Latour and the Religious Justification of Evolutionary Theory

Political theology A shows that rather than being secular, the Modern understanding of ‘the natural world’ is in fact Religious.

This is because the category of Nature subsumes ontological pluralism to transcendence; that is, it accounts for the agonistic interactions of the plural actors (human and nonhuman) themselves by a principle that is external to them, namely, Nature—‘a second level, floating above the first level, that of struggling and thriving organisms’.[1] The category of Nature enacts an ‘operation of scale’ upon these local and immanent interaction-events, shifting them up to a non-local, non-representative space-time, from which an explanation of their behaviour in terms of ‘cause-and-effect’ (in this case, the ‘laws of nature’) is consequently derived. McGee has aptly called this ‘natura ex machina’.[2]

This is the very basis of the Modern self-understanding of the world around them. And indeed, astonishingly, Latour claims that this enacts a bastardisation of the very discipline of biology itself:

Toutes les sciences naturelles […] sont hantées par le spectre de ‘l’organisme’ qui devient toujours, plus ou moins subrepticement, un super-organisme, c’est-à-dire un Dispatcher à qui est attribuée la tâche—ou plutôt le saint mystère—de réussir la coordination entre les parties.

All the natural sciences […] are haunted by the spectre of the ‘organism’ progressively turning, more or less explicitly, into a ‘super-organism’, that is to say, into a Dispatcher, to whom is assigned the task—or rather the sacred mystery—of bringing about the coordination of the parties.[3]

As its designation as a ‘saint mystère’ shows, the form that the Modern understanding of Nature takes is ultimately theomorphic. Nature is understood as both a creative (‘this Life is now written as if it were the agent lording over organisms much like the Spirit floating over the water’)[4] and a providential force,[5] and the allegiance to it that is performed by the Moderns is ‘cultic’.[6]

As an intriguing digression, we might note theomorphism as harrying the work of Darwin himself. Darwinian evolutionary theory, in both macro and micro forms, posits the differential survival and reproduction of individuals according to fitness. And yet this fitness is determined inside an environment (of course, in view here is not just the abiotic environment, but also the environment of the molecular biology of the cell). In trying to understand how organisms adapt to their environment a ‘cause’ is assumed towards which they work, that is, a teleology: ‘vous preniez, en bon darwinien, l’intérêt ou le profit comme la cause finale de chaque organisme en lutte pour sa survie’ (my trans. ‘as a good Darwinian, you end up taking interest or profit as the final cause of every organism that in conflict for its survival’).[7] For Latour, this teleology is Religious in orientation, and Darwin thus becomes prototype for the history of political theology A: ‘derrière la sélection naturelle, la main bienveillante du Créateur se reconnaît chez Darwin aussi bien que chez ses successeurs’ (my trans. ‘behind natural selection, the benevolent hand of the Creator can be identified in Darwin, just as much as in his successors’).[8] This teleological drift has been described by Ospovat.[9] And it is confirmed by the anecdotal detail of Alfred Russell Wallace’s epistolary warning to Darwin that the metaphor of ‘natural selection’ was not ‘best adapted’, since it threatened to connote nature as a forward-looking, intelligent designer that was shaping the evolutionary course of life:[10] Wallace, it seems, was right, given the argument advanced by Janet Browne that Darwin was fond of imagining nature as an ‘all-seeing farmer in the sky’ (her words), a benevolent overseer that selects, scrutinizes and rejects.[11]

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References

[1]  Latour, Bruno, (2014), ‘Gaia: God of Totality’, p.13.

[2]  McGee, Kyle, (2014), Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks, p.1

[3]  Latour, Bruno, (2015), Face à Gaia, p.104.

[4]  Latour, Bruno, (2014),’Gaia: God of Totality’, p.6.

[5]  Ibid, (2014),’Gaia: God of Totality’, p.11.

[6]  Latour, Bruno, (2015),Face à Gaia, p.288.

[7]  Ibid, (2015), Face à Gaia, p.108.

[8]  Ibid, (2015), Face à Gaia, p.112, fn. 238.

[9]  Ospovat, Dov, (1995), The Development of Darwin’s Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1859.

[10]  Letter of Alfred Russell Wallace to Charles Darwin, 2 July 1866, The Darwin Correspondence Project, DCP-LETT-5140, available at darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/dcp-lett-5140 (accessed 10 May, 2016).

[11]  Browne, Janet, (2003), Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Volume 2), p.59.

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