In a previous article I briefly reviewed Loren and Deborah Haarsma’s book on theistic evolution. The version of theistic evolution presented as their own preference, allowing for several other models, seems basically to endorse Jacques Monod’s dipole of chance and necessity, but viewed as a theistic mode of design. The initial “deposit” of the creation could be sufficient, the book suggests, to have produced the whole natural world, without the need for further divine activity, though their theology happily grants the possibility of the latter. But the position is that the fine tuning of the original laws and conditions makes known evolutionary mechanisms sufficient to guarantee the sort of bisophere we have. Stuart Conway-Morris’s theory of convergent evolution is cited in support of this sufficiency.
This is, in terms of creation doctrine, theologically neutral: it is a legitimate way (unlike the convolutions of the “free process” theologies) in which the God of Christianity could have used evolution as the means of his creation of life. In effect it constitutes a kind of front-loading. However I suggest that it is, in the end, an inadequate model.
Regarding the evidence of convergence in evolution it should be noted that even Conway-Morris is not satisfied that it is currently any more than a hypothesis based on observation, with no sufficient mechanisms either known or proposed – in his words there is “some other principle that we’ve failed to identify.” As a natural mechanism, it is as much a personal preference over alternative explanations (such as divine habit, coincidence or even platonic forms) as transformationism was over Linnaean fixism before Darwin provided a plausible mechanism.
Convergence deals generally in pretty broad categories: most significantly for our own story, intelligence has emerged in quite disparate taxa in quite disparate environments in quite disparate forms. It doesn’t, on the basis of the evidence, show any repeatable propensity to produce rational creatures in the least like man, nor even any other creatures with our self-awareness. So at most it shows a God whose creative aim is a biosphere with a relatively circumscribed set of niches, whose intention is not even as specific as mammals, reptiles or vertebrates: in convergent evolution, the ocean produces an ichthyosaur, or a shark, or a dolphin as equivalent alternatives. A bat is as good as a bird or a pterosaur – or possibly even a hawkmoth.
Convergent evolution aside, belief in the complete adequacy of the secondary causes of mutation and natural selection is something more of a metaphysical presupposition than a certain conclusion, and the jury is still out on whether the laws of physics alone actually can lead reliably either to life or to the rich temple of forms we see around us. Reproducing life from chemicals, or discovering a watertight theory of its origins would be the only real evidence of an entirely natural process. Finding life to be widespread in the Universe would, of course, render it far more likely even if we knew no more biology than we do now. But both prospects are not currently on the table, so this kind of “theistic naturalism” remains a faith position – and one that Christian faith has not made a doctrinal issue.
On the contrary, this is the same as the old claim of Leibniz that any decent God would set up the universe to do without further input, and is a by-product not of Christianity but of the clockwork model of reality that led to Deism. There is no reason why an eternal Creator who cares about his creation should privilege t^0 over any other time in history for his activity. The Bible, including the teaching of Jesus himself, would lead us to expect that the Father remains at his creative work until he brings about the fulfilment of all his desired aims. Only a misreading of the Genesis 1 account limits the entire work of active creation to the beginning of time.
Evolution, in fact, as re-defined by Darwin (though the word was put in general circulation by Spencer) to mean no longer the unfolding of what was inherent already in creation, but instead the establishment of what is completely new, actually favours an ongoing view of God’s postive activity in creation. We would expect him to be as intimately involved in the development as in the origin of creation. We would expect ongoing creative input, particularly by the provision of new information – formal causation. In true theistic evolution, the most plausible means of his initiating such change would be in the government of “chance”, whether that be through his determining quantum events, or by “nudging” systems on the edge of chaos to produce significant changes.
