Evolution, Creation, and The Sting of Death (Part 3) | The BioLogos Forum

Note: Our blog is on hiatus from regular content as we prepare for the imminent release of the largest revision to our website since its initial launch in 2009. This week, we are reprinting a discussion between Southern Baptist theologian John D. Laing and BioLogos Senior Scholar Jeff Schloss on the subject of evolution and death. This exchange is part of the "Southern Baptist Voices" series in 2012 featuring dialogue between Southern Baptist scholars and BioLogos responders. Today's entry by Jeff Schloss is the final part of his response to John Laing's essay (posted on Tuesday).

The Evolutionary Role of Death & Natural Evil

In addition to providing a general theological critique of the endemic—as opposed to post-hoc or intrusive—origins of death in the natural world, John Laing’s imminently fair-minded essay also takes theological aim at the role death and natural evil play in the evolutionary diversification of life. It is one thing to say that death is primordial; it is another to view it not just as an ancient byproduct, but as the central means of creation. The understandable theological uneasiness expressed by John and many others about this issue ultimately rests not just on an understanding of God’s creative activity, but also on a particular representation of evolution. In this regard John makes two important claims:

  • a) “…natural selection, with its emphasis on a natural state characterized by competition for limited resources and a general struggle for survival, is the primary means by which speciation takes place…”
  • b) “death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development.”

For reasons I discussed in the previous section, it is not entirely clear that death constitutes an evil that is incommensurate with divine activity. However, the fact is that the above depiction of evolution—which is not unique to John amongst public commentators and is largely commensurate with Darwin’s own views—does not adequately portray current discussions within evolutionary biology. There are three problems with this portrayal that I’d like to address in turn—three aspects of evolutionary theory that need to be better understood.

First, while there is no uncertainty about common descent or about natural selection as a cause of evolutionary change, there is considerable discussion over the extent to which natural selection is “the primary means” by which speciation takes place. For one thing, there are manifold other agents of evolutionary change: drift, gene flow, systems of mating, mutation itself unfiltered by selection. A tremendous amount of variation may be adaptively neutral, being invisible to natural selection. For another thing, some claim that evolution proceeds most rapidly and speciation occurs most precipitously in the relaxation of selection—when ecological times are good and the culling effects of the environment are minimized. We may see this in the contingency-driven formation or colonization of a new habitat or the exploitation of a new resource that does not displace previous variants. Or, speciation events or species-level innovations may be the results of chromosomal rearrangements or symbiogenesis that are not the cumulative results of selection. Finally, there exist manifold and admittedly controversial proposals that are critical of neo-Darwinism as a whole, claiming that natural selection may be a necessary, but is neither a sufficient nor a primary cause of large-scale evolutionary change.1

Second, notwithstanding Darwin’s formulation of natural selection in terms of competitive struggle as (accurately) cited by John, the modern understanding of evolution and competition is considerably more differentiated and complicated. For one thing, competition is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for natural selection. Natural selection is formally defined as the differential reproduction of genotypes (or information.) Some sets of genes are replicated with greater efficiency than are others. Competition is formally defined as the negative impact of two organisms (or two species) on one another’s fitness. You can have all sorts of competition that does not result in natural selection. And importantly, you can have differential reproduction by natural selection without the negative fitness impacts of competition. Colonists to a new under-exploited habitat, or two species that are partitioned onto separate resources in a way that minimizes competition might well have some variants that leave more offspring than others without displacing them. This is natural selection.

Indeed, imagine an infinite habitat with non-limiting resources and no competition at all: as long as there were adaptively salient mutations, there would be natural selection—some of those new genotypes would reproduce more effectively than others. Competition, to whatever extent it exists in nature, is a consequence of finitude and not a necessary precondition of natural selection. And finally, the role of cooperation in evolution has itself been massively reconsidered in recent years. It would not be entirely unfair to say that on the basis of mathematical models and empirical data, the proposal that cooperation “is now seen as a primary creative force”2 and a “fundamental principle of evolution”3 has moved from being a cult-alternative to a widely accepted paradigm. Indeed, cooperation and increasing scales of cooperative interdependence are seen not only as a formative process but also as a recurring product of evolutionary change, which may even be viewed as “progress.”4 A biologically significant and theologically salient thematic trend across major evolutionary transitions, is that cooperative interdependence itself – and the wondrous properties of life mentioned in the first installment of this essay – seem to be amplified through selection.4 Through evolution, God may be seen to confer life and confer it in greater abundance.

