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Darwin and “Providential Design”

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In an essay in the journal First Things earlier this year (“The Church of Darwin,” June 2015), I discussed how debates over science and faith might have played out much differently had the scientific community embraced a guided form of evolution rather than Darwin’s blind and unguided version. Biologist Glenn Sauer of Fairfield University has replied with a letter just published in the October issue of the journal. First Things had to shorten my response to Sauer, and so its editors have graciously allowed me to publish my full response to Sauer here.*

Professor Sauer indicates in his letter that he agrees with my criticisms of “New Atheist” writers like David Barash and E.O. Wilson who completely exclude God from evolution, but he goes on to note (correctly) that there are a number of academic proponents of theistic evolution. He further argues that Darwin’s own doubts about religion were focused on the “outdated theology” of “providential design,” and he laments that this outdated theology is still embraced by many religious believers today, which in his view inspires the New Atheist attacks.

I am grateful to Professor Sauer for raising what I think is the central point for traditional theists grappling with the theological implications of Darwin’s theory. I agree with him that Darwin’s version of evolution (unlike Alfred Wallace’s or Robert Chambers’ version) was framed as a rejection of “providential design.” And while Darwin’s rejection of providential design took him all the way to agnosticism (and beyond), it is certainly true that many theists have tried to syncretize Darwin’s version of evolution with their faith. These theistic Darwinists continue to believe in God, but they seek to make Him compatible with the Darwinian idea of unguided evolution.

For example, former Vatican astronomer George Coyne claims that because evolution is unguided “not even God could know… with certainty” that “human life would come to be.” Biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University, author of the popular book Finding Darwin’s God, likewise insists that evolution is an undirected process and denies that God guided the evolutionary process to achieve any particular result — including the development of human beings. Indeed, Miller insists that “mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained, that we are here… as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.”

Whatever its merits, theistic Darwinism differs substantially from what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity” — the foundational beliefs articulated in the Nicene Creed and embraced by Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians over the past two millennia. As I explain in a chapter in the book God and Evolution, contemporary theistic Darwinism resembles the teachings of ancient gnosticism far more than historic Christianity.

Whether the traditional belief in providential design is truly “outdated,” as Professor Sauer believes, is another matter. I see no reason, certainly no scientific reason, why this must be the case. Even if one were to accept the Darwinian version of evolution as completely true, it only rules out purposeful design once life itself has begun. It leaves untouched the growing evidence for design that can be found in physics, cosmology, and in the chemical origins of life. I encourage readers to explore some of that evidence through books such as The Privileged Planet by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher/theologian Jay Richards; Nature’s Destiny by biologist Michael Denton; and Signature in the Cell by philosopher of science Stephen Meyer.

In the realm of biology, it is Darwinism’s attempt to reduce everything to blind material causes — not intelligent design’s effort to discern purpose in nature — that seems to me to be increasingly outdated. In an age when genetics has revealed the universe within that is replete with codes, instructions, and information processing systems, Darwinism’s insistence on reducing everything in living things to blind matter in motion seems quaint, to say the least. How were all of those biological instructions produced? In our uniform and repeated experience (the basis of modern scientific reasoning), instructions are a hallmark of intelligent activity, not blind material causes. At the same time, experiments at the biochemical level are showing just how impotent Darwinian mechanisms are in producing genuinely novel features in proteins and bacteria. Those desiring a primer on the growing scientific (as opposed to theological) challenges to modern Darwinian theory might want to consult Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer or Debating Darwin’s Doubt, edited by David Klinghoffer.

Professor Sauer also raises the spectre of “bad design” as a defeater for intelligent design in nature. But I think this is a bit of a red herring. First, many claims of “bad design” are not in fact supported by the evidence. Second, bad design is not equivalent to no design. The fact that my Toyota Corolla has been the subject of multiple recalls does not mean that it was originally produced by an unguided process. Finally, the fact that some things in nature may not have been designed does not disprove the massive amount of evidence that other things were.

Professor Sauer indicates that he finds the teachings of theistic Darwinism “hopeful.” Others might disagree, finding Darwin’s uninvolved God a rather bleak substitute for a providential God who knows the future, who actively cares for people every moment of their lives, and whose artistry and craftsmanship are clearly on display throughout the universe.

Darwinism is no more beneficial for the scientific enterprise than it is for theology, encouraging biologists to blind themselves to the exquisite functionality of living things anytime it doesn’t fit their preconceptions. During our own lifetime, many Darwinian biologists wrote off more than 90 percent of the genome as “junk DNA” because it did not code for proteins, and thus had no value for Darwinian evolution, which depends on random mutations in DNA. It was mathematician William Dembski — writing in First Things some 17 years ago — who predicted on the basis of intelligent design that so-called junk DNA may not be junk at all. In his words, “If… organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function.” (Dembski, “Science and Design,” First Things, October 1998) As documented by Jonathan Wells’s short book The Myth of Junk DNA, it was Dembski’s prediction, not the Darwinian conventional wisdom, that provided a more accurate view of biological reality.

Despite our potential disagreements, I heartily join Professor Sauer in urging that we continually re-examine “our pre-suppositions and intellectual commitments as new scientific findings or theological insights emerge.” I only ask that this counsel apply just as much to contemporary advocates of Darwinian theory as it does to proponents of intelligent design.

*For the text of Sauer’s letter — and my original article — I encourage readers to go to the First Things website, although both the letter and my article are currently behind a paywall.