It’s often suggested that there’s no conflict or contradiction between evolutionary theory and religion. This strikes me as a pretty broad statement. I suppose it’s true depending on how one thinks about religion or what sort of religion one advocates. However, it seems to me that it’s very difficult to reconcile evolutionary theory with Christianity or other monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam. Here, I think, the creationists are right to be alarmed, but for the wrong reasons. Within the Christian framework, the problem isn’t that the account of creation advocated by evolutionary theory contradicts the account of creation outlined in the book of Genesis. No, the problem is much broader and more metaphysical. The problem is that no matter how you cut it, Christianity argues that humans have a privileged place within the order of creation. Humans, within this framework, are the crown of creation, such that all of being is conceived as a great cosmic struggle revolving around us.

I just don’t see how this privileged place for humans can be squared with how evolutionary theory thinks about speciation. Within an evolutionary framework, humans, like any other species, are an accident. They could have just as easily existed had certain things not taken place. They have no special place within the order of being, but rather are a species that happened to be adaptively fit in a particular environment. To get this point, take the example of polar bears. Evolutionary theory revolves around three basic principles: 1) variation or reproduction with a difference, 2) heritability, or the passing on of traits through reproduction, and 3) natural selection or the selection of these traits by the environment, where some organisms get to go on to the next round because they reproduce, and where others don’t because they either get smooshed (when you accidentally step on a worm after a rainstorm, you’ve played a role in evolution, preventing that worm’s genes from going on to the next round), or because they don’t reproduce.

read on!

Accidents are involved at all three of these levels. The variations that occur in (1) are the result of all sorts of accidental factors such as transcription errors in the reproduction of DNA, cosmic particles causing mutations in genes, ambient chemicals that effect transcription, etc. Who reproduces (2) with whom (in the case of sexed reproduction) is the result of all sorts of accidents based on geography and chance encounters between organisms (this organism happened to encounter that organism). Finally, the manner in which the environment selects for fitness (3) is filled with all sorts of accidents as in the case of accidentally stepping on a worm after a rainstorm or what the climate happens to be like at a particular point in time.

Let’s return to the example of the polar bear. Suppose that polar bears descended from black bears. How do we get from black bears to polar bears? Yogi the bear has four offspring, Suzi, Mitch, Katie, and Smokey. Suzi, Mitch, and Smokey all have dark brown fur. Yet Katie, as a result of random mutation or variation, has a slightly gray coat of fur. So long as the Northern American climate remains warm a lustrous, Katie is at a disadvantage because her coat causes her to stick out in the lush plant foliage, rendering her easy to spot by other animals. As a result, she doesn’t get big and fat as she has a hard time catching food. When other male bears see her, they say “meh, no point in mating with her, she’s just not healthy. Now that Suzi and Smokey are babes, look at all those roles of fat from salmon! Hubba! Hubba!” Poor Katie’s genes thus don’t get to go on to the next round and as a result the trait of grey coats isn’t passed on.

However, let’s mix the scenario up a bit. Elsewhere in the world a meteor has hit the planet, changing the Earth’s climate dynamics. Now Northern America is plunged into winter like conditions year round. Now the mutant Katie, the equivalent of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, is suddenly at an advantage. Her mutant coat allows her to blend into the environment that much more, allowing her to catch more fish and other animals, allowing her to grow into a gorgeous fat bear. In this scenario she very likely gets to pass on her traits.

The point is that all of this is accidental and that it’s no less accidental in the case of humans. It was a series of accidents that led us to show up on the scene some 250,000 years ago, and it’s a series of accidents that could have just as easily not happened. Moreover, these accidents are ongoing. As I mentioned in my last post, evolutionary biologists like to say that every individual is a transitional species. It’s not as if selection pressures (3) have disappeared for human beings, such that we are now destined to abide forever. One might retort that “our technology has allowed us to master the environment, thereby abolishing the role that selection pressures play in our reproduction!” However, this misses the point that all that technology, all those changes to the environment, are selection pressures. The role that high fructose corn syrups play in our diet is a selection pressure. Our ability to synthesize massive amounts of media information is a selection pressure. Our ability to play semiotic games well is a selection pressure. Who knows, perhaps those who are slightly more adept at texting because of a peculiarity of their fingers or brains have a reproductive advantage. Accidents all around and accidents that could, in principle, lead to the emergence of a new species out of our current species.

Within an evolutionary framework there is no “out of field” or privileged position. Humans aren’t better than sharks, their just different. They are one solution among others to the problem of the environment and reproduction. And, indeed, given our short tenure here on the planet when compared to sharks, we’re not even a very well tested solution. And this is really the point. It is hard to see how you square this ontology of accidents without hierarchy with the privileged place granted to humans in Christianity. It’s hard to see how a God (or gods) that creates a world that functions according to evolutionary principles would grant humans any particularly privileged place. We’re just one critter among many. Why would there be this cosmic drama between good and evil revolving around us?

So when people say there’s no contradiction between religion and evolutionary theory, I think they’re sneaking a lot in through the back door. The point is not that there can’t be a form of religion that thoroughly embraces evolutionary theory, the point is that if evolutionary theory is genuinely embraced, this requires a massive revision of ones theology that dislodges humans from having any special or privileged place within the order of being. This would be true even with respect to those more modest forms of Christianity that downplay the miracles and narrative of creation, and focus on the figure of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus here would have, I think, to be conceived as a purely human being, with no divinity whatsoever, dispensing an ethico-politico message; not as the son of God sent to save us from our sins. Theology here would look a lot more like what Spinoza and Whitehead argue for– where humans have no particularly privileged place –than what Augustine, Aquinas, and Marion argue for. Echoing Freud’s thesis of the three blows to human narcissism (Copernicus, Darwin, and psychoanalysis), what would a non-narcissistic theology look like?… A flat theology.