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Evolution – does God interfere?

Introduction

A recent article by Stephen J. Pope in Theological Studies (1) explores the writings of the late American Jesuit astronomer, William Stoeger SJ, whose theories of evolution echo those of Teilhard de Chardin SJ. Stoeger is one of a significant number of scholars who propose a way of thinking about faith and science known as ‘theistic evolution’(2).

These regard the world as God’s creation in a way that is fully consistent with the findings of contemporary natural science. They regard divine guidance as working in and through the normal operations of nature, both its randomness and its law-like regularities, rather than requiring supernatural interventions that violate the ordinary course of nature.

This position can be distinguished from a belief in ‘guided evolution’. Many Christians and others hold that homo sapiens, and particularly the human soul, cannot have been produced by purely natural processes, subject as they are to many contingent and random factors, such as genetic mutations. They regard as contrary to the Christian message the suggestion that human beings are nothing more than an evolutionary accident. They see this as running strongly against the Christian message that we are willed by God. Both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope) and Pope John Paul II were of this view. The latter insisted that at some distinct point God created the first human soul suitable to the first human body.

Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies that inspire them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person (3).

There are also, of course, many ‘naturalists’ who consider that the Christian claim that evolution has a purpose is untenable, firstly, because they assert that science has discredited any appeal to ‘final causes’ (teleology); and, secondly, that the role played by randomness discredits any suggestion that evolution is purposeful. However, this blog concentrates mainly on the distinction between ‘theistic evolution’ (as understood by Stoeger and others) and ‘guided evolution’.

Stoeger’s theory of ‘intrinsic directedness’

In his work, Stoeger introduced a theory of ‘intrinsic directedness’. He defines this as any system that routinely produces an end or a certain state of affairs. When he wrote about ‘evolution’ he included not only the ‘origin of species’ through genetic mutation and natural selection, but also the processes that led to massive changes within the universe that preceded the emergence of life. His basic argument is that the universe is marked by an intrinsic tendency to produce novel kinds of entities, ever greater complexity, growing interconnectedness between organisms and the environments, and an unimaginable proliferation of life forms (4).

Stoeger sketched three major phases of evolution – cosmic, prebiotic, and biotic. Each of these phases produced conditions that made it possible for the next phase to emerge. Stoeger uses the term ‘nested possibilities’ to refer to this feature of the universe. In the biotic phase the distinctive features of our planet led to the emergence of living entities, ‘hereditary replicating metabolic systems’. Organisms succeeded only when they adapted to particular environmental niches and reproduced. In his discussion of Stoeger, Stephen Pope draws on the related insights of various anthropologists, such as Augustin Fuentes and Robin Dunbar.

Fuentes developed a ‘niche construction theory’ showing the very complex ways in which central nervous systems interact with social and physical environments. The interaction of genes, culture and environment led to new possibilities for human social life. Robin Dunbar’s ‘social brain’ hypothesis holds that the increasingly complex social interactions provided a decisive stimulus for the evolution of the early humans’ outsized brains. It is likely that this is the reverse of popular belief about the evolution of the human brain. Dunbar discovered that the size of the neo-cortex in the brains of monkeys and apes correlates with the size of their social groups, the complexity of their grooming networks, and the facility with deception.

In 1976, Nicholas Humphrey of Cambridge University, stated, in an influential paper, that “the higher intellectual faculties of primates have evolved as an adaptation to the complexities of social living”. Humphrey proposed that the chief role of creative intellect is to hold society together (5).

Fuentes suggests that social relationships led to cognitive capacities that went far beyond what was functionally necessary for survival and reproduction. As Stephen Pope argues, the social brain hypothesis is a useful addition to Stoeger’s notion of inherent ‘directionality’ as it applies to human. The ‘directionality’ of evolution impelled our predecessors beyond the drive to satisfy their basic needs. Human biology is entangled with human culture. Stephen Pope quotes Howard Van Till’s assertion that God created a world with a wholeness of being that contains “all the dynamic capabilities of matter, and material, physical, and biotic systems…”

Stoeger rejected the theory of guided evolution, with its corollary of ‘intelligent design’, as poor science, but he did believe that the overall structure of the world reflects God’s design. God intentionally creates the fundamental structure of the universe in a way that would lead to the fulfilment of God’s purposes. The gradual unfolding of the potentialities built into the universe by its Creator would lead to the accomplishment of the divine purpose. Here we find strong echoes of the writings of Teilhard de Chardin SJ.

