The shock and awe of creation

Are God and evolution really incompatible? Not if you examine the question carefully.
Leslie Tomory | Dec 29 2009 | comment  

Evolution is almost alone among scientific ideas in the degree of controversy it generates. Part of the reason for this is, of course, that it can be more than a scientific theory, capable of expansion to include philosophical claims about the existence of God or human nature. Even if restricted to the material order, evolution inevitably has consequences for religion, as its claims must influence our understanding of the process of creation, and of human nature. The anthropological and theological implications of evolution are so profoundly felt by many that it is rare to find people who do not have an opinion on the subject.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to find people lacking a specialist background in biology willing to hold opinions that contradict those of the overwhelming majority of biologists. This is a remarkable fact. Few indeed are the well-established fields of scientific inquiry that experience such popular resistance. The resistance to evolution is, furthermore, not limited to a fringe of young earth creationists. There have also been objections to evolution put forward on sophisticated philosophical grounds.

The science of evolutionary biology is very well established, and the residual tension between religion and evolutionary biology harms both.

Here, I explore the ongoing debate over evolution. In the first part, I look at the varied meanings of the word "evolution" explore the nature of the debate. I claim that simply recognizing that there are multiple layers of meaning inherent in how evolution is characterized and described would go a long way to solving its problematic meaning for many religiously-minded people.

In the second part, I propose some key philosophical points that I believe are essential for reconciling a scientific theory of evolution with a Christian belief in creation in the context of Thomistic philosophy. In the course of this discussion, I take for granted that evolution has been demonstrated on the basis of solid and ever-expanding evidence.

What does "evolution" mean?

The notion of evolution in popular use contains four key ideas, and distinguishing among the most important of these helps to understand the nature of the controversy about evolution, and, I think, can help many to accept its scientific claims. Among these ideas, one is philosophical, while the other three belong properly to the science of biology. These three scientific ideas are common descent, the pace of evolutionary change, and the mechanisms underlying evolutionary change.

Common descent is the most basic claim of evolutionary theory, which is that every living thing on earth is part of a single family tree. The evidence for this comes less from the fossil record, although it is present there, than from homology among the structures of living beings. It is difficult to conceive of any explanation other than common descent for shared genetic coding of both proteins and in many cases non-translated nucleic acid sequences, such as the segments which mark the boundaries of genes on DNA strands or control how they are expressed. Homology is also evident in large scale structures in living things, such as in the bone structures of the limbs of tetrapods. The evident similarity found among all living species demonstrates a relationship between them, and this relationship is effectively explained by common descent from a shared ancestor. The most basic idea of evolution is, then, a consequence of accepting common descent. It is indeed impossible to conceive of any idea that could possibly explain homology that is not contrived.

How and at what pace evolution occurs are the next two scientific ideas subsumed in evolution. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, of course, independently proposed natural selection as a mechanism of evolutionary change, but they were not the first to explore possible mechanisms. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had proposed the inheritance of acquired characteristics many decades before, and a number of other mechanisms would gain a following in the second half of the nineteenth century. The most important of these were mutation theory, which was developed by Hugo de Vries and focused on discontinuous variation in evolution in contrast to Darwin’s gradualism, as well as orthogenesis, which held that the direction of evolutionary change was inherent in living beings and not subject to selective pressures.

The 20th century has seen other possibilities suggested, the most important of which is genetic drift by Motoo Kimura in 1968. Kimura argued on the basis of evidence gathered from studies in molecular biology that the rate of change found on the molecular level was too high to be accounted for by natural selection alone, and that therefore a good deal of change is not acted upon by selection, meaning that a significant portion of molecular evolution takes place as neutral drift. These evolutionary changes coming from drift can be either beneficial, deleterious, or neutral. It is now accepted that natural selection and genetic drift together are the dominant mechanisms of evolutionary change, although Lamarckism is once again being considered as heritable epigenetic changes have been observed. These mechanisms explain only the material process by which evolution occurs, and not the ultimate causes of evolution.

