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Michael Ruse

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Darwinism and the Problem of Evil

Posted: 03/14/11 12:37 PM ET

Karl Giberson, a physicist on the faculty at Eastern Nazarene College, and Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, have a new book out, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. Given that they are both committed Christians, as well as totally convinced that modern science is essentially right and good, the book is intended to defend Christianity against the critics who argue that science and religion are incompatible. Expectedly, it has got all of the junior New Atheists jumping with joyous ire, and all over the blogs are stern condemnations: "this is not a good book"; "the authors's [sic] frequently murky prose"; "I was struck by just how unserious they are on this issue." You get the idea.

I am not about to defend Giberson and Collins -- although I do think that the latter, a man whose life is devoted to the welfare not just of his fellow Americans but of human beings everywhere, has in the past, because of his faith, been subject to criticisms that strike me as vitriolic to the point of obscenity. (And if you think I am referring to the treatment in Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, you would not be far wrong.)

In fact, my suspicion is that some of the Giberson-Collins arguments simply don't work. I have expressed before my worry that the randomness of the Darwinian process of evolution poses an insuperable difficulty for the Christian claim that humans necessarily had to appear as part of God's plan. Giberson and Collins endorse the suggestion by Simon Conway Morris that the existence of ecological niches that more than one organism occupies -- marsupials and placental both occupied the saber-tooth tiger niche -- shows that niches exist independently of organisms themselves. Hence, since we humans occupy the cultural niche, even if we had not some organism would have done so at some point and that is enough to get the Christian story up and running. But I am not sure that niches do exist independently of organisms -- there is a good argument for saying that organisms have a creative hand in the business of niche making -- and even if they do (exist independently) then I do not see a guarantee that the cultural niche would get occupied. If the dinosaurs had not been wiped out, might they not have stood forever as a barrier to mammals getting to culture?

Where I do want to defend Giberson and Collins is over the problem of evil. Let me say that I am not sure that the problem of evil -- how could a loving, all powerful God allow evil -- can be solved. I am with the chap in the Brothers Karamazov who said that even if everything is good in the end, the cost is not worth it. My salvation, Mother Teresa's salvation, is not worth the agony of Anne Frank and her sister in Bergen-Belsen. It just isn't. But I am not sure that biology, Darwinian evolutionary biology, exacerbates it.

Darwin thought it did.

"With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.-- I am bewildered.-- I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."

(This from a letter written a few months after the Origin of Species was published in 1859, addressed to his great American supporter, and sincere Christian, Asa Gray.)

I suspect that, if anything, Darwinism speaks positively to the problem of evil. In the case of moral evil, evil brought on by humans such as Auschwitz, the classic response is couched in terms of free will. Better that we have free will and do evil than otherwise. At the least, Darwinism suggests that humans have a dimension of freedom not possessed by lower organisms like ants. They truly are genetically determined, doing what they do because their genes dictate things. Which is just great for ants -- they can build nests and so forth without any education. But if things go wrong -- rain wipes out the pheromone trails they use to find their food and return to the nest -- then thousands are killed. Mother ant (the queen) can afford this because she has lots of offspring. We humans have but a few but invest a lot of care in them. We cannot afford to lose our kids every time it rains. So we have built-in abilities to deal with crises and problems. This is part of our biology. We are as lawbound as the ants, but we have an evolutionarily conferred dimension of freedom above raw genetic determinism. In short, biology helps to flesh out the Christian's demands about freedom.

In the case of physical evil, the dreadful earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the traditional Christian answer, for all that Voltaire parodied it, is that of Leibniz -- working by law results in good things and bad things, but overall the good outweighs the bad. God is constrained in what He does and in total He does the very best possible. Now of course there are questions about whether God had to create through law, although if He had not done so, it would be a very different world (and not arguably better) than the one we have now. For a start, He would have had to eliminate the thousands of pieces of evidence of evolution, or He would be a deceiver along the lines that Philip Gosse rather foolishly welcomed in the nineteenth century (on the grounds that God was testing our faith).

But supposing that God did (and had to) create through law, then Richard Dawkins of all people offers a piece of candy to the Christian. Dawkins argues that the only physical way to get organic adaptation -- the design-like nature of living beings -- is through natural selection, that very painful mechanism that worried Darwin! Other mechanisms are either false (such as Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics) or inadequate (such as saltationism, change by sudden jumps). In other words, although Darwinism does not speak to all cases of physical evil -- the earthquakes -- it does speak to the physical evil that it itself is supposed to bring on. It is Darwinism with suffering, or nothing.

As I said, in respects I am inclined to go for nothing. But that is not the same as saying that the Christian should drop his or her faith because science makes it untenable. So, for all of the excited criticisms of the New Atheists, I am going to give Karl Giberson and Francis Collins a bit more lease on life.