Revisiting Evolution as God's way of creating

(Shane Colburn) #1

I was just visiting a few of the older posts on this topic. Everybody seem so flippant in their view on the supposedly incongruous relationship between God’s intentionality in creating, and the process of biological evolution. From what I can tell, evolutionary creationists basically accept the Darwinian description of the evolution of life on earth. If true, as has been stated by others on here, then the process of evolution is driven by chance mutation. Here’s my concern: science seems to have arrived at a consensus with respect to the nature of mutations. A larger proportion of them are deleterious than are positive, and mutations are the culprit behind loads of diseases, malformations and grotesque deformities (some of which are lethal). So, when we point to evolution as “God’s way of creating”, aren’t we saying that God chose a way of creating that 1) didn’t have Homo sapiens in mind and 2) produces ghastly suffering and death? I mean, what does the evolutionary creationist say to a mother who’s baby was born deformed and died in her arms? “That’s how God intended it.”?

To get back to the first point, Ken Miller has repeatedly said that the evolutionary process didn’t have to produce our species. It could’ve been otherwise. How do we square that with Christian theology?

(James Stump) #2

Great questions, @Shanecolburn525. And as is usual with great questions, you’ll find different people answering them differently. I don’t think anyone at BioLogos believes that random mutations are the whole story for the development of life, but they certainly are part of the story. We affirm that God intentionally created human beings. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we had to have 5 fingers on each hand, but it does mean that we had to be capable of moral reasoning and responsibility. And increasingly we are finding that our evolutionary past prepared us for the capacities of personhood–from sociality and parental care to symbolic thinking and language. Could God have snapped his fingers and made us in one fell swoop? Yes, I think he could have, but that doesn’t seem to be his style. He seems to delight in the process (otherwise, why not just create us all in a final, perfect heaven to begin with?).

Now, that process comes with some rough stuff, as you mention. One way of responding to that is the same way as we do to other natural evils: they are by-products of processes that produce very good things. Hurricanes and tornadoes can do awful things, but if we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have a dynamic weather system that allows for life in the first place. A few weeks ago we published a story by a cancer survivor arguing basically the same thing about the process of mutation: yes, it gives rise to cancer cells, but it is what allows us to change and adapt.

So then, I think the proper characterization of these natural evils is to say that God can use them for good. That doesn’t mean God put them there on purpose to punish people, but has committed to a process that will redeem all of creation and bring good out all the bad.

This, I’m sure, doesn’t solve all the problems you mention, but perhaps it is a start.

(Dr. Ted Davis) #3

This is perhaps the “big kahuna” in the whole enterprise of Evolutionary Creation, bigger even than questions related to Adam & Eve. As Jim just said, fully satisfactory answers aren’t easy to come by–but that goes also for questions about theodicy generally, not just those related to evolution.

I wrote a couple of columns that sketch one possible route, for proponents of the EC view. Specifically, you might look at parts 3 & 4 on “Theistic Evolution” here: The Catholic theologian John Haught formulates the challenge about forcefully as it can be stated (note that he is putting it as an unbeliever might put it, for the sake of argument); see part 3 for that.

As for Ken Miller’s view of evolution and purpose–a view widely cited by opponents of the EC view (for reasons that are not hard to understand), let me suggest an alternative, from another Catholic scientist, physicist Steven Barr. Actually, Barr’s article for First Things is my personal favorite on this specific topic; I wish he’d written it for us at BL. Here it is: Note especially the final few paragraphs.

I hope this helps, at least somewhat.

The problem of absence
(Roger A. Sawtelle) #4


Shane, the problem is not evolution, the problem is death.

God created humans as mortal beings, which means that sooner or later we are all going to die, sadly some before they even begin to live.

Could God have created humans like angels, who are not born and do not die? Yes, but we would not be humans and this beautiful earth would be for nought.

Please read my essay entitled God and Freedom on for more thoughts on this difficult topic.

I see that the other commenters took up the topic of randomness also. Part of evolution is random and the other part is not. Most scientists choose to ignore this second fact and claim that the whole process is random and unguided, which it is not.

