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.