Toward a Constructive Theology of Evolution

Toward a Constructive Theology of Evolution
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Toward a Constructive Theology of Evolution

This paper was originally presented at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on January 3, 2003. It was published in Science and Religion in the Post-Colonial World, edited by Zainal Abidin Bagir, (ATF Press: Adelaide) 2005, pp 153-179 and is also available in Bahasa. This is a revised version of that paper. 2009.11.01.

The purpose of this essay is to give a brief introduction to the theories of evolution, the variety of religious response to evolution, and in conclusion, a survey of some constructive theologies of evolution prominent among Christian thinkers today. In this paper, I draw heavily upon the works of two authors. Holmes Rolston III is a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University and author of numerous texts.[1] John F. Haught is a professor of systematic theology at Georgetown University and also the author of a number of texts.[2]

Before Evolution

In today’s increasingly urban technological civilization, we are disconnected from the natural processes necessary for the sustenance of human life.[3] Most today could not name a dozen indigenous plant or animal species, let alone a dozen invasive non-indigenous species. Most today cannot see the stars at night and do not know the phases of the moon. Most today have little understanding of agriculture and what it means to work in the soil and muck with domesticated plants and animals. If we think back a mere fifty or one hundred years ago, such concerns were of primary importance to the vast majority of humans on the planet. Understanding the natural world was necessary to humanity’s physical survival. Interpreting the natural world was of primary importance to constructing human culture. It turns out that these concerns are no less important today, but we shall return to this radically different contemporary context of understanding nature in the twenty-first century at the end of the talk.

When we look attentively upon the natural kinds, we notice that plants and animals appear to be elegantly designed to inhabit different niches, different modes of being in the world. The nature of an owl, for instance, is vastly different than the nature of a tiger or a mouse, for that matter of a reptile, fish, or plant. Aristotle saw this diversity of species in their independent “natures” or “natural kinds.” He saw these natural kinds as eternal and unchanging. The theistic religions of the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam interpreted Aristotle in the Middle Ages with the doctrine of separate creation, which is to say that God created each species as a separate entity. In many ways, the theories of natural kinds and separate creation are much more intuitively self-apparent than the theory of evolution that would replace them in the nineteenth century. In this matter, evolution is no different than the uncommon vision of other sciences. For instance, it is not self-apparent that the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the Sun as in the new seventeenth century heliocentric model of the solar system. We still talk of the Sun rising and setting, even though we know this not to be the case.

The world of nature was significant also in the construct of human culture. In the Middle Ages, nature was understood to be hierarchically organized with plants and animals at the bottom, followed by humans in the middle, angels and archangels above the humans, and God at the top. The hierarchy of nature was then also mapped out onto political and ecclesiastical hierarchies in human culture. People knew where they stood in the orders of culture and who their natural superiors and inferiors were. All of this was rationalized through an understanding of natural orders and cosmic purpose. Our revealed texts were placed along side the Book of Nature, which nature could be read for its theological and moral significance, as well as its scientific and practical significance.[4]

The Rise of Evolution

Why then would people abandon this intuitively pleasing and culturally sanctified worldview? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European naturalists began to travel the world on scientific expeditions. In trying to classify the great variety of natural kinds discovered in far off places, they paid closer attention to morphological similarities between species. For instance, Alfred Russell Wallace, credited with co-publishing the theory of natural selection with Charles Darwin in 1858, did extensive fieldwork in the Indonesian archipelago. Biologists wondered about why the same bone structure repeats itself in the arms of mammals as different as dolphins, bats, chimpanzee, and humans? Why did the embryos of different species go through similar patterns of development (i.e., ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny)? Why are the internal structures of organs in animals similar (e.g., hearts, lungs, digestive tracks, nervous systems, and brains)? Geologists discovered the fossil remains of extinct species like dinosaurs. Fossils of sea creatures were found high on top of mountains. A new geological time scale was postulated dating the history of the Earth in millions and later billions of years. Today we would add radiographic dating and shared genetic structures to the mounting evidence for some kind of evolution from common descent over a vast time scale. Biologists have come to accept that the Earth is approximately four billion years old, that life began as single cellular bacteria, which complexified approximately two billion years ago into Eukaryotic cells, which then gave rise to plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and also humans.

