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Touched by an angel #2

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Did God do it Darwin fashion?

Second in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.1

See also: Touched by an angel #1

Towards the end of Chapter 1: A Summary of Your Argument Cornwell declares that

most sensible theologians have no problem with the theory of evolution. Being a religious believer is not synonymous with being a creationist – in other words, believing that the world and everything in it was literally created 5,000 years ago in six days by a patriarchal God in the sky. Most sensible modern religious believers accept, rather, that if God wanted to make the world in the way that Darwin proposes, why should he not?

I agree. Being a religious believer is not synonymous with being a creationist as described. For a start not all religious believers subscribe to the Judaeo-Christian god. And the Judaeo-Christian stable itself is the broadest of churches – I have yet to come across two of its congregation holding exactly the same set of beliefs. We should also remember that religious belief is not 100% synonymous with belief in a god either. Confucianism and Buddhism are two major religions which seem quite happy to do without.

The clash between modern evolutionary theory and a god of the Judaeo-Christian type is not however just about literal versus metaphorical readings of Genesis. Cornwell’s question alludes to an important issue rather nicely, particularly with its provocative use of the present tense in ‘proposes’.

Evolutionary thinking has moved on over the last 150 years – not by questioning or even significantly modifying the elements of Darwin‘s theory, but more by letting them sink in so their profounder implications can emerge. A Darwinist up to and even including the ‘modern synthesis’ of the mid-20th Century could see evolution as intrinsically progressive: ‘progress without a goal’ as Julian Huxley described it. From the late 20th Century onwards though evolution has been seen as a blinder, more callous affair. Any apparent progress is purely the result of competition between randomly-generated variants. And the ‘survival of the fittest’ entails the destruction of the overwhelming majority of individuals. The more sentient those individuals are, the more excruciating the destruction will be. Natural selection selects for killing machines (lions, tigers, wolves, leopards, hawks, sharks…) of greater and greater efficiency. Natural selection selects for greater and greater reproductive capacity: more and more grisly, often premature, deaths. If this is progress it is only that of an arms race.

Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

The dark side of evolution was not lost on Julian’s grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley; or indeed Darwin himself, who recollected his own reading of Thomas Malthus‘s An essay on the principle of population2 in these words:

In October 1838… I happened to read for amusement [sic] ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; …3

So, yes, why shouldn’t God have made a Darwinian world if that’s how he wanted it? The only snag is that his reputation for perfect goodness – or indeed any kind of goodness – would start to look a bit shabby. Remember this is not the kind of ‘problem of evil‘ which has a supposed resolution in human free will. Free will does not come into it – other than that of the creator god. A creator god who created life on Darwinian principles would have deliberately and knowingly created the conditions for wholesale destruction and suffering.

There are only really three ways out, and they have all been taken many times. One is to keep the single creator god but deny its goodness. Another is to allow at least two gods – one who is the callous or positively evil creator of the world, and one who can be as good as you please. This is the route taken by strands of Gnosticism, Manichaeism and Catharism – all of which the early Christian Church regarded as deeply heretical.

The third traditional exit is mystery:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform…

An omniscient and omnipotent god can be as übermysterious as he chooses. But default mystery leaves Cornwell’s rhetorical question about what ‘most sensible modern religious believers accept’ looking more disingenuous than angelic.

See next post


1 John Cornwell, Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

2 Thomas Malthus, An essay on the principle of population, 1798-1826.

3 Charles Darwin, The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882: edited, with original omissions restored, and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow, Collins, London, 1958.

4 William Cowper, The Olney hymns, LXVIII: Light shining out of darkness, 1779.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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