A short afterthought on extinction events

The last post was about the importance of contingent extinction events in the trajectory of evolution. It occurs to me since that, in the context of Evolutionary Creation, the “creative catastrophism” of these undermines one of the commonest arguments used by TEs for the sufficiency of “natural causes”, usually against ID and any form of Creationism.

This argument runs along the lines used by Leibniz against Newton: that any decent God wouldn’t have to keep tinkering with the secondary causes in creation, but would set them up, in Leibniz’s phrase, “in a perpetual motion.” And so the idea of God’s steering evolution by direct acts would imply that he hadn’t designed the process properly in the first place, like a clockwork toy that has to be pushed when the motor sticks.

This line of reasoning is particularly strong in the “free process” sector of Evolutionary Creation, where it would be an affront to the dignity of creation for God to override its autonomy. But it is not restricted to them – there is, I’m sure you will agree, a strong sense even amongst more classically orthodox BioLogos types that the glory of God is shown best in the outworking of God’s reliable laws in evolution. See how well the Bayesian maths works out! See how accurate the theory’s predictions are! Even in these days of neutral evolution and Junk DNA, the close of Darwin’s Origin of Species still seems to have great traction in this view:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Yet as I mentioned in the previous post, Darwin was a Lyell Uniformitarian at a time when that was opposed, in principle, to its alternative Catastrophism. But the undoubted crucial role of the major catastrophic events that have, as we now believe, set and reset the course of life on earth – asteroid strikes, anoxic oceans, continental movements, mega-volcanoes, solar output variations, etc, etc – mean that the strategic-level “evolutionary creation” (a misleading term anyway) of life on earth in all its grand array did, in fact, not occur only through the unfolding of an elegant theoretical (and lawlike) process, but by a series of jerky and, ostensibly, clumsy interventions.

Now, there’s a tendency in our times to distance God from anything “unpleasant”, so that the idea that he would even consider wiping creation clean to “reset” it is anathema – to many, despite Genesis 6-9, the KT event and all those others less frequently considered were accidental interruptions to evolution and probably not God’s doing. But the record shows they were major drivers of evolution, however they happened. And they were entirely contingent.

So whether ones view of providence is historical – that God governs all events in his world – or liberal – that God only does nice, reliable things – the fact of the matter is that the creation of the living world as we know it occurred though at least a goodly number of abrupt interferences with the wondrous mechanisms of current evolutionary theory. Either God rudely intervened to dirupt “the perpetual motion”, or nature itself did.

Now one could perhaps defend the other view by suggesting that all these catastrophic events were somehow ordained by God in his original creation of the universe – that the KT asteroid was a billiard ball aimed unerringly at Mexico by a divine trick shot at the Big Bang. But that hardly meets the criteria implied by Darwin in his quotation, and it’s hard to see what profound philosophical difference there is between “God intervenes” and “God ordains chaotic events to intervene”.

Thereis, of course, an important theological difference, between a Deistic and Christian conception of God.

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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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22 Responses to A short afterthought on extinction events

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    I’m confused Jon. How does ID deal with catastrophic extinction?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I wasn’t making an ID argument – it’s just that the “wisdom of orderly nature” arguments tend to be heard most often in attacking the ID strawmen of “intervention”, “meddling” etc.

      I’m here arguing purely for providence as the governor of contingent causes (as well as lawful causes, of course), and suggesting that a big chunk of life’s story consists of such contingency.

      In relation to your most recent comment on BioLogos, regarding the reality of natural selection, this makes the unpredictable complexity of biology even more so.

      In other words, our God is both the author of order and the free Creator. Nothing revolutionary there, but it seemed good to be reminded.

