[1] Does Evolution ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian Religion?


It is often assumed that Darwin was no friend at all to Christianity, but writing thirty years after Darwin first published the Origin of Species, Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore had offered a different appraisal. He suggested that “Darwin had appeared in the guise of a foe, and done the work of a friend.”[1] As we look back with more than a century of additional hindsight, what might a sober reflection on the impact of evolution upon theology yield today? Was Moore correct to call Darwin a friend to theology, or is the popular perception of antagonism the right one? I shall argue that this question deserves two distinct responses.

Firstly, ‘yes and no.’ Driving this response is the thesis that many, if not all, of the challenges to Christianity that are associated with evolution were in place before Darwin developed his theory of natural selection. So, in this respect, evolution should not be characterised as a foe. However, it is true that Darwinism has come to serve as a very effective ‘rallying-point’ for foes of Christianity. The challenges facing theology are real, so inasmuch as debate over evolution keeps them in the public eye, it could be argued that this is not the work of a friend.

Secondly, ‘yes,’ evolution has done ‘the work of a friend’ because in being forced to reflect upon and respond to these challenges, theology has been constructively advanced. There have been three kinds of advancement: a revision or rejection of some incoherent theological doctrines, the addition of new theological insights prompted by interaction with the natural sciences, and finally a re-examination and conscious restatement of some doctrines as intrinsically paradoxical or mysterious and therefore resistant to corroboration with scientific investigations.[2]

I shall show why the question of friendship hides a multiplicity of issues, and why two responses (at least) are needed. A full assessment of the effects of evolutionary theory upon Christianity would need to cover the numerous aspects of theology that it has undoubtedly influenced, as well as the historical and sociological dimensions; the problem of evil and suffering is one that deserves particular attention. However, for the purposes of this short study I shall restrict my analysis to the influence of evolution on the doctrine of providence.

I shall first explore the principle ways in which evolution is held to present challenges for Christian theology. I shall then show how the challenges are revised versions of prior critiques, stem from misunderstandings of evolution, or are due to an unwarranted philosophical zeal on the part of some popularisers of scientific naturalism.

Having established that evolution is not necessarily a foe for Christianity, I shall then re-examine the current state of the evolutionary sciences and assess the potential connections to theology, paying particular attention to the relevance of ongoing research and philosophical debates. I shall then suggest ways in which the evolutionary sciences can ‘do the work of a friend’ for Christianity, focussing on the concept of providence.


I shall use the term ‘Darwinism’ to refer to the belief that natural selection is the principle or single mechanism that accounts for the development of all life on Earth, from the most simple living beings to all of its current diversity, including humans. I shall use the term ‘evolution’ to refer to the much broader theory that biological history can be explained in terms of natural processes over time and that biology itself fits within a cosmos which is also evolving. For readability I will occasionally refer to Christian theology and the Christian religion as theology or simply theism. Finally, I will occasionally interchange the terms divine providence, divine action, and divine agency, once again purely for readability. I will draw attention to instances where different terms are used for specific reasons.

Setting the scene – why focus on providence?

The relation of God to creation is often expressed in the following ways. God is held to be creator of the cosmos ex nihilo (out of nothing) as well as sustaining it moment by moment. God fully transcends the creation and yet is also immanent within it and responsible for particular events.

For millennia the day-to-day experience of humans was broadly congruent with these claims. Each day inevitably included an encounter with both the mundane ‘normal’ operation of nature as well as the spectacular other-worldly operations that were worthy of the divine; the ever-constant daily arc of the sun, moon and stars, and the miracle of childbirth are just two examples of these kinds of experience. This dual-aspect view of the world remained coherent even as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton led the ‘scientific revolution’ and provided remarkable insights into the workings of the cosmos. We came to learn that the trajectory of the sun can be expressed in terms of differential equations and the force of gravitation, but despite this, the footprints and handiwork of the deity were still as tangible as ever. However, another trajectory was discernible too; the domain of scientific naturalistic explanation was expanding.

While there are numerous different forms of Christian theology, most are committed to a doctrine of providence that is expressed in terms of God’s general acts and also particular ‘special’ acts. While deistic views emphasise the general act of creation, for theists both are essential. The Ten Commandments begin with the assertion that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”[3] The inspiration of the prophets, and the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are particular acts. These two dimensions correspond to God’s transcendence and immanence, and cohere with the belief that the Christian God is both properly ultimate, and yet simultaneously maximally personal.

The discovery of ‘laws of nature’ was consonant with the general providence of a ‘divine legislator,’ but was there support to be found within the sciences for special providence? The rapid pace of biological discovery in the 17th and 18th century yielded an embarrassment of riches. The way was clear for believers to correlate the exquisite character of biological functions with God’s creative involvement in particular events in natural history. Armed with the latest data from microscopy and anatomy, the ‘argument from design’ reached a hitherto unknown strength. As never before, the doctrine of special and general divine providence came to be seen by many as supportable by science. Much as Kepler could marvel at his opportunity to think “God’s thoughts after him,” the view through the microscope provided visual access to the handiwork of God himself. The most famous expression of this reasoning is William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity,[4] first published in 1802.

With a strong argument from design available, all theological doctrines that could be tied to special providence also became more credible. However, inasmuch as theology was tied to science, it was now vulnerable as never before.

[2] Supposed challenges from the evolutionary sciences to theology

In 1859 Darwin’s theory of natural selection dealt a devastating blow to the argument from design based upon contrivances in biology. It also painted a picture of biological history vastly different from the Genesis account. For many, the Christian conception of a providentially active God had become so strongly associated with the kind of argument that Paley had devised that its refutation was in effect a refutation of theology as a whole.

In the following section I shall explore several ways in which evolutionary biology is held to challenge theological commitments, focussing on how these challenges are tied to the diminished credibility of special providence.

Intellectually fulfilled atheists?