The final concept contained within the notion of evolution is the pace of evolutionary change. Although gradualism was dominant in Darwin’s thinking, the second half of the 19th century witnessed the rise of other opinions regarding the pace of evolutionary change, the most important of which was mutation theory’s large jumps. The rediscovery of genetics, with its emphasis on clearly distinct expression of genes, gave further impetus to mutation theory’s jumps. This changed, however, with the forging by Theodosius Dobzhansky among many others, of the modern or neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1930s. This united Darwinian mechanisms with Medelian genetics and the study of population dynamics. Gradualism was once again the dominant opinion, although it was somewhat modified in the 1970s.

It was at this point when Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould put forward their theory of punctuated equilibrium, which argued that evolution proceeds by bursts, followed by long periods of stasis. Their arguments were based on observations of the fossil record which seems to indicate that on the whole, evolution proceeds in this uneven way. The bursts should not, however, be understood as occurring in a few generations. Rather, these bursts are only rapid when considered on geological time scales spanning millions of years, and speciation events occur over thousands of generations, making punctuated equilibrium a form of gradualism.

Is evolution necessarily atheistic?

These three scientific ideas subsumed within the notion of evolution do not contain any materialistic or atheistic philosophy in themselves, which is the fourth idea sometimes contained within the term evolution. This atheistic notion, which I call evolutionism, is a philosophy that claims that the material process of evolution dispenses with the need for a creator. It argues that evolution demonstrates that humans are not in any way special, that we are merely the products of a material process, and therefore are fundamentally material in nature. The science of evolution, according to this philosophy, has replaced the need for a divine creator, and postulates that there is no necessity in the emergence of humans. We would then be solely the products of material forces, and are completely contingent on them. It is therefore erroneous to believe that we somehow hold a necessary and central place in the universe in which we live, or that, by implication, we exist by the express will of a creator.

There are, of course, many people, among them prominent scientists, who have claimed and continue to claim that the scientific notions of evolution do indeed necessarily imply such a materialistic philosophy. Richard Dawkins is among the most vocal proponents of such a philosophy, arguing that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist". This strident atheism does not, however, help their scientific work in any way, and on the contrary, is the source of so much of the controversy that rages over it.

It is a fundamental mistake, however, to accept their bundling of the three scientific evolutionary ideas with what I have termed evolutionism. Rather, a more sophisticated response would be to show that the three scientific notions in any form are compatible with theistic philosophy.

In many cases, however, the reaction of religious believers to the materialistic claims of evolutionism is not to simply reject the assertion that evolutionism necessarily follows from scientific ideas. Rather, they tacitly or unconsciously accept the bundling of evolutionism with the science, and then see no option but to attack a part or all of the scientific ideas of evolution as a way of cutting the support for the philosophical claims of evolutionism.

In doing so, however, they find themselves in the awkward situation of attacking a solidly established science, ultimately motivated not by objections to the science per se, but by the illicit bundling of evolutionism with the science.

Young earth creationists are the first and crudest variant of this reaction, but they are by no means the only one. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement accepts common descent to varying degrees, but rejects the established mechanisms of evolutionary change. The arguments of ID proponents are structured in the way I have outlined. Reacting to evolutionism, they have chosen to go on the attack against natural selection and genetic drift. They recognize that common descent is evident and they accept it.

It is clear, however, that their motivations are at least partially to recreate a place for God in a science of evolution. This is an effort that I believe is futile, and has been adequately refuted. We must bring God into evolution not on the order of material causality, as ID hopes to do, but on a philosophical level. It is to this question that I now turn.

Philosophical resistance to evolution

It is far better to reject the bundling of evolutionary biology with evolutionism than to wage a war over the minutiae of evolutionary biology

How can theistic philosophy and evolution taken in its established scientific sense be reconciled? Or are those who bundle evolutionism with the science correct? It is in fact many religiously-minded people who argue that it is not possible to effect such a reconciliation, and put forward philosophical arguments against it. I believe that such a reconciliation is indeed possible, and that there are six key philosophical points that need to be considered for this reconciliation to take place. These are: contingency, final causality, divine providence, primary and secondary causality, and order. What I present here is the bare outline of what such a reconciliation could look like, recognizing that its brevity cannot do it full justice.


