Evolving Thoughts

God, evolution and variation

It’s a season, so I am told, that has something to do with religion. We celebrate the birth of commodity capitalism, or something. So I thought I would combine my favourite issues – philosophy, religion and evolution.

It’s all Alex Rosenberg’s fault. At a dinner before the conference, he was sitting opposite me, and talk turned, as it does, to creationist attacks on science. Alex made the following claim: It is not possible to be a theist and believe in evolution by natural selection consistently.

I demurred, of course. But on further thought, I wondered if he might not be right.

To make out this case, it pays to specify what we are talking about. What, for instance, is a “theist”? On questioning, Alex didn’t mean the sort of theism that a philosopher of religion might be dealing with – a kind of philosophical god discussed by 1950s Cambridge students and scholars. He meant the interventionist god of Midwest Baptists, or even of laidback Anglicans. The god that Alex thought, if I am reporting him aright, is inconsistent with natural selection is the kind of god that might intervene to cause the evolution of humans, who, we are led to believe, are the reason for the Creation. I will take it a bit more widely – the kind of god is any god who might have made use of natural selection to evolve living things, not specifically humans.

Alex is concerned, of course, with the way the debate over evolution is framed in the US. As significant as this is, it is largely, in my opinion, a sociological accident that evolution is contrasted with that kind of religious belief. Creationism, although it is a kind of curiosity elsewhere in the English speaking world (slightly less so in Scandanavian countries, where a conservative Lutheranism seems to foster it), is not really a great social issue outside the United States. Whether or not philosophical issues are determined by social controversies, scientific theoretical issues rarely are. I think that there are several matters to be disambiguated when we ask if God used natural selection – one is whether or not we humans could be the result of the creator’s choice of that mechanism. That is what I take Alex to be concerned with. A broader one is whether a creator might have set up the universe in such a way to generate life. That is a more defensible claim.

I think that Darwin hit the meat of the first question in his debate with Asa Gray. In a letter to Lyell on 2 August 1861, he wrote

It seems to me that variations in the domestic and wild conditions are due to unknown causes, and are without purpose, and in so far accidental; and that they become purposeful only when they are selected by man for his pleasure, or by what we call Natural Selection in the struggle for life, and under changing conditions. I do not wish to say that God did not foresee everything which would ensue; but here comes very nearly the same sort of wretched imbroglio as between freewill and preordained necessity. I doubt whether I have made what I think clear; but certainly A. Gray’s notion of the courses of variation having been led like a stream of water by gravity, seems to me to smash the whole affair. It reminds me of a Spaniard whom I told I was trying to make out how the Cordillera was formed; and he answered me that it was useless, for “God made them.” It may be said that God foresaw how they would be made. I wonder whether Herschel would say that you ought always to give the higher providential law, and declare that God had ordered all certain changes of level, that certain mountains should arise. I must think that such views of Asa Gray and Herschel merely show that the subject in their minds is in Comte’s theological stage of science…

Gray wrote to Darwin to suggest that the variations that occurred were ordained by God. Darwin replied (22 May 1860)

With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion AT ALL satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can. Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws. A child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by the action of even more complex laws, and I can see no reason why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I probably have shown by this letter.

Darwin’s belief that variation and selection were the laws by which God created the world as we see it contradicts Providentialism. What it contradicts is the idea that history has a Plan, and not only that there is a general plan, with life being a necessary outcome of the right physical conditions, but that in order to get the right outcome, God must intervene in the ordinary course of laws. For if the variation on which natural selection operates is not biased in favour of the future needs of a species, then humans are not a necessary outcome of selection. We did get humans, so they are clearly possible, but for the vast bulk of multicellular life, nothing resembling the kind of intelligence and moral agency of humans that count so heavily in religious doctrine evolved, and in fact humans might not have, had the few genetic differences between us and our ancestors not occurred and been favourable.

Darwin chided Gray for thinking that every variant that occurred in the breeding of outrageous kinds of pigeons, chosen for the amusement of pigeon fanciers, occurred for that end. This makes sense. If we wanted to, we could have bred from any of a number of other variants and made something else. But if those variants are random, then the variants that led to our own species must also be, or else it isn’t natural selection. That is to say, natural selection, plus all the other factors of evolution (which for simplicity I’m leaving out here) would not be sufficient to explain the human species, although it would be sufficient to explain all the other species. This is what Alex meant, I think, when he denied that one cannot consistently accept natural selection and be a theist, of the interventionist sort.

What possible ways out of this might a theist of the providentialist kind have? One might be the view adopted by Augustine – God is outside space and time, and so he knows the outcomes “before” the creation. However, the laws themselves only make possible the world we are in. I think that God had to actually create (or model – for the One whose Word and Will are One, there may be no difference) all the possible universes the laws permit and choose one, because I don’t think that God could determine the outcomes just from initial conditions and these laws. Hence Darwin’s comment about determinism and free will – it’s exactly the same formal problem. The universe in which NS actually does result in humans is not determined in creation, and accepting NS means rejecting interventionism.

