This piece was originally published in AlterNet.
“Of course I believe in evolution. And I believe in God, too. I believe that evolution is how God created life.”
You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality — including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.
In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.
I’m saying that this position is untenable. I’m saying that the “God made evolution happen” position is rife with both internal contradictions and denial of the evidence. You don’t have to deny as much reality as young earth creationists do to take this position — but you still have to deny a fair amount. Here are four reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense.
According to theistic evolution (the fancy term for “God made evolution happen”), the process of evolution is shaped by the hand of God. God takes the processes of mutation, natural selection, and descent with modification, and uses them to direct life into the forms he wants — including the form of humanity.
But in evolution, there is no direction. At the core of the theory of evolution is the principle that whatever survives, survives, and whatever reproduces, reproduces. Each generation has to survive and reproduce on its own terms: there’s no selecting for a particular feature that’s harmful now but will be useful ten generations later, after a little more adapting. If a particular trait isn’t either beneficial or neutral to these animals, these plants, these bacteria, in this generation here and now — it’s going to be selected out pretty darn quick. Evolution is all about the immediate present and the very near future: it’s about surviving, and producing fertile offspring that live long enough to reproduce.
And there’s a huge amount of random chaos in the mix. If any of a hundred thousand quirks go a different way, the outcome can be different — sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. A flood shifts the course of a river, and a plant’s seeds float south-south-east instead of due south, and the seeds sprout on the part of the continent that splits off and becomes South America. An asteroid hits the planet and wipes out the dinosaurs, and these weird rodent-like creatures start reproducing like gangbusters, and in a few hundred thousand years some of their great-great-thousands-of-times-over grandchildren wind up as human beings. Random stuff happens: if it happens differently, then different living things survive and reproduce, and it all turns out differently. Yes, the particular forms that life takes right now are wildly improbable — and if things had turned out differently, those forms would be wildly improbable. There’s no direction: there’s no selecting for life to take any particular form at any point in the future.
So it makes no sense to say that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — but that God is guiding it in the direction he wants. If evolution is exactly as the scientists describe it, there’s no direction for God to be guiding it in. God hasn’t got a thing to do with it.
Now, if the evidence suggested that evolution actually did work in this interventionist way — if the theory of evolution were based on it having no direction, but there were a bunch of evidence suggesting that it did have a direction, with some outside force pushing things in that direction — then the “no direction” part of the theory would have to go. And that would be fine. Our understanding of exactly how evolution works has shifted many times over the decades, and if there were a preponderance of evidence pointing to a Divine Tinkerer, we’d simply have to adjust the theory.
Which leads me to:
If there really were a Divine Tinkerer mucking about with evolution, like civil engineers re-directing a river or kids putting sticks in a stream, we’d see signs of it. When we looked at the fossil record, we’d see human knees suddenly re-shaped to better suit upright bipedal walking. We’d see human female pelvises suddenly re-shaped to better accommodate their infants’ larger brains without dying in childbirth. We’d see human brains suddenly re-shaped to better understand long-term cost-benefit analysis. And that’s just the humans.
We don’t see any of that. When we look at the fossil record — and the genetic record, and the geological record, and the anatomical record, and every other record from every branch of science that supports the theory of evolution and investigates how it works — we don’t see any signs whatsoever of outside intervention. What we do see is exactly what we’d expect to see if evolution were an entirely natural process, proceeding one generation at a time.
Now, some adherents of theistic evolution don’t think that God is tinkering with the process every day, or even every millennium, or even every epoch. Some theistic evolutionists are really more like deists: they think God set the entire process in motion, four billion years ago at the dawn of the planet, or 13.7 billion years ago at the dawn of the universe. They think God set the parameters way back in the mists of time, knowing how things would turn out, and is just sitting back watching it all unfold. That’s what they mean by “God made evolution happen.”
But there’s not a scrap of evidence for this, either. If your god is so non-interventionist that he’s entirely indistinguishable from physical cause and effect — what reason do you have to think he exists? In all of human history, the supernatural has never turned out to be the right answer to anything: natural explanations of phenomena have replaced supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, while supernatural explanations have replaced natural ones exactly never. So why would you think that an invisible god who set the wheels of evolution in motion, in a way that looks exactly like physical cause and effect, is more plausible than simple physical cause and effect?
As Julia Sweeney said in her performance piece “Letting Go of God, “The invisible and the non-existent often look very much alike.” Given that there’s not one scrap of evidence suggesting that this invisible Divine Tinkerer actually does exist — and a whole lot of evidence suggesting that he doesn’t — why would you conclude that he does?
Which leads me to:
Sinuses. Blind spots. External testicles. Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals. Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby’s skull pass — and human babies born essentially premature, because if they stayed in utero any longer they’d kill their mothers coming out (which they sometimes do anyway). Wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity, leading to a great risk of choking to death when we eat. Impacted wisdom teeth, because our jaws are too small for all our teeth. Eyes wired backwards and upside-down. The vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it’s going. The vas deferens, ditto. Brains wired with imprecise language, flawed memory, fragile mental health, shoddy cost-benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and a strong tendency to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term gain. Birth defects. 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies ending in miscarriage (and that’s just confirmed pregnancies — about 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and as many as 75% of all conceptions miscarry).
