Divine Evolution

By Michael Gerson
Friday, December 21, 2007

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. Or not. And so the debate on origins continues.

This spring, west of Cincinnati, a $27 million Creation Museum opened its doors, complete with a display showing dinosaurs entering Noah's Ark. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is pressed repeatedly on his views of evolutionary biology, rather than health-care policy or Iran. According to the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of evangelicals believe that living things have always existed in their current form.

I have little knowledge of, or interest in, the science behind this debate. Can gradual evolutionary changes account for the complex structures of cells and the eye? Why is the fossil record so weak when it comes to major mutations? I have no idea. There are unsolved mysteries in Darwinian evolution. There is also no credible scientific alternative.

But whatever the scientific objections, it is the theological objections to evolution that are weakest. Critics seem to argue that the laws of nature are somehow less miraculous than their divine suspension. But the elegant formulas of physics, and the complex mechanisms of evolution, strike me as an equal tribute to the Creator.

Critics also assume that humble evolutionary origins undermine human dignity. But the Bible's description -- creation from the "dust of the earth" -- is no less humiliating than descent from primates. Men and women have an elevated value because they are known and loved by God, not because of their genetic pedigree.

Historically, it is usually an error for religious people to fill scientific holes with supernatural explanations, because those holes often are filled eventually by the progress of knowledge. A "god of the gaps" is weaker and less compelling than the God of all creation.

And there is little need for such explanations, even for those who take the Bible seriously. Leon Kass, in his masterful work "The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis," observes, "The biblical account is perfectly compatible with the fact of a slowly evolving cosmos, with life arriving late, beginning in the sea and only later emerging on earth, progressively distinguished into a variety of separated kinds."

But this overly hyped debate on biology hides a deeper conflict that could not be more important.

Some scientists claim that a belief in evolution and orderly material laws somehow disproves the existence of immaterial things such as God and the soul -- as if biology or physics could refute concepts they don't even examine. There is no telescope that reveals the absence of the divine; no MRI that yields a negative test for the soul. G.K. Chesterton summarizes this naive theory as follows: "Because science has not found something which obviously it could not find, therefore something entirely different . . . is untrue. . . . To me it is all wild and whirling; as if a man said -- 'The plumber can find nothing wrong with our piano; so I suppose that my wife does love me.' "

There is a large distinction between the scientific theory of evolution and naturalism. Naturalism -- the belief that the material world is all that is or ever will be -- is a philosophy, and a dangerous one. As C.S. Lewis points out, this belief system begins by denying the existence of God, but it cannot end there. "The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed 'souls' or 'selves' or 'minds' to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. . . . Man is indeed akin to the gods: that is, he is no less phantasmal than they."

And so, in a purely material universe, human beings are reduced to what one writer calls "temporarily animated meat" -- even our consciousness a byproduct of our chemistry. This view, by necessity, has disturbing moral and political implications. Those who believe that men are meat are more likely to treat men as meat. "If I had to burn a man alive," concludes Lewis, "I think I should find this doctrine comfortable."

The belief in an orderly universe does not require belief in an empty universe. And science does not even address the most important questions about human destiny.

"Let us assume that creation is evolution," argues Leon Kass, "and proceeds solely by natural processes. What is responsible for this natural process? . . . Can a dumb process, ruled by strict necessity and chance mutation, having no rhyme or reason, ultimately answer sufficiently for life, for man, for the whole? . . . And when we finally allow ourselves to come face-to-face with the mystery that there is anything at all rather than nothing, can we evolutionists confidently reject the first claim of the Bible -- 'In [the] beginning, God created the heavens and the earth'?"

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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