A Matter of Providence (RJS)

A Matter of Providence (RJS) May 9, 2017

51i15oq+YXLHuman life isn’t random luck. Rather it is the result of divine providence.

Darrel R. Falk, former president of BioLogos and emeritus professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University agrees with Dennis Venema (Adam and the Genome) when it comes to the evidence for the long history and evolutionary past of the human species. In the second chapter of the new book Evolution and the Fall edited by William Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith, he lays out a range of evidence in the fossil record, and in the genome. Darrel is the only scientist contributing to the volume, and his contribution is important, for it lays the foundation for the rest of the book. It is the abundant evidence for a long evolutionary lineage, evolution as a population, and common descent, that drives us deeper in the search for understanding God’s world and the Holy Scripture.

Darrel’s most significant contribution, however, isn’t his presentation of the scientific evidence for human evolution. Rather his most significant contribution is the metaphysical and theological interpretation he draws from the evidence. Darrel argues that we are the result of a number of highly contingent events. A massive meteor strike that ended the age of the giant reptiles and prepared the way for the rise of mammals, about 65 million years ago. This was a highly unlikely and unpredictable event, but it appears to have happened at just the right time. Mammals were present and able to expand and diversify in the void.

Skeleton_and_restoration_model_of_Neanderthal_La_Ferrassie_1The evolutionary path in Africa that led to the development of Homo sapiens. But about 100,000 years ago something significant happened within Homo sapiens and anatomically modern humans became behaviorally modern humans. This “something” is almost certainly connected to the development of language, the capacity for symbolic thought, and a theory of the mind (i.e. the realization that other individuals have independent minds like my own). This has happened once, and only once, on the planet. Considering close relatives: Neanderthals existed for more than 150,000 years. Over this time they used tools and clothing (of some sort) and were skilled, intelligent hunters. “However, they showed little sign of creative activity. Their stone-working tools did not vary much … Neanderthals would sometimes adapt old tools to new uses, but unlike Homo sapiens … they did not excel at inventing new technologies.” (p. 7) Other species also used tools and fire. But only humans developed the capabilities required for the constant technological innovation of the last 50,000 years or so. It has been a creative, cumulative and accumulative process. (The image is a museum reconstruction of a Neanderthal male: image information.)

Although evolution is convergent (a point that Simon Conway Morris has argued at length in his book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe), Falk argues that this isn’t enough to account for the unlikely appearance of the human race.  After all, monkeys (primates) separated and populated both the old and new world some 35 to 38 million years ago. Yet nothing close to human developed independently in the new world. Australia and South America separated some 60 million years ago, and the mammals that occupied the island continent did not  develop into anything with capabilities resembling humans or any of our archaic predecessors.

For that matter, there is no evidence for the appearance of any species with the characteristics that led to the development of behaviorally modern humans anywhere else on the globe. It is a one-off event. Whether the development of human capacities is a merely rare event or an extremely improbable event is open for debate. It is hard (perhaps impossible) to make any real estimate of the probability of an admittedly rare event we’ve witnessed only once.

Many scientists (Falk quotes E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, and Henry Gee) will classify this as luck.  Stephen Jay Gould (Wonderful Life: Burgess Shale and the Nature of History) used the image of the tape of life, which can never be replayed. “Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life.“(p. 289)  Falk comments:

What biology has show clearly over the past couple of decades is that historical contingency, which the pundits define as pure unadulterated luck, is by far the most crucial component of humankind’s arrival as a species.  …

Although it is impossible to calculate the probability of an event that has happened only once in earth’s history, the view that we are here by luck and not divine decree is almost unanimous in the minds of evolutionary biologists. Although it is true that biologists agree that once living systems originated, certain biochemical, physiological, and even anatomical pathways become almost inevitable, this does not mean, however, that a particular species or even a particular family of species is inevitable. (p. 16)

Creation of AdamUnlike secular scientists, Falk suggests that we should understand our origin, despite the “odds” as an example of divine providence. This isn’t an argument  for the existence of God, but rather a realization that there is another plausible interpretation of our existence on this planet. Rather than lucky accidents, we are the result of a plan and have a purpose.

