Here’s what we know. Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, a singularity of infinite energy, infinite curvature, and infinite mass exploded cataclysmically, spraying particles out into space. As this matter became less dense and cooled, new particles formed from it, they alligned into new lawful patterns of behavior, and stars began to coagulate. Those stars eventually cooked the matter, forming still more kinds of elements, and some of them went supernova and sprayed these new heavier and more complicated elements out into space. That matter eventually coalesced into rings around stars, and then gathered into heaps that became planets. On some of those planets, at least on ours, some 3 billion years ago, primitive self-replicating strands of molecules began to form. Environmental forces were conducive to some configurations of these molecules and not others. More and more complex structures and patterns in those groupings of matter slowly began to emerge over millions of years by tiny steps. In time, organisms of greater and greater complexity formed spurred on by mutation, variation, and environments that were harsher on some than others. Slowly, adaptations accumulated, and in many cases, a long history of natural selection produced remarkably complicated organisms with highly developed features for responding to their environments and propagating the informational code for those features to their offspring. About 3-5 million years ago, hominids emerged on the African savannah that roved in bands and foraged for sustenance. In time, these creatures’ brains grew in size and their cognitive abilities for language and problem solving expanded. Now, you are here as the recent product of this series of events.
Despite a widespread consensus among our very best and brightest, and a mountain of compelling evidence (Daniel Dennett has said that we are as sure of the occurrence of evolution as we about the existence of oxygen), very few Americans (15%) believe that this is the whole story about the origins of human life. To be fair, many Americans, around 45%, now acknowledge that evolution occurred in the history of life on Earth. But of those, the largest percentage (30%) contend that God played a crucial role in it by “guiding it.” CBS Poll on Evolution
God created humans in present form
Humans evolved, God guided the process
Humans evolved, God did not guide process
If we resist the urge to be cynical or despair about these embarrassingly low numbers compared to the rest of the educated and civilized world, we can see that 45% percent as a kind of progress. At least many people who only a few years ago would have denied any claim that they took to be contrary to a literal interpretation of the Bible are now making a nominal effort to reconcile the two views with this hybrid “guidance” position.
There is a set of baffling puzzles that are raised by the guidance view, however. Confining ourselves just to evolution and the development of life, not the origins of the cosmos, we must ask, in what capacity to God affect the process or unfolding of evolutionary history on earth? If life evolved by natural selection, what work was their left for God to do? Do we need to invoke God in order to explain the history of life, or has the theory of evolution rendered God extraneous?
There was a time when the picture we had of the naturally selected history of life was rather skeletal. Darwin, famously, did not know the exact method of information transfer from one generation to the next. Mendelian genetics and the discovery of DNA filled in those pieces of the puzzle. Biologists have proposed, tested, and rejected many taxonomical trees that attempted to locate different species according to their nearest relatives. New discoveries in microbiology, geology, and paleontology have forced us to redraw the tree of life, and have given us countless “missing link” species. Every year, our picture of the history of life on earth comes into sharper focus and more details are filled in.
There have been those (51% by the poll mentioned above) who deny evolution altogether and insist that all life on earth was created in its present form 6,000-10,000 years ago by God. One of their responses to evolutionary theory has been to argue that scientists cannot produce the missing links between species. They have been undeterred when one of those so-called missing links, such as Archaeopteryx is found, insisting, as Michael Shermer has pointed out, that for every gap that is filled, two more appear on each side of it. Fortunately, the numbers of people in full denial of evolution have been going down, albeit more slowly than they should. It can be difficult to reconcile the existence of antibiotic resistant germs or the need for getting a new flu shot each season with an outright denial that evolution happens.
For those who acknowledge evolution and insist that God had a hand in it, however, we must wonder about the explanatory gaps he is intended to fill. So far, we have filled in a great deal, nothing in the historical record or in biological research has indicated that there is some looming hole that we will not be able to fill. Even the non-scientist judge and jury in the Dover, Penn. Intelligent Design trial could see through the flimsy and dishonest attempts by religionists to argue otherwise. With every new fossil, and every new completed genome for a species, the room for this evolutionary God of the gaps shrinks.
If “guidance” is to mean anything at all in this context, it must mean something like God intervened in events or processes to produce outcomes that, were it not for God’s meddling, would not have occurred otherwise. So far, we do not have any serious indications that anything like this occurred in the history of life on earth. And if we do not have any convincing empirical evidence that God meddled, or boosted, or pruned the tree, what could be a person’s grounds for holding the hybrid view? The obvious answer is that they possess an independent set of religious convictions or motivations that they are attempting to reconcile with what has become scientific common sense. They believe that God created life, and they can see that the evidence that life evolved is undeniable (even the Pope has come around on this), so they must merge the two views to reduce the cognitive dissonance.
But the dissonance is still lurking around the corner. If evolution occurred, and God somehow guided that process, how is it that no religious doctrine every gave any indication of that whatsoever? Most religious traditions have a robust and fairly complicated story to tell about God’s involvement in the creation of humanity. Their doctrines do not lack for detail or interest in the topic. And yet none of those stories resemble in the slightest way anything like what we now know about evolutionary history. Even the most elaborate exegetical gymnastics cannot really make the Adam and Eve story in Genesis look anything like the account of human life we have from the fossil and biological evidence. If God played a role in it, then it wasn’t anything like what any of the religious traditions on the planet have said it was. And that discrepancy alone creates an enormous problem for anyone wanting to espouse the hybrid view. The God they are now dancing with doesn’t resemble the one that brought them to the prom in the first place.
Here’s another problem: leaving the origin stories from religions aside entirely, suppose the form that God’s meddling took was to prune the tree here and there in order to get the desired outcome—God created a sort of cosmic topiary so that the evolutionary process would produce some set of species that he wanted. A lightning bolt here, or a well-placed falling boulder could thwart one species and give another just the edge it needed to win the race. But can anyone take seriously the notion that the alleged grand creator of all reality would employ these sorts of microscopic and short-sighted means to achieve his goals? If God’s end goal was to produce homo sapiens, or more likely, a rich hospitable habitat for bacteria judging from the numbers, and this goal was evident to him from the outset, it boggles the mind to think that he would set out to achieve that end through such a torturous, inelegant, inefficient path. It’s even more laughable to suggest that in all of his divine wisdom and power, he’d be forced to resort to dropping a big rock on some unsuspecting Cro-Magnon in order to get the desired outcome millions of years and millions of generations later. On an isolated road one night, I jury rigged a burnt out fuse in my truck with a paperclip so that my headlights would work long enough to get me home. It wasn’t a very good solution, but I lacked the resources or the power to get there any other way. Would any God worthy of the name MacGyver his way through billions of years of history with bubble gum and duct tape? Lightning bolts and falling boulders scream out bumbling incompetence, not omnipotence and omniscience.
Furthermore, the problem is not just that the gaps for God shrink with new developments in biology. It’s that there just doesn’t seem to be any real explanatory need to insert God into the equation. If we’ve got a natural, non-purposeful, non-intelligent account of the whole series of events, then what exactly is added to our understanding by still insisting that God guided it? There are no real indications that any guiding was needed. So adding God into the account doesn’t actually explain anything. It certainly doesn’t give us the ability to make any predictions that we couldn’t otherwise. The hypothesis doesn’t seem to be corroborated by any empirical testing. So what motivation could we have, besides a lingering affection for the stories and doctrines that were artfully insinuated into our heads as children?
Saturday, January 31, 2009