What troubled our eighteenth and nineteenth century forebears was not evolution per se but a mechanism that could describe how evolution occurred. The French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) proposed a theory of evolution prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Lamarck argued that acquired characteristics could be passed on to future generations. A giraffe, for instance, that acquired its food by browsing leaves and twigs from trees would always be stretching its neck to reach higher into the trees. The offspring of the giraffe would then be born with longer necks. Unfortunately, such evolutionary patterns cannot be observed in nature, though it did not prevent some, like Charles Darwin’s father, from being attracted to this theory, largely on political grounds.[5] Today, the term “Lamarckism” is used in Anglo-American biological circles as a term of derision, though as we shall see later, the process of passing on acquired characteristics to future generations is precisely the pattern that we observe in human cultural evolution.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is widely credited with discovering the mechanism by which evolution from common origins occurs. Darwin was trained in theology at Cambridge University. He was most interested in what was then still called Natural Theology or Natural Philosophy. One of Darwin’s favorite books as a student at Cambridge was William Paley’s Natural Theology: Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802). Paley employed the metaphor of a watch discovered on a beach. One would not know who made the watch, but one could infer that there was certainly a watchmaker. What might even come to understand the design and function of the watch. In such a way, human studying nature could also come to understand God as the creator and designer of nature. Darwin would come to reject this design metaphor and question the existence of God.

Darwin circumnavigated the world as the naturalist on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836. He published The Origin of Species in 1859. The impact of his new theory of natural selection was immediate and widespread. Darwin’s long argument consists of a few simple premises. First, there are among offspring not only similar hereditary characteristics resulting from having the same parents, but there are also variations among offspring from the same parents. Second, every species exhibits an exponential ratio of increase resulting from the number of offspring they are able to produce. Third, this exponential rate of increase results in a universal struggle for survival as individual members of a species compete for food, water, habitat, and mates. Fourth, those variations among offspring that increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction for individual members of a species will tend to persist over time, while those variations that do not increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction will tend to die off. Fifth, the accumulation of all of these “selections” over long periods of time, involving also changes in the environment and geographic isolation, will result in the transmutation of one species into others, hence the title of Darwin’s revolutionary book, The Origin of Species. Darwin wrote:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection (i.e., in the breeding of domesticated plants and animals in agriculture). We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.[6]

The Challenges of Evolution to Religious Worldviews

In the Origins, Darwin did not discuss the place of humans in this evolutionary story, but others latched on to the theory and applied it to human affairs. In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, in which he explicitly laid forth the argument that humans evolved from ancestors common to today’s primates.[7] Indeed, if we go back far enough in the genetic, evolutionary muck, we share a common ancestry with all life on the planet. This is perhaps the most significant insight gained from the recent mapping of the human genome – that we carry inside of us lengthy strings of genes in our DNA which we have in common to bacteria, chickens, dinosaur and just about any other species to be found on the planet. On the genetic level, we are kissing cousins with chimpanzees with a 98 percent overlap in our genetic structure.[8]

Humans, as noted above, always seem to use nature as a metaphor and context for interpreting cosmic purpose and moral order. This is no less true of Darwinism, than the earlier Aristotelian view of natural kinds and separate creation. Darwinism seemed to support the view that the universe is governed not by a powerful and benevolent God, but by random genetic drift and natural selection. The process necessitated an inordinate amount of suffering, death, and waste. If God exists, then natural selection rendered God an incompetent or malevolent Creator. Of course, the challenge of theodicy existed prior to Darwinism, but this theory of evolution multiplied the doubts of God’s goodness with the magnitude of the ages and the multitude of struggling species. So Darwin’s theory of evolution contributed to undermining the earlier cosmological hierarchy and sense of moral purpose.