Randomness

The strongest objection to ‘purpose’ in evolution comes from considerations of randomness in the process. Stephen Pope expands on the argument of one of the principal objectors, E.O.Wilson (6).

Evolutionary processes are random in several senses. Natural history is shaped by random events like earthquakes, floods, comets, droughts, etc. For example, dinosaurs…were probably destroyed because a giant asteroid struck the planet 65 million years ago. Natural selection, the engine of evolution, operates on random mutations… Genetic variations are “random” in the sense that they emerge by accident and not in order to meet the specific needs of organisms; there is no trait-generating mechanism built into nature to assist organisms threatened by extinction. (7)

Wilson seems to suspect that theistic accounts of evolution presume that God intervenes to produce the mutations that will enable organisms to develop adaptive traits when needed. However, Stoeger understood divine providence as working in and through the randomness as well as the law-like regularities of nature. Stoeger stated:

We can conceive of God’s continuing creative action as being realized through the natural unfolding of nature’s potentialities and the continuing emergence of novelty, of self-organization, of life, of mind and spirit. (8)

Stephen Pope points out that Stoeger’s position accords with that of the International Theological Commission’s development of the concept of imago Dei in 2004. The Commission stated:

The Catholic understanding of divine causality [holds that] true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. (9)

This argument goes back a long way. When quantum theory (which maintained the inherent unpredictability of the behaviour of sub-atomic particles) was first mooted in the early 20th century, Einstein was very unhappy with it. “God doesn’t play dice”, he is quoted as saying. For the first time, as James Trefil has put it, scientists had encountered ‘an area of the universe that our brains just aren’t wired to understand’. At the heart of quantum mechanics was Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that there is no possible way of predicting where a sub-atomic particle will be at any given moment. You can only list the probability of it being there.

Einstein’s assertion is challenged in an interesting blog entitled Does God play dice? by Stephen Mackereth who comments on the ideas of David J. Bartholomew, an eminent statistician and a theologian.

Bartholomew is willing to bite the bullet and propose the rather radical thesis that God is a risk-taker: that He does in fact play dice with the universe, and the unfolding possibilities are in fact genuinely open possibilities. If God is a risk-taker, then He takes actions where “the outcome was intrinsically uncertain and which might turn out contrary to His intentions” (10)
(p.225 ,op.cit ).

To the suggestion that evolution is ‘guided’ Stephen Pope comments:

Once Christians begin to make special appeals to divine intervention or some other kind of divine interference, it is hard to see where they will stop. If God made sure that homo sapiens would appear, it is hard to resist the claim that God also arranged the earlier phase of evolution to ensure the appearance of ancestral humans, homo erectus and homo habilis.

Is there evidence of intelligence’ before homo sapiens?

Theistic evolutionists like Stoeger hold that God designed the fundamental characteristics of our universe in a way that would eventually give rise to conscious beings capable of knowing and loving God and one another. (11) Howard Van Til speaks of the “fully gifted” character of creation. (12)

In line with a long tradition in Christian thought, Pope John Paul II criticised the idea of mind as emerging from the forces of living matter as “incompatible with truth about man”. He insisted, like many Christians before him, that at some distinct point God created the first human soul suitable to the first human body. (13)

On the other hand, if consciousness is in fact a potentiality within what Stoeger calls “hereditary replicating metabolic systems” (living entities, in other words) we might expect to see some form of intelligence at work in species prior to homo sapiens. Indeed, many watchers of modern nature programmes on television, particularly those produced by David Attenborough, must marvel at the complexity of behaviours that seem hard to explain by natural selection alone, without the prompting of some ‘thought’ processes in the animals.

For instance, we see images of large voracious fish avoiding eating a certain species of small fish because they remove skin parasites from the large fish or clean their teeth. It is hard to imagine the sequence of genetic mutations that led to such behaviour without assuming that the large fish ‘figures out’ the advantages of leaving the small fish alone. Up to fairly recently many theologians, determined to maintain that animals other than man did not possess ‘intelligence’ (which might have suggested some degree of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’), relied on the supposed inability of these animals to use tools. Any suggested example of tool use was explained away, usually by positing instead inherited instinct, embedded by natural selection.