It is important to emphasise the severe trauma that a heavy-handed introduction to Darwinian theory can cause some religious believers. In a single conceptual leap the world can be transformed from one in which there are clear evidences of divine care to one in which God is superfluous. As philosophical theologian Keith Ward helpfully reminds us: “for most theists, God must be causally effective.”[5] If God’s causal efficacy within biology can be questioned – where evidence was thought to be the strongest – then it would seem prudent for apologists to pause before simply redeploying the same argument with different supporting data. While Darwin’s specific claims about his theory of natural selection were tightly circumscribed, its ability to topple so strong an argument for theism has been taken to justify a much stronger claim: that all arguments for theism are likely to fail. In reality, Darwin’s theory can directly challenge only a small number of the arguments for theism, but for many the defeat of the argument from design tipped the balance in favour of the competing philosophy of scientific naturalism. Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins has famously noted that while it had always been possible to reject theology, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[6]

While religious language used to seem appropriate when describing the more profound aspects of our lives, science has investigated both the mysterious and the mundane and explained the former in terms of the latter. Dawkins for one has become convinced that “our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but ... is a mystery no longer because it is solved.”[7] Flush with success, might the sciences not go on to resolve all mysteries? The expanding field of evolutionary biology has indeed gone on to unravel mysteries at least as ponderous as the origin of species. One of note is the aforementioned ‘miracle’ of childbirth, and the intricacies of biological development in general. Here was another instance where intuition proved unreliable. Science showed that there was no need to appeal to a mysterious ‘life force’ that differentiated living matter from the nonliving. The astonishing micro-world of genes, amino acids and proteins could achieve the same result through an accumulation of numerous mechanical processes, all of which were in turn potentially explained by natural selection. The almost unbounded explanatory power of natural selection has led Dennett to refer to it as ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.’ For him, the unleashing of this idea has had the following cultural impact: “science has won and religion lost.”[8]

A challenge to human uniqueness and status?

It is clear from the Genesis account and the Bible as a whole that humans are at the centre of God’s plans for Creation and that they are distinct from the rest of Earth’s fauna. Humans were created separately, in the ‘image of God,’ as the last act on the last day of the creation week before God rested. The New Testament tells the story of Christ’s incarnation – as a human being – for the purpose of redeeming Adam’s descendents.

However, if we look at nature through the eyes of evolutionary biology we see a very different picture. Homo Sapiens Sapiens is just one more mammal that has branched off rather recently from other primates. Even today the most visceral reactions to Darwin’s theory are provoked by the implication that we are descended from ape-like ancestors. Few have been more eloquent in their repulsion at this suggestion than Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. In his anonymous review of Darwin’s Origin he famously stated:

Man’s derived supremacy over the earth; man’s power of articulate speech; man’s gift of reason; man’s free-will and responsibility...  - all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God....[9]

While it is clear to everyone that humans are not identical with Chimpanzees or Gorillas, evolution did open the way for critics to question the theist’s claim that humans are unique and central to the cosmic scheme of things. Later developments in evolutionary biology and related fields would continue the challenge to theological anthropology. While nineteenth century commentators were horrified by our newfound commonality with apes, contemporary genetics has revealed that we share as many as 40% of our genes with the humble banana. Various disciplines have also begun to provide naturalistic accounts of the qualities that Wilberforce considered uniquely human and show how they are present to some degree in other animals.[10]

Evolutionary thinking also contradicted deeply rooted concepts of order in the cosmos such as the Scala Naturae or ‘great chain of being.’ Rather than occupying an elevated place in the scheme of things, humans were just one branch on the tree of life. In recent years Harvard palaeontologist Stephen J Gould railed against even the tree model since this still implies an upward, if diffuse, directionality: “I cannot understand our continued allegiance to the manifestly false iconographies of ladder and cone except as a desperate finger in the dike of cosmically justified hope and arrogance.”[11] Dennett considers this refutation of what he calls the ‘cosmic pyramid’ and humankind’s banishment from a privileged position within it to be one of the reasons Darwin’s idea is so dangerous.[12]

A challenge to purpose in creation?

Once evolutionary theory had weakened the case for special providential activity in biological history, and humans no longer clearly occupied a meaningful place in the scheme of things, the way was open to question if there was evidence for any divine purpose in the cosmos. According to Paley’s view of the world, God’s concern for the details of terrestrial life could be made clear by simply opening our eyes to the marvellous designs within nature, but the eyes of evolution look at the same data and see no concern or purpose whatsoever. Once again, Richard Dawkins expresses the situation with characteristic clarity: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[13]

It is important to remember that while Darwin’s religious convictions would become increasingly tenuous as he grew older, when writing the Origin he had seen fit to occasionally attribute the processes in biology to a ‘Creator.’ This creator was not a miracle-working God that would spontaneously generate a Hippopotamus and the corresponding muddy swamp, but one who created by specifying laws of development. As he wrote in a letter to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”[14] Could God’s purposes in nature be seen within these laws? Gray never became comfortable with this dual characterisation. The key question is: how powerful is the chance component? Gray’s concern was that any admission of chance implied that God’s purposes could be derailed. Interestingly, Darwin argued against Gray’s position on almost the same grounds; it seemed unacceptable to him for God to be implicated in the minutiae of life because this would make God culpable for every evil, whether grievous or trivial.

Daniel Dennett describes this change from picturing God as a divine artificer to a divine lawgiver as starting theology down a slippery slope toward meaninglessness. Reductionist explanations can take a rich body of laws and unify them into a far simpler set, making God ever more distant from events of concern to humans. He joins chemist Peter Atkins and some theoretical cosmologists in predicting that the fundamental constants and laws of nature which currently seem to require a ‘law-giver,’ will turn out to be neither truly constant nor given. Instead, nature has found them, by means analogous to the way in which natural selection finds useful adaptations in biology.[15] Once again Darwin’s dangerous idea can be deployed to challenge the theist’s conception of a God who acts.

Evolutionary thinking can also bolster other challenges to traditional theological arguments for purpose in the cosmos. If terrestrial life arose by natural means rather than through special divine action, then it is reasonable to wonder if intelligent life has arisen elsewhere in the universe too. If so, this would be hard to reconcile with the claim that human life on Earth is central to God’s purposes. The mechanism of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection also become problematic in a universe where several planets need to be redeemed. French biologist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod concluded that evolutionary science posed the opposite problem since as far as he could see “the universe was not pregnant with life, nor the biosphere with man.”[16] If he is correct and the existence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens should be attributed to chance rather than natural laws or divine action, then humans can hardly be said to be the centre or purpose of the cosmos.

A threat to the veracity of scripture?

