In a debate about my new (German) biography about the learned theologian Charles Darwin, I was asked what the great Victorian would say about our current debates concerning evolution and religion. After a pause, I assumed that he would be disappointed that it took far more than a century to reach some of the conclusions he had already pinned down especially in his “Descent of Man” (1871) – but which had been forgotten amidst heated and often polemical debates.
For Darwin, an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist for the simple reason that religiosity and religions had been biocultural products of evolution themselves! He realized in the 19th century what many religious Creationists and so-called “New Atheists” are trying to ignore in their odd alliance to this day: If evolutionary theory is true, it must be able to explain the emergence of our cognitive tendencies to believe in supernatural agencies and the forms and impacts of its cultural products. And he concluded rightfully that these empirical studies would enrich, but not solve the metaphysical question at hand – whether evolutionary history brought about an “adaptive illusion” (as assumed for example by Jesse Bering) or a universal pilgrimage to God (as formulated for example by Teilhard de Chardin).
Only with what David Sloan Wilson called the 3rd wave of evolutionary studies, enough scientists from diverse faculties and nations connected for evolutionary studies of religion, which are since then thriving in quickly growing numbers studies, papers, conferences, books and blogs around the globe. In Germany, they even became the Christmas main story of the leading magazine DER SPIEGEL in 2012, referring to various colleagues in the field.
Although scientists are not prophets, I might add the assumption that more good years and thrilling discoveries might be just ahead. Happy birthday, Charles Darwin – we may not disappoint you for another century!