Southern Baptist Voices: Evolution and Death
John Laing argues that evolution requires death to play a central role in the creation of new life and sees Scripture as depicting death as evil. A BioLogos response is given by Jeff Schloss.
It was in 1995 that Pope John Paul II shocked the world when, in his speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he declared that good Catholics could now believe in a theistic version of Neo-Darwinian evolution. Of course, this isn’t really what he said (though it is the popular rendition of the speech’s import). After all, Pope Pius XII had already suggested that evolution might be reconcilable with Church Doctrine in his 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, and most Catholic schools had taught it as fact ever since. Thus, many good Catholics already believed in evolution when John Paul gave his speech. However, there remained something unique and surprising in John Paul’s remarks. He spoke of evolution with an acceptance and certainty that his predecessors had not, referring to it as “more than a hypothesis” and “an effectively proven fact.”1
The impression given by the pope’s speech and the news reporting of it at the time was that Christians must come to accept evolution (since it is demonstrably true), and that those still opposed to its teachings were right-wing zealots on the lunatic fringe of American religious culture. While the pope made no such statement at the time, this attitude seems to prevail among many of the contemporary defenders of Darwinism. Richard Dawkins has suggested on more than one occasion that no honest, sane, and informed person could possibly continue to question the truth of Darwinian evolution (or to believe in any god, for that matter!).2
There are many issues worthy of response here, and while the honesty and credibility of opponents of Darwinism certainly could be defended, what most concerns me is the claim that Christians must accept Darwinism. The idea that God might create through an evolutionary process similar to that proposed by Darwin is both interesting and intriguing. In fact, I have elsewhere argued that there are orthodox models of divine providence which could allow God to use random genetic mutations to bring about his will in creaturely development. I would also note that naturalistic explanations for actions ascribed to God should not be problematic for evangelical Christians, as Louis pointed out so beautifully elsewhere on this website by reference to the Newton-Leibniz exchange on divine intervention of planetary orbits.3 As he correctly notes, Christians should not succumb to the fallacy of seeing processes as either natural or supernatural, as if the two were mutually exclusive.
The Bible clearly teaches that God actively upholds the natural processes of the universe. His providence extends to such activities as making the sun rise and rain fall (Ps. 135:6-7), grass grow (Ps. 104:14; Mt. 6:30), and even carnivores catch their prey (Ps. 104:28). Certainly God could create through a gradual process over a long period of time; He could create through incremental changes bringing things to meet their potential or driving them to greater levels of potentiality. But to affirm these points is not to necessarily affirm evolution guided by God. The question is really not so much about what God could do, but what God did do, as recorded in Scripture.
Theological Problems with Darwinism
There are many good reasons for questioning the truth of Neo-Darwinian evolution, from basic philosophical questions, to questions about the nature of science, to theological problems. I wish to address the latter. The Catholic Church’s concern has always been over the unique status of man as made in the image of God. So, Pius XII noted [and John Paul reiterated] that evolution may be held, even with respect to human development, so long as it refers only to the earthly body; belief that God uniquely makes the souls of humans must be retained in order to preserve the doctrine of the imago dei. But problems with the image of God are not the only theological problem with Darwinism; another major issue has to do with the role death plays in the system.
It is ironic that in evolutionary thought, death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development. Darwin’s own definition of natural selection confirms the function of death and destruction as key to creaturely development: “This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.”4 Most Christians who accept evolution distance themselves from Darwin and the Neo-Darwinian synthesis insofar as both seem to imply a naturalistic worldview. They also tend to avoid discussion of how death functions in their creation model, preferring instead to cast evolution in positive terms. The most common tactic is to speak in terms of flowering or increasingly developing potentiality which is realized through genetic mutations selected or guided by God. Van Til is typical, speaking of God’s “gifting” of the creation with a special capacity for self-organization and realization.6
However, it seems to me that no matter what one calls it, any model approximating Darwin’s concept of evolution with God as its guide must argue that natural selection, with its emphasis on a natural state characterized by competition for limited resources and a general struggle for survival, is the primary means by which speciation takes place, and that therefore, it is the primary means of God’s creating work. The point I wish to make here is that the theistic evolutionist simply cannot escape the fact that the necessary corollary to survival of the fittest is destruction of the weakestand therefore, he must view death as a primary creative force of God.
