In America today, and increasingly in other parts of the world, you can see the above-right image (a fish with feet) proudly displayed on car windows, bumpers and the like. It is intended to signify support for rationality over superstition in general, and in particular for the Darwinian evolutionary account of biological history over the wish by some people to bring in miraculous “explanations”. However, the image is also a deliberate subversion of a Christian symbol (the fish, drawn a certain way, as shown above left), so it also implies or suggests a piece of pure illogic.
This is the illogical proposition that science in general, and the Darwinian account in particular, is an alternative to, or is in contradiction with, Christian commitment. This is illogical because science cannot on its own replace the full breadth of whatever someone’s value-system is, and because in any case, science (that is, ordinary mainstream science) is part of the set of tools and attitudes adopted by any faithful pupil of Jesus of Nazareth. Admittedly, a significant part of the Christian community is currently in a state of confusion or denial about Darwinian evolution, and this is part of the problem here. But I and others like me would like to insist that it doesn’t have to be that way. It is not that way in large parts of the Christian community. We are either directly at work in mainstream science, or in any case recognize its contribution in a rational, grown-up way. Many of us are working directly in the area of evolutionary biology or genetics and the like, without waving religious flags or anything like that, and without needing or wanting dubious claims along the lines of “intelligent design”. Having said that, we don’t want dubious attempts to paint evolution as some sort of fight for supremacy either.
The fish-with-feet symbol seems to be saying that you have to modify or move away from Christian commitment, in order to bring in science. But this is not true, and it is illogical. It is like saying that you need to stop using a pair of binoculars in order to be able to use a telescope. It is like saying you need to modify or abandon a chair in order to get the benefit of a chair leg. Such an assertion is not only untrue but doesn’t even make any sense: it is not even coherent.
So why do people display with pride a symbol that, at least in what it suggests, is incoherent?
The background to this is not science or philosophy, but a battle over education in America, and a longer battle over what biological history tells us about larger questions of good and bad, right and wrong.
The science here – again, I mean the mainstream science (long timescales, gradual change through uncontrolled variation which is mainly passed on through inheritance of DNA, with natural selection as a result of varying degrees of reproductive success) – was, as a matter of fact, worked out by people from across the range of religious opinion. The Darwinian account was gaining wider and wider acceptance at the end of the nineteenth century. Then, near the beginning of the twentieth century, some people started using this as a way of speaking about “progress” and, in some “civilized” circles, it was argued that certain classes of human being should be prevented from having children, so as to “improve” the human gene-pool. It is hard to credit now, but some truly hair-raising assertions were made, very much along the lines of what the Nazi party in Germany later put into practice, and these assertions were being made in supposedly “high-brow” dinner parties and magazine articles. This sounded deep alarm bells in people with a strong sense of justice and humility, and the strength of their reaction and revulsion was enough to make them question the whole Darwinian account. So they held on to the hope that it would prove to be false and a literal reading of Genesis in the Bible could somehow save the day. This was a mistake, of course, but people make mistakes, and you can understand their difficulty, when things close to their understanding of the innate value of every human being were being trashed by “thinkers” who promoted themselves as advocates for the “scientific” way of doing things. Eventually those “intelligentsia” stopped talking about eugenics, and science continued. But now science was abused another way, when it was presented as a supporter of one and only one religious opinion (the atheist one). In fact science shows us that the universe, including life on Earth, has a great and profound internal coherence, and this is welcome news to the theist as well as to the atheist.
I think the car sticker showing a fish with feet and a “Darwin” label started out as an understandable bid for identity and political freedom, and a vote for the teaching of good science in American schools. However, the image was a threatening one because it adopted a Christian symbol (the fish, drawn a certain way), and thus it had built into it the idea that Darwin and evolutionary biology are some sort of replacement for Christ. That does not do science a service, because it is a thoroughly illogical and irrational statement, and ignorant of the history of evolutionary science, which has, as a matter of fact, been done to a high standard by Christians in mainstream science.
It takes effort to question assumptions that are widely taken for granted by the culture you have been brought up in. One such assumption is that to take Jesus of Nazareth seriously involves buying into simple-minded religious notions and some sort of state of denial about science. It is widely asserted and assumed that we either deny the science, or we accept it but deny the implications, especially the “implication” that there is nowhere left for God: the natural world is (it is claimed) a self-contained system. We do deny that so-called “implication”, because there is no such implication. What science shows us is a world with openness, with room for agency and choice, such as the choices that humans make. There is also room for inspiration, such as the inspirations that humans get.
The fish symbol itself started out long ago in the pagan world before the first century, where it had various meanings. This made it possible for early Christians to adopt it for use among themselves without attracting unwanted attention. In the first century Roman world it stood, for them, as a symbol of solidarity and encouragement for people suffering horrible and violent persecution. The fish was a symbol for a deeply humane and liberating idea associated with the name of “Christ”. What “Christ” represented is the idea of freedom from religious oppression and the Roman imperial authorities, forgiveness for those aware of their own failings, universal equality, love for truth, humility in the service of truth, and trust that our ultimate source and caller is not out to trick us. When, much later, science and the scientific method came along, it was perfectly capable of taking its place within this framework. Science, and what it shows us, such as our evolutionary story, are all part of what the original fish symbol should and can stand for.
However, coming to modern times, the fish symbol began to be used by Christian people in questionable ways. For some it served its old purpose, a symbol of solidarity and encouragement. But when a community begins to wield significant political influence, its symbols may begin to appear oppressive to people outside the community. In particular, when it seemed that the American Christian community was in favour of ill-informed, anti-rational education policy, others, in reaction, created the Darwin fish symbol, as a way of promoting their side of the fight going on in the educational system. This was an unhelpful choice, however, because it re-cast the fight into one frankly and directly opposed to Christianity. That is a fight some people want to have, but it is a much larger issue, and it does not help, and has not helped, in the much, much simpler issue of agreeing the basic facts of evolutionary biology.
I like the fish-with-feet image as an image that suggests a cheerful celebration of emergent life, and the innate potential of the natural world. However, I can’t support the use of the fish-with-feet symbol, because it is currently being deployed to make an irrational and threatening statement. It is irrational because it asserts the opposition of two things that are not opposed: Christian faith on the one hand, and full engagement with and practice of scientific evolutionary biology, on the other. It is threatening because it takes someone else’s symbol and asserts a triumph over it, and hence what it represents.
Here is a way forward.
The work of persuading American culture to accept the scientific account of evolutionary biology will almost certainly be done by humble, wise, careful, informed, followers of Jesus of Nazareth, patiently explaining the background to this sad history, and looking for a vision of evolutionary biology that does not paint it as a story of fear, but of hope. I don’t think the fish-with-feet symbol will lose its threatening character until after that work is done, so I don’t think the use of that symbol is doing anything to help the process. It may be helpful for followers of Jesus to have a symbol that can celebrate the section of the Christian community that champions mainstream science and sees it as a part of the Kingdom of God. These people see their commitment to God as involving and indeed demanding an intellectually serious view of the roles played by science and faith in a complete human life.
Here is a suggestion for a helpful symbol:
It shows either two fish or one helix, or both. It can be interpreted in Trinitarian terms, and it is also intended to suggest an endorsement of mainstream science by invoking the DNA molecule. It presents a unity and a bond of peace.