Evolution has been accused of evil by friend, foe, and doubter.
Many creationists think that “evolution,” the theory not the thing, is a font of evil. They charge that it teaches us that we are “nothing but animals,” and so leads inevitably to nihilism. The fruits of evolution in this sense, according to prominent creationist Ken Ham, are “lawlessness, immorality, impurity, abortion, racism, and a mocking of God” (The Lie: Evolution, 1987, p. 29). In one version of this view, evolution is not just bad but the central evil of the modern world, the rot at the heart of the everything, from teen sex to genocide. The 2008 movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed attributed the Nazi Holocaust to evolution.
That’s an interesting bucket of goo to delve into, and in a future post I probably will. But evolution has often been thought evil, or at least very nasty, in another sense: the process itself can be seen as abhorrent. It strikes many sincere people as indifferent, cruel, and wasteful; in its course, untold trillions of sentient beings are ripped by predators, consumed slowly by parasites, ruined by disease, crushed, drowned, burned, and otherwise subjected to horrible suffering. Most individuals do not even manage to reproduce. Darwin, in the Origin of Species (1859), emphasized that in light of the theory of natural selection we should expect at least some of the “contrivances of nature” to be “abhorrent to our ideas of fitness”: among these he lists drone bees
being produced in such great numbers for one single act, and being then slaughtered by their sterile sisters; . . . the astonishing waste of pollen by our fir-trees; . . . the instinctive hatred of the queen-bee for her own fertile daughters; . . . ichneumonidae [wasp larvae] feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars; and . . . other such cases.
Stephen Jay Gould called evolution a “hecatomb,” Greek for a massive sacrifice:
Human beings are moral agents and we cannot abide the hecatomb—the death through competition of nearly all participants [in evolution]—incurred by allowing individual competition to work in the untrammeled manner of pure laissez-faire. . . . But nature need not operate by the norms of human morality. If the adaptation of one requires the deaths of thousands in amoral nature, then so be it. The process may be messy and wasteful, but nature enjoys time in abundance, and maximal efficiency need not mark her ways. (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, 2002, p. 122).
Such concerns often seem to me exaggerated—I refuse to be upset about fir pollen, and Gould’s claim that the “deaths of thousands” occur in order that some later individual may be adapted is a breathtakingly arbitrary bit of storytelling (given that the adapted individual also dies eventually, with 100% probability)—but there is a serious complaint at the core. One could quote far more impassioned, outraged responses to the suffering in the natural order; the two mild ones I’ve quoted just happened to be handy, and by famous writers. Both atheists and creationists have argued, and some evolution-accepting religious believers have fretted, that evolution, with all its death and suffering, is flat-out incompatible with belief in a benign, omnipotent God. If it’s true that Christianity’s God and evolution cannot coexist (putting aside for now all the varieties of compatibilism), then there are two main possibilities:
(1) Evolution is real, and there is no benign, omnipotent God—the atheist’s solution. This has the virtues of simplicity, self-consistency, and non-contradiction of all scientific data.
(2) God is real, and evolution is not. Yet suffering exists: how did it get here? At least two explanations are offered. I think of them both as “marred creation” theories:
(a) Human sin marred creation. A common form of creationism posits that all that is “abhorrent to our ideas of fitness” in Nature, in Darwin’s phrase, came from the Fall of a literal Adam and Eve. According to AnswersInGenesis.org,
To have been very good, God’s creation must have been without blemish, defect, disease, suffering, or death. There was no ‘survival of the fittest.’ Animals did not prey on each other, and the first two humans, Adam and Eve, did not kill animals for food. The original creation was a beautiful place, full of life and joy in the presence of the Creator.
After Adam and Eve disobeyed, God “cursed” the nonhuman world, hence the non-human suffering we observe.
(b) The Devil did it. C. S. Lewis, though not a creationist, favored the hypothesis (Ch. 9, The Problem of Pain, 1940) that carnivory and fecundity—which arises from an “excess of the sexual impulse” and both compensates for carnivory and mandates ongoing, massive death—were introduced into the pre-human world by the Devil as a “double scheme for securing the maximum amount of torture.” Lions as we know them today, for example, are “satanically perverted” imitations of what God intended them to be in a completely unfallen universe.