Perhaps the most well-known and easily understood challenge is to the veracity of scripture. A full exploration of this particular issue would need to make note of the wide variety of positions that can be defended on the origin, reliability and interpretation of the scriptures, but an evolutionary description of history poses some challenge for all position on Biblical origins and authority. At a minimum it must be admitted that the writers of the Old and New Testament refer to the personalities in Hebrew history in ways that suggest they believed they were actual human beings. Of critical importance is Saint Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 reference to Jesus as the ‘second Adam,’ and his emphasis on the importance of believing in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection as a factual event. For some commentators this reference can only make sense if Adam was as historical as Jesus. If Adam was an actual person, the question then becomes how much of the Genesis creation account surrounding Adam must also be held to be at least partly historical.

This is an interesting and complex part of the discussion which unfortunately I must set aside.

Evolution ‘explains away’ theology?

The most recent challenge to theology comes from the emerging fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. They attempt to offer an account of religious behaviour in terms of the reproductive fitness it confers on its adherents. Where religious believers claim that the body of theological wisdom has been in part revealed by God, sociobiology purports to show how all beliefs and practices are a natural human invention, and have been retained because they contribute to the survival of the group. The most outspoken advocate of this view is E.O. Wilson. He expects that “the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competition, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.”[17]

What difference would it make if Wilson is correct? While it appears that a sociobiological account explains religion away, it also provides a justification for its continuance since it is adaptive – by definition – at least while the environment in which it evolved persists. Other evolutionary thinkers are more hostile. Dennett suggests that religious ideas should be preserved, but in contained environments or in a ‘denatured state.’[18] Dawkins, as we might expect, sees no redeeming value in religion at all. As far as he is concerned “the achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't achieve anything, don't even mean anything.”[19]

When we look up at a sky full of stars we are sometimes caught up in the wonder of it, and are tempted to draw upon religious vocabulary in our response. Einstein spoke of his sense of a “cosmic religious feeling.” Peter Atkins, however, an outspoken advocate of the ‘omnicompetence’ of science, offers a different view: “Awe stultifies. Think of the universe as a puff of dust about a metre in diameter. Every dust grain is a galaxy. We live near a rather ordinary star which is a member of a rather ordinary galaxy somewhere insignificant in the puff of dust.”[20] The way forward is clear: “Complete knowledge is just within our grasp. Comprehension is moving across the face of the Earth, like the sunrise.”[21] Needless to say, Atkins’ comprehension has no need of contributions from religion.

A challenge to Christian morality?

One additional challenge from evolution that should be noted is to theological ethics. The challenge has two parts. First, religious moral teachings are typically held to be authoritative because they have been received through special divine revelations. However, critics question the reliability of such claims based on the poor agreement between the Genesis account and the history revealed by evolutionary science.[22] Secondly, where traditional apologists such as C.S. Lewis have argued that moral laws implicate a law-giver,[23] various accounts can be made for the emergence of ethical systems directly from evolutionary principles. With a weakened argument for the special revelation of a moral code, alternative accounts from the sciences are waiting in the wings.[24]

The challenges in wider context – Darwin as a scapegoat?

I have presented a quick sweep of the challenges that can be placed before theology when the case for special providence is considered to have been seriously weakened by evolutionary theory. While simplistic, I believe they are defensible thumbnail sketches of arguments that could be developed further. Special providence is an embattled notion and this has real implications for theology.

However, were sufficient space allocated to a discussion of each of the challenges, it could also be shown that stressing the link between evolutionary theory and each challenge is often a very inadequate first approximation of the issues involved. In many cases the challenges come from multiple sources, some of which substantially predate Darwin’s theory.

For example, writing twenty-five years before the publication of William Paley’s Natural Theology David Hume had provided full-bore critiques of both the argument from design and miracles.[25] By the time Darwin published the Origin the great age of the Earth had been established through geological findings and largely accepted. It is simply incorrect to characterise all pre-Darwin believers as committed to a purely literal-historical reading of the Genesis creation account and so ill-prepared for his subsequent refutation of scriptural truth. Serious challenges to the authority of scripture were already in discussion in the form of higher criticism, principally from Germany, although critical reflection on the interpretation of scripture dates back to Augustine and beyond.

The challenges are real, but it is not appropriate to tie them all to evolution in retrospect. Bertrand Russell famously challenged the claim that humans are the central purpose of Creation. From an evolutionary point of view, humans appear to be far from central. In fact, they are a very late addition. Why would God wait so long to get around to the main task, Russell had asked?[26] Note, however, this critique does not flow from Darwin’s work, but from prior geological findings. This type of critique was in turn a restatement of the challenge to human status posed three hundred years prior when a geocentric cosmology had been questioned and rejected.

Speculation on extra-terrestrial life can be traced back to antiquity and to Giordano Bruno’s proposal in the sixteenth century that other stars had planets with their own inhabitants. This, of course, prompted heated debate within the church, and an equally fiery end for Bruno. Even the suggestion that the features of our world are ultimately due to chance can be traced back to the Greek Atomists; materialism and determinism were very much ‘live’ philosophical options before Darwin, and they were potentially no friend to Christianity. It should also be noted that forms of evolutionary thinking predate Darwin, most notably in the writings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), and Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). In short, Dawkins overstates the case; it was quite possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist before Darwin.

Having set the scene and shown a little of the complexity behind the issues, I shall next review the current state of the evolutionary sciences, attempting to represent them independent of any philosophical or theological inferences. Once this appraisal is in place, the question ‘Does evolution do the work of a friend for the Christian religion?’ can be better assessed.

[3] The current state of the evolutionary sciences

It is important to remember that the contemporary field of evolutionary biology is a made up of several diverse sub-disciplines: palaeontology, molecular biology, population genetics, and developmental biology, to name just a few. Each of these sub-disciplines is constantly being revised and expanded. Together they attempt to provide a scientific account of how life first appeared, how the diversity of living creatures that we see around us today came to inhabit the Earth, and the detailed functioning of these living beings and the relations between them. If we include recent work in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, then the explanatory reach of evolutionary biology extends to the day-to-day behaviour of human individuals and societies. This is a broad and developing family of disciplines. Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory of natural selection remains a unifying organising principle that is common to them all.

