Four reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense.
By Greta Christina / AlterNet
“Of course I believe in evolution. And I believe in God, too. I believe that evolution is how God created life.”
You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.
In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.
I’m saying that this position is untenable. I’m saying that the “God made evolution happen” position is rife with both internal contradictions and denial of the evidence. You don’t have to deny as much reality as young earth creationists do to take this position — but you still have to deny a fair amount. Here are four reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense.
1. It contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution.
According to theistic evolution (the fancy term for “God made evolution happen”), the process of evolution is shaped by the hand of God. God takes the processes of mutation, natural selection, and descent with modification, and uses them to direct life into the forms he wants – including the form of humanity.
But in evolution, there is no direction. At the core of the theory of evolution is the principle that whatever survives, survives, and whatever reproduces, reproduces. Each generation has to survive and reproduce on its own terms: there’s no selecting for a particular feature that’s harmful now but will be useful ten generations later, after a little more adapting. If a particular trait isn’t either beneficial or neutral to these animals, these plants, these bacteria, in this generation here and now – it’s going to be selected out pretty darn quick. Evolution is all about the immediate present and the very near future: it’s about surviving, and producing fertile offspring that live long enough to reproduce.
And there’s a huge amount of random chaos in the mix. If any of a hundred thousand quirks go a different way, the outcome can be different – sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. A flood shifts the course of a river, and a plant’s seeds float south-south-east instead of due south, and the seeds sprout on the part of the continent that splits off and becomes South America. An asteroid hits the planet and wipes out the dinosaurs, and these weird rodent-like creatures start reproducing like gangbusters, and in a few hundred thousand years some of their great-great-thousands-of-times-over grandchildren wind up as human beings.
Random stuff happens: if it happens differently, then different living things survive and reproduce, and it all turns out differently. Yes, the particular forms that life takes right now are wildly improbable — and if things had turned out differently, those forms would be wildly improbable. There’s no direction: there’s no selecting for life to take any particular form at any point in the future.
So it makes no sense to say that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — but that God is guiding it in the direction he wants. If evolution is exactly as the scientists describe it, there’s no direction for God to be guiding it in. God hasn’t got a thing to do with it.
Now, if the evidence suggested that evolution actually did work in this interventionist way — if the theory of evolution were based on it having no direction, but there were a bunch of evidence suggesting that it did have a direction, with some outside force pushing things in that direction — then the “no direction” part of the theory would have to go. And that would be fine. Our understanding of exactly how evolution works has shifted many times over the decades, and if there were a preponderance of evidence pointing to a Divine Tinkerer, we’d simply have to adjust the theory.
Which leads me to:
2. There’s not a scrap of evidence for it.
If there really were a Divine Tinkerer mucking about with evolution, like civil engineers re-directing a river or kids putting sticks in a stream, we’d see signs of it. When we looked at the fossil record, we’d see human knees suddenly re-shaped to better suit upright bipedal walking. We’d see human female pelvises suddenly re-shaped to better accommodate their infants’ larger brains without dying in childbirth. We’d see human brains suddenly re-shaped to better understand long-term cost-benefit analysis. And that’s just the humans.
We don’t see any of that. When we look at the fossil record — and the genetic record, and the geological record, and the anatomical record, and every other record from every branch of science that supports the theory of evolution and investigates how it works — we don’t see any signs whatsoever of outside intervention. What we do see is exactly what we’d expect to see if evolution were an entirely natural process, proceeding one generation at a time.
Now, some adherents of theistic evolution don’t think that God is tinkering with the process every day, or even every millennium, or even every epoch. Some theistic evolutionists are really more like deists: they think God set the entire process in motion, four billion years ago at the dawn of the planet, or 13.7 billion years ago at the dawn of the universe. They think God set the parameters way back in the mists of time, knowing how things would turn out, and is just sitting back watching it all unfold. That’s what they mean by “God made evolution happen.”
But there’s not a scrap of evidence for this, either. If your god is so non-interventionist that he’s entirely indistinguishable from physical cause and effect — what reason do you have to think he exists? In all of human history, the supernatural has never turned out to be the right answer to anything: natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. So why would you think that an invisible god who set the wheels of evolution in motion, in a way that looks exactly like physical cause and effect, is more plausible than simple physical cause and effect?
