Evolution and Belief in God
by Albrecht Moritz
Copyright © 2006
The following is written from the viewpoint of a biochemist who fully embraces the findings of modern life sciences, but at the same time believes in a creator God.
The purpose of this essay is to show that the science of biological evolution is fully compatible with belief in God. What is more, insight into evolution as God’s way of creating can enhance the concept of God for a believer, when considered in the realm of philosophy. Although the author often cites Catholic sources, he expects that the conclusions of the essay will hold for many other believers as well.
1. The evidence for biological evolution
2. The scientific concept of "randomness"
3. Contamination of science with philosophy; confusion of the two disciplines
4. Evolution and philosophy of belief
5. Evolution and the creation story in the Bible
The evidence for biological evolution
The general conclusion of science is that all life evolved from a last universal common ancestor, a simple prokaryote similar to bacteria. Thus there was an evolution from bacteria-like, tiny cells to animals and humans (for the human soul, however, see below), and an evolution from these bacteria-like cells to other organisms, including plants, flowers and trees. The accepted main mechanism is that of random genetic variation, followed by natural selection. This is the mechanism of adaptive evolution (a secondary mechanism is genetic drift).
Genetic variation (mutation):
Mainly point mutation, genetic rearrangement and gene duplication. Consequences: altered proteins, new additional proteins derived from existing ones, changes in protein regulation, etc. Gene duplication, for example, allows for subsequent mutation of the duplicate gene while the original is untouched. This can add new protein functions to existing ones, and expands the information content of the genome.
Depending on the consequences of the chance genetic variations, such variations then may confer an advantage over existing organisms, which will make the altered organisms thrive, selecting them out for enhanced survival. Over a number of generations, the resulting greater reproductive capability will cause a manifold proportional increase in offspring, finally outcompeting and replacing the previous genotype (1).
(1) The catchphrase "Survival of the Fittest" for this phenomenon – not generally used by biologists, who prefer to use the term "natural selection" – was introduced by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Biology in 1864, five years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and only later adopted by Darwin. It is, in fact, rather misleading, since natural selection is not a simple "live or die" phenomenon, but one of living somewhat longer or somewhat shorter, and thereby – or for other reasons of "fitness" – exhibiting differences in reproductive capability. These differences do not have to be great at all to have an enormous impact over many generations, as a simple calculation shows. Thus, associating evolution with "nature red in tooth and claw" (a phrase not coined by Darwin) appears to be an exaggerated concept.
Also, in the same way that beneficial random variations may not have conferred huge advantages to their carriers, but rather incremental ones (see below) – yet enough to be favored by natural selection –, non-beneficial random variations did not necessarily always have to have resulted in huge disadvantages either. On the other hand, entirely deleterious genetic variations may not result in birth. Therefore, claims that the concept of evolution radically sharpens the problem of suffering in nature, beyond what we always have observed, may be overstated as well, and may need to be carefully re-examined.
"Chance" only plays a role in random genetic variation; the ensuing natural selection is a non-random process, guided by the interaction of the organism with the environment. Therefore, interpretations of evolution as an overall "chance process" – with the necessarily resulting scenarios of ludicrous mathematical improbability – are based on misunderstanding of how evolution works.
Natural selection works as a filter for random genetic variation. Adaptive improvements select out the organisms with genomes carrying beneficial variations, and these genomes serve as template for further variations, the beneficial ones of which are again selected, and so on. Step by step, through slow cumulative selection over many generations of living organisms, numerous random variations thus can non-randomly accumulate within a single genome, each one of them beneficial. Non-randomly means, not by chance, since through natural selection each random variation is filtered for being correlated in a favorable manner to other functions of the genome, including those of other preceding random variations.
The overall cumulative effect will be of considerable magnitude over vast timescales, leading to new functions and structures: macroevolution as a sum of the accumulation of very many steps of microevolution (manifestation of small genetic changes after selection by the environment).
From all the above it should be clear that a sudden, improbable chance accumulation of genes, which together would lead to complex structures all at once, is not considered to play a role in this very gradual process.
In this context it needs to be pointed out that complex structures like eyes and wings did not have to simply appear in their current form to be useful; all small intermediary steps towards them plausibly were useful too in conferring an advantage. This is a crucial point that is extensively and well illustrated in Richard Dawkins’s book Climbing Mount Improbable (see below), which also shows that some intermediary forms of fully developed eyes and wings are still found in the animal kingdom, as a testimony to evolution.
In a short form, this kind of development of the eye is shown by Kenneth R. Miller in his article Life’s Grand Design, next to lucid argumentation on other important issues (the article touches on philosophical issues and "Intelligent Design" as well, we will discuss these things later) (2).
(2) For Miller’s argument about "junk DNA" in the article, see also: Nobrega MA et al. 2004. Megabase deletions of gene deserts result in viable mice. Nature 431: 988-993. A comment is found here.
The outlined mechanism of evolution also explains why we cannot observe evolution of distinctly new complex traits, like fish sprouting lungs or legs, in the span of our lifetime. If the scientifically accepted mechanism of evolution is correct, i.e. slow, incremental accumulation of beneficial genetic variations over many generations of living organisms, these sudden changes are exactly what we should not see. Yet a common misconception is that, because we do not see such changes in "real-time", evolution cannot be true.
