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Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Does Evolution drive us to reject Evolution? One Evangelical says … Possibly?

One argument heard repeatedly from antievolutionists is that Darwin and his theory of biological evolution is to blame for so much evil (eg. Nazism, the Holocaust, Stalinism). This is as absurd (and possibly dishonest) as saying that Jesus Christ and his message of the new kingdom should be blamed for the crusades, the inquisition, and the conflict in Ireland. True, the facts can be twisted to support any of these claims. However, I believe an honest assessment of the authentic message of Christ or the theory of Darwin (rather than distorted or extended versions of them) should not come to these conclusions. Just as the violence resulting from the crusades should not be blamed on the Prince of Peace, the evils (or perceived evils) associated with Social Darwinism or Eugenics should not be blamed on Darwin’s theory of biological evolution.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is another stepchild of Darwin’s theory. It has received (if this is possible) even less support within the Evangelical community than the theory of biological evolution. It is an approach to psychology that attempts to explain mental and psychological traits as adaptations, i.e. as the functional products of natural selection. So for example, some EPs hypothesize that humanity’s innate religious tendencies and it's inclination to believe in God are only a result of natural selection. It’s pretty easy to see that EPs can make assumptions, employ methods, and draw conclusions that no Christian could condone. But does this mean the entire field should be ignored and rejected by Christians?

A reader pointed me to this blog post by Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In it, Mohler discusses a proposal by 2 Yale EP researchers. They claim that evolution has hardwired us to disbelieve evolution. Ie. The fact that the theory of biological evolution does not receive widespread support is more a function of our psychological makeup, rather than the perceived conflict between the scientific theory and religious beliefs. Mohler states:

This is a fascinating argument. Bloom and Weisberg [the Yale researchers] believe that the minds of children are, in effect, hard-wired to see design in nature and the world around them. The "intuitive psychology" they describe means that children infer a design in the world they experience. They assume an intelligence behind what they observe, and assume that a creative intelligence is a necessary part of any explanation of why things are as they are.

and then quotes the researchers as follows:

Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.

In the discussion that follows in his post I find it interesting that both the researchers and Mohler seem to make the identical assumption: It’s either “design” or “evolution” and not both; either there is “purpose” to the universe or the “scientific theory of evolution” is true. The researchers choose evolution and Mohler chooses purpose but they both believe the choice is valid. I disagree with both of them. I see no conflict and do not think it is an either/or choice. This discussion on design or evolution will have to wait for a future post, but I would like to point out that even some Intelligent Design (ID) proponents would agree that Design and Evolution are not necessarily opposites. For example, Michael Behe, writer of Darwin’s Black Box, does not oppose common descent of life from a single source.

Later in the post, Mohler states:

The hard-wiring for design these psychologists identify as the problem may well be yet another sign of the imago Dei -- the image of God that distinguishes humanity from all other creatures

I wholeheartedly agree with this. God has created us in his own image (I believe through a gradual creation process) and part of this package is the ability, and inherent yearning, to relate to God. But Mohler then continues with:

[The Imago Dei is a] claim directly rejected by the scientific establishment.

I’m not sure I can agree with this. There are certainly large parts of the scientific establishment that a) reject the existence of the supernatural and b) believe that scientific truth is the only truth. But there are many scientists (including, I think, all Christian scientists) that would reject this statement (particularly statement b) and understand that science is quite limited in what it can positively affirm.

And then near the end, Mohler throws out this statement:

[The Yale Researchers] argument also shows once again why "theistic evolution" is an incoherent proposal.

Theistic evolution incoherent? Really? Maybe incomprehensible to some, particularly to those with specific metaphysical assumptions, but I think it’s unwise to call it incoherent. There are many clear thinking Christians, brilliant scientists, astute theologians, all with a high respect for the scriptures, that believe theistic evolution coheres very well with both their science and faith. (For example, read anything by John Polkinghorne. Is it difficult to understand the first time through? Definitely. Incoherent? Anyone who says this probably hasn’t grasped his argument and should reread him). Proponents of scientific naturalism (the idea that science embodies all truth) may not comprehend how their well-educated Christian colleagues can possibly hold to theistic evolution. Christians predisposed to reject gradual creation because of their interpretation of scripture may find it difficult to comprehend how their fellow Christians can believe in theistic evolution. However, this lack of comprehension does not make the proposal objectively incoherent.

I’m still not sure how to respond to a lot of the conclusions coming out of the field of EP. (I know even less about psychology and EP than I do about biology and biological evolution). However, I see no reason to immediately reject all conclusions that are made. Certainly, I do not think that evolutionary explanations for the development of religious impulses necessarily negate the validity of these impulses for discovering truth, nor does it contradict the fact that these religious impulses were the purpose of God’s creation. On the other hand, I reserve the right to be skeptical of conclusions about human nature without solid evidence, particularly when formulated by those who are predisposed to reject the existence of the divine, and thus humanity’s ability to relate to the divine.

