This is an expansion of a theme I brought up in a discussion on BioLogos. Ever since evolutionary theory became an intellectually preferred way to view the Universe (long before Darwin and any persuasive scientific evidence – we have to go back at least to Buffon and the Enlightenment philosophy of the eighteenth century) it has been tempting to some to recast theology in the light of evolution. This is still, sadly, routinely done in theistic evolution, as the conflicts that occasionally surface at the ASA, CiS or BioLogos show to those with eyes to see.
But Joshua Swamidass’s recent strong claim on BioLogos that mainstream evolutionary theory is no longer NeoDarwinian, but Kimuran (ie nearly-neutral theory), put me in mind that for theologians to hitch their wagons to evolutionary theory is to try to harness a protean shape-shifter. Evolutionary theories have actually changed quite radically and fairly often, and the kinds of theology they encourage are equally vulnerable to radical revision, especially when you take into account the extra-scientific concepts that always accompany such theories. That’s another way of saying that he who weds the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower.
Even the NCSE recognises this phenomenon in its page on definitions of evolution:
…the popular idea of evolution as it is found in dictionaries, science fiction, and philosophical potboilers is a holdover of concepts that have long been abandoned in the biological sciences, if not in theology or in the “science” of popular media.
In fact, there is a strong case for saying that scientific theories – and particularly evolutionary theories – are in their turn a direct product of the prevailing societal zeitgeist itself – in other words, for reasons that are complex but very human, at any one time the kinds of scientific theory that rule the consensus nearly always view nature in the same ways that the ruling political consensus views society. Stephen Jay Gould, more perceptive in this matter than most scientists, recognised this in a self-mocking way regarding his 1972 theory of punctuated equilibria. In one essay he suggested that it might have appealed to him, and become popular with the scientific community, because this was an age when revolution was in the air rather than uniformity and gradual progress.
This link between theory and theology can be traced from the very start of evolution. I’ve no doubt that a useful tome could be written on it, but this is just a sketch of some stages of the rather zig-zag evolution of “evolutionary theologies.”
I’ve just finished reading Lamarck’s 1809 Zoological Philosophy, in which his evolutionary theory is developed. He embraced the Enlightenment Deism/rationalism of most intellectuals of his time, and his theory reflects that. Under a distant Great Artificer, Queen Nature supervises a planned progress from simple organisms towards the ultimate perfection – which of course is rational mankind. Reason, in other words, is the basis of reality and all will naturally tend towards it.
This mix of common descent (the most basic concept of evolution) and inevitable progress towards reason came to underlie the liberal and critical theology of the nineteenth century, which replaced the idea of Judaeo-Christianity as a unique divine revelation with the now familiar idea of religion as evolution from primitive shamanism through various stages to Christianity as the pinnacle – or maybe to “rational” atheism as the next evolutionary step. We’ve forgotten the link to Lamarck, or otherwise we might question the evidential foundations of this more critically.
Only with Darwin did evolution become the dominant cultural view, partly because of the plausibility of natural selection, partly because of increasing evidence for geology and palaeontology and partly because of good propaganda from progressives like Huxley. Darwin himself, though he retained enough of Paleyan natural theology to see evolution as a predominantly “onwards and upwards” idea, was aware that degeneration was a possibile result of natural selection too. But the word “evolution” entered his writing from the philosopher Spencer, whose championing of Darwin was a cover for a global evolutionary philosophy in which, on principle, everything progresses to perfection.
Early theistic evolutionists like B B Warfield embraced most of the science of Darwinism, but not without a rigorous intellectual critique from established theology. Others however gained the conviction that nothing could be the same after evolution, the most notable being Teilhard de Chardin, who picked up on the Spencerian motif of progress to rewrite Christian theology as an evolutionary progress of the whole universe towards the “Omega Point”. As I pointed out at BioLogos, he would never have got to that from neutral theory.
This theme of inevitable evolutionary progress (sometimes stressing the accompanying struggle for survival) is the watchword of the whole western project for a century or more after Darwin. Science fiction took us to the stars, Marxism and National Socialism promised inevitable political utopias of their own kind (usually via
genocide purifying selection of some kind), and in religion, evolutionary origins for man often replaced the Adamic catastrophe of sin with a fall upwards from ignorance to sophistication – it became intellectually respectable to be a Promethean.
Theistic evolution seems to have fallen out of favour for much of the twentieth century, a time when the Neodarwinian synthesis flourished. But although Neodarwinism rehabilitated Darwinian evolution from the orthogenesis that had partially eclipsed it, its “flavour” was quite similar to Darwin, if more militant, and I suspect it maintained the same kinds of theology. (As in Warfield’s time, Evangelicals like Jim Packer and John Stott were accepting of evolutionary science, but critical of its metaphysical pretentions).
