Beyond Darwin

by John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne is a physicist and an Anglican priest. This article is excerpted from Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion, © 2005 Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, (November 15, 2005, pp. 25-28) Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation: used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


John Polkinghorne believes that classical Darwinian, despite its great insights into the struggle for survival, goes too far in its explanatory principle of almost universal scope. Theology can lay better claim to being the true Theory of Everything.

The attempt to force classical Darwinian thinking into the role of an explanatory principle of almost universal scope has proved singularly unconvincing. It seeks to inflate an assembly of half-truths into a theory of everything. Sober evaluation of the adequacy of the insights being proffered soon pricks this explanatory bubble.

Humans’ increasing ability to process information coming from the environment is clearly an advantage in the struggle for survival, but this does not explain why it has been accompanied by the trait of conscious awareness. Indeed, one might suppose that the latter, with its limited focus of attention and no more than a peripheral openness to signals coming from other possible directions, might be more a hazard than a help.

Evolutionary epistemology has attempted to explain and validate the human power to attain reliable knowledge as something originating through Darwinian development. Once again one encounters a half-truth. Of course, being able to make sense of everyday experience is a vital survival asset. If one could not figure out that stepping off a high cliff was a dangerous thing to do, life would soon be imperiled. Yet when Isaac Newton recognized that the same force that makes the high cliff dangerous is also the force that holds the moon in its orbit around the earth and the earth in its orbit around the sun, thereby going on to discover universal gravity, something happened that went far beyond anything needed for survival.

When Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first meet, the great investigator feigns not to know whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun around the earth. He defends his apparent ignorance simply by asking what it matters for his daily work as a detective. Of course, it does not matter at all, but human beings know many things that neither bear relation to mundane necessities nor could plausibly be considered simply as spin-offs from the exercise of rational skills developed to cope with those necessities.

This point was reinforced about 200 years after Newton when Albert Einstein’s discovery of general relativity produced the modern theory of gravity — capable of explaining not only the behavior of our little local solar system but also the structure of the whole cosmos. In both relativity theory and quantum theory, modes of thought are required that are totally different from those appropriate to everyday affairs. The human mind has proved capable of comprehending the counterintuitive world of subatomic physics and the cosmic realms of curved spacetime.

It has turned out that it is our mathematical abilities that have furnished the key to unlock deep secrets of the physical universe. Once more one encounters a mystery impenetrable by conventional evolutionary thinking. Survival needs would seem to require no more than a little arithmetic, some elementary Euclidean geometry and the ability to make certain kinds of simple logical association. Whence then comes the human ability to explore non-commutative algebras, prove Fermat’s last theorem and discover the Mandelbrot set? These rational feats go far beyond anything susceptible to Darwinian explanation.

The ability to use the experience of yesterday as a guide to coping with the challenges of today is clearly a significant aid to survival. But does this fact alone give us sufficient license to trust in human ability to reconstruct from fragmentary evidence the history of a past extending over many millions of years? Darwin himself felt some doubts on this score, writing in old age to a friend that "‘with me the horrid doubt arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or are trustworthy."’

There is something touching in the spectacle of this great scientist poised with rational saw in hand and tempted to sever the epistemic branch on which he had sat while making his great discoveries. Surely his doubts were unjustified. The cumulative power of scientific thinking has vindicated itself many times over in the course of human investigations into reality. Why science is possible in this deep way is a question which, if pursued, would take us well beyond science itself. I believe that ultimately it is a reflection of the theological fact that human beings are creatures who are made in the image of their Creator (Gen. 1:26-27).

Sociobiology seeks to explain human ethical intuitions in terms of inherited patterns of behavior favoring the propagation of at least some of an individual’s genes. Once again, one may acknowledge a source of partial insight. No doubt ideas of kin altruism (the mutual support extended between those who share in the family gene pool) and reciprocal altruism (favors done in the expectation of favors later to be received) shed some Darwinian light on aspects of human behavior. Models of behavioral strategies that optimize probable returns in given circumstances — such as "tit for tat": respond in the same manner that your opponent has displayed to you — give some insight into the nature of prudent decision making. But sociobiology tells too banal a story to be able to account for radical altruism — the ethical imperative that leads a person to risk his or her own life in the attempt to save an unknown and unrelated stranger from the danger of death. Love of that incalculable kind eludes Darwinian explanation.

Equally elusive to evolutionary explanation are many human aesthetic experiences. What survival value has Mozart’s music given us, however profoundly it enriches our lives in other ways?