The scope of the explanations provided by the various sub-disciplines and the force with which they are held to be final and authoritative varies considerably. On the one hand, palaeontology provides an impressive but incomplete account of the evolutionary pathways along which many organisms have travelled in order to reach their present form. Due to the scarcity of fossils, much of palaeontology remains tentative. For the foreseeable future we can expect new data and new fossil finds will lead to revisions of classifications and the historical timeline. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how Darwin’s idea of natural selection could ever be supplanted in those sub-disciplines which are concerned with changes in populations.[27]

Different ways of conceptualising Darwinian evolution

Much of the confusion surrounding evolution arises because advocates claim that the ‘whole’ evolutionary account is so simple or self-evident that one must be “ignorant, stupid or insane” to not accept it.[28] While Darwin’s basic insight of adaptation by descent with modification is indeed beautifully simple, a complete account of biological history in evolutionary terms will need to synthesize the data and insights from all the sub-disciplines into a coherent whole. Finding a representative picture for this complex history is not easy. Importantly, even the operation of the basic mechanism of natural selection can be conceptualised in significantly different ways. The three main options are as follows.

Evolution as chance and necessity

Writing in Chance and Necessity[29] Jacques Monod set out an eloquent account of evolution in terms of just two forces: the necessary laws of nature, and blind contingency. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection fits neatly into this simple framework. The variation from generation to generation that gives rise to adaptations is explained as sheer chance (exemplified by quantum indeterminacy[30]), and the differential survival of the better adapted species is inevitable, just as a projectile lofted with greater force is law-bound to reach a greater height. With this conceptual framework established, Monod can claim “chance alone is the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere.”[31]

While Monod drew attention to the underlying simplicity of the processes driving evolution, other commentators have shown how these twin forces, in combination, can give rise to surprisingly complex phenomena.[32] Biochemist Arthur Peacocke has critiqued Monod’s description pointing out that “the interplay between these principles is more subtle and complex than the simple dichotomies of the past would allow.”[33]

Evolution as an algorithm

While Monod characterised evolution in terms of its most basic features, Daniel Dennett has championed a conception of evolution at the next higher level of abstraction. He proposes that Darwin’s theory of natural selection should be thought of as an algorithm.[34]

Some features of the world can be satisfactorily described in terms of laws and equations. Newton’s inverse-square law of gravitation is a perfect example. Others require statistical descriptions. But a faithful abstraction of natural selection needs to capture its cumulative and temporal character. Algorithms do this in ways that differential equations cannot.

Unlike typical discoveries in the sciences, an algorithm once uncovered, is no longer up for debate. The closest analogue is with mathematical theorems. Once Pythagoras had developed his theorem relating the lengths of the sides of right triangles, it could not be undeveloped.[35] There is much to be gained from thinking of natural selection in algorithmic terms, and it is as unlikely to be refuted as Pythagoras’ theorem. This is one more reason why Dennett refers to natural selection as ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.’

It is once we start thinking of life in algorithmic terms, that the power of Darwin’s theory becomes shockingly clear. It is a matter of common experience that offspring inherit traits from their parents, and that no two descendants are completely alike. Darwin recognised that whichever offspring had been born with variations that were somehow more profitable than its peers – however slight these variations may be – they would pass on these advantageous traits to more offspring than their less advantaged contemporaries. The advantageous traits would then spread and become commonplace within the population. This kind of system lends itself to algorithmic modelling. Imagine two variables representing the fitness of ‘normal’ members of a species (variable a), and a mutant, b. The mutation is very minor, perhaps corresponding to a slight strengthening of teeth, giving b a 1% fitness advantage in cases where that strength is helpful. We are in the abstract world of mathematics and algorithms, so if b > a on average it is inevitable that b will continue to increase and the number of b organisms will come to significantly outnumber the a organisms.[36] The only question is how many generation it will take. The new fitness value for the overall population will have become normalized at 101% compared to where we started. The stage is now set for the eventual emergence of another beneficial mutation that will see the whole species renormalized to a still higher value of fitness. Of course, neutral mutations and deleterious mutations will occur as well, but at the simplistic level of description provided here, these have essentially no net effect because beneficial mutations are inherited more often – by definition, and therefore inevitably overwhelm the non-beneficial mutations.

Importantly, at this level of description there is no difference between so-called ‘micro’ and ‘macro evolution.’ While common sense allows that descendents with stronger teeth may come to outnumber those with weak teeth (micro-evolution), when viewed in abstract algorithmic terms, the same mechanism accounts for any adaptation whatsoever, including macro-evolutionary changes. Darwin was quite correct to observe “I can see no limit to this power”[37] and conclude that it could serve to drive the origin of species.

However loudly Darwin’s critics protest, this level of explanation of adaptation is powerful and irrefutable. Dennett is correct to claim natural selection is about as likely to be refuted as is a return to a pre-Copernican geocentric view of the cosmos.[38] Once understood, the idea is so obvious as to be self-evident.

Unfortunately, its immense explanatory power and irrefutable nature is also its Achilles’ heel. Expressed in the abstract terms laid out so far it can explain any and every adaptation; we have not specified the interval between generations, so by default the value of b reaches infinity almost immediately, as does the population of b organisms. In order to serve as an explanation for adaptations in terrestrial biology, the algorithm of natural selection needs to be properly ‘parameterised.’ The same holds true for Newton’s ‘f = ma.’ This formula tells us nothing useful about an actual event in the world until parameters of force, mass or acceleration are known.

In evolution, specifying parameters is no easy task. Real-world populations compete for multiple resources, and lives are lived out in specific but changing environments. One of the key parameters is the net effect of natural selection. Since it is not the only force acting on populations, depending on the parameters that are plugged into the algorithm, it is possible that other factors could overwhelm it temporarily, or even in the long run. However, if on average, it has the slightest net effect, natural selection will serve as a possible explanation for any adaptation (in fact, every adaptation) that is logically possible in any given environment.

The present situation is one where the mechanism and theoretical power of natural selection is not in doubt, but its place within an account of the actual terrestrial biological history is dependent upon it being correctly parameterised and placed within a larger model of the 3.8 billion year history of life on Earth.[39]

Evolution as movement within a ‘fitness landscape’

A third noteworthy way of conceptualising the process of natural selection is in terms of movement within a ‘fitness landscape.’[40] The concept of the fitness landscape was first introduced by Sewall Wright in the 1930s and has proven a useful way to visualise how the addition of ‘parameters’ will influence the possible paths of evolution. This in turn can help us apply the abstract idea of evolution to actual biology. The landscape is typically pictured as a mountain range with several peaks of varying height, and valleys in-between. The height at any point on the landscape corresponds to its fitness value; i.e. the higher the point, the greater the fitness of an organism that occupies that spot.

