05/28/2013 12:46 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Tornadoes, Evolution and Intelligent Design


The tornado that devastated Moore, Okla., on May 20, should have caught no one by surprise. That particular town has had a history of direct hits by tornadoes over the past 14 years. An unseasonal Oct. 4, 1998 tornado was followed by another on May 8, 1999, which, at an estimated 318 mph, was the highest tornado-generated wind speed that has ever been recorded. Those were followed by one on that hit Moore in May 3, 2003, but which was only one of some 400 or more that occurred in the USA between April 30 and May 12 of that year. Two more tornadoes hit Moore on May 10 and May 20, 2012. So this May 20 marks the sixth tornado to hit Moore within this recent period. However, it might be unfair to single out that particular town, which is only one of several suburbs of Oklahoma City. In fact, this whole metropolitan area has seen at least 149 tornadoes since people started keeping records of these events in the 1890s!

Given the above statistics, one might conclude that Oklahoma City area must be one of the most frequently targeted areas in the "tornado alley" district that characterizes the southwestern area of America's Midwest. Meteorologists explain the phenomenon as being what happens when warm humid spring air from the Gulf of Mexico tries to force its way upward through cold air flowing southeastward from the northern Rocky Mountains, causing "super-cell" thunderstorms that generate spiraling downdrafts that turn into tornadoes closer to the ground. And although tornadoes can happen in almost any place within the United States, or, for that matter, anyplace on earth, still, much like earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, it almost seems that nature, or even God, has an axe to grind or grudge especially against certain areas and whoever is unlucky enough to be there when such things happen.

But I would strongly disagree with the insurance companies and their lawyers when they describe such happenings as "Acts of God." In fact, as a convinced evolutionist, although a "theistic" one, I see a mysterious force or intelligence, which we have generally called "God," as being the ultimate cause of all else that exists. But I also see such tumultuous events as part of the creative chaos out of which life, and eventually the human race, emerged. In fact, without the quantum randomness and the messiness that accompanies it, I cannot imagine how the evolution of free creatures like us might have happened. Instead, if everything was pre-programmed to happen without any variation, we would be a race of robots, lacking the power to know, love, or even hate, in any meaningful way. In sum, you might say that, from this point of view "Without chance, there would be no choice."

Nevertheless, in view of such natural catastrophes, I would not characterize myself as a believer in what has been termed "Intelligent Design," which I see as a well-meant, but eventually self-defeating, attempt to see God's guiding hand in every major step of evolution, especially in the beginnings of life and the emergence of human beings. For if life and all that we value most couldn't have happened unless God had stepped in and intervened at crucial points -- as if otherwise nothing would happen or everything would have gone wrong -- such a view makes an infinitely wise God look something like an incompetent inventor who has to keep correcting his mistakes or constantly fixing things that aren't working as he intended.

Even more, I see another problem in the "Intelligent Design" approach. It reinforces the old "Acts of God" excuse, leaving ourselves or our own contributions to such disasters out of the picture. In fact, when considered as some kind of "Act of God," might not these tornadoes be seen as some kind of divine punishment or warning to those who, like Oklahoma's senior senator in Congress, have written off climate change as a hoax, or, even if they admit that such storms and hurricanes seem to be getting worse, yet claim that in no way are we responsible? Coming from the state that suffered the most from the disastrous "Dust Bowl" conditions back in the 1930s, total denial of the human contribution to such disasters is particularly strange. I say this because, although the triggering cause of that crisis was prolonged drought, the horrible dust storms that followed were caused by farming practices that were completely unsuited to that region even to begin with.

However, I'm not just singling out Oklahoma in this regard. The same kind of thing continues to happen in other parts of the world or even in some areas of our own country when huge swaths of forest -- one of the principal stabilizers of climate around the world -- are still being cut down at unprecedented rates. Or have we thought through the long-term consequences of the frenzy of "fracking" activity that right now seems to be America's latest obsession? Is it not just another chapter in the fossil fuel energy binge that promises to contribute even more to the global warming which allows the atmosphere to hold more moisture causing ever more violent storms? Recently, scientists have discovered that even the stratosphere over the poles is being warmed, a phenomenon which, in the northern hemisphere, is driving more cool arctic air southward to clash with that warm ocean air. And while natural gas may produce less visible air pollution than coal with its output of soot and lung-clogging fumes, the fact is that increased use of any such fossil fuels continues to contribute to CO2 levels that have already reached higher levels than have ever existed before since the appearance of the human race!

Yes, I do believe in evolution, and yet I also believe, all the more, in God. But I also believe that whatever design or intelligence that is manifested in evolution should be seen as something God expects us to use for the good of all creation. Thus, I also believe that God will ultimately hold us responsible for the devolution -- that is, the reversal or squandering of whatever evolutionary progress or advance the human race has made so far -- by short-sighted and selfish interests that care little for the well-being of future generations.