In the Biblical times they had oxen trample the harvested wheat to take off protective shell. That was the random part. Then they winnowed it by tossing the wheat and the chaff in the air. Wind blew the lighter chaff away and allowed the heavier wheat to be collected, so gravity separated the wheat from the chaff. God guides evolution through ecology.

Variation is random. Everyone is different. That is good, because diversity enables us to use our skills to their best advantage for the benefit of all. However some diversity is destructive and does not survive physically. So we take the good with the not-so-good, and praise God that the good is much better than the bad is bad.

Nobody promised us a “rose garden” and we really wouldn’t like it if that is what God gave us.

(George Brooks) #5

What a great article!!!

Here’s a Stephen M. Barr quote that needs to be PAINTED ON A BUILDING!

"Theology traditionally refers to “primary” and “secondary” causality rather than vertical and horizontal causality. We see, then, how idle it is to ask whether some species of beetle exists because it evolved or because God created it. The species of beetle evolved because God wrote the script that way. And, indeed, each individual beetle only exists because God wrote it in as one of the dramatis personae. "

That’s about as positive an affirmation of “guided” or “directed” as we are likely to see outside of these fora.

More. . .

"The Book of Wisdom declares that God “reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other and orders all things.” His providence is not just some general oversight of the world, leaving the details to be worked out by someone else. Rather, he is the direct cause of every detail of the universe, just as Shakespeare wrote every syllable of Hamlet. God orders all things, whether the falling of a sparrow or the hairs of your head, which are numbered. This is the doctrine of “particular providence,” taught by both Catholic and Calvinist. "

“Theologians distinguish between “mediate” and “immediate” providence. The former is exercised through natural secondary causes and the latter directly. God does indeed “make the little green apples,” as the song says, but he does so by making an entire process of natural growth and development occur, whereas no natural causes were at work when he turned water into wine at Cana of Galilee. Therefore, saying that something arose through natural processes in no way denies particular providence.”

". . . consider the definition given by Ernst Mayr, one of the twentieth century’s leading evolutionary biologists: “When it is said that mutation or variation is random, the statement simply means that there is no correlation between the production of new genotypes and the adaptational need of an organism in a given environment” (emphasis mine). "

"When people speak of randomness, whether in science, in other professions, or in everyday life, they are not speaking of how things in this world relate to God, but how they are related to each other; that is, they are referring to the horizontal level of causality. What is involved is the independence of various natural causes from each other, which leads to what I called “natural randomness” earlier. "

"Evolutionary history may have unfolded entirely in accordance with natural laws, natural randomness, and natural probabilities, as the great majority of biologists believe, or there may have been some extraordinary events along the way that contravened those laws and probabilities. In either case, evolution unfolded exactly as known and willed by God from all eternity. "



(Dr. Ted Davis) #6

Right you are, George, I’m glad you found this worth reading.

For a different response to Barr–a demeaning response, sad to say–you can read this:

Unfortunately this type of charge (that many Christian scientists don’t embrace ID b/c they just lack the courage and/or conviction to challenge evolution and want to be “cool” and accepted by their colleagues) is all too common. It’s as groundless as it is off base, but that doesn’t stop certain people from giving voice to it, on every possible occasion it sometimes seems to me.

From where I sit, ID or EC might or might not be true. The body of Christ will benefit from fair, open-minded exchanges of arguments and opinions. But, no one benefits from trash talk.

(Shane Colburn) #7

Thanks for the reply. I think theodicy is the “Big Kahuna” for Christian theology in general. Of course, it’s only a problem if things like “evil” are objective realities, not just nominalist abstractions or group preferences.

Now, with Barr, I’m familiar with a couple of his writings. He seems to cast God as the ultimate master of puppets. What looks random to us is ultimately nonrandom to God. Barr likes the quantum phenomena as a way for god to do it. I suppose, alternatively, Barr might also argue that, because God has perfect knowledge of the future, nothing is really left to chance. Oddly, I think Miller has made similar claims (didn’t he have a chapter called “A Universe That Knew We Were Coming”? Anyway, is that a fair statement about Barr’s argument? It’s been a while since I read that First Things article.

(Shane Colburn) #8

Okay, but you’re really evading the obvious point. It’s not death so much as “poor design” and suffering. I could remove the death aspect, and just go with hydrocephalus or something. I have a close friend with a 7 year old daughter suffering from spina bifida. Would we tell him that, “this is how God creates”?

