Denton, Falk and theodicy


Eddie Robinson drew attention, on BioLogos, to ex-BioLogian Darrel Falk’s favourable review of Michael Denton’s new book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis. Eddie praises Darrel’s generosity, and I’d add that he shows considerable courage, given the flak he took for his previous generally favourable review of another Intelligent Design text, Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, a year or two ago even from his own Theistic Evolution constituency. I see even the first reply to his Amazon review is warning him off supping with the devil, and on past form expect some of the same response at BioLogos (or at least claims that Falk didn’t write what he wrote!)

But I wish here to review neither the book, which I’ve not read yet, nor Falk’s review as such. Instead I just want to raise some implications for the general approach to theistic evolution raised by both.

What appeals most to Darrel, and surprises him, it seems, as the book comes from ID’s citadel The Discovery Institute, is its apparent emphasis on natural causation rather than divine interventions. This actually shouldn’t be a surprise. Eddie and other ID sympathisers have been hammering on for several years, and it has been equally clear to me from my reading both of ID and other texts over a similar period, that the inference of design in nature is entirely separate from the matter of “means”. To use the over-simplified alternatives Eddie tends to describe in discussion, “intention” is the heart of design, and whether that intention is brought to fruition through a series of miracles, as in creationism, or by a creating a universe in which it is inevitable (“frontloading”), makes no difference.

For myself, I’d want to insist that authentic Christian theology requires some form of double intention (or divine concurrence), whereby what occurs through natural laws, chance or any other process also occurs by God’s divine activity. What Joseph’s brothers intend for harm, God intends for good. But it’s no matter in this context – one infers design from what is, and the means by which it got there are a separate issue.

Now, the way in which Denton’s view of things becomes a branch of “Intelligent Design” is, it seems to me, by a cumulative inference. Reviews I’ve read so far suggest that Denton’s main emphasis in the new book is on the evidence for structuralism, which is the idea – prevalent over natural selection at the begiining of the last cenbtury – that much of what is found in the world of life is based on lawlike restrictions, rather than chance mutations and selection alone. The classic example would be general bauplans such as vertebrate pentadactyly, which appear to predate and outlast most of what processes like natural selection can impose. Thus one would conclude that, were evolution to run from the beginning again, it would have much the same result (contra S J Gould, who as an adaptationist famously decided it would turn out quite different).

This view of things fits the developing views on convergent evolution espoused by another Christian and darling of TEs, Simon Conway Morris.

But there is more to Denton than structuralism. In his last book he followed in the footsteps of Fred Hoyle and the much earlier Lawrence Joseph Henderson in exploring how the very properties of matter and physics predispose to, not only life, but intelligent life. He also draws attention to the cosmic fine-tuning arguments, which are usually also accepted by theistic evolutionists on the basis that they show God’s activity in creation, rather than after it – a soft scientistic distinction, in actual fact.

It is this combination of indications of design in pretty well every factor he looks at in the Universe that makes Denton conclude that the universe, and specifically life, is a “put up job”. Whether that’s scientific, philosophical or just intuitive needn’t concern us here: the point is that Darrel Falk, BioLogos‘ former Director, appears to concur. And as Eddie rightly says, that truly is an example of bridge-building between the two major positions on origins outside Young Earth Creationism (though of course ID is not incompatible with the latter per se since means belong outside its direct purview).

But I want to look beyond that, for the sake of my interest in a truly Christian theistic evolution, to Darrel’s unchanged position on causation, which is still (like Denton’s approach) “semi-deistic”, or to be more accurate, “merely conservationist”. Darrel writes in his review:

He clearly believes there is something built into nature’s laws that generates form in some yet to be discovered way. He doesn’t close the door on the possibility of an Intelligent Designer stepping in to miraculously create the design at various points, but he certainly lets the reader know that he thinks that what has happened is because of “laws” built into natural processes–the very fabric of the natural world.

Denton does not address the theological ramifications of his conclusions. However as an evangelical Christian, I find them enormously satisfying. The fabric of creation is endowed with the qualities that make life in all its magnificent variety possible. The natural laws are a manifestation of God’s ongoing activity. Without God’s presence and without that activity, not only would nature’s laws cease, all matter would collapse into nothingness.

