Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

A Note on the Evolution Controversy

Religion and Science in Conflict

There is so much bitterness now in the dispute about evolution vs. other views such as “creationism”and “Intelligent Design.”I think the bitterness is exceeded only by the confusion. Is it possible to strike any kind of balance, to do justice to both sides? Is the issue really a conflict between science and religion, or is there a deeper meaning?  I am not an expert in this area, so will offer only a layman’s observations.

Religion has long preceded science as a way of trying to understand the world. As the scientific method arose and grew in its power to explain things, it invaded territory once claimed by religion. The results have often been traumatic. The Copernican Revolution, the discovery that the sun and not the earth is the center of the solar system, is a famous example. The church denounced the Copernican theory as dangerous to faith. Galileo’s work supported that theory, and the church forced him to recant.

Nevertheless, today religions have assimilated the new knowledge about planetary motion, and no one seriously considers it a challenge to faith.

Today we have a new challenge to faith, the Darwinian theory. This situation seems very similar to the Copernican controversy: once again it looks like people are afraid to let go of old beliefs - and just as before, religion will soon enough make peace with the advances of science and continue with a clearer sense of its purpose.

But there is a difference this time.

Humans or Animals?

In earlier times religion would encroach on the territory of science, trying to explain mythologically what science became able to explain naturalistically. But this time the theory of evolution, at least in its most popular forms, goes a crucial step further. It invades the territory of religion by claiming to demonstrate that creation could occur without a Creator.

According to the most popular versions of this theory, creation essentially created itself. The created world got the way it is today all by itself. This happened through a series of random accidents which, after enough time accumulated, produced the complexity of life that we now observe. If you just wait long enough - even billions of years - then through the process of natural selection even very advanced life forms will emerge.

Now why should this be a problem for religion? There are several good reasons. The theory of evolution implies that there is no essential difference between a human being and an animal. The human being is simply a life form that evolved from earlier life forms just like any other species. The idea that humans have souls or were divinely created is merely the human ego flattering itself.

And there is more. When a wolf eats a lamb we don’t put the wolf on trial for murder. The wolf is only doing what wolves do: wolves eat weaker animals. It has nothing to do with morality. We don’t even hold animals culpable when they attack members of their own species, which we now know happens more often than previously believed. If the theory of evolution is true, why should this be any different for human beings? When a stronger person assaults, robs, or rapes a weaker person, why is that any more “immoral”than when an animal does it? When a stronger country invades a weaker one, what is wrong with that? The only laws governing nature are the laws of survival. The fittest survive by being fitter than the ones who don’t. Being the fittest does not make them immoral. They are just doing what the fittest do.

Religion would object: it is immoral to prey upon the weak because we do not have only an animal nature, we have a spiritual nature as divinely created souls, and these selfish and brutal attacks violate the spiritual nature of both the attacker and the victim. But the theory of evolution clearly implies that there is no such thing as a spiritual nature. Everything that we are has emerged by happy chance from the natural world. The soul is a comforting fiction. And morality is also a fiction, an idea that the prey have devised to trick the predators and to keep them at bay.

But evolutionists may counter: morality too may be part of evolution. It may be an idea that evolved to protect society. (But are moral societies naturally selected over immoral ones? I think the historical record is at the very least ambiguous on that score.) Even if this were true - and it is far from having been demonstrated - it still makes of morality something quite different from what most of us would like to believe.

Proponents of the theory of evolution in this form - that is, that there is no essential difference between human beings and other creatures, that all came about through essentially the same process of mutation and selection - may say they do not advocate abolishing the moral code, and they may indeed lead very moral lives themselves.  However, there is nothing in their theory that obliges them to do so.  They may observe the “golden rule”out of expediency: life is simply more pleasant when people treat each other fairly.  But there are times when one is tempted to take advantage of others for one’s own personal gain, and there is nothing in the theory of evolution that requires disapproving of such behavior.

The Problem of Morality

Religious people, and many nonreligious as well, want to believe that morality has some objective basis, that moral values are good in and of themselves and that they claim the allegiance of the human species in a way that applies to no other. But the theory of evolution does not allow for this. Morality is simply a device that some members of the species have evolved to protect themselves. It has no more claim to authority than the spine of the porcupine or the stench of the skunk. It’s just a piece of nature like any other, a natural defense that nature itself may override with a natural attack. So it makes as much sense to object to violations of moral principles as to object to a lion’s violation of the defenses of a sheep.

Since everything that lives is the result of chance combinations of the natural elements, not only is there no Creator, there is also no soul. The only real difference between a human being and a cockroach, or even a banana for that matter, is its level of intelligence and sophistication. A person is basically a bunch of chemicals that thinks. It has no claim to any special rights or privileges.

