Over at Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne posted an article (yesterday, 21 February) about the mindlessness of evolution. He quotes the following from the text he is using, Evolution, by Douglas Futuyma:
[Darwin's] alternative to intelligent design was design by the completely mindless process of natural selection, according to which organisms possessing variations that enhance survival or reproduction replace those less suitably endowed, which therefore survive or reproduce in lesser degree. This process cannot have a goal, any more than erosion has the goal of forming canyons, for the future cannot cause material events in the present. Thus the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology.
But of course they don’t! Job could have told you that. And this is why the theological shenanigans over at the National Center for Science Education are really way out of line. For, try as they might, theologians had to give up on a strong teleology a long time ago. Rabbi Harold Kushner, after the death of his son, had to rationalise it by saying that God really doesn’t have the power to influence outcomes. Others try different expedients, but only the blind can think that the evils of the world express a good purpose. No one, with an ounce of sense, can look at the world and say that it was designed for a purpose. On the one hand, it’s practically impossible to keep our teleological fingers off things; but on the other, life has a tendency to go so badly that supposing there is a purpose to the things that happen stretches credulity so far that anyone who tries to do it literally has to have a bad intellectual conscience.
Think for a moment about the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand, while we in North America were sleeping last night. Look at the picture to your left. Does this look like it has a purpose? One can only hold on to the idea that there is a purpose behind everything by cancelling through by all the completely pointless things that happen, or, as very often happens, by simply ignoring the miseries that beset other people.
Some years ago I was on a trip to the UK. While I was there a plane crashed on a motorway. There were some survivors, but many people were killed. One suvivor told a reporter that now she knew that there was a god. After all, she survived, didn’t she? There must have been a reason. It is very hard for us not to think in this way, as though good things were simply destined to happen in the way that they do.
When bad things happen, though, it’s a different story. Then we have to begin making excuses. This is when theologians begin saying things like — “what seems to be a disaster might have happened for any number of reasons. And, besides, think of how much you have learned about yourself from this tragedy. So, it’s not all loss, is it? While we may not be able to understand fully, at least we have been given glimpses of divine purpose.”
We can imagine the people of Christchurch reflecting on the disaster, and out of the anger and the sorrow and the pain of loss something good will almost inevitably come. We know this, because we too have been through disasters, have watched loved ones die, have ourselves suffered, and we are still here, still going on with life, still goal oriented, full of purpose. We have an almost unlimited ability to rationalise, to excuse, to see signs of meaning and purpose where there are none.
I spent years wrestling with the so-called Problem of Evil. People in the congregations that I served over the years often asked me to explain how it is possible to go on believing in God’s goodness when there is so much pain and suffering. I did many Bible studies on the book of Job. Job, it always seemed to me, was proof against the doubts that suffering raises for faith. If someone like Job, a good man who suffers for no assignable reason, can continue in faithfulness, then surely we, who suffer less, should be able to maintain faith in the face of the changes and chances of the world. Towards the end of the book, after having suffered so much, God himself makes an appearance, and then, we are told, after the great theophany in which Job is challenged by God himself to explain the fathomless purposes of the world, Job repents in dust and ashes. How little he can know of God’s purposes:
Lo, these are but the outskirts of his ways: and how small a whisper do we hear of him! but the thunder of his power who can understand? [Job 26.14]
All we can know is such a small part of the whole. How can we then understand why things happen as they do? Better simply to fall back on the faith that, though we cannot understand, surely the one who has purposed all this wondrous universe in which we find ourselves will not, in the end, forget us, but will bear us up in worse than this.
Then I read Darwin’s Origin, and it was impossible to continue to see things in this way. I tried, but there was no going back. I’m not sure now what year it was, but it must have been around 2002 that I read the Origin for the first time. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that no one should be able to finish high school, let alone university, without having read one of the seminal works of the age. But few have read it. Not one person in the parish where I worked had read it. Not one. There were doctors and lawyers and teachers in the congregation, but not one had read anything by Darwin, and yet Darwin opened my eyes for the first time to the world around me in a way that nothing else had done. Soon after Darwin, I read Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and after that faith had only a short time to live.
It is simply impossible to read Darwin and come away with the idea that the process of evolution is directed or supervised. The completely contingent character of the world is fully revealed, and it’s hard to understand how one did not see this before. It should have been obvious! But not only is contingency obvious; it becomes obvious that, if the way the world is is contingent, then knowledge itself, if not contingent, must be a fully human project, the product of millennia of trial and error. And then, it becomes pellucidly clear that morality itself is human, that goodness is a purely human product, and very fragile, not something simply built into the process by which we came to be, but an extrapolation from that process, and, to the extent possible, a determination to bend the process to ensure better outcomes.
Job was right. There is no justice in human suffering. There was no reason why he suffered. And the story does not show a man who bows down in abject submission to a power that he cannot understand. The God of Job is the cruelty of nature, and all he can do in response to it is to surrender and tremble. The great poetic part of Job — subverted later by a true believer — recognises fully that human life is a tissue of contingencies, God is a mindless process, and we are froth on the sea of fate (not faith). But it can be made better. We do not simply need to submit. We can make the worse work for the best. If God is in the cruelty, then humanity is in the goodness. That’s a good reason to give up on gods.
This is something, I believe, that Darwin realised, not as a scientific conclusion so much as a personal recognition. It was something that I was coming to realise too, that the joy that I knew, quite wondrously and fortuitously, in having met someone with whom I was bonded more closely than I had ever thought possible, was the product of chance, and would come to an end by chance, just as it had begun. Darwin realised, as he tried everything then possible to help his 10-year-old daughter Anne, weakened by scarlet fever and suffering from consumption, that he was watching a completely contingent process at work. Darwin was a modern Job. All he could do in the end was to submit to the forces that were at work in Anne’s body. Anne was struggling for survival, just as every living organism does, and she lost. She died without leaving any descendents. In the struggle to survive and propagate, she lost. By all accounts, Anne was a bright, happy child. Certainly Darwin’s memorial to Anne tells us that she was. But however happy she may have been, her death spelled the end of faith for Darwin. After that he could not really even pretend, and ceased going to church with the family. I can understand that.
Faith can’t survive the realisation that the whole of the life world is built on struggle and failure, with a glacially slow accumulation of small successes. It is a constant struggle, a struggle that has been going on for billions and billions of years, in which organisms come into being, struggle for survival, and then die, many of them, perhaps most, not leaving any issue, only a favoured few — those selected by a completely indifferent process — surviving to pass on their genes to the next generation. And in that process, billions and billions of living creatures struggle to pass on their genes, and fail. What is the sum of all that suffering, struggling multitude? Can faith in a god survive the knowledge that we are the product of all that misery and affliction? In the Epic of Gilgamesh even the gods do not know why so many had to suffer. That there is no reason should make us much more sensitive and caring, but it should spell the end of gods.
For those who are interested, I have added a brilliant analysis of Job by the philosopher (onetime at the University of Calgary, I believe) Herman Herman Tønnessen — here.