Death depicted in Scripture
This, though, is contrary to the biblical view, which depicts death as an invader, disturber of peace, and a force of evil. While it must be admitted that in the Old Testament, death is sometimes presented as a natural consequence of finite human existence, it is most often associated with consequences for sinful activity or the judgment of God (2 Ki. 20:1-11; Dt. 30:15; Jer. 21:8; Eze. 18:21-32), being described variously as “the wages of sin” (Ro. 6:23), a “snare” (Ps. 116:3), and a “trouble” (Job 5:20). In the Wisdom literature, for example, death is the lot of those who go with the wicked woman (Prov. 2:18; 5:5; 7:27; Ecc. 7:1), and is contrasted with the life obtained in righteousness, wisdom and fear of the LORD (Prov. 10:2; 11:4; 12:28; 14:12, 27, 32; 16:25; see also Job 28:20-21). Death is often described as the state of existence in which none praise God (Is. 38: 18; Ps. 6:5; 9:17), and is even sometimes associated with demonic power (1 Co. 15:26-27; Rev. 6:8; 20:13-14), Satan being called the “lord of death” (Heb. 2:14).
The negative view of death in the Bible is also evident in the cleanliness rituals required for ancient Israelites when they came in contact with a dead body (e.g., Nu. 5:2; 19:16), and in the prohibitions for Nazarites to even be in proximity to a corpse (Nu. 6:6-11). Death is unclean and an impediment to proper relationship with God. The “sting of death” is sin (1 Co. 15:56), and death’s entry into the created order is tied to Adam’s sin (Ro. 5:12). Death refers to spiritual degeneracy and is the result of deeds of the flesh (Ro. 7:5, 10).
Rather than a means by which God creates, death is antithetical to God’s creative work as the Giver of Life (Ac. 17:25). This is most clearly seen in the attitude toward death in eschatological writings, where death is the “last enemy” to be defeated (1 Co. 15:26, 54-55; cf. Ro. 8:9-11; 2 Ti. 1:10), and will be judged and eventually destroyed in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:13-14). Death will not be a part of God’s eschatological Kingdom (Is. 25:8), not because God’s work in creation will finally be completed, but because death is at odds with what that Kingdom represents (Dan. 12:2). The defeat of death in the resurrection of Christ is a vindication of God’s covenant promises (Eze. 37:12-14), and desire to give life (Eze. 18:23, 32) with a return to the Edenic state. Thus, a fundamental aspect of the good news in the Gospel is the defeat of death—this negative, destroying force—in the resurrection of Christ. As Erickson rightly notes, a fair examination of the biblical material can leave “little doubt that God himself sees death as an evil and a frustration of his original plan.”7
Death in light of evolution
Christians since the time of Darwin have recognized the incongruity of the biblical teaching on death and the positive role it plays in evolution. Some have attempted to alleviate the tension by assigning the negative aspects to the spiritual realm. For example, Tillich saw death as a natural and necessary consequence of our finitude in the physical sense, but also as the judgment of God upon our sin in the spiritual: “We have to die, because we are dust. That is the law of nature to which we are subject with all beings—mountains, flowers, and beasts…But at the same time, we have to die because we are guilty. There is the moral law to which we, unlike other beings, are subject. Both laws are equally true; both are stated in all sections of the Bible.”8
Others have redefined death as a positive force. For example, Smyth notes that, with the fact of evolution being established, we must reevaluate our attitudes toward death: “…do we discover any signs which indicate that death, contrary to our common judgment of it, has had appointed to it all the while a benevolent part, that it has not been the natural enemy, but in reality a servant of life,–a helpmeet for ever more abounding, higher, and happier life on earth?”9 While we might expect that the answer to Smyth’s question must be an emphatic, “No!” he seems inclined otherwise. In fact, he speaks of natural selection in almost self-sacrificial terms, such that the self-giving of Christ is paralleled in the deaths of weaker creatures in service to the species.10 Smyth concludes that a theistic evolutionary model must see death as a creative force of the divine: “As an original adaptation of means to an end, death is to be regarded as a mark of beneficence rather than as a natural sign of evil…So death as an adaptation in the divine economy of nature is introduced as a means of life, of ever-increasing and happier life.”11 While Smyth’s arguments fit nicely with the evolutionary model, it seems to be seriously at odds with the biblical picture.