Nowadays a cursory glance at a Wikipedia article on tool use by animals will reveal literally hundreds of examples of animals, birds, fish, and even insects using tools, for instance using sticks to dig out insects from awkward places, and showing adaptation of tool use to different and novel challenges. In fact, many primates display much more complex behaviours than tool use, particularly involving social skills.

Rumbaugh and McDonald describe one very striking example of two chimpanzees in captivity. One animal called Austin was bullied by another called Sherman. However, Sherman was afraid of the dark, and Austin learned how to exploit this. Austin would slip outside at night and make noises on the wall of the sleeping room as if some intruder was trying to break in. Then Austin would slip back in and proceed to peer out as if trying to locate the source of the sounds. All this induced fear in Sherman. When frightened like this, Sherman would turn to Austin for comfort. Over time the bullying stopped. As the researchers explain it, Austin seemed to have the capacity to predict that his own behaviour would suggest ‘intruder present’ in the brain of Sherman.

Nicholas Humphrey has argued that a primate living in a complex social environment must be able, in effect, to read the mind of another animal. G.C. Gallup, in experiments with mirrors, demonstrated convincingly that chimpanzees and gorillas had a clear concept of ‘self’ and learned to recognize themselves in a mirror, using it to observe themselves picking food from their teeth, making faces, or blowing bubbles. (14)

Apposite here is Stephen Pope’s comment, “Stoeger’s work prompts us to ask whether we might think about the emergence of the mind from “the forces of living matter” in ways that do no in fact undercut the “truth about man”. Can we understand emergence in a way that avoids implying that the human mind is nothing more than an arrangement of “the forces of living matter.”(15)

Randomness and popular spirituality

Although Stoeger’s account of evolution, even if controverted, seems compatible with Christian thought, he does not develop every point, and a reader may be left with some unanswered questions, particularly about randomness, and if, and how, randomness operates in our lives as members of homo sapiens.

For many Christians, the question arises: If there was randomness in the evolution of homo sapiens, did it end at that point, or are all the events of our own lives totally random too? To turn on its head a point made by Stephen Pope, if some theologians deny divine intervention in evolution, it is hard to see where they will stop. It is hard to imagine God saying, “That’s homo sapiens created by a random process, now it’s time for me to get back to work”. Mackereth comments:

Of particular worry for Bartholomew (pp.228-9 op.cit) is the doctrine of the incarnation. The eternal second person of the Trinity entered into time as Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, so that His perfect human life and innocent death might rescue the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from our exile. Under Bartholomew’s proposal, entering into time means entering into the domain of chance, and outside the domain of God’s total control. Choosing the Incarnation as the means of bringing about our salvation therefore seems like a tremendous risk. Is it impious to ask whether things could have gone wrong with Jesus, such that God might have had to try a second time?

More radically, this suggestion of total randomness, not only in the process of evolution up to the emergence of man, but beyond it, seems to call into question the whole tradition of Judaeo-Christian spirituality and popular piety. It is hard to find support in the Bible for the view that God has left us to the mercy of random forces. The recurring theme is a God that looks over us all the time, and is constantly present to his creation:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?/ If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!/ If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,/even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me… (Psalm 139, RSV)

The same theme is found throughout the New Testament, that of an ongoing personal relationship with a caring God:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows. (Mt.10:29-31, RSV).

This personal relationship with God is reflected particularly in the constant exhortation of Jesus to pray, – prayer is mentioned about sixty times in the New Testament. Implicit in the notion of prayer is friendship with God and hope of his assistance in times of need.

At the same time, there are several passages in the Bible which suggest a degree of randomness in the world. In Luke Ch.13 Jesus asks, “…those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others…? In Mt. Ch. 5, Jesus says that the Father who is in heaven makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. In the Old Testament, there are also suggestions of randomness, such as in
Ecclesiastes Ch. 9:

…one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good man, so is the sinner…This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all…

What is called for here, in the apparent conflict of science and spirituality, is a theology that provides some ‘accommodation’ between the seeming randomness that we all experience in life (especially in the matter of serious accidents and ‘natural’ disasters) and the consciousness or hope we have of a loving God looking after us. Without such an ‘accommodation’, a radical theory of randomness represents an unacceptable challenge to the faith and spirituality of most Christians.

