Providential Evolution

Dear reader – This blog post reflects a novel and probably controversial theme relating teleology (purpose) to evolution. I have written a much more detailed manuscript regarding these ideas, including the specific scientific background for them, which will be published in the March 2017 issue of Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), the journal of the  ASA. I will post a link to the paper once it is published, and will be happy to provide pdf reprints to any who request them. Meanwhile the following serves as a summary and introduction. 

The world view of Evolutionary Creationism (EC), to which I subscribe, holds that God created the universe, the laws of physics that govern the universe, and the laws of life including evolution by natural selection as first postulated by Darwin. This world view is theological, not scientific. The scientific premise of EC, unlike the case with ID or YEC, is no different from the scientific premise of Darwinian evolution.

The theological view of EC as presented above says little about God’s role in creating and sustaining the world of life, and it makes no theological statement about how evolution can be viewed in a Christian context. Individual ECs may hold to various beliefs about the intersection of scientific evolution and the creative power of God’s will.

My own view is that evolution is God’s tool for the creation and sustenance of life. Like other ECs, I take no exception to the scientific findings and conclusions of evolutionary biology, including the basic Darwinian tenets of inherited variation and natural selection as sufficient drivers of evolutionary change. The idea I would like to propose now, which I call “Providential Evolution”, is a strictly theological one, and is not meant to replace or modify the naturalistic scientific understanding of Darwinian evolution as the foundation for biological science.

Providential Evolution (PE) holds that for Christians, evolution is strong evidence of God’s providential work in creation. We can see this in the very mechanism of evolution, which is based on a teleological mechanism that allows a linkage between the genotype and the phenotype of all living creatures. The genetic code and the protein synthesis cellular machinery are inherently purpose-driven, which is manifested by the technical name for this process: translation. Any translation, whether it is from one language to another, or from an obscure code to a meaningful statement, or from an observation to a conclusion, is inherently teleological. Translations (or at least very accurate ones) from one system to another (as happens in all living cells, where a nucleic acid based code is translated into a different chemistry) do not occur spontaneously or accidentally, or by random chance. The translator has a purpose; namely, to convert some information for a reason. It has been stated that information can be found in the non-living world, but I cannot imagine effective, accurate translation (conversion of information from one form into a more useful form) taking place outside of life. Being useful, is itself a purposeful term that has no significance in the natural universe apart from life.

This does not imply that the biochemical cellular translation system was designed or created. That could be true or not, but it is not relevant to the issue of purpose. Even if the system arose by some combination of blind chance and non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, with no divine input, the actual functioning of the system is still teleological because of its enormous power to translate information from the inherited genotype into the phenotypic characteristics of cells.

Theological arguments do not or should not include scientific claims, and PE does not do so. But PE does make theological claims, and the main one is that evolution makes God’s providence in the biological world apparent to the believer. For the nonbeliever, PE simply acknowledges that Darwinian evolution has a direction, something that many atheistic evolutionists hold to be true. But for theists, PE goes further and holds that the direction of evolution toward greater complexity – including multicellularity, efficient energy conversion (in eukaryotes), the vertebrate body plan, the development of neural circuitry and the emergence of brains – all have a purpose determined by God’s will. Furthermore, in ways that we cannot understand, it is God’s providence that exercises that will on the biological world, much as His providence answers our prayers and allowed the miracles of His own incarnation and resurrection on Earth.

The purpose of PE is not to persuade the nonbeliever to see the hand of God in the majesty of life, but to re-assure the Christian believer that evolution is not only consistent with, but a fundamental part of God’s work. We believe that God granted us humans a soul, and that we are created in His image. But the soul must inhabit a body, and the body of man was created by God using providential evolution.

Did the evolution of man involve God’s providential intersession? As a scientist, I would say that is not a question that can be answered or even properly asked. But as a Christian, I can say that I believe the answer is yes.


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Black Gunk

I started out in science as a chemistry major in College. I liked chemistry much more than biology, because chemistry had rules, equations, and laws, and it made a lot of sense to me compared to the strange, messy, and incomprehensible world of biology (I have written about this before here). In chemistry, you could balance equations so that you could tell exactly what would happen if you reacted chemicals together.

Or so I thought. My education into the reality of chemistry began with the first advanced organic lab course I took. We were to perform a simple organic synthesis experiment: mix two reactant chemicals along with some reagents, add heat, then distill the product. I was careful to follow all the steps, measured precisely, made no mistakes, and everything seemed to be proceeding nicely. As predicted, the solution turned brown upon heating, and I started the distillation. Sure enough, I began seeing a nice clear liquid dropping from the end of the condenser, and as it collected I performed a test on this liquid to make sure it was the right chemical compound. It was. YAY. Success.

