Hanging’s too good for it: public dissection of a false analogy

The question of God’s oversight of evolution has come up yet again on BioLogos, as it must so long as it’s denied there. Bren, in defending evolution as a substantially undirected process, raises again the analogy of evolution being like a child given freedom to make mistakes by its parents.

It’s a superficially plausible idea, and was used on me by Darrel Falk a couple of years ago, so maybe its origin is in one of those popular theistic evolution books in which theology is done by buzzword. But since it is being used to overthrow the fundamental monotheistic doctrine of universal providence, it had better have some pretty good bona fides. Instead, like the rebellious Sheba son of Bicri (2 Sam. 20), it’s actually a “worthless fellow”, so I’m not here to trace its lineage but to be its executioner – for which I have a little qualification, having studied developmental psychology at Cambridge. I therefore have few qualms about inflicting on it cruel and unusual punishments.public_dissection
Bren puts the case like this:

As an analogy, the process of evolution seems to be a bit like raising children; we cringe in watching them try absolutely everything out, even the obviously bad ideas (like launching themselves head-first off the couch).  They end up wiser and more mature for all the silliness, but it doesn’t make the head-first plunge any more reasonable.  Evolutionary history seems to try everything out (within reach) on the small scale, which leads to some brilliant and stable strategies on the large scale.  The results on the large scale don’t absolve the individual results on the small scale and the results on the small scale don’t denounce the value of the large-scale adaptations.

But the metaphor is inapplicable at nearly every level, on both sides. Let’s start with the parent, then the child, before turning to the evolutionary counterpart. Parents (analogically in loco Dei) do not, as a matter of plain fact, let their children try absolutely everything, and neither is their goal that of producing a fully autonomous individual. Rather, every parent is aiming to guide their child safely towards the end that he or she should mature from total dependency to become a functioning member of the community. Or, in biblical symbolism, “Therefore will a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife”.

Accordingly, every stage of learning is both modelled, and taught. A parent will correct mispronounciations as Junior’s learning to speak, and will show him how to clean his teeth, hold a spoon, and use his potty. Later there are lessons in how to hold a crayon, how to catch a fish … and how to cross a road. Indeed, the greater the stakes, the less autonomy is allowed. No parent allows a child to learn kerb drill by trial and error: it was inadvertance, not libertarianism, on my father’s part that allowed me to stick my fingers in a dismantled mains socket at the age of three. When I was older, since I’d survived, he taught me to mend them properly.

That process never stops – we put kids through two decades of school and college. And in all that time, the freedom to experiment is rationed according to our assessment of whether the child has learned enough to emulate our adult example – to hold his little brother’s hand all the way to the shop, or keep to the speed limit when he’s been schooled into passing his driving test. Even then, the wise parent doesn’t lend him the Ferrari.

When Sonny leaves home, society still curtails trial and error. I’m sure my patients were glad that I learned surgery under hawk-eyed supervision. I was OK at minor surgery – enough to write articles and teach others, anyway – and I did work out my own ways of doing things. But only after strict training minimised the errors in the trials.

Turning to the child (in loco evolutionis), we are dealing with a conscious, fearsomely intelligent soul able to learn from both positive and negative experience, with an innate social sense and an inborn desire to become like its parents. It does not learn by trying out everything – it learns, as Jean Piaget taught psychology,  by trying to imitate adults: “Let me do it, I’m a big girl now.” It wasn’t trying out everything that nearly killed me at the age of three – it was trying to imitate Dad with insufficient knowledge.

Later, if child decides not to become a scientist like his Mum but an actor, or to play Gangsta rap instead of cool jazz it is because he’s been successfully socialised to model beyond his immediate family.

Now some kids do try everything in conscious contradiction of their parents: they smoke because it’s harmful, act because Mum’s a scientist, like rap because Dad shoved cool jazz down their throat and made them learn piano. But that’s only because we have a problem (in both generations) called “sin.” The theological model is Christ, who only ever did what his Father willed. And the Creation, unlike people, is not sinful but “very good.”

I should note that all this accords my own experiencee of raising three kids – and I’m certain it also accords with yours. The experience of raising dogs however, is very different. No trial and error there at all – obedience classes were the thing. As for training plants … well, I’m afraid that was all string and seccateurs.

If we now look at the “evolution” side of the analogy, what is God, the heavenly Father, doing? Well, according to Scripture he’s finding prey for the young lions, clothing the lily of the field, etc. But I mean, in the analogy, what is he doing? Is he modelling, instructing and disciplining his child? It appears not – but if he is, how, exactly?

