We have been slowly working through Denis Alexander’s new book Is There Purpose in Biology and come now to the final chapter – where he digs into the topic introduced by his subtitle. Evolution causes problems for a number of people because it uses, in fact requires, death to create life. Predation and parasitism are a normal part of the nature world. Tigers are excellent hunters, the dart frog is highly toxic, and so-called flesh eating bacteria lend an element of risk to swimming in natural waters or clean-up after a flood.
When we consider evolution and natural selection we often think of it in terms of survival of the fittest. The vision is of competition and bloody fight, of victors and vanquished. But while there are predators and parasites – these creatures fill niches in the natural world and simply live their lives. The food chain is a complex web. In evolutionary biology fitness has little to do with competition and victory in the local specific situation. Rather the fittest are those who raise most offspring, nothing more, nothing less. In the long run a variant with greater fitness will survive and dominate the population, but in the short term many will coexist. Evolution does require a natural cycle and process of life and death with successive generations. But this need be no more violent or wasteful than the world we see around us today. Each succeeding generation fulfills a role in the process of the unfolding of creation.
A larger problem is raised by the mechanisms of mutation producing variation and providing the landscape through which evolution operates. Without the possibility of mutation change would be impossible, yet this same propensity for mutation that enables the evolution of diversity and adaptation to conditions results in genetic diseases and in cancer. Apparently a cousin of mine suffered a spontaneous mutation that resulted in birth defects and disability for her sons and a premature death for herself. Cancer is far more common. We all know of someone who has suffered and died of cancer. And it isn’t just a disease of age, I can think of six I’ve known over the last decade who left behind young children growing up without one parent.
Denis Alexander brings his personal experience with cancer four years ago into the discussion to make it real. This isn’t simply an abstract philosophical discussion. How is evolution to be reconciled with the creative activity of a God of love? Denis doesn’t agree with the extremes of meticulous determinism or deism, or even the middle range idea of a God who voluntarily steps away and allows freedom in his created order (John Polkinghorne is an example of this last view). “Freedom” he suggests “makes sense as a term applied to human decision-making, but it makes no sense as a way of describing the material world around us.” (p. 224) The idea of freedom also fails to take God off the hook. Genes don’t decide to mutate any more than a car careening downhill decides to strike a pedestrian. If I take my hands off the wheel to give the car its freedom – I am responsible for the damage and injuries that result. I am the decision maker not the car, even when my decision is to let go. (Denis uses this general example in his discussion.)
Where does this leave us? “If the position here is maintained, that God is really omnipotent and God is really omniscient, and therefore that God’s intentions and purposes really are being fulfilled in the created order, and that therefore God is really ultimately responsible for all the “biologically evils” of the world (but not the moral evils arising from human free will), then the discussion can really begin.” (pp. 227-228)
Creation declares God’s glory and majesty, but it is not a mirror to reveal his character. Psalms, Proverbs, and Job all reflect on God as creator declaring that creation is through his wisdom of God. More than this, in Psalm 104 the Psalmist writes that “the lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God.” In fact, all creatures look to God for their food and rely on him for their very life and breath. In wisdom God made them all. He is their source and sustainer. God has a purpose for creation – but it is not to reveal his character in its details … as the lion tears apart its prey (supplied by God).
Denis suggests that “it is coherent existence itself which is the overriding good, including the existence of living creatures, and most especially the existence of creatures like ourselves with the capacity to respond freely to God’s love.” (p. 231) There are two sides to the properties of the created order. The mutations that enable beautiful diversity, include the individuality in which we flourish also result in diseases. Eating provides sustenance and produces free radicals that can lead to mutations and cancer. Bacteria are necessary for our well being, but they also kill. Pain is an essential part of life for higher organisms. Denis notes that “brain complexity, awareness of the environment, and pain appear to increase in parallel.” (p. 235)
The age to come will be different. Today we live in phase one of God’s creative plan. Phase two will avoid the pain and death that plague us. Why then did God not skip phase one and advance straight to phase two? Denis speculates:
One obvious answer to the question might be: “Because carbon-based life is the only way in which creatures can come into being with genuine free will and moral responsibility, equipped to enter into a saving relationship with God as a result of the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.” Now that really does provide a Purpose for biology. … The God of love will never force people into his kingdom, and love is predicated on genuine freedom. (p. 243)
The pros and cons of the so-called natural world are the cost of existence for the development of creatures capable of free and loving relationship with God. Biology, in its beauty and in predation and disease serves the greater purpose of God in bringing to fruition his coming kingdom. If we look only at biology, death is the ultimate end for all – as individuals each one dies. When the sun dies life itself will vanish from the planet. But the Christian message of Purpose sees more than this. As Christians “we see the doorway into a new creation that God is preparing for all those who put their faith in him through Christ. And we realize that life is going somewhere very good indeed – albeit through a tough and rocky road for us at present – when ultimately the whole present cosmos for which Christ dies will be finally expressed and fully realized in the new heavens and the new earth.” (p. 247)
The best response is one of faith and hope. God’s creation will serve his Purpose. And it is very good.
Is it reasonable to trust the wisdom of God and conclude that this world, including death, pain and suffering, is the best way to achieve his ultimate Purpose?
Is this consistent with the message of the Bible?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.