Science studies that which is observable in a reproducible manner. It is a misunderstanding, however, to equate "observable" with "directly observable". Yes, experiments in the laboratory (including my own biochemical ones) are directly or almost directly observable (with actual results in, say, a few hours or days), but experimental evidence of the here and now is not the only scientific evidence. Forensic science, for example, can in many cases reliably reconstruct a crime from the traces that were left by it, even though nobody directly observed the crime. The findings of archeology can help to reconstruct in detail aspects and habits of the life of ancient cultures. We can directly observe the traces of the past, even though we cannot observe the past directly.
Furthermore, with respect to vast timescales that equal or supersede those of biological evolution: evidently, nobody has observed in real time the physical evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, yet there is comparatively little controversy about the diverse stages of this physical evolution (formation of atoms, stars, galaxies, planets, etc.), as they have been analyzed by science, in public understanding.
The same should apply to the evidence of biological evolution which, from the viewpoint of science, is overwhelming, since it is confirmed by the convergence of data from entirely independent scientific disciplines (see below). As Richard Dawkins, a known and ardent advocate of public understanding of evolution, noted in an 2004 interview with Bill Moyers, PBS network: "Evolution has been observed. It just has not been observed while it is happening."
Evolutionary science has delivered spectacular results. Microevolution (manifestation of small genetic changes after selection by the environment) can be experimentally verified, such as development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, i.e. a form of genetic adaptation to the environment, an adaptation that occurs on its own according to simple biochemical principles. And macroevolution (i.e. development of species, from the first bacteria-like cells to other organisms, including us humans), though, for the reasons outlined above, not directly experimentally verifiable, has been convincingly reconstructed from the fossil record, from comparative examination of the physiology of living species and from the molecular phylogenetic tree. The latter depicts the occurrence and stabilization of genetic point mutations, rearrangements and gene duplications from species to species. In fact, the molecular phylogenetic tree is for me personally – as a biochemist, interested in the molecular level – a particularly fascinating testimony to the process.
Regarding the phenomenon of "descent with modification" (Darwin), that species have derived from each other over billions of years (with the animal kingdom appearing about 600 million years ago), evolution from ancient bacteria-like cells to humans is to be considered a scientific fact. It has been unequivocally demonstrated to an extent and by means which Darwin could not have anticipated in his wildest dreams. Each new item of the fossil record has impressively proven to be consistent with predictions; for example, just in the last 10–15 years a rich fossil lineage extensively covering the transitional forms between land mammals and whales has been found. Of utmost importance is that genetic findings, as incorporated in the molecular phylogenetic tree, have delivered a stunningly accurate and independent duplication of the tree of life as established from the fossil record and comparative examination of the physiology of living species. Genetics also has tremendously extended our knowledge about descent of species towards the molecular level. The convergence of data from entirely independent disciplines of science is what makes the evidence for evolution so sound. One could only wish that all other facts of science were that strongly corroborated.
With respect to its historical occurrence, evolution is thus a fact. Regarding the mechanisms by which it took place, evolution is a scientific theory. This is a generalization, based on many observations and experiments, by which scientific facts are explained – like the atomic theory, the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity, to name a few examples. Or, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, in science a theory is "a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed." As will be clear from this, a scientific theory is neither a "hunch" nor a speculation or hypothesis, like the term "theory" in everyday use may mean. The dismissive opinion "evolution is just a theory" therefore is based on misunderstanding the concept of scientific theory, apart from not realizing that the historical occurrence of evolution is a fact.
The theory of evolution holds that the primary mechanism of random genetic variation followed by natural selection, together with the secondary mechanism of genetic drift – mechanisms that have been verified extensively – underlie all observed facts of evolution. In all fairness it needs to be said that it has not yet been demonstrated that these mechanisms indeed can account for all the facts. At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that historically, as science has progressed, new observed facts of evolution have proven extraordinarily consistent with the mechanisms; they have provided their best and most natural explanation and can be shown to be plausible in all cases. Also, experiments have directly demonstrated the workings of natural selection after random genetic variation. The theory is constantly tested against the facts and more and more solidified.
Ultimately, the tendencies of scientific discovery more and more point to an evolution that will be able to be completely explained by these mechanisms, with random genetic variation followed by natural selection playing the main role.
What I personally, as a biochemist, always had trouble to understand was the problem of the origin of metabolic cycles, formulated here for the Krebs cycle:
"The Krebs cycle has been frequently quoted as a key problem in the evolution of living cells, hard to explain by Darwin’s natural selection: How could natural selection explain the building of a complicated structure in toto, when the intermediate stages have no obvious fitness functionality?"
The above formulation of this problem (not restricted to the Krebs cycle) is found in the discussion section of the paper: Melendez-Hevia E et al. 1996. The puzzle of the Krebs citric acid cycle: Assembling the pieces of chemically feasible reactions, and opportunism in the design of metabolic pathways during evolution. Journal of Molecular Evolution 43: 293-303.
