A response to an undergraduate science student
In attempting to respond to this statement, I will proceed in several stages. Firstly, I attempt to bring to light some of the historical background which places the statement in its true historical context. Secondly, I examine some potential difficulties in reconciling evolution and God. Thirdly, I call into question the reductionist claim that evolution provides a sufficient explanation for the inception and development of life, suggesting that the limited explanatory power of evolution makes God a necessary hypothesis.
Where does the notion of an inherent conflict between science and religion come from? Proponents of the ‘New Atheism’ such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris assert that as science has advanced religion has receded. There is, say such men, an inherent conflict as the rationality of empirically based science supersedes the outdated meta-physical speculations of the ancients. Examples of the obscurantism of religion and its suppression of free intellectual thinking are routinely called upon to fire the imaginations and give tangible examples that can be cited in any popularised defence of religion’s irrelevance. Nowhere is this perhaps more true than in the evolution debate.
Thomas H. Huxley a self-labelled agnostic and famous as a figure head of the Victorian X club writes in a manner that typifies a common current perception of the relationship of science and religion during the rise of Darwinism.
“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes besides Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain.”
In fact it is the legendary debate between Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce that is often cited as an example of the sort of religious prejudice that stifles acceptance of scientific discovery and progress. McGrath commenting on this and another equally popular example states that:
“Both stories [are supposed to] demonstrate the utter stupidity of religious thinkers and the intellectual and moral superiority of their scientific peers. Yet both stories have something else in common. Both have been known to be completely false since about 1970, and are now viewed by historians as the urban myths of journalists too lazy to check their sources, perhaps telling us more about what certain people would like to believe than what actually happened.”
The popularised account which is traced to Mrs Isabella Sidgewick which dates from 1896 (36 years after the debate) contradicts accounts published much closer to the time. All this illustrates that history is not always as simple as we might like to believe, perceptions are fostered that society often imbibes uncritically. Perhaps the question on the necessity of God given the discovery of evolution does not arise naturally out of an inherent conflict between God and evolutionary theory but is a sociological phenomenon.
One obvious illustration of the inadequacy of the conflict model between science and religion is to briefly examine the reactions of a few 19th century Christians to the ideas of
“I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”
It is clear that other people, both Christian and non-Christian disagreed but for our purposes it is sufficient to notice that there was no immediate sense that evolution destroyed orthodox Christian faith, it merely modified the conception of what it meant for God to be creator.
As Charles Kingsley (another contemporary Christian supporter of evolution) commented it was:
“just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development...as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He himself had made”
Modern day examples of scientists who do not find a conflict between their faith and evolutionary mechanisms abound (e.g Francis Collins director of the human genome project) providing evidence that for many today, as well as historically, God and evolution are not incompatible. In order for us to investigate whether this belief is consistent we must however be clear on what we mean by the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘God’.
In this essay by ‘evolution’ I mean that variations, produced by mutations in genetic material, result in the development of new characteristics. These characteristics sometimes confer positive natural selection advantages which lead to their dominating the gene pool. As a consequence of accumulated advantages, species have developed and differentiated from simple origins to produce the diverse forms of life currently found on the planet. Such a definition distinguishes carefully between ideological attachments to the theory of evolution and what can be scientifically investigated, setting the former aside.
By ‘God’ is meant the Judaeo-Christian God who is transcendent over his creation and yet immanent in it. Intimately involved in all aspects of his creation yet not to be limited by it; working sovereignly and providentially through both natural processes and also able to intervene supernaturally. God not only creates but sustains the creation which is at every instant dependent upon him.
What specifically is it about evolution as a scientific theory that makes it any more difficult to reconcile with a God than any other scientific theory, say Einstein’s theory of General relativity or the band gap theory of semiconductors? I believe that there are two common difficulties. Firstly a belief that mechanism excludes agency and secondly that evolution appears to have an underlying element of chance.
Popular science writers sometimes introduce unhelpful ideological overtones to the word chance which go beyond what can be legitimately stated. For example, “chance” processes will be described as “purposeless”. However, as Loren Haarsma helpfully describes:
In evolutionary biology, a “chance” event is simply an event that affects an organism’s survival (e.g a natural disaster) or genetic information (e.g mutation) but that was not caused by the organism itself and could not have been predicted. “Chance” in evolutionary biology or any other branch of science is a semi-quantitative statement about our inability to precisely predict final outcomes.