(Shane Colburn) #9

I think one of my concerns with this “God knew how it would all go” argument is twofold: First, it allows us to look at any possible reality, no matter how heinous, cruel or malevolent, and say “God did it”. If no matter what we see, we assume (rather than conclude) that God did it, what possible evidence could be brought against the God hypothesis. I also wonder if others, like say, a Hindu, could make the same claim about Vishnu. Anyway, the second prong is simpler: In my theology, I make a distinction between what God knows and what God intends. He can know something, without that event being His desire. Right? Does He desire that I sin? No. But perhaps He knows I will. Just a thought.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10


The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.

Nobody is perfect. Everyone has a cross to bear. If we all feel sorry for ourselves because we each think our cross is heavier than the cross of others, then everyone will be depressed.

I do not find that differently gifted people are angry with God, even though I think I might be if I were in their place. I think we imagine issues that are not there when we try to justify how God does things.

God does not need our approval or justification. God does things for God’s own reasons which we trust to be good.

God also does not give people more than they can bear and is an ever present help in times of trial.

(George Brooks) #11

This is EXACTLY why I no longer “truck” with discussions about whether ID or EC is more correct.

As Barr himself points out, BOTH schools see God as the script writer for the Universe. Whether or not God wrote a script that included some non-lawful miracles or not is really not the primary issue!

On the flip side of the coin, I’m always surprised when writers try to maintain that Intelligent Design proponents are “neutral” on who the Designer is …


(GJDS) #12

It is often more difficult for some people to admit they do not now, or their understanding is very limited on topics such as ID or EC - the result is an almost endless array of opinions and arguments - such behaviour is not open-minded exchanges of well researched outlooks, and can often lead to ill conceived culture wars.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13


Ditto to all the appreciation expressed for your Barr article link. I can see why you liked it, and am glad you shared it. The “vertical” and “horizontal” way of seeing randomness was extremely helpful. His example of the license plates is brilliant. One can find randomness in the sequence of different license plates on passing cars, and yet cannot conclude from that observation that the motion of those cars is bereft of purpose or guidance. It explodes the notion that an apparent (and horizontally / statistically real) randomness at one level must equate to an ontological randomness at every level.


Those are important questions, @Shanecolburn525, and they used to baffle me a lot until I found myself in a course with a professor who really knew how to zoom in on the issues which we as laypersons struggle with. He explained to us that if we think of mutations as positive, negative, or neutral, we are missing the big picture. He likened it to the mistaken notions many people have about predators being “evil” and vegetarian animals being “nice”. Similarly, just as we may think pollinating insects are “good” (unless that bee happens to sting us) while biting insects are “bad” (such as ticks which can give us Lyme Disease.) I could develop that much further but I think you get the general idea. The judgement are very subjective and miss much of the complex networking which makes the biological world possible.

It’s similar with mutations. Is the mutation which causes Sickle Cell Anemia bad? It certainly would seem so, and yet there is much more to the story. If one inherits just ONE COPY of the Sickle Cell mutation, one enjoys a natural resistance (not complete but very helpful) to malaria, making it a “positive” mutation. But if two Sickle Cell mutation carriers should marry and have a child, that child MAY inherit a double-dose (two copies) of the Sickle Cell mutation. As a result, that child may suffer from Sickle Cell Anemia, making it a “negative” in his or her case. If I remember correctly, the mutation statistics work out in a typical population in such a way that in some African tribes, natural selection due to the survival advantages of the added resistance against malaria brings great benefit to the entire population. (After all, even if not every person has the protective mutation, they nevertheless benefit from a lower likelihood that a mosquito biting them has already been infected with the malaria microbes.) But I’ve heard that the number of people who suffer from the worst case symptoms of carrying two copies of the Sickle Cell Mutation tend to be a small percentage of African populations, for example. Yet meanwhile, those who simply have a single mutation for sickle cell trait are about 90% protected against severe or fatal malaria. So those who carry the single mutation are at least ten times less likely to suffer severely than those with no such mutation.