The algorithmic conception makes clear how an organism undergoing Darwinian natural selection will tend to increase its fitness value. When viewed in terms of fitness landscapes it explains how the organism will move ‘up hill.’ As we saw above, an over-simplistic view of natural selection as an algorithm results in the fitness tending to infinity, but when contextualised on a fitness landscape, the possible fitness values are constrained to just those in the terrain; i.e. it can reach the top of a mountain or plateau, but can go no further. Richard Dawkins used the model of fitness landscapes to great effect in his 1996 book Climbing Mount Improbable.[41]

While this conceptual tool adds needed complexity to a model of evolution, it has several limitations. For example, it gives the false impression that the landscape of possible adaptations is fixed. A more realistic representation of the relationship between organisms, environment and fitness would show the landscape changing as a result of the movement (i.e. adaptation) of organisms within it. It also does not make sufficiently clear the influence that adaptations in one organism will have on the fitness landscape of its peers. As Dennett says: “there is a tight interaction between the shape of the fitness landscape and the population that occupies it, creating a series of feedback loops ...The landscape is constantly shifting under your feet.”[42]

It is also tempting to assume that organisms that reach higher up the tallest peaks are ‘better’ than those lower down or on shorter peaks. Like all models and metaphors fitness landscapes have their limitations. The height of a point on the landscape does not indicate a score of ‘goodness’ or complexity, but solely the fitness of that organism to that local environment.

Importantly, it must be acknowledged that coming up with an objective value for fitness is harder than it may seem. Working from a traditionally Darwinian perspective, we might propose that fitness could be measured in terms of number of progeny produced over unit time, but this is clearly inadequate since it does not consider elephants to be very fit at all. Other possible measures of fitness include: the complexity of individual organisms, the ability to survive in multiple habitats, or to evolve quickly to changing environments, or total biomass, or the ability to respond intelligently to complex problems. Gould is quick to point out that for three out of five of these measures bacteria are superior to humans.

A detailed model of the overall fitness of organisms would probably require several different landscapes, each representing a different aspect of adaptations that influences overall fitness.[43]

Ongoing debates: contingency versus convergence

The twin forces that shape Darwinian evolution are random variation and the relative fitness of those variants to the environment. As we have seen above, the process is most easily expressed in abstract terms, but until abstract models of evolution are parameterised they can lead to a wide range of predictions which may or may not correspond to the real world. An important step in parameterisation is to assign the weights of these two forces: chance, and selection to environment.

If the chance component is dominant we can conclude that natural selection will lead to any number of ends.[44] This means that trends we see in the past are in reality arbitrary, and future changes are for all practical purposes arbitrary also. Palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and anthropologist Irven DeVore have advocated this view.

On the other hand, if we stress the role of the environment then natural selection will lead to more predictable ends because environments can remain relatively stable for long periods of time. Admittedly, if we focus in on the evolution of specific species we see the story of evolution being played out in an unpredictable sequence of environments and so leading to unpredictable ends. However, when viewed at larger scales, there are elements of the environment that are for all intents and purposes constant, and so natural selection leads towards a more definite range of ends. These pervasive requirements and constraints explain the phenomenon of ‘convergent evolution’ where different species have evolved similar adaptations independently. This is why many fish and dolphins share a similar shape; their form is in part constrained by the fluid dynamics of water.

While most evolutionary thinkers acknowledge that evolution is both contingent and convergent to some degree, there is strong disagreement on which is dominant. As mentioned above, Gould is most well known for stressing the contingency component. Writing on the convoluted path of human evolution in Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History Gould concludes that “we are the accidental result of an unplanned process .... The fragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not the predictable product of any definite process.”[45]

The resolution of this debate will have profound implications for the philosophy of biology and beyond. If evolution on Earth can be shown to be primarily a random walk, with natural selection merely ensuring adaptation to the environments along the way, then it would seem as though Monod’s position is correct; we should say that the ‘cause’ of the biosphere is blind chance, or at least chance when coupled with the algorithm of natural selection. However, if the convergence we see in species can be shown to be a significant factor, then an accounting of causes in evolutionary history needs to be expressed in different terms. There are four main possibilities:

Ongoing debates: what are the key causal factors in biological history?

Contingency as the principle cause

The first is Monod’s proposal. The chance element is held to be overwhelmingly dominant.

Ongoing debates: the environment as the principle cause?

The second considers particular historical changes in the environment to be an important cause, but still acknowledges the role of chance. Fitness landscapes can help us visualise this option since they allow us to more easily see the shaping role of the environment. In this view natural selection acts merely to drive organisms up hill, but the actual ends of evolution are dictated (caused) by the contours of their environment. Natural selection performs a role analogous to the influence of gravity on objects moving on a physical landscape (albeit a bizarre form of gravity that drives things up hill instead of down). This is essentially Gould’s position. Pointing to the pivotal role of the ‘K - T’ asteroid impact that separated the Cretaceous and the Tertiary period and ushered in a dinosaur free world and allowed the rise of mammals and humans, he says that “in an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars.”[46] If we were to re-run the ‘tape of life’ there is no guarantee of a K - T impact, so the chances become “vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.”[47] This accords well with Gould and Eldredge’s theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium.’[48] An event like the K - T impact would significantly alter the fitness landscape and natural selection would subsequently drive adaptations toward fitness in the new landscape until they reached the top of a peak, i.e. an equilibrium point. While this view considers the environment to be an important causal factor in biological history, in the final analysis the cause of adaptations is still chance, i.e. a random sequence of random environments.

Ongoing debates: convergence as the principle cause?

The third view assigns a still more prominent role to the environment and so considers convergence to be a significant force. Where a ‘Gould’ landscape has an arbitrary or flat shape when viewed from a great distance, this view holds that all life on Earth has a fitness landscape with a specific planet-wide morphology because all terrestrial life faces similar challenges. For example, Earth currently presents all land mammals with the same oxygen-rich atmosphere of a particular pressure and a 1G gravitational field. These factors will constrain the kinds of organisms that could possibly evolve. While allowing that the fitness landscape is shaped by chance events such as asteroid impacts, this view characterises such changes as only minor wrinkles that do not substantially change the overall contours of the landscape. This view considers one of the causes of biological history to be the particular properties of the Earth-environment as a whole. It is agnostic as to the cause of the ‘biofriendly’ nature of the Earth.

