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A challenge to purpose in creation?

Once evolutionary theory had weakened the case for special providential activity in biological history, and humans no longer clearly occupied a meaningful place in the scheme of things, the way was open to question if there was evidence for any divine purpose in the cosmos. According to Paley’s view of the world, God’s concern for the details of terrestrial life could be made clear by simply opening our eyes to the marvellous designs within nature, but the eyes of evolution look at the same data and see no concern or purpose whatsoever. Once again, Richard Dawkins expresses the situation with characteristic clarity: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995) 133.

It is important to remember that while Darwin’s religious convictions would become increasingly tenuous as he grew older, when writing the Origin he had seen fit to occasionally attribute the processes in biology to a ‘Creator.’ This creator was not a miracle-working God that would spontaneously generate a Hippopotamus and the corresponding muddy swamp, but one who created by specifying laws of development. As he wrote in a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 224. Could God’s purposes in nature be seen within these laws? Gray never became comfortable with this dual characterisation. The key question is: how powerful is the chance component? Gray’s concern was that any admission of chance implied that God’s purposes could be derailed. Interestingly, Darwin argued against Gray’s position on almost the same grounds; it seemed unacceptable to him for God to be implicated in the minutiae of life because this would make God culpable for every evil, whether grievous or trivial.

Daniel Dennett describes this change from picturing God as a divine artificer to a divine lawgiver as starting theology down a slippery slope toward meaninglessness. Reductionist explanations can take a rich body of laws and unify them into a far simpler set, making God ever more distant from events of concern to humans. He joins chemist Peter Atkins and some theoretical cosmologists in predicting that the fundamental constants and laws of nature which currently seem to require a ‘law-giver,’ will turn out to be neither truly constant nor given. Instead, nature has found them, by means analogous to the way in which natural selection finds useful adaptations in biology.Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 176. Once again Darwin’s dangerous idea can be deployed to challenge the theist’s conception of a God who acts.

Evolutionary thinking can also bolster other challenges to traditional theological arguments for purpose in the cosmos. If terrestrial life arose by natural means rather than through special divine action, then it is reasonable to wonder if intelligent life has arisen elsewhere in the universe too. If so, this would be hard to reconcile with the claim that human life on Earth is central to God’s purposes. The mechanism of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection also become problematic in a universe where several planets need to be redeemed. French biologist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod concluded that evolutionary science posed the opposite problem since as far as he could see “the universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man.”Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) 145. If he is correct and the existence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens should be attributed to chance rather than natural laws or divine action, then humans can hardly be said to be the centre or purpose of the cosmos.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

A challenge to purpose in creation?

[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?
Setting the scene - why focus on providence?
[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology
Intellectually fulfilled atheists?
A challenge to human uniqueness and status?
A threat to the veracity of scripture?
Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?
A challenge to Christian morality?
The challenges in wider context - Darwin as a scapegoat?
[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences
Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution
Evolution as chance and necessity
Evolution as an algorithm
Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’
Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence
Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?
Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?
Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?
The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history
Ongoing debates: directionality and progress
Ongoing debates: the origin of life
Different levels and kinds of selection?
[4] Responses from theology
Evolution, probabilities and providence
Responses from contemporary theologians
Holmes Rolston III
Keith Ward
John Haught
Arthur Peacocke
An increased role for general providence?
Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios
[5] Concluding remarks


Adrian Wyard
Adrian M Wyard MSt

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix