There are of course many ways to “reconcile” faith and science, although in my opinion none have been very successful. One of the more popular ways is to see evolution as a big improvement in theodicy—the perennial attempt of the faithful to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a loving and powerful God. How could such a god permit the existence of suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and particularly when those evils are inflicted not by other humans but by diseases like cancer or natural disasters like tsunamis? Science, so the answer goes, solves this problem by showing that much of our suffering is simply inherent in the process of evolution, a process supposedly chosen by God to work his will.
This issue is discussed in a surprising paper by John Avise in this week’s week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I say “surprising” because I haven’t before seen a paper in a high-class science journal that tries to show how science can be used to upgrade theology. Avise produces a great account of the jerry-rigged nature of the human genome (which, I should add, also goes for all eukaryotic genomes), but he goes astray, I think, when relating these facts to theology.
Avise is a highly respected evolutionary biologist who spent most of his career at the University of Georgia and is now at The University of California at Irvine. Among his many achievements has been the creation of phylogeography, the discipline that uses of molecular-genetic tools to study the distribution and evolution of organisms in the wild. Avise has written over 300 papers and 20 books; his most recent book, Inside the Human Genome: A case for Non-Intelligent Design, makes the case that, like all the more visible imperfections and “bad design” of animals and plants, the puzzling aspects of the human genome give evidence for evolution and against creationism.
The PNAS paper, “Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome”, seems to be a precis of the book. The paper shows how the human genome is riddled with mistakes, inefficiencies, and just plain bad design that says Avise, makes no sense under any scheme of intelligent design. He provides a very useful catalog of these problems in our own genome, which include the following:
- The pervasiveness of deleterious mutations, which are responsible for many human diseases.
- The fact that many of our genes are “split” by intervening sections (introns), which don’t produce a product. This appears to be bad design because putting those split genes together “impose[s] energetic burdens on cells. These introns, which Avise sees as unnecessary (they may reflect the ancient assembly of eukaryotic genomes from segments in earlier genomes), can also lead to diseases if the splicing of different bits of a gene into the final messenger-RNA product goes awry.
- Some of our genome resides in mitochondia, the cell organelles where biological respiration occurs. But some of that respiration also requires genes in the nucleus. Further, mitochondrial DNA “does not even encode any of the proteins that are directly involved in its own replication.” There’s no obvious reason why this should be so under a design perspective. As Avise notes, correctly, “None of
this makes any biological sense, except in the light of evolutionary science (which has discovered that modern mitochondria are remnants of a microbe that invaded or was engulfed by a protoeukaryotic cell in an endosymbiotic merger that took place billions of years ago).”
- Our genome is littered with repetitive DNA, much of which doesn’t seem to do anything at all.
- Ditto for the many transposable “mobile elements,” which can, when they move, lead to mutations and genetic disease. Many of these, though, are simply dead, and can be better seen as the remnants of ancient infections than as the handiwork of an intelligent god.
Avise argues, correctly, that these “problems” are the result of evolution:
From an evolutionary perspective, such genomic flaws are easier to explain. Occasional errors in gene regulation and surveillance are to be expected in any complex contrivance that hasn been engineered over the eons by the endless tinkering of mindless evolutionary forces: mutation, recombination, genetic drift, and natural selection. Again, the complexity of genomic architecture would seem to be a surer signature of tinkered evolution by natural processes than of direct invention by an omnipotent intelligent agent.
Now I won’t defend all of these things as gross “inefficiencies” or bad design. Avise notes, for instances, that introns can be useful, for a single stretch of DNA can be spliced in different ways, yielding different and useful gene products from a single “gene.” But in the main Avise is right. Our genomes, like our bodies and organ systems, are pretty much a mess that reflects their evolutionary history. They are jerry-rigged genomes, cobbled together from ancestral genes, bits of DNA from bacteria and viruses, and nonfunctional “dead genes” that were useful in our ancestors but not in us. And their structure is, as Avise avers, a very powerful argument against intelligent design.