God’s omnipresence, the unknowability of God and world, grace, and free will

Stoeger refers in many places to ‘the elemental forces of nature’ that inevitably give rise to more complex entities. But he does not discuss the nature of matter. It seems central to his theory that matter cannot be regarded as a lifeless godless ‘substance’, but rather that God is omnipresent in his creation. As we learned in the catechism: “God is everywhere”. There is no place to which God’s knowledge and power do not extend. God is transcendent to His creation and yet immanent in relating to creation. He cannot be excluded from any location or object in creation, including prime matter; his presence is also continuous throughout all of creation. As Stoeger says, the Creator is continually sustaining the ongoing operation of the natural world. God achieves the divine purposes through the undirected unfolding of the possibilities built into the initial framework of creation. (16) Stoeger did not completely reject the claim that indications of divine purposes are present within our natural world, though he denied that unaided reason is equipped to detect them. (17)

One of the problems besetting this discussion is the way we tend to talk and think about ‘God’. There can be a lot of what Walter Kasper has called “easy chat about God”, where we talk about God as if he were an object like other objects. It is implicit in the answer in the catechism given to the question “Who made the world?” that God could not be just another ‘being’, since that would lead immediately to a further question: “And who made God?” and so on to infinity. This led one celebrated Christian writer of the 5th century, Pseudo-Dionysius, to declare that it is not correct to say that God ‘exists’. “Knowledge is limited to what exists; now as the cause of all being, God does not exist, or rather God is superior to all oppositions between being and non-being”. God is unknowable as an ‘object’. We can only say what God is not, rather than what God is.

Indeed, not only is God unknowable, but, increasingly, aspects of our physical world seem unknowable also. Earlier, we mentioned quantum physics. Bill Bryson discusses the celebrated case of the behaviour of pairs of photons (sub-atomic particles), noted first in 1924. All such particles have a quality called spin. It is possible to separate the two particles. But the moment you determine the spin of one particle, its sister particle, no matter how distant away, will immediately (not just in the time it takes light to travel) begin spinning in the opposite direction and at the same rate. In one experiment in 1997 such particles were separated by seven miles and the same effect was observed. No one has ever explained this ‘feat’. It upset Einstein because it violated the special theory of relativity according to which nothing (‘information’ in this case) could outrace the speed of light. The physicist Yakir Aharonov, said that scientists have dealt with this particular problem “by not thinking about it.”(18) And who can understand Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity? Stephen Hawking comments:

The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time…In the theory of relativity, there is no unique absolute time, but instead, each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (19)

However, back to randomness: when human beings became part of God’s world, there had indeed to be a huge change in the way that randomness dominated the unfolding world. This is not much explored by Stoeger, though he does refer to our capacity for free choice and to grace.  In the Bible, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”.

From the beginning God communicated with man, thus, we might say, impinging on the operation of randomness. The books of Genesis and Exodus feature a continuous conversation between God and man. In Exodus 33, we read that when Moses was in the tent of meeting “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend”.Not only did God communicate with man in various ways, but man could communicate with God in prayer, and, in biblical theology, prayer is always answered in some way.

But the most important way in which God interacted with man was through the gift of his grace, which was nothing less than a participation in the life of God. And grace brought real change, again apparently impinging on the operation of the randomness of the created world. As St. Pauls says in 2 Titus 2: 11-12, “For the grace of God has appeared… training us to renounce irreligion and world passions, and to live sober, upright and godly lives in the world”.

It seems certain that a great degree of randomness still exists in the world, that towers of Siloam still fall on the innocent, but in some way, God accompanies us through this randomness and is in some way present in this randomness. There are many unanswered questions about this: Why does God rely on random processes ‘to keep the world going round’? Why does God not intervene more often in the tragedies and disasters that happen randomly in the world? We simply don’t know because we don’t and can’t understand God. St. Augustine said that if we think we do, it is something else we understand, but not God.

Canadian theologian Chris Barrigar makes some useful observations in this area. (20) He notes that the main objection that is proposed to randomness in God’s creation is that it would supposedly compromise God’s sovereignty. Firstly, it would limit God’s ability to know future outcomes in Creation; and it would inhibit God’s ability to act on Creation from time-to-time to direct the outcome of nature’s processes. In effect, the argument goes, randomness is incompatible with having a purpose.