As Julia Sweeney said in her performance piece “Letting Go of God, “The invisible and the non-existent often look very much alike.” Given that there’s not one scrap of evidence suggesting that this invisible Divine Tinkerer actually does exist — and a whole lot of evidence suggesting that he doesn’t — why would you conclude that he does?
Which leads me to:
3. There’s a whole lot of evidence against it.
Sinuses. Blind spots. External testicles. Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals. Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass — and human babies born essentially premature, because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out (which they sometimes do anyway). Wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity, leading to a great risk of choking to death when we eat. Impacted wisdom teeth, because our jaws are too small for all our teeth. Eyes wired backwards and upside-down. The vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it’s going. The vas deferens, ditto. Brains wired with imprecise language, flawed memory, fragile mental health, shoddy cost-benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and a strong tendency to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term gain. Birth defects. 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies ending in miscarriage (and that’s just confirmed pegnancies — about 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and asmany as 75% of all conceptions miscarry).
And that’s just humans. Outside the human race, you’ve got giraffes with a vagus nerve traveling ten to fifteen feet out of its way to get where it’s going. You’ve got sea mammals with lungs but no gills. You’ve got male spiders depositing their sperm into a web, siphoning it up with a different appendage, and only then inseminating their mates — because their inseminating appendage isn’t connected to their sperm factory. (To wrap your mind around this: Imagine that humans had penises on their foreheads, and to reproduce they squirted semen from their testes onto a table, picked up the semen with their head-penises, and then had sex.) You’ve got kangaroo molars, which wear out and get replaced — but only four times, after which the animals starve to death. You’ve got digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars — and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze them but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps’ larvae with their living bodies.
You’re going to look at all this, and tell me it was engineered this way on purpose?
Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, “fixed that for you” kluges and jury-rigs, and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (See Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes for just a few of the most obvious examples.) If you’re trying to reconcile all this with a powerfully magical creator god who made it this way on purpose, it requires wild mental contortions at best, and a complete denial of reality at worst.
On the other hand, it is very easy to reconcile all this with an entirely natural theory of evolution. In fact, according to the theory of evolution, it would be hugely surprising if biological life didn’t turn out this way. Again: Evolution proceeds one generation at a time. Each generation is only very slightly different from the generation that preceded it. It makes perfect sense that biological life would consist of awkward, inefficient, ad-hoc adaptations to forms that no longer exist.
And at the risk of anthropomorphizing: Evolution doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. Evolution doesn’t care if you’re happy. Evolution doesn’t need you to be perfect: it just needs you to be better than your competitors, your predators, and your prey. Evolution cares if you survive, and produce fertile offspring that also survive. Actually, even that’s not exactly true. Evolution doesn’t care if you live or die. If you die, something else lives. Evolution doesn’t give a damn who it is.
Evolution doesn’t give a damn about any of this. But God supposedly does. So why did he do it this way? If God is so powerful that he could bring all of existence into being simply by wishing it; if he’s so powerful that he can tinker with the genetics and circumstances of evolution simply by wishing it — why would he wish it to be so clumsy, half-assed, inefficient, jury-rigged, superfluous, and brutal?
Which finally leads me to:
4. If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious.
Here’s the thing about evolution. Evolution has led to some truly wondrous, truly amazing forms of life. (Or, to be more precise: Evolution has led to human brains that are capable of the experience of amazement, and that are inclined to be amazed at the variety and complexity of biological life.)
But evolution is messy. Evolution is wildly inefficient. See #3 above. It’s not just the products of evolution that are inefficient, either. The process itself is inefficient — inherently so, almost by definition. If you’re an all-powerful magical being trying to create sentient life, evolution is the long, long, long way around. If you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B, evolution is a slow, meandering walk down convoluted dirt roads, with thousands of stops on the way to visit your doddering uncles who never shut up.
And evolution is brutal. It’s not just that the results of the process are often uncomfortable, frustrating, even painful. The process itself is inherently brutal. The process ensures that most animals die in dreadful suffering and terror: they die from starvation, from injury, from disease, from birth defects, from being torn to pieces and devoured by other animals. Of all the billions upon billions of conscious living beings that have ever existed, an infinitesimal minority got to die peacefully in their beds surrounded by their families. The overwhelming majority died brutally, in pain and fear. And that includes the ones who actually won the evolution sweepstakes, and got to live long enough to reproduce with fertile offspring.