One concern that religious people have regarding evolution is that somehow, it makes us simply into products of chance, or more specifically, that evolution shows that our existence is dependent on events that could very easily not have happened. An asteroid striking the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs so many million years ago is just the most dramatic of such contingent events which influenced the evolutionary history of life on earth that ultimately produced us. There are uncountable other events that, had some conditions been slightly different, we would simply not be here.

This question of randomness and historical contingency, which has frequently been the subject of debate in the context of a theistic approach to evolution, touches on this point. If the processes which at least in part drive evolutionary change are random, does this not remove any possibility that humans are the product of a divine will?

An evolutionary demonstration of the radical contingency of our existence is not, however, problematic from a theistic point of view. On the contrary, in traditional Christian philosophy, the entire universe, including man, has been seen as philosophically contingent, meaning that it is possible that it not exist. There is only one necessary being, and that is God. In this sense, any scientific demonstration of the radically contingent nature of our existence can be seen as a scientific proof of a concept that has long been part of Christian philosophy: it is or was possible that we not be. There is then no need to resist the contingency that evolution demonstrates.

There are some who have argued that the chance element of evolution is somehow atheistic by its very nature. While it is certainly possible to claim that the randomness of events in the evolutionary history of life on earth lies outside of divine providence or excludes the possibility of providence, this is not part of the science of evolution, being a claim that is of its very nature a philosophical one. The mathematics of randomness in evolutionary biology is no different than that found in so many other sciences, such as quantum mechanics or gas dynamics. If evolutionary science is atheistic because it makes use of statistics, than so is much of the rest of modern science.

It is, however, a mistake to think that divine providence functions always through necessary causes, as most of the time it functions through contingent ones. One further problem with the view that the scientific randomness of evolution entails atheism is that it implies that the action of divine providence is somehow detectable by statistical analyses. This, however, is problematic, not the least because no one claims that the current state of our statistics as applied in the sciences completely describes all causality in the material world, let alone detecting the action of divine providence.

Final causality

Final causality has lurked behind many of the arguments against evolution coming from religious believers. William Paley made famous the watchmaker argument, which is the best-known form of an argument based on final causes. Paley in fact borrowed the argument from the Dutch philosopher Bernard Nieuwentyt, and it has been rehashed in many forms since, most recently by proponent of ID with their argument from irreducible complexity.

The basic form of the argument from final causes runs like this: since complex biological systems are composed of different parts coming together for specific purposes, and since such a construction of parts can only be the product of a mind designing this system to meet a particular purpose, then a complex biological system, like any system where parts come together for specific ends, must be the product of a willful and intelligent designer. Biological systems, and hence living beings, cannot therefore be the product of any process that does not originate from a willful and intelligent agent having a specific end in view. Any claim that evolution as a material process is a cause of the finality of biological systems is therefore incorrect.

The irreducible complexity argument goes further and claims that since parts of micro-biological systems serve no function except as in a complete system, they cannot have evolved gradually, as a half-formed system is useless and cannot be acted upon by selection. Therefore the whole system must be the product of an intelligent designer.

The flaw in the argument from final causes lies in the second premise: that final causality is always the product of a willful and intelligent designer. The key point is to recognize that it is an undemonstrated assumption that every system in which some form of final causality is present must necessarily be an object constructed by a willful and intelligent agent.

This, however, is an invalid assumption because it makes no distinction between the type of final causality found in biological systems and that found in human-made artefacts. Anything made by human hands has an external or extrinsic final causality: it is made to serve a purpose external to itself, such as a chair for sitting on. Biological systems, however, typically exist for an internal or intrinsic purpose: they help the creature which possesses the systems in question to survive and thrive in some way. For example, horses have not evolved saddles.

Having made a distinction between the kinds of final causality, it is also possible to accept that they can have different sources. Evolutionary theory, and natural selection in particular, is a demonstration that the internal final causality of biological systems does not have an intelligent and willful agent as their source. There is, furthermore, significant evidence that biological systems are co-opted to perform different functions than they originally evolved to fill, often losing parts in the process, and that therefore the internal final causality of biological system changes as evolution proceeds. A clear case of this is limbs. Their uses vary from wings for flying and swimming among the birds, to grasping among primates, and walking in many species. Such change in function also occurs on smaller scales as well, such as with the components of the flagellum, which are homologous with toxin injection systems in some bacteria.