Some latched on to the new theory of evolution to argue for the natural superiority of the European races over other races of the world; so late nineteenth and twentieth century racism shares an ugly legacy which often used Social Darwinism to lend it “scientific” legitimacy. Others latched on to the theory to promote predatory capitalism. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which Darwin incorporated into later editions of The Origins. The term “survival of the fittest” would quickly become the shorthand for natural selection cited by the baron-robber capitalists of the early twentieth century to rationalize their extreme wealth. Karl Marx, however, also saw Darwin’s theory as a validation of his theory of dialectical materialism and wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles Darwin, though Darwin declined the offer.[9]

Early twentieth century eugenics also drew on Darwin’s theory, though the controlled breeding of humans was sometimes cast as moral response to the immoral implications of Social Darwinism and sometimes involved mixing races rather than preserving some notion of racial purity. Of course, both eugenics and Social Darwinism would provide ideological fuel to Stalinism and Nazism, which on sheer scale were perhaps the greatest tragedies in human history. Historians suggest that the real impetus for the conservative religious reaction against Darwinism arose not from concern about the origins of species, but from the perception that the theory of natural selection as applied to humans was inherently immoral.[10]

The challenge of Darwinism was also that it undermined our early sense of cosmic purpose and made atheism intellectually plausible and contributed to scientism as the dominant ideology of the modern university. Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, notorious atheist, and prolific author, writes:

[I]f the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies – are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.[11]

Dawkins represents one of the theological responses to evolution, which is to say that evolution by natural selection proves that God does not exist or at least need not exist in order to account for the origins of life. This should be understood as a theological response, because like many atheists, Dawkins has very definite ideas about the kind of God that he believes does not exist.

Dawkins sees Darwinism as a revolutionary break from the past. All of the old attempts of theology and philosophy to answer the questions of how humans ought to live and act are no longer valid. “The point I want to make now,” writes Dawkins, “is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.” [12]

Now there are many others we might quote here who would support this contention that Darwinism proves atheism, notably E.O. Wilson,[13] Daniel Dennett,[14] Christopher Hitchens,[15] Sam Harris,[16] Victor Stenger,[17] and others. Suffice it to say, that if such thinkers did not exist, many religious thinkers would have had to invent them in order to carry on their feud with Darwinism. In the context of the warfare between evolution and creationism in the United States, the problem is less with believers who read the Bible as a literal account of Creation and more with believers who read Dawkins, et. al., as a literal account of evolution.

Anti-Evolutionary Responses

There is an array of religious positions in opposition to Darwinism. Christian fundamentalism originally saw evolution as evidence of God’s greatness at the turn of the twentieth century, but later adopted anti-evolution as a central tenant of their belief and began interpreting the Bible as a scientific text seeking evidence to undermine evolution and support specific Biblical interpretations. The most extreme version of this is called alternately Scientific Creationism, Young Earth Creationism, or simply Creationism. The term Creationism might better apply more broadly to any religious believer, including those that affirm evolution, but in popular usage today it refers specifically to those who deny evolution.[18]

On both sides of this polarized conflict, there is a tendency to conflate the observed pattern with the theorized process. The long natural history of this planet with the gradual complexification of life forms and periodic mass extinctions of species is now well established. The process by which this happens and the significance of this process are open to debate and interpretation, as we will soon see. Evolution is not the same as Darwinism, though the terms are often conflated. Evolution is the observed natural history of the planet. Darwinism, or more precisely natural selection, is a theory of how this evolution occurred.

This demarcation between what happened when and how and why is critical in distinguishing competing religious responses to evolution. Always clarify what is the timeline account of natural history. It is one thing to debate the meaning and significance of the Cambrian Explosion, or for that matter the French Revolution; it is another thing completely to deny that they ever happened. Young Earth Creationism is a misreading of science and, I would argue, also a misunderstanding of scripture. Scientific Creationism has a bad case of science envy by trying to flatten a richly complicated and challenging scriptural tradition into a one-dimensional “literal” interpretation.

Unfortunately, the Christian fundamentalist rejection of evolution has found followers in the Muslim world and apparently these Christians also offer financial support to such efforts. Of particular significance in the Muslim world is the work of Harun Yahya (Adnan Oktar) in Turkey, who has latched on to this unfortunate logic — Evolution equals Darwinism equal Materialism equals Atheism equals Everything-that-is-wrong-in-the-world.[19] Harun Yahya’s books are translated into many languages and distributed all over the Muslim world.

