Michael Ruse: human evolution a big problem for Christians

Michael Ruse has spent a lot of time trying to explain to Christians how they can reconcile their faith with the advances of science.  This effort has sometimes reached risible lengths.  In his book Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, for example, Ruse tries to reconcile Christianity with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. He winds up telling the concerned faithful that there might have been an “intergalactic Jesus” who, like a travelling doctor, moved from planet to planet dispensing salvation.  What’s curious about all this is that Ruse claims not to believe any of the Christian myths—he’s an atheist.

But he’s finally run into a tenet of Christianity that can’t be reconciled with science:  the inevitability of humans. Ruse describes the problem in a piece at HuffPo, “A Darwinian can be a Christian, too”:

To my great surprise, however, I found what I thought then and still think now a major problem with reconciling Darwinism with Christianity. It is an absolute bottom-line claim of the Christian that the existence of humans is not contingent — if we did not exist then the Christian story could not be. It might be that we are blue and that we have twelve fingers. Possibly, although I am not sure, it might be that we don’t have sex. But intelligent beings, with moral awareness, able to act in this world, have to exist if Christianity is true. Otherwise, what is the point of all of that stuff about being made in “His Image”? However, Darwinism stresses that change is random and non-directed. For Darwin and his followers this has always been an absolute. Obviously humans are pretty complex animals, but our arrival has always been in some sense a matter of chance.

And Ruse gives a pretty good explanation for why scientists see the evolution of humans as contingent rather than inevitable:

Today’s Darwinians would make the case for non-directionality on two grounds. First, natural selection is always opportunistic, relative. What works in one case might not work in another. There are no absolutes, no fixed goals. Humans are pretty good organisms, but they have their drawbacks. For a start, their brains need massive amounts of protein, usually dead animals. There was no guarantee in the wild that such protein was always available or that we might not have been better eating grass albeit a bit dumb. Buffalo were doing pretty well until humans turned up. For a second, the building blocks of evolution, the mutations, are random, not in the sense of being without cause, but without regard for what their possessors need. Things can go any which way.

Indeed, this is a major roadblock in the accommodationist program, one that I’ve emphasized for a long time.  Claiming that the evolution of humans was inevitable violates every tenet of not only modern evolutionary biology, but of naturalism as the methodology of science.

One solution, as Ruse recognizes, is to claim that, well, maybe evolution occurred, but that God somehow either directed it or set it all up to culiminate in the appearance of humans.  This is the foundational claim of theistic evolution. And many real scientists who claim to accept evolution, like Kenneth Miller, Simon Conway Morris, and Francis Collins, buy this view.  They don’t seem to realize, as Ruse does, that

. . . this seems to me to be at total variance with the spirit of modern Darwinism.

True, but you won’t hear Miller, Conway Morris, or Collins pointing this out. At least Ruse has the intellectual decency to admit that this is a problem.

Indeed, more Americans accept theistic evolution than they do real (i.e., purely naturalistic) evolution: recent polls show that when Americans are asked how they account for the existence of humans, around 50% say that God created us directly, 30% say that we evolved but that God guided this process, and only 15% say that we appeared via unguided evolution.

So if we tell Christians that this is a way to reconcile science with their faith, we have to admit that we’re offering a bogus, nonscientific solution. Theistic evolutionists don’t really accept evolution, at least not the way scientists see it.  They’re buying a bastardized hybrid theory that is rejected by virtually all working biologists. Can we really count those 30% of theistic-evolutionist Americans as being on our side?

What does Ruse offer as a solution? He doesn’t have one, although he suggests that some version of the “multiverse” hypothesis may obtain:  if evolution occurred enough times on enough planets, or in enough universes, eventually one of them would cough up a smart, God-fearing creature.  In the end, though, he admits:

My suspicion is that if the problem is to be solved, then it has to be done with a theological solution rather than a scientific one.

And that’s the real job of theology: it’s a philosophical sausage mill for converting intellectual necessities into spiritual virtues.

h/t: (and goodbye for the nonce): Jason Rosenhouse


  1. Hempenstein
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    You nicely channeled Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce & HL Mencken with that last sentence.

  2. Insightful Ape
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    So he is invoking the “anthropic principle” to reconcile science and religion?
    That, and the whole ne meaning of “itinerant preacher”. Seriously.
    And if this intergalactic Jesus exists, then god must have loved all of the different “worlds” he created to send his only begotten son to die there? And since the creatures on those world would not resemble us, then would he assume a new form each time, becoming “fully god and fully android”, for example?
    Come to think of it, accomodationist claims are even more bizarre than young earth creationists.