Ongoing debates: ‘Universal biology’ as the principle cause?

The fourth view claims that all possible life anywhere in the universe is constrained in some ways and so shares a common universe-wide fitness landscape. Universal chemical and physical laws dictate what elements and compounds can be used for what purposes, for example, water is likely to be present in all life. These constraints on life may be so tight that some of the solutions found in terrestrial life will turn out to be the only ones that are viable. This would mean that life could only occur on approximately Earth-like planets, and importantly, that life on Earth is an instance of a ‘universal biology.’ This view supports the opposite conclusion to the one arrived at by Monod; the driving force in terrestrial biological history has not been primarily chance, but is in part necessity, i.e. nature’s adherence to universal laws.

The importance of moving from evolution as abstraction to particular history

Given the diversity of philosophical conclusions that can be drawn from natural selection when considered in abstract terms, it is vital that actual data from natural history (and physics where applicable) be used to help us narrow the options. It is no longer possible for informed commentators to characterise evolution as pure contingency or deterministically convergent upon a single end-point. The question has instead become: to what degree is evolution on Earth (and elsewhere in the universe) constrained and which of the four views above is closest to the actual state of affairs?

Thankfully, recent work in palaeontology and palaeobiology has made considerable headway towards resolving this debate. According to Cambridge palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris, the constraints may be very great indeed, which lends support to the ‘universal biology’ view. In his recent book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe[49] he explores which aspects of the history of terrestrial biology appear to be constrained by universal laws and which may be due to chance. Interestingly, rather than argue that one or the other factor dominates, he suggests they both do.

Conway Morris supports his argument in two ways: by showing how terrestrial DNA-based biochemistry is demonstrably superior to alternatives,[50] and by showing how different organisms have converged upon the same solution when independently facing similar problems.[51] One particularly interesting case is chlorophyll. According to Conway Morris, it is difficult to conceive of an alternative mechanism for photosynthesis. In fact, terrestrial evolution has converged upon chlorophyll even though it is poorly optimised for converting the particular wavelengths of light received from our Sun. This leads him to wonder if life on planets orbiting different kinds of stars would also converge on chlorophyll.[52] Importantly for our next discussion, he considers intelligence to be universally adaptive, and so an inevitable outcome of natural selection given sufficient time and resources.[53] In fact, if there are intelligent extra-terrestrials he expects them to be pseudo-mammalian bipeds with stereo camera eyes.[54]

However, there is another side to the story. While many of the basic building blocks of life are plentiful, the chances of there being a hospitable planetary environment in which life can begin and flourish, are remote in the extreme. Here there are no known laws that can influence the likelihood. Our Earth owes its biology-enabling nature to a long list of accidents which make Earth-like planets unlikely elsewhere. This leads Conway Morris to guess that life is not common, i.e. it is a ‘lonely universe.’[55]

Conway Morris’s work is of great help as we try to add flesh to the abstract bones of natural selection and determine the degree of constraint it is under. However, it is still early in the debate. Ironically, the data driving Conway Morris’s view comes mainly from the Burgess Shale fossils in British Columbia and the K-T extinction. This is the same data that led Gould to the opposite conclusion. Gould emphasised the large number of species that did not make it through the K-T extinction, and concluded that life on Earth today is due to our ancestor’s lucky survival through this catastrophe. Conway Morris, however, believes that the drive to convergent solutions is powerful enough to overwhelm events even as disruptive as the K-T extinction. Where Gould consider the K-T impact one (among many) contingent causes of the rise of the mammals, Conway Morris suggests it only brought it forward by some thirty million year”[56] and “although there may be a billion potential pathways for evolution to follow from the Cambrian explosion, in fact the real range of possibilities and hence expected end results appear to be much more restricted.”[57]

While there is a need for further research and debate it looks as though the view of biological history as essentially a capricious random walk[58] with arbitrary end-points may be headed for extinction. If Conway Morris is correct and evolution is highly constrained by universal laws this finding will mark an important milestone in the philosophy of biology and philosophy of science in general.

If there is evidence for a ‘universal biology’ it will link evolution with the ‘fine-tuning’ and Anthropic Principle debates in astrophysics. It was recognised several decades ago that a number of physical constants have values that allow for life where other configurations of constants would preclude it. Thus far it has not been possible to argue persuasively that the laws of physics give rise to life, but by coupling cosmic fine-tuning with Conway Morris’s work, this kind or argument is now a possibility. Importantly, there is currently no ‘scientific’ explanation for why the constants have these particular life-related values. Speculations vary between postulating an infinity of universes where the values are randomised by some as yet unknown process, and the admission that the values are simply ‘given.’

New data may yet point in the opposite direction and so support Monod’s view, but it is now conceivable that scientific data could come to support the view that the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life. The debate over convergence has added urgency to the closely related question of directionality in evolution, to which we now turn.

Ongoing debates: directionality and progress

Over the last two hundred years or so in which evolutionary ideas have been seriously proposed we can find a full spectrum of opinions on evolution and progress. As philosopher Michael Ruse has observed “evolutionists, including Darwinian evolutionists, are badly split on the question of whether or not the path of evolution is progressive, from simple to complex, from blob to the human.”[59]

Writing in the Origin of Species Darwin had spoken of a “Tree of Life”[60] formed by the branching of species, with twigs and leaves reaching skyward. As we saw earlier, Gould has championed an alternate image of a bush, as he believes that the tree image incorrectly implies there is a degree of upward directionality within evolution. With Darwin’s model it is easy to suppose that the uppermost branches and twigs of the tree are superior to those further down. By contrast, Gould wishes to emphasise the non-directionality, suggesting that we view life as “a copiously branching bush,” with some branches near the top, and some at the bottom, all being “continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, [and] not a ladder of predictable progress.”[61]

Gould has had to defend his commitment to non-directionality against the observation that more complex organisms have, in fact, been preceded by less complex ones. In his classic text On Evolution, John Maynard Smith offered a rather ambiguous response to this dilemma: “It is in some sense true,” he writes, “that evolution has led from the simple to the complex ...  I do not think that biology has at present anything very profound to say about this.”[62] Maynard Smith’s conclusion is justified if we consider natural selection in abstract algorithmic terms. At this level of description we can expect to see an increase in fitness, but this does not automatically imply an increase in complexity since a complex organism is not necessarily more fit.

