Natural selection vs Divine design and purpose

First a little history about myself for context.
For the first 18 years of my life I was what we would call today a “young earth creationist” because that is all I had ever heard. When I was a freshman at a state university I took a required Biology class. On the first day of class the instructor stated that natural evolution was a fact and that the course would proceed on that basis without any regard for religious beliefs. As I went through that class I was forced to reconsider my position on origins. I finally settled on what we now call “theistic evolution” and stayed with that for a few years. In my mid-twenties I attended a conservative theological seminary and I was exposed to science and theology scholars who presented evidence for young earth creation. I was convinced and remained a young earth, seven literal day creationist until recently. I did, however, always struggle with the issue of “starlight and time” and I was never convinced by the young universe arguments. About a year ago I began reading and listening to John Walton, John Lennox, and others who presented convincing evidence that the young universe, young earth theory may not be accurate.

Now here is my comment and my request.
I have accepted that the universe may be billions of years old. I accept that the Bible is not a “science book” and that Genesis chapter one is not a mechanical, scientific description of origins. I could be convinced that life on earth is older than a few thousand years. I read an article on the Biologos website that stated that chimpanzees and humans have identical genetic mutations, thus indicating that they have a common ancestor, thus suggesting that human beings “evolved” from a lower form of life.

This is the bridge that I cannot cross, and the barrier is a theological, philosophical one, not a scientific one. I cannot reconcile the scientific concept that human beings evolved by mutation and natural selection from other life forms with the theological and philosophical teaching of the Bible that human beings were conceived of and designed by God with a specific purpose. Evolution as it is typically portrayed describes a process that leads to different species through random chance and that seems incompatible with design and purpose.

I would like to hear how other believers have reconciled these two seemingly opposing positions.

Thanks

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I reconciled it like this.

  1. Genesis 1 is not literal as you’ve already accepted.
  2. Genesis 2 is not literal.
  3. Genesis 3 is not literal.

They all present theological truths. Not historical or scientific ones. When reading the Bible the writing style of those chapters and up through eleven are very different than from what I read in exodus or the gospels. The gospels spent almost 100 chapters on a few years. The Torah spans a much smaller time from genesis 12 onward than genesis 1-11. So I can tell it’s not a historical or autobiographical narrative.

  1. Made in gods image is not about how we look. Otherwise chimps would also be made in gods image more so than a bear would. Which is silly arguments. So it must refer to something else. I think it’s referring to our emotional and cognitive capacity for love in a way that other animals just can’t yet express.

Since none of that demands me to ignore reality I’m able to look at the evidence presented by scientists and accept it such as with natural selection.

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I can readily accept your premise that Genesis 1-11 are not literal. I can also accept your premise that “image of God” refers to our “emotional and cognitive capacity for love”, but that does not really solve my dilemma.

Are you saying that God waited for some random life form to evolve through natural selection and he chose to bestow that “image” on them?

More correctly “random genetic change and natural selection (which is not random)”. Now genetic change happens on the atomic level. At that level quantum physics enters the picture. You don’t think God isn’t capable of directing those changes to obtain the result that He desired? Which by the way also leaves no trace of His direction.

Welcome, Coop!

I think this is an issue that many will resonate with because it strikes at the heart of the question “what does it mean to be human?” and “what is the purpose of life?” and all thinking people wrestle with those questions.

I don’t have any answers I can tie up neatly with a bow for you, but one line of inquiry I have found beneficial is exploring what “image of God” means. It has become a portmanteau for many ideas, but I think in the context of the ANE where the concept was introduced, it had a meaning that was more tied to a calling than intrinsic qualities.

So, when I’m thinking about evolution and design, I do believe that God was sovereign over the process and orchestrates creation to bring about his will and execute his mission on earth, and I believe that plan included the emergence of humanity. But I think there is space theologically for humanity to arrive at the point in evolutionary history where they were equipped (by nature, if you want to think of it that way. It doesn’t exclude God if all of nature bows to his will and functions in the good ways he has ordained) with the needed capacities to relate to God and be faithful ambassadors and stewards of righteousness and shalom in creation, and at that point God chose humanity as his image.

