Chapter 9 – Bogeys in the Evolutionary Coal Cellar
We will continue our review of God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, by Jon Garvey. Today is Chapter 9 – Bogeys in the Evolutionary Coal Cellar. We are now in Section 3- The Science. In Section 3 he looks at the evidence for “natural evil” in the world itself as science observes it, and why nature is now so widely perceived as cruel and malevolent, when once it wasn’t. This section is also a study on how ideas gain or lose plausibility, and how evidence comes to be considered significant or to be disregarded.
Jon begins this chapter by quoting from scientists, including Christians, who have emphasized nature’s “darkness”. He quotes Robert J. Russell, physicist and theologian (Russell, Cosmology, p.242):
… it is hard to deny that nature “red in tooth and claw” is a suffering nature, full of agony, of pitiful and often senseless death, blind alleys, merciless waste, brute force. Is it entirely anthropomorphic to recognize in pre-human nature something which eventually becomes that which in the human realm is evil?
Karl Giberson, cofounder with Francis Collins of the evolutionary creation organization Biologos said:
The natural world has some terrible creatures in it, and it is hard to imagine God intentionally designing such nasty things. In 1860 Darwin even raised this in a letter to the American biologist, Asa Gray:
“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae (wasp) with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”
Creationist have long tried to wiggle off this particular hook by arguing that the nasty features of the world are the consequences of human sin—by-products of the curse. But the truly nasty stuff precedes the appearance of humans, which makes this argument suspect at best.
Another claim that God sits at arm’s length from a morally dubious evolutionary process (which is also the sole means of biological creation) comes from theologian Keith Ward:
If natural science shows that many genetic mutations are fatally harmful to organisms, that is a strong indication that any theory of creation that attributes every event to the directly intended action of a good and omnipotent God is mistaken.
Jon has already made the argument that such sentiments ignore the clear teaching of Scripture and historic theology that God is the sole Creator and sustainer of everything in the world, even of those things that might appear wild or even harmful to us. Now he attempts to show that such rhetoric is just that—rhetoric overblown with hyperbole. He notes that if you are committed to a belief that the existence of anything harmful in nature cannot be consistent with God’s existence or with his love, then you will not be impressed with his counter-arguments.
His basic argument then, is that even though suffering certainly exists, the polemic of “nature red in tooth and claw” is wildly exaggerated and not a true representative picture of reality. He deals with the specifically “evolutionary” problems such as extinctions, evolutionary “blind alleys”, merciless waste, arms races, and evil design. In the next chapter he deals with what he calls the “myth of selfish evolution”.
Extinctions—It is routinely said to be wasteful for God to create so many departed species, but that is meaningless; God can create things for their own sake, to last for a season. Besides the average lifetime of a species is estimated as upwards of a million years—150 times as long than the age granted to the whole earth by young earth creationists. And he can justly create them for a temporary role, such as the species believed to have “terraformed” the earth’s atmosphere with oxygen in the Precambrian era.
Blind Alleys – Evolutionary “blind alleys” and “failures”, it is held, demonstrate the existence of purposeless evolution. How would we even recognize such a “failed experiment” if we did find its fossil. It would represent a species that once lived, and a live species is, by definition, more or less successful. Low or declining numbers might be because a species is a failure—but more likely because the species occupies a niche that is disappearing. How would we tell that any fossil is a “dead end”? Extreme body plans are no guide. We can have little idea of the entire world a strange fossil creature lived in, so it’s impossible to be sure how rare it was, because all agree the fossil record is at least somewhat patchy. Plenty of today’s common plants and animals are weird, but highly successful.
Merciless Waste – Critics point to the vast reproductive rates, and almost equally vast mortalities, of certain species as evidence of criminal waste in the world. Examples might be the immense number of mosquitos devoured annually by migrant birds in Siberia, or the huge clouds of plankton consumed by shoals of billions of sardines that in turn, largely succumb to predators like dolphins and sharks. But this is pure anthropomorphism. We humans produce a few children—each a rational soul—and hope all will live long and prosper, but these other species were created as the basis of the food chain. The idea of “waste” is plausible only because of the biologist’s artificial focus on the individual struggle to survive. But ecologically, nothing whatsoever is wasted, since everything depends on everything else, including plankton species recycling dolphin and shark waste.
Arms Races — An evolutionary “arms race” is seen as the progressive mutual adaptation of a predator and its prey, and therefore as textbook evidence for adaptive evolution. A common example is the cheetah and Thompson’s gazelle, whose evolution has increased the speed and agility of both, it is said. This process is somehow seen as evidence against God as Creator. Richard Dawkins (Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, p.384) has said:
The cheetah, if we are going to talk design at all, is superbly designed for killing gazelles. But the very same designer has equally strained every nerve to design a gazelle that is superbly equipped to escape from those very same cheetahs. For heaven’s sake, whose side is the designer on?
But we have seen that the biblical God provides prey for the lions, so presumably for cheetahs too. And in the same passage he plays midwife to the mountain goats, so presumably to the gazelle as well. The “designer” is therefore on the side of both species, for the good of all—and that has been known from antiquity—and if that troubles our human sensibilities that is our problem.
Evil Design – Carnivores, parasites, spiders eating their mates or lions their rival’s cubs, bonobos being promiscuous, chimps waging war, and Venus flytraps utterly perverting the Genesis 1:8 command by eating animals. Are these things evil or the work of a fallen creation? But parasites play the same role as top-level predators in many ecosystems, keeping numbers in balance. Aren’t we exhibiting a double standard base on mere prejudice? Jon says:
Theologically, the key to all this is to understand what theologians like Augustine knew long ago, that the moral law given to us by God was just that — given to us. It was the law suited specifically to our human nature, which had we not sinned would have natural to us still, as those made after the image and likeness of Christ, and which will again become natural once our salvation is complete. It is the law of human nature, as that nature was created to be… And if he is so much higher than us that the law of our lowly nature does not reach up to him, why should we expect our moral law to apply to lower natures?
…We do not, of course, have to imitate the example of the beasts – their law is not our law. We may even, like some Bible writers and many medievals, use them proverbially as examples to emulate or avoid. But “evil”? In God’s good creation? Perhaps we should remember the words of God to Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” Especially when he long ago pronounce it “very good”.