So is natural selection a factor in humanity’s innate religious tendencies, in our inclination to believe in God, in our propensity to see purpose in creation? Possibly. How God brought about this inclination in humanity is not necessarily significant; that the emergence of this tendency was his purpose is significant. And returning to the original claim of the Yale researchers, does evolution play a role in the rejection of evolution? Again possibly. Certainly, if the scientific theory of evolution is tied so tightly to philosophical purposelessness, it’s going to be difficult for humanity to accept. God has created in us a heart that recognizes him (Rom 1:20), that is predisposed to respond to him, that see’s purpose in his creation. So purposeless evolution is certainly not an easy sell. But then again, I don’t think it should be. That the universe is purposeless is a lie. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s just not necessary to tie biological evolution to this lie.


Anonymous said...


I recall reading something about the “God gene” some time ago. I think this research is referring to the same thing. Basically, a specific gene was discovered in people who were more likely to believe in spiritual things. Personally, I just filed it away as something interesting, but hardly conclusive. I think the researchers simply noted this gene resulted in a higher percentage of “believers”, but was not a guarantee either way (lots of believers without the gene, lots of non-believers with the gene).

Can’t you just picture two scientists (one Christian, one not) pointing to this “discovery” and each exclaiming at the same time, “Hah! This proves God does (doesn’t) exist!” And then they tilt their heads slightly, look at each other and say, “No it doesn’t (Yes it does)!” “This is obviously evidence of God’s fingerprint on us. Proof He exists and was involved in our creation.” OR “This proves that your faith is just a quirk of genetics, like your flaming red hair and high cholesterol.” Either side of the debate can use it as ammo.

Interesting, but hardly conclusive. I think the reason evolution has not received wide spread support has more to do with “nurture” than “nature”. Countries like Canada and the US were founded on Christian principles, and as you noted in a previous posting, there was (is) a strong fundamentalist movement especially in the US. I have also personally noticed a difference between Canadians and Americans in the way they live out their faith. My American cousins (I literally have some American cousins) seem to accept the teaching of their churches and leaders with fewer questions than my Canadian cousins. They were basically raised to not question their leaders – leaders of their church, local politicians, teachers, etc. It was expected that the children would have the same religious and political views as their parents. So, even people who haven’t been in churches for decades will still fall back on what they learned as kids – evolution is contrary to the Bible and must be wrong. Even if they don’t really believe the Bible, they will accept it over evolution because that is what their parent’s taught them. Canadians seem more willing to question their leaders, accept different points of view, and actually take the time to learn about issues so they can make informed decisions. I admit I’m making some broad generalizations about two countries based on my limited interaction with my relatives, so I could be completely out to lunch on this. And my point is not to compare Canadians and Americans. I just want to point out that those researchers puzzled at the low acceptance of evolution in the US, and claim it must be a result of being hard-wired to believe in a deity instead of recognizing the “nurture” aspect – they might be completely out to lunch also.

By the way, I had a salami sandwich for lunch today, in case you were wondering what I eat when I’m out to lunch.


Anonymous said...


First off let me say that I really appreciate what this blog is trying to do. I really hope that people with differing opinions find this blog and come to it with a desire to DIALOGUE. With the lack of commenters thus far, I think most people reading this blog are extremely sympathetic to your conclusions thus far (myself included).

Second, I found this particular post very interesting. I probably know less than you about psychology and even less about evolutionary psychology, but the reported findings of these Yale scholars just seems like the 'Yin' of Augustine's 'Yang' ("Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.") As Christians, it is incomprehensible to think that this yearning for 'God' has its origins in anything other than YHWH, the Triune God. And, likewise, if you reject the notion of a 'God' to begin with, then you must find another answer to this question. And if Evolution becomes the only reality through with you can comprehend the world, then of course, Evolution has to be the answer for this longing.

And this tension will always exist. Even if theistic evolution of some variety is eventually largely accepted within Christian churches, I don't see it being widely respected in the modern scienticific community. Because the fact remains that we always fill in the gaps with what we already believe. But I think that this is where Christians have an edge. Faith, done right, enables us to be comfortable with not knowing, and enables us to admit that we don't know--and also change our stance when certain knowledge becomes available...faith is very flexible. Modern Science on the other hand, is not as comfortable not knowing, and, on a whole, are slow to admit that they don't know--they need a verifiable, concrete, blanket answer...which they find in atheistic evolution.

This comment has strayed slightly from the main thrust of this blog. But again, I really appreciate the voice this blog raises. And I am excited to see where this conversation will take us.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Dustin. Welcome.

I like your comment on flexible faith. We absolutely need to be flexible in thinking about our world and how we should relate to it. This is not the same thing as a "bendable faith", or a “shakable faith”. Faith is not about believing a set of axioms or intellectual accent. If it is, we are in trouble because “scientific truth” is always changing. It is faith in a God who never fails that allows us this flexibility.

Thanks for your comments.