Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the Evolutionary "Chisel," the Divinely Intended "Sculpture," and the Glorious Meaning and Destiny of our Lives in Christ

In this post I'd like to expand upon some matters that were at least implicitly touched upon in my post of Dec. 20, 2008 (re-posted to this blog earlier today), in regard to the matter of justifying normative ethics in the light of evolutionary orgins. This is an area that has not received much close attention in the popular theistic evolutionary works that I have come across so far, yet I think it lies at the heart of much that troubles many non-Christians about Christianity, even on a theistic evolutionary understanding of it, and that troubles many Christians about evolution.

The question is this: If we have been evolved by processes concerned with increasing the chances of survival and reproduction, does human life have anything like the significance that the Bible, and indeed our own hearts as we perceive them, tell us it has? Do our actions have ultimate moral significance? Do the feelings and concerns and aspirations we experience in our lives have "meaning" whose content is not defined by, and whose validity does not depend on, the nature of the evolutionary means that contributed to bringing these about?

I think that one of the most important things that needs to be said in addressing that question is to insist that we must refrain from reading "meaning" into behavior and evolutionary processes that apparently occurred in pre-humans based on conceptions of meaning that are derived from our existential experience in the present, and from assuming that the evolutionary means which brought about the circumstances of our present experience necessarily determine the "meaning" or "purpose," or lack thereof, of that present experience. The use of a chisel and the size and shape of the orginal block out of which a sculpture is made does not determine the "meaning" of the sculpture. Likewise, there is compelling evolutionary logic that seems to account for HOW such things as the temptation to adultery, the phenomenon of jealousy, and many other things arose in the first place, but which has no ultimate bearing on the moral significance we should ascribe to those behaviors today.

For example, in species of birds that until recently were considered more "monogamous" than they really are, scientists have observed females engaging in remarkably sly rendezvous with other males, even as males have developed mate-guarding instincts. Both tendencies appear to have co-evolved in a kind of arms race. Selection pressures have favored developments in females that make them adept at seeking covert inseminations by more sexually attractive and fit males (which helps ensure that her progeny will have heightened chances of surviving and reproducing), while still availing themselves of the resources provided by the cuckolded male. Selection pressures favor changes in the males that make them more adept at guarding their mates. Whether such understandings in exactly their current form will survive ongoing investigation I cannot say, but they certainly seem coherent and highly plausible, and I see no warrant for rejecting them on any biblical or theological grounds. But what does this say about the morality of human behavior?

One might be tempted, for example, to conclude from such observations that adultery in humans is a matter of no moral significance. Or that jealousy and mate-guarding tendencies are pointless in any ultimate sense, because these all evolved as part of a pointless game with no meaningful direction. But all of this would be a huge philosophical leap that is not at all warranted by the facts. The scientific observations in themselves cannot speak one way or the other concerning the current moral significance, or lack thereof, or of the "meaning," of human behaviors. What I think can be said, with which I think most evolutionary biologists could agree, is that the vast bulk of human genes and traits have been spreading and co-evolving in the human species for so long that a degree of equilibrium has been reached. This is not to say that there is not ongoing variation in these traits. Some are more tempted to adultery than others. Some are more jealous than others. And insofar as there are genetic factors contributing to that, there is indeed a measure of variation on that level. But this variation is not so great as to rule out universal or near universal statements about what makes current human beings happy and well, and concerning the range of behaviors of which most people are capable. Women want their progeny to be provided for. They want their husbands to value their fidelity because a complete abandonment of "mate guarding" would in fact make them very unhappy and unloved. And they do not want their husbands to take their loyalty so for granted that they slack off on the job of providing for the family.

Likewise, the spread and co-evolution of genes and traits and culture is such that no human being HAS to behave, as did Genghis Khan, killing and conquering and mating as many women as possible, because a) multiple strategies of sufficient "evolutionary advantage," generally speaking, are available to virtually every human being, and b) we are capable of consciously choosing behaviors even when they conform to the goal of human happiness over against the dictates of the maximization of genetic legacy. Genghis Khan, in other words, COULD have been a saint, given other influences and choices, because there is that degree of flexibility and range of possibility in humans. And if God guided the development of our ancestors into this current configuration (and science cannot really speak to that question) and purposes that we experience harmony and fellowship with one another, then there is a basis for morality to which the facts of the current configuration are more relevant than the evolutionary processes that led to it.