The bible is perfectly clear that whilst such events may be unpredictable and uncontrollable to humanity, they lie firmly within the remit of God. For example:
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.
God’s moment by moment sustaining of creation means that the life and death of each creature is under God’s sovereign control and dependent on his providential care:
These [creatures] all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
In these verses the Bible indicates that it is perfectly possible to describe the same events at different and yet complementary levels of explanation, the “mechanisms” of birth and death alongside God as agent within those processes. It is therefore still meaningful to talk about God as a designer. It is interesting that recent studies in evolutionary biology have prompted some authors to understand features such as convergent evolution as indicating the inevitability of humanities immergence. This would seem to be indicative of design and not randomness. The development of humanity even if satisfactorily accounted for on the basis of an evolutionary mechanism does not exclude the agency and purpose of a designer since mechanism and agency are different levels of complementary explanation.
Is evolution a sufficient explanation for the complexity of life? The title further presupposes that evolution provides an adequate explanation for all the phenomena entailed by the existence of humanity. Space does not permit a detailed critique but a few specific examples adequately demonstrate the difficulty with a naturalistic account of the evolutionary process.
Science currently has no agreed solution to the problem of the origin of life. How does one account for such a development? Richard Dawkins proffers his solution to how a seemingly improbable process spontaneously gives rise to such complexity.
Again as with Goldilocks, the anthropic alternative to the design hypothesis is statistical. Scientists invoke the magic of large numbers...Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really were a staggeringly improbable event...even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets...This conclusion is so surprising, I’ll say it again. If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets.
Such reasoning sounds plausible until one investigates the numbers being used. That the probability of life originating is only 1 in 106 is a gross underestimate. Sir Fred Hoyle (FRS), an ardent atheist himself, once estimated that the probability of even a simple 100 amino acid protein arising spontaneously would be 1 in 10130, that is 1 with 130 zeros after it. Confronted with such odds Dawkins explanation looks woefully improbable. However, the situation is in fact worse. The probability quoted is simply the probability of getting the right amino acids in the right order and does not take into account the generation of amino acids in sufficient concentrations to make this process possible or how this leads to ongoing evolution. In order for evolution to be possible, there must exist some basic unit that can be replicated and modified. Some current hypotheses speculate that reproducing proteins provide the initial replicating unit from which evolution can begin. However, Hubert Yockey in his recent detailed analysis of the origins of life using information theory concludes that:
One of the more important contributions in this book is to point out that no code exists to send information from protein sequences to sequences in mRNA or DNA. Therefore it is impossible that the origin of life was “proteins first”.
This raises an enormous difficulty, since RNA would require a number of other molecules to enable it to produce enzymatic proteins and would presumably need to be enclosed in some kind of primitive lipid membrane. The specified complexity of such a system is difficult to calculate but it is surely comfortably above William Dembski’s 1 in 10150 as a mathematical indicator of design. The difficulty deepens when one considers the difficulty of such a molecule forming spontaneously in such a way that it contains within itself the code needed to reproduce not only itself but its accompanying molecules, one of which [A ribosome like molecule] has also spontaneously arisen with the capability of reading the same code and interpreting it to produce functional enzymatic proteins. Accounting for the origin of this stored information is something which seems naturalistically inexplicable. In the light of such thought experiments, it must surely be significant that God in the Bible is pictured as creating by his word. God spoke information into a formless cosmos bringing order, structure and life into being:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be...
It is also perhaps reasonable to question whether everything that humanity is and has obtained is the result of purely unguided processes. Prof John Polkinghorne (FRS) a retired particle physicist turned parish priest asks whether it is plausible that consciousness could have arisen fortuitously by natural selection:
It seems plausible to say that, if our thoughts did not conform to the realities of everyday experience, then we should not have continued for long to be successful in the struggle for existence, But that remark conceals an unsolved puzzle about the relationship between consciousness and evolution. It is clear that survival requires effective interaction with the environment, but it is far from clear that this also demands the quality of self-awareness.....In fact, with its necessary focus of attention and the consequent possibility of diversion from the apprehension of danger, one might even consider that consciousness had certain negative consequences for survival.
Surely humans have developed far beyond what could reasonably be understood by the need for survival or mate selection.
A naturalistic evolution also poses fundamental philosophical difficulties:
Is there a ground for trusting the rationality of our thought processes if they are simply chemical reactions? Is truth an objective thing or simply an illusion fostered by evolutionary processes? Is love anything more than a chemical impulse? Is there anything objective that gives us a ground to call the Holocaust evil and altruism good? John Polkinghorne summarises the inherent difficulties of subscribing to a purely reductionist viewpoint (the only logical viewpoint if evolution explains humanity)
The reductionist program in the end subverts itself. Ultimately, it is suicidal. Not only does it relegate our experiences of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrapheap. It also destroys rationality...If we are caught in the reductionist trap, we have no means of judging intellectual truth. The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain.
It seems impossible to reduce everything to the level of an evolutionary by-product. God provides the grounds for the reality of truth, aesthetics and morality which evolution cannot.
Does evolution make God an unnecessary hypothesis? I have suggested that historically this was certainly not the case with many of our common perceptions of history containing an ideological gloss. Evolution does not seem to exclude the idea of a creator. Furthermore it would seem to entail a significant leap of blind faith to believe evolution could have any chance of working without him. To embrace naturalistic evolution is to deny the reality of truth making the scientific endeavour ultimately pointless. With or without evolution, God is essential for life as we know it.
 Pg 66, ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ by Sam Harris, Bantam Press (2006)
 The X club were a group of 9 highly influential like-minded intelligentsia who met with the ambition of advancing the cause of science over and against religion
 Pg 177 T.H. Huxley quoted in ‘Rebuilding the Matrix’ by Denis Alexander, Lion publishing (2001)
 On being asked by his opponent whether it was via his father or mother that Huxley claimed descent from a monkey Huxley is reported to have replied that given the choice between a miserable ape for a grandfather or a talented man who uses his gifts for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion he would choose the ape any day. (Historical Journal 22 (1979) 313)
 Pg 81 ‘The Twighlight of Atheism’ by Alister McGrath, Rider Books (2004)
 Pg 25 ‘Science and Religion: An Introduction’ by Alister McGrath, Blackwells (1999)
 Pg 127 ‘Galileo, Darwin and Hawking’ by Phil Dowe, Eerdmans (2005)
 Pg 177 B.B. Warfield quoted in ‘Rebuilding the matrix’ by Denis Alexander, Lion Publishing (2002)
 Pg 107 Charles Kingsley quoted in ‘The Twighlight of Atheism’ by Alister McGrath, Rider Books (2004)
 Pg 76 Chapter 5 by Loren Haarsma, ‘Evolutionary perspectives on Creation’ Edited by Kenneth Miller, Eerdmans (2003)
 Proverbs 16:33, English Standard Version of the Bible
 Psalm 104:27-30, English Standard Version of the Bible
 ‘Inevitable Humans in a lonely universe’ by Simon Conway-Morris, CUP (2004)
 Pg 137-8, ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press (2006)
 Perhaps the “magic of large numbers” is that they can be used to bamboozle people since they don’t have to bear any relation to reality and can be magically plucked out of the air to suit one’s argument!
Pg 123, ‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’ by John Lennox, Lion Publishing (2007)
 Pg 530, ‘Evolution’ by Mark Ridley 3rd Edition Blackwell (2003)
 Pg 20, ‘Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life’ by Hubert Yockey, CUP (2005)
 Pg 209, ‘The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through small probabilities’ by William Dembski, CUP (1998)
 Chap 2, ‘
 Genesis 1:1-3a, English Standard Version of the Bible
 Pg 59, ‘Beyond Belief’ by John Polkinghorne, CUP (1996)
 Pg 110, ‘One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology’ by John Polkinghorne, Templeton Foundation Press (2007)
Alexander, D. (2002). Rebuilding the Matrix. Lion Publishing.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. Bantam Press.
Dembski, W. A. (1998). The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities. CUP.
Dowe, P. (2005). Galileo, Darwin and Hawking: The Interplay of Science, Reason and Religion. Eerdmans.
Hunter, C. (2003).
McGrath, A. (1999). Science and Religion: An Introduction. Blackwell.
McGrath, A. (2004). The Twighlight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. Rider.
Miller, K. B. (2003). Perspectives on an Evolutionary Creation. Eerdmans.
Polkinghorne, J. (1996). Beyond Science: The wider human context. CUP.
Polkinghorne, J. (1986). One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. SPCK.
Polkinghorne, J. (1998). Science and Theology. SPCK.
Ridley, M. (2004). Evolution. Blackwell.
Yockey, H. P. (2005). Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life. CUP