it is.

On second thought, though, maybe this comparison is a little weak. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than FIFTY MILLION abortions have been performed in the United States alone, and these account for only 3% of abortions worldwide (many of which are funded by our country). Hitler never dreamed of killing so many.

Combing the Net – 7/28/2010

Hollywood vs. the Heartland — Actor Robert Duvall on how Hollywood often mocks “the heartland” in its portrayals of life in the interior of the United States, particularly when involving Christianity.

Why Christians Might Back Mosque Construction — Here’s a very well presented argument for something I’ve often wondered. Is it counterproductive (or even counter-gospel) for Christians to oppose the construction of Islamic mosques?

Growing Theologically — Ray Ortlund with some practical advice for those seeking to grow in their knowledge of theology.

Move On USA Today has picked up an article that recently appeared in the Nashville Tennessean, about how many Protestants are now attempting to “move on” past the debate between creation & naturalistic evolution, choosing instead to attempt to reconcile the two.

Remembering Keith Green — Today is the 28th anniversary of Keith Green’s death in a plane accident. He was not a Christian for very long, but what an impact his life had! Here’s a video of one of his performances (HT: Z)

Finally, check out this moving recitation of Psalm 25 (HT: Bob Kauflin):

If you’re interested in dramatic Scripture readings such as this one, I highly recommend checking out Max McLean’s book, Unleashing the Word: Rediscovering the Public Reading of Scripture.