The proper response to all this is not to adopt a Procrustean technique of chopping down the range of human experience until it fits into a narrow Darwinian bed, nor is it to abandon evolutionary thinking altogether. Rather, it is to release that thinking from the poverty of its neo-Darwinian captivity. This requires two steps. One is an enrichment of the concept of the environment within which hominid evolution has taken place. The other is an enhancement of our understanding of the processes that have been at work. When these steps have been taken, we shall be freed from being driven to the construction of implausible just-so stories, alleging that human capacities of which we have basic experience are totally different in character from what we, in fact, know them to be.

One way of enhancing understanding of the actual scope and character of the human environment can be provided by thinking about the nature of mathematics. Most mathematicians are convinced that their subject is concerned with discovery and not with mere construction. They are not involved in playing amusing intellectual games of their own contrivance, but are privileged to explore an already existing realm of mentally accessed reality. In other words, as far as their subject is concerned, mathematicians are instinctive Platonists. They believe that the object of their study is an everlasting noetic world which contains the rationally beautiful structures that they investigate. Benoit Mandelbrot did not invent his celebrated set; he discovered it. Acknowledgment of the existence of this rational dimension of reality is vital to the possibility of understanding the origin of human mathematical powers.

At some stage of hominid development, our ancestors acquired a brain structure that afforded them access to the mental world of mathematics. It then became as much a part of their environment as were the grasslands over which they roamed. At first this noetic encounter must have been limited to a utilitarian style of mundane thinking, involving just an engagement with simple arithmetical and geometrical ideas. However, once that intellectual traffic had started it could not be limited to such elementary matters. Our ancestors were beguiled into further exploration of noetic richness which, once begun, continued with an ever-increasing fruitfulness. What drew them into this exploratory process was not a Darwinian drive to the enhanced propagation of their genes, but an entirely different mechanism.

The kinds of considerations in the case of mathematical experience that lead us to take seriously an enriched human environment apply equally to other distinctive forms of human ability. Human ethical intuitions indicate the existence of a moral dimension of reality open to our exploration. Our conviction that torturing children is wrong is not some curiously veiled strategy for successful genetic propagation, nor is it merely a convention adopted arbitrarily by society. It is a fact about the nature of reality to which our ancestors gained access at some stage of hominid development. Similarly, human aesthetic experiences gain their authenticity and value from their being encounters with yet another aspect of the multidimensional reality that encompasses humanity Experiences of beauty are much more than emotion recalled in tranquillity; they are engagements with the everlasting truth of being.

Once one accepts the enrichment beyond the merely material of the context within which human life is lived, one is no longer restricted to the notion of Darwinian survival necessity as providing the sole engine driving hominid development. In these noetic realms of rational skill, moral imperative and aesthetic delight — of encounter with the true, the good and the beautiful — other forces are at work to draw out and enhance distinctive human potentialities. Survival is replaced by something that one may call satisfaction, the deep contentment of understanding and the joyful delight that draws on inquirers and elicits the growth of their capacities. No doubt the neural ground for the possibility of psychosomatic beings like ourselves to be able to develop aptitudes in this way was afforded by the plasticity of the hominid brain. Much of the vast web of neural networking within our skulls is not genetically predetermined, but it grows epigenetically, in response to learning experiences. It is formed by our actual encounters with reality.

The era of these developments was the time when human culture. emerged, generating a language-based Lamarckian ability to transfer information from one generation to the next through a process whose efficiency vastly exceeded the slow and uncertain Darwinian method of differential propagation. It is in these ways that a recognition of the many-layered character of reality, and the variety of modes of response to it, make intelligible the rapid development of the remarkable distinctiveness of human nature.

Hominid evolution inaugurated the exercise of these new creaturely capacities here on planet Earth, but it did not bring into being the reality to which these nascent abilities gave access. What emerged were mathematicians, not mathematics. The latter was always "there," even if unrecognized by creatures during billions of years of cosmic history. The rational, moral and aesthetic contexts within which hominid capacities began to develop are essential and abiding dimensions of created reality. From the point of view of dual-aspect monism, these realities exist at the extreme mental pole of the complementary duality involved, just as sticks and stones exist at the far physical pole.

One should go on to ask what is the origin of these many diverse but interrelated aspects of reality. For the religious believer, the source of these dimensions lies in the unifying will of the Creator, a fundamental insight that makes it intelligible not only that the universe is transparent to our scientific enquiry, but also that it is the arena of moral decision and the carrier of beauty. Those dimensions of reality, the understanding of whose character lies beyond the narrow explanatory horizon of natural science, are not epiphenomenal froth on the surface of a fundamentally material world, but are gifts expressive of the nature of this world’s Creator. Thus moral insights are intuitions of God’s good and perfect will, and aesthetic delight is a sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation, just as the wonderful cosmic order discovered by science is truly a reflection of the mind of God. Thinking about human experience in this way affords the possibility of a satisfyingly unified account of multi-layered reality. Theology can lay just claim to being the true Theory of Everything.