Other religious intellectuals have tried to latch scriptural apologetics onto scientific prestige by arguing that the Bible or the Koran anticipated specific scientific discoveries, for instance dinosaurs, quantum mechanics, or Big Bang cosmology. Contemporary science is then offered as evidence for the validity of the sacred scripture.[20] Here we might wonder again about the hermeneutics of the “precursor-itis” that turns science into a proof-text for our holy scriptures. We might also wonder about what happens ten or a hundred years hence when the science turns out to be radically different.

In the last few years, the Intelligent Design movement has gotten a lot of press in the United States.[21] While vague about which version of natural history they support, the young or old Earth variety, the Intelligent Design advocates argue that random genetic drift and natural selection alone cannot account for “irreducibly complexity” in certain natural phenomena.[22] The classic example of this is the human eye, to which Darwin himself called attention. How could such a complex mechanism with so many independent parts have arisen by incremental changes, when the mechanism would not function without all of the parts working together? Intelligent Design advocates argue that some outside agency would be needed to specify such complexity. This can be seen as a new version of the God-of-the-Gaps argument and suffers from all of the earlier attempts to insert God as an explanatory fix in science’s progressive history of accounting for the unknown.[23] God is either everywhere present in Creation in all processes at all times or God is nowhere.

Beyond Darwinism

The theory of evolution has itself evolved in the last 150 years. Darwin, of course, knew nothing about modern genetics. He knew that there is a pattern of inheritance with variation among offspring, but not how this happens. It is not until the work of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was rediscovered at the turn of the twentieth century and synthesized with Darwin’s theory that we get Neo-Darwinism, also known as the Modern Synthesis. Mendel discovered laws of inheritance based on dominant and recessive “genes.” Today, scientists have extended these insights to understanding the complex macromolecules of life and the biochemical reactions that structure protein synthesis, reproduction, and development. Genetics adds a structure of inheritable traits and rates of mutation or drift within species upon which natural selection operates through the necessities of survival and reproduction.

As paleontologists collected more evidence of the fossil record of the evolution of species, it was noted that the actual history of evolution is often abrupt with long periods of stases and relatively short periods of rapid change. When first presented by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge, this theory of “punctuated equilibrium” was touted as a serious blow to the gradualism implied in Darwin’s theory, but such concerns have largely evaporated.[24]

At this point we start moving into serious debates in biology about what might be called Post-Darwinism.[25] For instance, biologists do not agree about the level upon which natural selection operates. Some have argued that selection operates only at the level of the gene, that genes are “selfish,” noting for instance the capacity of “outlaw” genes to survive independently of the wellbeing of the host individual.[26] Others argue that selection occurs at the level of groups of genes or with the individual as a whole, or how else would any gene be able to reproduce. Others argue that selection also occurs with groups, for instance in social species. Group selection theory provides a tentative answer to the riddle of altruism within a theory that would otherwise predict reproductively selfish maximizing behavior.[27] Still others note that a kind of selection exists within and between ecosystems and between groups of species in symbiotic relations. Far from nature being at war, many species exhibit complex symbiosis.[28] Sometimes life appears to be the proverbial Darwinian Jungle in which survival and reproduction is paramount, while in other instance life seems more like a “White Elephant Sale” with a hodge-podge of eclectic knick-knacks thrown together by happenstance in the bazaar. Multi-level selection theory present serious challenge the reductionistic, explanatory simplicity that makes Darwinism so appealing to some.

In the case of bacteria, which have the largest biomass on the planet and are still in some sense also the most foundational kind of biological entity, it may not even be appropriate to talk of clear lines of descent required by Darwin’s theory. Among bacteria, genetic information is shared not only by cell division, but also via viral vectors and direct membrane transfers throughout the gene pool of like and unlike bacteria. So it would seem that in addition to making room for symbiosis and multi-level selection in our Post-Darwinist view of evolution, we are going to allow for some context specific confusion within life itself about the genetic boundaries between what were previously thought to be distinct breeding populations.

