What Evolution Tells Us—and What It Doesn’t

Part 4 of a series on Deeper Than Darwin by John F. Haught

“General Revelation” is the classic name for what we learn about life and God from nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” according to Psalm 19. Such information is “general,” speaking to everyone in a universal vocabulary.

Science should extend general revelation. The more we know about the creation, the more we should praise its creator. Indeed, many great scientists have thought so. But today some would say just the opposite: that science has made belief impossible. In Darwin’s world, we find no divine design, only random events laden with cruelty, waste and death. In fact, death is inescapably part of the process of creating new species.

In Deeper Than Darwin, John Haught aims to show evolution as compatible with belief in God. Further, he wants to demonstrate how evolution can enrich our understanding of God’s nature.

To do that, he first has to establish an important philosophical point: that physical explanations do not exclude other explanations. Rather, we can bring different levels of reading to the same phenomenon. A watch, for example, can be described as a marvel of gears and springs, but the story it has to tell as the hour approaches midnight is hardly exhausted by engineering.

Haught brings another level of reading to the story of evolution. First, he notices that it is a story, with an indisputable narrative quality. What is the meaning of the story? Haught suggests that we live in a world of promise—a world that is in process, whose ending is uncertain but promising of wonders even greater than what life has already produced.

But it is not a simple wonderful story. The idea of a changeless God designing a perfect world—the deistic ideal—does not fit the story as we now know it. Rather, a story of ageless time, blind change, “the dark and tragic depths of nature’s evolutionary creativity,” challenge us to see depth beyond our comprehension. Hauck understands this as a good thing. “If there is providential significance in the historical emergence of scientific method, perhaps it is that science prolongs the mind’s journey into the depths of nature, opening up plummetless ravines where we had previously expected to read ultimate reality directly beneath the surface. … It is essential to religious experience, after all, that ultimate reality be beyond our grasp. If we could grasp it, it would not be ultimate.” [86]

Perhaps this vision is not so far from what Psalm 19 discerns in nature—the vast, silent, awesome exuberance of the skies, so far beyond us.

With the discoveries of Newton, the physical universe seemed to become more manageable. We could plot the trajectories of the planets, and predict precisely where and when a solar eclipse might come. As a result, Haught suggests, religion sought its depth inwardly—in the mysteries of spirituality and psychology. But now our knowledge of evolution restores the balance, making us aware once again of the vertiginous mystery of the physical universe.

Haught is an elegant writer, and his thoughts on the depth and promise of the physical universe sound both inspiring and intriguing. Put in laymen’s language, though, I don’t think they amount to so much. “We are struck almost speechless by the world around us; there is a kind of terrifying majesty in it; and we do not know where and how its story will end.” It’s possible to make some religion out of that message, but it ends up resembling what the apostle Paul found worshiped on Mars Hill—“an unknown god.”

Reading Haught I found myself appreciating more deeply the value of Special Revelation—the knowledge that comes directly from God in his Word. Haught believes that what we call revelation is merely an eruption from the depth of nature. He sees it as a glimmer of human insight into ultimate reality, not an authoritative word given by God himself. Given that presupposition, he looks for science to correct the Bible or any other holy book.

Certainly there are problems in understanding how evolution and the Bible fit together. In the story of evolution as we know it, there is no Eden. The world was never peaceful and perfect, free from death and pain. Rather the upward curve has been constant and gradual, always accompanied by death, which culls those creatures less than fit for survival.

Nor does evolution tell a story of Adam and Eve. The human race also has risen incrementally. Evolution suggests no story of atonement, for it knows nothing of personal responsibility, law, sin, shame or redemption.

The absence of such information in the story of evolution does not suggest to me, as it does to Haught, that we must throw out large parts of the Bible’s story. One learns different things from different sources—some things from science, some things from music, some things from the Bible. On purely empirical grounds, I would insist that sin is as reliable a fact as can be, even if evolution knows nothing of it. The same with beauty and truth and love—equally missing from evolution as Darwin traces it. Evolution knows of populations, not individuals. It could never chastise Cain for killing his brother. Murder is part of evolution’s mechanism of change. It would be a good thing, if evolution knew anything about “good.”

“Good” is not part of evolution’s story. Nevertheless good exists.

Certainly there are areas where Darwinian evolution poses hard questions about the Bible’s realism. If we understand Adam and Eve to be genuinely historical individuals, when did they live and how do they fit into the evolution of the species? When and what was Eden? Because of the broad ugly ditch between biological science and biblical interpretation, such questions have been only slightly and tentatively discussed. If the ditch is to be bridged, a lot of hard thinking must go on.

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2 Responses to “What Evolution Tells Us—and What It Doesn’t”

  1. James Says:

    I think it’s too much to say that evolution “knows nothing of” sin; an essentially universal set of taboos could be explained relatively easily on the basis of adaptive advantage. C.S. Lewis saw this pretty clearly, and outlined the case, in “The Abolition of Man”; he went pretty far afield to try to refute the argument, but I don’t think he did it in a terribly convincing way.

    For example, Cain’s murder is pretty obviously maladaptive for the selfish gene. I think I would be more sympathetic if you restricted yourself to arguing that evolution doesn’t explain (what I take to be) the universal human need for forgiveness.

    It’s a commonplace for religious conservatives and non-religious folks alike to ridicule folks like me by referring to the object of our faith as “the God of the gaps.” Still, I’m willing to accept the label. I believe that reason and observation are reliable sources of truth: the only alternative is to believe that truth is unattainable. Beyond that, I’m willing to believe that God created all that exists, and continues to rule it. I can confidently know that God guides the natural phenomena that I observe, but can’t explain — even though I know it’s likely that I’ll come to understand the mechanisms that underlie some of these phenomena at some point.

    That paragraph means, among other things, that I’m happy to admit the non-existence of historical people named Adam and Eve, because the Genesis story is no less meaningful as a myth than as history. Its real significance is the insight we gain into God’s character, and His relationship with us, which is much more meaningful than — and entirely independent of — the information it purports to give about the origin of species.

    It follows that, in my opinion, “a lot of hard thinking must go on.” The right question to think about: “Why are we so committed to an untenable reading of Scripture?” I think the right answer is that we are tied to an unsophisticated view of “truth.” If the Church ever discovers that we can communicate truth through fiction — often more effectively than through literal history — and that God has done so in Scripture, then Christians will be able to dedicate ourselves to learning fearlessly, to the glory of God.

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks for this comment, James…. It’s helpful to clarify. I’ll stick with “evolution knows nothing of sin,” because sin is a moral category, and there are no morals in evolution. There is nothing in evolution’s story that would suggest individual or corporate responsibility for actions. It’s true, as you say, that society’s declaration of sins (“taboos”) can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation. In that sense, evolution knows something of sin. But that’s at best an explanation of the functionality of morality, and at worst a debunking. It’s certainly not morality.

      And I don’t think you’re right that Cain’s murder is “pretty obviously maladaptive.” I think–sociobiologists, please correct me–that any behavior as cross-culturally robust as murder must have an evolutionary reason for persisting. Somehow, at least under some circumstances, murderers out-survive non-murderers. Evolutionists can no more criticize murderers on evolutionary grounds than they can criticize lions for eating lambs or wasps for laying their eggs in somebody else’s brains. Maladaptive behaviors die off. Those that persist are adaptive.

      Anyway, why would we care what “selfish genes” think?

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