One of the enduring objections to evolution of the Darwinian variety is that it is based on chance, and so for theists who believe God is interventionist, it suggests that God is subjected to chance, and hence not onmi-something (present, potent or scient). Darwin and his friend Asa Gray debated this issue in correspondence, and it ended up as the final pages of his 1868 Variation (below the fold). Effectively, Darwin argued that we cannot “reasonably maintain” that God intended for chance events that are useful to humans or to the species concerned. It is this that I want to discuss, following a line of argument made to me by Phil Dowe in conversation. Phil and I intend to make a talk out of this sometime, so this is my taking of useful notes. [Late note: Phil’s views can be found here.]
First, let’s look at the text in question…
… the long-continued accumulation of beneficial variations will infallibly lead to structures as diversified, as beautifully adapted for various purposes, and as excellently co-ordinated, as we see in the animals and plants all around us. Hence I have spoken of selection as the paramount power, whether applied by man to the formation of domestic breeds, or by nature to the production of species. I may recur to the metaphor given in a former chapter: if an architect were to rear a noble and commodious edifice, without the use of cut stone, by selecting from the fragments at the base of a precipice wedge-formed stones for his arches, elongated stones for his lintels, and flat stones for his roof, we should admire his skill and regard him as the paramount power. Now, the fragments of stone, though indispensable to the architect, bear to the edifice built by him the same relation which the fluctuating variations of each organic being bear to the varied and admirable structures ultimately acquired by its modified descendants.
Some authors have declared that natural selection explains nothing, unless the precise cause of each slight individual difference be made clear. Now, if it were explained to a savage utterly ignorant of the art of building, how the edifice had been raised stone upon stone, and why wedge-formed fragments were used for the arches, flat stones for the roof, &c.; and if the use of each part and of the whole building were pointed out, it would be unreasonable if he declared that nothing had been made clear to him, because the precise cause of the shape of each fragment could not be given. But this is a nearly parallel case with the objection that selection explains nothing, because we know not the cause of each individual difference in the structure of each being.
The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental. And here we are led to face a great difficulty, in alluding to which I am aware that I am travelling beyond my proper province. An omniscient Creator must have foreseen every consequence which results from the laws imposed by Him. But can it be reasonably maintained that the Creator intentionally ordered, if we use the words in any ordinary sense, that certain fragments of rock should assume certain shapes so that the builder might erect his edifice? If the various laws which have determined the shape of each fragment were not predetermined for the builder’s sake, can it with any greater probability be maintained that He specially ordained for the sake of the breeder each of the innumerable variations in our domestic animals and plants;? many of these variations being of no service to man, and not beneficial, far more often injurious, to the creatures themselves? Did He ordain that the crop and tail-feathers of the pigeon should vary in order that the fancier might make his grotesque pouter and fantail breeds? Did He cause the frame and mental qualities of the dog to vary in order that a breed might be formed of indomitable ferocity, with jaws fitted to pin down the bull for man’s brutal sport? But if we give up the principle in one case,?if we do not admit that the variations of the primeval dog were intentionally guided in order that the greyhound, for instance, that perfect image of symmetry and vigour, might be formed,?no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations, alike in nature and the result of the same general laws, which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” If we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained, the plasticity of organisation, which leads to many injurious deviations of structure, as well as that redundant power of reproduction which inevitably leads to a struggle for existence, and, as a consequence, to the natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature. On the other hand, an omnipotent and omniscient Creator ordains everything and foresees everything. Thus we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination. [From Darwin Online, Darwin, Charles. 1868. The variation of animals and plants under domestication. 2 vols. London: John Murray, Vol. 2, pages 430-432.]
Now Darwin’s claim is that God cannot have intended, or acted by design, that an accidental or contingent outcome occur that happened to have beneficial outcomes. Elsewhere, in his letter to his niece Julia Wedgwood of 11 July 1861, he wrote:
Asa Gray and some others look at each variation, or at least at each beneficial variation (which A. Gray would compare with the rain drops which do not fall on the sea, but on to the land to fertilize it) as having been providentially designed. Yet when I ask him whether he looks at each variation in the rock-pigeon, by which man has made by accumulation a pouter or fantail pigeon, as providentially designed for man’s amusement, he does not know what to answer; and if he, or any one, admits [that] these variations are accidental, as far as purpose is concerned (of course not accidental as to their cause or origin); then I can see no reason why he should rank the accumulated variations by which the beautifully adapted woodpecker has been formed, as providentially designed.