If human life, as the rest of life, is governed by the laws of natural selection and survival of the fittest, it follows that there is no moral imperative to provide for the weakest among us, to make accommodations for people with disabilities, to care for the old and the frail and the sick. Nature values not compassion but the ability to survive, and there is no other authority to which to appeal. So why divert precious resources to the care of the weaker among us, who don’t contribute as much, who only get in the way, who hold the rest of us back?  Who make their community harder to maintain and to defend, thus retarding the survival of the stronger, which is the one true “goal”of the evolutionary process?

So while creationists may not be able to articulate their objections clearly, and while they may indeed be pushing bad science, their concerns are real. They fear the dehumanizing implications of a theory that suggests there are no real differences between us and animals who must use their predatory tactics to survive in the jungle, and they don’t want this taught to their children.

Now I do not claim that evolutionists themselves maintain there is no basis for morality. Most evolutionists seem to steer clear of that question. I am merely trying to draw out the logical consequences of the theory. The theory itself appears inevitably to lead to the conclusion that morality is simply a human invention and that the claims morality makes have no foundation in reality.

The theory of evolution, at least in its most popular form, leads not only to the presumption that there is no Creator, but also that there are no independent moral values. Nevertheless, if this theory is a real truth, should we not go with it? Just because a truth may make us uncomfortable does not mean it isn’t true.

Limitations of the Theory

Scientists point to much evidence that supports their theory. The fossil record, laboratory experiments, observations of nature make it difficult to dispute that evolutionary processes do occur. It would seem clear that evolution is indeed a fact of nature.

But can evolution by itself explain it all? Certain basic questions have not been answered, and may never be. How does life emerge from a combination of inanimate electrons, protons, and neutrons? What exactly is the difference between a live cell and a dead one - what does the live cell have that the dead one doesn’t? Physicists are now telling us that ultimately everying is made up of quarks and leptons - or even strings. If this is all there is, from where do properties such as consciousness, introspection, emotion, and free will arise? And even if evolution does occur, can it account for the complexity of life as it exists today?

This last question is particularly intriguing. It goes to what has been traditionally called the “teleological argument,”the “argument from design”- perhaps the most convincing of the classical arguments for the existence of God. The world is simply too complex to have acquired its present form through chance alone.

The theory of evolution tries to explain this in a number of ways. Evolution works like a “ratchet”: even though change results from the random process of mutation, changes that work are preserved and added to other changes that work, until complexity emerges. It is still difficult to conceive how something as intricate as the human body could have arisen from such a process. So many things need to work together, have to come together just right, for the organism to function. Doctors spend years of rigorous study and training trying to understand it all. And there is still so much about the body that we don’t know, so much that even our best minds cannot fathom. How could something requiring such advanced intelligence to figure out result from a series of random events, however fortuitous? Even if natural selection does preserve viable changes and add them to previous ones, it boggles the mind to imagine a sequence of accidents that even over millions of years could have converged into something as complex as the human body.

Another difficulty for the theory of evolution is explaining complexity even on the level of the individual cell. Critics of the theory have pointed out that the cell is a well-organized system of components that only functions when all of the parts work together. It’s not the type of thing that could easily come into existence just by adding one small piece at a time.  This is an ongoing controversy within the field of evolution that I will leave for scientists to resolve. 

But we come to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: Where does consciousness come from? How can a collection of lifeless particles combine in such a way as to become conscious of itself? Evolutionary biologists consider consciousness an “emergent property”that arises in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps this is why some scientists are speculating on how long it will take for computers also to acquire self-consciousness! After all, if this property could arise in human beings, who are fortunate combinations of particles of inanimate matter, why not also in machines? Is religion the only source of superstition?

The question of free will is particularly vexing. Naturalism, which is the philosophical basis of the theory of evolution, allows no room for it. How can an entity possessing free will possibly emerge from the elementary particles of which it is composed, which are subject not to their own volition but to the (deterministic and probabilistic) laws of science? If the laws of science are sufficient to account for the creation of everything, then they also must account for what you and I believe. Therefore, if you believe in evolution, it is not because you have freely chosen to do so on the basis of an objective examination of scientific evidence, but rather because your biochemistry has programmed you to have that belief. And the same would apply to me, if I do not believe in evolution. Just as there is no soul, there is no “you”or “me”that believes or decides anything independent of the body. And so if the theory of evolution were strictly true this discussion would be quite meaningless. We would be under some illusion that our views were freely chosen, while in fact they are consequences of our biological makeup and have nothing to do with what is actually true or false.

I would wager that nobody in their right mind actually believes that. 

There are serious gaps in the theory of evolution. Scientists still have no answer to the question of what life is. They can define life “operationally”; that is, they can uniquely describe the characteristics of living things, but they cannot tell us what life actually is or how life could emerge from combinations of elements or particles that have no life. There is no theory of evolution for the emergence of life itself. And while evolutionists have tried, they have not yet come up with a convincing explanation of altruistic behavior: how a trait could be selected that would seem to work to the detriment of the one who has it, in terms of individual survival. Evolutionists would probably also have a hard time with non-self-interested love, if indeed they would even recognize it.