Objections and Rebuttals
Some may object to my argument by noting that we should expect a world governed by processes which are violent, destructive, and contrary to God’s peaceful kingdom since we live in an age characterized as “cursed” (Gen. 3:17; Rev. 22:3), “subject to futility” (Ro. 8:20), in “bondage to corruption” (Ro. 8:21), under the “law of sin and death” (Ro. 8:2; 1 Co. 15:56), and ruled by the forces of darkness (literally, “god of this age” Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Co. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). The Apostle Paul even suggests that death will hold sway over the created order until Christ’s return (Ro. 8:19; 1 Co. 15:23-26, 54-55)! So, a world governed by a process like natural selection fits quite nicely with the biblical portrait of the world in the present age. While this argument has an initial sense of plausibility, it falters on several counts.
First, it fails to account for the fact that in the biblical narrative, God’s creative work takes place prior to the Fall;creating should not be equated with sustaining, though they are related and may be subsumed under the theological category of divine providence. Therefore, the post-Fall conditions which prevail can have no bearing on our understanding of the means by which God creates.
Second, it fails to account for the theological concept of creation as the imparting of life by God. God’s creative work is not a consequence of death, but rather is antagonistic toward it. Life and death, in biblical theology, are adversarial in a way similar to light and darkness.
Third, no one has suggested that this age is not characterized by such negative forces, but we have argued that it is these very forces which God will overthrow, conquer, and eventually banish and destroy when he establishes his rule in peace, harmony, and life.
Another possible response to the concerns about evolution outlined here is that even micro-evolution—evolution within species—uses death in a pro-creative way, but this would be mistaken. There is a vast difference between development of already existing creatures and the emergence of life and species, for the latter serves as the explanation of how God created while the former does not. That is, the standard evolutionary claim that speciation took place via the mechanisms of natural and sexual selection (aided and driven by genetic mutation) is really a claim about God’s creative work since the emergence of species is what the creation story describes (i.e., not just the origins of life), while discussion of developmental growth within species is not necessarily contained or even implied in the creation account. Creaturely development falls under the purview of God’s providential sustainment, while creation has typically been associated with a new or special work of God.
At the end of the day, then, it seems that Christians who accept evolution and those who deny evolution are operating with differing views of the doctrine of creation. However, even if agreement may be reached over this issue, the proponent of God-guided evolution must reconcile the biblical material on death with its positive function in his model. It seems to me that this cannot be done in a way that is fair to both biblical text and evolutionary thought. Evolution requires that death serve a creative function, and the Bible precludes such an understanding of death; therefore, the Evangelical must reject evolution as the means by which God creates.