But with Richard Dawkins’ bestselling books popularising gene-centred adaptationism from the mid seventies, the re-emerging theistic evolution enterprise seems to have picked up on the first two titles: The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker as mission statements. Although the former was never more than an over-colourful metaphor, one finds the motif of evolution’s “selfishness” recurring in TE writings of the last couple of decades. It is enlisted as the explanation for human sin (rebranded as selfishness and rendered biologically inevitable rather than voluntary), and in order to field the concept that “nature”, like egocentric genes, is autonomous of God and “all about me“. Perhaps Dawkins’s atheistic and anti-Paleyan watchmaker motif could be turned into a theological virtue, rendering Christianity less obnoxious to biologists by conceding evolution to be mainly independent of God.
This act of “making a virtue of necessity” led perhaps a majority of TE academics to start thinking of God as the loving parent who lets his wayward child (the Creation) go its own way rather than constraining it. In this way the atheists were happy (ex-Catholic Francisco Ayala spoke of “design without a designer”), God was spun as a loving grandfather rather than a depsotic “puppet-master” who “calls all the shots”, and anything objectionable in nature could be distanced from the Creator and attributed to wayward evolution.
That theological theme may yet be a long time in dying, even through the selfish gene itself is passé, because as we have seen evolutionary religion tends to lag science (just as churches habitually discover that the libertarians were right on contentious moral issues a few years after the law changes – cynical? Moi?). Now society is postmodern, and evolutionary theory is (quite coincidentally, of course) postmodern too. Gone is the idea of inevitable progress, and a march towards right reason, because the prevailing neutral theory is more about the idea that all kinds of quite random changes are all equally good – or rather, equally mediocre. Purifying selection gets rid of the worst excesses, and somewhere there’s just enough adaptive selection to keep things ticking over (it’s hard to pin down how much – sometimes it seems as if it’s included more to keep the adaptationists happy than out of real convicition).
But whereas Lamarck attributed the neck of a giraffe to an inner urge to reach higher food, and Darwin to random variation meeting the same need through natural selection, we’re not surprised now if someone assures us that giraffes just happen to be that way, despite it being of no particular advantage. Likewise you’d expect to find a genome to be full of junk rather than finely-honed and optimally adapted. What to Darwin were self-evidently “endless forms most beautiful” have been magically transformed into organisms that make do just enough to survive. What more evidence would one need that perception is theory-laden?
It’s too soon, perhaps, to see if any specific “neutral theory” theologies arise. Junk DNA can be accounted for by the “blind watchmaker/autonomy” model – God left evolution to get on with it, so what would you expect other than a bodged job? But postmodernism itself has already proved surprisingly popular with academic theologians for some reason, and this at least seems to have rubbed off particularly on Evolutionary Creationists, so maybe that’s the link. Postmodern ideas about literature lead to the relativisation of Scripture even by Evangelicals, so that whereas once squaring Adam and Eve with evolutionary anthropology was a significant headache, now it’s relatively easy simply to read the text of Scripture “your way” rather than “their way”. If it does the job, it’s good enough – perfection is unattainable.
Perfection is not even attainable, or desirable, for God himself in some cases. In Open Theisms God himself learns by experience – in most cases in interaction with human decisions. His predictions (like his moral laws) can prove wrong, and he is sometimes viewed as the Supreme Risk Taker rather than the Sovereign Lord. It’s therefore quite likely that he would not so much leave evolution to it, as conduct experiments with it himself, but with only variable success. Such a God can hardly be viewed as conceiving, let alone attaining, ultimate goals either in nature or human affairs. Like current evolution based on drift, it’s pretty cool that he can keep all the plates in the air at all.
These, of course, are broad brush strokes, intended to encourage the examination of novel theological suggestions, when they are aired in theistic evolution circles, in the light of what is believed at the time about evolution. There is, I’m sure, a correlation, and there ought to be a health warning.
That health warning is, in my view, gained by knowing the limitations of natual theology, or what we may learn about God from nature. The Bible in a number of places says that Creation points us to God, but in the limited sense of his “power and deity” (Romans 1). I believe it also teaches his goodness, from the beauty, order and wisdom of nature. And it teaches his inscrutibility, in that nature can surprise, appal or scare us sometimes. There is a direct link to God in these things, because as I’ve written before, God uses nature instrumentally in his government of the world (I was surprised and pleased to see George Murphy use the “tool” metaphor in a comment on divine action on BioLogos over the weekend).
But the “book of nature” does not substitute for the revelation of Scripture. Natural processes, including evolution, do not tell us what God is like in himself. Still less do theories of evolution as they come and go. The model I’ve called “Classic Providential Naturalism”, that we follow here, by contrast maintains that one can operate with, and accept (or reject) any particular model of evolution whilst maintaining intact a thoroughly orthodox theology (and without compartmentalising ones mind into sealed “religious” and “scientific” sections, either).
The trick is not to let nature dictate theology. But actually, it’s possible to do the reverse, and let purely theological notions be misapplied to nature, distorting ones view of both. But that’s a subject for a different post.