Evolution, DNA and the Soul

A Week-long Seminar for Religious Leaders

This class is no longer offered.

Monday – Thursday, January 7-10th, 2013

10:00am – 12:00pm & 2:00pm – 4:00pm

All classes will be held at Union
Theological Seminary
, room to be announced.

For information, contact Edith T
<ehunter@uts.columbia.edu>, registrar at Union Theological

(password protected)

Nothing that is worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes
complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved
by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore,
we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint
of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved
by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

– Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

Sciences respond to a felt need to understand the world, and religions
respond to a felt need for the world to have meaning. From these different starting
points, one issue emerges at the junction of any science and any religion: are
these felt needs commensurate? That is, is the universe a moral place, so that
the natural order is relevant to human lives and human values; do faith and
family, love and charity mirror any larger meaning than the meanings we give
to them? Today, to a first approximation, the answer to these questions from
any religion is Yes, and the answer from any science is No.

In a recent book on eschatology, the eminent Anglican theologian-scientist
John Polkinghorne defines the soul as “the information-bearing pattern
carried by the matter of the body.” This formulation invites a simple extrapolation:
that the soul of a person is the information in that person’s DNA. Can this

After 150 years, the essential core of Darwinian natural selection as the mechanism
of evolution remains problematic for many people of faith. This Continuing Education
course will examine the question: what do the facts of natural selection and
evolution say about the soul?

We would like to be sure the students in this seminar learn with great clarity
what these facts are. Then, we would like to examine religious texts to see
with some precision where the theological expectations are actually at loggerheads
with these facts, and where instead, confusion has allowed unnecessary anxiety
to emerge.

Of these anxieties, perhaps the most destructive, pervasive, and resistant
to the facts of science has been the use of evolutionary ideas and data to support
the deeply offensive notion of racism, that is, that in some way one’s biological
origins determine any aspect of one’s fundamental humanity and, thereby, one’s