The important detail is in the final sentence of that quote: God’s activity, as I have ascertained in personal discussion with Darrel in the past, is mainly limited to sustaining matter and nature’s laws in existence. His government of nature therefore, that is his directing of it to its ends, is primarily through the operation of the natural laws he initially created, and now keeps in being. How much God directs, then, is largely a question of the specific nature of the laws. Under a purely Darwinian scheme, Gould would be right in saying that evolution would produce very unpredictable results: God might see what was coming, but couldn’t plan it in detail.

But Denton’s approach (like most of the other theories now threatening to topple the ruling Neodarwinian paradigm) means that the lawlike dice both of biology and the other sciences are far more “loaded” than hitherto believed. And hence the outcomes of evolution are also more constrained, and potentially able to enact more precise teleological goals on God’s behalf.

But here’s the thing: why does Darrel Falk, like many other TEs, prefer the “conservationist” view of divine action to the more historically favoured option of “concurrentism”, in which God not only sustains the universe, but guides it moment by moment to produce everything we experience? The answer, as is clear from both his public writing and his responses to me in the past, is theodicy. Back in 2012, in a reply to me at BioLogos, Darrel wrote this:

Did God orchestrate the amazingly intricate details of how a virus successfully invades a cell, captivates its machinery, and then utilizes that equipment to make hundreds of more viruses just like it?

And in his subsequent book, according at least to Karl Giberson, he said it was theologically wrong to attribute the design of a cat that plays with a live mouse, or of the bubonic plague bacillus, to God. In both cases, his theodicy of “natural evil” is that a semi-autonomous evolutionary process, rather than God, is responsible.

Now that’s a weak theodicy at best – though popular amongst TEs – since as soon as you opt for monotheism, which is rather central to Christianity, all things must ultimately come from God. No final dualism is possible, which is why serious theologians have worked hard to account for human evil in the world not only by free-will, but by the principle of concurrence. God is somehow behind even Judas’s actions, but only in the good he can bring out of them, not by participating in evil. As far as the natural creation goes, he refuses to give his glory to another – he, and he alone is responsible for creation, but deems it good even when he uses it for (justified) harm.

But as a theodicy, it more or less stays on the rails whilst open-ended Neodarwinian evolution is the process you believe God used in creation. Then evolution could turn out any number of ways, so anything you dislike in nature – predation, parasitism and the like (that is, most of what happens, actually) – isn’t something that God planned.

But if Denton is right, if evolution operates on the grand scale by fixed laws of nature, and so if it will turn out more or less the same every time it runs – then those things you call “evil” are built into the design of life. The plague bacterium Yersinia pestis might not have evolved by natural slection – but something like it would have done, if details like the pentadactyl limb and intelligent bipedal mammals are programmed into the universe’s laws. If cats torment mice (though as Alfred Russel Wallace pointed out, it is bored and pampered domestic cats, rather than wild ones, that mainly do that), then so in all likelihood would pet “grats” or “jats”in our alternative world. Do we honestly think that there would be no viruses if evolution were repeated, or that they would fail to be so cunningly designed?

No, Denton’s type of Intelligent Design, though apparently just as compatible with the semi-deistic “conservationism” regarding divine action beloved of many TEs, is nevertheless more teleological than Neodarwinian evolution by orders of magnitude. It puts God back in charge of the actual government of creation – albeit it as something of an absentee landlord, and shows “evolutionary theodicy” to be a futile exercise. That’s no bad thing if it leads us back towards the biblical and classical theological picture of the God who is to be feared as the One who brings both good and harm to us, according to the inscrutible wisdom of his love and justice. The God who is actually involved in the rule of his creation.

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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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4 Responses to Denton, Falk and theodicy

  1. Cath Olic says:

    “… Denton’s main emphasis in the new book is on the evidence for structuralism… that much of what is found in the world of life is based on lawlike restrictions, rather than chance mutations and selection alone… Thus one would conclude that, were evolution to run from the beginning again, it would have much the same result (contra S J Gould, who as an adaptationist famously decided it would turn out quite different).”