And that’s just humans. Outside the human race, you’ve got giraffes with a vagus nerve traveling ten to fifteen feet out of its way to get where it’s going. You’ve got sea mammals with lungs but no gills. You’ve got male spiders depositing their sperm into a web, siphoning it up with a different appendage, and only then inseminating their mates — because their inseminating appendage isn’t connected to their sperm factory. (To wrap your mind around this: Imagine that humans had penises on their foreheads, and to reproduce they squirted semen from their testes onto a table, picked up the semen with their head-penises, and then had sex.) You’ve got kangaroo molars, which wear out and get replaced — but only four times, after which the animals starve to death. You’ve got digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars — and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze them but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps’ larvae with their living bodies.
You’re going to look at all this, and tell me it was engineered this way on purpose?
Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, “fixed that for you” kluges and jury-rigs, and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (See Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes for just a few of the most obvious examples.) If you’re trying to reconcile all this with a powerfully magical creator god who made it this way on purpose, it requires wild mental contortions at best, and a complete denial of reality at worst.
On the other hand, it is very easy to reconcile all this with an entirely natural theory of evolution. In fact, according to the theory of evolution, it would be hugely surprising if biological life didn’t turn out this way. Again: Evolution proceeds one generation at a time. Each generation is only very slightly different from the generation that preceded it. It makes perfect sense that biological life would consist of awkward, inefficient, ad-hoc adaptations to forms that no longer exist.
And at the risk of anthropomorphizing: Evolution doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. Evolution doesn’t care if you’re happy. Evolution doesn’t need you to be perfect: it just needs you to be better than your competitors, your predators, and your prey. Evolution cares if you survive, and produce fertile offspring that also survive. Actually, even that’s not exactly true. Evolution doesn’t care if you live or die. If you die, something else lives. Evolution doesn’t give a damn who it is.
Evolution doesn’t give a damn about any of this. But God supposedly does. So why did he do it this way? If God is so powerful that he could bring all of existence into being simply by wishing it; if he’s so powerful that he can tinker with the genetics and circumstances of evolution simply by wishing it — why would he wish it to be so clumsy, half-assed, inefficient, jury-rigged, superfluous, and brutal?
Which finally leads me to:
Here’s the thing about evolution. Evolution has led to some truly wondrous, truly amazing forms of life. (Or, to be more precise: Evolution has led to human brains that are capable of the experience of amazement, and that are inclined to be amazed at the variety and complexity of biological life.)
But evolution is messy. Evolution is wildly inefficient. See #3 above. It’s not just the products of evolution that are inefficient, either. The process itself is inefficient — inherently so, almost by definition. If you’re an all-powerful magical being trying to create sentient life, evolution is the long, long, long way around. If you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B, evolution is a slow, meandering walk down convoluted dirt roads, with thousands of stops on the way to visit your doddering uncles who never shut up.
And evolution is brutal. It’s not just that the results of the process are often uncomfortable, frustrating, even painful. The process itself is inherently brutal. The process ensures that most animals die in dreadful suffering and terror: they die from starvation, from injury, from disease, from birth defects, from being torn to pieces and devoured by other animals. Of all the billions upon billions of conscious living beings that have ever existed, an infinitesimal minority got to die peacefully in their beds surrounded by their families. The overwhelming majority died brutally, in pain and fear. And that includes the ones who actually won the evolution sweepstakes, and got to live long enough to reproduce with fertile offspring.
If there were a god who was using evolution to direct life in the direction he wanted, it immediately begs the question: Why? Why on earth would anyone do this?
If God were powerful enough to magically tinker with the process of evolution, in undetectable ways entirely indistinguishable from natural cause and effect — why wouldn’t he be powerful enough to just “whoosh” humanity into existence? If God were smart enough to know precisely how to set the parameters of existence so that billions of years later it would unfold into conscious human life — why wouldn’t he be smart enough to do it in a way that avoided the inefficient, hideously violent processes through which evolution has unfolded, and continues to unfold?
If theistic evolution were true — if there really were a god who either tinkers with evolution to create human life or who set the universe in motion knowing that evolution would eventually result in human life — then that god would either be grossly incompetent or cruelly malicious. That god would have to be either incapable of using the system of evolution to create life efficiently and with minimal pain — indeed, incapable of coming up with a better system for producing life in the first place — or brutally callous to the great suffering he has caused for hundreds of millions of years, and that he continues to cause on a daily basis.
Is that really the god you believe in?
A For Effort, F for Execution
I understand the desire to reconcile science with religion. I really do. People have a lot of reasons to be religious — community, family identity, cultural identity, an attachment to the ritual, a built-in sense of meaning and purpose, a desire to believe that the creator of all time and space personally cares about you, a desire to believe in an afterlife. And I definitely understand the desire to accept science: as flawed as it is, science has repeatedly shown itself to be the best method we have for understanding reality.
I understand that people want their religion to reflect reality. But there is no religion that reflects reality. If you want to accept reality in general, and the reality of evolution in particular, you need to accept that.