Two and a half phases of theistic evolution #2

In my last post I showed how, to the theistic evolutionists of his time, Darwin’s original theory was capable of delivering, without God’s direct intervention, all that the Biblical doctrine of creation described (with the exception, mainly, of mankind’s spiritual qualities). To people like B B Warfield, then, evolution was a true efficient cause, for which God as the original Creator was the primary cause. But then the theory changed.

By the end of the nineteenth century Darwinism was in serious decline. Evolution as a process had become widely assumed through the fossil record, but variation with natural selection no longer commanded the support of science. The reason for that was Mendelian genetics.

Before coming to that, though, let me sketch the religious situation. Evolution had, in conservative theological quarters, become suspect through the anti-religious agenda of those like Thomas Huxley. At the same time liberal theology had swallowed evolution as a global principle applying especially to religion, and therefore undermining traditional Christianity. Hence in Britian, Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s “Downgrade Controversy” linked theological compromise to belief in biological evolution, whilst in America some years later anti-evolution became part of the Fundamentals, paving the way for the Creationism of today. But Darwin’s specific theory had in itself little to do with this.

Gregor Mendel’s research showed that Charles Darwin’s vaguely conceived idea of variation was plain wrong. Organisms did not vary across a gradual and universal gradient, but genes were discrete, “digital” entities. Crossing a short plant and a tall plant might lead not to a whole range of sizes on which natural selection could act, but a mixture of short and tall offspring. Furthermore Mendel saw that variation was not open-ended and progressive. Recombining genes could only produce variations on the same theme, as genes themselves remianed the same. Inheritance could not, therefore, explain the palaeontological record. And since Mendel’s experiments were repeatable and mathematical, Darwin’s less rigidly scientific theory was in trouble.

The problem was only solved through population genetics in the 1930s and 40s, which showed mathematically that a large population containing many variant gene-patterns could divide into populations in which different selective pressures would be subject to natural selection, and so evolve into different forms. The limitations imposed by the boundaries of this “gene pool” might be overcome by the new concept of mutation, in which the genes themselves change, and so allow macro-evolution by “topping up” the pool of variants.

Mutation in the Modern Synthesis was modeled by ionising radiation, which produced grotesque changes in many offspring, leading to the idea that most mutations would be severely harmful, and the pious hope that a few would turn out to be useful and fuel large-scale evolution. But notice how the Modern Synthesis introduced, for the first time, a strong element of randomness into the system. Unlike the smooth, organic variation Darwin imagined, Neodarwinism relied on the right alleles happening to arrive in the right environment at an opportune time. Furthermore new variations were anything but smooth, mutation being a wild and unpredictable process.

Now see how that new strand of randomness and imperfection was compounded by developmenst both inside and outside science. Within the physical sciences, which had in Darwin’s time been neat and deterministic, relativity and quantum physics had made the universe an unpredictable place. In geology the relatively stable environments of Darwin’s world were being revealed to be very changeable indeed – eventually it was accepted that continents were wandering about all over the globe, and catastrophism made a return not in one Biblical flood, but in a host of cataclysms from vulcanism to asteroid collisons.

Outside science the general sense of progress towards perfection (meaning to Darwin largely rational European humanity!) had been rudely shaken by two world wars and a brutal Soviet system that was a cruel parody of the idea of scientific progress. Conversely the exposure of the real fruit of eugenics in Nazi Germany brought the idea that maybe perfection wasn’t so easily defined, and might not even be desirable.

At the same time the Biblical religion that had been Darwin’s obvious Aunt Sally had lost its influence, so there was less concern that the theory should explain the perfection of nature, that no longer being a prominent concept.

As the Neodarwinist paradigm developed, it gave an ever greater place to random or harmful events. The discovery of DNA showed the first signs of how sophisticated the system of evolution must be, but also how much there was to go wrong. Genetic copying errors were identified and found to be ubiquitous. Viral elements were found not only to corrupt the genome, but to fill most of it with useless junk. The impression was gained of a system improvising for short term survival and becoming inefficient and bloated as a result (though how that was compatible with the superb adaptedness of organisms and their intimate network of relationships in ecology was never really spelled out). Key events like the development of mitochondria and vertebrates appered to hinge on one-off fortuitous events like symbiotic fusion or genome doubling. Kimura’s neutral theory suggested that natural selection was easily swamped, and that most change happened from near-neutral mutations out of its sight; selection’s main role was reduced to weeding out the disasters. Small wonder that Eugene Koonin said that there is no tendency to complexity or perfection in evolution – the reverse of Darwin’s final paragraph in Origin of Species.

All these ideas, and more, overturned the neat, progressive picture of Darwin’s original theory and gave credence to claims that evolution was unguided and undirected, that it was riddled with the accumulated errors of the ages and that, in Stephen J Gould’s famous suggestion, it would play out completely differently if the tape was re-run.

In this context, a new generation of theistic evolutionists arose. Whether one is considering the academics involved in the science-faith project, or the largely biological types trying to resolve their science with Christianity, nearly all of them accepted this new, largely directionless, concept of evolution.

Unlike Warfield, who checked Darwinism against theology for fit, and trimmed it where it did not, the new TEs almost to a man took the current science as a given, despite its inevitably provisional nature, and then made virtue of necessity by redrawing their theology to conform to it, particularly in two major areas. These were, in essence, (a) to make the unpredictability of evolution part of God’s will, often rebranding it as “freedom” and (b) to explain the negatives – the blind alleys, the “egregious errors”, the cruelties – as outside God’s control, though maybe something he wished to redeem.

Space doesn’t permit a full examination of the varied attempts made in this re-theologising of creation. Broadly, one can say that most of the familiar names in theistic evolution today have bought into the effort. Maybe the most fruitful exercise is to suggest you consider the theological views of any particular theistic evolutionist – be it Arthur Peacocke and his process theology, George Murphy and his reinterpretation of the fall as an evolutionary process, Karl Giberson and his open theism, Francis Collins and his antagonism to Intelligent Design etc – and ask whether those views could have risen outside a primary belief in the Neodarwinian mindset that evolution is a process full of accidents and harmful effects that, at most, produces only approximate and imperfect results.

In these circumstances it is scarcely surprising that the first generation of TEs, like Warfield, are scarcely remembered in theistic evolution now. Their theology is unrecognisably different. And, I contend, the main reason for that is that the science has become unrecognisably different too, and has been allowed to drive the theology to an unwarranted degree. I’ll try to document that by suggesting the beginnings of a third movement both in evolutionary science and in theistic evolution in the next post.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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