Reformed theology allows for chance events to find a place in God’s “design”. He can determine all of its outcomes should he so choose. But the Haarsmas’ model seems to prefer him not to, the unguided statistical outcomes of random mutations and other undetermined or chaotic events being sufficient for God’s purposes. It is not entirely clear if this is because they have some sympathy for the “autonomy” concept of the “free process” theology, which of course would be a denial of God’s unique creatorial role and the substitution of randomness as a Demiurge. But in fact any invocation of randomness independent of God’s power and knowledge would be a similar denial, even in the absence of the “freedom” theology: If God is subject to, rather than governor, of chance, then there is a radical dualism controlling the universe, not the Monotheistic Deity.
Furthermore, although it is easy to show how, in carefully designed systems such as the mammalian immune mechanism, stistical randomness can be put to work by a natural process, it is a lot – and I mean a lot – less evident that placing randomness centre stage in evolutionary processes would do anything but what it does in most familiar circumstances – that is, tend to cause disorder rather than order, and disorganisation rather than organisation. At best, it would underline the problematic idea that God has very indistinct expectations for the shape of his creation.
In fact, though, support for convergent evolution speaks surprisingly directly against the doctrine of “free process”. Whatever the chaotic or indeterminate elements of evolution, convergent evolution suggests, more or less similar results will emerge. Natural laws are, one supposes, so finely tuned that evolution will turn out pretty much as God intended by running in broad but circumscribed channels. That looks a very wise and effortless way of guiding the process, until you consider that it implies that all general outcomes are dictated by the design of the process: evolution could not possibly even work without producing, repeatedly by its God-given and built-in convergence, carnivores, parasites, efficient disease organisms and all the other prevalent evils that justify the “free process defence.” You can’t blame “free” nature for all the ingenious pathogens at the same time as congratulating God for all the convergent herbivores. God is responsible for both, or for neither. Which will it be?
Our friend Hanan took this incongruence even further in debate with a free-creation supporter, by pointing out astutely that if nature truly had significant autonomy (Karl Giberson extends it even to electrons), then we couldn’t even do science.
Science is possible only because the universe is consistent, and the universe is consistent because God is consistent. As soon as one grants “Nature” (let’s assume that weasel-word means electrons and actual entities) autonomy from God, then you’re also granting it autonomy from his order, and thus from the legitimate domain of orderly science. Any order we then see is logically fortuitous. Each electron is its own god – the ultimate polytheism. At least the pagans only had a few thousand gods at most – those worshipping at the altar of creation’s autonomy have to appease every single particle, and they’re not even listening. If, on the other hand, the autonomous particles are spontaneously orderly and scientific, it would be they, and not the Lord, who are the “rational God” that makes science possible, and all those early believing scientists were in error. They were not thinking God’s thoughts after him after all, but “Nature’s”, as the Rationalists said all along.
If, instead, the particles are subject to God’s laws of nature, then their autonomy is a lie – electrons do nothing except by physical laws, including quantum indeterminacy – even that follows statistical laws set by God. God doesn’t play dice with the universe – why should TEs think he does?
My last point about the view that the laws built into nature are God’s entire contribution to evolution, and that rather than planning outcomes in detail he is pleased with the general results his process produces, is that it ignores the most important form of causality that Christian teaching – and especially the Reformed tradition of the Haarsma’s – attributes to God. That, of course, is final causality. Science has justifiably limited itself, as I’ve written before, to material efficient causes, but if Christians do the same in doing theology, they are selling the faith short.
The Bible is very strong on God’s purposes, and much less concerned with his efficient methods. It doesn’t present God as designing a process and hoping for outcomes, but rather as designing outcomes and suiting the processes to them. The New Testament, in particular, tends to view his “purpose” in the singular, as the final consummation of all things in Christ, and the creation in its entirety, as well as in every detail, as what it takes to get there. That does not preclude the possibility of flexibilility in the outworking of that purpose – there is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. But it does mean that a theistic evolution without due regard for final causality is in danger of lapsing into scientism.
I sense that in the air when TEs view even mankind as an unplanned outcome of a wholly natural process.