A further problem with an argument from final causes is that it assumes that the system in its current form is a reflection of its evolutionary history. That is, it assumes that the biological system has been built like a watch, with the designer putting together the final product from parts based on a blueprint. As the changing use of systems demonstrates, however, biological systems are not watches built from scratch for a single purpose. Their uses change with evolution, and as this happens, newly useless parts disappear, and the current form of new systems no longer reflect their evolutionary history.

There is a somewhat different, less mechanistic, and more philosophical form of the argument from final causes. Based on Aristotelian philosophy, it is sometimes argued that evolution as a material process cannot be the cause of the capabilities or potencies found in living beings. Animals have greater capabilities than plants because they have senses and are able to know things. Plants lack these powers, but are able to reproduce and grow, unlike the non-living world. Greater capabilities, however, cannot be given by an agent or force that does not already possess those same capabilities, and evolution as a purely material and non-living process cannot be the cause of life, of growth, of sensory awareness and of the mental faculties of animals. One needs a cause that is somehow proportional to its effects, and evolution, as a material force, is not proportional to the effects it supposedly brings about.

As with the argument based on final causes, the flaw here lies in the assumption that evolution, as a material force lacking the capabilities it confers on animals, cannot be the cause of these powers. If one strictly holds to this assumption, then evolution is an a priori impossibility, no matter what science may tell us. This, however, is a dangerous situation to be in, especially as the source of this assumption is the Aristotelian philosophy that has been modified many times in the face of the growth of scientific knowledge. This philosophy held the perfection of the heavenly spheres, the immovability of the earth, and the existence of the four fundamental elements of fire, air, earth, and water. These ideas and more were set aside in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary coming from astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Likewise, the science of evolutionary biology demonstrates that it is possible to acquire these capabilities by the ordering forces at work in evolution. The study of emerging complexity is an important and growing element of how such highly ordered systems can emerged through the action of evolutionary forces, although much work still needs to be done.


Does evolution do away with the continuing action of God in creation? If evolution is a sufficient cause to explain life on earth, at least in its material form (ie, excluding the human soul), then have we banished God from creation, like the deists of the 18th century did? Is there any room for divine providence in an evolutionary view, which excludes a willful designer on the material order?

Traditionally, a distinction has been made between extraordinary and ordinary divine providence. Extraordinary providence is a miraculous intervention of God, whereby the ordinary proceedings of the universe are suspended by a direct divine intervention in the world. The ordinary providence of God, however, is his will acting in the world through the causality inherent to this world, and completely according to its nature.

Because of this, it is totally hidden in any local sense, meaning that no scientific experiment can discover the ordinary providence of God. Our own human experience of the action of God in this world is through this ordinary providence. Very rare are people who claim to experience miracles, but surely believers do not deny divine action in our lives because we do not have much experience with the extraordinary providence of God. Indeed, for most people, God must be found in his ordinary providence, and seeking him elsewhere will inevitably result in disappointment.

In addition, the ordinary providence of God is no less wonderful and beautiful than his extraordinary providence, and in many ways evolution, as part of the ordinary providence of God, demonstrates this. We can be in awe of the beauty of the living world in its micro and macro scales, without having to claim that they are products of the extraordinary providence of God. Indeed, it increases the awe believers can feel when confronted with biological systems if we can understand them as products of the ordinary providence of God acting through evolution.

Primary and secondary causality

If evolution is a sufficient explanation for life on earth, does this mean that there is no place for God in this process? This exclusion is valid only if we understand God as a secondary cause. A problem with seeing God as functioning in an anthropomorphized way to create biological systems and species by miracles is that it reduces his creative action to functioning on the order of secondary causality.

