A perennial question in discussions about biological origins is whether or not intelligent design is compatible with evolutionary theory. University of Helsinki theologian Rope Kojonen has addressed this question in a thoughtful and serious book, The Compatibility of Evolution and Design (hereafter, CED).1 Kojonen argues that mainstream evolutionary theory is compatible with biology-based evidence of design. Thus, the eye of an eagle, for example, is fully accounted for by evolutionary processes and also counts as strong evidence of design — all without the intervention or superintendence of God per se.
Analyzing Kojonen’s Proposal
Casey Luskin, Brian Miller, Emily Reeves and I have recently published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Religions that analyzes Kojonen’s proposal in CED. In a series of forthcoming posts, we will explain the results of our study. Here is the abstract of our article:
Abstract: A longstanding question in science and religion is whether standard evolutionary models are compatible with the claim that the world was designed. In The Compatibility of Evolution and Design, theologian E. V. Rope Kojonen constructs a powerful argument that not only are evolution and design compatible, but that evolutionary processes (and biological data) strongly point to design. Yet Kojonen’s model faces several difficulties, each of which raise hurdles for his understanding of how evolution and design can be harmonized. First, his argument for design (and its compatibility with evolution) relies upon a particular view of nature in which fitness landscapes are “fine-tuned” to allow proteins to evolve from one form to another by mutation and selection. But biological data run contrary to this claim, which poses a problem for Kojonen’s design argument (and, as such, his attempt to harmonize design with evolution). Second, Kojonen appeals to the bacterial flagellum to strengthen his case for design, yet the type of design in the flagellum is incompatible with mainstream evolutionary theory, which (again) damages his reconciliation of design with evolution. Third, Kojonen regards convergent evolution as notable positive evidence in favor of his model (including his version of design), yet convergent evolution actually harms the justification of common ancestry, which Kojonen also accepts. This, too, mars his reconciliation of design and evolution. Finally, Kojonen’s model damages the epistemology that undergirds his own design argument as well as the design intuitions of everyday “theists on the street”, whom he seeks to defend. Thus, despite the remarkable depth, nuance, and erudition of Kojonen’s account, it does not offer a convincing reconciliation of ‘design’ and ‘evolution’.
There is much to praise in CED. As we state in our article:
[Kojonen’s] analysis is formidable and wide-ranging, covering literature across several subdisciplines of biology and philosophy. Philosophically, the work is remarkably sophisticated, engaging current discussions of causation, explanation, determinism, theodicy, and so on. Kojonen also ably engages current scientific discussions, from the bacterial flagellum to fitness landscapes to evolutionary convergence; he is also highly conversant in the literature of proponents of intelligent design (ID). Throughout the book, Kojonen offers nuanced arguments, appropriate qualifications, and respectful engagement with both mainstream evolutionary theory and contemporary notions of design. In short, CED is a fine work of scholarship.2
Three Main Points
In fact, we regard it as the best current treatment of the compatibility of the relationship between theology and design from a theistic evolutionary point of view.
Here is a summary of Kojonen’s main points:
- Evolutionary theory, properly understood, is both scientifically correct and compatible with a certain type of biological design argument.
- The biological world itself provides notable grounds for belief in a purposeful Creator, and evolutionary theory does not defeat these grounds.
- For those worried about so-called natural evil, there is a way to join evolution with a biological design argument that actually adds credibility to evolution-based theodicies, rather than raising additional hurdles for them.
The first and second points are more central to Kojonen’s model than the third. He takes evolutionary theory as a given and argues that, even so, biological phenomena still provide notable evidence of design. And this is true not just for experts who can follow the nuances of his argument but also for the everyday “theist on the street” who relies on intuition and common sense to perceive design. Moreover, in Kojonen’s model, the design of living things isn’t just apparent when viewed “through the eyes of faith” but rather in a more objective and substantial way. Only evolutionary processes are at work in the advent of flora and fauna, and yet biological organisms still point strongly to God — and all without divine intervention or superintendence per se.
How does all of this work, exactly? We summarize Kojonen’s model:
The details of his proposal are manyfold, but the basic idea is straightforward: the locus of design is at the origin of the cosmos (or the laws of nature). God acts at the beginning of the universe, granting to it all that is necessary for biological complexity to eventually unfold. The deity creates the laws of physics and chemistry, which then give rise to preconditions — including “the library of forms” — that enable evolution to produce complex entities. Random mutations and natural selection alone are insufficient for the emergence of biological complexity; preconditions are required, and God ultimately stands behind these preconditions.3
God created the laws of nature and, in time, they gave rise to precise “preconditions” that allowed evolution to succeed.
