Evolution and the Sting of Death

The latest installment of the BioLogos series Southern Baptist Voices, published earlier this month, explored the troubling issue of the role death plays in evolution. John D. Laing, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Havard School for Theological Studies, raised the issue in his essay Evolution and Death.

The point I wish to make here is that the theistic evolutionist simply cannot escape the fact that the necessary corollary to survival of the fittest is destruction of the weakest and therefore, he must view death as a primary creative force of God.

This is contrary, Laing believes, to the clear teaching of scripture.

This, though, is contrary to the biblical view, which depicts death as an invader, disturber of peace, and a force of evil. While it must be admitted that in the Old Testament, death is sometimes presented as a natural consequence of finite human existence, it is most often associated with consequences for sinful activity or the judgment of God.

He concludes:

At the end of the day, then, it seems that Christians who accept evolution and those who deny evolution are operating with differing views of the doctrine of creation. However, even if agreement may be reached over this issue, the proponent of God-guided evolution must reconcile the biblical material on death with its positive function in his model. It seems to me that this cannot be done in a way that is fair to both biblical text and evolutionary thought. Evolution requires that death serve a creative function, and the Bible precludes such an understanding of death; therefore, the evangelical must reject evolution as the means by which God creates.

Those who are interested will find it useful to read the entire article linked above, not just the brief bits I’ve highlighted here.

Does the Bible preclude an understanding of death as serving a creative function?

If so, why do you think this is true? If not, why not?

Jeffrey Schloss, Distinguished Professor of Biology and director of the Center for Faith, Ethics, and the Life Sciences at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif provided a response to Prof. Laing.

There is a distinction between human death and all biological death – from part 1 of the response.

I have already agreed with John that the Bible persistently presents death as an enemy of God’s purposes for humanity. But I have suggested (perhaps altogether wrongly!) that he does not provide clear scriptural evidence for death being a comparable enemy to and intrusion upon God’s purposes for all creatures. A faithful reading of the Bible does not seem to be incompatible with seeing death as part of the magisterial history of life as depicted by evolution and other natural sciences.

In part 2 of his response Schloss addresses two related questions –  “Is non-human death an evil?” and allowing perhaps that it is evil of a sort, especially the death of a sentient creature – a favorite cat, a crafty squirrel, or a wildebeast, he asks “Is non-human death a permissible evil?

Part 3 moves on to consider a point raised by Prof. Laing, and an important issue for many:

The understandable theological uneasiness expressed by John and many others about this issue ultimately rests not just on an understanding of God’s creative activity, but also on a particular representation of evolution. In this regard John makes two important claims:

a) “…natural selection, with its emphasis on a natural state characterized by competition for limited resources and a general struggle for survival, is the primary means by which speciation takes place…”

b) “death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development.”

For reasons I discussed in the previous section, it is not entirely clear that death constitutes an evil that is incommensurate with divine activity. However, the fact is that the above depiction of evolution—which is not unique to John amongst public commentators and is largely commensurate with Darwin’s own views—does not adequately portray current discussions within evolutionary biology. There are three problems with this portrayal that I’d like to address in turn—three aspects of evolutionary theory that need to be better understood.

In his ensuing comments Schloss gives a brief discussion of these three points.

1. Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution, and may not be the sole, or even the primary, means of speciation. Evolution is much more complex than simply competition and natural selection.

2. Competition does not play quite the role Darwin, or many others have suggested. Schloss points out that competition is neither necessary or sufficient for speciation.

3. Death is a part of life – but Schloss suggests that death does not drive evolution. Survival and fitness drive evolution.

To the three points raised by Schloss I would add a fourth, related somewhat to his third.

4. Evolution does not require violent or “unnatural” death. It is driven not by death, but by success in reproduction. Every member of a species that goes extinct could live a “normal” life and die a “peaceful” death. The idea that life is not permanent is not a new idea – it is consistent with Calvin’s commentary on Genesis for example. Immortality is not a natural part of creation, but is a divine gift of God. This I believe scripture clearly teaches.

This is not a final, or exhaustive answer to the questions raised by John Laing … but grounds to start a conversation.

Is the role of death in evolution a deal breaker?

Does Laing or Schloss convince you? How would you respond to either side of this argument?

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

If you wish to comment on this post please see Evolution and the Sting of Death at Jesus Creed.

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