Darwin’s argument is roughly this: unless we want to ascribe meaning to every random event, which seems to make God a micromanager of monumental proportions and undercut the raîson d’étre for there being natural law at all (and hence the foundation of science itself), we cannot maintain that God would have chosen the random variations on which both artificial and natural selection operate. Hence, natural selection is inconsistent with the notion that God is responsible for everything.
Some theists accept this, and do not take the Leibnizian view that God has created the best of all possible worlds, so cruelly caricatured by Voltaire in Candide. But Phil thinks that Gray has legs yet to run: and not even a Leibnizian God, but for a less omni- neo-Leibnizian God. This God has chosen merely the best world of which he knows, in which events that satisfy whatever utility function such deities have when creating worlds occur.
At first I was inclined to agree with Darwin. But something struck me from my studies on species concepts, from a discussion of Augustine’s. Augustine is discussing the wording of the text in Genesis 1:10-11:
Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.
Where, then, were they [plants, when they were created]? Were they in the earth in the ?reasons? or causes from which they would spring, as all things already exist in their seeds before they evolve [develop?JSW] in one form or another and grow into their proper kinds in the course of time? ? it appears [from Scripture?JSW] ? that the seeds sprang from the crops and trees, and that the crops and trees themselves came forth not from seeds but from the earth. [De Genesi Ad Litteram, c. 390 AD, Book V, chapt 4 (Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo. 1982. The literal meaning of Genesis. Translated by J. H. Taylor, Ancient Christian writers; no. 41-42. New York, N.Y.: Newman Press: 151f)]
In other words, God created the “reasons” by which these things spontaneously arose from the soil. This is not, despite a few claims to the contrary, an evolutionary view; Augustine is talking about spontaneous generation of the plant kinds, a view that survived until the 18th century. In effect, and in medieval terms, Augustine is supposing that God created the “secondary causes” by which these kinds arose.
We can translate this into an evolutionary version: did God create the laws of nature (secondary causes) by which living things, and ultimately of course we ourselves, evolved? If one accepts that selection (and modern additions to Darwin’s theory like drift and neutral evolution) are the motors of evolution, however, then this gets very hard to maintain, according to Darwin’s argument.
But I suggested that there is a way the neo-Leibnizian God could ensure the outcomes without micromanaging. There is a simulation program called Avida, which simulates a process of evolution by selection on “animats” or cellular automata that simulate organisms in an environment. Suppose I want a particular outcome, and I have plenty of time – not an infinite amount, but enough to run simulations of “worlds” that will approach my utility function. After running several millions of simulations, I find the “universe” that serves my needs, and build it to the specifications drawn from that. If my needs include allowing a builder to make a house from rocks off a cliff, then I ensure that the universe I choose includes that outcome.
In this way, everything is the result of secondary causes, while the Neo-Leibnizian God remains the primary cause, including of each event that satisfies the God’s utility functions. So Darwin is, I think, not correct in saying that one cannot reasonably maintain that the outcome is designed by the deity.
However, Darwin is entirely correct about the secondary causes – God is not a micromanager. Instead God has chosen the best available, or most satisfactory, world to create (note that this doesn’t require that God is omniscient, or choose the best of all possible worlds; in fact it may even be that to choose that world God might have to abandon some of HisHer goals, unless the two are identical – that is, unless what God wants is the best of all possible worlds). So we have a difference of levels of causes here, not unlike the distinction made by some Neo-Thomists, between creation as the instigation of each individual event, which they rejected, and creation as the subsistence of every event as they unfold according to secondary causes.
Why does this matter beyond a bit of mental gymnastics, especially since I am not a theist? Well it has one rather significant implication: it means that those who criticise theistic evolutionists (like Asa Gray) for being inconsistent or incoherent are wrong: it is entirely possible to hold that God is not interventionist, and yet hold that God desired the outcomes, or some outcomes, of the world as created. In simpler terms, there’s nothing formally wrong with believing the two following things: 1, that God made the world according to a design or desired goal or set of goals; and 2, that everything that occurs, occurs according to the laws of nature (secondary causes). In other words, it suggests that natural selection is quite consistent with theism, solving a problem I discussed earlier.
So we should not, as Dawkins and his fellow ideologues do, attack those who are religious and accept and even promote evolution. The primary cause explanation is entirely distinct from the secondary causes that are the domain of science. I don’t for a second think that this is the way things are, but neither do I think that someone is just playing courtier’s games if they think this.