Can Biological Evolution Be a Guided Process?

In this series we’re considering the relationship between Genesis and evolution, from the perspective of a Christian working on evolutionary genomics. In the first piece in this series I explored what Genesis teaches – the focus is God’s ordering of the world for his purposes, particularly as a place for God to be worshipped. But, isn’t evolution a purposeless process – how could God use something like that? Isn’t the idea of a guided random process nonsense? We examine this question in this essay. In the next piece I’ll explore some of the scientific hints of purpose, and the final post will consider the place of humanity in the cosmic drama.

The Main Message, Again

The universe is not an accidental construct of ontological chance – rather, it is a product of purpose. Further, the universe is not a product of intentional violence, but rather simply of God speaking, speaking to create that which is out of that which is not visible. It is fascinating to compare the narrative of Genesis 1 to, for instance, the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian story whose roots date back to a similar time to the writing of Genesis. The overwhelming theme that I see when I read that story is violence – the gods fighting with and struggling against each other in various gratuitously graphic ways. If the Enuma Elish is a splatter film, Genesis 1 is more like the soaring (and diving) introduction to Blue Planet II. It’s impressive and stately, not overly dramatic. I’m no expert on Ancient Near Eastern literature, and like all analogies, the movie one probably breaks down somewhere – but perhaps you get the point. Another plus is that Genesis will probably not give you nightmares.

The emphasis of the Genesis narrative is, as I see it, the purposeful ordering of the natural world; of forming and filling, as I noted in the last piece. The real focus is the moral rather than the material dimension; “God saw that it was good” (v. 25). But, these things are intertwined. The moral sphere is not a mysterious otherworldly purely ‘spiritual’ realm, but instead what matters morally and spiritually is played out in the very real, muddy yet majestic, world around us. Nature is not something bad to be left behind, but something which is intrinsically good. Good – but not perfect – and sadly suffering, especially due to the actions of agents in rebellion against their perfect Creator.

What does Genesis teach about Biology?

God in the process of creation perhaps, it appears, delegates some authority. “Let the waters swarm with living creatures (v. 20)”; “Let the Earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds … And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds (v. 24).” The Earth bringing forth creatures is, it seems, not incompatible with God making them. Could the poetic account of ‘bringing forth’ be compatible with God using a long process of evolution? Of course, the text does not teach evolution, any more than it teaches quantum mechanics; but I see little reason to think it is not compatible with a developmental process, if we are willing to accept that the story, while still including historical elements is not intended to be straightforward history.

The idea that God could make, say, the stars using a gradual process has long been accepted by the evangelical Christian mainstream, having been taken up by conservative theologians since the early development of a ‘nebular hypothesis’ in the 18th century. As far as I’m aware, old Earth creationists typically have no problem with the idea. The same verb is used for God creating the stars and God creating the land animals, so it’s not immediately clear why evolutionary processes could be fine for one and not the other. Fascinatingly, there are popular young Earth creationist cosmological models – the time dilation models of Russell Humphreys and John Hartnett – which also appear to imply the reality of galactic and stellar evolution (I will leave the details of scientific engagement with these ideas to those more qualified).

Perhaps I should be glad that young Earth creationists are happy with God delegating creation to ‘natural’ processes in some cases – to some extent we’re even seeing this at the leading edge of young Earth creationist biology, which makes for interesting viewing. It’s not a wholly new idea – the possibility that God could have created the present state of things through created secondary processes was explored by Augustine way back in the early 5th Century, with his concept of “seminal reasons”, or principles embedded in creation which develop or unfold, realising their potential over time in new beings or processes, analogously to seeds.

Many people reading this will find all kinds of issues with what I’ve written. Because Genesis is about origins, and origins are tied to identity, saying something controversial about Genesis is a good way to upset people who take Genesis seriously. And taking Genesis seriously while claiming to be a scientist is a good way to upset some people who think we’ve evolved beyond accounts of the world which somehow involve God. But while both sides will be quick to stick labels on those who state an opinion on Genesis, I’m most interested in what the text actually teaches, and what is true. I’m probably wrong about many things – hopefully I’m right about some of the big picture at least.