Or take another example of an evolutionary observation that might tempt us into unwarranted moral conclusions. Men on average are bigger and stronger than women. And there is little doubt that this is because males among our biological ancestors fought over mates. But this does not mean that it is OK for males today to fight and kill each other over mates. There is a tendency for all evolved features to take on different functions, or even a multiplicity of possible functions, once they are brought into being. And in the current configuration that evolution has produced in humans, the passions and muscles of men are susceptible of different applications and "meanings." We are now CAPABLE of opting for cooperative rather than competitive behaviors. We are capable of channeling our passions and strengths and abilities in ways that love God and others, just as we are capable of employing these in ways that may in many cases more closely resemble the behavior of our very distant ancestors who did not share the "meaning" complex in which we live. Nor does this fact of sexual dimorphism and its origins mean that the feelings a woman may have when she thinks of her husband have no meaning apart from the evolutionary processes that shaped these features as well as feelings. For example, if a woman feels that her husband, who is taller and stronger than she is, is her "knight in shining armor," we cannot debunk the "validity" of these feelings on account of evolutionary origins. A very complex series of interactions between genetics and culture and individual circumstances can lead to such feelings, and they take on a "life of meaning" of their own the validity of which is not at all affected by the fact that the fighting of distant male ancestors was part of the series of events that led to their development. Nor, of course, can we force-fit all women's feelings into a stereotype, though sometimes our cultures want to do that, because there is diversity within that which is shared by all humans.

It is this "life of meaning" that is the end of creation, the purpose with which we are concerned, at any rate; the long business of selection pressures which tend toward survival and reproduction belong to the mere mechanics and means of creation.

To take another example, scientist of cognition Justin Barrett, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, has much to say about how the tendency of most humans in most environments to "naturally" believe in a god or gods may have come about. But Barrett, a Christian, goes on to argue that if we deny the validity of belief in God based on the evolutionary nature of the processes that developed our capacity to believe in God, then on the same grounds we might as well also reject our perception of the passage of time, our belief in the existence of other minds, and other things we take for granted. None of this is really warranted if there really is a God who has guided the development of the universe with purpose. And, again, science, in itself, can only be silent on that question, while the resurrection and the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts speak very clearly and gloriously on the matter.

And what of the common human perception that death is "unnatural"? I would contend that, just as selection pressures concerned with survival and reproduction led to cognitive faculties that are now capable of being employed in perceiving the God who truly exists, similar processes may have produced an entirely valid perception that death is not our intended or ultimate destiny. Once again, the question hinges entirely on whether there is divine intent underlying the creation, a question science cannot answer, but which other evidence abundantly speaks to.

It is necessary, then, to distinguish between the chisel of evolutionary processes, and the sculpture of humans created in the image of God and having the capacity to live a rich life of fellowship with God and with one another. Somewhere in the development of our highly advanced brains and of our capacity for culture, there arose the capacity for choice (a highly debated topic, but I don't think science can ever conclusively rule against the existence of all meaningful choice, even if it encourages a healthy awareness, which I think the Bible also acknowledges, of the relative and limited nature of this capacity), for love, for fellowship with God, and for all sorts of things that have taken on a "life of meaning" of their own. Again, the meaning is determined by the purpose of God and not by the evolutionary processes and selection pressures that were used to bring about the current complex and glorious configuration.

It is also a mistake to read the "meaningful time" derived from the complex of meaning that belongs to our experience in this sliver of evolutionary time that we inhabit--this sliver which is in fact the end and purpose of creation, at least the end and purpose of creation with which we need be concerned--back into the long stretches of evolutionary time, and thus conclude that our lives are insignificant. That is a category mistake. Because in the context of our lives, we attribute significance to "long time" as having been the context in which wisdom has been shaped, hard but important lessons have been learned, relationships have been deepened, enmities have become entrenched, etc. And in the context of the roll of centuries, we attribute significance to the "long time" over which civilizations have developed, and cultural wisdom has been shared, and the leaven of the gospel has transformed the world and clarified the possibilities open to us, etc. These meanings of "long time" that derive from our life experience and from a shared cultural conversation over a number of centuries cannot justly be transferred and applied to the long stretches of evolutionary eons that preceded us. To do so is to make the same kind of error as to conclude that we are insignificant, that God cannot be interested in us or in the choices we make, because we occupy an infinitesimal part of the universe in terms of space. The sliver of space we inhabit is meaningful to us, and is made so by virtue of the fact that the very Creator of all things has honored us with the privilege of relating to him in that time and space.

When we correct the above kind of error, when we make the proper distinctions, and keep the "meaning" of time back in the realm of "human-scale" time where it belongs, we are in a better position to understand the resurrection and the life of the eternal kingdom to come. The continuity that bears with our present existence pertains to the purposed end result of meaning that God intended, even it is radically discontinuous, in ways we cannot imagine or comprehend, with the mechanics of how the world and our bodies as we know them came to be what they presently are. The future kingdom will indeed be "here" in "this world" from the point of view of our existential experience; the question of future "mechanics" is irrelevant. God and his purposes are what is ultimate in all of this. Perhaps our having providentially discovered the evolutionary mechanics of our origins will only serve to heighten the glory of it all when the resurrection of the saints and renewal of the world (that is, the world as we experience it) prove that the meaning which God declares indeed was the real point of it all.

It is also a mistake, I would contend, to read the meaning of human pain and injustice into what we observe in other creatures, and then conclude that human pain and injustice are of no moral significance, or that there is therefore no such thing as moral significance. We may be disturbed when we observe certain behaviors of other creatures, such as the male of a primate species killing the small offspring of a female that was sired by a rival male, the evolutionary logic of which may be to prepare the female to be fertile to mate with him, and to ensure greater resources for his own rather than his rival male's offspring. But such creatures are acting within the limited range of possibilities open to their species, whose capacities and options are untold times more restricted than our own. Disturbing as these things may be, we do not ascribe moral significance to these behaviors or call them "evil." But the fact that seeing these things in other species tends to jar us is evidence of the very different behavior of which we are capable. Hence the Hebrew prophet speaks of a time when "the lion will lie down with the lamb," which in the context I think is best read as not speaking literally of animals, but of a day when ruthless empires like Assyria and Babylon will give way to a peaceful and cooperative human social order. We are capable of a cooperative approach that can bring happiness and prosperity to all. And not only are we capable of it, something deep within us tells us, however much we may at times try to deny it, that this is really what we are meant for, that this is the way of true peace and happiness. Because of this, the way we live becomes a genuinely moral issue.

Now let me briefly turn to a related question that a number of Christians have concerning Romans 5, which constitutes the greatest hindrance that many Christians to accepting our evolutionary origins. (I hope to address these concerns in light of a more detailed examination of the text in a separate post, or in a revised and expanded version of this post. What follows can be considered prolegomena to that discussion.) It has been contended that Adam must be literal and a single individual for what Paul says in Romans 5 to make sense. In a previous essay I mentioned the views of Henri Blocher, who believes a pre-human evolutionary history is possible, but who shares this belief that Adam, who acted as our covenant representative, plunging the human race into sin and ruin, must be literally one single individual, the first male of our species. Yet apparently the best current scientific thinking is that the human race is not descended from a single human pair. Is the Bible irreconcilably opposed to that conclusion? I don't think so. The important thing on which Paul's argument hinges is that we are in a predicament that we have inherited and that we perpetuate. And while Paul may have had no reason to imagine that Adam was anything other than a single individual, he is not concerned to address that issue--indeed, the issue would not have occurred to him. It is not the point he is making, and the point he IS making does not hinge on that.

In light of ancient Near Eastern parallels, I think there is strong reason to believe that Genesis is something other than what people today define as "literal history." A detailed and I think convincing account of this matter is found in Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis. Sarna makes a strong case that Genesis is using a shared literary idiom of the ancient Near East to deliver a pointed polemic against debased views of God and human beings and human societies that were held to by the Babylonian imperial ideology and other cultures of the region. Further, with Henri Blocher, I believe that the narratives of Genesis tell our story truly and effectively, albeit nonliterally, for the purpose of schooling the people of Israel in their divine call to reverse the corruption into which the world had fallen. The very name "Adam" means "humanity," so I think it is entirely possible that Adam and other figures in the early chapters of Genesis tell us the origins of the human predicament in a condensed and archetypical, rather than a literal manner.

How, then, might we conceive how this inherited predicament came about, if we do not take Genesis as literal history? I would submit that at some point in the development of our species, even though the "chisel" was made up of selection pressures driven by the logic of survival and reproduction, we developed as the "end" (divinely purposed) result the capacity to sense the reality of the God who had made us and all things, and to relate to him, and to sense our calling into cooperative and harmonious ways of living which, when lived out by enough of us, creates a bigger pie for all to share, and in which we find the truest sense of meaning to our existence. There was developed in us, in other words, the capacity to consciously choose the way of "win-win," in contrast to the way of "I win, you lose," which dominates in many other species who lack the capacity to choose any other way, and that fights over the slivers of a very small pie while making nobody truly happy. But at some point, deep in our pre-history, this genuine capacity to opt for "win-win" strategies was not acted upon; intead, people suppressed their innate sense that we are special creatures under God, meant to relate harmoniously and cooperatively with one another, and opted instead to seize immediate privilege and advantage at the expense of the long-term good of all. We do not necessarily have to conceive of this as having occurred in a decisive once-for-all fashion, much less in a one-time decision by a single person.

Indeed, the "genuine capacity" to choose the way of cooperation surely did not arrive in us suddenly, so it is conceivable that the actions of pre-humans, with pre-fully-developed versions of our capacities which may mark out both these pre-human species and us from all other living primates, may have contributed tributaries to the stream of our inherited corruption. Jesus affirmed the principle of varying degrees of culpability for human actions. (Luke 12:47-48 is so important to thinking about these issues of ethics and moral responsibility, let's review it in full: "That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.") Who is to say, then, that there cannot have been varying degrees or qualities of moral responsibility among pre-human species? God knows.

In any case it may be supposed that over a period of unknown length the net effect of the bulk of choices by our ancestors created a kind of watershed in human culture and history. Though the sense of God and our truest calling as human beings was still somewhere deep within us, the organization of societies and dominant expressions of human behavior came to reflect the contrary approach to living which emphasized immediate perceived advantage over against trust in God who calls us to work harmoniously with one another for the common good. And indeed the weight of precedents and the pressures of societies built upon corrupt principles militated fiercely against any given individual breaking out and living according to the call that was sensed deeper within. Is such a construction of affairs as I have outlined contrived? I don't believe it is. In fact, I think that even the most skeptical atheist knows deep down that somehow or another we have arrived at a point where we are capable of realizing a destiny that is contrary to the "way of the world" around us but that fulfills our deepest aspirations.

Certainly by the time Genesis was written this state of corruption had dominated human societies for longer than the collective human memory could know. The story of Adam and Eve tells the story of this watershed, and the fact that it is told in condensed, mythological idiom does not make the story any less true or effective for preparing a people that is called to reverse this state of affairs in the world. Nor does its non-literal form make it any less suited to prepare us for Christ, who delivers us from the obvious mess we have inherited.

To reverse the corrupt state of the world requires sacrifice. The first honest cop will be subject to the constant threats of death at the hands of those who are on the take. The first to refrain from littering will be going to trouble while seeing no visible difference in the landscape. The first to take steps toward just human cooperation does so at great immediate cost. It is like walking into a meatgrinder. But Christ walked into that meatgrinder for us, and before us, and came out the other end unscathed. United with him by faith in his resurrection, our hearts are thus freed from the false lures and threats of the prevailing corrupt system to reconnect with the fundamental truth of our existence that in varying degrees we have been suppressing, namely, that we are meant to live lives of love toward God and toward others. And so with truly joyful hearts, powerless in ourselves yet invincible in the Spirit (who, in ancient Near Eastern idiom, is hovering over the waters to bring order out of chaos), we follow Jesus, and share in his sufferings, that we may share in his glory. As the Hebrew prophet foretold, "he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth" (Isaiah 42:4).

To fully treat the perceived problems of reconciling this understanding of "Adam" and the origin of the human predicament with the text and mindset of the apostle Paul in Romans 5 will require further attention. In my opinion this matter is not nearly as difficult as we imagine, but to arrive at that conclusion requires backing up and retracing our interpretive steps in a detailed fashion. I believe we will find, as we have in the case of Genesis, that the biblical text is apt in making a point of profound significance, which we best understand as we understand the context of the original author and his readers. My thoughts on that are in draft text that I hope to finish and publish soon (that is to say, sometime within the next 10 years--a mere blip on the screen of worldview-shaping time :-).


Michelle said...

Wow, good stuff. Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts!

Steve said...

Michelle, thanks for your feedback. Recently I read this short article on "The Fall" by Ched Myers, and am curious what you may think of it. I like what it says about "myth as memory." The article is posted at: You have to scroll down a bit to see the article.