Other Post-Darwinian theories deal with saltation or non-gradual jumps between forms observed in the fossil records, but poorly understood. One clue might lie in the bureaucratic nature of the genome itself, which far from being a linear system of causation is inter-linked in complex mutually determinative relations and feedback loops. We might better think of the genome as a molecular bureaucracy that has its own emergent, collectivist agenda. Another Post-Darwinian frontier deals with indirect Lamarckism, whereby rates of adaptation, for instance in the stress breeding of ecoli bacteria, exceed what would be expected from the background rate of genetic mutations. Again, contrary to the so-called Central Dogma of biology, we should actually expect to discover some kinds of indirect feedback loops from the phenotype to the genotype, which will probably emerge in the field of developmental genetics and embryology.[29]

Nor does natural selection per se illuminate anything about the mathematical patterns often manifested by natural entities. The field of mathematical biology lies wholly outside of the orthodox Neo-Darwinism, like a Platonist idea among radical materialists.[30] This leads to the related fields of systems theory and complexity theory as applied to life. Biologists have made a lot of progress on some levels by abstracting individuals from the webs of their relationships, even though the individual never really exists apart of these relational matrices. So whether we’re talking about a single gene or a single individual or even an entire species separate from its ecosystem, these are abstractions from reality, and we risk committing what A.N. Whitehead referred to in science as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”[31] Systemic analyses of natural phenomena will reveal different patterns, complex patterns, often not easily accounted for by the reigning Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Here we see the productive application of mathematical complexity theory to illuminating the workings of nature in nonlinear systems and fractal-like elegance.

Speaking of Neo-Darwinism, biologist Lynn Margulis says “It is totally wrong. It’s wrong like infectious medicine was wrong before Pasteur. It’s wrong like phrenology is wrong. Every major tenet of it is wrong.”[32] Those are fighting words for most biologists, but Margulis has in mind the symbiosis she observes in bacteria and other species and the vectors of genetic information sharing which cross-lines of descent. A carefully argued case for rejecting Neo-Darwinism in favor of some kind of Post-Darwinism is made by David Depew and Bruce Weber in their book Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Geneaology of Natural Selection (1997). They conclude:

Whatever else may happen, we are reasonably certain that evolutionary theory will remain incomplete as long as self-organizational and dissipative phenomena are kept at a distance. This still leaves open, of course, whether complex dynamical models and nonequilibrium thermodynamics will testify in favor of the developmentist or of the Darwinian tradition… Can self-organization and dissipative structures be brought into the present evolutionary synthesis or some expanded version of it? Alternately, will assimilation be so challenging that it will require a change of background assumptions in the Darwinian tradition comparable to that which produced the modern synthesis itself? Or, finally, are self-organization and dissipative structuring so foreign to Darwinism’s core concept, natural selection, that giving them an important place in evolutionary theory will put an end to the Darwinian tradition itself?

By framing the history of the Darwinian tradition in the way we have, we have in effect been arguing for the second alternative. We concede that it is far too early to be entirely confident about this. Nonetheless… [33]

In arguing for Post-Darwinism, we need only quote Darwin in our defense, who wrote in the Introduction to The Origin of Species: “I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species…” Which is to say that the fact of evolution from common descent seemed to him to be incontrovertible, and has become even more so in the ensuing years of scientific advance. Darwin continues, however, to note that the process by which evolution occurs is open to debate. “Furthermore,” writes Darwin, “I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification.” [34] I need only note that there are serious and heated debates within contemporary biology about the qualifiers “most important” and “not exclusive.” Perhaps we might formulate the problem as such, natural selection is necessary but not sufficient explanation for the evolution of the diversity of life forms. It does not help matters that evolutionists and their critics regularly equate evolution and Darwinism, the former being an observed pattern and the latter being a theory to account for the process which animates this pattern.

These debates in biology have important implications for religious thought, though the battles are more appropriately waged in the professional journals of biology.[35] Certainly these Post-Darwinian accounts undermine a thoroughgoing reductionism and leave much more room for divine participation as an “Invisible Hand” in the evolutionary epic than the standard model, but we should not pretend that it solves all of the religious questions. For instance, the challenge of theodicy remains before, during, and after the question of how evolution occurs.

