Theistic evolution is the belief that God uses evolution to create life.
I accept this proposition, to a certain extent. I believe that one of the joys of being a creator of worlds without number is seeing how life evolves on worlds without divine intervention. The Creator placed life on His worlds and subjected it to the vicissitudes of chance and time (Ecclesiastes 9:11). So, in a manner of speaking, the effects of time and chance are part of the grand master plan.
Thus we see that there is harmony between randomness and divine purpose. Contrary to Einstein’s assertion that the Creator does not leave anything to chance (i.e., all events, including falling dice, are law governed), God allows randomness and apparently “uses” it to accomplish His creative objectives (more on these objectives in the next paragraph). Divine purpose and randomness are compatible. They can co-exist peacefully!
It is important for us to recognize the compatibility between divine creation and randomness because, as science has shown, random events occur at the genomic level. Random mutation is a fundamental tenet of neo-Darwinism. According to the reputable Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, “The theory of neo-Darwinism asserts that much of the evolutionary change observed at the molecular level occurs via random genetic drift.”
Because God and randomness are compatible under certain circumstances, there are no theoretical problems with asserting that He relies on evolutionary, random, genetic drift to achieve His objectives (by ‘objectives’, I am referring to the creation of new and interesting variations without direct divine intervention). So if God sometimes relies on evolutionary randomness, what is wrong with believing in theistic evolution?
The problem lies with the creation of man (and woman). You see, most theistic evolutionists believe that Adam and Eve’s bodies evolved from lower life forms, just like every other mammal. This claim is entirely inconsistent with gospel doctrine.
The gospel teaches that the creation of mankind was purposeful and directed – it could be no less because mankind had to be created in the image of God (Moses 6:8-9). The creation of mankind was not left up to the vicissitudes of chance over time. The Creator was not looking for new and interesting variations when He created mankind. It had to be done a certain way, in a manner that did not involve randomness inherent in evolution. The creation of mankind was not a processes to be left to evolutionary creativity. Prominent Latter-day Saint scholars support this view.
Joseph Fielding McConkie wrote:
Some have argued for a form of theistic evolution—that is, a God-inspired evolution—in which lower forms of life progressed over great periods of time to the point that God could take the spirit of the man Adam and place it in an animal and declare it to be the first man. The argument is at odds both with scripture and with an official declaration of the First Presidency on the origin of man.
Robert J. Mathews similarly wrote:
The theistic evolutionist often speaks of a guided evolution, in which God intervenes in the process. There are those in and out of the Church who, because they believe in a divine being, sincerely attempt to hold to both the theory of evolution and their faith in God as creator. It is my opinion that in the eternal plan of God these two positions are incompatible.
I have heard rationalizations from Latter-day Saints desperately wanting to reconcile gospel doctrine and their belief in common descent. I cannot fault them for trying, however, their efforts have largely proved ineffectual. Their explanations lack theoretical and theological rigor. For instance, a common explanation is that God-directed evolution only appears random to us lowly mortals. This explanation falls short because the real issue is not one of appearances; it is one of what is ontologically real about the creation of mankind. In other words, at its foundation, was the creation of mankind driven by chance processes as evolution asserts, or was it guided by deity? If God created mankind with guided “evolutionary” processes, then it really wasn’t evolution, was it, regardless of appearances?
Parallel evolution is another perfunctory attempt at reconciling the theory of evolutionary descent with gospel doctrine on the creation of man. In a manner of speaking, parallel evolution refers to the independent evolution of similar traits in life forms that shared similar ancestral conditions. Put differently, two organisms with similar traits may evolve in a similar manner in different settings. I suppose that this is supposed to show that there is an underlying law or metaphysical principle guiding the evolution of similar traits in separate environmental contexts, and that this principle has something to do with God’s influence.
Atheistic evolutionists will readily concede that parallel evolution reflects the underlying laws of nature governing evolutionary processes, but they will also add that those laws are purposeless and are not devised by higher intelligence. Theistic evolutionists, on the other hand, will say that parallel evolution evidences a purposeful creator, that he set the laws of evolution in motion and dictated how those laws were to work from the beginning.
How do the atheists feel about divine guided evolution? They do not like it, and rightfully so. For atheists, parallel evolution just shows that there are underlying laws of nature resulting in uniform progression. Atheists believe in law governed evolution, however, they reject that those laws were created for a divine purpose. The laws are just laws, nothing more and nothing less. Atheists reject divine, purpose-driven evolution because, as they correctly point out, at its core evolution is purposeless.
Notwithstanding their anti-religious stance, Richard Dawkins and Will Provine are two evolution atheists who tend to think more clearly about this issue than most theistic evolutionists. Here is what they had to say about believing that God provided the laws of evolution for the purpose of creating mankind.
If I were God, I wouldn’t do it by evolution! I would do it directly. By invoking the idea of evolution by natural selection as God’s way of doing it, you are in effect invoking the one way which makes it look as though God isn’t there. So if God chose that way of doing it, then he deliberately chose a way which totally covered his tracks.
I think creation scientists are very intellectually honest in their beliefs. If evolution is true, then none of the things that deeply religious people want to be true are in fact true. No God. No life after death. No free will. No ultimate meaning in life and no ultimate foundation for ethics. All these things are taken away.
So what are we to conclude about Latter-day Saints who embrace theistic evolution, notwithstanding its inconsistencies with true gospel doctrine and evolution orthodoxy? Perhaps LDS scholar Robert J. Mathews put it best when he wrote:
It may be that the believer who accepts [theistic evolution] has simply never thought it out to its logical, moral conclusions.
Theistic evolution is the belief that God uses evolution to create life.
Well, I finally got around to finishing my January 2009 issue of Scientific American, you know, the special issue on the "most powerful idea in science" (shhh! Don't tell Einstein). I think most of the evolution articles were well written. I particularly enjoyed “Evolution in the Everyday World” which talks about how evolution is being applied in technology, criminology, medicine, and computer science. Because I graduated with a doctoral degree in psychology, I was especially interested in “The Four Fallacies of Pop Evolution Psychology.”
Biological reductionism asserts that every human experience is reducible to biological events, inlcuding human consciousness. While I do not deny that our physical bodies influence conscious experiences in mortality, it is not true that our bodies are the fundamental source of consciousness - our spirits are.
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