  3. Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    They prefer Evolutionary Creationists now. I’m serious. We should allow them to self-identify, obviously.

    • Delusional
      Posted July 15, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      Well, I know I don’t.

  4. Chayanov
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    The Mormons believe Jesus wandered around the Americas after the resurrection. If we did find intelligent life elsewhere, it’s a guarantee that a Christian sect will emerge that claims Jesus visited those planets, too.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      Is that why they wander around the Americas pairwise these days?

      (My cousin’s solution, when they land on his doorstep, is to invite them in for coffee. He claims that that turns them on their heels.)

      • Chayanov
        Posted July 1, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        If he offered Irish coffee, their heads would probably explode.

  5. tm61
    Posted June 30, 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    “Can we really count those 30% of theistic-evolutionist Americans as being on our side?”
    If it’s wrong to count them as friends, isn’t it equally wrong to count them as foes?
    Maybe it’s best to consider them a “transitional form”….

    • Mutating Replicator
      Posted June 30, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

      But what good is half a friend? 🙂

    • Stephen
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      Or maybe just consider them childishly deluded, along with the 50 percenters.

  6. Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the contingency of evolution is much of a problem for at least those Christians who believe that random outcomes are already determined by God. Calvinism is a pretty terrifying theology but it has no need for tweaking at the quantum level to account for divine ‘guidance’ (wrong word) of evolution.

  7. KM
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    I prefer theistic evolution over creationism.

    I think its not realistic to assume that christians will abandon their faith directly. But theistic evolution is at least a first step in the right direction.

    • Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Agreed. As long as that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t encourage believers in theistic evolution to take another step in the right direction.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      “I think its not realistic to assume that christians will abandon their faith directly. But theistic evolution is at least a first step in the right direction.”

      I’ve personally known several people for whom this exactly the case: first they accepted theistic evolution, then progressed from there to some kind of Unitarianism, and ultimately into agnosticism and/or full-blown atheism.

      • tm61
        Posted July 1, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink


        The way to tell whether “theistic evolutionists” are “friend or foe” is to do a bit of research: what percentage of them used to be fervent believers vs the percentage who used to be staunch athiests. If the former is larger than the latter (I’m guessing we would all assume it would be), then I’d say they’re “friends”.

    • Posted July 2, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      From the BioLogos conference:

      9. “Evolutionary creationists” is a preferred term to “theistic evolutionists.”

  8. SLC
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    Not having read anything by Collins or Morris,I can’t speak to them. However, having read both of Millers’ books and having downloaded a number of his presentations, it appears to me that he has backed off somewhat from his assertion in his first book that the evolution of humans was inevitable. His current position seems to be that the evolution of some type of intelligent being was inevitable. That may be incorrect but it is at least a scientifically defensible position. Thus, the fact that the Cretaceous dinosaurs had larger encephalization factors then their Jurassic antecedents and the todays’ mammals have larger encephalization factors then the mammals of 50 million years ago seem to indicate that there is a selective advantage to encephalization, which is a necessary condition for intelligence.

    • Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      His current position seems to be that the evolution of some type of intelligent being was inevitable. That may be incorrect but it is at least a scientifically defensible position.

      How is that position scientifically defensible? There is no evidence for it. On the other hand, we know of many ways that intelligent life could have been wiped out before it fully formed. It wasn’t inevitable that there was no second dinosaur-killer astroid impact 5 or 10 million years ago.

      • SLC
        Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        I gave a rational for this claim later in the comment.

        However, it is not clear that the asteroid collision that eliminated the dinosaurs was required for the development of intelligent life. It was clearly required for the evolution of intelligent mammals, i.e. us. However, paleontologist Dale Russell has argued that, if the event had not occurred, the Troodons might have eventually evolved into intelligent bird-like creatures. I am aware that this is a controversial claim but I don’t think it is necessarily an unreasonable one.

        I would agree that, if another asteroid collision had occurred in between the 65 million years ago event and now, the rise of intelligent beings would have been, at the least, delayed (I would argue that it would have been made impossible only if all life was extinguished). For instance, the Permian extinction which eliminated a far greater number of species then did the KT extinction did not result in the non-appearance of intelligent life.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        FWIW, the CT event was very unlikely. No earlier asteroids have been found responsible for mass extinctions, and for good reasons. It is only lately that the type of calciferous, sulphuric sediments that it hit as been laid down by the biosphere. [I have a ‘definitive’ update ref on CT from -09 or-10, but no time to dig up the link right now; ask if you want it.]