In complete contrast to the conclusions of Gee, Wilson, and Gould, and many other biologists, scientific data have been emerging that are highly consonant and beautifully consistent with the Christ who is “before all things and through whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 [NRSV]), and the Word “through whom all things cam into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:14 [NRSV]) (p. 21)

and Falk concludes:

The knowledge acquired from the scientific frontier opens up the opportunity for a whole new set of tools based on a different supposition: there is such a thing as divine providence. Given this supposition, the tools to explore its ramifications are theological and philosophical in nature. The frontiers these tools open up are every bit as exciting and likely even more important as they address questions foundational for the very meaning of human existence. (p. 22)

The thrust of Falk’s argument is not “Humans are improbable, therefore God exists.” To reduce it to this easily dismissed form would undercut the significance of his claim. There is nothing here that would convince non-Christians that there must be a God. Rather, as Christians, the highly contingent and improbable truth of our existence should bring a new and deep appreciation for the providence of God. This should, Falk suggests, shape the theology and philosophy to come in the subsequent chapters.

What do you think of Falk’s argument?

Does this cast the question of evolution in a different light?

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  • Tim

    It would seem to me that given the overwhelmingly vast numbers of star systems in our universe, that some other sentient, intelligent life comparable to humans would have evolved elsewhere. Likely several times over. I suspect most cosmologists share this hunch. So not sure why Falk puts so much emphasis on the “rareness” of this event.

  • Norman

    Agree to a point, however the earth harbored life without intelligence for 500 million years or more. It took several catastrophes to change the dynamics and foster our rise in the last 2 million years. The old fine tuning arguments come into play which bring rise to the observation of providence. It’s an idea that merits discussion at the least.

  • Rick Gibson

    There are two ways to look at the possibility of intelligent life. One is to see the vast number of stars and think, surely this can happen again elsewhere. The other is to look at all the events, conditions, and probabilities that gave rise to intelligent life and conclude that it was like flipping a coin a billion times and coming up heads every time. People who see the complexity and probabilities from that side think that it may never happen again – even in a vast universe.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The problem is that the argument assumes that God is a hairless bipedal ape. God is spirit, and it is in spirit that we are in the image of God. There doesn’t necessarily seem to me a reason in principle why e.g. a sentient dinosaur, bird or amphibian should not have developed whatever it is happened to humans 100000 years ago that transformed us in the way described. They then would be in the “image” of God. I don’t think you need to assume that God needs to put his thumb on the scales in the way suggested: the evolutionary process itself produces more and more complex forms, and could even itself (if you were feeling mystical) be described as nature striving towards greater understanding and perception of God.
    The problem with saying God was obliged to intervene ex machina to steer the process in the way described is in my view that you are otherwise left with either evolution being a purposeless waste of time or one that cannot achieve its purpose without God stepping in to fix it.

  • Norman

    Tim, another way of looking at it is to consider the oceans as a giant control in which there should have been similar or higher intelligence develop within that environment separate from land mammals. Dolphins are an example

  • RJS4DQ

    Don’t be ridiculous Iain. Nowhere does this make the assumption that God is a “hairless bipedal ape.”

    I think Falk may place too much emphasis on our form, but as it relates to creative mental capacity, not as it relates to God-likeness. Is our creative mental capacity related to our form as hairless bipedal apes?

    Irrespective of that however, there is no other life form on earth with anything close to the creative mental capacity of humans.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The point is that the argument assumes that our evolutionary process had to be exactly as it was for intelligent life to evolve.
    To all appearances, the general tendency of evolution is to produce more and more complex life unless some major extinction event intervenes. For all we know the ultimate evolution of intelligent life in some form or other is the inevitable or near certain eventual outcome of the process of evolution.
    Being a believer in God, and therefore the purposeful creation of the universe, I personally suspect it is, because if evolution isn’t designed to do exactly that, there doesn’t seem much point in having it as an operating principle of the universe at all.

  • RJS4DQ

    That is a valid counter to Falk’s argument. But, as in my response, we still have intelligent life as rare – because there is no other such life form around.

