In Defense of Theistic Evolution

In Defense of Theistic Evolution August 6, 2014

Last week, Greta Christina wrote a post titled “Why You Can’t Reconcile God and Evolution.” It was this piece that inspired yesterday’s post, in which I argued that Christianity is a complex and varied tradition that does in fact leave room for reconciling God and evolution, Christian faith and feminism, and the Bible and LGTBTQ rights. I also argued that trying to winnow away at that middle ground—those who embrace faith but also acceptance, equality, and the scientific method—runs the risk of both pushing progressive or mainline Christians into the fundamentalist and evangelical fold and keeping fundamentalists and evangelicals from thinking outside of their box. But I feel like I have more to say.

In this post, I want to address the four reasons Greta argues God and evolution cannot be reconciled. I want to be clear that I have a lot of respect for Greta. I simply disagree with her—strongly—on this point. I want to respond drawing on the experience of the several years I spent as a liberal Christian (of the Catholic, and then more universal, variety).

1. It contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution.

According to theistic evolution (the fancy term for “God made evolution happen”), the process of evolution is shaped by the hand of God. God takes the processes of mutation, natural selection, and descent with modification, and uses them to direct life into the forms he wants – including the form of humanity.

But in evolution, there is no direction. At the core of the theory of evolution is the principle that whatever survives, survives, and whatever reproduces, reproduces. Each generation has to survive and reproduce on its own terms: there’s no selecting for a particular feature that’s harmful now but will be useful ten generations later, after a little more adapting. . . . Evolution is all about the immediate present and the very near future: it’s about surviving, and producing fertile offspring that live long enough to reproduce.

And there’s a huge amount of random chaos in the mix. If any of a hundred thousand quirks go a different way, the outcome can be different – sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. A flood shifts the course of a river, and a plant’s seeds float south-south-east instead of due south, and the seeds sprout on the part of the continent that splits off and becomes South America. An asteroid hits the planet and wipes out the dinosaurs, and these weird rodent-like creatures start reproducing like gangbusters, and in a few hundred thousand years some of their great-great-thousands-of-times-over grandchildren wind up as human beings.

. . .

So it makes no sense to say that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — but that God is guiding it in the direction he wants. If evolution is exactly as the scientists describe it, there’s no direction for God to be guiding it in. God hasn’t got a thing to do with it.

As Greta admits later, not all theistic evolutionists hold the exact same views. But when I was a theistic evolutionist, I found two views compelling: First, that God started off the Big Bang and then watched, fascinated, as everything unfolded. In this view, God was a silent observer, gazing in wonder as the world we know today developed, gradually, over time. I could see him taking time off for a bit to eat (I know, I know) and then coming back to find a new wonder that had developed while he was away.

The other view that I found compelling involved some intervention, but not of the sort Greta imagines. I could see God shoving over a sandbank, or blowing up a sandstorm, to see what would happen and how the ecosystem would react. I could even see him hurling that asteroid at the earth, and watching as the world changed. In other words, God is not directing so much as he is tinkering. But then, that gets at Greta’s next point.

2. There’s not a scrap of evidence for it.

If there really were a Divine Tinkerer mucking about with evolution, like civil engineers re-directing a river or kids putting sticks in a stream, we’d see signs of it. When we looked at the fossil record, we’d see human knees suddenly re-shaped to better suit upright bipedal walking. We’d see human female pelvises suddenly re-shaped to better accommodate their infants’ larger brains without dying in childbirth. We’d see human brains suddenly re-shaped to better understand long-term cost-benefit analysis. And that’s just the humans.

We don’t see any of that. When we look at the fossil record—and the genetic record, and the geological record, and the anatomical record, and every other record from every branch of science that supports the theory of evolution and investigates how it works—we don’t see any signs whatsoever of outside intervention. What we do see is exactly what we’d expect to see if evolution were an entirely natural process, proceeding one generation at a time.

It’s a far cry to from suggesting that God once and a while knocked over a sandbank or blew up a sandstorm to suggesting that God reshaped human knees or reshaped human pelvises or reshaped human brains. In fact, I don’t know a single theistic evolutionist that would suggest any of those things. When I was a theistic evolutionist, I would have found such ideas absurd. To the extent that I believed God intervened in the process of evolution, it was not to make direct developmental changes but rather to slightly change the conditions—and in ways that used or mimicked natural causes.