A Spiritual Perspective

On this issue both religion and science have good grounds for objecting to each other. Science sees religion ignoring empirical evidence in order to preserve a set of irrational beliefs. Religion sees science as speculating beyond its reach, promoting unproven theories that undermine both faith and morality. (Was “Social Darwinism”really just a fluke, or a logical consequence of evolutionary theory? And is it really dead?) Both sides have become increasingly sophisticated. Religion has left the original creationism behind and has proposed new theories of “Intelligent Design.” And science has proposed new theories to meet these objections.

I am not equipped to settle this argument. I only wish to demonstrate that it is not an argument over nothing, and also to propose a way of looking at it that respects both sides.

Time and eternity are not separate from each other. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is not some huge cataclysmic event; in fact, its presence may be scarcely detectable. It is like the leaven in bread that begins as practically nothing until the whole loaf rises, or like the tiny mustard seed that becomes a great tree. You may look for it everywhere, hardly noticing that it is already “among you.”

Time and eternity interact. Eternity is not something “out there”that we get to know about only after we die. These two dimensions of existence interpenetrate. The presence of eternity in time is not usually indicated by violent upheavals or suspensions of natural law. It is often barely noticeable. We can detect it in a sense of direction that we may perceive in our experiences. As we become more committed to living spiritually, we may find that what seemed like random occurrences in our lives have come together to bring us to a certain destiny.

A good biblical example is Joseph. His early life seemed to make no sense: his brothers sold him to a caravan, he wound up in a strange land, he was thrown into prison without cause. But all these seemingly random events came together to bring about a fulfillment of his destiny - it was the working of eternity in time. As Joseph himself realized and said to his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today”(Genesis 50:20). There is a higher intentionality, a greater wisdom, that may break into time and help shape the course of our lives.

If this can happen in the life of an individual, why not also on a global scale? Evolutionary processes do occur - the scientific evidence is incontrovertible - but they may be shaped - just a little, just enough to create a world of meaning - by a wisdom that is greater than time. God is revealed not in suspensions of the laws of the very nature God created but often in the timing and succession of natural occurrences. It is difficult to imagine how the random fluctuations of cellular biology can converge to produce the complexity that we see today. But without abandoning those processes, we can understand it if we allow just a little room for the work of eternity.

Another way of understanding this is in terms of our two natures. Paul speaks of both the “spirit”and the “flesh.” This does not literally mean soul and body, but rather two natures or sets of inclinations that govern the human being, which we might call spiritual and animal. We are spiritual beings living in an animal world. As such, we are subject to the processes that rule the animal nature, and these include evolutionary processes.

There is no reason to doubt that evolution may occur just as the scientists describe it. That happens in the temporal dimension. But we also belong to eternity, and are endowed with a certain consciousness that animals do not have. This consciousness includes the capacity for self-observation and for non-self-interested love. Through our capacity for this love, which is also a spiritual faculty, we can sense the sacredness of each individual as something that must not be violated. While animals too must be treated with reverance since they are also living things, the individuality of each human being belongs to an entirely different order, and in our spirit we know this.

This is admittedly not a scientific theory. It can be neither proved nor disproved. But there are limits that even science cannot cross. Physics cannot explain what happened “before”the Big Bang, before the laws that govern physics were established. Biology has yet to explain what life actually is and how life could arise from nonlife. Most important of all, science cannot account for goodness.  Science has no way of explaining how the good we experience - such as beauty, love, and happiness - can emerge from quarks and leptons.  The laws of nature are descriptive; they are not normative.  They provide no basis for believing that anything is intrinsically good.  Yet our sense of goodness tells us that true goodness does exist, and that it is good because of what it is, not because nature makes it so.  Religion has had to recognize its limitations as the scientific method grew in power. Similarly science, to be good science, needs to recognize its own limitations, or else scientists will have to admit they are really doing theology.

Science cannot prove that there is no influence in the universe that our physical senses or powers of observation and inference cannot detect, nor can it prove that life as we know it came about all by itself. Empirical observation is one way of knowing, but it is not the only way. It is perhaps the best way to know things in time. But we also possess faculties of the soul, through which we can sense things in eternity, including the individuality of another human being.

Peaceful Coexistence

As human beings we have both an animal and a spiritual nature. The extreme form of the theory of evolution denies the spiritual, while the extreme form of creationism denies the animal. Both are distortions and falsehoods. Perhaps the truth lies in accepting that neither science nor theology can answer every question.

Through the best use of the intelligence God has given us, we know that something like evolution really does occur in the natural world. There can hardly be any doubt that evolution is one of the tools through which the natural world was formed.  But we can also know, in different ways but with equal certainty, that something beyond natural processes and our own limited knowledge works to give our lives direction and meaning. The more we commit ourselves to the spiritual path, the pursuit of non-self-interested love, the more we will find this to be true. And if science and spirituality are both true, then they have to coexist. And perhaps in that coexistence and interpenetration lies the answer to the mystery of how complex order can arise from randomness, and how religion can make peace with a physical world.

December 2002