Another view might be that God knew in a general sense what universe might result. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist, has proposed that the laws of mathematics are in fact the laws of physics for all possible universes, and that there is an island of constants and laws that permit what he calls Self Aware Systems (SASs) to evolve. Maybe God didn’t know we were on the menu. Maybe He/She/It chose a universe in which there was a high probability of SASs. That, of course undercuts the Christian doctrine of redemption a lot, but might be OK with Jews, Unitarians and deists in general.

Anyway, this has been rushed to get posted before local Christmas, and is me doing a bit of philosophical theology in my spare time. I did study theology, once, and it’s nice to get it out there once in a while. Whatever your reconciliation of NS and God, whatever holidays you are celebrating, if any, have a good day off. Happy Solstice!


  1. #1 TomS
    December 24, 2006

    My regular response to this is to inquire whether this argument is especially relevant to evolution, or more to some other aspect of science. Something which is more “personal”, such as reproductive biology, which says that I (or my body) am the result of natural processes; or biochemistry/physiology; or developmental biology.

    Evolution, after all, is variations in populations, origins of clades, common ancestry.

    The sort of thing that at least some Christian traditions talk about is a personal relationship with God, not a collective one. Nobody but the Universalists say that all of humanity is redeemed, only individuals, one by one.

    Perhaps, by some stretch, we could extend the theists’ scientific problem to some small-scale of evolution (“micro”evolution in the creationists’ extension of the term), but I can’t see any relationship with any of the standard examples of “that couldn’t have evolved”: The common structure of the vertebrate eye, the bacterial flagellum, the Cambian Explosion.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 24, 2006

    “the view adopted by Augustine – God is outside space and time, and so he knows the outcomes ‘before’ the creation” = Transcendent Godhead [top-down]; as contrasted with Immanent Godhead [bottom-up], where He not only sees every sparrow fall, but is within every sparrow, every cell, every electron.

    “the laws themselves only make possible the world we are in” begs the question: “what constraints (meta-laws) were there on the selection of laws?”

    Re: “all the possible universes” — See the fiction by a professor of philosophy: “The Star Maker” by Olaf Stapledon, for a cosmological and biological and spiritual evolution, in which we live in neither the first nor the last of created universes; ours is a kind of beta-test universe, where we over billions of years evolve to make contact with the creator.

    “I don’t think that God could determine the outcomes just from initial conditions and these laws” — with transfinite computational capability, you still don’t think that God can conquer Chaos Theory?

    “God knew in a general sense what universe might result. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist, has proposed that the laws of mathematics are in fact the laws of physics for all possible universes, and that there is an island of constants and laws that permit what he calls Self Aware Systems (SASs) to evolve. Maybe God didn’t know we were on the menu. Maybe He/She/It chose a universe in which there was a high probability of SASs.”

    This is an extremely interesting arena for post-modern Theophysics and Theomathematics. The flaw in the Anthropic Universe argument is precisely that there are “islands” with VERY different laws, physical constants, dimensionality, and even logic, where Life as We Know it is impossible, but Life As We Don’t Know it (SAS) can/does thrive.

  3. #3 BC
    December 24, 2006

    Maybe He/She/It chose a universe in which there was a high probability of SASs. That, of course undercuts the Christian doctrine of redemption a lot

    Why/how does that undercut the Christian doctrine of redemption a lot?

  4. #4 TomS
    December 24, 2006

    By the way, Augustine himself had some speculation about what he called “rationales seminales”, that God created living things in “seeds” which then developed by natural processes. Some Christians have taken this to be at least compatible with an evolutionary view of life. (I would take it to be an overstatement to call this a precursor of evolution.)

  5. #5 Ian H Spedding FCD
    December 24, 2006

    Concerning theology, the discussion of Orr’s review of The God Delusion over on Pharyngula would seem to be apposite.

  6. #6 AndyS
    December 25, 2006

    For all of you who at times ponder the especially unique circumstance of being alive and being aware of being alive, way to go! Good for you! That’s a particularly interesting thought.

    For those of you who think this is all has to do with a benevolent God, good for you! That’s not so interesting but it is a lot better than being a banana slug. (I think.)

    For those of you who don’t think much beyond the next football match and where you’ll get a good pint, good for you! Raise a pint for me.

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 25, 2006

    The “benevolent god” notion was trashed in the context of early-20th century cosmology by H. P. Lovecraft. He was expert enough in Astronomy to publish a newspaper column on it in a Rhode Island newspaper. He fused Horror and Science Fiction genres by explaining that the universe is neither benevolent nor malicious, but deeply indifferent to life, including humanity. He then preicted a transneptunian planet, and populated it with a grotesque fictional biology. To him, one need not invoke the supernatural to produce the feeling of horror; the Heat Death of the Universe was horrifying enough.

    I mention HPL and Stapldedon because Science Fiction was a repository for such extrapolations, when the scientific and philosophical communities avoided these matters.

    Where I live, football is different from soccer. But I watch both, and shall raise a pint this evening. Eggnog on the house!

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