Culture & Ethics
Faith & Science
Attempts to Reconcile Evolutionary Theory with Christianity Lead to Intractable Tensions
In my previous article, I reported on my participation in the de Nicola Center for Ethic and Culture’s conference hosted at Notre Dame titled “‘And It Was Very Good’: On Creation.” The event featured leading scholars who addressed the intersection of faith with academic disciplines and social issues. I was very impressed by the thoughtful theological and philosophical cases presented to support such Christian beliefs as the sanctity of every human life. Many of the arguments rested on the historic Christian belief that God deliberately created humans in his image. I was also struck by the intractable tension between such arguments and models presented by Christian academics to reconcile evolution with Christian theology.
The fundamental premise of evolutionary theory is that humans are the product of an undirected process that did not have us in mind. Biologist Kenneth Miller unpacks the theological implications of this belief in his book Finding Darwin’s God when he affirms the following:
… 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.
Miller is certainly not alone in making such assertions.
Others have attempted to downplay the inherent uncertainty of evolutionary processes by incorporating teleology (aka design) into the theory. They argue that the laws of nature were designed to constrain physical processes to produce certain general outcomes. Proponents have supported this thesis by referencing biologist Andreas Wagner’s claim that distinct proteins correspond to a “library of Platonic forms” that was built into creation. They have also appealed to Simon Conway Morris’s observation that the same biological patterns appear repeatedly in nature, suggesting some directionality to the process.
The fatal flaw in this argument is that the laws of nature do not have the informational capacity to encode such specific outcomes as human-like creatures with advanced intellects, the capacity for complex communication, and limbs capable of developing sophisticated technologies. To understand why, attempt to envision the complexity of the laws of aerodynamics that would be required to ensure tornadoes moving through AutoZone stores would occasionally assemble automotive parts into functional cars.
Equally problematic, many human traits associated with the Christian understanding of human identity should not have originated according to evolutionary theory. As a prime example, the existence of male and female sexes defies the theory’s most fundamental expectations. Consequently, the distinct genders were likely unintended accidents. This conclusion has helped to justify instructing children that changing their gender could relieve psychological challenges. Directing children to such radical interventions is deeply misguided given the many concerns raised about the safety and long-term effects of gender-altering pharmaceutical and surgical treatments (here, here, here).
Similarly, self-sacrificial behavior should have been selected against in the Darwinian struggle for survival. The primary way to justify the existence of altruistic behavior within a materialist framework has been appealing to kin selection. This form of natural selection assumes that individuals who favor those most genetically similar outcompete other members of the population. In other words, racism should be as intrinsic to our humanity as compassion. John West has detailed numerous other irreconcilable conflicts between evolution and historic Christian theology and ethics.
In summary, embracing the grand evolutionary narrative disempowers people of faith from defending historic religious teachings about human dignity, sexuality, and charity.
Scripture and Apostolic Tradition
The evolutionary framework also directly conflicts with the Christian scriptures. Craig Keener is a leading biblical scholar who specializes in the New Testament’s historical and cultural context. In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, he connects Paul’s description of people suppressing the evidence of God’s “eternal power” and “divine nature” to the debate between the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoics believed that the evidence for design in nature, particularly humans, points to a creator. In contrast, the Epicureans believed that this evidence could be rationalized away by appealing to chance, time, and a primitive form of natural selection. Paul explicitly opposed the scientific materialists and evolutionists of his day, and instead supported the design proponents (here, here).
Equally significant, Irenaeus (130 – 220 AD) was an early church father who was taught by the bishop Polycarp who was taught by the Apostle John. He writes in Against Heresies that John included in his gospel that “all things were made though” Christ to confront the heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that God was not the direct creator of the world, but the world was created by a power known as the Demiurge far separated from Him. The Gnostic understanding of the Demiurge’s role in creation is strikingly similar to theistic evolutionists’ understanding of evolution as a secondary creator. Many other tensions between evolution and scripture could be cited.
Numerous Christian leaders in the early church (i.e., apostolic tradition) also explicitly rejected the claim that natural processes could explain the origin of distinct species. And they affirmed that the signatures of design in life provide clear evidence for God as Creator. In addition, many taught that the evidence for design could be easily recognized by comparing the order in living systems to that in human creations. John West documents several examples in a recent lecture.
Aristotle and Aquinas
Many have not simply forgotten the voices from the past, but they have distorted them to advance their own ideas. Theistic evolutionists often claim that their view on faith and science is supported by the teachings of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas drew heavily from Aristotle in his theological and apologetics writings, so the two are closely interlinked. Many Christian theologians and philosophers deeply respect both for providing intellectual tools to assist the church in understanding the Christian faith and the world. Yet appeals to them to support evolution result from a serious misreading of their writings.
Thomists (followers of Aquinas), such as Edward Feser, have argued that Aristotle’s metaphysics supports the evolutionary framework for the origin of distinct species. They wish to present Aristotle in a manner that does not offend modern sensibilities by asserting that he believed everything in life can be explained by physical matter and natural laws. Unfortunately, several experts have decisively refuted such interpretations of Aristotle’s views (here, here, here, here).
Aristotle explicitly rejected evolution, which was promoted by such ancient Greek philosophers as Empedocles. He also states in On the Generation of Animals that an immaterial agent shapes the matter in an embryo into the adult form in the same way a carpenter shapes timber into a house. And he believed that the animal forms originated from a “transcendent Intellect.”
Similarly, Thomists have argued that Aquinas’ teaching is more compatible with evolution than intelligent design. Here again, such claims are based on misreading Aquinas’ writings. Aquinas believed that God directly created different species, and once they were created, they could not fundamentally change. He also believed that the evidence for design in life was self-evident, and that evidence could be discerned by comparing living creatures to human creations. Those appealing to Aquinas to support evolution start by assuming that his teachings must be compatible with the theory, and they then cherry-pick his writings to make their case.
The Wisdom of Chesterton
Christian academics have failed to head G. K. Chesterton’s warning about forgetting the voices from past ages:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.Orthodoxy, pp. 64-65
The wisdom of previous generations could have guarded people today from falling prey to the deceptive philosophies of the present age. Instead, many have embraced an intellectual captivity in which they have surrendered their right to think critically about the science related to life’s origin and development in exchange for greater social acceptance. They must live with the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously believing that they are largely unintended accidents of nature and yet somehow still created in God’s image.
Their embrace of the secular framework is usually not their fault. Citizens of secularized nations are catechized into the philosophy of scientific materialism through their education and countless information outlets that constantly reinforce the secular narrative. They now know of no other way to view the world.
The Chance for Intellectual Freedom
The evidence for the secular creation narratives appears compelling when accepted uncritically, but close investigation quickly reveals that claims about the limitless creative capacity of evolutionary mechanisms is almost entirely based on misinformation (here, here, here, here), outdated science (here, here), and circular reasoning (here, here). And the positive evidence for design is now so obvious to those trained in engineering that denying it comes across as close to willful self-deception. This last point is well illustrated by the new book Your Designed Body by systems engineer Steve Laufmann and physician Howard Glicksman.
Christians no longer need to accept a secular intellectual captivity. They can again embrace a historical understanding of Christianity that coherently unifies faith with science and provides a strong foundation to defend Christian ethical teaching. They simply need the will and courage to follow the evidence where it naturally leads.