Saturday, November 6, 2010

Freaks of Nature

I just finished reading Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, an enjoyable Young Adult novel about a girl caught between her convictions and her church. On the recording I listened to, author Robin Brande interviewed biologist and author Kenneth R. Miller, on whom she modeled the main teacher character in the book, Ms. Shepherd. Ms. Shepherd, like Miller, is both a scientist and a person of faith.

The interview made me think again about something that seems to me a big problem for anyone who thinks they can reconcile modern science and Christianity; namely, that evolution is a process that necessarily involves a tremendous amount of suffering. I can understand that, logically speaking, there is no problem with saying that evolution is the means by which God chose to create life on earth, including human life. But evolution's creative engine is the violent death through starvation or predation of most of the individual organisms that have ever lived. How do you reconcile that with the loving Christian God? I don't recall ever finding an answer to that, in Miller's book or anywhere else.

So, recalling that I had a copy of Finding Darwin's God on my bookshelf, I pulled it out to see what I could find. A section entitled "No More Mr. Nice Guy," begins like this:

Of all the concerns expressed by Christians with respect to evolution, the strangest, the least logical, the most bizarre is the idea that evolution is too cruel to be compatible with their notion of a loving God.

OK, this sound very promising: Miller is going to proceed to explain why this complaint is illogical and bizarre, right? Well, let's see.

Miller says we need to keep two things in mind. First, "cruelty is relative." He points out that his lobster dinner is a cruel death from the point of view of the lobster, but just a good meal for him. Second, "we cannot call evolution cruel if all we are really doing is assigning to evolution the raw savagery of nature itself. The reality of life is that the world often lacks mercy, pity, and even common decency.... Evolution cannot be a cruel concept if all it does is reflect the realities of nature...."

Well, but why not? It seems to me that all Miller has done is to re-state the problem. Life is cruel and frequently involves violent, painful death. Why would a loving, kind, God choose this as her means of creation? Saying that this is just the "reality of nature" doesn't answer the complaint in the least.

From here, Miller goes on to point out that contemporary research into the evolutionary origins of altruism shows that what we often think of as the "good" behaviors can arise out of evolution as well. Fair enough, but it doesn't have anything to do with the original complaint.

OK, so is the objection illogical? Let's try to lay it out as a logical argument from the point of view of a Christian who accepts evolution.

  1. God created life on earth.
  2. Life on earth arose through evolution.
  3. Therefore, God chose evolution as his means of creation.
  4. Evolution involves the suffering and death of living creatures.
  5. Therefore, God chose a means of creation that involves suffering of living creatures.
How can Miller resist this argument? (1) is a basic assumption in Christian thought, and I don't think Miller would try to deny this. (2) is well-established scientifically and clearly accepted by Miller. You could object to (3) by saying God didn't have any choice in her means of creation - but this would deny God's omnipotence. Miller also clearly recognizes that (4) is true. So I don't see any way Miller can resist the conclusion (5).

The only response I know of to this argument is along the lines of "Sometimes suffering is necessary so that a greater good can come about." Miller doesn't make any attempt at such an argument, but it is a common response to the problem of evil. But does it make any sense in this context? I don't think so: surely, if God is omnipotent, and if her goal was to produce intelligent, moral, beings, she could have just zapped all of us into existence - plants, animals, humans, and all - without going through all the pain of millions of years of evolution.

No comments:

Post a Comment