Barrigar counters this objection with the observation that to say that “randomness would compromise God’s sovereignty” is itself to make a claim that limits God’s sovereignty. If God chooses to use randomness for his purposes that is his prerogative. We sometimes use randomness for our own purposes, for instance, they are used in lotteries and in encryption, or for the shuffle operation on a CD player. It would be a bold claim to say that God cannot employ randomness too. Going further, Barrigar quotes physicist Peter Fuller: “Without the chaos of the molecular storm [at the cellular level], the molecular motors in our cells would not move and we would be dead.” (21)

The possible implication that God can limit himself in some way (in this case by employing randomness) is a much-controverted area of theology. But John Henry Newman, commenting on Darwin’s theory, stated: “I do not see that the accidental evolution of organic beings is inconsistent with divine design – It is accidental to us, not to God.” (22)

Another apparent breach in the randomness of the world, and one that has a huge impact on our planet, is that, with the advent of humans, free will came into the world. By no means is every decision we make in life an exercise of free will; there are many factors that push people and groups to behave in certain predictable ways. Nor does everyone say they believe in free will. But, in surveys, about 70% of people say they do. The problem for many of the other 30% is that most of them believe in determinism; meaning that every event and action, even at the level of the human brain, has a physical cause, and they find that incompatible with belief in free will.

Nevertheless, all societies and cultures act as if they believe in free will, as is illustrated by the many condemnations uttered in the courts and in the tabloids. Most of us accept that many of the tragic features of our planet, as well as many of the good, are caused by free human choices, rather than being a matter of chance. Of course how free will happens is a mystery, though religious believers will rely on the belief that humans have a spiritual element so that their actions cannot be determined by physical causes alone.

Conclusion

Stoeger’s analysis was designed to show that the evolution of species could be understood as taking place through a combination of random processes and law-like regularity, without the necessity of divine intervention at critical junctures. His key concept is what he calls ‘intrinsic directedness’, a characteristic of any system (here the unfolding of the cosmos) that routinely produces a particular state of affairs. His contribution is particularly valuable in that it provides a framework through which much of the work and insights of ‘naturalistic’ evolutionists can be appreciated, while still maintaining that God is not absent from the process of evolution. His analysis leaves many wider questions unanswered, most commencing with “Why did God…?”. However, all alternatives to Stoeger’s theory leave just as many similar, and unanswered, questions.

Footnotes

[1] Stephen J. Pope, ‘Does Evolution Have a Purpose?  The Theological Significance of William Stoeger’s Account of “Nested Directionality”.  Theological Studies, Vol 78(2) 462-482.

[2] The terms ‘theistic evolution’ and ‘guided evolution’ used by Stoeger are not universally accepted terms and are sometimes even used interchangeably.  However, ‘guided evolution’ is generally used in relation to greater or lesser direct divine intervention in the evolutionary process, particularly in relation to the creation of the human soul.  ‘Theistic evolution’ sees God as setting evolution, with all its potentialities, in motion, but not interfering thereafter.

[3] John Paul II, “Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution”, 1996.

[4] See S. Pope, Op.Cit. p.465.

[5] Quoted in Halliday and Hall (eds), Behaviour and Evolution, Springer/Open University, 1998.

[6] E. O. Wilson, From So Simple a Beginning:  The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin (New York: Norton.2005)

[7] Stephen Pope, Op.Cit. 476-7.

[8] Stoeger, “Describing God’s Action in the World in the Light of Scientific Knowledge” in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. R.J. Russell et al (Vatican Observatory, 1998), 249.

[9] ITC ‘Communion and Stewardship – Human Persons Created in the Image of God’.

[10] The page reference is to Bartholomew’s God, Chance and Purpose: Can God Have it Both Ways?

[11] Stephen Pope, Op.cit.464.

[12] Quoted by Pope, Op.cit. 469

[13] John Paul II address on evolution Oct. 1996.

[14] All examples related in Hall and Halliday, Behaviour and Evolution, Springer/The Open University, 1998, 206 et seq

[15] Stephen Pope, Op.cit., 479.

[16] Stephen Pope, op.cit., 464.

[17] Stephen Pope, op.cit., 471

[18] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Everything, Black Swan 2016 (reissue), 189-191

[19] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988, 37-38.

[20] In Blogs (https://www.csca.ca/category/news/blogs)

[21]Peter Hoffman, Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos (Basic Books, 2012),72.

[22] Letter of John Henry Newman to J. Walker of Scarborough, 1868.

About Pat Coyle

Pat Coyle is Director of Communications for the Irish Jesuits. Her academic background was mainly in philosophy, and a great part of her professional background was as a journalist, producer and presenter with RTE, BBC and UTV. She is a mother of two.