In other words, for me theistic evolution was not falsifiable. It was not in fact something you would expect to see evidence of. In fact, you would rather expect not to see evidence of it. And that was fine with me! Progressive, mainline, or liberal Christians don’t tend to find hard physical evidence important in the way fundamentalists or evangelicals do. It honestly did not matter to me. In some ways, theistic evolution allowed me to accept scientific reality while being able to create a beautiful spiritual mythology around it. I wasn’t supplanting it. I was accepting it, and then adding mythos to it. And it was beautiful.

This issue of falsifiability ties in nicely to the point Greta makes next:

Now, some adherents of theistic evolution don’t think that God is tinkering with the process every day, or even every millennium, or even every epoch. Some theistic evolutionists are really more like deists: they think God set the entire process in motion, four billion years ago at the dawn of the planet, or 13.7 billion years ago at the dawn of the universe. They think God set the parameters way back in the mists of time, knowing how things would turn out, and is just sitting back watching it all unfold. That’s what they mean by “God made evolution happen.”

But there’s not a scrap of evidence for this, either. If your god is so non-interventionist that he’s entirely indistinguishable from physical cause and effect—what reason do you have to think he exists? In all of human history, the supernatural has never turned out to be the right answer to anything: natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. So why would you think that an invisible god who set the wheels of evolution in motion, in a way that looks exactly like physical cause and effect, is more plausible than simple physical cause and effect?

Yes, this understanding of theistic evolution is unfalsifiable. And that’s fine—like I said, it didn’t bother me in the least when I was a theistic evolutionist. Progressive, mainline, and liberal Christians do not tend to be interested in finding scientific proof of theistic evolution. That obsession with finding scientific proof for foundations mythos is a fundamentalist or evangelical thing, not a progressive, mainline, or liberal Christian thing. So what if their foundations mythos does not differ from simple physical cause and effect? This doesn’t matter to them. It’s fine, and it doesn’t much up their theology in the least.

But there’s something else here, too. There is more than one kind of evidence. Evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to be overly focused on outward scientific evidence. Progressive, mainline, and liberal Christians tend to be more focused on internal spiritual meaning. Feeling the closeness of God, feeling the interconnection of nature, feeling the depth of connections and friendships—these things are spiritual things, not something you boil down to numbers or facts. In my experience, most progressive, mainline, or liberal Christians defend their beliefs not with outward fact but with inward feeling. If someone believes they have personally experienced God, arguing that they should not believe in God because their mythos origins story does not differ from simple cause and effect isn’t going to get you very far, because it does not matter to them—and it does not muck up their theology in the least.

Now let’s move on to Greta’s next point:

3. There’s a whole lot of evidence against it.

Sinuses. Blind spots. External testicles. Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals. Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass — and human babies born essentially premature, because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out (which they sometimes do anyway). Wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity, leading to a great risk of choking to death when we eat. Impacted wisdom teeth, because our jaws are too small for all our teeth. Eyes wired backwards and upside-down. The vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it’s going. The vas deferens, ditto. Brains wired with imprecise language, flawed memory, fragile mental health, shoddy cost-benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and a strong tendency to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term gain. Birth defects. 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies ending in miscarriage (and that’s just confirmed pregnancies — about 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and as many as 75% of all conceptions miscarry).

And that’s just humans. . . .

You’re going to look at all this, and tell me it was engineered this way on purpose?

Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, “fixed that for you” kluges and jury-rigs, and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (See Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes for just a few of the most obvious examples.) If you’re trying to reconcile all this with a powerfully magical creator god who made it this way on purpose, it requires wild mental contortions at best, and a complete denial of reality at worst.

. . .

This assumes that theistic evolutionists believe that God was trying to create a perfect world, or that he should have created a perfect world. When I was a theistic evolutionist, I didn’t believe anything of the kind—and it didn’t take “wild mental contortions.” Why does it naturally flow that a “powerfully magical creator god” would create a perfect world? Even if the science had advanced far enough for me to have a designer baby, I tend to think that I would have chosen to have Sally and Bobby the natural way—because I like the variability, the differences, the things that surprise and amaze me about them. Why then would God choose the perfect over the complex and varied? Why should we assume that he would prefer a “perfect world”? As a theistic evolutionist, I never for a moment believed that God was trying to create a utopia, or that he would want such a thing.

And beyond that, what exactly is a “perfect world”? You could ask ten different individuals and they’d give you ten different answers.

And now to Greta’s last point:

4. If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious.

Here’s the thing about evolution. Evolution has led to some truly wondrous, truly amazing forms of life. (Or, to be more precise: Evolution has led to human brains that are capable of the experience of amazement, and that are inclined to be amazed at the variety and complexity of biological life.)