So is the Sickle Cell mutation good, bad, or neutral? For the 25% of the people in malaria-prone regions of Africa who carry one copy of the mutation, they are far more likely to survive malaria than the average European lacking the mutation. For the less than one percent of the population which have two copies of the mutation and have full-fledged Sickle Cell Anemia, it’s a “negative” PAIR of mutations. Yet, for those with a single copy of the mutation and who happen to live where mosquitoes are rare (e.g., Iceland), the mutation may be quite benign and be considered a “neutral” mutation.

Like most examples from the real world, the Sickle Cell mutation has many related complexities and I don’t want to oversimplify that reality. But we in that class learned that lots of mutations are a mixture of good, bad, and neutral depending upon so many complex factors. And whatever perceived status we may assign to some mutation today might in a future environmental context, or for human populations in the future, regard them differently depending upon the circumstances.

We also watched animations showing how even a huge percentage of “negative” mutations become insignificant in comparison to a small percentage of “positive” mutations as natural selection tends to reduce or even eliminate the individuals with the negative mutations, as the positive mutations multiple with each generations to become ever larger percentages of the population. It is that interplay between mutations and natural selection which explains why EVEN IF large numbers of deleterious mutations are arising, they don’t pose a major problem for evolution.

Yet, in reality, the vast majority of mutations are neutral or basically benign. And lots of “negative” mutations turn out to be not as problematic as we might first assume. For example, we humans have some “broken” DNA which prevents us from building our own Vitamin C like most other animals can do. Yet, by eating fruit and vegetables, we let those organisms build the Vitamin C for us. And if you are an Eskimo, Inuit, or of some other people group which lives in the frozen arctic where no fruits or vegetables can grow, you eat lots of RAW MEAT, because cooking would destroy the Vitamin C within the meat. So in most cases, the “negative” mutation becomes largely inconsequential—and we can even enjoy a grilled steak now and then because we got our Vitamin C elsewhere.

[We can still see the broken code in our DNA, yet another reminder of our evolution. If evolution never happened, why would an Intelligent Designer give us an almost but not quite complete copy of the genetic recipe for Vitamin C? Our DNA is filled with such relics of our evolutionary past which provides the countless nested hierarchies relating us to the rest of the Tree of Life.]

The mathematics of the mutation and natural selection interplay can be hard for many of us to visualize on our own. That’s why, @Shanecolburn525, you may want to look for similar animation webpages illustrating what we saw in class, where you can experiment with various percentages of color-coded negative and positive mutations and watch the generations go forward one-by-one. You will see how good/bad/neutral mutations fare. It will help train your sense of intuition to where you will eventually understand why even a preponderance of negative mutations would eventually become irrelevant as the positive mutations take over. I wish I could recommend one but because I saw it in the classroom as it was projected on a screen, I never felt the need to find my own animations.

While you are looking for animations which help in understanding evolution, I also recommend the various evolutionary algorithms which illustrate how very simple algorithms can design complex solutions to difficult problems, just like in the biological world of evolution. Professor Tertius on the Bible.and.Science.Forum recommends this one:

It is a great example of simplicity evolving complex designs. It convinced me that evolution may not “feel” possible until we retrain our intuition to recognize how the mathematics of evolution affirms its legitimacy.

(Benjamin Kirk) #15

Hello Salto,

This is a very good lay explanation and correction of Shane’s erroneous claim that omits the vast majority of mutations that are benign.

I would, however, offer one suggestion: a mutation is something that happens once to DNA. Instead, you are using the term to describe a particular allele. I think that it aids in understanding (I may be wrong) if that distinction is maintained. Moreover, using the correct term “sickle-cell allele” may help overcome Shane’s misconceptions, since it omits the negative (for Shane and most other laypeople) connotations of “mutation.”

In other words, a mutation happened long ago in the haemoglobin gene, and natural selection now maintains that allele as a polymorphism. In that case, even inserting the judgments implicit in calling it a “mutant allele” detract from conveying understanding.

(Jon Garvey) #16


Stephen Barr’s article is, of course, entirely consistent with classical theism and, in particular, the strong doctrine of providence going back to Aquinas and before. Whether creation is through “random” evolution or by any other means, he says, God’s providence directs all things - even individual organisms - to their ends. Therefore Darwinian evolution poses no theological problems for othodox Christians.

