The Collins/Barr Approach: A God Who Misleads?
Stephen Barr identifies himself with the position of Francis Collins who argues that although evolution looks like “a random and undirected process,” it nevertheless could have been guided by God. “Evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified.” [Collins, The Language of God, p. 205.]
Barr takes me to task for highlighting Collins’ use of the word “could” because I implied that “Collins is not sure whether God did in fact know beforehand. Anyone who has read Collins’s book, however, should realize that Collins absolutely and unequivocally holds the belief that God knows all events from all eternity.” Really? In the same book that Collins says that God “could” have known and specified the outcome of evolution, he also claims that much of our DNA is basically junk that certainly was not the product of God’s intentional design. In particular, Collins goes on at length about “Ancient Repetitive Elements,” which he disparages as “genetic flotsam and jetsam” that make up “roughly 45 percent of the human genome.” Collins concedes that “some might argue that these are actually functional elements placed there by the Creator for a good reason, and our discounting of them as ‘junk DNA’ just betrays our current level of ignorance. And indeed, some small fraction of them may play important regulatory roles. But certain examples severely strain the credulity of that explanation.” [Language of God, p. 156, emphasis added] In other words, Collins rejects as credulous the idea that such DNA were planned by God for a reason. So much for the idea that God knew and specified the outcomes of evolution from eternity.
It should be pointed out that Collins’ claims about the human genome being “littered” with “junk DNA” are spectacularly wrong. Virtually every week new studies come out showing that the DNA Darwinists previously wrote off as “junk” perform incredibly important functions in the genome (for additional information on this point see here and here and here.)
Collins’ arguments on behalf of junk DNA certainly raise questions about whether he truly accepts directed evolution in the way that Barr thinks. Additional ambiguity about Collins’ position comes from the fact that Collins delivered the keynote address at a conference on “Open Theology and Science” in 2008. “Open” theists explicitly deny that God knows the future, and this denial presumably would extend to the outcomes of evolution. Did Collins embrace, repudiate, or dodge open theism in his keynote address? If he did not repudiate open theism, why not, if he holds the position Barr thinks? Unfortunately, the recording of Collins’ talk has been lost, according to conference organizers. Too bad. It might have shed light on Collins’ actual beliefs in this area. One more fact worth considering: Collins has lavished praise on the works of biologist Kenneth Miller, who (as mentioned previously) denies that God knows or wills the specific outcomes of evolution. To my knowledge, Collins has not publicly criticized Miller’s heterodox approach. Why not, if Collins really believes that God knows and specifies the outcomes of evolution?
Regardless of Collins’ real views, I’m perfectly willing to analyze Collins’ proposal on its face. Collins suggests that God could have created a process that looks random and undirected even though He actually directs it and specifies its outcomes. As I pointed out in my book Darwin’s Conservatives, I accept Collins’ proposal as a logical possibility. In the abstract, God could have chosen to create a guided process that looks to us as if it is unguided. The relevant question for a Christian or Jew, however, is did God create life in that way based on what we know about His character and own self-explanations to us?
The answer to that question seems clear:
While Collins’ view is logically compatible with the idea that God actively guides the development of His creation, it is still in tension with the traditional Biblical understanding of God. Both the Old and New Testaments teach that human beings can recognize God’s handiwork in nature through their own observations rather than special divine revelation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork,” proclaimed the psalmist. The apostle Paul likewise argued that “since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made….” The idea that God’s action in the world is in principle undetectable by us seems hard to reconcile with the traditional Judeo-Christian view that God’s design in nature is clearly evident to all human beings through the use of their reason. [Darwin’s Conservatives, pp. 69-70.]
Contra Barr, the issue here has little to do with the validity of “secondary causes.” No one I know doubts that God acts through secondary causes. The issue is whether human beings can discern evidence of God’s activity in nature through the things He created. Darwinists deny this, and Collins and Barr seem to as well (at least in the area of biology). Joe Carter is exactly right that the Collins’ position seems strangely similar to the view embraced by some Biblical creationists that God has misled us by creating things that look like they are ancient even though they aren’t. Similarly, Collins and Barr suggest that God created life through a process that looks “random and undirected” even though it’s not.
Historic Christian theology—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—presents a radically different picture of God’s creative activity in nature. In addition to the passages from Psalms and Romans I referenced in Darwin’s Conservatives, Jesus himself pointed to the feeding of birds and the exquisite design of the lilies of the field as observable evidence of God’s active care towards the world and its inhabitants. (Matthew 6:26-30) The observability of design was a key theme in the writings of the early church fathers as well. Responding to the Epicureans’ denial of any sort of creator, early Christians repeatedly affirmed that nature provided evidence that it was the product of purposeful design. In the words of Theophilus (115-188 AD), Bishop of Antioch in the 2nd century: “God cannot indeed be seen by human eyes, but is beheld and perceived through His providence and works… as any person, when he sees a ship on the sea rigged and in sail, and making for the harbor, will no doubt infer that there is a pilot in her who is steering her; so we must perceive that God is the governor [pilot] of the whole universe.” [Theophilus, Theophilus to Autolycus, Book I] What were these “works” through which we could see the intelligent activity of God? Theophilus went on to list the regularities of nature from astronomy, the plant world, the diverse species of animals, and the ecosystem.
Similar arguments about how nature displays clear evidence of design were made by Dionysius (200-265 AD), Bishop of Alexandria; Lactantius (240-320 AD), known as the “Christian Cicero”; and John Chrysostom (347?-407 AD), Archbishop of Constantinople. Anyone who doubts the key place of design in Christian theology should read the passages collected here or the recently published anthology The Patristic Understanding of Creation. Barr tries to invoke the authority of Augustine and Aquinas on behalf of Collins’ view, but his discussion obscures the central fact that both Augustine and Aquinas, just like the early church fathers, clearly believed that nature supplied evidence of rational design. They certainly did not believe that God created life through a guided process that was made to look like it was “random and undirected.”
Of course, the argument that nature provides evidence of intelligent design predates Christianity and Judaism (one can find it in Plato, among others), and it definitely is not restricted to Christianity and Judaism. But the idea that nature displays the hallmarks of design unquestionably has been a standard part of Jewish and Christian teaching for thousands of years.
The tensions between Darwinian (undirected) evolution and Christianity are legion. For the vast majority of evolutionary biologists (starting with Darwin himself), undirected evolution means just that: undirected, and it contradicts the idea that evolution was guided by God or any intelligent cause. For theists like Ken Miller and George Coyne, preserving undirected evolution means abandoning traditional teachings about God’s omniscience and omnipotence. For Collins and Barr, accepting Darwinism apparently requires the repudiation of the view of the church from its founding that God’s design can be detected throughout the natural world in the things that he made. God’s action in nature becomes hidden—at least in the process that led to us (human beings). Interestingly, both Collins and Barr seem open to finding evidence of design in physics and astronomy. Only in the area of biology do they carve out an exception where it’s verboten to raise the question of intelligent design. Of course, it is biology that has the most impact on how we view the human person, not physics and astronomy. It is strange indeed for Christians to be willing to accept evidence of design when it comes to the generation of things like stars and planets, but not the development of living things like human beings.
This essay has focused on the theological challenges posed by Darwinism, but I want to be clear that whatever Darwinism’s implications, the truth or falsity of Darwin’s theory needs to be determined by the evidence. However, an open and robust discussion of the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory is not helped by papering over the very real implications of the theory for religion and culture. One reason it is important to have a genuine debate over the evidence for Darwin’s theory is that the stakes of the outcome are so high.