  2. swamidass says:

    I am confused too about how you place this in the debate. I regularly use the KT cases as a clear example (to which all scientists agree) of how evolution alone is not sufficient to explain the full diversity of life on earth. This is to point out the absurdity of the “Dissent from Darwinism”, one of the ID touch points, which falsely implies that mainstream science teaches evolution is sufficient.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I’m slightly (and genuinely) surprised that both you and Sy find the post confusing. I thought it was fairly straightforward. I suppose the answer is that in my experience, many TEs don’t consider – or at least, they forget it in discussions – that “evolution alone is not sufficient to explain the full diversity of life on earth.” I’m not thinking of “scientists”, but “Christians who accept evolution”, some of whom are, of course, also scientists.

      They forget it when they’re making the point that God would not need to “intervene” in a lawlike and wise process like evolution, because the need to do so would show he hadn’t designed his own process adequately. Surely you’ve come across that line of argument?

      Usually, of course, the target they have in mind is miraculous intervention (hence my mention of Creationism and ID in the OP), but my point is that the undoubted role of these highly contingent events in “pushing” evolution is just as much a rude interruption in the evolutionary process as as a miracle would be, and so it needs as good a theological explanation.

      So one must either attribute catastrophes to some kind of affront to God’s lawlike provision by an autonomous nature gone bad (which, as you know, is a strong strand in the “free process” school of EC, explaining pretty well everything one doesn’t approve of in living things), or consider again a strong view of providence by which God’s creative process is at all times BOTH lawlike AND contingent.

      Incidentally, such a view shows the shortcomings of the term “Evolutionary Creation”, which formally at least omits the non-evolutionary aspects of the secondary causes employed in the creation of life. We don’t, after all, speak of “volcanic creation” or “meteoric creation” – GD is good at pointing out how the term conflates creation with (just one) secondary cause.

      • swamidass says:

        I suppose I just object to the notion that EC scientists do not consider contingency (I certainly do) and that ID scientists do (they generally do not).

        I would have rephrased your first paragraph to say something like, “EC, ID, and atheists arguing about the sufficiency of evolution to explain the full diversity of life (borrowing from the language of the Dissent from Darwinism) usually neglect the defining importance of unpredictable historical contingencies, like the extinction of dinosaurs by an asteroid (the KT event).”

        With that modification, I think you are certainly on to something here. Thanks for taking my thoughts seriously.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:


    As I muse on this theme, I (thinking out loud) tend to believe that the greatest (potentially) catastrophic event for this planet has been the human race. After all we have created capabilities, which are present, that may wipe out vast amounts of species and perhaps render this planet uninhabitable (and I think we have done a lot of wiping out of species as it is).

    Quite a situation and hardly a natural consequence of evolution (and common decent if some need that ad-on).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Funnily enough I’ve just been listening to the classic 1954 BBC radio Sci-Fi drama “Journey into Space” (the source of many lunchtime conversations in my childhood), in which the same thought was expressed by a race of wise and beneficient time travellers.

      They put it down to the evolutionary violence and stupidity of our ancestors, which was forcing them to leave their quiet Pleistocene haven, and the thrust of the conversation was that mankind’s only hope lay in the rationality of science.

      The truth is, though, that generally early hunter-gathers seem to have lived in productive equilibriun with their environment (inefficient bush fires in Australia notwithstanding), and the destruction of the planet has come, barring some deforestation in classical times, almost entirely from a mere couple of centuries of the ascendancy of Enlightenment science and technology – as Charles Chilton, the writer of JiS, ought to have known well less than a decade after Hiroshima.

      The irony of your point is that, theologically, the earth was in a very real sense made for man, pointing out the cosmic tragedy of the Fall as well as its effects on man himself.

      Anyway, in case anyone’s interested, I wrote and recorded an entirely un-nuanced song on the subject a good number of years ago, which you can hear here. Perhaps significantly for the debate over the present place of science in society, it still strikes a very resonant chord with audiences at gigs.

