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John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

God and Evolution: A Response to Stephen Barr

Published at Evolution News

Theistic evolutionist Stephen Barr is a serious and thoughtful man, and on the First Things blog, he has raised some serious and thoughtful objections to an essay I wrote for The Washington Post as well as to reflections on that essay by Joe Carter (also at the First Things blog). Unfortunately, I think Barr’s criticisms confuse matters more than they clarify them. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that he has aired his objections, because some of his misunderstandings are shared by other conservative intellectuals, and they deserve a response.

False Dilemma or Wishful Thinking: Is Darwinian Evolution Undirected or Not?

Barr first claims that Joe Carter and I “are trapped in a false dilemma” because we wrongly think that random processes cannot be directed by God. Barr points out that even random events, properly defined, are part of God’s sovereign plan. Just because something is random from our point of view, doesn’t mean that it is outside of God’s providence. Barr may be surprised to learn that I agree with him. Indeed, most, if not all, of the scholars who believe that nature provides evidence of intelligent design would agree with him. The problem with Barr’s argument is not with his understanding of the proper meaning of random, but with his seeming blindness to the fact that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists do not share his view. Barr’s ultimate disagreement here is not with me or Joe Carter, but with the discipline of evolutionary biology itself.

Barr claims that “[w]hen scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes.” I don’t know which “scientists” Barr thinks he is speaking for, but they surely aren’t most evolutionary biologists. When Darwinian biologists say that natural selection is a blind process fueled by random biological changes, they most assuredly think that this claim contradicts the belief that evolution is guided—by God or any other intelligent cause. It should be noted that the insistence that evolution is undirected goes back to Darwin himself, who explicitly framed natural selection as a blind and non-teleological process. Criticizing those who believed that evolution was somehow guided, Darwin wrote:

no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations… which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided. However much we may wish it, we can hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines,” like a stream “along definite and useful lines of irrigation.” [Charles Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, second edition (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1883), vol. II, pp. 428-429]

The insistence that evolution acts without plan or purpose has been a standard refrain by evolutionary biologists over the past century. The view expressed by famed Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson was typical: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” [Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p. 345] Or to cite a more recent example: In 2006, 38 Nobel laureates sent an open letter to the Kansas Board of Education insisting that evolution is “the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.” (emphasis mine)

The same insistence that evolution is undirected can be found ad nauseum in biology textbooks over the past several decades. According to the college biology text A View of Life (1981), evolution is “a natural process without purpose or inherent direction.” [pp. 586-587] According to Evolutionary Biology (1998), “[b]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.” [p. 5] According to Life: The Science of Biology (2001), accepting “the Darwinian view… means accepting not only the processes of evolution, but also the view that… evolutionary change occurs without any ‘goals.’ The idea that evolutionary change is not directed toward a final goal or state has been more difficult for many people to accept than the process of evolution itself.” [p. 3]

The belief that Darwinian evolution is undirected probably explains why biology is more dominated by atheists and agnostics than any other scientific discipline. According to a 1998 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), nearly 95% of NAS biologists are atheists or agnostics; and according to a 2003 survey of leading scientists in the field of evolution, 87 percent denied outright the existence of God, 88 percent disbelieved in the existence of life after death, and 90 percent rejected the idea that evolution is directed toward an “ultimate purpose.” Even among rank and file biologists at all American universities and colleges, more than 60% classify themselves as atheists or agnostics.

In sum, when it comes to the field of evolutionary biology, Barr’s assurance that “scientists” don’t think random processes imply anything about whether God directed evolution is plainly wrong. His view comes close to being an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Barr essentially tries to redefine Darwinian evolution so that it no longer excludes the idea that evolution could be directed. But one can’t resolve the debate over the implications of Darwinism by definitional fiat. Barr may be frustrated that Darwinian biologists misunderstand the real nature of randomness, but that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists think natural selection is an undirected process by definition. That’s their theory. If Barr wants to come up with a new definition of evolutionary theory that is not inherently undirected, fine. But he shouldn’t try suggest that it is somehow consistent with mainstream evolutionary biology. It’s not, and intimating otherwise simply spreads confusion, not clarity.

As it turns out, it’s not only atheistic evolutionists who disagree with Barr. Even many current “theistic” evolutionists insist that evolution is genuinely undirected.

Mainstream Theistic Evolution: Directed or Undirected?

In the initial decades after Darwin proposed his theory, theistic evolution typically was presented as a form of guided evolution. Although Darwin himself rejected the idea that evolution was guided by God to accomplish particular ends, many of Darwin’s contemporaries (including those in the scientific community) rejected undirected natural selection as sufficient to explain all the major advances in the history of life. Instead, according to historian Peter Bowler, there was widespread acceptance of the idea “that evolution was an essentially purposeful process… The human mind and moral values were seen as the intended outcome of a process that was built into the very fabric of nature and that could thus be interpreted as the Creator’s plan.” [Bowler, Darwinism (1993), p. 6]

This view of evolution as a purposeful process began to disintegrate early in the twentieth century after Darwinian natural selection underwent a resurgence due to work in experimental genetics. Once Darwin’s theory of undirected evolution became the consensus of the scientific community, the task for mainstream theistic evolution became considerably harder: Now one had to reconcile theism not just with the idea of universal common ancestry, but with the idea that the development of life was driven by an undirected process based on random genetic mistakes. But how can God “direct” an “undirected” process? The answer of many leading theistic evolutionists is clear: God didn’t.

For example, former Vatican astronomer George Coyne claims that “not even God could know… with certainty” that “human life would come to be.” [“The Dance of the Fertile Universe,” p. 7] And biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University, author of the popular book Finding Darwin’s God (which is used in many Christian colleges), insists that “Evolution is a natural process, and natural processes are undirected” and flatly 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.” [Finding Darwin’s God (1999), pp. 244, 272]

Miller does say that God knew that the undirected process of evolution was so wonderful it would create some sort of rational creature capable of praising Him eventually. But what that something would be was radically undetermined. How undetermined? At a 2007 conference, Miller admitted that evolution could have produced “a big-brained dinosaur” or a “mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities” rather than human beings. [Quoted in West, Darwin Day in America, p. 226]

Similar claims that God doesn’t know or guide the specific outcomes of evolution can be found in the writings of Georgetown University theologian John Haught.

So, contra Stephen Barr, even many leading theistic evolutionists insist that Darwinian evolution must really be undirected. Again, Barr can try to redefine modern Darwinian theory to allow for guided evolution. But because Barr’s attempted redefinition of evolution is rejected by most evolutionary biologists (not to mention many leading theistic evolutionists), it does nothing to resolve the tension between modern evolutionary biology as currently understood and practiced and Judeo-Christian theism.

Be this as it may, what can one say about Barr’s redefinition of evolution on its own terms? If one were to accept Barr’s redefinition of Darwinian evolution, would that actually solve the tension between evolutionary biology and Judeo-Christian theism?

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.

[Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared as a 3-part series on The original posts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
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