Perhaps the most optimistic advocate for progress and directionality in evolution was Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Writing in The Phenomenon of Man, first published after his death in 1955, he proposed that a trend was visible in evolutionary history which he referred to as the ‘law of increasing complexity consciousness.’[63] He proposed that this law, which has brought about human consciousness, will continue influencing evolution into the future, culminating in what he called the ‘omega point.’ As we might expect, Gould was severely critical of Teilhard, describing any directionality as a “noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced...”[64] Ruse has noted that Gould’s position may have been in part due his abhorrence at the possibility that science could be used to justify the claim that one species or race is further evolved and so superior to another. Ruse is an even handed philosopher who is not at all sympathetic to the ideas of Teilhard, in fact he has characterised evolution as “going nowhere ... and rather slowly at that”[65] but also allows that “we might suppose that evolution, even Darwinian evolution, is a lot more directed than someone like Gould allows.”[66]

How might Conway Morris’s work on convergence play into the question of directionality? Once again fitness landscapes can help us visualise the situation. While at first glance evolutionary convergence appears to introduce a directionality that Gould would find repugnant, this is not the case. Convergence implies that life will inevitably draw from a fixed set of fitness strategies, but it does not tell us which of these strategies is superior. If we picture the situation on a fitness landscape (viewed at the largest scale) we can imagine a peak for bacteria-style fitness (i.e. highly robust, massive growth rate, etc.) and a different peak for human-style fitness (i.e. fragile body, the ability to respond intelligently to threats and opportunities).[67] Neither is more ‘natural’ than the other, nor is one superior to the other.

One more parameter needs to be added to our model to allow it to represent the full array of options; population density. This is tightly related to the time parameter since the longer evolution runs, the greater the number of organisms. The effect of this parameter is more easily visualised if we invert the landscape such that the lower points now correspond to greater fitness to that local environment. Organisms can be represented by ball bearings dropped at random locations at a specific rate onto the landscape. In the inverted landscape, natural selection acts just like gravity in physical landscapes, drawing the ball bearings into valleys and basins.[68]

The parameters that influence the character of evolution are: the shape of the fitness landscape (flat or highly contoured), the source of the fitness landscape (arbitrary, planetary, or universal) and the population density (i.e. the time allowed for evolution). The question of directionality in Earth’s biological history depends very much on the kind of evolutionary scenario we are actually in. The noteworthy options are as follows.

Weak convergence

On a weakly convergent (i.e. mostly flat) landscape the density factor does not significantly affect the result. No part of the landscape is particularly noteworthy, and we always find the entire landscape populated at random. In this case, there is no overall directionality.

Strong convergence, high population density

However, for cases where convergence is significant, or if biology is held to be universal, landscape density is critical. If 100 balls are dropped into a landscape that has 9 major basins, it is likely that all of the basins will be occupied. In this scenario, there is also no directionality per se, because the landscape is likely to be ‘flooded.’ In real terms, this could mean that, yes, human-like organisms and bacteria-like organisms were likely from the very beginning, but now that they have evolved, evolution has reached a kind of stasis. This is essentially the view described by Conway Morris: “Darwinian evolution remains central as the agency,” he says, “but the nodes of occupation are effectively predetermined from the big bang.”[69]

Strong convergence, low population density

On a highly convergent but sparsely populated landscape, organisms may not yet be at their optimum fitness. Crucially, there may be entire basins that have not yet been occupied at all, but which will be in time; i.e. if only 9 balls have been dropped into a landscape with ten major basins, one of them will be unoccupied. This last scenario could be considered a directionality of sorts, since evolution has ‘somewhere significant to go.’ This conception of directionality is very different from Teilhard’s omega point, and does not appear to be the kind that Gould would find repulsive.

Ongoing debates: the origin of life

It is perhaps remarkable that fifty years after Watson and Crick detailed the structure of DNA and Stanley Miller performed the first bold experiments aimed at producing self-replication biochemistry, there is little consensus on how life started. This is sometimes referred to as the problem of ‘abiogenesis.’ Darwin’s advocates often present natural selection as a complete and satisfying account of biology. Dawkins goes so far as to say it “solves the mystery of our existence.”[70] If we consider its potential application beyond biology to social contexts through sociobiology it could theoretically explain a great deal more than our existence. However, the power of natural selection only comes into the picture once we have the twin components of replication and inheritance with variation. But do these twin features arise inevitably? If not, their origin will need be to be explained.

There is still optimism that the problem will be solved, but at the moment it is hard to predict how much will be attributed to chance. As with natural selection, until we have some confidence as to the probabilities involved it is possible to draw a wide range of conclusions. On the other hand, Manfred Eigen considered our knowledge to be sufficiently detailed to declare life “inevitable.”[71] Biochemist George Wald shares this view, also concluding that “the universe breeds life inevitably.”[72]

In recent years, Miller’s experiments have been refined and greatly enhanced, but as Ruse puts it: “at the moment the hand of human design and intention hangs over everything...”[73] Stanley Miller himself has become cautious: “the problem of the origin of life,” he says, “has turned out to be much more difficult than I, and other people, envisioned.”[74] The difficulties have led no less an authority than James Watson to the conclusion that it the origins of life should be considered “almost a miracle.”[75]

Despite the challenges, abiogenesis research has made laudable progress on several fronts. Two facts have emerged: there are plausible scenarios for how several amino acids were produced,[76] and there is evidence that complex life developed early on. For example there is evidence that carbon from 3.8 billion years ago passed through photosynthesis indicating the presence of complex plant-like organisms.[77] This means that life must have arisen on Earth almost soon as the Earth could physically support it.[78] This fact suggests three possibilities: self-replicating molecules are likely to form, life on Earth is due to incredible luck, or life originated somewhere else (where the improbabilities are lessened through different physical circumstances or the availability of time). Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle advocated this third theory which they referred to as ‘Panspermia.’

The lack of a detailed account of the origin of life means that it is too early to say that evolution provides an answer to the mystery of our existence.