The authors, however, continue (emphasis in the original text):
"This looks, in principle, similar to the eye problem, as in "What is the use of half an eye?". However, our analysis demonstrates that this case is quite different. The eye evolved because the intermediary stages were also functional as eyes, and, thus the same target of fitness was operating during the complete evolution. In the Krebs cycle problem the intermediary stages were also useful, but for different purposes, and, therefore, its complete design was a clear case of opportunism. The building of the eye was really a creative process in order to make a new thing specifically, but the Krebs cycle was built through the process that Jacob (1977) called "evolution by molecular tinkering", stating that evolution does not produce novelties from scratch: It works on what already exists. The most novel result of our analysis is seeing how, with minimal new material, evolution created the most important pathway of metabolism, achieving the best chemically possible design. In this case, a chemical engineer who was looking for the best design of the process, could not have found a better design than the cycle which works in living cells."
The elegant paper discusses all the various theoretical alternatives to the current Krebs cycle and brilliantly demonstrates, based on solid chemical and biological criteria, how the present cycle was not just the only practically possible solution, but also the one requiring the least number of new enzymes – one, as opposed to up to six for alternative cycles. Just one extra enzyme? That certainly is plausible to have occurred via evolution, in this case building on pathways of amino acid synthesis and heme-group synthesis. According to general consensus as quoted in the paper, these pathways had to exist before the Krebs cycle. – In previous studies, the group had shown probable ways of evolution of other cycles, the pentose phosphate cycle and the Calvin cycle.
Within the scientific community, there is an almost unanimous consensus that evolution is a fact, which is logical in view of the strength of data. With regard to the mechanism of random genetic variation and natural selection (and of genetic drift) the consensus is overwhelming too, even though of course there will always be debates about details – as a normal part of how science usually works in any of its disciplines. Strangely, some anti-evolutionists pretend that there is a significant divide about evolution within the scientific community. This untruthfulness and deception is unfortunate. Even more bizarre is the notion of an alleged conspiracy within the scientific community to spread materialistic world views by exaggerating evolution from hypothesis to fact. The facts of evolution are what they are, and many scientists believe in God (3), so this idea has no basis.
(3) A 1997 survey published by the renowned scientific magazine Nature (Larson EJ, Witham L. 1997. Scientists are still keeping the faith. Nature 386:435-436) found that 40 % of American scientists believe in a personal, active God to whom one may pray "in expectation of receiving an answer" (a number unchanged from 1916). If one would go beyond this tight definition – far stricter than that in standard polls of the general public – and include in the concept of God an impersonal first cause, like for example it had been Einstein’s concept, the number of 40 % (in itself already almost half of all scientists) would probably be significantly exceeded. In a discussion it was suggested that this number might only be so high because the scientists surveyed may have felt under pressure from an overwhelmingly religious sentiment in the US. However, this argument appears to lack any merit:
1. The random survey of scientists was performed by mail questionnaire (i.e. on a voluntary basis, with more than 60 % responding) and the results were published anonymously, which, one may reasonably assume, excludes any pressure.
2. Science has the aura of being "rationalist" (not the same as being rational, which of course it is); thus admitting belief in God against this "rationalism" would actually seem the less conforming thing to do.
For those who either doubt the validity of evidence for evolution or simply want to know much more about how evolution works, I strongly recommend two outstanding books on the topic:
1. Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (1999): the author systematically and handily disproves all the arguments of creationists and particularly of the Intelligent Design movement, and in the process makes an overwhelmingly compelling case for the age of the earth, for evolution on the level of fossil record, and for evolution of complex biochemical machinery (such as the bacterial flagellum) and of biochemical pathways (among others, his book made me aware of the above paper about the Krebs cycle). Also, as a believer – he is a Catholic – Miller makes a solid case for why evolution is fully compatible with creation by God, and in fact, is philosophically the preferred alternative to a hypothetical, and now refuted, static creation.
2. Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable (1997): Several of the most important issues of evolution that had been explained by the author in his famous 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker (4) are discussed here in considerably more detail (including extensive graphic illustrations) but also in a more concise narrative style. Dawkins thoroughly explains how macroevolution is easily conceivable as an accumulation of small steps, each of them useful – in this manner "Climbing Mount Improbable" along the gentle slope on its backside, instead of the improbable straight ascent on its vertical wall, which would correspond to chance agglomeration of complex structures. The author presents many impressive and varied facts to solidify the case. He discusses the issue based on such diverse aspects as the evolution of spider’s webs, of flying and of the eye, among others. The book is written in close consultation with leading experts in their respective fields of science, and the argumentation is logical and should be thoroughly convincing to anyone with an open mind. Dawkins’s militant atheism might be off-putting to some, but in this book its scope of expression is limited to the extent that I personally can easily read over it, sometimes with a smile because his philosophical comments are quite uninformed and shallow, in curious contrast to his truly excellent explanations of evolutionary science.
Both books complement each other as to the level of detail on diverse issues.
(4) The title of that book is a reaction to Rev. William Paley’s 1802 book, Natural Theology, which argued that just as finding a watch upon the ground would lead you to conclude that a watchmaker must have made it, the complexity of living organisms proves that a Creator exists (the biological Argument from Design). Yet while Dawkins admires Paley’s passion and his thorough knowledge of the biological science of his day, he refutes his conclusions. He argues that nature is a blind watchmaker who evolves complex living structures without having premeditated foresight of design.