I (You) Object!

Two objections of the many that might be raised are that natural selection is an inherently atheistic process (after all, it’s in the name – nature, not God, selects), and that the reading of the text that I offer is dangerously, perhaps ludicrously, novel and so probably false – or, from the atheist perspective, just disingenuous or ad hoc. So, is natural selection inherently atheistic? It might be worth noting that I haven’t advocated natural selection as the main driver in the ‘developmental process’ – I incline tentatively towards structuralism, as argued for by Michael Denton, and supported to at least some extent by Simon Conway Morris, Stephen Jay Gould, and others. But, we can leave my biological heresies aside for now. Let’s grant that evolution is driven entirely by random mutations plus natural selection.

What then? Is God thereby cast into the outer darkness, away from the presence of Science? Well, the empirical ‘randomness’ of a mutation needn’t concern theists, as God is sovereign over all physical processes, even those that appear ‘chancy’. A nice analogy is the weather; modelled with chaos theory, but nonetheless if God does exist then it’s within his remit. Statistically random does not rule out the possibility that some or all mutations were intended, perhaps for some future goal. The basic philosophical point is accepted by both nontheists and leading Christian thinkers (and here is the best exploration I’ve seen so far). Even Daniel Dennett seems to concede it in a fascinating debate with Alvin Plantinga (e.g., at approx. the 1hr timestamp). So, random mutations aren’t a problem for purpose. The impersonal laws of natural selection also need not cause Christians nightmares. Darwin himself seems to have put more emphasis on the lawlikeness than chanciness of his proposed process. Quoting the influential Cambridge scientist, philosopher and theologian William Whewell, Darwin writes in the Origin of Species “we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.”

The second objection to consider is that my account is novel and therefore probably wrong. We should believe, it may be said, in six 24-hour creation days and a young Earth, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence against that account, because the Bible plainly teaches it. But while we’re at it should we also believe in a flat Earth, a stationary Earth, and a geocentric solar system? Ah, the Bible does not teach these, you say? I agree with you – but it has been read that way, and in the case of geocentrism this was the virtually universal consensus of the church for 1500 years. To my mind it’s a brilliant example of the possibility of general revelation properly informing our interpretation of special revelation. The argument against novelty could’ve been offered in the 16th century in favour of the geocentric default position with the same conviction as young Earth creationists offer it today. And yet, today most people across the spectrum of religious commitment can see that the phenomenological language of the Psalms, for instance, is not intending to teach astrophysics. Indeed, the 16th century ‘anti-novelists’ would have a more solidly grounded conviction, for the interpretation of Genesis 1 has as far as I can tell been the subject of more contention historically than the positioning of the Earth in relation to the sun.

A Shadow in the Garden?

But, perhaps the most significant objection remains. How to account for evil in the world? Fully accounting for it is I think too difficult for a paragraph, or indeed a lifetime of work. I think the Bible simply doesn’t fully answer the ‘why?’ question – some of it is tied to human choices (see William Dembski’s book below for one interesting option for understanding this), and the choices of other spiritual agents.

Crucially, the Bible does help us a lot with the ‘what to do in light of this?’ question. However, can we even make a distinction between evil and good in an evolutionary world? After all, on an evolutionary view isn’t evil just part of the natural world? Well, on a naturalistic evolutionary view, I think so. But if God is behind life’s developmental process then more options are on the table. If the process is not entirely mindless, then it is possible for there to be normative aspects to it. Some processes could, I think, be ‘better’ than others. Why God would allow things which are not morally ideal is a difficult question, but it appears that God could make such a judgment as to the ‘goodness’ of aspects of nature as we see it today. I think it comes back to the same point made previously – processes which are describable as statistically ‘random’ are not necessarily unguided or unintended. If a process is intended, this changes what we can say about it – not necessarily at the scientific level, but certainly at the level of the bigger picture of meaning and interpretation.