But evolution is messy. Evolution is wildly inefficient. See #3 above. It’s not just the products of evolution that are inefficient, either. The process itself is inefficient—inherently so, almost by definition. If you’re an all-powerful magical being trying to create sentient life, evolution is the long, long, long way around. If you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B, evolution is a slow, meandering walk down convoluted dirt roads, with thousands of stops on the way to visit your doddering uncles who never shut up.

I don’t think the argument that evolution is “the long, long way around” works as a counter to theistic evolution. When I was a theistic evolutionist, I believed God was capable of creating everything on one day as it is now, but that he found the evolutionary process more interesting, more awe-inspiring, more fascinating. I believed that God had all the time in the world. Why would he care about efficiency? Maybe he liked the convoluted dirt roads.

And here we come to Greta’s last poing:

And evolution is brutal. It’s not just that the results of the process are often uncomfortable, frustrating, even painful. The process itself is inherently brutal. The process ensures that most animals die in dreadful suffering and terror: they die from starvation, from injury, from disease, from birth defects, from being torn to pieces and devoured by other animals. Of all the billions upon billions of conscious living beings that have ever existed, an infinitesimal minority got to die peacefully in their beds surrounded by their families. The overwhelming majority died brutally, in pain and fear. And that includes the ones who actually won the evolution sweepstakes, and got to live long enough to reproduce with fertile offspring.

If there were a god who was using evolution to direct life in the direction he wanted, it immediately begs the question: Why? Why on earth would anyone do this?

. . .

If theistic evolution were true—if there really were a god who either tinkers with evolution to create human life or who set the universe in motion knowing that evolution would eventually result in human life—then that god would either be grossly incompetent or cruelly malicious. That god would have to be either incapable of using the system of evolution to create life efficiently and with minimal pain—indeed, incapable of coming up with a better system for producing life in the first place—or brutally callous to the great suffering he has caused for hundreds of millions of years, and that he continues to cause on a daily basis.

The thing is, this isn’t just a critique of theistic evolution. It’s a critique of Christianity as a whole. This pain and suffering that has gone on for millions of years is still going on today—animals still fall prey to predators, humans still contract excruciating diseases, and people still starve to death. This is called the problem of evil, or the problem of suffering, or the problem of pain. Christians have grappled with this problem for millennia, and progressive, mainline, and liberal Christians today have a variety of explanations.

And the problem is an interesting one to grapple with. I know that I chose to bring Sally and Bobby into the world knowing that at times they would experience suffering. Perhaps God chose to bring the world into existence because he believed that existing was better than not existing. But then, God is all powerful, and could (presumably) stop the suffering. But would I, as a mother, stop my children from ever suffering if I could? Well, no. We learn through suffering. We grow through pain. A year and a half ago Sally went through some friend drama at her preschool, and ended up in my lap in tears. But through that experience, she has learned to better manage friendships and has gained self-confidence.

But of course, we’re not just talking about learning experiences here. We’re talking about people dying of ebola. We’re talking about terrible diseases and excruciating conditions. We’re talking lives cut short for no reason. Even when I was a theistic evolutionist and still considered myself a Christian, this problem bothered me. I could never quite find an explanation that made sense. If God could save starving children by having manna fall from the sky like in the Old Testament, why doesn’t he? The problem of evil was one of the things that eventually led me out of Christianity entirely. The world we see around us started to look more like a world without an all-powerful divinity than a world with one.

But I don’t think God using evolution to bring the world into being creates a problem for progressive, mainline, or liberal Christians that they don’t already have. They already have to deal with the problem of evil, pain, and suffering, and if they’ve found ways to justify it for themselves in general it shouldn’t be that difficult for them to apply those justifications to God’s use of evolution. The real question here should not be, how could a loving God use the brutal process of evolution to bring our current world into existence, but rather, how can a loving God watch pain, suffering, and brutality in general and do nothing about it? This isn’t an evolution problem. It’s a Christianity problem.

I am today an atheist. I do not believe there is a God, and I do not believe in any form of supernatural force. My intent here is not to argue that everyone should go out and become theistic evolutionists—far from it. My intent was simply to show how I, as a theistic evolutionist years ago, understood theistic evolution and reconciled God and evolution. From my reading Greta’s piece and my own personal experiences, the only one of Greta’s points that creates problems for theistic evolutionists is the problem of evil, and that problem is general to Christianity rather than specific to theistic evolution. The other points are hindered by misunderstandings of what progressive, mainline, and liberal Christians tend to believe and value.

What about the rest of you? Are any of you theistic evolutionists today? Were any of you theistic evolutionists in the past? How do my experiences line up with yours? How effective did you find Greta’s four points? 

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