Oxford, England — When Charles Darwin published his landmark theory of evolution by natural selection in the 19th century, religious leaders were confronted with a powerful challenge to some of their oldest beliefs about the origins of life.
Then evolutionary theory was expanded with the insights of genetics, which gave further support for a scientific and secular view of how humans evolved.
Faith and tradition were forced further onto the defensive.
Now, exciting progress in biology in recent decades may be building up a third new phase in the scientific explanation of life, according to thinkers gathered at a University of Oxford conference July 19-22.
Although this 21st-century wave has no single discovery to mark its arrival, new insights into developing technologies such as genetic engineering and human enhancement may end up giving another important boost to the belief that science has (or eventually will have) the answers to life's mysteries.
Some scientists, theologians and philosophers see in this ever deeper knowledge of how genes work a possible alternative to the more reductive approach to evolution — one that brings in a broader view that also considers the influence of the environment.
Unlike the earlier views, which seemed to lead toward either agnosticism or atheism, the theologians see this "new biology" or "holistic biology" as more compatible with religious belief.
"We've added definition to the picture of evolution that has deepened and enriched our understanding of biological processes," Donovan Schaefer, an Oxford lecturer in science and religion who co-organized the conference, told the opening session of the July 19-22 meeting.
But he added: "It would be naive to imagine that the grander questions about biology, religion, the humanities and evolutionary theory generally have been put to death."
The achievements on their list include new fields like epigenetics, the science of how genes are turned on or off to influence our bodies, and advances in cognitive and social sciences that yield ever more detailed empirical research into how we behave.
Waiting in the wings are new technologies such as genome editing, which can modify human genes to repair, enhance or customize human beings. Scientists in China are believed to have already genetically modified human embryos and the first known attempt to do so in the United States was reported July 26.
Schaefer compared today's deeper understanding of biology to the higher resolution that photographers enjoy now that photography has advanced from film to digital images.
Genes once thought to be fairly mechanical in influencing human development — leading to the "my genes made me do it" kind of thinking — have been found to be part of complex systems that can act in response to a person's environment.
Since scientists succeeded in sequencing the genome in the late 1990s, they have found that epigenetic markers that regulate patterns of gene expression can reflect outside influences on a body.
Even simpler living objects such as plants contain a complex internal genetic system that governs their growth according to information they receive from outside.
To theologians who see a "new biology" emerging, this knowledge points to a more holistic system than scientists have traditionally seen, one more open to some divine inspiration for life.
In this view, the fact that epigenetic markers can bring outside pressures to bear on the genome deep inside a human means genetics is not a closed system, but part of the wider sweep of nature in which they, as religious thinkers, also see God's hand.
"Nature is so complex and rich and that prompts questions about why on earth is this the case? If you're an atheist, how do you explain a universe that seems to have the capacity to produce these things in the first place?" asked Alister McGrath, an Oxford theologian who is director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion that hosted the conference.
This in turn opened a space for theologians to augment the discussion about the "new biology," he said.
Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at New York's City College with doctorates in genetics and evolutionary biology, also said scientism — the idea that science can answer all life's important questions — was too limited.
"Science informs and grounds certain philosophical positions; it doesn't determine them," he said. "But the data can't settle ethical questions."
Pigliucci agrees with the trend to use the evolutionary paradigm to analyze fields outside of biology, including topics such as ethics and morality.
"The life sciences tell us that the building blocks of what we call morality are actually found — presumably they were selected for — in nonhuman social primates," he said. "Science gives you an account of what otherwise looks like magic: Why do we have a moral sense to begin with? How did we develop it?"
Not all present agreed that science could explain religion.
"Some suspect that biology has triggered some kind of devotion and there are too many people who practice this cult," said Lluis Oviedo, a theologian at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome.
His own research has found at least 75 books and academic articles trying to explain religion through evolution and he knew of about 20 more on the way, he said.
Although he thinks, "the time of explaining through radical reduction is over," he admitted few biologists seemed ready to accept the more holistic "new biology."
Even some scientists at the conference, while ready to engage with the philosophers and theologians, showed less interest in discussions about whether a "new biology" was emerging.
"I'm pragmatic," explained Ottoline Leyser of the University of Cambridge, whose lecture on plant genetics was one of the conference's highlights.
Theologians in the decadeslong science and religion debate, which argues the two disciplines complement each other, have also become more pragmatic as their dialogue proceeds.
Oxford's McGrath said the theologians had become more modest in the claims they made about what religion could contribute to this debate. Unlike some more doctrinaire scientists, he said, they did not think they had all the answers.
"They don't say ‘These observations in nature prove or disprove God,'" he said. "Our religious way of thinking gives you a framework which allows you to look at the scientific approach to the world and understand why it makes sense, but at the same time also to understand its limits."
"Those things need to be in the picture if we're going to lead meaningful lives."