Well, sort of. One of the things we were supposed to determine was called the “yield” of the reaction. Now this thing called yield is not something that is discussed in basic chemistry, or in any part of theoretical chemistry. (It is a big deal in chemical engineering, but we won’t go there.) The yield of a reaction is the amount of the product of a reaction that we actually get compared to the amount you are supposed to get. The amount you are supposed to get is easily calculated from those equations I so loved to balance and solve. The amount you actually get is… well, totally mysterious. It has to do with your own skill, how pure are the starting reactants and reagents, the time of year, the phase of the moon, and so on.

Back to my synthesis. The condenser kept dripping precious drops of the pure product chemical, and the flask kept boiling away, but I noticed that the stuff in the flask was no longer that nice clear yellowish brown that it had once been. It was getting darker by the minute. As it darkened it also got opaque and viscous. Finally, no more vapor was coming out and the drops stopped dripping. I measured the amount of product I had synthesized, did the calculation, and found I had achieved a yield of 20%. I was mortified. After all that, I had succeeded in producing only one fifth of the amount of the product that I was supposed to. I allowed the flask to cool and examined it. It was full of a deep black gooey gunk; it took me an hour to clean the flask.

When the instructor came by, I was ashamed to show him the results. But when I did, he said “Great job! 20% yield is terrific”. I was shocked. It turned out I had the highest yield in the class, and two students hadn’t gotten anything. But what we all had was a flask of black gunk.

What is that black, tarry, gunky stuff – which, as it turns out, is the main product of practically every synthetic chemical reaction? Nobody knows. It is a mixture of hundreds of chemical compounds produced by hundreds of other reactions between the two reactant chemicals, as well as various degradation products of the two starting chemicals, reactions between these chemicals and the other reagents, and breakdown products of all of these, which also react with each other, and also break down and react, and so on. In other words, an unholy mess.

Disillusionment. My beloved chemistry, it turned out, was not the pure, pristine science of logical, rigorously predictable reactions between chemicals, but was in fact just about as much of “black” box (sometimes literally, as the box is often filled with black gunk) as biology. This is also true for physics, geology, and in fact all science, as I later found out. So when I went to graduate school, I thought I might as well plunge into biology, since in reality it wasn’t much worse than chemistry. But I ended up compromising. I wasn’t quite ready to part company completely from my dream of a chemical approach to finding a grounding in the natural world, so I got my PhD in Biochemistry.  It was a good decision.




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Happy Thanksgiving

For American readers, this is a season to give thanks, even in the midst of hardship and worry. Let us pray. May the good Lord watch over you, bless you in this time of giving thanks, and may you recall the blessings you have been given. Amen.

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The Atom and the Atonement: Why we need models in science and theology

A great article, related to much of my own thoughts, and briefly mentioned in the post “The Reasonable Ineffectivness of Mathematics in Biology” from July 12 of this year. The author Joe Ogborn, is a chemist and student minister at Cambridge.

Science and Belief

22735559622_042f742d34_kAtoms by Cezary Borysiuk. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

If you ask a 14 year old, an 18 year old and an undergraduate to describe an atom you will get different answers. Ask them to draw an atom, and the discrepancies become even more noticeable.  A 14 year old will have no issues producing an image like the one below. The undergraduate is likely to look at you quizzically. “Draw an atom? You must be joking!”


Chemistry, much like the other sciences, relies upon models. As students progress through their chemistry education they are introduced to increasingly complex models of the atom. Each model is used to explain the various chemical observations that students encounter.

From age 11 to 16, students work with an atomic model that can provide an (adequate) explanation of why sodium chloride’s structure is composed of positive sodium ions and negative chlorine ions in a…

View original post 842 more words

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Guest Post: Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

Today we have a guest post from Noah White. Noah is a junior at Houston Baptist University. He commented on a recent post here called Science, a Crisis of Faith, and Biologos. We began a conversation by email, and I suggested he consider writing a guest post to which he agreed. Noah’s post follows, slightly edited to conform to length requirements. Noah has also contributed eloquent comments to Biologos forum and The Hump of the Camel.


