This is the first part of a 7,500 word essay on historic and modern theistic evolution, which I hope to upload over the next week.
It is seldom appreciated that the earliest Christian response to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, even preceding its publication, was theistic evolution. A number of important thinkers held, and developed, this view during the nineteenth century until it was eclipsed, for reasons not due to any weakness of the position(i), for most of the twentieth. Through the work of the science and religion community of (mainly non-evangelical) scholars(ii), and secondarily through the American Scientific Affiliation and BioLogos, it has experienced a resurgence, particularly amongst Christians in the biological sciences(iii).
It is my contention, though, that in that second, late twentieth century phase, the theological position of theistic evolution has sheared away from historic evangelical teaching in a number of important respects. This would be a serious issue in itself, but it also has a detrimental effect (in the case of BioLogos) on its ambition to forge a rapprochement between conservative believers and science. I will also argue that the theological novelties have created a degree of internal incoherence which affects TE’s credibility overall as an intellectual position.
My first task will be to examine the character of the first phase of theistic evolution, before proceeding to show how it differs from the new incarnation. Before I do so, a couple of caveats. Firstly, all history consists of oversimplification of a complex reality, and historical summary particularly so. Whilst I will try to represent the ideas of my sources accurately, I do not pretend to do so exhaustively, nor that there were not many other people with differing shades of opinion. My examples, however, are certainly key figures. Secondly, given the regrettable “culture wars” approach to these issues nowadays, especially in the USA, it is important to remember that nearly every term now in use, and every argument come to that, was also employed in the nineteenth century, but with a very different cultural baggage.
An excellent source for an overview of Asa Gray’s position is the 2001 essay by Sara Joan Miles (iv), reposted on BioLogos in 2012. A botanist and orthodox Congregationalist, Gray had corresponded with Darwin for many years before the publication of the Origin – the only American in Darwin’s circle of consultation. Miles gives a very good summary of Darwin’s side of the correspondence with Gray, showing that they were substantially agreed on the substance of the theory – abundant variation and the selection of the fittest in a Malthusian struggle for survival. The difference between them was that Gray left an essential place for (divine) teleology, whereas Darwin, though frequently “in a muddle” about it, at heart did not.
It is important to remember, as Miles reminds us, that even those who first opposed Darwin on religious grounds rarely did so because of biblical literalism – that is a modern myth:
Rather, following the publication of Origin of Species, it centered on what seemed to be the randomness of natural selection, the appearance of new organisms by chance, and therefore the exclusion of divine purpose or design in Nature.
That word “design” is used designedly, because it was Gray’s usual term for what he meant by “teleology”: that God intended the results of evolution and directed or oversaw the evolutionary process to produce them. Gray himself seems to have seen God’s design as a “master plan”, leaving some of the finer details to nature, though his article in the October 1860 Atlantic Review(v) shows this not to affect his appeal to God’s purpose, because though not a trained theologian, his grounding was good enough to avoid the modern trap of insisting on single causality. Miles interprets him:
Thus Gray could accept the elimination of unfavorable variations, for example, in the same way he could accept that, for the elect, God could work through suffering. God caused neither – they are simply a part of a fallen world – but he can use both.
Gray’s own words show how he saw the issue in practice:
At least, Mr. Darwin uses expressions which seem to imply that the natural forms which surround us, because they have a history or natural sequence, could have been only generally, but not particularly designed, a view at once superficial and contradictory; whereas his true line should be, that his hypothesis concerns the order and not the cause, the how and not the why of the phenomenon, and so leaves the question of design just where it was before.
The correspondence with Darwin shows that Gray argued teleology with him primarily on religious grounds: he gained the inference of design (again, his own words from the review) from his faith in God. That may be thought to weaken his argument, but the correspondence also shows that Darwin did the same, though as an agnostic. With a far more naïve view of divine purpose, and an atrophied personal faith, Darwin sought (and failed) to argue from design to God. He stumbled on such things as suffering in nature and being unable to conceive why God would bother with tiny details. Gray, however, realised that evolutionary theory could not possibly comment on the issue of design:
Since natural science deals only with secondary or natural causes, the scientific terms of a theory of derivation of species no less than of a theory of dynamics must needs be the same to the theist as to the atheist. The difference appears only when the inquiry is carried up to the question of primary cause, a question which belongs to philosophy.
Yet scientific considerations were not irrelevant to this. Asa Gray saw that Darwin’s theory was incomplete as a scientific explanation – addressing the very area where Neodarwinism is mainly criticised now:
Finally, it is worth noticing, that, though natural selection is scientifically explicable, variation is not… It is now as inexplicable as any other origination; and if ever explained, the explanation will only carry up the sequence of secondary causes one step farther, and bring us in face of a somewhat different problem, which will have the same element of mystery that the problem of variation has now. Circumstances may preserve or may destroy the variations man may use or direct them; but selection, whether artificial or natural, no more originates them than man originates the power which turns a wheel, when he dams a stream and lets the water fall upon it.
Variation was the place where design might be, and to his mind must be, displayed. To Gray, the attribution of complex organs to undirected forces was simply nonsensical. Speaking of the eye:
For then blind forces have produced not only manifest adaptations of means to specific ends, which is absurd enough, but better adjusted and more perfect instruments or machines than intellect (that is, human intellect) can contrive and human skill execute, which no sane person will believe.
To conclude my remarks about Asa Gray, he closes his October 1860 review of reviews of the Origin with a clear demarcation between interpretations of exactly the same Darwinian theory by materialists (hinting at Darwin’s own bias) and by Christians. The difference, in one word, is design:
The English mind is prone to positivism and kindred forms of materialistic philosophy, and we must expect the derivative theory to be taken up in that interest. We have no predilection for that school, but the contrary… The wiser and stronger ground to take is, that the derivative hypothesis leaves the argument for design, and therefore for a Designer, as valid as it ever was; that to do any work by an instrument must require, and therefore presuppose, the exertion rather of more than of less power than to do it directly ; that whoever would he a consistent theist should believe that Design in the natural world is coextensive with Providence, and hold fully to the one as he does to the other, in spite of the wholly similar and apparently insuperable difficulties which the mind encounters whenever it endeavors to develop the idea into a complete system, either in the material and organic, or in the moral world.
(i) I suggest major factors in this eclipse were the militant linkage of Darwinism to atheism by those like Huxley, the reaction of anti-evolutionism in Fundamentalism, and the scientific decline of the theory itself at the start of the last century.
(ii) Though British Evangelical theologians like Derek Kidner were comfortable with an evolutionary account of creation half a century ago.
(iii) I take “theistic evolution” here to mean the broad position of biological evolution over deep time involving Darwinian natural selection as a major mechanism. I include within it “Evolutionary Creation” and Francis Collins’ term “Biologos”, neither of which has yet gained widespread support as alternative terms.
(iv)http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2001/PSCF9-01Miles.html (Accessed 29/04/2013).
(v)http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=atla&cc=atla&idno=atla0006-4&node=atla0006-4%3A1&view=image&seq=412&size=100 (Accessed 30/04/2013)