In this section, Jeff Schloss begins his response to Dr. John Laing
In his thoughtful, gracious, and fair-minded essay, Professor John Laing focuses on what many believers and non-believers alike recognize as perhaps the most significant challenge to faith in an all-good, -knowing, and -powerful Creator God: the problem of natural evil, and in particular, the acrid sting of death. While the issue is an ancient one, Laing—and many other contemporary commentators who range from sympathetic to antagonistic toward biblical theism—view evolution as exacerbating the problem to the point that one must choose between the good God of Scripture and the truth of evolution. Although the general issue of “evolution and evil” is manifold and beyond the scope of a single essay, John (if I may), zeros in on two ways in which evolution seems to aggravate the particular theological challenge of death. First, in the view of Scripture, death is “an invader, disturber of the peace, and a force of evil”; therefore its primordial (as opposed to post hoc) place in the world described by evolution seems incommensurate with an originally good creation. Second, it is not just the primordial place but also the functional role of death that appears to constitute a problem: evolution by natural selection is widely viewed as being driven by death, and more generally by fierce competition, in a way that seems hard to reconcile as a mode of creation that a wise and good God would employ.
I agree with John that these are serious issues. Little is accomplished either by glibly dismissing their prima facie legitimacy or by responding with theological concessions that relinquish core claims of the gospel. In his words: “a fundamental aspect of the good news in the Gospel is the defeat of death—this negative, destroying force—in the resurrection of Christ.” Amen! In what follows I hope to engage sequentially both issues he raises in a way that takes them seriously while avoiding compromised hope.
The Primordial Place of Death
I need to start by acknowledging that these are not just arid intellectual issues but also profoundly personal ones. I have just returned from keeping vigil at the deathbed of my father, and the sting of death is especially acute. The fact that every son sees his father die (or worse, that a parent may see a child die)—that in some sense, universal human death is part of the current “natural order” we all experience—offers no solace for the tearful remonstration of what an awful violation it is. It is a violation not just of our deepest desires, but also of what we construe to be God’s purposes, for the God of Scripture is not a mere field of energy or prime mover or initial organizing principle, but is wondrously and clearly portrayed as “the living God” whose explicit purpose is that we “have life, and have it in abundance.” Indeed, in the most extensive section of his essay John cites over 40 Scripture passages that affirm life as God’s intention for humanity and death as an intrusive, subverting consequence of sin. I could not be in stronger concord.
Although all Christians have traditionally affirmed resurrection (for both the redeemed and unredeemed), there have been longstanding debates about whether the life that is redemptively restored in Christ and the death that is brought about by sin is “spiritual” (involving the vitality or disruption of communion with God) or “physical” (involving the viability or dissolution of biotic function). Of course these are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps they are not even ultimately distinguishable. But however one understands death to be an incursion upon human telos, it does not answer or even clearly bear upon the evolution-related question of whether other living beings beyond and before humans were created to be immortal. “Violence” in western thought has often been understood as a disruption of natural ends: but do we assume that all creatures share the same “natural end”? For instance, is the nature or telos of worms immortality? Is death a violation of all creaturely natures that was therefore absent from earth prior to initial human intimacy with and subsequent estrangement from God? Significantly, not a single one of the Scriptures John cites explicitly refers or even vaguely alludes to the general place of death in the natural order: virtually every one emphatically focuses on death as a consequence of sin for uniquely human moral agents, and—correspondingly—on eternal life as God’s special purpose for supernaturally redeemed humanity.1 Indeed, I am at a loss to find in the entire Bible a Scripture that clearly teaches death across the entire biotic realm postdates and is a consequence of human sin.2 Neither is this point affirmed or even mentioned in the most prominent historic creeds of Christian orthodoxy.
Yet none of this means that there is not an issue here. The view that death in all creation is not endemic but followed from a recent human fall was—with the exception of Aquinas and a few others—the dominant perspective of the church fathers, key reformers, and most Christians through the 17th Century (see sidebar). However, by the same token, so was geocentrism and so was the doctrine of human exceptionalism. Virtually all Christians have relinquished geocentrism in light of utterly compelling scientific evidence along with the recognition—in part motivated but not dictated by findings of science—that no clear and persistent scriptural teaching or core theological doctrine is compromised by this view.3 On the other hand, the claim of exceptionalism continues to be affirmed by many Christians – including myself – in light of important theological commitments and ongoing scientific discussion.