So I think God made us his image where made=designated, not made=designed. I like chosenness better than design as a mental model for thinking about human dignity and worth because it fits better with the whole trajectory of Scripture, with the idea of a covenantal God, and with the idea of adoption, and with the idea of marriage (with God as the groom and his people as the bride). It also fits better with the repeated themes in Scripture that our identity as God’s children is ascribed to us by grace from first to last, it’s not our birthright, it’s not earned by merit, it’s not based on our individual talents or capabilities or capacities.

I think it’s important that the image of God represent communal chosenness, not something intrinsic to each individual because if it is something in the “design” of each individual, it becomes tricky to argue about the image of God dignity that is needed for sanctity of life arguments. Fetuses and the elderly who have lost their higher cognitive functioning, and those born with cognitive disabilities and genetic diseases are fully human and participate in the communal calling to be image bearers. They aren’t excluded because we could label them as lacking in some “essence” of higher functioning that we have associated with humanity and the division between humans and animals. They are still chosen.

I don’t know if any of that rambling helps, but that’s where my mind goes reading your questions. Welcome again to our fun little corner of the internet.

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Welcome to the forum! I sympathize with your struggles with this because the issue of human evolution was much harder for me to accept than deep time was. Even now, I can’t say I completely understand it, but I’ve at least accepted the general idea and become interested in the evidence. It helps me to remember that biology is just biology – so often in the Old Testament God chose those who were not considered biologically “strong” in their culture (usually for reasons beyond their control) such as Gideon, Moses, Ruth, and in the New Testament, spiritual gifts were given to believers regardless of race, nationality, gender, or status. We’re so much more than what our DNA has made of us. Whether homo sapiens evolved biologically or not, we physically came from dust and will go back to it – anything more than that is a gift. That helps to make me more curious than concerned about human evolution, but I’ll be honest that it still weirds me out from time to time.

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I agree “random genetic change” is more accurate than my “random chance”. And yes, you have a good point. God certainly is capable of directing changes at the atomic level as well as other levels. Thanks for your response, it was very helpful to me!

Thanks, very helpful.

Yes. I think God despite knowing everything did not control the free will of animals or cause devastating events. But I don’t think he was just waiting. I think the Holy Spirit was in communication and still is in communication with all life. Even life potentially on other planets. I think genesis loving and being loved by his creation and when we evolved he was now able to develop a newer type of relationship with us and he reached out .

What is wrong here is not the conclusion there is an irreconcilable conflict between these two, but the notion that the Bible teaches any such things as what you claim. It really comes not from the Bible but from the invasion by philosophical ideas which have long been hostile to the very idea of life itself.

God created and designed the universe as a womb of life. The point of life has always been to learn, to grow, and to make choices – NOT to function according to design specifications as a means to an end (BTW this is contrary to one of the most important principles of ethics from Kant, that human beings never be a means to an end). Why would God need tools for anything? What is it that you imagine God cannot do by Himself that He would need us for accomplishing something. Frankly this transformation of God into an intelligent designer is a demotion. It certainly is very flattering for all our engineers and tool makers, but do you really think that is what it takes to be like God?

Evolution is a learning process. Observe a toddler – the adventurous ones who haven’t learned or been taught to fear doing anything. They will do any random thing that pops into their head. This can be rather dangerous to them. But the hope is that they will survive and learn from their mistakes. Evolution is much the same, only with billions of individuals going in millions of different directions trying millions of different things.

This is the nature of life – what it means to be alive. Things which are designed for an end (what you call purpose) are tools and machines. We are quickly mastering the machinery (chemistry) of biology, where we will design tools using this for medicine and industry. Are the things we create this way living things just because they use the same chemistry, or are they machines because they are a product of design made for an end like any other tool? I say the latter is the case and we are living beings precisely BECAUSE we are not designed or made for an end BUT like all living things we participate in our own creation by making our own choices.

The fact of the matter is that Christianity has been poisoned with the ideas of Deism, replacing the shepherd God of the Bible with the watchmaker God of Deism. God created NOT because He needed tools to help Him accomplish something (what a ridiculous notion), but because God wanted a relationship with children who are an end in themselves with lives and choices of their own.

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It reconciles fairly easily for me, since we have objective evidence of God’s providential interventions on behalf of his children into our time and place, timing and placing. They represent an M.O. of his sovereignty, and it obviously extends to mutations in DNA, not that there is or ever will or can be any evidence of particulars. [Unless you want to count my nephrectomy.]
 

