ArticleComments [1]

Alvin Plantinga


Providential Evolution

Not unguided.

Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Books & Culture. It seems worth a second look, especially in the aftermath of the Ham-Nye debate.

One of the authors of this book is Francis Collins, who spearheaded the Human Genome Project, is presently director of the National Institute of Health, and founded the BioLogos Foundation (from which he resigned to accept the NIH position); the other is Karl Giberson, director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, and former executive vice president of the BioLogos Foundation. According to the preface, Giberson did the actual writing. The book began life as answers to "Frequently Asked Questions," questions sent in to Francis Collins in response to his best-selling The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation partly in an effort to find a way to respond to these many questions. According to the BioLogos website, "We have found that the methods of the natural sciences provide the most reliable guide to understanding the material world, and the current evidence from science indicates that the diversity of life is best explained as a result of an evolutionary process. Thus we affirm that evolution is a means by which God providentially achieves His purposes."

The Language of Science and Faith is something like an elaboration and defense of this platform. There are chapters devoted to the evidence for evolution and for the Earth's being billions of years old. There are chapters addressing the question of the relation of science to religion, and of scientific truth to scriptural truth. There is a statement and endorsement of fine-tuning arguments for theism, and an effort to harmonize current evolutionary theory with what is being taught in the first chapters of Genesis: here the crucial question is whether we are to take it that there was in fact a first pair of human beings, Adam and Eve, who fell into sin.

C&G endorse evolution, by which they seem mean at least (1) that the Earth is very old; (2) all of the enormous variety of the living world has come to be by way offspring differing; usually in small ways, from their parents; (3) that we human beings have simian ancestors; and (4) that any two living creatures have a common ancestor, so that you and the dandelions in your back yard are in fact cousins—distant cousins, but cousins nonetheless. (A whole new light on family reunions?) Suppose we use the term "evolution" to denote these four theses. C&G also endorse theistic evolution, although it is not entirely clear just how they think of God as related to the process of evolution.

Another thesis often included under the heading of evolution is Darwinism, the thought that what drives the whole process of descent with modification is natural selection working on some form of genetic variation: the most popular candidate here is random genetic mutation. I'm inclined to think C&G endorse Darwinism, but whether they do is not entirely clear.

Many evangelical Christians, of course, reject theistic evolution. Indeed, feeling runs high and language gets pretty heated in this area. On the blog "Uncommon Descent," for example, we find theistic evolutionists described as "ridiculously evasive," "useful idiots" (useful to the secularists, that is), and "extremely naïve." They are "snakes in the grass who knowingly promote a 'strong' view of evolution (the essentially atheistic idea that it's unguided and that purpose is an illusion) while engaging in misdirection to obscure that fact"; they are said to take "an irrational and heretical posture." True: the blogosphere is not noted for judicious, temperate, measured comment; still, the tone and ferocity of the discussion is noteworthy.

C&G do a nice job of presenting the evidence for evolution (the above four theses), which does indeed seem substantial. Of course different parts of the theory have different degrees of support: there seems to be massive support for the idea that the Earth is very old, but somewhat less support for the other three components of evolution as described above, if only because of the possibility that God did something special in creating human beings. As far as I can tell, they don't present any evidence for Darwinism as distinguished from evidence for (1)-(4). And indeed the evidence for Darwinism is much more tenuous.

A central concern here, of course, is the question of how to understand the early chapters of Genesis. Many contemporary Christians believe that these chapters are to be taken literally, as a historically accurate account of God's creating the world. If we follow them, Genesis seems to tell us of a time not long ago—adding up the begats and lengths of lives, maybe six to ten thousand years ago—when God created the world in six 24-hour days. There is the picture of waters under the earth and waters above the earth, the vast dome of the firmament, and the assertion that before Creation, "the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep." God created plants before the sun. He created Adam and Eve, placing them in a garden and commanding them not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; if they do, God says, they will surely die. A talking serpent appears, persuading Eve that what the Lord says is not in fact true; Eve takes fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and convinces Adam to do the same. As a result of this sin, death enters the world, as does all the suffering and the evil our world displays.

As C&G point out, many of the great Christian thinkers of the past—Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and many others—rejected this literalistic view. C&G go on, however, to claim that most evangelical Christians at present do endorse this literal interpretation of early Genesis; as a result, they are obliged to reject evolution and other substantial swaths of current science. C&G also hold that the dominance of this way of thinking among evangelicals is very recent, dating back, for the most part, to the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961.

Perhaps this is true. Another possible source of the rejection of evolution is the fact that very many scientific experts—G. G. Simpson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, and Peter Atkins, to name a few—tell us that evolution is in fact an unguided process: unguided by the hand of God or any other person. But the claim that life on earth has come to be by way of an unguided process is incompatible with the Christian belief that God has created human beings in his image. That is because this Christian belief implies at the very least that if human beings came to be by way of evolution, then God intended that process to produce a certain result, and did what was necessary to see to it that it did produce that result. Hence the claim that the variety of life has come to be by way of unguided evolution is incompatible with Christian belief. Further, if all those distinguished experts insist that the theory is indeed a theory of unguided evolution, it's not surprising that many Christians believe them and reject the theory as incompatible with Christian belief.

So a second crucial question, here, is this: How shall we understand the scientific theory of evolution? The experts I mentioned above take this theory, just as such, to be a theory whose whole purpose and aim is to give a naturalistic explanation of the apparently purposive features of the living world—an explanation that doesn't involve or divine purpose or activity or design. Further, they take the theory to include the idea that there is no purpose or design in the living world: there is only the appearance of design, but not the reality. (Thus they add to evolution, as I construed it above, the claim that the process of evolution is unguided.) And of course it isn't only naturalists like Dawkins and Dennett who take it thus; so do many Christians (see, for example, many of the bloggers on "Uncommon Descent"). As they see it, the scientific theory of evolution just as such includes the thought that the whole process is unguided.

