Over the past few years I have asked a fair number of creationists what it is they find so objectionable about evolution. They have a great many complaints, but the one I hear most often is some version on the problem of evil. Evolution by natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process. It is not at all the sort of thing a just and loving God would set in motion.
They are hardly alone in thinking that. In his book Living With Darwin philosopher Phillip Kitcher wrote, referring to the evolutionary process:
There is nothing kindly or providential in any of this, and it seems breathtakingly wasteful and inefficient. Indeed, if we imagine a human observer presiding over a miniaturized version of the whole show, peering down on his “creation,” it is extremely hard to equip the face with a kindly expression.
I agree that this is a major problem for supporters of theistic evolution. Whenever I read books claiming to reconcile evolution with Christianity I am always looking in particular for an effective answer to this problem. I have yet to find one, and it is not for lack of looking.
More recently some evolutionists have taken to employing the problem of evil against proponents of intelligent design (ID). This tack was taken in particular by Francisco Ayala in his book Darwin’s Gift. The gift was providing theists with a way of explaining the poor design of organisms. If God is intervening at a molecular level to cause good things like immune systems and eyes (as the ID folks suggest), then he is also responsible for the bad things like cancer and weak lower backs. But if God created through natural law then we must simply accept some bad consequences as the cost of doing business. We need gravity to keep us from floating into the air, but that means some people will die by falling off cliffs.
There is an obvious counter to this. If you set in motion a process that inevitably leads to bad ends then you are just as morally culpable as if you caused the end more directly. If I drop an anvil on a man’s head I do not absolve myself by saying, “It wasn’t my fault! Gravity did all the harm.” We can agree that ID has a problem with suffering, but so does theistic evolution.
This argument seems unanswerable to me. Many philosophers and theologians have tried to refute it, but I do not believe they have come up with anything compelling. A case in point is Michael Ruse, who takes a stab at it in this essay. After a long preamble he gets down to business with this:
Why did God create through law? First, let it be noted that the Genesis stories notwithstanding, there is nothing in Christian theology that prevents Him from doing so. Indeed, if with Augustine we think of God as outside time, then for Him the thought of creation, the act of creation, and the product of creation are as one. Using law rather than miracle does not slow the process down for God, and indeed Augustine himself inclines to think that God created seeds that then developed. (Augustine was no evolutionist, but his theology encourages such thinking.)
It is very misleading to say that God created through law. Whatever your model is for God’s creative activity, it has to involve both supernatural activity and natural laws. The issue is not creation by miracle versus creation through law. The question is only the relative contribution of each. YEC’s and ID’s attribute more to the supernatural than does Ruse, but their explanations are only different in degree, not in kind.
Also, while it is all well and good to say that God lies outside of time, the fact remains that traditional Chrsitian theology holds that humanity is the reason for creation. In light of that, one has to wonder about the purpose of all of that suffering, death and extinction prior to the appearance of humans.
Second, either God created through law or He did not. If He did not, then He has a lot of explaining to do. Why do organisms all carry the marks of a lawbound origin, evolution through natural selection? Just before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, the Plymouth Brethren naturalist Philip Gosse hypothesized that God created organisms miraculously with the marks of evolutionary origins. Rightfully, theologians laughed at him no less than scientists. Such a God is a deceiver, and not the God of Christianity — one who traditionally is thought of making one of our tasks that of discovering His glorious creation (however caused).
This simply compounds the error of the previous paragraph. It is a false dichotomy to say that God either created by law or that He did not. In reality he did some things supernaturally and other things by natural laws. The balance Ruse attributes to Him entails millions of years of suffering and bloodsport. By contrast, the balance YEC’s attributes to Him does not have these problems. (It has other problems, of course, like the fact that is in conflict with science at every turn.
Third, if God created through law, why did He use such a painful and at times dysfunctional mechanism as natural selection? Interestingly, no less than the High Priest of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, has answered this one. Running through the various evolutionary options — Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics), saltationism (evolution by massive jumps), and others — Dawkins points out that either they are false (Lamarckism) or they fail to account for adaptive complexity (saltationism). In Dawkins’s own words:
My general point is that there is one limiting constraint upon all speculations about life in the universe. If a life-form displays adaptive complexity, it must possess an evolutionary mechanism capable of generating adaptive complexity. However diverse evolutionary mechanisms may be, if there is no other generalization that can be made about life all around the Universe, I am betting it will always be recognizable as Darwinian life. The Darwinian Law … may be as universal as the great laws of physics.
(This is from an essay that Dawkins wrote back in 1982, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the death of Darwin.)
Dawkins was making an observation about life in this universe. He was not making an argument about such natural laws as could exist in any possible universe. It is not difficult to imagine systems of natural laws that could exist in some alternate universe which would lead to the creation of the natural world through means that are far less costly than evolution by natural selection. Embedded as we are in this universe those alternatives would seem very bizarre and hard to picture. But surely they are logically possible, which is all that we need.
Even taken at face value these first three points do not address the main theological difficulty at issue here. Why would God set in motion the awful process of evolution by natural selection? So far Ruse has only said that Christians can accept creation through law, that they had better since evolution sure seems like a correct theory of natural history, and that given such laws as exist in this universe it seems that evolution by natural selection is the only option. But why create through law in the first place (to borrow Ruse’s inadequate phrase)?
Fourth, why then didn’t God do things in a different way? Either find or make up other user-friendly laws or create miraculously without the deceit? But, note that it has never been the position of Christians (with some exceptions like Descartes) that God can do the impossible. Dawkins’s argument is that without selection, creation through law is impossible. But why not miracles and no deceit? Well, at the very least one can say that one is not going to get human beings and other organisms or anything remotely like them. For a start, I doubt there is going to be any sex, because reproduction is at the heart of natural selection — more organisms are born than can survive and reproduce, hence a struggle for existence, hence selection. For a second, I doubt there is going to be much eating, because if nothing is doing much reproducing, we are going to run out of food. And that means we are not going to excrete, which is tough news for the dung beetle as well as all of those plants that need fertilization. Frankly, I am not sure you are going to get physical beings at all, which rather does mess up the Christian story. (Emphasis added).
As we have just noted, that is not at all Dawkins’ argument. He was not talking about logical possibilities in any universe, but about empirical possibilities in this universe. It is a huge leap to go from “creation by law” to “everything had to be exactly as it is in our universe.”
But it is the rest of the paragraph that makes it hard to believe that Ruse is serious. That boldface statement is absurd. Why could not God have created physical beings but have done so through miraculous means? That, after all, is precisely what the Bible says He did. Why is it theologically superior to think God would create through evolution by natural selection, a cruel process that does not inevitably lead to the creation of intelligent life, when the Bible itself lays out an alternative that avoids these problems? Ruse does not even address the question.
As it is Christianity holds that we are not purely physical beings. We are the unity of a non-physical soul with a physical body. Our life as physical beings is just a brief preamble to our real lives as purely spiritual beings. If we are the results solely of natural laws, then what is left of the idea of an eternal soul?
You know what else messes up the Christian story? The view of humanity as an unintended consequence of purely physical laws unfolding over fifteen billion years. Millions of years of death and suffering prior to the appearance of human beings. Massive contradictions between science and the Bible. The lack of any trace of intelligent design in the natural world.
There is reason people have to write at book length to defend the compatibility of evolution and Christianity. There is also a reason the best arguments they can come up with are not very good.