Someone told me once that no one has ever been argued into believing in God. At the time, I think I intellectually consented to this principle, but I always held out hope that I would come across one perfect, airtight argument that would render irrational anyone who denied it. At first I would’ve bet my life savings on the argument from design, and while I think it still has philosophical merit through the eyes of faith, it’s not without its defeaters. I thought I found it in the Big Bang and the Cosmic Fine-Tuning argument, but now I’m compelled by the burgeoning evidence for a multiverse (compelled, not convinced, mind you) to be wary of using this argument.

I grew up in a Christian household, and was baptized around age 12. Since my senior year in high school, 2 years ago, I’d comfortably settled into an agnostic view on origins: “I guess God can create however he chooses to.” But eventually I was forced to make a decision about the matter, and while it was easy to accept the science, it was difficult to reconcile that with my faith. It led to many nights of tossing and turning, depression, and several anxiety attacks. I felt my world spinning uncontrollably, teetering on the edge of collapse every waking moment.

I had to wrestle mightily with hard questions. If evolution is true, are humans still special? How can I know God acts if now or one day we will be able to explain everything materially? How can miracles happen in a world governed by natural laws? Is the Resurrection just a hoax? A mistake made by the distraught disciples? Why does humanity matter at all if we’re just a tiny blip in history—from its beginning to its (theorized) end, the universe will exist mostly without us. If we’re just one of 10500 multiverses, how much smaller do we feel! These are difficult questions, but I think the answer is that God cares for the least. The Israelites were not a powerful nation; Jesus was not a rich, powerful (in a worldly sense, of course) man. Jesus’ ministry was to the poor, the downtrodden.

The Renaissance said man was “the measure of all things”. The Enlightenment concurred. But slowly all those great scientific enquiries led us to a firm conclusion: the further we investigate our universe, the more we seem to find that we’re tiny, insignificant and, well, random. Or as Steven Weinberg, an atheist physicist, said: “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless”. Weinberg’s quote betrays the odd piety that people who take this view seem to emit—but that’s another story. I think Weinberg and others have arrived at this conclusion because they’re looking for meaning and God in all the wrong places. Here are my tentative thoughts on the matter.

God wants relationship with us. He doesn’t just want us to know he exists; even the demons know—and shudder! He doesn’t want us to know him by cold, indifferent inquiry. No. He wants us to know him through revelation, through a relationship. If God made the world in a way that there would incontrovertible, coercive evidence that He existed, there would be a less compelling need (in our eyes) for a relationship with Him. He wants us to trust Him, love Him, and believe in Him. That’s a taller order than I thought it was when I was baptized.

Science says I’ll die, and my brain will deteriorate, and with it, my very self will cease to exist. Science says the earth will be scorched when the sun expands, and the universe will dissipate or end in a big crunch. But God says, “that’s not the end!”. God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” Are you going to trust Him? Hope in Him? We can debate, we can go to college and study apologetics, we can have proofs and arguments, but none of them—not a single one—will take the place of a relationship with God. They can help someone feel more sure about their faith, and they can be useful in evangelism, but they’re not substitute for the real thing. My God is the God of faith, hope, and love. Science says a lot, but it says nothing on these things. It says faith is useless, love is a chemical reaction used to propagate reproduction, and that hope—well, it says that there is no hope, I guess; only futility and entropy. This is not a diatribe against science. It’s an appraisal of what things science can say, and what a relationship with the Living God can say.

I don’t have all the answers right now. I don’t even have most of them. But I’ve come to learn that while knowledge is important, we don’t come to know God through proofs and arguments—we come to know Him because He calls us, and His sheep hear his voice. Indeed, to quote the band Bon Iver: “a word about Gnosis / it ain’t gonna buy the groceries”. We’ve too long been searching for God in creation, instead of through creation. If that seems like an arbitrary distinction of prepositions, well, maybe it is. But I think it helps to put it in perspective. My God is not a proposition, He’s not a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Hume, Russell, and their intellectual descendants have long implored us for evidence of God’s existence, and we’ve gone down that bunny trail with them for too long. It’s time to get back on the path and focus on what matters in the Kingdom—not proving God, but showing His love whether it is acknowledged by everyone or not.

I know these aren’t terribly original thoughts, and I know they probably won’t convince a skeptic. I still have moments where I go cold and wonder if it all really could be true. I still get scared, I still doubt. But if you’re reading this and you’re doubting your faith, or if you’re seeking some hope beyond what we know and are wondering if Christ really is risen as Lord of all creation—listen to Him in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the first fruits of the new creation; King of all Kings, Lord of all Lords; He is the Lamb who was slain! And He was for you, me, and the whole cosmos. Know there is hope, and don’t let anyone steal it away from you.