Third, the claim that “death drives evolutionary development” turns out to be problematic. Recent discussions of death and senescence (organismic decay) between various branches of the biosciences are spirited and fascinating. One of the vexing characteristics of living creatures is the internalization of death and senescence: even if an individual is not killed by external forces, it will die from the inside out—virtually no species is immortal.6 One account of this—the rate of living theory of senescence—understands it not in terms of selection for reduced mortality but in terms of biophysical or allometric constraints relating rate of metabolism to rate of wearing out. Though it views senescence differently, the prevailing evolutionary theory of senescence, with several variants, does not affirm death or decay—at least the kind of death and decay that is intrinsic to organismic development—as a prerequisite to evolution by natural selection either.7

Indeed, internalized death is viewed not as driving but as deriving from, not as a necessary requirement for but as a byproduct of, natural selection. Specifically, mutations or traits with detrimental impacts later in life may not be eliminated by or may even be favored by selection if their contribution to reproduction early in life is sufficient. Now, neither theory completely dismisses the shaping role of death. Under certain but not all conditions, differential mortality may have adaptive import (and it is not even the longer-lived organisms that always have adaptive advantage). Extrinsic sources of death may also shape the internalization of death.8 But the view that death drives evolution does not adequately represent emerging scientific understanding of the relationship between natural selection and senescence.

Scientifically death does not “drive” evolution. And theologically, although neither evolutionary change nor ecological interaction “solve” the ultimate puzzle of human death, they may nevertheless mitigate the proximal existence of creaturely death by amplifying the complexity and vibrant abundance of living forms.

Darwin famously closed The Origin by observing “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”9 Unlike John, I do not see anything in evolutionary theory to reduce, and I see much to augment the sense of grandeur and (for that matter) the appreciation of sheer goodness—both earthly and divine—evoked by the wonders of the living world.

Yet grandeur and goodness are not perfection. My Dad is still dying. I still wince at the suffering of clearly sentient animals. And, truth be told, I tremble at the biblical images of universal herbivory: even metaphors are metaphors of something, and in the case of biblical revelation, that something can be taken to be real and important. So like John, I confess to profound gratitude tempered with a lingering unease at the state of nature. Though I believe in a Fall, this unease is not rationally relieved by attributing to an Adam the present state of all nature. Nor is it resolved by the various alternative considerations I’ve described and which, taken together, seem to have considerable merit but not sufficiency. Notwithstanding, I thankfully affirm that “I have known the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And I look to the day when we may say together, “My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You.” (Job 42:5)


1. E.g., Salthe, S. 2008. “An Anti-Neo-Darwinian View of Evolution.” Artificial Life. 14:231-233; David Depew and Bruce Weber (eds). Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection. 2004. MIT Press 2. Michod, Richard and Denis Roze. 2001. “Cooperation and Conflict in the Evolution of Multicellularity.” Heredity. 86:1-7. Page 2 3. Nowak, Martin. Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation. Martin Nowak & Sarah Coakley, eds. Forthcoming from Harvard University Press. 4. Sigmund, Karl and Eörs Szathmáry. 1998. “Merging Lines and Emerging Levels.” Nature. 392: 439-441. 5. John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry. 1998. The Major Transitions in Evolution. Oxford University Press. Brett Calcott & Kim Sterelny (eds). 2011. The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited. MIT Press. 6. “Virtually” is an important qualifier: while senescence has been documented in nearly all organisms examined, there are some cell lines and species in which this may not be the case. 7. Williams, George. 1957. “Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence.” Evolution. 11:398-411. 8. This relationship is complex and not invariant. E.g., Williams, Paul and Day, Troy. 2003. “Antagonistic Pleiotropy, Mortality Source Interactions, and the Evolutionary Theory of Senescence.” Evolution. 57(7): 1478-1488. 9. Darwin, Charles. 1876. The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. 6th Edition. John Murray. p. 429.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/evolution-creation-and-the-sting-of-death-part-31

Thank you for this excellent essay by Dr. Schloss.

My first response is a question, Why is there not more discussion of problems found in NeoDarwinism by BioLogos, instead of the silence that implies that all is well? I thank you for this rerun and Dr. Falk’s recent comments on cooperation (see my comments) as evidence that all is not well when discussing Darwinian natural selection. The primary problem with these criticisms is that they do not offer an alternative solution, which I try to do.

Schloss points out three problems with Darwinian Natural Selection.

  1. Many people claim that natural selection is not evident evolutionary events. This is not true, except if we misunderstand what natural selection is and how it works. If we see natural selection as selecting out by means of death, then this may be true, but I have come to the conclusion that instead natural selection selects in.

Every creature will die, so that is not the criterion. Not every creature will survive and thrive, which is the criterion.

Thus the trend to downgrade natural selection because the Darwinian definition is wrong leads to a further misunderstanding of how evolution works by science.