        And that layering is laid out in a spotty manner AFAIU. It is highly unlikely another asteroid extinction event will happen again, considering all this.

    • TheBlackCat
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      4 words: “necessary but not sufficient”

  9. Posted July 1, 2010 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Theistic “evolutionists” contaminate science with tendentious fantasy scenarios. It’s better if they don’t believe in evolution at all rather than shit all over it with their unfalsifiable turds.

    I’ll take my reality straight, thanks.

    • tm61
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      They wouldn’t even consider the idea of “theistic evolution” at all if they didn’t see some weakness in their religious outlook. I’d say cut them a bit of slack.

      ..and didn’t you mean to say “accept evolution” not “believe in”?

  10. Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that Christians will happily adopt the sort of anthropic-principle reasoning that Ruse uses. If God just randomly created universes and planets until finally one planet developed life in his image, it would mean that they’d have to throw away their beloved fine-tuning argument.

  11. Sajanas
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Can a Darwinian be a Christian too? Obviously Darwin himself had that same problem. It is a particularly difficult point to get past, when a very religious man worked out this theory and felt the need for a creator evaporate. A surprising amount of evidence for evolution was discovered by creationists looking to find evidence of God, and who were intellectually honest enough to still share it. So, its a consistent problem for people throughout time, since the only way to keep believing in God is to make him a ‘director’ who does not interfere directly. I bet you could see with that survey that 15% are agnostic/atheist, 30% are deists, and 50% are normal man in the cloud folk.

  12. Neil
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    The purpose of theistic evolution, as I understand it, is to allow someone to both believe in god and accept the fact of evolution. But if the ultimate goal is to create humans, isn’t evolution a rather clumsy way for an almighty god to go about doing this? Lets face it, if you are willing to believe in an almighty god and that we humans are his ultimate goal, direct creation would have been the way to go.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      I some times try to imagine what the thinking of the almighty must be like as he sets evolution into motion.
      “I am going to create all these beings. I am then going to sit back and watch how they starve or freeze to death, how they fight over space, food or mates, and how volcanos and asteroids cause mass extinctions. I will then keep munching popcorn as new species emerge and old ones die out. After billions of years, an “intelligent” one likely will come out that will praise, rather than blame, me for this mess. Isn’t that sweet? I can’t lose”.

  13. Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Neil #12: Why? God doesn’t need to economise! (This point is made very clearly in David Ramsay Steele’s excellent book ‘Atheism Explained’, which brings out a lot of problems in the concept of God.)

    A big motivation of Young Earth Creationism is that they don’t want to admit animal death and suffering to be part of the original creation. It’s a very odd position to take, as if God had a plan A for a pain-free universe and then Adam and Eve ruined it and now it’s plan B.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    My own inclination is to invoke some variant of the multiverse hypothesis — many different universes — but to do this on theological grounds (if God wants to He can) rather than scientific grounds. Since humans did evolve, they could evolve (through Darwinism). It was just a matter of God giving it enough shots and it would happen. This seems awfully wasteful, but then as the nineteenth-century English historian and philosopher of science William Whewell worried, this universe with its vast expanses seems awfully wasteful anyway. Who are we to say that God thinks a non-human-occupied world is going to waste?

    Even though Ruse dumps the religious finetuning argument [as noted above], which mistakes our empirically informed a posteriori likelihoods with religious uninformed a priori probabilities, he is loath to introduce real physics.

    Ruse makes the same mistake as Koonin did in his “evolutionary big bang” articles. Ruse misunderstands that physicists looks for likely outcomes of having observers like us given environmental variation, not just so explicitly as Koonin did.

    In other words, the environmental parameters of our universe aren’t a necessary outcome for observers but a likely one given observers. Conversely these parameters will correlate with observers and not be a fluke that given “enough shots … would happen”.

    Moreover, as Max Tegmark notes, in such a universe, given that it is likely infinite:

    by having zero energy [there are arxiv refs], being subject to likely eternal inflation, obeying the Copernican principle, needing an infinite Hamiltonian to suppress Boltzmann Brains/have real time [Sean Carroll ref], et cetera et cetera “ad infinitum” [sic!]:

    if there is humans once we are guaranteed that there will be an infinite number of humans.

    This is because our observable universe is finite. A finite number of particle states can only permute that many times before they repeat the exact same universal state.