Evolutionary Psychology

There is a new academic fad that seeks to apply evolutionary theory to understanding human nature, though with much greater sophistication and nuance than the early Social Darwinists. The term sociobiology [36] has become stigmatized, so the scholars refer to this new paradigm as evolutionary psychology. The project seeks to apply evolutionary concepts to understanding human psychological and social phenomena. For instance, Richard Dawkins coined the term “memes” to refer an imagined mental equivalent of a gene, which replicates in human culture.[37] The metaphor has inspired some to chase after mathematical models and empirical studies for the spread of memes in culture, whether they be an advertising jingo or a religious movement.[38]

Evolutionary psychology analyzes human nature with a view towards questions of survival and reproduction. Many books and articles have been penned and processed in this endeavor, which try to explain religion away as an elaborate fiction which promotes group cohesion and increased fitness for individual and group survival and reproduction.[39] For instance, Moses’ Ten Commandments become a recipe for enhancing the group fitness of the Hebrews in competition with their neighbors, the Canaanites.[40]

While the claims of evolutionary psychology often lack humility and make far too much of very limited data, religionists need in principle not fear the attempts of the social scientists to account for the functionality of religion in promoting human wellbeing. Authentic religion should also certainly welcome any help in trying to understand and reform the dysfunctionalities that manifest themselves in the name of religion. Nevertheless, by reducing all human thought and behavior to merely an expression of survival and reproduction, this new sociobiology misses the truly big story of human history as a rupture with previous biological processes.

Human culture evolves in a Lamarckian pattern in which the acquired, learned characteristics of one generation are passed on more or less directly to the next generation. Our children do not need to reinvent the wheel or the microprocessor; they do not need to recreate Shakespeare or theBhagavad-Gita; nor need they be directly related to those who did so as they benefit by virtue of their education and common humanity. Through our abilities to learn, humans have dramatically changed every bioregion in the world and the atmosphere as a whole, thus changing the selective environment for all future evolution. Humans are about to embark upon large-scale genetic engineering of other species and ourselves. So the human phenotype now directly edits the selective environment and the genotype through intentional processes. Humans are now the motive force for future evolution for better or ill. This innovation in the how-of-evolution is as profound and potentially catastrophic as the invention of photosynthesis some two billion years ago. Humans are a Lamarckian wildcard in the epic of evolution. In this respect it will not be science and technology so much as our moral and aesthetic sensibilities which determine the future of our planet and our humanity. Religion is an important source for these values.

Constructive Theologies of Evolution

Let us turn now to a number of constructive theologies of evolution, in which Christian thinkers and others have sought to understand their traditions anew within an evolutionary framework. I draw here in broad brushstrokes on the works of Alfred North Whitehead [41] and Pierre Teilhard de Charden [42] and their contemporary interpreters.[43]

First, we must contextualize the evolutionary account of life on Earth within the larger cosmic adventure. Scientists now believe that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, that it began in a singularity of infinite heat and infinite density, that the specific laws of physics coalesced in the early stages of the universe, and that there are a number of extremely specific values that needed to be just so in order for more complex entities like stars, galaxies, and heavy elements to evolve. Push a hard-nose physicist and you’re likely to find a soft-hearted Neo-Platonist. In the beginning, it seems God created mathematics. The material domain of the universe is generated from an immaterial informational domain. In the words of physicist John Archibald Wheeler, “It comes from Bit.”[44] Of course, religionists have long intuited the significance of this preexistent immaterial domain. The Gospel of John reads “In the beginning was the Word.”

On the other hand, the universe is so big and so old that we should all feel rather puny on this little planet with our rather parochial images of God and our own self-importance. Catholic theologian John Haught uses the following mnemonic to make the point. Imagine that the history of the universe is told in thirty volumes, each volume consisting of 450 pages, each page lasting one million years. The first twenty volumes is “lifeless, mindless matter.” The Earth story begins in volume twenty-two. Life begins as simple bacteria in volume twenty-three and continues as mostly microbial life up until volume twenty-nine, when we witness the Cambrian Explosion. Dinosaurs go extinct on page 385 of volume thirty. All of human history is a brief footnote on the last page of volume thirty. In the words of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, if the purpose of the universe is to create human intelligence, then why did it take so long to create so little.[45]

One could imagine a God who would be more like a Chairman Mao or a Comrade Stalin. This God would have designed a universe with photographs of himself hung everywhere in nature. We would be compelled to believe in the existence of this God, because everywhere we turned with our microscopes and telescopes there would be both the evidence for his existence and the secret police to enforce our acquiescence. Everything in the universe would occur by divine order, micromanaged in five-year plans and designed in a command economy. Some people today actually choose to believe in such a vision of God and appoint themselves to be the secret police, though we might wonder whether such a dictator God would be worthy of our admiration and love. The God whom we encounter through the contemporary science of evolution and the God whom we encounter through our revealed scriptures is not such a dictator.