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. Proverbs 16:33

The idea that random being on contradiction with design is an intuitive but ultimately wrong. First as other have noted the mutations a random but the selection is not, that is driven by requirements that are usually driven by environmental conditions.

Lets take a populations of animal that really on stealth for feeding. Random mutation appear causing the animals to be more stealthy or less stealthy, whilst the mutations are random and unpredictable what will happen to those mutations absolutely is predictable and driven, we know that the more stealthy ones will feed and reproduce where as the none stealthy ones will die out.

Once we realize this we can realize that we can design things by manipulating the requirement rather than designing to requirement. This is largely what we do with artificial intelligence. We have a method often known as the Evolutionary algorithm or the Genetic algorithm. In this algorithm, the computer generates a bunch of random solutions to a problem it is given on which they are then tested, most will fails spectacularly but some will show some signs of functioning, so we keep the best, copy them and then have them do small random modification before running them through the test again, some will do worst other will do better and we keep the best and repeat and we repeat this until we get a satisfying result.

The AI in the scenario was generated using random processes and the actual result is often unpredictable but its capabilities and requirements are absolutely designed and predictable, this AI would not exist without these requirements and the humans that designed the requirements and setup the tests to reach that requirement. Even though the process is random the result is a system that respects requirements that are designed by humans.

Having randomness in the process does not remove design using that randomness.

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" I cannot reconcile the scientific concept that human beings evolved by mutation and natural selection from other life forms with the theological and philosophical teaching of the Bible that human beings were conceived of and designed by God with a specific purpose. Evolution as it is typically portrayed describes a process that leads to different species through random chance and that seems incompatible with design and purpose."

As Dale pointed out, random chance is not incompatible with design and purpose, though both anti-evolutionists and anti-theists often claim it is. “Random” means different things, and claims relating to evolution often accidentally or deliberately fall into the error of equivocation. Mathematically strictly defined randomness is something for which the best human descriptions rely on the laws of probability, such as casting lots, whether a particular mutation will occur, or whether a particular radioactive atom will decay in a given time interval. More loosely, “random” can be something that is humanly unpredictable. This includes events for which there is no mathematical formula and ones where there is a formula, but the application of it is problematic. For example, mathematically chaotic systems have a precise formula, but in at least certain ranges of values they are so sensitive to tiny changes that we would need omniscience about the current state to confidently predict the long-term behavior. Such randomness is true of long-term weather, long-term human history, and earth history. “Random” is also used to mean “purposeless” or “unguided”. There, the difficulty is “at what level”. The unaimed bowshot that killed Ahab was random as far as the archer was concerned, for example.

All these versions of “random” are said in the Bible to be under God’s control. Obviously, there’s plenty of arguing about free will, predestination, and just how God is in control of anything, but evolution is merely one further example of something, and does not actually pose any more problem for God’s design and purpose than the fact that I can’t count on breaking the bank at Vegas by predicting what the slot machine will do.

As Genesis 1 points out, the laws and forces of nature are merely patterns of God’s working and do not have goals or purposes of their own. Thus, we should not expect to detect design and purpose by studying those. Ecclesiastes particularly emphasizes that relying just on “under the sun” data leaves you with a big question mark. To understand God’s design and purpose, we need to know something about God. Trying to find the design within the science is a bit like concluding that there is no intelligent purpose behind this post based on analysis of the electrons used in transmitting it.

[fixed a typo of fin for find]

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BTW These two very different replies to the OP query are not really opposed…

  1. Design and evolution are contradictory but design is the difference between living organisms and machines. Thus God does not design living organisms.
  2. Design and evolution are not contradictory because the random elements of evolution can be incorporated into a design methodology.

It is largely a matter of semantics and what we mean by the word “design.” And the difference is one of absolute micromanaging control, which is part of the idea of design in 1 but not in 2. It is not quite this simple because I do not think it is the case that an AI is alive or that life is just a matter of having this learning mechanism we have programmed into an AI. So the implications is that the difference is a bit more subtle than this.