  1. Many scientists are pointing out that competition is not a necessary aspect of natural selection contrary to traditional Darwinian point of view and Dawkins’ protestations. Again that is manifestly true, but there is no alternative process provided.

If natural selection is selection in rather than selection out (by death), what are the criteria for selection in. It is clear to me that it is the ability of individual and groups to adapt to their ecological niche, which is more of a mutual and cooperative goal, than a competitive one.

  1. Death is not the measure of the absence of “fitness.” See 1).

These arguments against the Darwinian notion of natural selection cry out for a thorough examination of what natural selection is and how it really works. As I have said repeatedly, Darwinian natural selection has not been scientifically verified by experimentation or careful field studies. Isn’t it about time we demand that this change and challenges be taken seriously?

Today’s entry made me think of Edward Hitchcock’s remarks on death in his 1851 book “The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences.” Hitchcock (1783-1864) was a geologist and Congregational minister. The book is a collection of lectures he had given in the 1840s.

He believed in an old Earth, and was aware from his study of fossils that species had become extinct before the first humans appeared. He also believed the Bible showed that death had been around since life began. He did not think of death as an unmitigated evil. Without death, the world would become overpopulated, and carnivores shortened the suffering of the infirm and aged. He believed that God was aware that Adam and Eve would sin, but that by giving them the option of an afterlife in heaven, He actually gave them more happiness than if they had not sinned and had spent eternity in Eden.

Your comments are always very interesting, and show (and inspire) a great deal of thought. I do not represent BioLogos, but I thought I might answer your question about little or no mention of the problems with neo-darwinism on the BioLogos site. My understanding of neo-Darwinism is that it represents the scientific, non-theological form of evolution. BioLogos presents theistic evolution, which does not rule out the possibility that God may have intervened in the natural order. Theistic evolution will hold up even if science can eventually determine answers to every question about the origin of the universe, because every natural law and all matter was created and is sustained by God’s will.

Death does not drive evolution, although death continually creates room for new individuals, thereby allowing life to change over time. Natural selection does not select for longevity, but for individuals who produce the most viable offspring. People originally thought that Darwin’s theory meant a constant struggle for the strongest, meanest, toughest individuals, but we have learned that other factors can select. Males that can attract females by a bright coloration and fancy feathers will reproduce faster than their dull brotheren, even if their conspicuous appearance makes them more vulnerable to predators. Cooperation between individuals can result in more individuals surviving, even if some individuals sacrifice themselves for the good of their species.


Thank you for your comment. You are right. Death does not drive evolution.

We die because God created us to be physical beings. Oftentimes we wish that we were not physical beings, but no one has really come up with a viable alternative.

Do you want to be an angel? Because we are physical beings, as well as rational and spiritual beings, we are subject to physical processes like evolution created by God.

Evolution creates more viable offspring, but what does that mean? It means offspring who are better adapted to their ecological niches, which is the way God guides evolution.

“We die because God created us to be physical beings.”

We die because of natural processes. Dying is a certainty of birth as endless forms of life continue.


Yes, but Why is there Something rather than Nothing?

There is something rather than nothing because, given our current understanding of nature, nothingness doesn’t exist. Every cubic inch of space, at every instant of time, electron-positron pairs spontaneously pop out in empty space. Did these particles exist before? No. Every cubic inch of space, at every instant of time, has the potential to be non-empty, non-nothing, something. So where there is nothing, given enough time, something will occur.


Your answer does not take into account that we know that there was a time before space and time when there was no existence or nothing. Clearly “nothingness” does not exist, but there is still the question as to Why does existence exist?

We do? I disagree. We know almost nothing about the first femtosecond after the big bang. But after the first femtosecond (10^-15) second, we have a pretty good idea what happened. Regarding before this time, we know that nothingness was unstable and something did occur - the Big Bang, inflation, the creation of space and time, a quantum mechanical instability.

…the key word in there being “just” synonymous with “only”

That’s all quite a presumptive leap involving a healthy dose of unfettered faith. Not that such faith is a bad thing in and of itself, but just don’t expect that to be very persuasive to those of us who, given the universe and lives we experience today, see justification for a different faith basis.

Thanks, I edited my post removing the presumptive “just”. I changed it to “a quantum mechanical instability” as burp isn’t good scientific language to use when discussing big bang cosmoslogy.

Now what are you saying about unfettered faith in relationship to what science has worked out regarding the beginnings of the cosmos? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


First, you say that nihilo does not exist. Then you say that nihilo is unstable. If nihilo is unstable then it must be made of something, which it is not. Nihilo is very stable, because it is not made of anything, while matter is unstable because it is made of atoms, etc.