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Magical Thinking, Part 2: Magic and Scientism

We are seeing the flourishing of a strong atheistic world view that holds that that the universe is governed by natural law, as the monotheists first proclaimed (see previous post), but not because of a divinely designed creation, but because, well, that’s just how it is. According to atheistic scientism, why questions are not worth asking – bad things happen for no reason at all, and the same can be said for good things. In this view, the axiomatic laws of nature came into being at the beginning of the universe for no particular reason or cause. There are in fact no reasons or causes in the universe – all events are ontologically random and unguided, and anything that follows the fixed laws of nature can happen, and in fact has happened. The philosophical commitment to contingency as the ultimate cause of all natural events may have been inspired by an over-emphasis on the part of some prominent atheist evolutionists of the unguided nature of Darwinian evolution.  This view has been applied to the behavior of stars and starlets, the earth and the earthworms, and everything else.

On the other hand, the extreme form of the purely materialist scientistic worldview seems to have some form of an answer for everything, even if the answer is somewhat empty. Why did the earthquake bury the village? The magical view says an angry god or demon was taking vengeance; the scientistic view says it was a random event caused by various geological forces with no significance or meaning, and the loss of life, while tragic, is not something that enters into the cause. Some religious views will also attempt a vague answer about God’s will, but many theists will admit to having no answer, other than the acknowledgement of the mystery of the existence of evil. While this latter view is not very satisfying, and in fact has turned people away from religious faith, I think it is the only possible view to take.

But while magical and scientistic proponents claim to have answers for everything (or at least the methodology to find them), the truth is they don’t really. When I hear Sam Harris or Lawrence Krauss say that scientism is not a real thing, since in fact science really can answer all questions (sometimes “worth asking” is added), it reminds me of a believer in astrology who claims that with the right chart, all can be known. In reality, if there is one over-arching fact that we are taught by science, I believe it is that the answers to most questions lead to more questions.

That fact is actually quite strange. If scientism were right, that should not be a universal truth. There should be at least a few broad areas of the natural world where all the answers are known. I can’t think of any. What actual science (not scientism) and good religion (not cults) have in common is the acceptance of mystery, of not having all the answers, and in some cases knowing we will never have the answers.

We know from Job and from Christ’s healing of the man blind from birth that bad things happen to good people through no fault or sin of their own. So why do they happen? Answers have been given, most recently by Thomas Oord, who says in his latest book, that God cannot intervene in his loving gift of freedom to humanity and the creation. This means that in order to stop a mudslide or earthquake, to heal a disease, to prevent a war-time atrocity, God would need to constantly intervene and limit the freedom that he gave in love. While logical, that answer is not terribly satisfying. In a review of Oord’s book, Derek Rishmawy writes:

Job’s friends wanted a neat and tidy answer to the problem of evil. Job is suffering? He must have sinned. They couldn’t sit with the tension of watching a righteous man suffer. It had to be one or the other: either he’s righteous, or he suffers. (Their perspective, for what it’s worth, offers marvelous explanatory consistency.) Ironically enough, they failed to understand that it’s quite rational to believe many of God’s ways are beyond us. 

The idea that God’s ways are beyond us is not new. It can be found in Kabbalistic writing, in Christian mysticism, and in the ideas of many theologians and philosophers. I find it as close to the truth about theodicy as we are going to get. In other words, we may never know the answers to why there is suffering.

This is in contrast to the magical thinking of the cult of young earth creationism, whose website, Answers in Genesis, admits to no mystery in the understanding of God and theology. Every question has a definitive answer, even when such answers are physically impossible, inherently illogical, or self-contradictory.

The claims of scientism that everything will someday be clearly understood sound very similar and just as foolish. Not only do such claims ignore subjects like why tragedies happen, but also questions like “Why is Plank’s constant 6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg/s?” And of course, fundamental principles like the Uncertainty Principle are disregarded. The materialists of this type will either state that apparently unanswerable questions just need more time and research, or the questions are declared to be meaningless and silly.

When I was first getting instruction in Christianity before my eventual acceptance of the faith, my instructor, a Catholic priest, asked me if I had any more questions. I said, “There is one thing I really have a hard time understanding. How does the whole thing with a single God and the Holy Trinity work?” He smiled and said, “I can’t answer that. It is a profound mystery.” I also smiled and nodded. “OK”, I said. “I am ready.”