If there were a god who was using evolution to direct life in the direction he wanted, it immediately begs the question: Why? Why on earth would anyone do this?
If God were powerful enough to magically tinker with the process of evolution, in undetectable ways entirely indistinguishable from natural cause and effect — why wouldn’t he be powerful enough to just “whoosh” humanity into existence? If God were smart enough to know precisely how to set the parameters of existence so that billions of years later it would unfold into conscious human life — why wouldn’t he be smart enough to do it in a way that avoided the inefficient, hideously violent processes through which evolution has unfolded, and continues to unfold?
If theistic evolution were true — if there really were a god who either tinkers with evolution to create human life or who set the universe in motion knowing that evolution would eventually result in human life – then that god would either be grossly incompetent or cruelly malicious. That god would have to be either incapable of using the system of evolution to create life efficiently and with minimal pain – indeed, incapable of coming up with a better system for producing life in the first place — or brutally callous to the great suffering he has caused for hundreds of millions of years, and that he continues to cause on a daily basis.
Is that really the god you believe in?
A For Effort, F for Execution
I understand the desire to reconcile science with religion. I really do. People have a lot of reasons to be religious — community, family identity, cultural identity, an attachment to the ritual, a built-in sense of meaning and purpose, a desire to believe that the creator of all time and space personally cares about you, a desire to believe in an afterlife. And I definitely understand the desire to accept science: as flawed as it is, science has repeatedly shown itself to be the best method we have for understanding reality.
I understand that people want their religion to reflect reality. But there is no religion that reflects reality. If you want to accept reality in general, and the reality of evolution in particular, you need to accept that.
John Lawrence says
“They think God set the parameters way back in the mists of time, knowing how things would turn out, and is just sitting back watching it all unfold.” What if God set the parameters way back in the mists of time, but DIDN’T know how things would turn out. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe God “is just sitting back watching it all unfold.” Non-religionists tend to give God too much power. What if God is not all powerful?
And evolution, insofar as it has been a successful theory, may not be the last word in how life changes, progresses or digresses. Are we really conceited enough as a species to think that any scientific theory is perfect as it is now constituted? Perhaps a thousand years from now the theory of evolution will have been amended to form a more perfect theory.
There is also some scientific evidence that the subconscious mind can effect genetic changes which, if true, would show that life itself can change itself and that not all mutations are random.
Dana Levy says
Mr Lawrence is full of crap. Just another example , as stated in the REAL article, at a feeble attempt by a human to rationalize their false beliefs based upon nothing, either tangible or intangible, that there is some “super power” guiding the past, present, and future of life on our planet. There is NO scientific evidence of any type that the “sub conscious” mind can cause change, genetic or otherwise. Sort of reminds me of the lame brained politician that said a woman’s body can shut the whole fertilization process down if a rape occurs. Then he throws in the “conceited” term to get someone to agree with his postulation with absolutely no regard for facts, proof, evidence, or any other REAL observed behavior that might actually effect evolution. Typical of the religious fools that abound in our society. Both nonsensical and ignorant, he is wrong and only aspiring to get traction from outdated cliches and innuendo, thus leading the charge here to more of the same buffoonery that has plagued mankind for untold centuries. First a rock, sun, or tree, etc. Then the Egyptian myriad of gods, then the Greeks and Romans had a go at it. And now we still cling to notions of a benevolent father in the sky, perpetrated by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddists, and any other currently popular movement, is foisted upon us all. There is no heaven, hell, afterlife, prayer answerer, or any other incantation of the same watching (or not) our every move. I see too many people world wide who are afraid to actually live this life fully now and are storing up nuts for some ficticious future where it will be lots easier with way less struggle. NOT Hardly!!! Get a grip Lawrence, there is NO God (god), capitalized or not, or anything resembling him, her, or it. It is the random that drives us all with NO exceptions.
John Lawrence says
“There is NO scientific evidence of any type that the “sub conscious” mind can cause change, genetic or otherwise.” Even if there were, it would have nothing to do with the existence of God. It would only prove that Darwin’s theory was not complete much in the same way that Newton’s theory was not complete and needed General Relativity to complete it. Whether or not the subconscious mind can effect changes in mutation doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God. God could have set it up that way at the creation of the universe or the universe could have just popped into being out of nowhere and possessing that property along with a zillion other properties.
