The New Biology: Implications for Philosophy, Theology and Education by Fraser Watts


The joint conference of the Ian Ramsey Centre and ISSR in the summer this year (2017) provided a great opportunity to draw together some of the threads of the project on “The New Biology: Implications for Philosophy, Theology and Education” that ISSR has been running since May 2015. The project has two main strands, one on philosophy and theology, the other on implications for education.


There was a plenary symposium at the conference on the broader implications, with three keynote speakers. Dame Ottoline Leyser went first. She is a distinguished plant biologist who directs the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, and she explained with beautiful clarity how what is happening to the plant as a whole helps to determine what happens at any particular point. The idea that plant development is just an inexorable unfolding of what is in the DNA clearly does not fit the facts. Plants can adapt to respond to unforeseen circumstances.


Michael Ruse, veteran philosopher of biology, has been co-PI of the project, and has been invaluable in making us all aware of the long and interesting history of the organicist tradition in biology. He has also cautioned us against too easy an acceptance of idea that organicist biology is more congenial from a religious point of view than mechanistic biology.


I was the third of the speakers in the symposium and I tried to set out some key ways in which we ended up with a more qualified endorsement of our initial assumption that the more holistic approach to biology that has recently been gaining ground is less reductionist, and sits more easily with a theological perspective. We assumed at the outset that it would all turn out to be quite complicated, but it took some painstaking work to get clear exactly what the complexities were. Ottoline (from biology), and Michael (from philosophy) played key roles in sorting it all out.


Is there a new holistic biology?


Talk of ‘holistic’ biology is just a shorthand. We don’t mean that there is a special kind of biology called holistic biology; there is just biology. However, we do want to emphasise that biology (all biology) needs to consider wholes as well as parts, and the interaction between them, in as far as that is necessary to get a good model of what is going on.


We have also talked about holistic biology being ‘new’, but, of course, it is not really new. Michael Ruse has treated us to a brilliant history of holistic biology, and some of that appears in his paper in Zygon published in June. However, it still seems to be correct to say that, when people were excited about breakthroughs in biochemistry, there was a stronger emphasis on bottom-up explanations, and a relative neglect of the influence of wholes on parts. The pendulum has swung back, and epigenetics has been a key driver.


We have also puzzled about ‘systems biology’, what it is and whether that it is just another term for holistic biology. In fact, ‘systems biology’ is used for very different things. For some people, it just means taking a lot of variables into account, which, in turn, pushes them into mathematical modelling, as the only viable way of considering a large number of variables. There is nothing particularly holistic, interactive or contextual in how those variables are considered. However, there is another kind of systems biology that plays close attention to how variables interact. There seems to be no generally agreed term for that kind of systems biology, though ‘integrative biology’ comes close.


Beyond Determinism, Reductionism and Mechanism


We considered whether the kind of holistic biology we were interested in was less deterministic than some other biology. The answer is that it all depends what you mean by ‘determinism’. There is a pernicious kind of determinism that wants to limit what variables are admissible. At the extreme, it becomes mono-causal determinism, which tries to explain what will happen to one variable entirely on the basis of what will happen to another. Common examples are the attempts to explain what people do in terms of genes or neurones. We are opposed to rampant mono-causal determinism on various grounds: scientific, philosophical and theological. Apart from a few exceptions, the search for mono-causal reductionism is a hopeless project, because it doesn’t reflect how the living world works. An adequate kind of determinism in biology will need to take a rich range of variables into account, including both micro variables and more holistic and contextual variables, and it will need to consider how they interact.


There are similar issues about reductionism. The search for exact prediction is sometimes motivated by a reductionist agenda, as exact prediction seems to allow the reductionist move that says something to the effect that, because one thing can be explained entirely in terms of another, the thing that is explained is not what it appears; it is just some kind of epiphenomenon, one thing masquerading as another. However, it is worth emphasising here that reductionism depends on getting complete explanations, reflected in fully accurate predictions. I want to emphasise how rarely that condition is met in biology. That ought to mean that reductionist moves will be suggested less often. But the problem is that reductionists often don’t wait until they have actually got a complete explanation. They tend to make reductionist moves ahead of time, on the strength of the complete explanation that they believe they will eventually get.


We asked what place there was for the search for biological ‘mechanisms’ in a more holistic biology, and concluded, that it all depends on what you mean by ‘mechanism’. There are two rather different meanings of ‘mechanism’ in science. It can be either a mechanical contrivance, or a detailed explanatory model. There is nothing in the more holistic biology to deter or discourage the search for detailed explanatory models. But it does warn that these models, if they are to be at all adequate, are unlikely to take the form of mechanical contrivances.


