Directed evolution and progressive creation

Paul Nelson, in a BioLogos comment, linked to a philosophy of science paper  which questions if there is any actual difference between the kind of “unique natural event” often postulated for, at least, key stages in the origin of life, and creationism. This is a look at the same question in a less analytical manner. And assuming Christian faith, I should add.

Joshua 3-4 describe the crossing of the Jordan river by Israel of the Exodus, and actually includes exactly how the trick was done, at a time when the Jordan was overflowing its banks at harvest time because of seasonal rains:

…the waters which were flowing down from above stood and rose in one heap, a great distance way at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those which were flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. So the people crossed opposite Jericho.

Now, back in 2015 I did a post including this story, in relation to worldviews and the interpretation of events. I included a photo of a partial blockage at the same part of the Jordan as recently as 1957, and here is a link to a photo of another, complete, blockage due to an earthquake in 1927. Unfortunately, the source is unable to say exactly where the blockage occurred.

But the research for my old post suggested similar blockages have occurred around seven times since the twelth century, and presumably at similar intervals before that. So it’s a rare event, caused by earthquakes or, perhaps, sometimes by cliff collapse at flood time, but not unique. So was the Joshua event a miracle, or a natural event?

On the one hand, there seems no reason to invoke an entirely un-natural cause for it: there are soft cliffs near the site of Adam which can be shaken or washed into the path of the river to block it. So an earthquake, or the floodwaters mentioned in the text, or both, probably were efficient causes.

Furthermore, if it happens every century or so the possibility would be known to the readers or writers, if later than the events, of the Book of Joshua.

On the other hand, it’s not the kind of event any leader would want to rely on to get 20,000 folks across a river in flood, as one might wait in hope of a favourable prevailing wind to set out on a sea voyage. So even to the educated ancient reader, the miracle would be mostly in the timing, equivalent to the storm of the century destroying the Spanish Armada just in the nick of time, only far, far less likely.

Note how little likelihood there is of a writer who knew of these occasional events applying them to a fictional account of the crossing in Joshua as a miracle: if you want to invent a miracle, why not describe something unprecendented (as, apparently, was the parting of the Sea of Reeds during the Exodus)?

The Bible refers to the event several times, but I don’t think it anywhere describes it as a “miracle” in as many words. Psalm 114 attributes it simply, like all the wonders associated with the Exodus, to the presence of the God of Jacob; Psalm 66 describes it as as “an awesome work on behalf of man”; Psalm 74 attributes it to God’s power, and note, specifically to his power as Creator and owner of the day and the night, all the boundaries of the earth, and the seasons – that is to say, the ruler of the natural world, not a powerful outsider.

The point was that God used his ongoing power over creation to achieve the result he desired at the time he desired. If we assume the natural forces involved to be the same as those involved in the occasional “natural” damming of the Jordan in history, then he would need to be managing – no, micromanaging – a good number of the physical elements to bring it about to order. These would include the weather patterns leading up to a particularly strong seasonal flood, and/or the particularly strong flow of the river near the city of Adam in conjunction with a particular weakening of the cliffs there – both chaotic processes.

If there was an earthquake, those do not happen in isolation from the tectonic forces operating not only between the African and Arabian plates, but the whole world. God would have to control the whole process of continental movement with great precision to produce the desired result in that one locality. The resulting damming would have to last long enough for all that Joshua needed, but no longer. That, presumably, depends on flow volume and the amount of debris involved.

I suggest that such a scenario cannot usefully be regarded as “interference”, but rather as management of the whole warp and woof of nature – an ongoing, Creatorial management of the sort that is both taught in Scripture, and implied by the Psalm 74 account in particular. Or to put it another way, what we would call “nature” is, in fact, God’s governance as Creator of the systems and artifacts he has made, and not an occasional nudge.