And please don’t accuse me of defending or being a part of an organized religion. Also don’t impute to me a lot of motives that you know nothing about like being a “religious fool,” “ignorant,” and “wrong.”
You say, “There is no heaven, hell, afterlife, prayer answerer, or any other incantation of the same watching (or not) our every move.” You seem to have the absolute certainty that you accuse the religionists as having.
Dana Levy says
Such an arrogant and myopic commentary.
Dana Levy says
The only arrogance I perceive is that of those who MUST continue to attempt persuasion of Real thinkers that an imaginary FRIEND exists to assuage their fears and discomforts. Myopic is correct, in that I only see the TRUTH, not superstition and supernatural.
bob dorn says
So… D.L., what did you think of Greta Christina’s 1200 or so words? Like ’em? Hate ’em. So far we’ve only seen your hate.
Dana Levy says
Hi Bob, I think her article was right on (and could have gone further) and I wonder how you didn’t glean that from my first comment. I am from the camp that it is way beyond time to bring the charlatans completely out into the light and paint all religions as what they are: myths perpetuated on the gullible or desperate, and, abuse of our (everybody’s) youth by lies pushed on the young who are not in a position to decipher for themselves what is real or not and accentuated by the adults in their lives who act as authorities whether it be parents, relatives, or people in a power position (teachers, coaches, military, politicians, etc.). Your description of “hate” is my realization that unless the truth is the basis for our conversations we are doomed to continue to repeat the myriad of religious missteps from the past over and over again. My disdain for those that either 1) espouse religion as either factually real on any level or account, or 2) the only panecea to cure our ills to which we must all aspire, is unbounded. As the Christians like to say, I don’t hate the speaker (person) I hate the constant deception (the sins) put forth as “gospel” by the gospel lovers. Clear enough?
bob dorn says
Some seriously religious people will walk and talk humbly, believing in a power higher than the human mind. It doesn’t take religion to teach humility; science and philosophy and history can, too. Buddhism does. Christianity and Judaism seem, to me, to personalize this higher power in the form of a man. I don’t know enough about Islam to represent it on this scale.
I do know that capitalism has become an obscenity, often promoting a form of Christianity that places a powerful man before a microphone who advocates ripping people’s resources from them and celebrating that act. I don’t know what makes Christians tolerate corruption, but I do know that any time I feel a Christian nearing I figure I’m going to hear a whole lot of bullshit as soon she/he opens that mouth.
Dana Levy says
That pretty much sums it up for me too. As to a higher power, I ascribe that highest of names to “Mother Nature” and all that that entails. Nothing supernatural to it. Nothing there to be feared or be superstitious of (like heaven and hell, prayer intervention, or anything similar). There is a power inside all of us that is driven by what we are made of/ from. It is the societal mores that makes us “human” both for good and bad (not righteous or evil). No secret celestial “hover craft driver” floating “above” us. Will “we” ever do better or actually get it right? Only time will tell, but the elimination of all religions based upon the supreme being theory of an all knowing, all seeing creator dogma must go first. As George Lucas said: “may the force be with you” should be our mantra.
Mr. Levy, I had a feeling my comment was gonna be misunderstood.
I wrote it about the article, but your comment got posted first and there isn’t an edit function here. Sorry for the confusion.
People believe what they want to believe, and reason may or may not be a factor. When it comes down to it, no one knows anything about God other than what they choose to believe. I choose to believe that we all have a “hole”in us that has no explanation or means to fill, other than a belief in, or speculation about, God. Since there is no way of knowing in the rational mind whether there is any truth in this belief/speculation, imagine the effect in our psyche of choosing either of those options….I’m not speaking of religion….but personal faith in choosing “Yes there is a God” or rational choice “Yes, there is no God”. Psychologically it makes a big difference, regardless of whether there is or is not any truth to the God idea. It is the difference between essentialism and existentialism.
Dana Levy says
Actually, it is a choice to live in the truthful world, however wonderful and presently not knowing all it’s facets yet but dwelling only in reality as we presently know it where no shred of evidence points to a beneficent GOD at all, or, choosing to live a delusional life where the wonder is based on lies and the facing of the reality to which we find ourselves has no meaning beyond childish dreams of a Santa waiting for us, controlling us, and judging us on some unknown scale.