  1. The AI is generally applied to much more focused requirements. There is a huge difference between the requirement to solve a particular problem and merely the requirement of survival. The latter is rather open ended with infinite solutions in all directions.
  2. The AI operates in the deterministic world of a computer which is under 100% purely mathematical control. The initial conditions are set precisely. But living organisms operate in the indeterministic world of quantum physics which is mathematical only up to a point. The initial conditions are always subject to uncertainty and the mathematics require infinite precision for the result to be determined.

There is however a theological difference among the discussion participants that should be pointed out. Some of us believe that God is a micromanaging controller and some of us do not. It is quite possible for God to decide the result of some random events like “lots” (a means of fortune telling I presume) as in that Proverbs passage and still refrain from controlling everything. And I do not believe that God controls all the random events of life so that all damaging events of weather, earthquakes, and disease are all divine judgements of some sort. I do not even think they are all planned for some divine purpose such as to test us. I don’t think such ways of thinking are helpful at all.

Hi Coop. I brainwashed myself in to fundamentalism from age 15 in '69. It took 8 years to actually commit. '77. Then I was a company man for 21. '98. But the ‘company’ had deconstructed itself exponentially and I went with it. And kept going. For another 21; '19. In exponential steps. Back to 15 at 67 : ) Where were you at then? Don’t worry, that’s rhetorical : )

Like me, you’ll work out your own salvation. On fact wherever your at, you have. It will change. Nothing anyone can say here is the answer. Not your answer. Their answers work for them. I worked mine out. It’s not yours either.

Good luck mate.

Welcome to BioLogos and congratulations for pointing out the soft underbelly of evolutionary science and BioLogos advocacy.

To begin with Darwin’s theory says evolution is not based on random chance. It has two separate aspects, 1. Variation (now genetic change) and 2. Natural Selection (which selects an allele in or out) Variation is random, while natural selection by definition is not, and since natural selection is the final step, the process is definitive, not random.
Thus, the claim that evolution is random is a myth, yet advocates for and against continue to perpetuate that myth. Why is this true? Primarily because the science of natural selection is not clear.

Darwin said natural selection was defined by survival of the fittest. Most people seem to accept this as true, but 1) Survival of the fittest is a tautology, which has yet to be scientifically verified, and 2) Survival of the fittest goes against the nature of God the Creator. Survival of the fittest thus seems to be a myth that humans accept because of our selfish nature , not because it is true.

Now there is a relatively simple answer as to how natural selection works and that is through the ecology. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs died out as the result of climate change, which destroyed their habitant. At the same time, it opened the door for mammals to take over the earth. We can also see how humans been able to adapt to many kinds of ecologies because of our ingenuity. On the other hand, we see human changes have upset the balance of nature and imperil our existence,

There are some good books that describe the relationship between the environment and biological life such as Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris and A New History of Life by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvik God created the environment, and the environment created the conditions which created life and shaped it through evolution. Or God guided evolution through evolution.

We are beneficiary and victim of a two-tier world, which separates God and nature. This is wrong, but as long as we believe it we will be victims of Western dualism.

Good point. Its worth noting that AI and life are not a a one to one analogy, juste a demonstration of how randomness can be used in a designed system.

I would also say that whilst most AI’s use deterministic pseudo random generators, their is no reason why they can’t use true random generator that uses a indeterministic measurement as an input, particles from nuclear decay is a popular solution to this. The main reason why it’s not done is the cost doesn’t justify the gains.

But even the randomness of indeterministic events like those from quantum physics is only indeterministic from an observers perspective. it may not be from an actors perspective. In fact I believe this was one of your arguments for the existence of God, its definitely true that could not discretely influence a fully deterministic universe. Well i suppose he could but the logic would be so complicated that we’d both agree that Occam’s razor would need to be applied. And whilst we don’t believe that God micromanages every quantum event, we do believe he can manage them and probably determines some of them.

Ultimately the importante point is to understand that the existence randomness is not in contradiction design.

Quantum events can’t be managed and have no effect up here. There is no evidence or need for divine intervention in nature whatsoever. Even if Jesus is God incarnate, how does that necessitate any other intervention?

You got my argument the wrong way around. If God is to intervene seamlessly into the universe, then the simplest solution is to have random undetermined events that God can determine.

It is random in the “highly contingent on initial conditions” sense, the same way that weather, long-term human history, or dice rolls are. Thus “chaotic” or “contingent” might be a better term.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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