As I have discussed above, God in general does not function through his extraordinary providence, as our own experience suggests. Rather, he respects the nature of his creation and allows it to function according to that nature. His action in the world is not, however, excluded because of this respect he has for his creation. Rather, he is able to function through the nature of his creation, and he raises its dignity by having it participate in his will according to its nature, as he does in our own lives. God wants to act through us, without removing the dignity we derive from being real causes. He wants to act through us precisely so that we can have the dignity of being real causes.

When God functions in this way, working through and respecting the nature of the universe he has created, he functions as the ultimate cause of things by holding them in being and guiding the course of events according to his ordinary providence. Trying to make God into a secondary cause, whereby he sets aside the laws of the universe to create the first flagellum or ostrich is fraught with difficulty, both scientifically and philosophically.

On one hand, there is the God of the gaps problem: one’s belief in God is threatened when an "ordinary" secondary cause is found to explain a problem that God was being made use of to explain. On the other, there is the problem of trying to explain why God is such a strange designer: he seems to act as if he is a material biological process, leaving behind a messy trail of vestigial organs, inefficiency, brutality and disease. When God is understood as the primary cause of being, these problems disappear, or at least move to a different order. We do not need to ascribe the limitations of evolution to God, just as we do not need to ascribe human limitation to God, even though he wants to use us as his instruments.


Another frequently proposed philosophical argument against evolution is based on order. The argument has many forms, but basically it proceeds from the highly ordered nature of biological systems. They are very complex, and function very well under many different environmental conditions. They are so highly ordered that science is continually exposing further levels of complexity in their functioning. If we cannot yet even approach creating systems of such complexity and order, then surely it is foolishness to believe that such systems are the product of the material forces of evolution. Many times, it is claimed that this argument is exactly what Thomas Aquinas was arguing in his fifth proof for the existence of God.

The order of the universe is certainly a way of appreciating the existence of God, but this order cannot be reduced to something that a created intelligence could be the cause of, because if it were, then this order would not be the proof for the existence of God, but rather an anthropomorphized version of him. A biological system, if looked at only as a final product, can indeed be the product of a created intellect, as the ID proponent who allow that an alien could be the designer recognize, and hence does not prove the existence of God.

By contrast, a complex biological system which is seen as the product of the natural laws of the universe cannot be reduced to a product of a created intellect. A created agent has no power to both create and maintain the laws of the universe such that these laws produce living beings. Only God does. Hence, looking at highly ordered biological systems as products of natural forces can be viewed as a proof for the existence of God. Removing the natural forces from this vision of order, however, deprives the argument of the strength needed to make it a proof for the existence of God, and makes it merely an argument for an intelligent designer or an anthropomorphized deity, and a weak argument at that.


Accepting theistic evolution does not diminish the beauty and awe we can feel when contemplating God’s creation.

At the end this year celebrating Darwin’s work, it is regrettable that there still exists some tension between religion and evolutionary science, even if it does not stem so much from official doctrines as from the feelings of believers. Some of this tension is inevitable given the atheistic claims of evolutionism, but there are ways to reconcile evolutionary science with theistic philosophy, as many people have done, and as I have outlined here.

The science of evolutionary biology is very well established, and the residual tension between religion and evolutionary biology harms both. On one hand, it makes the scientific work evolutionary biologists suspect in the eyes of many, and on the other, it makes religion appear like a regressive force. It is far better to reject the bundling of evolutionary biology with evolutionism, the real crux of the problem, than to wage a war over the minutiae of evolutionary biology, which should not be problematic from a religious point of view. Finally, accepting theistic evolution does not diminish the beauty and awe we can feel when contemplating God’s creation. On the contrary, God’s is manifest in his works, including in evolution.

Leslie Tomory writes from Canada. He has just finished a PhD in the history of science and technology at the University of Toronto.

This article is published by Leslie Tomory and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow MercatorNet
MercatorNet RSS feed
subscribe to newsletter
Sections and Blogs
Family Edge
Sheila Reports
Reading Matters
Demography Is Destiny
From the Editor
contact us
our ideals
our People
our contributors
Mercator who?
partner sites
audited accounts
advice for writers
privacy policy
New Media Foundation
Level 1, Unit 7,
11 Lord Street,
Botany Australia 2019
+61 2 8005 8605
skype: mercatornet

© New Media Foundation