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Evolution and Continuous Upward Progress

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Image via Wikipedia-Perhaps not so much with this upward progress

Peter Kirk has written a post titled The Gospel is not incompatible with theistic evolution, in which he responds to an article by Dr. David Shackelford. Peter’s response covers most of the ground.

I wanted to add something here, however, regarding “continuous upward progress,” which Dr. Shackelford, as quoted by Peter, says is “demanded” by most “versions of evolution.” I’m in the dark about what he means by “versions,” unless he’s referring to popular conceptions, and especially social evolution.

For example, an evolutionary view of the early Christian church would have the church “progressing” toward greater order and organization, thus the pastoral epistles must be later than other writings because they refer to such greater organization. On the other hand, if the progress is not so steady, nor unidirectional. I’m no church historian, but I’ve often wondered if the progress toward greater structure was not faster amongst those coming from Judaism with synagogue traditions than for Gentile Christians. All this begs the question of what is “progress” and more particular what is “upward progress.”

But the biological theory of evolution teaches no such thing. Though there is, I believe, a general trend toward greater variety, simply because there are more creatures to be varied, even that trend is not inevitable, and one can question whether a trend toward greater variety would be “upward progress” in general.

The tendency of biological evolution is toward suitability for some ecological niche (stated loosely–I’m no biologist), and depending on how you look at it, the tendency could be distinctly downward, for example, when a population of fish living in a cave lose their eyesight. The tendency can be terminal when a population fails to adapt to environmental changes.

For certain periods of time and using certain defintions of “upward” (people who use this term usually mean upward as leading toward us humans), you will find “upward progress” in evolution, but there is nothing about the theory, nor is there general evidence in the record, to suggest that evolution demands upward progress.


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  1. You’re quite right that it’s a misconception that evolution requires upward progress. I’m not familiar with 19th century writings to know for certain if this misconception is that old, but I would guess it is. 19th century culture certainly saw humans at the top of the heap biologically, whether our dominion over the earth was from God or just the expression of our abilities. Even saying we were no better than apes was an insult to many. Wasn’t it obvious we were better than apes, better than anything that was merely an animal? Hadn’t God said so, just as He endorsed slavery?

    So in saying evolution created us, it would have been a natural extension of that cultural image of our being on top for people to incorrectly see this as a story of continuous upward progress, as if there were some will involved in evolution that there isn’t, a will driving us toward being on top, whether from God, from us, or otherwise.

    In fact evolution has two directions. One is the phenomenon of mutations, which supply possibilities for change. The other is fitness for an environment, a niche, as you point out. Neither one of these is necessarily upward. Mutations spread into any direction one can imagine, including going backwards. Fitness to a niche spreads altered species into potential, but often unoccupied niches. A species can develop that outcompetes whatever species was already in a niche, but such replacement is only part of the story of evolution. Again this is more outward in all directions than anything else, like a bomb. Single-cell organisms evolve just as mammals do, outward more than upward. It’s not a sentient process, but instead one that’s automatically self-regulating. It’s not wisdom. It’s not random, another misconception evangelicals like. It’s just the inevitable biology of DNA-based life adapting to a variable, but non-random environment. There’s no doubt at all about that today, unless someone lies or is confused.

    There always has been a niche on earth for a species that uses technology to improve its efficiency in utilizing resources. If ancient astronauts really had come here in prehistoric times, resources were available to support them. It didn’t have to be humans who filled this niche, however. If the earliest mammals had been wiped out by disease and accidents, it might be cuttlefish or some other animal that had an immediate reason to develop a big brain that eventually would be able to conceive of a higher power and worship it. Then they could worship God even better with their expanding technology, with whatever Word of God they develop.

    Would God have been just as happy with that outcome? Would God have welcomed any species that can conceive of a higher power? On any planet? Does God have to be the master builder as in the Bible or does it work just as well for God to be an opportunist? Of course, saying God might be merely an opportunist is like saying human beings are little different from apes. What an outrage! George Coyne, Jesuit priest, research astronomer, and former director of the Vatican Observatory was subjected to outrage by a lot of closed minded Christians for strongly rejecting “intelligent design”, even without their knowing that I heard Dr. Coyne speculate in a lecture once about God being opportunist rather than Creator. Guess who’s right, someone who’s been educated on all sides of the issue or the mob?

    I think of the five stages of grief, from death or any other loss. Many conservatives are in denial and will clutch at any fantasy to put words to their denial. Meanwhile many of my fellow liberals are bargaining. Can’t we please hang on to as much tradition as possible, a powerful creator God, the perfectly holy Lord Jesus, a sanctified church? That seems to be where Peter Kirk is coming from. Whatever argument he makes that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden can survive the science of human evolution is already obsolete when science has demonstrated a mitochondrial Eve at 200,000 years ago and a Y-chromosome Adam at 60,000 – 90,000 years ago, with many other individuals, much harder to document, who were the last contributor of any other piece of a chromosome to all modern humans.

    Maybe God did start His ministry with two human beings who disappointed Him, but they weren’t the only humans if He did. That doesn’t sound like it rescues Genesis to me.

    Does the final acceptance of evolution plus everything else in science that argues against God being a micromanaging omnipotence require giving up on Genesis being anything other than the myths of the time in which it was written, such as dominion of the earth being given to us instead of our just taking it? I agree with evangelicals. I think it does. I think science will be the death of Bible-believing Christianity eventually, not in the next 100 years, but maybe in 500 years. Of course, that might be my own myth of progress.

    People who object to the concept of the 5 stages of grief point out a similar problem as assuming there is upward progress in evolution. People don’t necessarily go from denial to acceptance in an orderly process. What happens to liberals should they finally admit that full acceptance of science means not having something of religion they cherish? Do they move back to denial? Can they embrace that reality is whatever it is, for God and anything else? I would think they can. I did. Not only that but my commitment to follow Jesus made that easier for me. It’s not my will I want to follow, but God’s. Whether or not the historical Jesus actually prayed that, the gospels taught me He did. So that’s where my commitment to Jesus took me. How many elements are there to such spiritual evolution? Quite a few, I think. They all have value. For me, they all survived my rejection of tradition. It’s not impossible.

    Yet I don’t see many liberals moving too far away from traditional Christianity. Indeed it seems to me that many look back to past traditions longingly. Is that why so many liberals are about as useful spiritually as a pillar of salt? Still, I understand. I wish God would fix all problems by going poof, hit all public liars with lightning bolts, and protect me from ever suffering harm, while lots of people around me still suffer for some reason. My intellect knows very well that this is not what God does, yet my emotions are the same as those who invented such a powerful God in the distant past, more than once. I think I would have believed the same if I had been born at a time when no one understood that moonlight was reflected sunlight.

    In my own time, however, God is about love and truth of this time, God knowing at least as much about this as I do. I don’t see how God’s will leaves room for denial or bargaining. Still it seems most people will live out their lives in one of those two states. Only a new generation provides even the possibility of dramatic change, maybe several generations. See, spiritual evolution is a lot like biological evolution.

    The scientific revolution is at least 400 years old, but look how few can believe that it is of God, as any truth is. Are 500 more years enough for us to finish adapting to this truth, both atheists and theists? I hope it is. Otherwise our intelligent machines might be the only ones willing to follow God’s will, as opposed to so much pride and so many idolatries that result from human nature. Does God care as long as some species is willing to follow Him, man or machine, whatever process made them?

  2. You’re right on:

    I do not challenge the statement that the most complex creature has tended to increase in elaboration through time, but I fervently deny that this limited fact can provide an argument for general progress as a defining thrust of life’s history. Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony Books, 1996, p. 169.

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