So let’s turn to some event in the evolutionary history of life that we might regard as unique, or “extremely improbable” (though as I argued in the BioLogos thread linked, “probability” is a false way of considering unique events). The origin of life is the one most often linked to possible divine action, apart from the creation of man in his spiritual and intellectual uniqueness, and on the BioLogos thread, after some discussion Dennis Venema said to me that the current evidence suggested it to be indeed unique, so it suits out discussion perfectly. In 2007 Eugene Koonin considered its unlikeliness so great as to invoke the many worlds multiverse to lower the odds.

But there are other rare biological events that are beyond doubt, and multitudes when one considers that life is nothing but a sequence of unique events leading to unique species in unique ecological niches making up Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful.” Never forget that the wisdom and beauty of the whole and its parts is to be explained.

Koonin, in another paper, agonises over the unlikeliness of DNA and its replication, and still in 2017 could only attribute it to a “frozen accident.” There are accidents and accidents, though – walking into a door is a more plausible accident than chemicals stumbling on the key to evolvable biological information fortuitously. It’s actually a one-off fluke without explanation.

It reminds me of a line from some boarding school story of my youth in which the teacher found missing property in a top bunk, whose occupant’s excuse was “It must have fallen up there.” Once you remove from your mind the illusion of “low probability” in an absolute sense, because it is meaningless, you are able to see that the only relevant question is “possible or impossible”? No matter how long the universe lasts, things will never fall against gravity, spontaneously or in any other way.

Yet, like the Jordan drying up, some unique events seem possible in principle, but fortuitously timed. Mutations do happen, in some statistically predictable way, and apparently mostly are mildly deleterious and without adaptive selection. But ending up with a peregrine falcon after a series of near-neutral mutations seems a bit like the Jordan drying up just as the feet of the priests carrying the ark touch the water.

In that case, Ps 114 tells us it happened simply because God was present and willed it. Joshua himself reminds us that he is both the living God, and Yahweh, the Lord of all the earth. So the question is, do those who believe in “directed evolution” believe that the Lord of all the earth would by that token also be Lord of all the mutations? And do they believe that he is present in such “natural” processes, or absent from them, simply watching from afar? And do they believe that the reason he directs evolution at any time is to achieve his purposes within the living realm, as Lord and Creator? Or not?

If the answer to those questions is “Yes”, then how is his governing involvement in biology, as Creator, any different in kind or degree from his governing involvement, as Creator, in the management of the Jordan river for Israel?

The word bara, create, is used by the prophet Isaiah of the formation of Israel as a nation (ch43). But it is significant to my subject just how he expressed the process involved:

The Lord created Jacob and formed Israel. Now, this is what the Lord says:

Do not be afraid, because I have reclaimed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through the sea, I am with you.
When you go through rivers, they will not sweep you away.

His creation of Israel, expressed here as a kind of baptism through the Red Sea and the Jordan (cf 1 Cor 10:1-2), was achieved through unique events in the natural world which, as I have shown, presuppose his ongoing government of the natural world. “Evolutionary Creation” entails that God “uses” processes of evolution to create all the species we see around us, each unique and each a product of highly contingent, or even unique, events… just like the blocking of the Jordan river timed to “create” Israel at the boundary of its promised land. The comparisons are direct both materially and theologically.

Here is an old quote, but I’ve included the source so you know it’s real. Fred Hoyle’s words seem worthy of reflection:

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.
(Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections”, in Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, volume 20, September 1982, p. 16)

So now, just remind me what this “nature” is?

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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2 Responses to Directed evolution and progressive creation

  1. RJDUFF says:

    This post resonated with me even more than usual – and I find myself nodding a lot while reading here. I’ve had similar thoughts on the same passage but you’ve taken what was more disjointed in my my mind and brought great clarity to them. Thanks so much for taking the time to write on these topics.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Joel, and welcome to the Hump. I hope you hang around and comment.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write on these topics.

    It seems to have become my day job these last 9 years! I do find a particular interest in trying to clarify what seems often to be fudged – “chance” being one, “nature” being another, both relevant to this post.

    Took a brief look at your blog and decided we’re on much the same page – keep up the good work.

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