God and Evolution

by Rebecca Bynum (June  2007)

 

During the first Republican Presidential debate on May 3, 2007, Sen. Sam Brownback, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo all raised their hands when asked who among them did not “believe in evolution.” The question was asked as though it were enitrely a matter of faith. Senator Brownback then published on op-ed in the New York Times to clarify his position. In that piece  he stated, "If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it." John Derbyshire clarifies what is meant by micro-evolution, as opposed to macro-evolution, here, but does not address the problem of “an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world” which I believe is the larger point.

One of the foremost challenges facing modern man is to reconcile, if possible, the seeming paradox between his highest conception of God as an absolute, unchanging and perfect being, with the obvious imperfection and changeability of the created world of which man is a part. For many this paradox leads to the conclusion that either God does not exist, or that the imperfection of the world is evidence of perversion on the part of its creator, in which case, like Job, man becomes morally superior to God. If that is indeed the case, how can man trust God or have faith in him?

Others professing faith and trust in God claim that the world is, in fact, perfect, if only we look at it in the right way (that is, all seeming accidents are really the result of God’s perfect will).  This seems to me to be intellectually dishonest, even if it is emotionally satisfying for believers.

For many, if not most, science has become the God of our age Right-thinking people have faith and trust in it and those who don’t are seen as troglodytic throw-backs who, if given half a chance, would thrust the world backward into an age of prescientific darkness. Science seems to pit biological evolution, specifically the mechanism of natural selection, against creationism, contending that all evolutionary change is the result of the fortuitous accumulation of accidents (random genetic mutation), against the contention that life is an independent force which fashions matter after a higher concept and for a higher purpose.

Here it may be useful to define life as what occurs between the organism and its environment, for this interaction is what determines survival value. Life’s environmental interaction is composed of a series of minor adjustments made by organisms which can only be described in terms of progressive perfection. The evolution of life on a larger scale is meaningless without the inclusion of the concept of progress in the direction of perfection. Mutation itself may be random, but the conservation of these mutations cannot be. They are conserved to the extent that they provide for increasing perfection of adaptation between the organism and its environment.

This is further complicated by the fact that the environment itself is a moving target, changing at times so rapidly as to cause mass extinctions. During the heyday of the Permian, for example, it is estimated that one hundred thousand species were thriving both on land and in the seas, but by the close of this period only around five hundred survived. Likewise, the end of the Cretaceous period was marked by the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. And in many of the surviving creatures from these ancient times (cockroaches, sharks, crocodiles, etc.) evolution seems to have stopped completely. Nevertheless, without the concept of progress, the term evolution is devoid of meaning.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that if evolution is entirely the result of the accumulation of small and gradual genetic mutations; there remain great big holes in the fossil record. New families of living things seem to appear suddenly, leaving no record of transition beings. This is what Stephen J. Gould called punctuated equilibrium: evolution does not always proceed smoothly, and sometimes major jumps occur. For example, in a period characterized by single-celled algae and slime molds suddenly trilobites appear complete with eyes, antennae and shells. Just as suddenly, boney fishes (the first vertebrates) appear.  Placental mammals and feathered birds suddenly appear in the age of reptiles and there are many other examples. No transition fossils are found anywhere in the world. So, evolution strictly by means of the gradual accumulation of small, random mutations might not be the whole explanation for this biological process.

This is one, but not the only, objection to the theory of natural selection raised by the proponents of Intelligent Design. In general, like Governor Brownback, they object to the conflation of science as a method for discovering truth with materialism as an ideology.

 

“Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins.” – William Dembski’s blog page Uncommon Descent

 

In this, I think they have a point. When science seeks to collapse all levels of reality into the material only, it betrays its own purpose – the seeking after truth about that reality. First, it denies the spiritual, or value level of reality, which means there can be no actual value to its own endeavors, and then it goes on to undermine the mind level of reality (as the reality of mathematical discovery can attest, mind exists independently of the thinking organism), even going so fare as to reduce mind to the electro-chemical functioning of the brain alone. Man is thereby stripped of his will and becomes like a cork bobbing along on the sea, acted upon, but hardly acting in any meaningful way. Values are leveled, meaning is destroyed, and man is reduced to some sort of electro-chemical automaton.  This is why some object to “believing in evolution” alone.

The majesty of man, his glory and heroism, are reduced to robotic materialistic functions – the seeking of sustenance and procreation – nothing more. This denies the very thing that has long been thought to separate man from beast: the existence of moral will, the ability to distinguish good and evil, the ability to either seek in the direction of God or to seek its selfish, beastlike opposite. The tragedy lies in the fact that, in this world-view, there is no tragedy.

Religionists also err deeply, in my view, by asserting that religion itself does not or should not evolve. Islam is an especially egregious example of this, insisting that society conform to (what Muslims consider to be) a perfect, immutable and divinely revealed doctrine. Christianity has elements of this as well, of course, and when some assert that “Christianity is just as bad” (as Islam is), the objection is to those unprogressive and anti-evolutionary elements of the faith. It was in protest to this kind of forced conformity that Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Relativism vs. certainty definitely plays a part here and I think it might be helpful if we simply acknowledged that truth, as we know it, is more a direction than a finality. And Truth, being an eternal and infinite value, cannot be contained in any finite material reality, let alone a doctrine or a book.

“Be you perfect, even as I am perfect” is said to be the call of the Creator, setting the direction for change - evolution. The living world grows in a quest for perfect adaptation. Spiritual evolution involves the identification of the human self with the highest values that person can realize. Like material growth, spiritual growth involves numerous tiny adjustments to the moral environment, and also like material growth, it is spontaneous and unconscious. Some attempt to deny the reality of spiritual growth because it is invisible to the eye but, like the unseen wind, the spirit is known by its effects.

It is equally foolish for some to deny the reality of biologic evolution, for the book written in stone is perfectly clear. To deny it is to deny the reality of gradual creation and to assert what seems to be the unreal notion that the world was created perfect and immutable. When religious ideology takes up arms against evolution (progressive perfection), then it also takes up arms against God’s creative plan. By denying the purpose of change, they deny the value of time. And so time and space (the basis of creation) are rendered both valueless and purposeless, leaving man the same. This is the opposite of the religious ideal.

Human utopian visions all seek to define social perfection when in reality that perfection is open ended. Just like biologic evolution, the evolution of society is made up of a myriad of tiny and continuing adjustments, tending toward perfection, but not finding it in finality. Man’s most profound and destructive follies seek to freeze societal evolution by proclaiming (falsely) some supposed final truth. Nothing is more destructive to human contentment than forced conformity to some master plan which seeks to make all men content.

If science could begin to pull away from its current tendency to deify man, recover a proper sense of humility inherent in the incomplete nature of its knowledge, and rediscover the liberty and sanctity of the individual moral will, it would be less inclined to promote the very follies of social engineering most scientists claim to abhor. And if religion could cease resisting the notion of progress inherent in God’s plan, realize that truth as we know it, can never be final, and also recognize the liberty and sanctity of the individual moral will, then might it also reverse its cruel efforts to enforce conformity as the price of faith.

 

 

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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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