The philosopher-theologian Holmes Rolston notes in his book, Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History, that:

The word “design” nowhere occurs in Genesis, though the concept of creativity pervades the opening chapters. There in divine fiat, divine doing, but the mode is an empowering permission that places productive autonomy in the creation. It is not that there is no “watchmaker”; there is no “watch.” Looking for one frames the problem the wrong way. There are species well adapted for problem solving, ever more informed in their self-actualizing. The watchmaker metaphor seems blind to the problem that here needs to be solved: that informationless matter-energy is a splendid information maker. Biologists cannot deny this creativity; indeed, better than anyone else biologists know that Earth has brought forth the natural kinds, prolifically, exuberantly over the millennia, and that enormous amounts of information are required to do this.[46]

So while the God of Creation chooses to be or at least seems to be concealed from our direct perception, yet we can discern in the universe as understood today by science a kind of directionality. If not the telos of traditional Aristotelian cosmology, there is still an observable teleonomy in which the universe gives rise to greater complexity of form. With the increasing differentiation of form, there is also a greater integration of entities in a marvelous communion of beings. Take for instance our very bodies, a condominium for microorganisms. We have now come to recognize that our bodies are continually circulating material with the outside world. Every two weeks you practically become a brand new person as you exchange air, water, food, and excretions with the outside environment. Only the calcium in our bones stays with us for any duration. We are a complex manifestation of ocean water contained in a sack of epidermis talking about ourselves. Every atom in our bodies is literally recycled stardust and has been on a 13 billion year journey towards our particular consciousness. The universe can appreciate its pathos and beauty through us, because we are part of the universe. The very energy with which we conduct these deliberations is brought to us courtesy of our sun through photosynthesis and the food chain. And the languages that we use to express these insights are themselves the accumulated wisdom of generations of human civilization, which language humans originally acquired in the semiotically and semantically rich schools of nature. Rather than seeing our minds and personalities as incidental to the universe, we may begin to see them as signs of a greater mind and greater personality that animates the universe. The beginning and end of our thirty-volume history of the universe, and everything in between, may be an expression not of materiality, but of a universal mind that we only dimly perceive.[47]

Our religious traditions can now be seen as profound intuitions about the deep structure of the universe. This new view of the cosmos and ourselves allows us to recover some of the insights of our traditions that have been lost in the early Enlightenment synthesis of science and religion, when we turned God into a mechanical engineer of nature reduced to a wind-up watch. The Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer God of this Universe could not be an authoritarian, control freak, but a God of mercy and compassion, as the Koran so oft repeats. This is a God who manifests divine providence in humble, self-giving love and promise, as emphasized in the Christian tradition. This universe as we now understand through science requires a God who values adventure, beauty, the interplay of order and open possibilities. God must surely value freedom, the self-creative, autopoeisis of other creatures and ourselves. God understood in light of this evolutionary epic can lure the universe towards the future, the good, and the beautiful, through divine inspiration. Our trials, tribulations, failures, and deaths are resolved not through the dogmatic certainties of our beliefs, but through a warranted faith in an eschatological promise of redemption. Such a faith is fully consistent with the best of science, which can only intimate at this transcendence, and the best of our religions, which reveal to us this future promise.