That inevitably leaves unanswered theodicy questions such as those raised by Shane, but that’s not surprising as the classical approach to theodicy is worlds apart from that adopted since Leibniz. But that’s another matter.

The question of the disjunction between EC and ID (having read your links and seeing that I even contributed to the 2012 ID thread) surely hinges on the failure on both sides to deal adequately with both randomness (as the purely human conception described by Barr) and providence as the universal activity of God, as also described by Barr.

On the ID side, chance is often seen (though not by someone like Dembski) as the anti-theists apparently controlling public discourse see it - as evidence of non-planning. Though Barr rightly says that scientists can’t get away with that in their science, yet by excluding popular science and textbooks he ignores the important fact that most people - including many ID supporters - learned about randomness and evolution from those very sources. Hence such IDists need to hear a clear presentation of how universal providence and phenomenological (rather than ontological) chance have always been compatible in the mainstream Christian tradition. But this also entails a robust critique of the popular presentation of the myth that “chance” = “not God”.

On the TE side, chance is often seen (though not by someone like Barr) as the as the anti-theists apparently controlling public discourse see it - as evidence of non-planning. In other words, TEs read the same textbooks and watch the same documentaries as IDists. That comes out in many discussions here, in remarks like “God did not worry how many fingers we have, or even if we were naked apes”. Either providence includes pentadactyly and hominids, or ontological chance does - in which case Barr is flat wrong. It’s also particularly shown in the theodicy question, when “natural evils” are routinely attributed to the randomness of the Darwinian process rather than God, thus effectively denying the doctrine of universal providence on which Barr’s whole argument hinges.

You cannot combine a post-Leibniz theodicy with a pre-Leibniz doctrine of providence: one or the other has to give way.

In my view, as a science-faith matter, the question of how valid Neodarwinain theory is now is a side issue; and outside the USA, so is the question of reading Genesis 1 literalistically. I’m amazed, when I take a break from interacting with US culture warriors of one stripe or another, how amenable to more sophisticated interpretations a bog-standard UK village Bible-study group is… provided they see it is the Biblical God, not some alternative, who is acting.

So, the issues that need to be worked through not as mere discussion points, but as doctrinal foundations for evolutionary creation, are those on which Barr’s presentation depends, that is the truth of universal special providence and, as an entailment of that, the clear presentation that “random” cannot mean unguided and that those textbooks or documentaries that say it does are to be clearly refuted at that point.

Otherwise, outsiders can’t be blamed for thinking "Link to Stephen Barr - fine, can’t disagree. But how come Karl Giberson seems to say something quite different about “randomness” and “freedom” and “God not responsible for cats that play with mice” and is more publicly associated with the Evolutionary Creation movement?

(Jon Garvey) #17

Regarding Shane’s original question of theodicy, I don’t see that randomness in genetics and evolution really affects the question of theodicy significantly.

As an aside (with my medical hat on) the direct link between mutated genes and disease is not nearly as simple as has been hoped. See, eg, here. Nevertheless, that still leaves the question, “How can a good God use a process that allows random bad things to happen?”

The point is that the same question could easily be asked before evolution as long as monotheism has existed. Only one Creator means everything must be traced finally back to him, rather than “Yang” or “the rivalry of the gods”. For example, in the days when disease was thought to be due to bad air, you could ask, “Why did God create bad air and expose my ailing daughter to it?”

With or without evolution, the same answers can be sought, and in both cases depend on whether you accept universal providence. If you do, then God created whatever leads to the evil, and either (a) makes the evil happen or (b) doesn’t prevent it happening. Presumably that is because he has good reasons such as the greater good, and so on. It makes no difference whether the evil is a falling roof-slate or a “random” mutation. But the answer is usually hidden in the mystery of providence, to which the only response is faith in God’s word that he is wise and loving.

If you don’t accept universal providence, you have to compromise your monotheism by suggesting some there is some rebellious creation of God beyond his control, such as a Demiurge, or randomness, or Satan, or evil humans with untrammeled free will. In that case God never wills unpleasant things actively, but only permits them. But you’re still left with the same questions of “Why then did God create the rebellious force?” Or, “Why does he permit it to operate?” And then, of course, you’re back with the same kind of answers about greater good etc as you were before, unless you go the way of deciding God is too weak to intervene.

