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Is Evolutionary Biology Compatible with Theism?

By Edited Feb 27, 2016 0 0

Since the commencement of human existence and the developed capability to cognitively contemplate abstract, metaphysical concepts, the why and how pertaining to our species’ and the surrounding physical phenomena’s creation has fascinated billions who have inhabited or continue to inhabit the Earth. For, in the absence of a verified explanation for creation and the continuation of time, existence—in addition to being perplexing—borders on nihilistic if no meaning or purpose can be derived from spontaneous being. Thus, humans have sought an answer to the aforementioned eternal question and, in large part due to the apparent ‘fine-tuned’ design of the Earth coupled with various religious doctrines that give human existence meaning through means such as self-actualization or devotion to a Savior who transcended human sin for His creation’s benefit, a theistic belief has long sufficed in the Western world. In particular, Christian theism appeared to adequately answer the why and how the world and its creatures operate as they do: simply put, God created the Earth according to the tenets relayed in Genesis—divinely designed—, and human purpose is reflected in accepting Jesus Christ as the Savior—essentially trying to emulate His persona while dually acknowledging that we are broken sinners destined to impurity prior to reaching the gates of Heaven. However, in light of Charles Darwin’s discoveries expressed in his renowned On the Origin of Species, theism has received formidable backlash from portions of the scientific community who consider Darwinian evolution and natural selection incompatible with theism—namely reasoning that Genesis appears mythically childish and in highly improbable opposition to empirical rationalization (Joubert 2012: 107). Herein, it will be argued that theism is in fact compatible with past and contemporary discoveries in the fields of evolutionary biology. For although evolutionary biology does not entail theism, naturalist argumentation—now equipped with discoveries in evolutionary biology—remains less probable than theist reasoning; most notably, naturalism inadequately explains organized complexity, cognitive faculties, and the compatibility of knowledge outside the realms of reason and science whilst theism, at least in the present, offers explanations that cannot be discredited. In sum, as opposed to submissively adhering to the increasingly common inclination to pit science and religion against each other, advances in evolutionary biology can impartially benefit the collective welfare of society—and, as previously ascertained, these benefits give credence to the compatibility of evolutionary biology and theism.

            Prior to examining theist explanations that appeal to the exemplifying human inclination to ponder spirituality, prevalent naturalistic perspectives must be examined. One such assertion is proposed by prominent naturalist Daniel Dennett, who asserts that the Earth is one of many planets in the universe, and accordingly, “…the world we find ourselves in is simply one among countless others that have existed throughout all eternity” (Dennett 1995: 179). In this view, it follows that a multiplicity of worlds would be designed without a ‘designing mind,’ and as Dennett puts it, “…out of chaos” (Dennett 1995: 50). Before contending that these premises are improbable, it must be ceded that the ‘multiple universes’ and ‘no intelligent designer’ hypotheses cannot be disproven outright. Rather, theism is simply more probable—beginning with that, even if life somehow just appeared by the regularities of science, the complexities of the production of language, mind, and morality transcend any evidence proposed by natural selection. As Alvin Plantinga notes, “is it really so much as possible that language, say, or consciousness should have been produced by processes of this sort?” (Plantinga 1996: 4). Furthermore, whereas the theist can claim knowledge by faith that God created a world in which humans have endowed consciousness and reason—scientifically—that God may have done this through evolutionary processes, the naturalist is restricted by the limitations of natural selection and evolution in its entirety. Thus naturalists have notoriously struggled with providing explanations for the creation of complex existence, because natural selection does not address the implementation of cognition nor its generational inheritance. In an attempt to rectify this dilemma, Richard Dawkins writes, “Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity…it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of more organized complexity…but of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as the machine itself” (Dawkins 1986: 141). The irony here is that Dawkins, as briefly alluded to by Plantinga, attempts to make the theist rationale circular in the sense that theists postulate that organized complexity originates from an uncreated mind that goes on to create everyone and everything else. The misstep is that Dawkins presupposes that the uncreated mind would not possess an organized complexity that transcends any kind of omniscience that humans can fathom. Naturally, the Creator would be more complex than its creation a priori; so, while the naturalist is stuck trying to postulate a ‘mind generator’—let alone one that allows for ‘lofty’ cognition that conflicts with primitive desires that man would be predisposed to prioritize—that evolutionary biology does not offer, the theist at least offers the proposition of a generator that cannot be disproven. As Plantinga claims in relation to how a ‘mind generator’ by natural selection—even if true—would not distinguish human cognition from the ‘lower animals,’ “Evolutionary naturalism, therefore, provides one who accepts it with a defeater for scientific beliefs, a reason for doubting that science does in fact get us to the truth, or close to the truth” (Plantinga 1996: 8). As follows, knowledge cannot be restricted to solely scientific, observable facts—and the limitations of science will henceforth be examined.

            Due to widespread human dependence on the senses—more specifically empirical observation through vision—, man is reluctant to confide in ideology that cannot be deducted scientifically. In the words of Michael Ruse, humans are bound to the “…commitment to the idea that the world is law-bound – that is, subject to unbroken regularity – and to the belief that there are no powers, seen or unseen, that interfere with or otherwise make inexplicable the normal workings of material objects” (Ruse 1988: 21). Whilst the philosophy conveyed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that diminishes the importance of the physical senses is appealing, it is innate for humans to be skeptical of the existence of abstract entities. Therefore, the naturalist’s empiricist inclinations provide an outlet for the skeptic. However, paralleling the shortcomings of naturalism’s solely Darwinian acceptance of evolutionary biology (which the liberal theist does not dispute), physical science—biology, chemistry, or physics—does not explain the spiritual yearnings that separate man and all other species. Again, if science encapsulated all existence, humanity would be driven by the overarching desires to eat, sleep, and reproduce; of course these desires accompany man on a daily basis, but they do not explain feelings and actions such as contemplation, justice, or empathy. Writes Joseph Zycinski, “… one cannot accept the scientific description of nature as a brute fact. In understanding the deepest meaning of the cosmic evolution as well as the emergence of the human person with its unique spiritual propensities we have to refer to both scientific theories and philosophical reflection” (Zycinski 2005: 214). Alas, there is knowledge beyond the scope of physical science, and a stubbornness to accept this is quite analogous to the closed-minded, archaic theist. A final point to emphasize is that evolutionary biology is a historical position, and consequently it does not reject that God could have providentially guided the evolutionary process. The evolutionary path of the human species has been beset with many contingent happenings, and “a (more plausible) miraculous mutation at the outset of the human species” is more mathematically probable than ’unnatural natural’ disruptions in the midst of the empirical order—especially when it is more plausible that articulate design preceded relative chaos (Godly-designed perfection obstructed by free will in a deterministic world) rather than in the opposite order (chaos creating practically perfect existence in terms of life-sustainability) (Devine 1996: 334). In short, evolution has clearly occurred but does not offer a complete origin of existence nor does it currently appear to have the capability to explain organized complexity and the vast array of knowledge outside the realm of science; hence, even in the absence of a devout faith that gives meaning to many, recognizing the compatibility of evolutionary biology and theism is the most sensible consensus.

            In conclusion, evolutionary biology and theism are compatible because the rejection of either premise is illogical. Extremists may consider this somewhat frail endorsement to be lacking in brutish force, but the lack of definitive scientific and/or theological proof leaves one playing the odds at the blackjack table. What cannot be disputed is that humans are undeniably oriented towards transcendental goals that are not empirically beneficial, and that science does not adequately address cognitive and creationist questions that theism has plausible explanations for. In accord, and this theory has been expressed by philosophers such as Haught and Edwards, God can be understood as an ‘evolutionary attractor’—creating and endowing humanity with the free will to embrace him even in a deterministic world (Zycinski 2005: 221). In this view, God can simultaneously take on the role of composer and conductor—composing the world (plausibly including evolution) and conducting (guiding) His creation in the right direction through God Himself in the body and blood of Christ.  Nonetheless, the naturalist claiming incompatibility between evolutionary biology and theism is left with no composer and a conductor that does not have access to the entire ode. Analogies aside, the theist who accepts evolution provides more plausible answers than the naturalist who accepts evolution; anyone with this understanding would argue for the compatibility of evolutionary biology and theism as this response has.


Dawkins, R., The Blind Watchmaker. New York, USA: Norton & Company, Inc. (1986).

Dennett, D., Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York, USA: Simon & Schuster. (1996).

Devine, P., “Creation and Evolution”, Cambridge University Press. 32. 3. (1996). 325-337.

Joubert, C., “Theistic Evolution: An Incoherent and Inconsistent Worldview?”, Answers Research Journal. 5. (2012). 99-114.

Plantinga, A., “Darwin, Mind, and Meaning”, University of Notre Dame. (1996). 1-8.

Ruse, M., But is it Science?. Buffalo, NY, USA: Prometheus. (1988). 21.

Zycinski, J., “Christian Theism and the Philosophical Meaning of Cosmic Evolution”, Portuguese Review of Philosophy. (2005). 211-223.



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