Jerry Coyne has a post up on the subject of whether a highly-intelligent, self-aware species is the inevitable end result of the evolutionary process. He begins:
Over at that hilarious goldmine of accommodationism, Francis Collins’s BioLogos website (generously supported by The Templeton Foundation), they have posted an answer to the question, “Did evolution have to result in human beings?” Now if you know anything about this history of faith/science accommodationism, you know that the answer has to be “yes”, at least if you construe the question to mean “Did evolution have to result in a rational, highly intelligent being that was capable of apprehending and worshiping its creator?” If God is running the evolutionary process, as the accommodationists maintain, then the evolution of humans (who are, after all, the goal of this process — the one species made in God’s image) could not have been left to chance.
Get the idea? See the original for appropriate links.
I think Coyne is right both about humans not being inevitable and about the importance of this question to religious folks. If Stephen Jay Gould was right about humans being unlikely to evolve a second time were we to replay the evolutionary process, then Christianity is really in some very serious trouble. It’s pretty hard to argue that humans are the point of creation if it’s a serious possibility that evolution would never have gotten past the trilobite.
Rather than reahsh that argument, however, I’d like to make a different point. Let us grant for the moment that humans really were the inevitable end result of the evolutionary process. Does that really make Christian theism seem plausible?
I think Christianity has a serious problem either way. If humans were not inevitable, them our cosmic significance is greatly reduced. But if we were inevitable, then why the four billion year preamble to our emergence?
Accepting the Francis Collins / Simon Conway Morris / Ken Miller thesis means that God set in motion four billion years of savage, wasteful bloodsport to reach an endpoint that was foreordained. Why did he do that? Why not simply get to the point and create humans right from the start (just as the Bible says He did)?
In principle I can see an argument that God created through an unpredictable evolutionary process because that was the only way for His creation to be genuinely separate from Himself. If God simply poofed the world into existence and told us all not to sin, then Earth becomes rather like an aquarium. We are just fish swimming in his tank, subject to his whims. Kind of makes life seem not so special.
Instead God created a set of initial conditions that made it likely that interesting things would happen, but then allowed the universe to unfold on its own. Perhaps intelligent life would never have emerged, and then He would have gone on to some other project. But once intelligent life did evolve, He sought a relationship with it. By creating in this way the universe could be viewed as being wholly separate from God Himself.
I don’t find that argument very plausible, but I have seen versions of it in various books and essays. The point right now is that this argument is plainly not available to someone who says humans were inevitable. I fail to see the relevant theological difference between creating humans in an instant, and setting in motion a process that inevitably leads to humans.
I suppose it’s possible to argue that humans weren’t literally inevitable, just highly probable. This approach has problems of its own, but enough already. Four billion years of bloody natural history is a problem for Christianity regardless of whether or not humans were inevitable. Positing, against the evidence in my view, that humans were inevitable just fills one hole by digging another.