Again, it makes no difference if the evil is the result of stray thunderbolts or something evolutionary - you can always say that the devil or sin causes the mutations associated with genetic disorder, but you’re still left asking “Why?”, only with more stages to explain than simply the hiddenness of God’s purposes.

(Shane Colburn) #18

Hi Saito. I think you’re missing some important aspects of the issue. What is the “big picture” you think most overlook? The big picture is that the life span of a species is about a millions years. Most species don’t adapt, they die out. My concern can be formalized a bit more. Using terms like “bad”, “good”, and “neutral” is really only in the context of fitness. Most mutations are either neutral, or they harm fitness. My usage of such mutations is that they are directly linked to suffering, disease, malformation and overall diminished human experience. A third aspect is that the classic Darwinian view of selection winnowing out bad mutations and keeping the good ones simply doesn’t match reality. In a given human being, there will be perhaps more than one hundred new mutations not shared with his/her progenitors. If most are neutral or deleterious, then the net effect will be genetic entropy, not advance. Do people still really think the point mutation model of evolution works as a panacea?

(GJDS) #19

Before we can undertake a serious discussion on theodicy, I am inclined to begin by examining the subject of good and evil - this pervades every aspect of human experience and activity. I also think that, since we bring in evolutionary outlooks to this, we should consider two categories: 1) natural activity and, 2) the impact of natural activity on our understanding of good and evil amongst humans.

If we feel we have provided a reasonable treatment of the subject, I suggest then, and only then, would we be in a position to discuss theodicy proper.

Discussions of good and evil as we understand it amongst human beings, have inevitably been subjective and objective. By subjective, I mean it deals with personhood and what we regard as value and worth for each individual, and also as shared values within a community. By objective, I mean we make judgements on outcomes from activities, based on the impact on ourselves and our communities. I understand the subject would require lengthy discourse (and historically this has been discussed over many centuries), and the contradictions can be great. The results from such activities and discussions have defined civilisations and cultures, and it is here that Judaeo-Christianity has made such an impact. I will leave it at this.

On aspects of nature however, it is impossible to find a good and evil concept stemming from natural activity. We are beginning to understand that as a balanced ecological system, every activity on earth would cause the planet to flourish - the only discord seems to stem from human activities.

When we move on to considering God, good and evil, we are faced with profound questions. The most serious one that I am aware of is, how can any human being discuss God within the context of good and evil, when we as human beings, have done such a poor job at understanding good and evil amongst ourselves?

Add to this that the Christian faith teaches us that whatever we may consider as knowledge of God is the result of revelation and Grace from God, and the futility of such an endeavour should become clear.

Thus we may speak of God in a limited way, and as an act of Faith, state that God is the source of all goodness, and also He is the creator of all.

And yet, the questions arising from good and evil have, at a profound level, defined us as a race and the civilisations we have created over the centuries. :grin:

(Shane Colburn) #20

On the whole, I would like to circle back around to Dr. Davis’s usage of Stephen Barr. My concern was that mutations are known (dare I say, to the point of consensus) to disproportionately produce neutral or deleterious effects (relative to positive advances). As part of that process, this means human beings are more likely to suffer for them, as opposed to benefit. Thus, my concern of disease, malformation, etc. as part of ‘god’s plan.’ I appreciate Barr’s view relative to that of Kenneth Miller. But I don’t think the usage of Barr’s grand puppet master is of aid here. Barr only establishes that “random” isn’t “random”, and that God knows all things. This seems to me to increase the burden, not lessen it. Now, rather than chance mutation really being open to explore space, each mutation is entirely known (and could not be otherwise). So, before, we could say that God uses chance mutation to explore evolutionary space, without demanding any particular mutation hurt any particular organism. Under Barr’s view, God is directly responsible for them, and operates with complete and perfect knowledge of their effects.

By analogy, it’s the difference between me accidentally striking an old woman with a gold ball, while practicing at the driving range, and me intentionally striking her. I may have been trying to improve my gold game in both cases, but one is malicious, the other is accidental.