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What place can evolution have in a world created by a personal God?

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The Darwinian paradigm of random mutation and natural selection seems to suggest that the development of life in the universe and sentient beings on our planet is a process dependent upon highly contingent improbable events.  We are a product of blind cosmic chance – luck as it were.

But is this really true – is this the way the world works? Certainly it is a view that has been discussed in the scientific literature and popularized by writers and thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.  One of the most famous images is that given by Gould of a tape of time. Run the tape over and something entirely different will emerge.  From his 1994 article in Scientific American (v. 271, pp. 84-91) The Evolution of Life:

History includes too much chaos, or extremely sensitive dependence on minute and unmeasurable differences in initial conditions, leading to massively divergent outcomes based on tiny and unknowable disparities in starting points. And history includes too much contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states, rather than immediate determination by timeless laws of nature.  

Homo sapiens did not appear on the earth, just a geologic second ago, because evolutionary theory predicts such an outcome based on themes of progress and increasing neural complexity. Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness.

The idea that we are products of random chance and historic contingency seems at odds with any reasonable theology.

Do you think that evolution poses a problem for a created universe? For the Christian faith? Why or why not?

It is not at all clear that Gould was correct – individual events have an element of chance, but the overall landscape for evolution may be, not rough and exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions, but constrained and relatively smooth with the flexibility to find solutions independent of the fortunes of chance. 

This is an idea that is gaining traction in scientific circles. It has nothing to do with design or designer, it is simply an attempt to read the evidence and determine the forces that shape the world we see.
Nonetheless the idea has a certain appeal from a position of faith – while theoretically at least God could use and control any means in creation, there is a reasonableness in the idea that evolution is a process that leads to a defined result. The term Evolutionary Creation begins to make sense as a label and as a process.

Simon Conway Morris, a Professor of Paleobiology at Cambridge University, has written a book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe
based on the evidence that evolution is convergent – that there are islands of stability and that evolution will identify these islands.  The contingencies of chance may speed or slow the process, but they will not derail it or change the important features of the outcome. Most significantly Conway Morris argues that the development of sentient creative beings was inevitable.  Conway Morris is a Christian and he looks at theological ramifications of his work at times – but the overall ideas he introduces are scientific, to be judged on grounds of science alone.

With the post today I begin a series that will look at Conway Morris’s book and the framework of his argument. Conway Morris is an entertaining speaker and a good writer – I’ve been listening to several of his lectures on my commute this week, available at the Faraday Institute, (search on Conway Morris and tick the bubble for speaker).

From the Preface:

Evolution is true, it happens, it is the way the world is, and we too are one of its products. This does not mean that evolution does not have metaphysical implications; I remain convinced that this is the case. To deny, however, the reality of evolution and more seriously to distort deliberately the scientific evidence in support of fundamentalist tenets is inadmissible. Contrary to popular belief, the science of evolution does not belittle us. As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation. Nevertheless, the free will we are given allows us to make a choice. Of course, it might all be a glorious accident; but alternatively perhaps now is the time to take some of the implications of evolution and the world in which we find ourselves a little more seriously. If you haven’t put Life’s Solution back on the shelf, please read on.

I invite you to get the book if interested and join in as we discuss evolution, convergence, and the theological implications.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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