The problem with Avise’s argument comes when he claims that seeing our genomes—whose structure is not only inefficient but can sometimes lead to debilitating or fatal mutations—as products of evolution relieves us of the insuperable problem of explaining their structure as the result of intelligent design. In other words, these problems (and the “evil” they create) are inherent in evolution, so one need not explain how each of them was part of God’s plan:
Evolution by natural causes in effect emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy. No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. No longer must we anguish about the interventionist motives of a supreme intelligence that permits gross evil and suffering in the world. No longer need we be tempted to blaspheme an omnipotent Deity by charging Him directly responsible for human frailties and physical shortcomings (including those that we now understand to be commonplace at molecular and biochemical levels). No longer need we blame a Creator God’s direct hand for any of these disturbing empirical facts. Instead, we can put the blame squarely on the agency of insentient natural evolutionary causation. From this perspective, the evolutionary sciences can become a welcome partner (rather than the conventionally perceived adversary) of mainstream religion (Fig 1).
The evolutionary-genetic sciences thus can help religions to escape from the profound conundrums of ID, and thereby return religion to its rightful realm—not as the secular interpreter of the biological minutiae of our physical existence but, rather, as a respectable philosophical counselor on grander matters, including ethics and morality, the soul, spiritualness, sacredness, and other such matters that have always been of ultimate concern to humanity.
Now I’m not sure how Avise can tell us what religion’s “rightful realm” is, but never mind. There’s a bigger problem here. If evolution is to become a “welcome partner” to religion, the faithful will have to accept that evolution and natural selection were God’s plan for creating life. And that just raises more theological difficulties:
- Why would God choose such an inefficient and wasteful way to create life (and, for many religious people, to ultimately produce humans)? So many individuals (including our ancestors) dying horrible deaths in the service of natural selection; so many species evolving and then leaving the scene through extinction! If natural selection is anything, it’s is suffering, so the evolutionary process itself entails all the evils that theodicy must explain. Positing that mutations occur because they’re inevitable byproducts of evolution just replaces the problem for theodicy with another one: why did God use a process that itself entailed so much suffering? And why didn’t he just create everything de novo instead of using such a convoluted process? At least he would have avoided much of the misery associated with natural selection.
- And of course God could have set up evolution so that it entailed less suffering. He could have allowed only beneficial mutations to occur rather than ones that cause disease. An evolutionist might respond that, “Well, natural selection requires random mutations, so that entails bad ones, too.” But of course God can do anything he wants! Why didn’t he relieve malaria in Africa by creating a single mutation that fends off the parasites whether you have one copy or two, rather than the sickle-cell mutation that fends off malaria when you have one copy but causes a horrible disease when you have two?
- This brings up an important issue: if you’re going to save the hypothesis of evolution as God’s plan, then you need to give up the idea that God intervenes in the evolutionary process, that is, you must abandon theism (the notion that God intervenes in the world) and embrace deism. God made evolution and then took his hands off—that’s why all that suffering from selection and mutation. But few religious people buy that kind of god. If you think that God can answer prayers, why can’t he stop the mutations that cause cancer in children?
- A related issue involves the evolution of humans. If, as a religious person, you see humans as the ultimate goal or product of evolution, how can you reconcile that goal with the fact that evolution is messy, contingent on unpredictable changes in the environment, and itself dependent on the random and unpredictable process of mutation? It’s not at all clear that the evolution of humans, or of a god-worshipping humanoid creature, was inevitable, especially since, of the millions of species that ever lived, it happened only once.
There are two solutions. The first is to claim that if evolution started all over again, it would still produce humans or something like us. As I’ve argued, there’s no scientific basis for this claim; indeed, one could make a stronger argument on the other side. The second solution is to say that God set up the evolutionary process so that it would produce humans. But this posits that evolution is a directed process, and I don’t know many evolutionists who believe that. I doubt that Avise does.
- Finally, evolutionary theodicy deals only with genetic evils, and fails to explain away the rest of the world’s evils. It still leaves the problem of why humans do evil to other humans. And it doesn’t explain why innocent humans suffer and die from natural disasters. Both of these could be prevented by a loving and ominipotent god. And if you can find a satisfactory explanation for those, then you could apply that to genetic evils as well, so there’s no need to accept evolution.
In the end, evolution is not a “welcome partner” for religion or theodicy, for it raises more problems than it solves. It’s easier and more parsimonious to simply discard the notion of God, or even to posit a malicious or unconcerned god, than to believe that a powerful and loving deity is author of the world’s ills.
Avise, J. C. 2010. Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. US. online (May 5), doi: 10.1073/pnas.0914609107
h/t: Paul Jones