Challenging C.S. Lewis on Evil and Evolution
Lewis believed that animal predation reflected a demonic "corruption" of nature, but biblical and natural evidence says otherwise.
Living in Oxford has its perks. One of my favourites is that I get to spend part of each week at the Kilns, the house where C.S. Lewis lived for 33 years. Having ready access to a wonderful Inklings collection is no bad thing either. One picks books at random off the shelf and is rarely disappointed. But sometimes even these great heroes of intellectual engagement can have ideas unworthy of them. BioLogos has offered several pieces on Lewis’s views on science, notably here, here, here, and here. But rather than explore Lewis’s many fine arguments, I want to challenge him on one. (You will no doubt think that familiarity must breed contempt, and I will—no doubt—someday have to ask his forgiveness for penning this critical piece at his desk in his own home!)
In The Problem of Pain, Lewis discusses the problem of non-human animal pain prior to the fall. If evolution happened, it means that throughout millions of years non-human creatures experienced vast amounts of suffering that had nothing to do with human sin. Lewis recognized this:
The origin of animal suffering could be traced, by earlier generations, to the Fall of man—the whole world was infected by the uncreated rebellion of Adam. This is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity. (137)
What could account for this chronological problem? One other dead end is that animal suffering could be considered a chance to draw close to God, as is the case with human suffering. The two strongest arguments for God allowing suffering—the freewill defense and the “soul-making” arguments—simply do not apply to non-human animals. Lewis comes up with a suggestion:
It seems to me, therefore, a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene…If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared. (138)
If humans were not around to cause “nature red in tooth and claw”, then we can still find a figure with motive, opportunity, and means: Satan. The devil, a thief, comes to “steal, kill, and destroy” (Jn 10:10) and since the expulsion from heaven is not set within the earthly timeline we could speculate that Satan has been around since the beginning of space and time—easily in time to corrupt early life on earth. Since the satanic figure in the book of Job also seems to be able to cause destructive acts in the material world, the case is closed, is it not? I’m not so sure. I have two major objections, one biological and one biblical.
The biological objection is that carnivorousness, which Lewis wants to attribute to Satan, is an essential piece of evolutionary development. Far from being an impediment to evolution, carnivorous behavior is a major component of natural selection. Gazelles are sleek and swift because cheetahs and lions have chased them for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the hypotheses scientists offer for the amazing diversity of species development during the “Cambrian explosion” is the evolution of sophisticated predators. Where predators add pressure to ecosystems, both genetic and behavioral creativity follow. Predators are not deadweight on evolution’s journey; they are key tools in its process.
We might try to save Lewis’s argument by arguing along the lines of Genesis 50:20 that the evil intentions of Satan in causing predation were grasped by God and turned to good. However, this works against Lewis’s own understanding about the possibilities of evil in the world. In a 1933 letter, Lewis wrote: “The truth is that evil is not a real thing at all, like God. It is simply good spoiled. That is why I say there can be good without evil, but no evil without good… Evil is a parasite. It is there only because good is there for it to spoil and confuse.” If suffering and carnivorousness were unnecessary to evolution’s path towards creating humans, then Lewis’s argument could work. But the scientific evidence seems to point towards it being impossible that evolution’s natural process should have developed creatures like humans without our ancestors having been meat eaters.
To take just one example, our large human brains are energy-expensive organs. In order to feed their energy requirements, energy savings had to be made in other places, most notably by shortening the gastrointestinal tract.
Grazing animals that live primarily on leaves, grass and other plant material have long and large guts that form “fermenting chambers” where the vegetable material can be broken down by bacteria into usable sugars. Maintaining these large amounts of tissue is an energy expensive process, leaving comparatively little energy to feed a brain (hence the legendary dimness of sheep). There are only two alternatives to low-energy grazing diets: eating fruits and nuts or eating other animals. Animals that eat fruits and seeds can have much shorter guts, since fruits and fatty seeds are more easily digested and have more energy than leaves and grasses. But these tasty treats are only available during some parts of the year, so all mammals that rely heavily on fruits and seeds also supplement their diet by eating other creatures, whether insects or meat. Some mammals have also developed hibernation to get through the lean periods. But not humans: we relied on eating meat through the long winter months, and fed our billowing cortexes with energy rich fat. Without eating other animals, humans and their hominid predecessors could not have made the energy tradeoffs necessary for generating the brains that allow us to have relationship with God. The “evil” of meat eating does not spoil or confuse the evolutionary process; it creates and accelerates wonderful possibilities. Meat eating was necessary to our development. To attribute the beginning of predatory behavior to Satan is to attribute to Satan what was necessary to make us human. If predation is evil, then evil becomes necessary to our creation, and this is theologically untenable.
My second objection to Lewis is biblical. I can’t find any Scriptural merit for the idea that the natural world has been deeply corrupted by evil demonic powers. God surveying the work at the end of the days of creation calls all that is seen “very good.” Had it been corrupted in the early stages, this would have been important to point out, but no opposition is noted. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is not considered to be the devil, but just another of the “wild animals the Lord God had made” (Gen 3:1b). Even in the parts of the Old Testament in the Psalms and Isaiah where there is a sense of opposition to God, the great sea monsters are always portrayed as defeated enemies: “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it.” (Ps 89:9-11) Psalm 104 rejoices in the (post-fall) goodness of the natural world, and in the book of Job God points out with special affectionate pride all the uncontrollable and terrifying aspects of the natural world. The Old Testament knows nothing of a world corrupted by devils, whatever it might know about the sins of people affecting the world.
In Romans 8:19-22, arguably the strongest case to be made for a fallen cosmos, it is God who subjects the creation to frustration, not Satan. In a minority reading of this passage some commentators interpret “the one who subjected it” as Adam, but no one suggests Satan (since Satan would not subject it “in hope”).
Whatever the presence of sin in the world entails, it cannot mean the introduction of carnivorousness into the evolutionary process by angelic corruption. Satan is simply not an adequate answer to solve the chronological problems introduced by trying to bring together the natural sciences with the traditional reading of the Fall. The question of how we should understand the violence of the pre-human evolutionary process remains an open one, yet with all my respect for Lewis, Satan’s corruption of evolution is one of those places where I think we can leave one of his ideas behind without loss.
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