This thought arises in part, I believe, because of the cultural role currently played by evolution. Prior to Darwin, atheists and agnostics had no answer to the question, "Well then, how did this enormous variety of life, replete with apparent design, come to be? If God didn't create it, where did it come from?" Prior to Darwin, there was no decent answer to this question. "It just happened" was a bit unsatisfying. After Darwin, on the other hand, there is a response—not necessarily a good or convincing response, but a response nonetheless. How did all these creatures with their apparent design get here? By way of natural selection winnowing random genetic mutation, or genetic drift, or … Thus evolution provides atheists, agnostics, and their friends with an answer to an otherwise embarrassing question. And of course central to its being taken as such an answer is its presenting a scenario that does not involve guidance. The scenario it presents has to be one that excludes divine guidance; if it doesn't exclude divine guidance, it won't be a decent answer to the above question. So the theory of evolution, taken this way, is indeed a theory according to which the process in question is unguided.

Well, does the scientific theory of evolution, apart from naturalistic glosses, include unguidedness? This question isn't entirely easy to answer. There is no axiomatic presentation of the theory engraved on the walls of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. How does one tell precisely what the scientific theory includes? The fact (if it is a fact) that most biologists take evolution to be unguided isn't definitive—even if most physicists thought the laws of physics were established by God, it wouldn't follow that current physics includes the proposition that the laws of physics were established by God. True, the theory involves "random genetic mutation"; if these mutations are random, aren't they just a matter of chance, and hence not subject to divine guidance? But randomness, as construed by contemporary biologists, doesn't have this implication. According to Ernst Mayr, the dean of post-World War II biology, "When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational needs of an organism in a given environment."[1] Another way to put that thought: there is no correlation between the genetic mutations and the adaptational needs of an organism. But clearly such mutations can be random in that sense and still be guided by God. So how do we tell precisely what the scientific theory involves? If the theory does include unguidedness, of course, then to endorse it à la C&G isn't acceptable for a Christian.

Still, perhaps C&G don't really have to answer this question. If the theory doesn't include unguidedness—if unguidedness is a bit of metaphysics or theology added on to the theory by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett—then C&G have no special problem here. On the other hand, if the scientific theory does include unguidedness, C&G can properly say that they don't endorse that theory, but only the result of subtracting unguidedness from it.

On the whole C&G make a pretty good case, although many will think them a bit unduly sanguine about science, at least as a matter of telling us what to believe. An important feature of science is that it keeps changing in the face of new evidence; this very virtue, however, makes it a bit dicey to invest total confidence in its current deliverances. Many will also think C&G lean too far in the direction of deism, the idea that God sets things up initially and then adopts a hands-off posture with respect to the world. C&G prefer to think that God seldom if ever acts specially and directly in the world, i.e., acts beyond creation and conservation; they prefer to think that God nearly always acts through natural laws. But why think that? Perhaps God is very much a hands-on God; perhaps he is constantly acting beyond conservation and creation; and perhaps the natural laws are really no more than accounts of how he ordinarily treats the things he has made.

There are some infelicities: (1) on page 208 C&G say, "Literalist readings of Genesis imply that God specially created Adam and Eve, and that all humans are descended from these original parents. Such readings, unfortunately, do not fit the evidence, for several reasons"; but on page 212 they show how such literalist readings can accommodate the evidence. (2) C&G seem not to reject Adam and Eve and the Fall as historical; but they don't say how they understand the Fall, or how they understand Paul's references to Adam as a historical character. (3) On pages 140 ff. the authors seem to confuse the question whether there could be such a thing as right and wrong, duty and obligation, apart from God, with the question whether there could be a natural explanation of human beings' thinking there is such a thing as right and wrong (as a result adopting moral codes, and—to some degree—acting in accord with those moral codes).

There is also at least one substantial issue where C&G seem (to me, anyway) to be mistaken. On their account, of course, the world was full of predation, death, suffering, and the like long before there were human beings; hence it is hard to see how (as the tradition has usually had it) death and suffering enter the world as a result of human sin. Their suggested solution: just as God gave human beings freedom (freedom that gets regularly abused), so God gives freedom to nature and natural processes. They understand quantum indeterminism as a matter of freedom: "The freedom of electrons is real." As they go on to say: "The key point here is that the gift of creativity that God bestowed on the creation is theologically analogous to the gift of freedom God bestowed on us." They think this idea has theological advantages when it comes to the problem of evil: "when nature's freedom leads to the evolution of a pernicious killing machine like the black plague, God is off the hook."

All of this seems dubious. First, the freedom God bestows on us human beings involves our being able to consider alternatives and then choose which one we'll pursue. It also and crucially involves responsibility: if we choose what we can or should see to be a wrong alternative, exalting self over God, for example, we are then guilty and in sin. But nothing like this is true of that electron; it doesn't choose anything; there is no way in which it is morally responsible for what it does; and it can't fall into sin. Unpredictability and indeterminism don't anywhere nearly entail freedom. Second, it seems clear that it is good that there be free creatures like us: freedom is part of what it is to be in God's image. But being undetermined in the way the electron is doesn't constitute an element in God's image. And third, it's hard to see how God is off the hook for the evolution of the Black Plague, if his reason for knowingly choosing to create a world with black plague was just to have a world with unpredictability and indeterminism. Containing free creatures is a good-making feature of a world; but what is specially good about creatures who are undetermined but not free?

In conclusion: this book raises some crucially important questions, questions that will only become more pressing, questions we Christians can't afford to ignore.

1. Towards a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist (Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), p. 98.

Alvin Plantinga is John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author most recently of Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost Shared