So is the primordial nature of death more like geocentrism, or more like human exceptionalism? Scientifically, there is little question that it is more akin to geocentrism. Over the last three centuries the empirical evidence for and the explanatory fruitfulness of the view that earth’s biota and death’s existence vastly predate the origin of humans have increased explosively—arguably to an extent beyond any other finding of science. Amongst tens of thousands of natural scientists, there is virtually unanimous agreement on this point.4 I should be clear that this is not an ad hominem argument: to say the evidential and demographic situation is similar to geocentrism is not in itself to claim that the “recent death” position is wrong. Nor is it an ad populum argument: neither John nor I have space to assess scientific evidence for this claim, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christian and non-Christian scientists have for several centuries shared the “primordial death” view does not make it true. But it does mean that if that view is to be rejected for the kinds of theological reasons that John raises, it seems there should be unambiguous scriptural warrant for that rejection. Failing that, then there needs to be a compelling theological rationale and a decided lack of plausible alternatives posited by fellow orthodox Christians.
I have already agreed with John that the Bible persistently presents death as an enemy of God’s purposes for humanity. But I have suggested (perhaps altogether wrongly!) that he does not provide clear scriptural evidence for death being a comparable enemy to and intrusion upon God’s purposes for all creatures. A faithful reading of the Bible does not seem to be incompatible with seeing death as part of the magisterial history of life as depicted by evolution and other natural sciences.
While science cannot take the place of revelation, both the history of the church and the teaching of Scripture affirm that our understanding of and theological reflections upon biblical revelation can and ought to be responsive to observations of the natural world. Over the last several centuries—and before the idea of evolution was ever proposed—evangelical Christians have accepted scientific evidence for primordial death while continuing to affirm core doctrines of creation in a variety of ways. Indeed, the issue itself is not intrinsically tied to evolution, a fact attested to by many committed anti-evolutionists—from Louis Aggasiz in the 18th Century, to fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan in the 20th, to a variety of creationists today. While rejecting evolution, they did not and do not see a conflict between the gospel and primordial death.
Is non-human death an evil?
There are two primary ways in which this issue (or any claim of natural evil) is dealt with theologically. One is to argue that the phenomenon does not constitute an evil. The other is to argue that the evil is permissible, i.e., by developing a theodicy that plausibly maintains that the evil in question is necessary for the attainment of a fully compensatory good that would not be possible without it.
Christians have historically maintained the first view in several ways. One is simply to affirm the biblical perspective that the original creation was good and that death was part of that creation. Therefore it cannot be evil, or it cannot be evil in a way that effectively subverts the God-ordained purposes and God-declared goodness of creation. How could one claim that death was part of creation? One could, because Genesis depicts plants as given for food (sidebar), and every chomp kills. At the very least, chomping kills cells.
Of course mere cell death is not the same as organismal death, e.g., death to a fully potentiated creature or an autonomous living being. But robust herbivory—“every green plant for food”—entails real, honest-to-goodness creaturely death, not just cell death. Nearly every time a raspberry or banana or walnut or snap pea or grain of wheat or ear of corn is eaten, one or more living organisms—embryos—are killed. It is as much a creaturely death for these organisms as destroying an embryo or aborting a fetus is for the human organism.12 Moreover, many herbivores kill on an even grander scale: beavers and porcupines kill mature trees, pine beetles entire forest stands. Here too, some claim that the death of a plant is not comparable to that of an animal. But in terms of the core theological issue John raises of life being the marvelous impartation of God and death dissolving that gift, all organisms—plants included—share wondrous goal-directed characteristics that distinguish life from inanimate matter and that are eradicated by death: homeostatic self-regulation, developmental trajectory, target-oriented responsiveness, nutritive metabolism, reproductive potency.
Death is the unarguable enemy of these sublime and God-endowed ends. But apparently death is not the enemy of God’s ultimate intended ends for these creatures or the creatures that consume them. I shudder at the prospect of appearing (or being) impertinent, but God could (conceivably) have given manna from heaven as He did in the wilderness. Or He could have made humans and all creatures nectar feeders. Or commanded all to eat not green plants but milk and honey—the images of God’s blessed land—that do not entail creaturely death.13 But He did not. Death, the enemy of life yet also the requisite for other life, is utterly endemic even in scriptural images of primordial creation.