Unknown to Dawkins, the great Cardinal Newman – considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church – dismissed Paley’s "proof of God" already several years before Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared. And in an 1863 entry in his Philosophical Notebooks, four years after the publication of The Origin of Species, he endorses Darwin’s views as plausible and suggests he might "go the whole hog with Darwin". Newman believed that God let His work develop through secondary causes, and in 1868 he wrote "Mr. Darwin’s theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill."
Strongly recommended is also 29 + Evidences for Macroevolution: the Scientific Case for Common Descent, which discusses historical evidence for the facts of evolution, facts that are independent of its actual mechanism. Highly useful reading is also Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition (1999). There is much other informative material about evolution on the web as well.
The scientific concept of "randomness"
In the main mechanism of evolution, random genetic variation is followed by natural selection, which is not random – that is why, as pointed out above, it is false to call evolution as a whole a random process, or a chance process. Yet does not "random" genetic variation imply unguided and unplanned events? That certainly is a wide-spread assumption, and needs to be addressed before we can discuss evolution and philosophy of belief.
While writing in the context of evolution and belief, the theoretical particle physicist Stephen M. Barr notes in his essay "The Design of Evolution" about the strictly scientific term of "random":
"The word "random" is a basic technical term in most branches of science. It is used to discuss the motions of molecules in a gas, the fluctuations of quantum fields, noise in electronic devices, and the statistical errors in a data set, to give but a few examples. So if the word "random" necessarily entails the idea that some events are "unguided" in the sense of falling "outside of the bounds of divine providence," we should have to condemn as incompatible with Christian faith a great deal of modern physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy, as well as biology.
"This is absurd, of course. The word "random" as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable."
The definition in mathematics and statistics is: "Of or relating to a type of circumstance or event that is described by a probability distribution". (Source: The American Heritage Dictionaries.)
"Random" also means simply "by chance" (in German, for example, the scientific-technical equivalent of the word "random" is "zufällig" – which directly translates into "by chance"). The classical example of "randomness" is the game of dice.
Furthermore, "random" is used as "unpredictable": quantum mechanics, for instance, does not predict the outcome of particular experiments, but only their probability distribution. In mathematical statistics on the other hand, "Prediction of random variables" is an important field.
Only in psychology the at times apparent use of the term as "purposeless" forms an exception to these definitions in science.
When Nobel Prize winner Jaques Monod explains random mutation in chapter VI of his famous landmark book Chance and Necessity from 1970 (the single most gripping explanation of the phenomenon I have read), he uses terms to describe "random" which satisfy scientific precision. He speaks of "chance", of "independence" between an error in the replication of the genetic message and its functional consequences on the level of the protein that the gene encodes, and he uses the words "coincidence" and "unpredictable".
However, even though Monod may be one of the pioneers of the propagation of atheistic evolutionism, he does not speak of "unguided", "undirected" or "unplanned", which are either philosophical or everyday uses of the word "random" – not scientific ones. In other words, Monod speaks like a true scientist when explaining a scientific concept.
Contamination of science with philosophy; confusion of the two disciplines
On the other hand, the letter of Nobel Prize winners to the Kansas State Board of Education from September 9, 2005, in a just campaign against "Intelligent Design", states:
"Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection."
Hold on, not just "unplanned" random variation – questionable by itself as purely scientific statement – but an entire "unplanned process"? This shows how by now, decades after Monod, decidedly philosophical concepts have contaminated explanations of evolution that are supposed to be strictly scientific.
Historically this will have evolved in part deliberately due to certain world views, but for a substantial part it may also have been an unintentional development. A not too far-fetched analogy for the latter, I think, is the typical use of "lab jargon" to name certain scientific concepts in everyday conversation between people in a laboratory – however, once a publication is written, sloppy terms are critically assessed and modified in order to satisfy scientific precision. Alas, this process of analytical evaluation has been watered down when it comes to scientists explaining evolution to the world (in scientific publications on evolution within the field of biology and biochemistry itself, this problem is not readily apparent). And no, please do not ask me how the letter managed to obtain the signature of no less than 38 Nobel Prize winners – this clearly is not one of science’s proudest moments.
At least the letter states that there is no "need for conflict between the theory of evolution and religious faith. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Neither should feel threatened by the other." Ironically, even though this statement is correct, it squarely contradicts the two words "unplanned process" in the letter’s definition of evolution.
Of course, the scientists could have simply meant a "process unplanned by nature". However, this would be rather pointless and is to be doubted, and in that case the inaccuracy of wording would be disappointing as well.
In any event, the contamination of scientific explanations of evolution by philosophy is not particularly helpful for science to win its case in the court of public opinion.
One must not make the profound mistake of confusing the mandatory naturalistic operating and observation principle of science (methodological materialism) with a mandatory naturalistic philosophy. This mistake is made by atheistic "evolutionism", which draws metaphysical conclusions from scientific facts that go beyond what science can tell us, yet are presented as scientific conclusions, or as the only conclusions that science allows for. The influence of this philosophy seems tangible in above letter, even though, as I pointed out, the confusion of science and philosophy there also may for a substantial part have been unintended.
