Hump retrospective 3: creation with no need for a Creator

In Britain, at least, a common position of many ordinary Evangelical Christians (until they start reading American books, anyway!) is, “I don’t see why God couldn’t have created through evolution.” The rub is that they usually have little idea of what evolutionary theory says: what they mean is that species might well change over long periods of times, under the creative direction of God, as an alternative to each being created de novo.

“Transformism” and “fixism” are what Darwin set in mutual opposition in The Origin of Species, but he engaged in something of a bait and switch because, by 1859, most thinking Christians of a scientific bent had accepted transformism, and it was mainly the mechanism that was controversial. By focusing criticism on special creation, Darwin’s theory of tiny variations and natural selection was spared any real internal criticism. It attracted converts largely amongst the general readership, at first, because the principle seemed self-evidently true, if one was not aware of the criticisms by biologists who pointed out problems like the strict limits of variation in selective breeding. The devil of all self-evident theories is in the detail.

Coming to the field afresh around 2010 after only loosely keeping up with its more recent developments, I gradually drew a range of conclusions, which it is quite difficult to state succinctly and in an orderly way in a blog post. But here goes.

(1) Whether of not evolution was “a theory in crisis,” as Michael Denton and the Intelligent Design movement claimed, it was certainly in a state of considerable flux. Furthermore it always had been, contrary to the “Darwinius Victor” mythology of school textbooks and documentaries. Perhaps the most significant example, from the viewpoint of the present, is not the bevy of alternatives or additions to Neodarwinism that make up “The Third Way” or “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” but the tail-end of the “Adaptationist Wars” that ended, it seems to me, in an uneasy truce rather than a clear resolution.

Adaptationism is what you see in old David Attenborough documentaries, in which it is assumed that if there is an environmental challenge, beneficial variations will inevitable arise, be selected for, and survive. Looking through the other end of the telescope, any beneficial feature you observe in a species now will have arisen by some such set of changes. Very few, if any, incontrovertible instances of this exist, which is why evolutionary biology tends to operate on “narrative explanations,” which is a euphemism for “Just-so Stories.”

Against adaptive evolution the neutralists argued, on good population genetics grounds, that most changes are, in fact, near-neutral and escape selection. The implication is that all those wonderful characteristics and abilities just happen to be there. To escape the charge that this leaves an awful lot to sheer luck, a loincloth of residual adaptive selection, indeterminate in extent, is now retained, together with an epicycle of niche-selection theory, in which the creature lumbered with such mildly-deleterious changes figures out some way to use them in some new environment. Your sloth finds its snout is too narrow to eat leaves? Well, ants are smaller, and maybe you can suck them up to survive.

I found that this controversy remains somewhat hidden from view because proponents of each side each declare confidently that theirs is the new orthodoxy, but they generally decline to disagree with the others in public. But it seems to me that what this really means is that what we know about how evolution works, and even about what has happened in its history, is very much less than what the theories claim to know.

(2) I also found that much of the “religion v. evolution” conflict was not about science, or even the interpretation of Genesis, but about a conflict in metaphysics that is seldom fully recognised, especially on the side of scientists, who dismissing metaphysics as mumbo-jumbo, often fail to realise that they have embraced a specific version of it in their training.

This actually goes back to Darwin who, whether motivated by Deistic religious doubt, or as many think by the challenge to his theodicy of losing his daughter, undoubtedly sought in natural selection a designer substitute, an autonomous and “natural” Creator letting the ultimate Creator off some kind of moral hook. It boils down (as N T Wright very clearly expresses) to the difference between Epicurean chance and Theistic design.

In the continued quest for a “natural” explanation for life, Monod’s chance and necessity are still the concepts usually lurking behind the metaphysical thinking of many biologists.

(3) What I discovered in today’s most prevalent “science friendly” expression of theistic evolution (aka “evolutionary creation”) at BioLogos was that the layman’s “God might have created through evolution” had now adopted the metaphysical assumptions of this Epicureanism rather than Theism. What its proponents usually meant was that God “used chance,” somehow determining outcomes without making choices. Over very many serious discussions, I concluded that this is simply incoherent – in fact the Epicurean universe is a substitute for, not an aspect of the Theistic one. There actually isn’t room in the Christian universe for chance (that is, chance with respect to God, or “ontological chance”), as a thorough investigation of the nature of chance and randomness demonstrated to me.

In fact, I found that the removal of a robust concept of design from modern theistic evolution had not always been the case. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to the phenomenon of Intelligent Design, or perhaps a lack of metaphysical discernment. But the first Christian followers of Darwin’s theory, such as Asa Gray, Charles Kingsley and B B Warfield, and even Darwin’s co-theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, were insistent that the variations on which natural selection would act are strongly overseen by the creative providence of God.

This kind of thinking returns us to my lay-person’s approach to theistic evolution. Whether God creates what he desires by divine fiat, by making the cosmos an unfolding evolutionary algorithm like a Chinese paper flower, or by commanding angels to execute his will, he is still acting in accordance with Scripture’s teaching on the wisdom and love of the divine Logos. It is no different from the fact that building something with my hands, designing a machine to build it, or giving directions to a skilful workman are all ways for me to create what is in my mind, whereas throwing materials up in the air is not.

That kind of theistic evolution is (or would be, if it weren’t almost extinct amongst Christian thinkers now) far less troubled by the significant eclipse in the magical powers of natural selection that near-neutral theory and other developments in biology have revealed. Remove natural selection as a major creative force, but retain providential variation, and what you’re left with is a form of progressive creation.

You then simply have to decide, as people have for over two thousand years, whether “endless forms most beautiful” are better explained by Epicurean chance just happening to get it right, or by Theistic choice doing so. There are, of course, one or two possible alternatives like pan-psychism, but I think that position will only become popular if materialistic naturalism finally loses its plausibility, whilst mankind continues to shun the implications of God’s government.

(4) When I put all this together, as someone who has been comfortable with evolution as a concept since childhood, the last decade has made me both more comfortable than ever with its possibility, but simultaneously a lot less certain that it is actually a useful explanation for life. I’m not even sure what it is, in my Christian belief, that makes it distinguishable from the Logos saying, “Let there be zebras,” and their appearing.

In that case perhaps science is, even more than we think, the investigation of God’s ongoing government of the world.

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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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