At this point a final and salient claim is that it is not death itself but the fear, pain and suffering associated with death that constitute the natural evil. Therefore death generally, and plant death in particular, are not the issue. Although animal suffering is a point that I believe deserves to be taken seriously, it actually is not the issue John raises in his essay, which emphasizes death itself and makes no reference at all to the problem of suffering.
Nevertheless, this raises a second way in which some argue that death is not an evil: it is not an evil, because it is claimed that non-human creatures undergo but do not suffer it, or do not suffer it in morally significant ways. The Scriptures are admittedly ambiguous about whether and in what way animals warrant moral concern.14 And prominent figures in the history of Christian theology—from Augustine to Aquinas—have taken a comparably ambivalent or even explicitly low view of the moral significance of animal suffering.15 Of course this was scientifically formalized by Descartes, who viewed animals as machines without a conscious internal life. And although Cartesian automatism is intuitively repugnant to most of us who have intimate contact with animals, and is rejected by many cognitive ethologists, there are a variety of neo-Cartesian views that raise questions about the extent to which animals may be aware of but not conscious of pain or the meta-cognitive experience of suffering.
I am not persuaded by these views. But in highlighting the issue of animal cognition, they raise the question of at what point in evolution, and in what way, death becomes theologically salient. Is the death of worms or arthropods a theological problem, and do Christians who reject primordial death believe that no mortality to soil invertebrates ensued from hoofed animals walking across the landscape? Do fish and amphibians, which do not evidence the physiological accoutrements of emotion rudimentarily manifested by reptiles, experience fear? And if not, does death become a theological concern only with the origin of reptiles in the Carboniferous? These questions may sound facetious, and indeed they do seem silly. But if death itself is the question, on the basis of scientific testimony and scriptural imagery, it was present in organisms from the origin of life on. And if the capacity for suffering is the question, it is actually not an evolutionary but a phylogenetic issue. It would seem that positing an intrinsic contradiction between God and evolution on this basis is errant. The problem is not with evolution, but with the nature of vertebrate life from, perhaps, the Cretaceous on. Or chronology notwithstanding, from higher vertebrates “up.”
Finally, it can be claimed that animal death is not an evil for the very reason that life is a good gift from God in whatever measure He chooses to bestow it. The fact that it is not of infinite duration does not diminish either the value of the gift or the goodness of the gift-giver. In many places Scripture claims that God provides prey for the beasts (Ps 104:21; Job 38:39-41, 39:27-30) and sovereignly confers and withdraws breath from creatures (Ps 104:27-30) without identifying this as evil, linking it to human sin, or providing an exculpatory rationale of any kind for God’s prerogative. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away: blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Is non-human death a permissible evil?
But for many of us, it is not easy to be so sanguine while watching a loved one die or—beyond human death—seeing a lion rip a fetus from the birth sac of a pregnant wildebeest. We just intuitively construe death, even non-human death, as wrong. Theodicy takes the issue seriously by acknowledging death as evil while exploring ways in which a good God could permit it.
One of the oldest Christian theodicies of course is the Adamic Fall perspective to which John attributes death’s arrival as enemy. However, although this proposes a causal genealogy for death, it is actually not entirely clear how it functions as a theodicy. While freedom for each human moral agent to pursue life over death as a consequence of freely choosing right over wrong may be a good that is not attainable apart from the possibility of death, it is not clear how structuring the natural world so that manifold evils accrue to countless human and non-human creatures from one act of a single individual entails a compensatory good—one that could not be attained apart from the fragility of creation and the massive evils that ensue.16
The Bible does not explain this. But if one takes the general form of this theodicy as sufficient or at least helpful, then a kindred yet more recent variant is made possible: that of the disordering effects of a Satanic Fall.17 This view shares many features—both benefits and liabilities—with the Adamic fall in attributing various evils to the impacts of moral wrongdoing. However, it is entirely reconcilable with a primordial view of death.
