A few months back, I received some questions here on the blog about evolutionary biology and its implications for Christian theology. They probed broadly and deeply, covering original sin, the problem of evil and many of the topics everyone asks about and indeed have been asking about since long before anyone conceived of a theory of evolution. These questions warrant more detailed answers than a few comments can provide, so I will be taking a look at them in some depth over the next few weeks. Looking ahead, I expect that will include some discussion of the upcoming film X-Men: Apocalypse, since Apocalypse is obsessed with survival of the fittest and since the film declared its theological ambitions already. I’ll start this series with the questions I received previously, but feel free to chime in with others as we go along.
Let’s start with the question of what it looks like for God to create (in my view, continuously) via evolution. If a key element is random mutation, how can God claim credit for anything resembling design? Alternatively, if God is actually causing all the mutations, why does he seem to get so many wrong?
I certainly can’t deny that mutations can be harmful. Cancer alone is sufficiently devastating to indict mutations. At the same time, I understand why it is so impressive and awe-inducing that the human body can do what it does; I wouldn’t be a biologist if I didn’t find biology fascinating. There are the bits that suggest mechanical contraptions–pumps and valves and filtration systems–and the chemistry that transmutes all manner of tasty delicacies into energy and spare parts. And then there are all the clever things we can do with our brains; even as we replicate some of those capabilities with our nifty computers, we still marvel that our human Go champions run on a peanut butter sandwich or two while their digital counterparts need the energy equivalent of about an acre of peanuts. What kind of a creator could be simultaneously competent enough to confound computer engineers and inept enough to let a few rogue cells bring down a whole person?
From my day job, I’ve learned a thing or two about how software is built. New programming projects generally begin with specifications for what the new computer program will be required to do. Ideally, those requirements can be defined in terms of an interface, either between the human user and the program or between two programs. These interfaces, broadly speaking, specify what input the program will receive, such as music files or e-mails or user keystrokes, and what output it will produce, including sounds or images on the screen or other files. At this level, lots of implementation details are left unspecified, open to the judgement of the programmers. The important part is defining the relationships that the new program will have.
Perhaps God expresses his intentions in this relational fashion. This is a very different paradigm than God-as-artist, where he directly selects every detail of the final product. A relational requirements approach leaves some freedom and creativity for creation to express itself in response to God’s intent. God can have a plan for his creation to produce creatures who can worship him and fellowship with him without specifying the biology embodying these capabilities.
This approach has further implications for theology, such as what it means to be created in the image of God, that we will revisit. For now, just consider whether this model seems plausible. For me, it feels consistent with a God who regularly allows his people to shape the ways in which his plans are realized, whether it’s allowing Moses to bring Aaron with him to Pharoah’s court, allowing Israel to become a monarchy or allowing David to decide which priorities were most significant when it came to consecrated bread. Even the Bible itself was written by human hands and minds at the inspiration of God rather than directly dictated or even outright inscribed. A God who specifies interactions and interfaces is also a way in which God employs time as his medium of creation, a theme I’ve explored previously.
In addition to theological plausibility, we might also wonder whether this model is coherent scientifically. If creation’s freedom is expressed with random mutations, can the end result follow any particular plan, even one loosely specified? For me, the answer is ‘yes’ because random mutations are not the end of the evolutionary story. Physics and chemistry place certain global constraints on what will work biologically, which bias evolution in certain directions. Environmental conditions, interactions with other organisms and the need to work with other components within the same organism provide additional context-sensitive constraints. All of these constraints manifest in what we call selection, the process by which certain mutations proliferate preferentially. Since selection is driven by these constraints, it is not random.
For a rough analogy, consider rain drops making their way to the ocean. Initially, where they land is fairly random (at least for a given storm). Once they land they still have a fair amount of freedom but there are constraints that provide some direction. There are global constraints like gravity that keep water from flowing uphill. The details of the terrain will make some paths more likely than others. These preferential paths might become streams and rivers which make it easier for future rain drops to follow those same paths. Those rivers will in turn attract humans to build cities near them, cities with storm drains and sewers that further guide the water in particular directions. And so even with a random input, we get non-random results–not just in terms water flow, human settlements as well! Similarly, physics and chemistry and environment funnel random mutations towards certain kinds of creatures.
This picture of how God creates is painted with very broad strokes, but I hope it gives you a flavor of how I think God can create within an evolutionary framework that preserves an expression of intention without requiring God to specify every last mutation. I think this image is theologically plausible in that it can be reconciled with scripture. I also think it is scientifically plausible; in fact, I think it is the model most consistent with our current scientific understanding. I hope you find it useful in some fashion, and will join me in exploring further implications of evolutionary biology for a Christian theology.