From the other side of the fence, the mistake of confusing science with philosophy is made by the Intelligent Design movement as well, with a completely different outcome. This movement claims that science unduly works from within a naturalistic, even materialistic philosophy. Hence it strives to offer an "alternative" science which tries to explain things by "whatever means necessary", including causes lying outside the natural laws as we know them. That is flagrant nonsense. Science does not work within a philosophical world view, but from an operating principle: that of investigating natural causes to natural effects. If the natural sciences would consider other than natural causes (i.e. causes that emanate from the laws of nature as we more and more know them) they would not only deny themselves, they would also loose the extraordinary, even spectacular, explanatory power they have demonstrated over the last centuries. It would have a devastating effect.
Ultimately, however, the misuse of scientific facts by certain prominent evolutionists for the promotion of materialistic and atheistic world views "because this is what science tells us", thereby severely overstepping the boundaries of science into the realm of philosophy while giving the appearance to remain within them, is – even though probably unintended – not in agreement with the essence of science as well.
Of course, anyone who is inclined to do so is free to use the findings of science to support atheistic world views. However, then it should be made clear that the conclusions are arrived at when contemplating scientific facts in the realm of philosophy (which allows for different options of world view), not when contemplating them by themselves.
Certainly, there are those who will argue that there cannot be any confusion of science with philosophy, since competent philosophy and science are one and the same. However, as an encompassing description for philosophy this is an extreme view, poorly supported by philosophical tradition and thinking (a separate issue is that, historically, science has emanated from a philosophical subdiscipline called natural philosophy). On the other hand, I would agree that competent modern philosophy has to incorporate essential findings of science which necessarily impact world view – such as evolution.
It is interesting how often atheists argue that it is "the most scientific view" that there is no reality other than the one that can be studied by science, the material world thus (an argument sometimes implied in the contention that scientific thinking, which studies the material reality, is the only valid, or critical, thinking). Yet this view has nothing to do with science itself; instead it is a philosophical, not a scientific view.
Thus, atheists who realize the truth of evolution do not have any more scientific views than believers who do so (5).
(5) In fact, it was religion that introduced the idea that there are objective laws by which all natural things operate. As biochemist, atheist and Nobel Prize winner Melvin Calvin writes in Chemical Evolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 258: "The fundamental conviction that the universe is ordered is the first and strongest tenet [of science]. As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2000 or 3000 years ago enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely, that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science."
Kepler, Galileo and Newton, key figures in the scientific revolution of the 17th century, were all believers*) – atheists were not the ones who founded modern science. In view of all this, also absurd is the idea that science has "outperformed" religion or rendered it less relevant by explaining things in terms of natural causes that before were supposedly explained by divine intervention. God made the natural causes which science studies. Religion is about the relationship with God and the meaning of life, and its essence has never been about specific explanations of the natural world. These are the domain of science, which in turn, according to its operating principles, cannot say anything about the meaning of life.
*) Desperate attempts to re-write history by labeling these early leading scientists as "closet atheists" are, by reasonable standards, anything but credible.
As the American National Academy of Sciences states:
"Many religious persons, including many scientists, hold that God created the universe and the various processes driving physical and biological evolution and that these processes then resulted in the creation of galaxies, our solar system, and life on Earth. This belief, which sometimes is termed "theistic evolution", is not in disagreement with scientific explanations of evolution. Indeed, it reflects the remarkable and inspiring character of the physical universe revealed by cosmology, paleontology, molecular biology, and many other scientific disciplines."
The general public is often suspicious about and even hostile to evolutionary science – yet even though it is not the fault of this great field of science itself (how can truth be at fault?), at least in part it appears to be the fault of certain scientists who claim that science implies more philosophically than it actually, by its very nature, is able to.
Proponents of the acceptance of evolution often treat Intelligent Design as the only problem to be fought against. Yet when it comes to the classroom, atheistic evolutionism should be banned as well, including any forms that are just subtle and non-demonstrative. Both movements raise the same dilemma for students: to choose between faith and science. The damage to science that this unnecessary and artificial dilemma provokes may be considerable – scientific careers may be lost, apart from misinformation of students about what really constitutes the essence of science. The science accepted by the scientific community, which is evolution, needs to be taught in the classroom. But it should be taught as pure science, untainted by ideology. This may also require critical evaluation of formulations in textbooks.
Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director of the American National Center for Science Education (NCSE), writes:
"I suggest that one’s personal beliefs should be kept out of the classroom whether one is a believer or a nonbeliever. Using the classroom to indoctrinate students to any belief or nonbelief is, first of all, a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution’s establishment clause; second, it will be misleading to students who will have difficulty separating science as a way of knowing from personal philosophy; and third, it is bad strategy for anyone concerned about the public understanding of evolution."
Evolution and philosophy of belief
The scenario of evolution by random genetic variation and natural selection is often deliberately used by atheists as a "weapon" against the theistic position of a creator God. However, does this weapon really fire?
On the contrary, would not a creation by God just setting in motion this incredible process of evolution from the first primitive cell to us humans, at no point requiring intervention by Him outside the natural laws that He created, be the most beautiful and powerful kind of creation imaginable – a creation as a quasi self-developing magnificent edifice starting from a tiny seed?
As Pope John Paul II has affirmed in 1996, there is nothing in the above neo-darwinistic scientific theory that would clash with a belief in God and creation, provided that the belief is upheld that God creates an individual soul for each human being.
In fact, most of the mainstream churches and religious organizations embrace creation by evolution, see Statements from Religious Organizations, Theistic Evolution and the Clergy Letter Project.
What about the element of chance, contingency, in evolution, however? Already in the 13th century the great philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas noted with admirable (and one might say, modern) insight:
"The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity, happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency." (Summa theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1).
Thus, no difficulties there. Guidance of evolution could be provided by the starting conditions created by God, which set a process in motion, with the randomness of genetic variation being a feature planned by God as well. Barr points out (regarding the "anthropic coincidences" he mentions, see his article on the issue):
"The possibility of an evolutionary process that could produce the marvelously intricate forms we see presupposes the existence of a universe whose structure, matter, processes, and laws are of a special character. This is the lesson of the many "anthropic coincidences" that have been identified by physicists and chemists. It is also quite likely, as suggested by the eminent neo-Darwinian biologist Simon Conway Morris, that certain evolutionary endpoints (or "solutions") are built into the rules of physics and chemistry, so that the "random variations" keep ending up at the same destinations, somewhat as meandering rivers always find the sea. In his book Life’s Solution, Morris adduces much impressive evidence of such evolutionary tropisms."
The document of the Catholic Church "Communion and Stewardship" (subtitle: Human Persons Created in the Image of God) - produced under the supervision of the current Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, and open to the findings of contemporary science - adds to this notion in paragraph 69 (reading of at least the entire section about science, starting at paragraph 62 is recommended):
"It is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. […]
"In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so. An unguided evolutionary process – one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence – simply cannot exist because "the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles....It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, 22, 2)."
Since theistic belief states that God made the laws of nature, He is also Lord over chance and necessity that occur within their realm. He could thus very well have guided the process of evolution, beyond just providing starting conditions, through selectively steering certain events of randomness of genetic variation within the boundaries of natural law (in another application of the sense that "random" does not mean "unguided" or "unplanned", see above). It would emphatically lie outside its methodology for science to be able to demonstrate if the actual outcome was unguided or guided.
This intervention into random events, entirely within the laws of nature, would have been a very subtle one which nonetheless could, for example, have ensured a preplanned outcome in terms of shape and function of the human body and in terms of time frame of events.
In different wording, the argument is also found elsewhere and discussed extensively, for example in Ken Miller's book Finding Darwin's God, p. 241, building on preceding explanations, and in Robert John Russell's essay "Special Providence and Genetic Variation" in the book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (a collection of essays by Evangelical Christians, Chapter 15). However, even though this scenario seems a reasonable possibility, an evolution without such putative divine interventions beyond its starting conditions, as it was mentioned as scenario above, appears entirely conceivable as well. Ken Miller writes (Finding Darwin's God, p. 238 f.):
"Would God’s purpose have been realized if evolution had turned out a little differently? How can we say for sure? But this much I think is clear: Given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for – a creature who, like us, could know Him and love Him, could perceive the heavens and dream of the stars, a creature who would eventually discover the extraordinary process of evolution that filled His earth with so much life."
Some might object: But then perhaps God might have had to wait for another few million years or so, if evolution had turned out differently within the preplanned framework of contingency. In fact, an argument against evolution in general might be that it would have had God waiting for so long until the human race as the culmination of His creation appeared. Conversely, the time frame of evolution, with the putative pinnacle of creation appearing so late, might be used as an argument against a creator God.
The latter was implied, for example, by Stephen J. Gould in "On Embryos and Answers", Natural History (July/Aug. 1998), p. 58:
"But the real enigma – at least with respect to our parochial concerns about the progressive inevitability of our own lineage – surrounds the origin and early history of animals. [Note: these "parochial concerns", as Gould prefers to call them, are those of religion of course.] If life had always been hankering to reach a pinnacle of expression as the animal kingdom, then organic history seemed to be in no hurry to initiate this ultimate phase. About five sixths of life’s history had passed before animals made their first appearance in the fossil record some 600 million years ago."
One might add, just for the fun of it: about 99.95 % of life’s history had passed before humans made their first appearance (about 4 billion years vs. about 2 million years).
However, all these arguments with respect to a "waiting" God are philosophically irrelevant since they ignore the attributes of divine nature; they are based on ill-informed and far too "little" concepts of God.
God is – or from the viewpoint of philosophical concept, has to be – infinite, non-material (i.e. non-corporeal as well) and eternal. Therefore, He lives outside the dimensions of space and time; after all, He created them in the first place. As a consequence, everything in the domain of time can exist for Him in an instant: God does not need to "wait".
Whether or not there were subtle interventions by God into select random events of gene variation during evolution, there is a compelling argument for an overwhelming majority of unguided random events, without direct divine guidance beyond setting the starting conditions of evolution: the guidance of evolution occurs by the interaction of the organism with the environment. This is, after all, what the evolutionary principle of natural selection expresses, a selection taking place after these random events. Such guidance can easily be seen in real-time in the ordinary example of acquisition of bacterial resistance against antibiotics. A number of different random genetic variations, manifesting themselves through natural selection, will lead to the same resistance.
In this sense evolution would have taken place, either entirely or for the very most part, in the "cold" and "mechanical" manner in which nature, without external interference, indeed can take care of itself, like the atheist Monod suggests.
In conclusion, on the scientifically observable level there cannot be anything that would lead to a necessary discrepancy between atheistic and theistic convictions when it comes to the mechanisms of evolution. Only on a philosophical level there would be a difference in interpretation: what for some seems unguided, can appear as a guided process to others. Both points of view would be legitimate.
