EVOLUTION & GOD'S HUMILITY - How Theology Can Embrace Darwin

By Haught, John F. | Commonweal, January 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

EVOLUTION & GOD'S HUMILITY - How Theology Can Embrace Darwin


Haught, John F., Commonweal


Charles Darwin claimed that all terrestrial life shares a common ancestry and that the wide array of living species can be accounted for by a process he called "natural selection." By sheer accident, the members of any generation of a given species will differ from one another, and nature will "select" only those able to survive and bear offspring themselves. Over immense periods of time, the selection and inheritance of minute advantageous variations in adaptability will bring about countless new and distinct forms of life, including eventually humans.

Darwin published On the Origin of Species almost a century-and-a-half ago, but today the majority of biologists still commend it for its general accuracy. In a synthesis known as "neo-Darwinism" they have simply added to Darwin's original ideas our more recent knowledge of genetics. Important internal disputes still divide evolutionary biologists, but in the scientific community today there is an abiding appreciation of Darwin's genius and the fundamental correctness of his ideas about life's shared ancestry and the mechanism of natural selection. Opinions differ about the roles in evolution played by chance, adaptation, selection, genes, individual organisms, populations, struggle, cooperation, competition, etc. But most scientists today do not doubt that life has evolved-at least roughly- along the lines that Darwin brilliantly laid out.

Following the outspoken evolutionist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently proclaimed that Darwin's "dangerous idea" should prove deadly to all religions and theologies. The accidental character of genetic mutations, the mindless (algorithmic) habits of "selection," and the excessive amount of time evolution takes-these elements of Darwin's theory should destroy once and for all any illusions that life and the universe are products of divine design. Evolution, Dennett says, contradicts all traditional religious intuitions that we live in a cosmos cared for by God. And it is only because theology has ignored evolution that it continues to survive.

Perhaps, then, it is time for theology to give Darwin another look, especially now that his ideas are experiencing such a vigorous renewal in the contemporary intellectual world. Updated evolutionary interpretations of life, language, behavior, morality, and even religion have lately been gaining unprecedented attention by natural scientists, philosophers, linguists, ethicists, social scientists, and more recently, the medical community. Neo-Darwinism now provides integrating concepts for many of the natural and human sciences. What are its implications for theology?

Darwin & Christian theology

Because chance, blind selection, and enormously "wasteful" periods of time are so ingredient to the unfolding of life, Darwin's picture of nature would appear to raise difficulties about the idea of God. After weighing the now well-founded accounts of life's lumbering journey on earth, any subsequent talk about a "divine plan" for the world will certainly need to be qualified. And the claim that life can be explained adequately by divine "design" will be especially suspect.

Before Darwin, as even Dawkins agrees, the best explanation for the ordered and adaptive features of living organisms seemed to be that of divine "intelligent design," an idea made famous early in the nineteenth century in William Paley's book Natural Theology, a work with which Darwin himself was familiar. Paley invited us to suppose that while walking across a patch of ground we stumble upon a watch. If we open it up and examine its interior structure we cannot but conclude that it is the product of intelligent design. Analogously we should be able to reason that the even more intricate order in natural phenomena, especially the adaptive design of living things, points toward the world's creation by an intelligent designer.

Take, for example, the fact that the fish's eye is shaped in a round rather than elliptical way, rendering it remarkably "adapted" to seeing clearly under water. …

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