  4. Noah White says:

    Hi Jon,

    Another fascinating article, thanks! I’m off-topic here, but I came across this article (http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html) and was wondering if I could get your thoughts (as well as Sy, GD, Merv, or any other believers). Does an eternal universe throw a wrench in our perception of God from the Bible and creation ex nihilo? I know it’s just a model, but I’ve been hearing more and more talk of the eternality of the universe lately and it’s been a bit disturbing to me and I shudder at the idea of another pillar of my reasons for believing coming down. Or have we built up the Big Bang too much simply because it helps our case?


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Noah

      My best reply to this comes from pointing you to St Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments for God’s existence from reason (the “Five Ways”) are still useful when apparent reason calls into question the revelation of God.

      In his day, many of the natural philosophers argued for an eternal universe, just as the majority of scientists before the Big Bang theory did within my adult life. So Aquinas, not in the business of denying the science of his day, based his arguments with that possibility in mind, though he certainly believed the Scriptural account himself.

      Without trying to handle his arguments fully here, he basically pointed out that we should not see Creation’s dependence on God merely as the “First” in a chain of causes in time, ie that you can find “natural” causes back to point t^0, and when the chain runs out, you have to invoke God.

      Instead, the very nature of the world (especially its “contingency”, that it consists of parts and could easily be different – back to the subject that prompted this series of posts!) speaks of its dependency and so the necessity of God as Creator even moment by moment. In other words, the existence of the eternal Creator would even be necessary if the world is time-eternal.

      Philosopher Ed Feser is good on this, and a brief explanation is in one of his blog posts here, if you scroll down to his point 3.

      The most relevant section is this:

      Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed. Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument. When he argues there that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past. What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.

      In other words, an eternal universe is no big deal – and in fact, Christianity has worked with that possibility being favoured by “science” for a good chunk of its history. I hope that’s some help!

      • Noah White says:

        That’s a lot of help, Jon, thanks so much! I’ve been exposed Aquinas’s cosmological argument before but unfortunately it was by a philosophy prof who wasn’t quite accepting of much of modern science so we kind of glossed over the more specific details. Thanks again, and I’m always impressed at your ability to bring off-topic discussions back to the OP (I assume this is also because most of these things are all connected at some point down the line).

      • Noah White says:

        Also, as an aside, a Discovery Institute guy by the name of Doug Axe is speaking in chapel today at my (Baptist) University, which should be interesting. I may not be able to make it as I need to do some last minute reading of Kant for my Ethics class but it’s an interesting pivot from the run-of-the-mill speakers we usually get. Usually our best chapel (if I can put it that way) is getting William Lane Craig and Craig Evans (who are, interestingly enough, profs at my school along with the infamous Michael Licona) to give us apologetics debate pointers which always ends up feeling more corny than anything else. Mildly relevant to the topic at hand, I guess, but I thought you might find it interesting. All the best!

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Thanks for the thanks, Noah!

          Doug Axe is speaking at a conference in Cambridge next month, together with a bunch of the usual ID guys like Stephen Meyer (whom I’ve met) and Ann Gauger (whom I’ve not).

          Axe would be interesting to hear having recently published a book (despite recently crossing swords with Joshua Swamidass), and it would be a good excuse to get back to Cambridge and wax nostalgic. But it’s 200 miles and my daughter may need help with her new baby by then.

          I’d think he could be worth a listen, though, on perhaps his most relevant theme to you, ie that ones inbuilt instinct that nature is designed is not to be lightly dismissed. I think that’s quite a separate issue from the quality, or otherwise, of his science!

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            PS I gather Licona would be famous, rather than infamous, if it weren’t for one relatively minor hermeneutics issue. Which is a shame.

            • Noah White says:

              (I also have to confess I’m a bit gunshy when it comes to doing deep dives into previous posts and comment threads as certain skeptics get to me and their comments spike my anxiety!)

          • Noah White says:

            That’s a good point about his emphasis on our instinct that nature is designed; I’ll see what I can do about this Kant reading to try and make the talk.

            Re: Licona, it is quite the shame that he was so deeply criticized for his view on that passage, though I guess it led to my university getting a great professor.