A separate matter is the existence of the human soul, which, according to most religious beliefs, is a spiritual and immortal entity distinct from (yet intimately connected to) the human body and brain and which is created by God for each human being individually – thus also stands outside the mechanisms of evolution. However, since it is an issue of spirituality, the assumption of a human soul lies outside the material domain of the natural sciences and therefore cannot conflict with them either. On a scientific level, the existence of the soul can be neither "proven" nor "disproven". By definition, any debate about the existence and properties of the human soul has to be carried out on the philosophical level.
The creation of the soul makes humans the intended culmination of all creation, and not some chance byproduct of cold forces of the universe, "winners in a cosmic lottery", as atheistic philosophy would have it.
The subject of the soul is also the one major philosophical issue where I disagree with Ken Miller, when he argues in Finding Darwin’s God that the contingent process of evolution forms the biological basis of our freedom. Yes, evolution may be a beautiful affirmation of freedom and spontaneity in God’s creation, but the foundation of free will is exclusively the immaterial human soul (which Miller does mention in his book, but not in an emphasized manner). It is for each human being a special creation, and would make us free even if the biology of our human race was a special creation, in terms of body and brain, as well.
(Quantum indeterminacy in itself cannot explain free will, but it can be debated whether or not it is a prerequisite to allow for the soul to interact with the brain.)
God has many ways to act in the world, and the individual creation of a soul for each human being alone makes Him an active God, as does personal interaction with those humans who seek it – even though He may let nature take its course in the process of evolution, He is not the God of deism. Most importantly too, there is an ongoing encompassing relationship between God and His creation. According to general Christian doctrine, God not only created but continuously sustains His creation and all its natural causes – obviously, including those that lead to evolution. Howard van Till outlines this in his excellent article "Is the Universe Capable of Evolving?" in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, p. 313 f. (emphasis in original):
[…] "the universe is a Creation not merely because God acted as its Creator at some first moment of time, but because the universe is equally dependent on God’s function as its Creator at all times. I have often suggested that the historic Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation is better summarized by saying that the universe is God’s Creation than by saying that the universe was created by God. The Creator/Creation relationship is equally important at every moment in time."
Some appear to be concerned that God’s special providence, an active involvement in the world beyond just maintenance of creation, seems to be diminished by the idea that God may have let nature take its course during evolution. There would have been no or little special providence for billions of years. Only recently, all of the sudden, when humans appeared, God would have acted in the world with special providence in an intense manner – an unsatisfying temporal disjunction in God’s involvement in His creation.
However, could it not be that these concerns are based on a naïve anthropomorphic projection of our own perception of time onto God’s works? As pointed out above, God lives outside space and time. From God’s perspective the temporal aspect of creation may look entirely different than for us, since everything can exist for Him in an instant. God can intervene with special providence whenever He chooses, with the "whenever" not necessarily related to our own experience of time as a sequence of events.
To reemphasize the point:
Would not a creation of the material world by God just setting in motion this incredible process of evolution be the most beautiful and powerful kind of creation imaginable – a creation as a quasi self-developing magnificent edifice starting from a tiny seed? My answer would be a resounding "Yes", and it would make God’s creation a much more impressive and intelligent one than a creation by constant intervention through "design".
In fact, this kind of creation is what a believer should deduce from the clear scientific facts of evolution when (s)he considers them in the realm of philosophy.
This manner of creation is only possible because God’s causality is so dramatically different from human causality (see Thomas Aquinas and the church document "Communion and Stewardship", quoted above); it can be so different because it is far superior. To start with, divine causality works on an infinitely more advanced level of foresight than our own.
As Cardinal Newman already had written in Darwin’s own time about evolution, "it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill" (see above, note 7). Important: philosophically, there is an essential difference between divine prescience and predetermination.
So in the end, this understanding of the superior manner in which God created is made possible by the power and marvels of modern science, which thus deserves no less than a full and enthusiastic embrace. Science can and should help a believer to grow up towards a better understanding of God’s works – after all, it is science that tells us the truth about nature, which to a believer is His creation.
God should be considered perfect and intelligent enough to have created the natural laws in such a powerful and elegant way that they can accomplish all the "miracles" of nature by themselves, without Him constantly having to intervene against, to break, these natural laws for these "miracles" to occur (that, in exceptional cases, God may choose to overrule the laws of nature in order to perform real miracles, is another matter).
Thinking otherwise might actually amount to a belittling of God: the Intelligent Designer as "tinkerer" who is forced to break His own laws of nature once in a while to achieve certain stages in the development of the material world. From a theistic philosophical perspective, the findings of science provide us with a much grander idea of God: God is the Designer who made self-sufficient laws of nature. These work towards more complexity of the material world by inducing self-organization.
As Stephen Barr beautifully writes in the last paragraph of his essay "The Miracle of Evolution" in the Feb. 2006 issue of First Things:
"If biology remains only biology, it is not to be feared. Much of the fear that does exist is rooted in the notion that God is in competition with nature, so that the more we attribute to one the less we can attribute to the other. That is false. The greater the powers and potentialities in nature, the more magnificent must be nature’s far-sighted Author, that God whose ‘ways are unsearchable’ and who ‘reaches from end to end ordering all things mightily.’ Richard Dawkins famously called the universe ‘a blind watchmaker.’ If it is, it is miracle enough for anyone; for it is incomparably greater to design a watchmaker than a watch. We need not pit evolution against design, if we recognize that evolution is part of God’s design."