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Magical Thinking, Part 1: Magic and Theism


There are three broad ways of thinking about the world. The first is the magical view that everything that happens, good or bad, is due to the actions of a conscious agent, who might be benign, capricious, or malevolent. This is why a village is destroyed by an earthquake, a baby dies, or there is a great harvest. The second way of seeing reality is that there is nothing at all behind any event, other than blind chance, and that it is just as likely and just as meaningless that the harvest is good or a failure. The third common view is that there are reasons not related to any consciousness, for everything that happens, and we can in fact learn a great deal about those reasons, and even use what we learn to predict future events. This is the beginning of the scientific world view, where laws of nature are deterministic, and in its extreme form holds that in principle, determinism rules all.

The magical worldview was probably the first and most common among humans for most of their existence, and it still exists in some forms today. Originally the unpredictable and wholly fortuitous events that impacted on human life were thought to be the result of actions of supernatural beings (or supernaturally endowed human beings) such as gods, demons, angels, witches, or wizards. There were no consistent laws governing anything; there were only the whims and very anthropomorphic motivations of these creatures from (or in touch with) another world  who had powers beyond those of ordinary people. And of course, sometimes whole groups of people  – “others” like strangers, Gypsies, Jews – could be held accountable for calamitous events.

We now know that this world view is wrong. Some things happen because of natural laws. Curses don’t make people sick, germs do. Angry gods don’t cause earthquakes, the movement of tectonic plates does. While there are still people who believe in some form of magic (in which I include the power of diet to transform for good or evil, astrology, some occultist New Age ideas, as well as conspiracy theories and some forms of racism), most people do understand that there are laws of nature that cannot be broken.

But science was not the force that broke the magical spell over the minds of humanity. By the time the magical worldview was seriously challenged by science, it had already been dealt a severe blow from an entirely different direction – religion.

Of course I am speaking of one very particular religion, which soon gave birth to two related offshoots, and that is Judaism. Most religions were magical in essence, systems in which the magical worldviews of people were codified and formalized with specific gods with various personalities serving various purposes. Greek and Roman religions were good examples, as were the indigenous beliefs of Northern Europeans, Asians, Americans and so on. Judaism differed from these in two important ways. The first is that there was only one God, and the second was that God was immaterial and transcendent.

These unusual beliefs probably evolved from simpler beginnings more in line with neighboring ideas of divinity. In the first part of the Torah, we still find God walking in the Garden of Eden, exhibiting human emotions – acting out of jealousy and wreaking vengeance, much like Thor or Jupiter. The evolution of this early understanding of God to the modern version shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims took time. These three monotheistic religions (sometimes called Abrahamic religions) began to reject the magic  inherent in polytheistic religions and accept the idea of a single powerful God, a maker and sustainer who was responsible not only for the creating out of nothing physical world but also for specifying how this world worked.

In other words, these religions believed in a God that created laws. Not just moral laws, or rules that tell us how to behave, but physical laws that tell nature how to behave. Jews and Muslims and Christians wanted to know what those laws of nature were. This was the thinking that eventually led to the breakthroughs we call the scientific revolution, all made by religious people in pursuit of the truth of how God rules His creation.

So the magical worldview was replaced by the religious world view, in which many  (though not all) things that happen can be understood, and even predicted, based on fixed laws of nature that can be discovered by ordinary mortal (though smart) human beings with no supernatural powers. When lightning was found to be electrical discharge from large clouds, Thor lost his thunderbolt. When plagues were found to be caused by viruses in the fleas of rats, the power of witches and evil eyes disappeared.

But there were still many things that could not be so easily understood. Even when it was well known that disease was caused by unseen microbes, and we knew how these bad things happened, we still didn’t know why a particular very good woman would contract a disease and die. Neither the knowledge of natural laws nor the belief in an all-powerful God could explain why a landslide of mud would kill thousands of innocent people in a matter of minutes, even if we did understand the answer to how this happened in scientific terms. Neither science nor religion held any good answer to the “why” questions.

The rapid and astonishing success of the use of the scientific method to answer the “how” questions about God’s creation of a working universe led to a sense on the part of some intellectuals that science by itself might be sufficient for understanding “why” questions without the need for a God at all. That was a rare view, and one of the main obstacles to general acceptance of that view was the living world. Science was not believed to be able to make much inroad into understanding the enormous complexity of biology.

But that all changed with Darwin. And since the advent of the theory of biological evolution also coincided with an explosion of technical prowess, where the applications of science were making incredible changes in the way people lived, the idea that science alone could provide an independent view of everything we would want to know about our world began to take hold. The concept that a creator God who used natural law to govern the world in a more or less rational way began to be rejected, especially among educated Christians and Jews.



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