    I think the above addresses what may be an extremely important point.
    So, here’s a question I hope you can pose to those on BioLogos, as well as answer yourself here:

    *Were evolution to run from the beginning again, would it have much the same result we see today, especially in regards human beings?*

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Cath Olic

    I agree it’s important, and especially so for theistic evolutionists with a tendency to mould their theology to their science – you have to keep changing your theology to keep up. I have a pretty good idea already what kind of comments would be generated by raising it at BioLogos:

    (a) A good many there are still influenced most by the old adaptationist school of Neodarwinianism, and the “free creation” theologies that have arisen either at the same time or because of it. Stephen Jay Gould said evolution would work out completely differently if re-run, because of the true contingency element. So when push comes to shove, many would say that to be “free” creation would have to look very different if it happened again.

    (b) A greater number, whilst influenced by that still, are keen on Simon Conway Morris’s concept of convergent evolution and are begiining to pick up on similar views from others. As far as I know Morris suggests a combination of factors, including that there are only so many niches in the ecosystem, so organisms will tend to end up in a limited number of forms and habits; and secondly some form of complexity theory that constrains outcomes by “natural law”. In other words, different mechanisms from Denton, but with a similar net effect, ie that if re-run evolution would produce similar, but not identical results – eg large herbivores but not actual cows and sheep. Mankind may or may not be a special case for these people – some are happy for an intelligent horse to do the same job, others have some vaguely providential view more in keeping with orthodox ideas of creation and imago dei. “Vague” is the word, though – it’s hard to have a coherent view of a miracle-free approximately-restrained evolution that magically turns out the exact creature God always intended as man.

    (c) “Determinism” is a dirty word in America nowadays – people don’t like the universe as a Rolex watch. The idea that evolution might be so frontloaded as reliably to produce pachyderms or camels, let alone African elephants and dromedaries, is not at all popular. People aren’t thatdeistic. So not many would expect revolution to run entirely by deterministic natural law and turn out the same.

    (d) As for me, my response would be to say how silly it is to imagine that God would want to run creation again anyway, or that it was possible. It’s exactly the same, I would say, as asking a creationist (of any variety) whether God would create the world the same way a second time – it supposes a God who changes his mind, and for whom the real creation isn’t the height of his creative desire. But for the first two positions (a) and (b) above, a similar question has to be faced: was creation so unimportant in God’s eyes that he tossed dice to decide the outcomes, whether in more or less detail?

    I’ll certainly be interested to see how the ground of discussion shifts and “chance” retreats, which there seems little doubt it is doing in biological science.

  3. Cath Olic says:

    “(d) As for me, my response would be to say how silly it is to imagine that God would want to run creation again anyway, or that it was possible.”

    A re-run of evolution needn’t be a silly, impossible hypothetical – at least for an evolutionist.
    For instance, life on earth might be wiped out by nuclear war or by our sun’s dying explosion. A billion or so years after that, life inexplicably appears again and evolution is once more off and running. But how would the biological marathon end?

    Take for instance the subject of sexuality. Maybe a re-run of evolution would produce only do-it-yourself asexual reproduction. Or maybe the re-run would result in a multitude of genders, with a seven-sexed group “hug” needed for conception.

    Such limitless possibilities – in the evolutionist’s mind – certainly could lend credence to a fluid view of sexuality. They could fuel an understanding and perception of sex that’s not based on reality as we know it, nor on any Biblical principles (and certainly not on any unchanging views of sexuality taught by the Catholic Church).

    For the people in groups a), b), c), and d), I’d be curious to know their positions on things like extramarital sex, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, in-vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research.

    Anyway, sex is just something that came to mind in considering a wide-open re-run of evolution. There are probably many other subjects to consider as well.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I’d still say that the idea or re-running evolution is as absurd as re-running history. To test whether it ran the same you’d have to reconstitute the earth to the same state it was whenever it started the first time.

      But since I’m the only member of group D, and I see evolution as just one part of God’s freely willed creation, there is only one history of the world, and this is it. So sexuality follows the pattern of Christ and his Church because that’s what he wills.

      The fact that it may (or may not) be the best model for genetic reproduction (in the same way as, say, the DNA code is probably optimal) would almost certainly follow on views (b) and (c) – and possibly even on view (a), since of all biological concepts, sexual reproduction is probably one of the easiest to show to be adaptive.

      I’d be less willing to predict whether there’d be any difference between the models in genetically normal people suddenly beginning to claim, in large numbers, that they’ve been born in the wrong gender body. That surely *couldn’t* run twice in any rational universe 🙂

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