I have attempted to give a brief overview of evolutionary theories, the challenges that these theories have presented to earlier religious worldviews, and a variety of religious responses to the challenges of evolution. Our intellectual task today is not unlike that of forebears — Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, and Aquinas ╨ who took the best science of their time and advanced a grand synthesis with their religious traditions.48 Today the best science is vastly different, but the intellectual and spiritual challenge is the same. The stakes today are also vastly different, for it is not just about achieving a pleasing unification of faith and reason. We live at a unique moment in the natural history of this planet and the cultural evolution of our species. The dialogue between science and religion stands at the crossroads of the twenty-first century and of our hopes for a healthier and safer future. We have a lot of work to do, but may take some comfort in knowing that God and the Universe have previously erred on the side of improbability. So too might we achieve the improbable in our self-creative responsibilities to feed the hungry, heal the sick, educate the young, preserve the environment, wage peace, and celebrate the blessings of this day and the marvelous universe which we inhabit.

[1] Holmes Rolston, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987). ____, Environmental Ethics: Duties and Values in the Natural World (Philadelpia: Temple University Press, 1988). ____, Philosophy Gone Wild: Environmental Ethics (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989). ____, Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[2] John Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000). ____, “Evolution and Divine Providence,” (Philadelphia: Metanexus Institute, 2001). ____, Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). ____, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 2008).

[3] To understand just how dramatic the changes in the last century have been read J.Robert McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).

[4] Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution.

[5] Michael Ruse, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[6] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (Online, 1859). Philip Appleman, ed. Darwin: Selected and Edited, Second ed. (New York: W.W. Norton,1979).

[7] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Online1871).

[8] Richard Dawkins, The Ancestors’ Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

[9] “Darwin Correspondence Project,” Darwin Project,

[10] Edward J. Larson, Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[11] Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Basic Books, 1995), 133.

[12] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, New ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1.

[13] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998).

[14] Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

[15] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Books, 2007).

[16] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).

[17] Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (New York: Prometheus, 2006).

[18] Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, Expanded ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[19] Adnan Oktar, “Harun Yahya,” Halil Arda, “Sex, Files and Videotapes: The Secret Lives of Harun Yahya,” The New Humanist,

[20] See for example Nathan Aviezer, Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science(Hoboken: KTAV, 2001).

[21] Philip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991). ____, Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Sciene, Law, and Education (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1995). ____, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997).

[22] William Dembski, Design Inference, The: Eliminating Change through Small Probabilities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). ____, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). “Discovery Institute,” Discovery Institute,

[23] Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

[24] Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” in Models in Paleobiology, ed. Thomas Schopf (San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper and Co, 1972).

[25] Robert Wesson, Beyond Natural Selection (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

[26] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

[27] Elliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[28] Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic, 1998). Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

[29] Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel, Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2009).

[30] Ian Stewart, Life’s Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World (Wiley & Sons, 1998). Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002).

[31] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, [1925] 1967).

[32] Cited in Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994), 365.

[33] David Depew and Bruce Weber, Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 479-80.

[34] Darwin, The Origin of Species.

[35] Niles Eldredge, Reinventing Darwin: The Great Debate at the High Table of Evolutionary Theory (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995).

[36] Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[37] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

[38] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[39] Joseph Bulbulia et al., eds., The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques (Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press,2008). Jay R. Feierman, ed. The Biology of Religious Behavior: The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion (Westport, CT: Praeger,2009). See also John Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behavior: Darwinian Perspectives on Human Nature (New York: Palgrave, 2000).

[40] Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009).

[41] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, [1929]1978). Whitehead,Science and the Modern World. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, [1933] 1967). ____, Modes of Thought (New York: Capricorn, [1938] 1958 ).

[42] Pierre Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper, [1955] 1959). ____, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper, [1957] 1960). ____, Activation of Energy ([1963] 1970).

[43] Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. ____, “Evolution and Divine Providence.”

[44] John D. Barrow, Paul C. W. Davies, and Charles L. Harper Jr., eds., Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology, and Complexity (New York: Cambridge University Press,2004).

[45] John Haught, “Design, Purpose and Biochemical Fine-Tuning: Theological Reflections,” inBiocentrism (Harvard University2003).

[46] Rolston, Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History, 369-70.

[47] Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, Universe Story, The: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992). Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth, The (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1983). Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (New York: Riverhead, 2006). Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution! (New York: Viking, 2007).

[48] Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, 2003). Norbert M. Samuelson, Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). ____, Jewish Faith and Modern Science: On the Death and Rebirth of Jewish Philosophy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).


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