Evolution is a Lousy Story

There is an interesting post by Tom Bartlett, Is Evolution a Lousy Story?, on the blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Bartlett notes that more than half of Americans doubt that evolution describes the origin of species and he considers the role that story may play in this. The post builds off of a proposal by Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern, and the thesis of his 2005 book The Redemptive Self:

McAdams’s research focus is narrative psychology—specifically, the development of a “life-story model of human identity.” As he writes in his book The Redemptive Self, “People create stories to make sense of their lives.” When you think about it, we tell stories to make sense of pretty much everything. The problem is that evolution doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative box. As McAdams puts it: “You can’t really feel anything for this character—natural selection.”

And a bit later in the article:

Jonathan Gottschall thinks McAdams might be onto something. … “If evolution is a story, it is a story without agency,” he writes in an e-mail. “It lacks the universal grammar of storytelling.” Stories are about a character finding a solution to a problem. Evolution has problems and solutions but no character. As a result, according to Gottschall, “it doesn’t connect as well—especially at the emotional level.”

Gottschall is author of a recent book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. You can find a teaser for his book at The Huffington Post.

Bartlett’s post contains a number of insights worth some consideration – and don’t miss the link to “one Christian Web site.” He is on to something worth some serious thought. The truth of evolutionary biology does not depend on the story that can be told, but we also must not underestimate the power of story.

Is evolution a lousy story?

What makes the traditional Christian creation narrative better?

There are a number of key points worth considering here. The first one is that evolution isn’t a story – it isn’t a story of who we are, how we got here, or where we are going. There is no protagonist, villain, or plot … any more than there is a plot to gravity or the role of electrostatics in the crystallization of salt. Evolution is a mechanism that plays a role in a larger story. But we have to ask what that larger story is.

While admitting that human existence is bursting with plot and story, the grand scheme of scientific naturalism is plotless, or perhaps better the plot is anchored in futility. We exist as sentient beings constrained by the laws of physics and in some 7 or 8 billion years the earth will die as the sun dies.  More than this, the expansion of the universe will eventually reach a point where life anywhere will be completely impossible. Not only will each individual die along the way, but life itself will simply vanish – no more sentient beings to wonder about the plot.

But this isn’t evolution – it is a narrative wrapped around the empirical observations. It may be true or not – but it contains implicit metaphysical assumptions about the nature of all reality.

But is the “traditional” Christian narrative a better story? Here I would like to look at Ch. 3 of Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James. She brings up a point that has occurred to me in the past – but she tells it much better than I.

God’s story is thick with plot. You can’t get through three chapters before the deadliest conflict breaks out. Like an enormous wrecking ball, conflict blasts through everything God has put in place. From Genesis 3 on, conflict rains down (literally in some places) – throughout the Bible and straight into out lives. And we are left in the smoldering ruins of that once-beautiful and perfect world to figure out how to make our way forward without drowning in the conflict.

MISSING PLOT?

To be honest, I’ve never thought of Eden as a particularly riveting part of God’s Story. A necessary introduction, yes, but not exactly spellbinding. Thoughts of Eden conjure up mental  images of Adam and Eve strolling leisurely through the garden hand-in-hand – picking flowers, popping grapes, working without sweat. No weeds, insects, or plant disease to interfere with their gardening projects. No battle of the sexes or angry words spoken in haste and regretted later. Sex and nudity notwithstanding, the story seems a bit dull – at least until the serpent shows up and all hell breaks loose. Judging by what literary experts are saying about conflict, before the fall Ada, and Eve are living in a plotless story.

Which made me wonder, is God is the master storyteller – the creator of story – and if conflict makes the story, is there conflict before Genesis 3? Was God’s original vision for us and for the world a plotless story? If humanity had never fallen into sin, would we be living in a plotless story now? For that matter, will heaven be plotless? Is conflict only and always destructive and the result of fallenness? Or is there a healthy, necessary, constructive variety of conflict that creates a gripping plot and is designed to make God’s image bearers flourish and grow? (p. 67)

James goes on to think about the mission of humanity given in Genesis 1:28:  Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth. This isn’t a plotless existence. I am not sure what James thinks of creation, evolution, and the historicity of Adam and Eve. Her focus in the chapter is to explore what this mission before the fall might mean for the relationship of God’s image bearers, male and female. Her book, after all, is about Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

Plotless or purposeful? The traditional Christian narrative is, it appears, a plotless beginning, a fall brought about by human sin, redemption through the cross, a holding pattern present that captures all our attention, and anticipation of a plotless future. I don’t think that, as a story, this is much better than the naturalist’s story of purposeless evolution and ultimate total extinction. I also don’t think that it is the story of scripture. It is a story that arises, I believe, from a misinterpretation of Genesis 1-3 and a misunderstanding of the gospel.

God’s original creation had a plot and a trajectory. The first humans were told to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, to subdue the earth, and to rule over all life on the earth. Evolution as a mechanism for bringing about this creation is compatible with the plot of the story and with the mission given to humanity as God’s image bearers. There is a plot before the Fall. But the Fall is an essential part of the overall plot, anticipated by God from the beginning. God’s image bearers turned from his ways and listened to, as the story is told in Genesis 3, the smooth talk of the serpent. They didn’t fall spontaneously in a perfect world, the serpent was already present. Of course it was anticipated, and part of the plan for reasons we don’t really understand. Otherwise aren’t we claiming that humans can thwart God’s plan and force him to an option B?

The story as revealed in scripture doesn’t envision modern ideas of evolutionary biology. It was written in an ancient context for an ancient audience – modern geology, physics, and biology would have made no sense to them. But evolutionary creation is not at odds with the plot of the story. God’s creation grows and unfolds – not in a purposeless and random fashion, but in accord with God’s plan and purpose. There is a plot in the unfolding of creation from big bang, to the formation of earth, through the development of life, to the appearance of the first humans. The natural explanations alone, whether accurate or not, will always be incomplete because they leave out the author of it all.

Evolution alone is a lousy story, but evolution as God’s method of creation makes a great story.

Is there a plot in creation before Genesis 3? If so what?

What problems do you see with evolution as a part of this plot?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you have comments please visit Evolution is a Lousy Story at Jesus Creed.

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