This issue is explained also in the seminar by the physicist Loren Haarsma "Is Intelligent Design ‘Scientific’?" (emphasis in original):
"Imagine please that I have disassembled a watch and put all the parts in this plastic bag. Now, I could shake this bag 24 hours a day for years and years, and the watch would never reassemble itself. But now, imagine, that I have another bag with the parts of a watch that is designed to self-assemble. When I shake this bag, a little spring hooks onto a little screw and latches into place. The battery snaps into the battery holder and stays there. All the pieces of the watch are constructed so that, when two pieces that belong together collide with the right sort of trajectory, they hook together and stay hooked together. So if you shake this bag for an hour or so, in the end, you’ll have an entire working watch – working, but with some tiny scratches here and there which indicate its history of being shaken together. Now I present you with the ordinary watch, and with the watch which can self-assemble, and I ask this question: which watch is more cleverly designed? […] My point is that self-assembly is not the opposite of "design." Watches and biological life-forms can, in principle, be designed to self-assemble from simpler component pieces."
Finally, all this can be put into the greater perspective of the evolution of the entire universe, where we see such self-assembly as well, a self-assembly that, from a theistic perspective, is designed.
Loren Haarsma continues:
"The laws of nature are finely tuned not only for the existence of atoms and stars and planets. The laws of nature are so finely tuned that atoms and stars and galaxies self-assemble out of the fundamental particles produced by the Big Bang. And after nucleosynthesis in first-generation stars, the laws of nature bring about the self-assembly of heavier elements like carbon and oxygen (6), and simple molecules, and planets with dry land, atmospheres, and water oceans. This self-assembly of all the physical forms of the universe is possible because of the fine-tuning of the laws of nature."
(6) Aging first-generation stars then expelled these heavier elements out into space – we, who consist of these elements, are thus literally born from stardust.
The laws of nature thus were designed to be self-sufficient to such an extent as to self-assemble the entire physical universe, and further, complex life forms from simpler ones in the evolution from bacteria-like cells to humans. Therefore, in extrapolation we should expect that God designed them to be entirely self-sufficient all the way, as the summit of elegance. In that case, they would also bring about life itself by self-assembly. In conclusion, we should expect an origin of life by natural causes not just from an atheistic, but also from a theistic philosophical perspective.
For this, compare the document of the Catholic Church "Communion and Stewardship" , paragraph 68 (emphasis in original):
"With respect to the evolution of conditions favorable to the emergence of life, Catholic tradition affirms that, as universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes. God’s action does not displace or supplant the activity of creaturely causes, but enables them to act according to their natures and, nonetheless, to bring about the ends he intends. In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain in act all those secondary causes whose activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order which he intends to produce. Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation. Although there is scientific debate about the degree of purposiveness or design operative and empirically observable in these developments, they have de facto favored the emergence and flourishing of life. Catholic theologians can see in such reasoning support for the affirmation entailed by faith in divine creation and divine providence."
For further clarification of perspectives, fundamentally important reading material is also an interview with the famous particle physicist Nicola Cabibbo (see CKM matrix), president of the Papal Academy of Sciences, on evolution of species and origin of life, as well on the relation between atheistic "evolutionism" and scientific facts.
Evolution and the creation story in the Bible
Imagine what would have happened if God would have explained to His people in the creation story of the Bible, a few thousand years ago, how evolution works: what genes and DNA are, and how random genetic variation and natural selection function. Nobody would have understood anything. God, just like any good teacher, explains in a context, and with pictures, that can be understood at the respective times.
That is why it is a misguided claim that the Bible is false in its account of creation, and thus cannot be God’s word through the human writers inspired by Him. The main message of the creation story of the Bible is that there is one God, and all was created by Him and only Him. If by Big Bang or "creation of heaven and earth", if by evolution or "special" creation of species, is in comparison secondary – though in our scientific age also important for understanding God’s creation.
Furthermore, if God would have revealed Big Bang and evolution in the Bible far ahead of the scientific knowledge of the time, later scientific generations (ourselves thus) would have been forced to say: "Look at this, there was no way that those people could have known all this at the time, the fact that we read it in those old documents is proof that God exists and the Bible is His word!" Where then would be the choice to believe, intended by God?
Reading Sacred Scripture as a scientific textbook does it a disservice – not only is it mistaken, it effectively diminishes focus on its deeper religious meaning.
Pope John Paul II commented on the issue in his Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 3 October 1981:
"Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The sacred book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven."
Contrary to beliefs popular in some circles, adhering to either the atheistic or the theistic conviction, the findings of modern science are in perfect agreement with the theistic position of a creation of the world and of life by God.
What is more, the findings of modern science give us grandiose insights into God’s creation. From a theistic philosophical perspective, they reveal that God designed the laws of nature in such an elegant and powerful way that, over the vast stretches of time after the Big Bang, they were able to self-assemble the entire universe, from the first atoms to complex life forms. At least, this complete self-assembly is what scientific knowledge more and more points to.