Evolution as Salvation for Theology? Not So.

In May of this year, John Avise — an evolutionary biologist at UC-Irvine — published an article (“Footprints of  Nonsentient Design Inside the Human Genome“) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the world’s leading scientific journals.  The article, which attacked Intelligent Design “theory” on the ground that an omnipotent and intelligent being (i.e., God) would not have designed the human genome given its gross imperfections, generated a fair amount of press coverage.  Although I had not read Avise’s article I did read several reports about it, which prompted me to dash off a parallel post titled The Unintelligent Design of Religions.

While recovering from a surgery necessitated by my own imperfect genome and some noxious mutations or transcription errors, I finally got around to reading Avise’s piece.  It is by and large nicely done, and provides a nice overview of the genome’s many oddities.  The genome is so idiosyncratic — and indeed badly designed, argues Avise, that it simply cannot be the result of any intelligent designer.  At the end of the article, however, Avise offers some opinions that are puzzling to say the least.  He contends that the imperfect genome makes complete sense in light of non-sentient natural selection and that evolutionary theory thus solves a vexing theological problem: the issue of theodicy.

Theodicy, for those untrained in the fruitless theological arts, revolves around the problem of reconciling a loving God with the evil and suffering found in the world.  Although the term “theodicy” was coined by the German continental philosopher Leibniz in 1710, Christian theologians have been wrestling with the issue for millenia.  It certainly was a concern for Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE).  Catholic theologians today contend that the issue has been resolved.  True to form, Protestants spent much less time thinking about this paradox and dispensed with the issue by proclaiming it all makes sense: Adam and Eve sinned or rebelled against God, and evil/suffering are the result.

Few things are more mind numbing than theological argumentation on anything, including theodicy; for those in doubt, just try working your way through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s much acclaimed The Reformation: A History (a five pound book at 683 pages).  A glutton for self-inflicted punishment (otherwise known as research), I just did this and it was no easy task for someone having no stake in these debates.

So what does any of this have to do with evolutionary theory and the human genome?  Using some fairly strong language that seems oddly out of place in the alternatively august and arcane pages of PNAS, Avise contends:

Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation. From this perspective, the evolutionary sciences can become a welcome partner (rather than the conventionally perceived adversary) of mainstream religion.

The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religions to escape from the profound conundrums of ID, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm—not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but, rather, as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters, including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritualness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.

With all due respect to Professor Avise, evolutionary biology does no such thing — this is false in both a scientific and theological sense.  As a matter of science, evolutionary biology does not help religions do anything.  Rather, evolutionary biology explains — at least in part — how religions came to be.  Positivists need not buy into Stephen Jay Gould’s hokum about “non-overlapping magisteria.”

As a matter of theology, Avise’s argument also fails.  It simply pushes back in time the consideration of theodicy.  If an omnipotent intelligent designer or God exists, then that designer ultimately is responsible for the non-sentient evolutionary processes that result in massive human suffering and evil.  The issue not only remains but becomes even more paradoxical given that God supposedly allowed suffering/evil only after the Fall in the Garden of Eden.  He must, therefore, have foreseen this issue when life originated on earth approximately 3.2 billion years ago.  For many Protestants, this foresight surely will pose no problems: they either reject evolution or will say it was all part of the plan.  For Catholics and more scholastically minded Protestants, however, this juicy issue will be a topic of intractable disputation for centuries to come.

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply