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Evolution, probabilities and providence

Discussions between theologians and scientists on the relation between creation and the evolutionary sciences are likely to soon enter a fascinating phase. In the coming years we can expect new data will help resolve key debates on convergence and the origin of life. We can also expect that an expanding list of candidate ‘pathways’ will be proposed for the evolution of biological functions from precursors.This task will very probably be assisted by Artificial Life experiments. We may never know exactly which path was taken, but the percentage of evolutionary history that has to be taken ‘on faith’ will gradually decrease. Once these pathways are developed we can begin to make judgements on how lucky or inevitable these adaptations were.

For the moment however, the evolutionary accounts of biological history are open to a wide range of interpretations. As we saw in the discussion on convergence, some scientists suggest the ‘cause’ of the biosphere should be considered chance, but others conclude it’s due to the tracking of environmental change, or evolutionary convergence upon a bio-friendly Earth, or the intrinsic bio-friendliness of the universe, or all of the above. It seems clear that some degree of contingency will remain regardless of which account prevails. We can therefore expect future evolutionary science to provide theologians with a shifting ‘window’ within which the likelihood of terrestrial (and intelligent) life evolving by natural means is likely to fall. This window does not extend all the way to ‘zero chance,’ and does not stretch to ‘100% inevitable.’ The width of this window is currently very wide and shifts between the end points, but with future research we can expect it to narrow and stabilise.

This prompts important questions for theologians: where must this window fall in order for it to be received as congruent with the doctrine of creation? Also, what counts as evidence of providence? Is it to be found in the God-given (and potentially bio-friendly) capacities of nature or in cases where we know nature to be unlikely to produce a particular result, and so are free to attribute its occurrence to God’s special action? Critics such as Steven Weinberg have pointed out that theologians can’t have it both ways.Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature (London: Vintage, 1993) 241-262.Nevertheless, it must be said that Christian theology is committed to two modes of providence: general and special. The eyes of faith do claim to see God’s actions in nature’s lawfulness and in events that conform to no pattern.

It should now be clear why the evolution/creation ‘debate’ is so difficult to resolve. First, the sciences do not currently present a detailed account of the history of the evolution of life. All indications are that future scientific accounts will continue to be expressed in terms of probabilities. At the same time, theology can correlate a wide range of probabilistic accounts with the doctrines of providence and creation.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

Evolution, probabilities and providence

[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 challenge to purpose in creation?
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
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