There are numerous other attempts to construct theodicies for primordial death or animal suffering that mirror the range of approaches to human suffering. The possibility of pain may be requisite to that of fulfillment, or death may be conjoined to life as a function of metaphysical, logical, or biotic necessity. Death and its pains may be fully consoled, and necessary for the experience of consolation, in a life to come. The existence of death, in a finite world, may be a necessary form of “taking turns” so that both the number and the diversity of creatures that experience and manifest life are maximized. The capacity for pain and the possibility of relinquishing life itself may present the option—even to animals—for the most morally salient and fullest expression of life’s goodness: caring for others to the point of sacrifice. None of these approaches is problem-free, though neither does it appear that any may be dismissed out-of-hand. However, one recent approach that seems utterly untenable is the unnanced claim that evolution constitutes “salvation for theology” because it “emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy” in making itself, and not God, responsible for the disordered features of life.18 As both John and I (and indeed any Christian) would affirm, God is responsible for whatever means of creation He chooses to use. Evolution does not “get God off the hook.” But for the above reasons it is not clear that evolution puts God on the hook in any way that is not generated by the long-recognized, wondrous-though-uncertain testimony of creation itself.19 As Blaise Pascal noted,
If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ, and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these two truths. All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity20
The Evolutionary Role of Death & Natural Evil
In addition to providing a general theological critique of the endemic—as opposed to post-hoc or intrusive—origins of death in the natural world, John Laing’s imminently fair-minded essay also takes theological aim at the role death and natural evil play in the evolutionary diversification of life. It is one thing to say that death is primordial; it is another to view it not just as an ancient byproduct, but as the central means of creation. The understandable theological uneasiness expressed by John and many others about this issue ultimately rests not just on an understanding of God’s creative activity, but also on a particular representation of evolution. In this regard John makes two important claims:
- a) “…natural selection, with its emphasis on a natural state characterized by competition for limited resources and a general struggle for survival, is the primary means by which speciation takes place…”
- b) “death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development.”
For reasons I discussed in the previous section, it is not entirely clear that death constitutes an evil that is incommensurate with divine activity. However, the fact is that the above depiction of evolution—which is not unique to John amongst public commentators and is largely commensurate with Darwin’s own views—does not adequately portray current discussions within evolutionary biology. There are three problems with this portrayal that I’d like to address in turn—three aspects of evolutionary theory that need to be better understood.
First, while there is no uncertainty about common descent or about natural selection as a cause of evolutionary change, there is considerable discussion over the extent to which natural selection is “the primary means” by which speciation takes place. For one thing, there are manifold other agents of evolutionary change: drift, gene flow, systems of mating, mutation itself unfiltered by selection. A tremendous amount of variation may be adaptively neutral, being invisible to natural selection. For another thing, some claim that evolution proceeds most rapidly and speciation occurs most precipitously in the relaxation of selection—when ecological times are good and the culling effects of the environment are minimized. We may see this in the contingency-driven formation or colonization of a new habitat or the exploitation of a new resource that does not displace previous variants. Or, speciation events or species-level innovations may be the results of chromosomal rearrangements or symbiogenesis that are not the cumulative results of selection. Finally, there exist manifold and admittedly controversial proposals that are critical of neo-Darwinism as a whole, claiming that natural selection may be a necessary, but is neither a sufficient nor a primary cause of large-scale evolutionary change.21
Second, notwithstanding Darwin’s formulation of natural selection in terms of competitive struggle as (accurately) cited by John, the modern understanding of evolution and competition is considerably more differentiated and complicated. For one thing, competition is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for natural selection. Natural selection is formally defined as the differential reproduction of genotypes (or information.) Some sets of genes are replicated with greater efficiency than are others. Competition is formally defined as the negative impact of two organisms (or two species) on one another’s fitness. You can have all sorts of competition that does not result in natural selection. And importantly, you can have differential reproduction by natural selection without the negative fitness impacts of competition. Colonists to a new under-exploited habitat, or two species that are partitioned onto separate resources in a way that minimizes competition might well have some variants that leave more offspring than others without displacing them. This is natural selection.
