Jerry Coyne’s Insufferable Argument
Editor's Note: This is a corrected version of a blog that was posted on May 24. Mr. Giberson apologizes for the problems in the previous blog and thanks those readers that brought them to his attention.
In a recent blog post Jerry Coyne critiqued what he called a “surprising” paper by biologist John Avise in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper was unusual for the PNAS—even surprising—because it dealt with theology. Avise made a familiar argument that Ayala and others have made on this site, namely that evolution should be preferred over ID and creationism for theological as well as scientific reasons.
The theological reason has to do with the way evolution mitigates the problem of bad design and natural evil in the world. If the world is designed by God, then God is “on the hook” for all the collateral grief caused by the ubiquitous bad design created by natural selection. For humans this would include our constant back and knee problems, our propensity to overeat, and a host of other maladies from autism to sickle-cell anemia and Huntington’s disease. But if evolution “freely” produced these various problems without God’s help or approval then God can be “off the hook,” so to speak.
This argument addresses the complex theological problem of evil known as theodicy, which can be stated simply like this:
God is good
God is all-powerful
Bad things happen (there is evil in the world)
The theodicy “problem” arises when we recognize that all three of these things cannot be true at the same time. A good God would not let bad things happen, just like a good parent would not let their toddlers play on the freeway. The “solution” to this problem is typically to deny the truth of one of the claims. Perhaps God is not good or, more commonly, perhaps God does not exist at all. Many people who have abandoned their faith in God, from Charles Darwin to Michael Shermer—did so because they could not square the loving Christian God of their childhood with the world as they encountered it. To reject God altogether is the atheists’ solution to the problem.
The process theologians use to “solve” the problem is to assert that God is not all-powerful. God is limited to “helping” the world move in the right direction. A more conventional Christian response is to suggest that God “self-limited” his power to give the world some autonomy. Either way stuff happens that God cannot prevent.
And then there are some who suggest that there really is no such thing as genuine evil in the world. This is a sort of “default” that many Christians fall into without thinking too much about it. They want to turn every bad thing into an “instrument to produce a good thing.” The car accident that killed Mom was tragic but it got the rest of the family thinking about their faith so it was really a good thing in disguise.
None of these solutions work well for obvious reasons so the theodicy problem persists. The question usually comes down to this: “Which worldview deals with theodicy the most effectively?” Theologies that emphasize the sovereignty and omniscience of God—the “Reformed” and “Calvinist” traditions—have a greater problem than the Wesleyan and Anglican traditions that place more emphasis on God’s love. But neither “solves” the problem. As you can imagine, there are endless debates and bright people who would aggressively challenge even the claims I have made in this paragraph.
The theodicy problem has been around forever and is rife with nuance and subtlety. Great philosophers and theologians have explored it at great length, as has every freshman philosophy major in their first course. Liebniz wrestled with it and argued that despite appearances, we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire thought this was ridiculous and skewered Leibniz in Candide by putting his arguments in the mouth of the uninspired Dr. Pangloss. There is not much new to say about the problem of evil other than that it is still around.
Coyne, however, rushes in where angels fear to tread and recites all the familiar arguments in his review of the Avise paper in PNAS. Here is Coyne’s succinct statement of the problem:
There are of course many ways to "reconcile" faith and science, although in my opinion none have been very successful. One of the more popular ways is to see evolution as a big improvement in theodicy—the perennial attempt of the faithful to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a loving and powerful God. How could such a god permit the existence of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and particularly when those evils are inflicted not by other humans but by diseases like cancer or natural disasters like tsunamis? Evolution, so the answer goes, answers this because much of our suffering is simply inherent in the process of evolution, a process supposedly chosen by God to work his will.
Coyne has a variety of responses to Avise. He starts by suggesting that the paper is “surprising” because “[he hasn’t] before seen a paper in a high-class science journal that tries to show how science can be used to upgrade theology.” (Note the implication that the paper is inappropriate because the journal is “high-class.” Presumably, such a paper would be fine in a “low-class” publication.)
The argument Coyne is discussing is familiar and appeared not long after The Origins of Species was published. Here is Avise’s statement of it:
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 be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings … 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.
Coyne disagrees, however, that theology gets any sort of assist from evolution: “If evolution is to become a "welcome partner" to religion, the faithful will have to accept that evolution and natural selection were God's plan for creating life. And that just raises more theological difficulties: “Why would God choose such an inefficient and wasteful way to create life…If natural selection is anything, it's suffering, so the evolutionary process itself entails all the evils that theodicy must explain.”
This common assertion cannot be refuted, but it can be—and has been—dramatically mitigated. For starters, “inefficient” and “wasteful” are not terms that make sense in a vacuum. Does it make sense to call the sun “wasteful” because so little of its light actually gets used for anything? Is the hydrological cycle “inefficient” because rainfall could be distributed more sensibly? A larger theological context is required here to make sense of such claims.
The more serious problem is the claim that natural selection is “suffering.” This is surely exaggeration. No trees suffered in the long evolutionary process that produced the magnificent maples in my back yard. Neither did the barnacle or the cockroach. In fact, almost all the species had evolved and gone extinct before one emerged that could be said to experience suffering. And even for species that can “suffer,” selection does a lot of work without producing suffering. The poor peacock with the wimpy tail feathers might not be able to find a mate so his wimpy genes will not be selected but the only suffering he will experience will be humiliation.
The claim that natural selection is all about suffering comes from watching too many nature shows where the fast lion chases down the slow zebra and kills it. That is suffering to be sure, and no Christian should look at that and shrug: “Well, that is God’s creative process at work.” Such events—disturbingly common in nature—pose real theological challenges. But that same camera recording the bloody death of the zebra captures grasses and trees that evolve without suffering.
Coyne states that “God could have set up evolution so that it entailed less suffering.” This may very well be true—and I often find myself in agreement with Coyne on this point—but how can we know this? This might be true, but belief in God comes with a recognition that reality has layers we simply don’t understand. I have no idea, for example, how anything is created. God gave humans free will and Hitler abused the gift. On the other hand, Bill Gates is freely spending his considerable fortune to make the world a better place. Can we have free will that empowers Gates but not Hitler? Can God create free natural processes that can freely explore only good possibilities? Coyne is convinced that God “could have allowed only beneficial mutations to occur rather than ones that cause disease.” But this makes sense only if we have some model of how God interacts with nature. The world may be such that saying “God allows” is not an accurate description of the freedom that exists in nature. I allow my children to drive my car by themselves. If they run down a pedestrian, did I allow that? God allows gravity to function in a regular way. If a tree falls on my head, did God allow that?
Coyne concludes “evolution is not a "welcome partner" for theodicy, for it raises more problems than it solves.” “It's easier and more parsimonious,” he concludes, “to simply discard the notion of God...”
This bold conclusion has been considered and rejected by many thoughtful believers, for it is but one small part of the larger metaphysical affirmation that God exists and created the world. Coyne has not engaged the many arguments for the existence of God that have nothing to do with evolution (hardly possible in a blog, of course). Furthermore—and most importantly—Christianity has the suffering of Christ at its heart—not the creation of the world or life. Long before evolution was even in the air Christian theology wrestled with the problem of suffering and what it meant that God had become incarnate in Jesus to participate in that suffering.
Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.