There’s a tonne more to say on all of this – I’d particularly like to dip into hints of purpose which I see when I look at modern science. So, you can look forward to some details from biology – yes, mainstream biology! – in the next piece in this series ‘what does biology teach about Genesis?’, before I wrap it up with a look in the mirror, at humanity.

Further Reading

Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology – Alister McGrath

The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World – William Dembski

The Intelligent Design Debate and the Temptation of Scientism: A Theological and Philosophical Analysis – Rope Kojonen
[If you can’t get access to this in a library, I highly recommend looking up Rope’s papers in this area]

Science, Evolution, and Religion: A Debate about Atheism and Theism – Michael Peterson & Michael Ruse
[A great debate on the interpretation of evolution]

Part 1   |   Part  2   |   Part 3   |   Part  4

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Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

“The universe is not an accidental construct of ontological chance – rather, it is a product of purpose. Further, the universe is not a product of intentional violence, but rather simply of God speaking.” **IF** the universe is the product of the purpose of an omniscient, omnipotent being **THEN** any violence in the universe *must* be intentional. That’s a straight forward deduction. “it’s not immediately clear why evolutionary processes could be fine for one and not the other” Well it is immediately clear that you are talking about to very different meanings of “evolution”. Stellar evolution is completely different from… Read more »

Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

“And taking Genesis seriously while claiming to be a scientist is a good way to upset some people who think we’ve evolved beyond accounts of the world which somehow involve God.” Because we have and also because people such as yourself inevitably show a shocking ignorance of even elementary concept in the field they are suppose to be educated in. Like this….. “natural selection is an inherently atheistic process (after all, it’s in the name – nature, not God, selects)” No, you’re wrong. That’s not evolution by means of natural selection. You clearly don’t have even a high school level… Read more »

Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

“Statistically random does not rule out the possibility that some or all mutations were intended, perhaps for some future goal.” Actually it does and I highly doubt Dennet made such a basic error. If a process is random then it **cannot** be intentional. You certainly have not given an argument for how the outcome of a random event could be intended. “Darwin writes in the Origin of Species “we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.”” Well sure, and those general… Read more »

Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

“But while we’re at it should we also believe in a flat Earth, a stationary Earth, and a geocentric solar system? Ah, the Bible does not teach these, you say? I agree with you” Actually the Bible *does* teach that the earth is flat, that it is beneath the firmament dome that separates the earth from the waters above and the abyssal waters of the deep below. That the sun and the other objects move between the firmament and the earth, that the moon does not reflect the light of the sun but is it’s own light, that there was… Read more »

Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

Natural selection is misnamed and Darwin had misgivings about calling the mechanism for evolution natural selection. Natural selection does not select. “Selection” implies intentionality which is not present. Natural selection is nothing more than random variation and differential reproduction. It’s like when a meteorologist says that sunrise will be at 6:21 am. Everyone knows the sun doesn’t actually rise but we say it anyway. Biologists talk about how NS “selects” for certain traits for survivability but they know there is no intentional process at work but they use the word anyway. I think I’m going to break my replies into… Read more »

Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

“I linked to sources which develop the argument for the compatibility of guidance and mutations which are ‘random’ in the relevant sense.”

How? How is an uncaused cause possible? Radioactive decay is completely random. There is no antecedent cause, no hidden variables. No one, not even a god, could ever know in advance when or in what manner an isotope will decay and emit an alpha particle. Since radiation is one of the causes of mutation and therefore natural selection, god cannot direct or even have prior knowledge of the outcomes of evolution. Unless you have some argument I’m unaware of.

Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

“My task with these posts was simply to show compatibility, not to prove that God exists.” Ok…. is there ANY scientific theory which would be incompatible with the god hypothesis? Suppose that tomorrow biologists everywhere cam out and said: “We were wrong, it turns out that natural selection is not the mechanism for evolution. We have a totally new and completely different explanation. Throw away all your old text books.” Would the god hypothesis be compatible with this new theory? I think it would and the reason why is because the god hypothesis is compatible with ANY theory. There is… Read more »