In any case what you are saying does not really explain Why there is something rather than nothing? It is like saying that I exist because I was born. While it may be true, it does not answer the existential why question.

It seems that you are not interested in the existential why question, which is your privilege, but limits self knowledge and understanding of Reality. It also seems to limit your understanding of physics if that is what you think about the Big Bang.

nihilo? Please define nihilo. Are you talking about what physicists’ refer to as a vacuum? That was what I was talking about to answer your question, “why is there something rather than nothing.” If your nothing (or your nihilo) refers to real empty space in this observable universe, well empty space is not empty. Quantum Field theory shows that empty space is not empty, ever. Quantum fluctuations produce evanescent energies and elementary particles constantly. So to answer you your question again “why is there something rather than nothing?” because Quantum field theory and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle requires it for the universe to exist the way it does. Is that a better explanation?

I agree with you that “you exist because I was born.” Why you were born is also completely answerable. You were born because your mother and father completed fully natural processes and low and behold nine months latter, you were born. Your unique but not special, realize if a different cell won the race to mom’s egg, you would have never existed.

Now what are you saying about unfettered faith in relationship to what science has worked out regarding the beginnings of the cosmos? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

I was just quibbling on that one little word “just” which you removed. With your post in its present form, I have no quarrel with it at all. I do still regard it as very much “frontier” science which still involves higher speculative content and is more abstract or mathematical in the kind of evidence we have to work with. But I don’t have any theological concerns over any of it. That even “empty” space should be regarded as something is a notion I think we’ve all adjusted to and made our peace with since Einstein.


Nihilo is nothingness. I use the Latin word, because it is the technical term for what was before the Big Bang, no time, no space, no matter, no energy, no nothing, which is impossible for humans to comprehend because we are relational beings and relational beings cannot relate to nothing.

Nihilo is not empty space because there is no space in nihilo. Nihilo does not contain quantum fluctuations, because quantum fluctuations are based on quantum particles, which do not exist in nihilo. Please note that humans think of space and time as absolute or eternal, but Einstein demonstrated that time and space are relational, so they are not absolute, just like the universe is not eternal.

If you are going to going to say that natural laws are the cause of everything, you are saying that the universe is determined, which it is not. It also means that God Who established the laws of nature determined the existence of the universe, which is a better explanation, but not complete.

How I was born is naturally explicable, but why two people decided to get married is not. Every person is unique and special. You seem to think that I must have a particular genetic makeup to be me, which I do, but that does not make me me. I am a particular person, who was born to two particular persons on a particular place and time… There are many other factors that make me me, but we start with that.

Again the fact that you ware unwilling to consider a metaphysical answer to this question that demands a metaphysical answer is lamentable.

Well the beginnings of the cosmos is certainly at the frontier of science but an enormous amount of knowledge has been obtained. From the Planck satellite 2015 results we know with great precision, the age of the universe (13.813 billion years), timing of the first stars, the Hubble constant, the percentage of dark energy, dark matter and baronic matter. We know the size of the observable universe and have measured galaxies with red shifts of 8.6 (13.2 billion years old). So the big bang/inflationary FLRW universe is no longer higher speculative but its properties have been measured with accuracies of less than 0.1 percent. As for the properties of empty space, well quantum field fluctuation models are among the most finely measured parameters in all of science.
So your theology is in-line with 2015 results?

First let me say that when I said you were unique but not special, I meant in a biological entity sense. You are very special to your family and loved ones and I don’t want to diminish your importance to them.

Thank you for your explanation of Nihilo. I agree with you that it is the technical term for what was before the Big Bang. I agree that before the Big Bang there was no, space, no time, no matter, no energy, no nothing. Also no quantum fluctuations because there were not quantum particles. Nothing at all, Nilhilo. I am surprise you would say that. Nothing before the Big Bang. Ok I fully agree. Are you sure? Nothing except _____ . Go ahead fill in the blank.

The theologically relevant argument is related to the fine tuning observed when we consider the universe as God’s creation. Those who do not, or cannot, believe that God created everything, seek another explanation for what is a well established scientific fact. From this line of reasoning, we conclude that God created all there is - thus before the act of creation, we reason nothing that we can discuss in any scientific way existed. This is also consistent with a beginning of time and space, and all of the phenomena science consider, that you have mentioned.

The universe is not fine tuned. It is a messy chaotic place. Ever changing, ever expanding, ever increasing entropy, irreversible. Nothing is fined tuned. Not the orbits of the planets. Please tell me what you think is finely tuned and I will show you that at its core every physical process is imperfect, is not finely tuned and is a random quantum mechanical fluctuating particles, forces and energy.