Perhaps Christian theodicy has grappled for millennia with the question of suffering, evil, or imperfection in non-human Nature; I don’t yet know (life is short, the shelf is long). But what I see in our present era is a curious tension. Evolution is often thought to add a dimension of nastiness to Nature, but why? Suffering occurs whether Nature is evolutionary or not. That is why the creationist narrative from AnswersInGenesis.org rules out not just evolution but all suffering and death prior to the Fall—although the moral logic of that tale truly escapes me (how is God’s goodness consistent with inflicting suffering on the innocent animals as a “curse,” if it was not consistent with creating a suffering world to begin with?). Not to mention one or two other little problems with creationism.
Lewis’s guess that the whole fabric of the nonhuman living world may have been corrupted by devils in prehuman time is hard to swallow too. One reason is simply that the scientific account of life’s history requires no supernatural interventions: that history, with all its suffering and death, arises pretty clearly out of the very laws of physics itself. There’s no more room for devilish intelligent design than for the other kind. And on the religious side, there is little or no Biblical trace of the view that Nature is corrupt or deranged. “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God” (Psalm 104:21)—that’s the sort of thing you find in the Old Testament. And Jesus himself was a carnivore (we have Luke 24:41-43 for fish-eating, and he probably ate lamb at Passover as an observant Jew). The Bible never seems to treat what we nowadays call “nature” as something corrupted: there is nothing in it, so far as I know, that seriously qualifies the great “it was good” of Genesis 1:12.
Meanwhile, I’m still gnawing on the fact that reading all the messy painfulness of Nature as the raw material of evolution does not seem to add anything to the “problem of pain.” Suffering exists whether Nature is evolutionary or not. What difference, on this level, does Darwin make?
Some, perhaps. To those of us who accept the reality of evolution, suffering and death can hardly be seen by any stretch of religious imagination as an add-on: a devilish interference, a consequence of Adamic sin. The whole affair arises out of the laws of the physical world, which could not be tweaked even slightly (according to some physicists) without rendering life impossible. This endless evolutionary cascade of birth, disease, predation, and death is, then, God’s loom. All of us—every bug, bird, germ, tree, and human—has been crafted in every heritable detail by a pattern of trillions of births and deaths extending over hundreds of millions of years. Gazelles only have long legs, good hearing, and jumpy temperaments because predators chased all their ancestors. Every white blood cell in my bloodstream and yours testifies that diseases have attacked our ancestors for many megayears: natural selection, responding blindly to those assaults, built the immune system. Even more intimately, our DNA contains at least 100,000 chunks of code put there by retroviruses over evolutionary time, including code for entire, viable viruses (endogenous retroviruses). About 8% of our DNA, maybe more, is viral in origin, and about 1% codes for actual virus—the fingerprints of infection through scores of millions of years. Some of that viral DNA has been re-purposed by evolution for beneficial roles that we cannot now dispense with. The definition of human cannot be stated without disease.
I can’t help feeling that this is pretty freakin’ cool. I also can’t help thinking that it is theologically relevant. Surely this is something that Christian theologians—and every Christian who thinks about their faith for more than a microsecond is a theologian—should be grappling with. (For decades, many have been mixing it up intelligently with evolution in general: John Haught, Denis Edwards, the process theologians, and many others I could name, even with my very slight literacy in the area.) You and I are to a pretty large extent viral in origin; since Jesus was human, so was he. We must, then, admit something like the following, though it seems alien to much traditional Fall-and-redemption narrative: God made all creatures to suffer and die. Death is not only inevitable, given life, but, patterned by natural selection, is creative of life. Through evolution all living things were made, and without it nothing alive was made that has been made (to paraphrase John 1:3). Is it not at least suggestive, in this light, that in Christianity, our redeemer is born, suffers, and dies; that our redeemer is also our Creator; and that (in this evolutionary world) the Creator shapes all life, including his incarnate Self, through birth, suffering, and death?
Suggestive, but problematic. Just bluntly, couldn’t God have found some nicer way to create? And admittedly, any theological acceptance of death as creative tends to clash with Christian views of death-as-enemy that go right back to Paul: “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). The creationists build a great deal on that verse, of course, but we might double-dip on Romans and build instead on the statement that the “whole Creation groans in childbirth” (Romans 8:22). The pain of the world is, in that metaphor, the pain of creation.
But maybe even that is just too pat. I do not mean to say that suffering, human and otherwise, can ever be explained away or theologically domesticated. The problem of pain can be lived with, maybe, sometimes, a little, but never nullified. It cuts too deep. Christ despaired on the cross; we, too, will always face the possibility of despair, whether in the semiprivate hospital room or the torture chamber. We humans, like all the other creatures, are vulnerable to the core and no theology or narrative can ever make us otherwise.
About the Author
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.