Theological Dissemination


I want now to look at the theological implications of what I have been saying. I welcome the move towards a more holistic biology, partly for scientific reasons, as it will give us a more adequate biology, but also for theological reasons, as it clears the way for a more fruitful dialogue biology and theology. However, I want to acknowledge that not all theologians will welcome it in quite the way I do. I would place myself broadly in the liberal Protestant tradition, the one which has so far engaged most richly with modern science. However, to take just one of the other traditions, Calvinism seems to approach many issues differently from Liberal Protestantism; determinism in science seems to Calvinists to be rather parallel, in another domain, to predestination. So, I think Calvinists may be more comfortable than I am with a thoroughly deterministic biology, and less excited about the move towards greater holism.


The picture of the living world that is now emerging from biology is of great theological interest. It is a picture of a world that is ‘interdependent’, a world of mutual influence, in which influences go in both directions, with wholes arising from parts, of course, but also wholes influencing parts. It is not an atomistic world with discrete building blocks of hard matter. Even with cells, there is no hard boundary, nothing as sharp as a cell ‘wall’; in reality, one thing flows into another. I suggest that the living world provides a helpful model of God’s hope for humanity. A greater recognition and enactment of human interdependence would solve many recalcitrant problems. Humanity needs to learn that all things interrelate, and biology provides material for a very fruitful theological reflection on nature and humanity.


All this has helpful implications for understanding divine action. If we live in an interconnected world, God’s influence on it is not going to be a matter of discrete action to bring about isolated events. It is more likely that divine action will be a matter of steering and guiding, giving a direction, or establishing what some people have called ‘propensities’ in nature, so that things that are consistent with God’s purposes more likely to happen. It will be a matter of influence rather than control. That view of divine action steers a path between a crude and simplistic understanding of special divine action on the one hand, and on the other a view of providence in which everything is upheld by God but in a way that leaves no room for God to have any particular influence.


Dissemination and public understanding


There are problems in how biology is communicated to the public; it fails to reflect just how theologically congenial biology has become. What comes over to the public is a crude, out-of-date, simplistic, mono-causal, reductionist biology. Why is biology so misrepresented? It is partly of course the media, but I suggest that biologists themselves are often partly responsible. When it comes to communication with the public they tend to over-simplify in a way that distorts. Again I ask why. It is partly, obviously, the fact that simple discoveries are easier to popularise than complex one. But I think there is more going on.


It is partly that many people find it exciting to think that scientists are getting to grips with nature, stripping away the veils and making nature reveal her secrets. Mary Midgley and others have pointed out how remarkably sexist this kind of rhetoric is, and it has been prominent from the 17th century onwards, and indeed throughout the modern period. The idea that we have almost got nature sorted out is one that many people find exciting so, to get their excitement, they constantly exaggerate how far we have got in sorting nature out.


But there may also be a religious agenda operating, or an anti-religious agenda. Sometimes scientific ideas become popular because they point in an atheist direction. I think the current popularity of the idea of many worlds is popular partly because it seems as though it blocks a design argument for God breaking out again. I suspect that the appeal of simplistic, deterministic biology for some people arises from their hunch that it points in a non-religious direction.


Where to Find More


For those who would like to find more about all this, you can watch the talks that were given at Oxford by Ottoline Leyser, Michael Ruse and myself, along with other talks given at IRC/ISSR conference on Religion, Society and the Science of Life by clicking on the following link:


There is also a series of seven lengthy articles published in Zygon in June 2017, extending the discussion into other areas, such as evolution, epigenetics, neuroscience and ecology. The papers were written by:


Fraser Watts and Michael Reiss:

Holistic Biology: What It Is and Why It Matters


Michael Ruse:

The Christian’s Dilemma: Organicism or Mechanism?


David Depew and Bruce Weber:

Developmental Biology, Natural Selection, and the Conceptual Boundaries of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis


Ilya Gadjev:

Epigenetics, Representation and Society


Harris Wiseman:

Systems Biology and Predictive Neuroscience: A Double Helical Approach


Richard Gunton and Francis Gilbert:

Laws of Ecology: Diverse Modes of Abstraction for a Holistic Science


Niels Henrik Gregersen:

Supplementing the Neo-Darwinian Paradigm? From Niche-Construction to Cultural Invention


See the following webpage for abstracts of these papers:


We also plan to publish an edited book on the Public Understanding of Biology.




The educational strand of the project has involved empirical research, looking at the effect on attitudes to science and religion of experimental modules in school biology taking a more holistic approach, presented alongside modules on science and religion.   Some of the early results from this line of research were mentioned by Michael Reiss in his public lecture at the Oxford conference and more results will be forthcoming shortly. This lecture can be viewed online using the following link:


This research has involved creating a new questionnaire measure of attitudes to science and religion, which is available on the ISSR webpage, at the following address:


By | 2017-10-18T17:35:05+00:00 October 18th, 2017|Categories: Blog|

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