Is Design Even Needed?
Of course, a critic might worry that Kojonen’s model violates Ockham’s razor. Why posit two explanations when only one will do? Why accept “God and evolution” as an explanation for biological complexity when one already accepts mainstream evolution as the explanation? As Kojonen himself puts the objection, “Evolutionary processes are supposed to provide an explanation for precisely the same features of biology that design arguments also attempt to explain — therefore making design unnecessary.”
Kojonen’s answer to this challenge is that evolution needs help. He examines a range of evidence — from the origin of proteins to the bacterial flagellum — and argues that evolution alone cannot produce flora and fauna without a divine designer. As he states: “The cosmos must be special indeed to allow for the evolution of the kind of complex teleology and the large variety of creatures that we observe. And this feature of the cosmos . . . is explained better by a theistic view than by supposing that this feature is due to chance.” So, evolution on its own is inept. “Chance” offers little aid. Evolution needs help from a more substantial source. That’s why adding “God” to “evolution” makes sense. And given that evolution needs help, including God does not violate Ockham’s razor.
In our article, we explain Kojonen’s view with one of his helpful illustrations:
One of Kojonen’s thought experiments may help illuminate his line of reasoning. He asks readers to suppose that the first photos of the moon showed the text of John 3:16 written in craters on the surface. Suppose further that there was a natural explanation for each crater (and asteroid). Suppose also that we could trace these natural explanations all the way to the big bang. “In this case”, writes Kojonen, “it seems that natural explanations simply do not explain the intelligibility of the pattern, even though they explain each individual crater”. The evidence of design remains clear, even if that design occurred at the beginning of the universe and was transmitted by natural processes across time and space. So it is in biology, he argues. The complexity of flagellar motors and other biological phenomena point directly to design; the fact that proximal (evolutionary) causes are in play does not preclude God as the ultimate cause. Indeed, positing a designer adds explanatory value: the appeal to a natural explanation to account for John 3:16 is not at all convincing on its own.4
Natural processes transmitted the “message” that God encoded into the laws of nature at the beginning. In a similar way, natural processes transmitted the information that God built into the laws of nature such that flora and fauna eventually evolved.5
In this fashion, Kojonen has argued that evolution and design are not mutually exclusive, but rather can be harmonized. Indeed, evolution needs design (in the form of precise preconditions), so evolution is not simply compatible with design but actually supportive of it.
The strengths of The Compatibility of Evolution and Design are considerable. Kojonen gives a powerful argument that covers an impressive amount of philosophical, theological, and biological literature. Even so, our article raises a number of concerns. In future posts, we will discuss them in detail. Stay tuned.
- Rope Kojonen, The Compatibility of Evolution and Design (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).
- Stephen Dilley, Casey Luskin, Brian Miller, and Emily Reeves, “On the Relationship between Design and Evolution,” Religions 14: 850 (2023), p. 2. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel14070850
- Dilley et al., p. 4.
- Dilley et al., p. 5.
- Some readers will wonder just what interpretation of evolution Kojonen has in mind. As we note in our article: “Of course, careful thinkers will note that much of the discussion hinges on what the term ‘evolution’ means. It is one thing to say that God’s initial creative act eventually produced biological diversity and complexity; it is quite another to claim that all of this is compatible with standard evolutionary theory, properly understood. Kojonen is well aware of this difficulty. In response, he canvasses an array of interpretations of evolution—everything from Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘contingency’ view to Simon Conway Morris’s ‘directional’ view—and argues that each legitimate version is compatible with front-loaded design. He summarizes: “If evolution is directional . . . then this directionality is contingent on the laws and constants of nature allowing this directionality. If evolution is highly contingent, so that running the “tape of life” again would cause a very different result, then this makes it surprising that such valuable outcomes have in practice been reached” (Kojonen 2021, p. 210). He explains that, on the contingency side, the appeal to design (rather than to cosmic chance) explains the general possibility and existence of purposive organisms in biology, as well as the preconditions for both. On the directionality side, the appeal to design (rather than to undesigned processes) explains how evolution is able to instantiate platonic “laws of form”, which in turn enable convergence and subsequent evolutionary outcomes. Either way, the (resulting) complexity of biological organisms makes more sense from a design perspective than from a non-design perspective (Kojonen 2021, pp. 152–53, 194).”