Indeed, imagine an infinite habitat with non-limiting resources and no competition at all: as long as there were adaptively salient mutations, there would be natural selection—some of those new genotypes would reproduce more effectively than others. Competition, to whatever extent it exists in nature, is a consequence of finitude and not a necessary precondition of natural selection. And finally, the role of cooperation in evolution has itself been massively reconsidered in recent years. It would not be entirely unfair to say that on the basis of mathematical models and empirical data, the proposal that cooperation “is now seen as a primary creative force”22 and a “fundamental principle of evolution”23 has moved from being a cult-alternative to a widely accepted paradigm. Indeed, cooperation and increasing scales of cooperative interdependence are seen not only as a formative process but also as a recurring product of evolutionary change, which may even be viewed as “progress.”24 A biologically significant and theologically salient thematic trend across major evolutionary transitions, is that cooperative interdependence itself – and the wondrous properties of life mentioned in the first installment of this essay—seem to be amplified through selection.25 Through evolution, God may be seen to confer life and confer it in greater abundance.
Third, the claim that “death drives evolutionary development” turns out to be problematic. Recent discussions of death and senescence (organismic decay) between various branches of the biosciences are spirited and fascinating. One of the vexing characteristics of living creatures is the internalization of death and senescence: even if an individual is not killed by external forces, it will die from the inside out—virtually no species is immortal.26 One account of this—the rate of living theory of senescence—understands it not in terms of selection for reduced mortality but in terms of biophysical or allometric constraints relating rate of metabolism to rate of wearing out. Though it views senescence differently, the prevailing evolutionary theory of senescence, with several variants, does not affirm death or decay—at least the kind of death and decay that is intrinsic to organismic development—as a prerequisite to evolution by natural selection either.27
Indeed, internalized death is viewed not as driving but as deriving from, not as a necessary requirement for but as a byproduct of, natural selection. Specifically, mutations or traits with detrimental impacts later in life may not be eliminated by or may even be favored by selection if their contribution to reproduction early in life is sufficient. Now, neither theory completely dismisses the shaping role of death. Under certain but not all conditions, differential mortality may have adaptive import (and it is not even the longer-lived organisms that always have adaptive advantage). Extrinsic sources of death may also shape the internalization of death.28 But the view that death drives evolution does not adequately represent emerging scientific understanding of the relationship between natural selection and senescence.
Scientifically death does not “drive” evolution. And theologically, although neither evolutionary change nor ecological interaction “solve” the ultimate puzzle of human death, they may nevertheless mitigate the proximal existence of creaturely death by amplifying the complexity and vibrant abundance of living forms.
Darwin famously closed The Origin by observing “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”29 Unlike John, I do not see anything in evolutionary theory to reduce, and I see much to augment the sense of grandeur and (for that matter) the appreciation of sheer goodness—both earthly and divine—evoked by the wonders of the living world.
Yet grandeur and goodness are not perfection. My Dad is still dying. I still wince at the suffering of clearly sentient animals. And, truth be told, I tremble at the biblical images of universal herbivory: even metaphors are metaphors of something, and in the case of biblical revelation, that something can be taken to be real and important. So like John, I confess to profound gratitude tempered with a lingering unease at the state of nature. Though I believe in a Fall, this unease is not rationally relieved by attributing to an Adam the present state of all nature. Nor is it resolved by the various alternative considerations I’ve described and which, taken together, seem to have considerable merit but not sufficiency. Notwithstanding, I thankfully affirm that “I have known the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And I look to the day when we may say together, “My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You” (Job 42:5).
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