  • Hɐlbe

    Falk’s argument is a purely theological argument, with no scientific relevance. Falk presupposes the existence of his God and then cherrypicks the data to find tidbits that are “highly consonant and beautifully consistent with [the] Christ”. This is how theology (or apologetics) work. Science however works the other way around: follow the evidence (data) to wherever it leads. So far the evidence clearly has not led to any of the Gods worshipped by humans; neither has it led to any indication of divine providence.

  • DoubtingTom

    You didn’t really read the article, did you?

    “This isn’t an argument for the existence of God, but rather a realization that there is another plausible interpretation of our existence on this planet. Rather than lucky accidents, we are the result of a plan and have a purpose.”

    “The thrust of Falk’s argument is not ‘Humans are improbable, therefore God exists.’ To reduce it to this easily dismissed form would undercut the significance of his claim. There is nothing here that would convince non-Christians that there must be a God. Rather, as Christians, the highly contingent and improbable truth of our existence should bring a new and deep appreciation for the providence of God.”

    Those are the important parts you may have missed.

  • Hɐlbe

    You didn’t really understand the article, did you?

    How exactly is “a realization that there is another plausible interpretation of our existence […] we are the result of a plan and have a purpose” not a theological statement?

    Or: “The highly contingent […] should bring a new and deep appreciation for the providence of God”? Please point out how this is scientific and not theological.

    I won’t hold my breath…

  • RJS4DQ

    It is a theological statement. But that is the whole point. It is not and is not intended to be a scientific statement.

    You clearly did not understand the article. DoubtingTom, on the other hand, did.

    But saying we are the result of random, blund luck is also a metaphysical statement, not a strictly scientific one.

  • Hɐlbe

    Well, then it is good thing that scientists do not claim that “we are the result of random, blind luck”. When it comes to e.g. abiogenesis and the emergence of intelligent life scientists just say “we don’t know yet, but we try to find out”, instead of the theological “divine providence” non-answer.

    ETA: The questions at the end of the article are “What do you think of Falk’s argument” and “Does this cast the question of evolution in a different light?”. My answers are: Falk’s argument is purely theological, and no, it sheds no light on the Theory of Evolution at all. You and DoubtingTom appear to agree with these answers!? Or not?

  • Hɐlbe

    You’re right, fixed it.

  • RJS4DQ

    First, I wish all scientist did say ” we don’t know” instead of making comments about “blind luck.” But several who have written popular level books do emphasize luck in one fashion or another.

    Second, divine providence is a counter to the claim of “blind luck,” not a commentary on evolution itself. It is a non-answer for the non-believer, but an important point for the believer.

    Third, I think Falk’s argument may make a difference for Christians (especially leaders and teachers) who worry that giving any ground on the evolution question means capitulating to atheism. This is why, as a theological argument, I think it is significant.

  • Hɐlbe

    I more or less agree with your points. Evolution Theory deals quite a big blow to some of the fundamental tenets of Christianity: Genesis 1-11 are shown to be purely mythological, these stories cannot be reconciled with modern science. Falk’s argument is a way to salvage some of the wreckage theologically. It is however a dangerous route to take, because scientific advances will probably fill these gaps in the future as well… But, with the current state of science you can still more or less safely ‘hide’ God or divine providence in a few gaps: the “cause” of the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and the emergence of intelligence.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    I see this as similar to the storytelling method of Esther. There is no explicit mention of God and there are 2 plausible explanations for what happens in the story, one based on the God of Scripture (as specified elsewhere) and one based on the polytheistic “gods” that act capriciously.

  • And a third explanation, based on the God of Scripture acting in concert with the polytheistic “gods”–not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  • The problem is that the argument assumes that God is a hairless bipedal ape.

    Since humans can be scientifically defined as being in the category of “hairless bipedal ape”, such an argument is not a problem but simply a restatement of a foundational Christian doctrine.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    How is that a “foundational Christian doctrine”? Believing God is a material being with a conventional physical form is pretty much directly contrary to pretty much all of Christian thought.