What about that child though? He (she?) is problematic, because it’s far from clear what is actually meant by it. Is it “Nature”? But that’s just an abstract noun to cover all the things in creation. Does this “Nature” try, learn, err or succeed in anything? Are we in fact talking about some Gaia hypothesis? Where’s that in the Bible, then?

Perhaps instead the child is “Evolution” itself? This is even more bizarre as a personification. Evolution is not even a thing – it’s a process, like growth, or movement. Where is this “evolution” living? Sharing an appartment with “movement” and “growth”, maybe?

One could, I suppose, take “evolution” as a surrogate for “Evolving Life” (so the child is “The Universal Life Force”?) or, giving some ground to realism, “Evolving Organisms.” But that’s no better, because unlike growth and movement, evolution is not an activity of living things – it’s something they undergo, like an operation or a famine, at least in conventional Neodarwinism.

Organisms are not free to evolve: they are coerced into succumbing to it. The environment (another personalisation of multiple factors) mutates them through radiation, quantum-mediated errors, chemical quirks etc and then selects them through culling. The Hardy-Weinberg Law says that, barring unusual circumstances, evolution is inevitable. It’s far from clear that even this version of evolution “tries everything”, but I won’t pursue that as it’s the analogy on which we’re focusing.

Whatever one takes as one’s “child”, then, nothing in Christian theology or philosophy, or science itself, makes it remotely like your little Jimmy or Jenny. It is not a conscious or intelligent being. It does not model God’s works, in order to become like him, and it does not learn by its mistakes (if you allow a blind process the category of “mistake”). Copying errors, gene duplications, deleterious mutations, random drift (if indeed it is random) … they’re all just as common as they ever were, and evolutionary theory depends on that fact. Granted, life has astonishing ways to minimise the errors – but I don’t know of any actual evidence that this wasn’t the case from the very earliest period of life. Survival would have been virtually impossible without error correction.

And the biggest error of all in this analogy is the most glaring one. To educate a child in human skills, values, and self-control is to nurture a rational soul into the freedom to relate to others and to God in a healthy way – to reach the destiny of participating in the divine nature through God’s own Son. Individuality and choice is, in God’s wisdom, a vital part of the divine image in our race.

But unless you’re a believer in panpsychism, the irrational Creation neither needs, wants, nor can use or appreciate freedom. Living organisms might, according to some, share in a semblance of some of these – but as I’ve shown they’re the one participant in the evolutionary process whose freedom to be what they are is curtailed by evolutionary pressures applied by blind and undirected forces without.

In other words, regarding this analogy (as Os Guinness once said after a similarly long diatribe) I’m decisively against it. It’s inaccurate, incoherent and pretty abhorrent to creaturely freedom, too. And the analogy is no better than the theology it supports. I’m supposed (and you too, dear reader) to accept it, in order to reject the old doctrine that God watches over and directs his Creation, that he made all that is in it (so to speak) solely with his own hands – or more theologically, according to the perfect will of the Father, through the perfect wisdom of the Son, by the perfect agency of the Holy Spirit – incomprehensible though those often are to us sinners.

But why should any of us even give it house room? Frankly I’d rather follow the example of the wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah, who threw Sheba’s head over the city wall and brought peace to God’s people again.


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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5 Responses to Hanging’s too good for it: public dissection of a false analogy

  1. Sy Garte says:

    Sorry Jon, I cant find that comment on BL. Could you tell us which article its on? Thanks

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Sy
    The thread’s been rather swamped by some new belchings from melanogaster, but it’s here @ #83713.

  3. Sy Garte says:


    Yes, you are utterly right, theologically and scientifically (and one cannot be any more right than that). Having read a number of Bren’s comments, I am not even sure that she (?) would agree with that particular analogy once she sees it again in the light of all the issues you bring up.

    And your key point is a great one. Human beings are all about making choices with free will. No other product of evolution has this chance.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      Bren’s been, until now, a relatively infrequent commenter and is more candid and conversational (not to mentions concessional) than many. I did an early form of this response to Darrel Falk’s use of the metaphor way back, and got no real response at all. In that the critique goes the heart of the “free creation” teaching that has regularly cropped up there, and is promulgated in any number of books as well, one could say that I’ve had no response in the couple of years since, either.

      So Bren isn’t the target, but those who’ve bought into polemics dressed as theology without thinking it through. And the villain, of course, is the doctrine itself, on which a plethora of anathemas!

      I saw your post on BioLogos about the demonstrated value of re-opening posts: 91 comments currently on that thread, I believe. I needn’t remind you that the subject is the same one that appears to have induced them to close comments last time! All those believers in the old man in the sky with funny vertebrae rocking the boat…

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