    You will have an infinite number of exact copies all over the universe, having the same events happen to them as to you, and all possible slightly modified variants thereof for any measure of “slightly” you care to define.

    So again Ruse misunderstands what physics tells us. If the eternal inflationary multiverse exists, which is the simplest version of todays standard cosmology with an actual inflation theory put in [ref Andrei Linde], humans or something similar will exist if parameters permit it (and so it seems). Then these humans aren’t unique, despite the contingency of biology, for purely physical reasons.

    When and if post-semitic adherents gets around to actual physics, they will now have another set of problems:

    – Will they insist that this degeneracy of physics is allowed, i.e. it doesn’t matter if there are humans exactly like us or nearly so all over the universe? It can still be “unique” in a set sense. But then what is “close enough” to qualify as “unique”, _and why_, in religious psychology?!

    [Have you noticed how religion never can answer “Why?”, while science always seem to give satisfying answers after a while? Really.]

    – Will they insist that there were only one zombie god happening? But that is “at total variance with the spirit of modern” physics!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      D’oh! “an infinite Hamiltonian” – an infinite _dimensional_ Hamiltonian.

  15. Sam
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    People like Collins tend to say God set off the evolutionary process with the knowledge that eventually it would lead to humans. God is omniscient, after all. But this contradicts a solution offered by many theists for the apparent contradiction between omniscience and free will: namely, that God’s omniscience only extends to what is logically possible to be known, and with his creatures having free will it is not logically possible for him to know the future. So either way they’re screwed.

    As for ‘intergalactic Jesus’, you have to wonder why Jesus didn’t also have an incarnation in every society on our own planet, rather than just appearing in Israel and expecting the message to spread from there, suspiciously by the same means as any other man-made idea spreads. Besides, do we doubt for a moment that if these extraterrestrials came with their separate Jesus-religion, the Christians wouldn’t still be trying to convert them to THEIR Christianity?

  16. Posted July 2, 2010 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Ruse is not only a fellow atheist. If I read his books correctly, he is a fellow moral error theorist/moral sceptic. What’s not to like?

    Well, except that he spends so much effort trying to show that you really can be religious while adopting a scientific worldview. It’s an interesting question, and the answer is going to have to be at least a bit nuanced (most of us are not disputing that a really rigorous deism or a non-literalist theological literalism can be consistent with science). But why does Ruse care so much?

  17. Posted July 2, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    It’s no wonder that Simon Conway Morris proposes convergence in order to explain at least some inevitability.

  18. jose
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    One of the biggest triumphs of darwin’s original theory is that he got rid of teleology. Sorry, no more “internal forces”, no more “inherent potentialities” driving evolution. Just populations and their environment. Even more, his theory requires varieties to be generated randomly.

    Then we have what we learn in highschool: each mutation has its own mutation rate (which means we have to use random variables to work with them), genetic drift is completely random, and the thing that selects beneficial traits is not some invisible deity, but the organism’s environment. Its predators, how much food is available, its success with the opposite sex, luck. The wheather.

    So is God faking statistics and arranges everything so we can figure out things about evolution using probability theory? Well, he might as well bury fossils in the mountains to fool us.

    Randomness and lack of teleology are part of the theory of evolution’s foundations. Theistic evolution is incompatible with both original darwinism and modern synthesis.

  19. Posted July 3, 2010 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    jose #18: So is God faking statistics and arranges everything so we can figure out things about evolution using probability theory? Well, he might as well bury fossils in the mountains to fool us.

    This is a very good point, and one that had never occurred to me before. The appearance of randomness would be just as deceptive as the appearance of age. And unlike the appearance of age, it’s directly stated in the Bible: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD.” Proverbs 16:33.


  20. bre
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I am a 8th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about evolution for my class this year. I just wanted to thank you first of all for the great information and articles about evolution, and second let you know about a site we are putting together for teachers that might have some useful information for your site.

    We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, or link to some of the current articles to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers. I have included a link to the site below in hopes you might want to write some articles for us or link to it.

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming 🙂

    Bre Matthews


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  1. […] Evolution: I keep bringing this up. Scientific evolution contends that evolution is an undirected process driven by random mutations; that doesn’t mean that the mutations that survive from generation to generation are randomly selected. But the bottom line is that it is impossible to precisely predict what will happen in a few million years. In other words, humans were NOT an intended outcome of the process. People who think that we were are not accepting the sort of evolution that scientists research. […]

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