            One last question, which just came to mind as I was pondering the size of the Universe–what would intelligent life elsewhere do for us? I know it’s hypothetical and highly unlikely we’ll ever know if it exists, but sometimes I wonder if it’s there and how it relates to the incarnation. It’s another one of those things that I wonder about from time to time and sometimes I feel like it’s inevitable given the size and age of the universe. If I were much more sure in my faith than I am now it probably would be a minor issue, but when I’m on shaky ground every tremor feels like a 10 on the richter scale.

            Apologies if you’ve written at length on this before, I couldn’t seem to find it after a quick search but I could’ve overlooked something.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Hi Noah,

      I have stated many times that I try to differentiate between speculation and settled science – the subject you mentioned is obviously interesting but also speculative.

      Generally I look at speculation and models such as the big-bang (and other models that had gone out of favour) within a given context. For example, we may look past the singularity problems of the big-bang, but we cannot get past a concept such as “time = nothing”, for the simple reason that we cannot think of “no time”, or “before time began”. The problem becomes greater if we now add an “eternity”, as this too is an impossible concept for science.

      So I tend to think that any scientific model that seeks to discuss creation by God from nothing will inevitably fall short of that mark. Instead I look to what we can regard as settled science and seek harmony with faith.

      • Noah White says:

        Thanks for the reply, GD, and may I also say your words to Nathan in that recent Biologos thread resonated deeply with me as well. I think this is a good principle to adhere to–growing up in a conservative, Southern US environment sometimes my idea of creation and ex nihilo is often couched in very simplistic terms (there was nothing, then *poof* God made stuff), but it’s good to be reminded that ultimately any model of creation ex nihilo will fall short because it is something far beyond our ability to comprehend. I hope that’s in line with your thoughts here, but do feel free to correct me! I am decidedly not a scientific mind, so sometimes I can be a bit obtuse.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Although not directly concerned with this particular topic, the discussion in “Eclectic Orthodoxy” contains material that fits in with your theme, and may be of interest (there is a push to avoid Orthodox Christianity).

    “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said. . .” (Gen. 1: I-3).

    “Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Ps. 102: 25-27).

    The triune God is the holy creator who freely speaks the universe into contingent existence out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). He is the sovereign Lord, utterly transcending his creation, yet actively immanent within it, guiding and directing it to its eschatological fulfillment in the Kingdom. As creator, God is free to act within his universe, both providentially and miraculously, to accomplish his purposes and ends.

    We repudiate the false teaching of monism, which indissolubly unites deity and cosmos into an interdependent whole, the world being construed as God’s body, born of the substance of deity, and thus divine. On the other hand, we repudiate the false teaching of deism, which distances the creator from active involvement in the preservation, redemption, and consummation of his creation.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      A very apt citation, and relevant also to another curent discussion at BioLogos about whether for God to guide evolution to specific outcomes would constitute “determinism” (a bad thing).

      Hitherto I’ve never thought of God’s making a particular “something” as in any way related ethically to determinism of events: how can one object to a maker choosing to make what he likes (as the potter is free to do, according to Scripture)? But of course, as soon as one introduces process into creation (for example, that Job’s ostrich comes to be via a process of evolution; or even, come to that, that Job comes to be through the biological process of generation), then creation necessarily becomes the determining of events, not merely of objects.

      The old theologians, of course, thoroughly understood that – in Orthodoxy, in particular,creatio continua expresses it. And that’s why a thorogoing doctrine of universal providence was so closely linked to God as sovereign Creator. To deny universal providence is, in the end, to deny that God is sole Creator, for “the world, and everything in it” comes to be through events, as well as the overarching creative act of God.

      Many TEs seem to have taken evolution as a pointer to denying God’s determining creation, rather than (as in my view they ought) seeing that evolution must be subject to God’s determining providence. However it is expressed, this is essentially deistic.

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