Different levels and kinds of selection?

Another area of intense debate concerns the primacy of purely ‘Darwinian’ gene-based natural selection. One important difference between Darwin’s theory and those which had been proposed before, such Lamarck’s, is the mode of inheritance. Where Lamarck allowed for the inheritance of characteristics acquired during an animal’s lifetime, Darwin realised that the inheritance of traits seen in commercial animal breeding was sufficient to enable natural selection and evolution. The integration of Mendelian genetics into evolutionary theory in the 1930s provided a clear endorsement of Darwin’s intuition. Inheritance was explained in terms of the transfer of genes from parent to offspring, so only those traits that could be encoded in genes would be preserved. Furthermore, the ‘central dogma’ of cell biology states that information cannot flow from the organism to the gene. This means that the only unit of natural selection is the gene, and in theory the entire ‘epic of evolution’ can be expressed as a history of changes in gene-frequencies. This account is a triumph of reductionism.

Richard Dawkins produced a masterful account of evolution in these terms in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. There have been ongoing discussions concerning his use of the word ‘selfish,’ but it did make his message clear: evolution occurs at the level of genes. This dogmatic understanding of evolution is essential if Darwinian natural selection is to remain the sole explanation for the origin and adaptation of species. However, from early on it was clear to Darwin that selection may occur in other ways as well. The debate over possible ‘levels of selection’ and different kinds of selection is still very much alive.[79] Conway Morris goes so far as to say that “claims for the primacy of the gene have distorted the whole of biology.”[80]

Most arguments challenging a purely gene-centric view of evolution point to the Baldwin effect. In 1896 James Mark Baldwin wrote a paper on ‘A New Factor in Evolution’ arguing that the relationship between environment and organism was not fully captured by a purely Darwinian explanation. While it is true that organisms adapt to become fit in a given environment, mobile organisms can seek out different environments. At a minimum, Baldwin’s proposal suggests that offspring inherit more than genes from their parents; they also inherit the environment into which their parents bear them and any disposition they may have to travel to more favourable environments. In other words, the door is open for adaptive behaviour to be inherited.

It is conceivable that behaviours can be encoded in genes, but they can also be learnt through mimicry.[81] If learnt behaviours are afforded a role in evolution then we have left the realm of pure gene-based Darwinism. It is true that Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection can be expected to operate in any system that has replication, variation and some measure of fitness. As such, it can be applied to the development and transmission of behaviours, ideas and culture. But behaviours and ideas are far more fluid than genes, and the concept of fitness is once again problematic. Dawkins developed the idea of the ‘meme’[82] and attempted to show how Darwinian ideas could be applied to culture, but it has acquired few advocates.[83]

Darwin himself came to the conclusion that “Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”[84] Ruse represents the current situation as follows: “A Darwinian has to regard natural selection as the most important evolutionary mechanism that there is. ... There is disagreement over how important “most important” really is.”[85] The debate over higher levels and kinds of selection continues, however, it is likely that we will see the distinction between ‘ultra-Darwinism’ and the broader concept of evolution grow. It may be that natural selection and Darwin will come to occupy positions analogous to gravitation and Newton in physics; i.e. central, but just part of a much larger picture.

[4] Responses from theology

From reading the accounts of the challenges set out in the first section it would be easy to conclude that evolutionary science is intrinsically destructive for religious beliefs. This is the impression gained from reading respected commentators such as Dennett, Wilson, Monod and Dawkins, but I hope to have cast doubt on such single-dimensional assessments. Members of the scientific and theological communities do the public a great disservice when they characterise evolution as a simple and monolithic idea which can easily be refuted or accepted and then deemed compatible or incompatible with religion. The basic algorithmic abstraction of natural selection is indeed simple, but this tells us little about the history and development of actual biological history. Moving from abstraction to evolutionary history requires perseverance with an immensely difficult and as yet incomplete scientific research programme. By varying the ‘parameters in the algorithm’ and the ‘contours of the fitness landscape’ very different kinds of histories can emerge. Some of these possible histories appear to be congruent with traditional theistic conceptions of creation, while others do not. Importantly, regardless of which histories our own Earth has undergone, the raw data discovered by the evolutionary sciences will not immediately entail the scientific blessing of any particular theological or philosophical position, pace Monod, Dawkins, et al.

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.[86] 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.[87] 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.

Responses from contemporary theologians

It should be no surprise therefore that there is a diversity of theological responses to evolutionary science. At one end of the spectrum we have varieties of ‘creation science’ which do not grant nature or general providence a significant role in creation history. As we have seen, they are responding to supposed threats which are not necessarily justified by a careful interpretation of the science. At the other end of the spectrum we find a number of theologians who endeavour to seamlessly weave Darwinian ideas into a doctrine of creation through ‘theistic evolution.’ For this essay I shall focus on just those scholars who contend that they have taken Darwin ‘seriously,’ leaving anti-Darwinian creationist accounts and the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement for subsequent study.

The remaining responses can be roughly divided into three groups: 1) Those who accept Darwinian natural selection as a force in biological history but one which must be supplemented by divine activity in order to provide a full account of life’s history. 2) Those who accept it as a reasonable approximation of the mechanism driving biological development, but one which is flexible enough to allow for concurrent divine action. While this is typically located in probabilistic events, and may or may not be detectable by methods employed in the sciences, for the believer this divine action is very real. 3) Those who embrace natural selection itself as an expression of divine creativity. As would be expected, each of these groups develop very distinct accounts of providence, some explicitly allowing for miracles[88] and some developing a thoroughly immanentist view of God’s presence in the world.

Holmes Rolston III

In his book Genes, Genesis and God: Values and their Origins in Natural and Human History[89] philosopher Holmes Rolston III develops a nuanced account of providence and biological history. Well versed in the environmental sciences he points to the robustness of life, particularly the ability it has shown to recover from cataclysmic events such as the K-T extinction. This leads him to support a mild account of convergence. Echoing Leigh Van Valen and opposing Gould, he proposes that if we were to run the ‘tape of life’ several times, consistent themes would appear.[90] However, he considers the Darwinian account of biological history to be “modestly incomplete.”[91] He describes this deficiency in terms of ‘possibility spaces.’ For Rolston, contemporary knowledge of evolutionary biology enables us to say that some adaptations are in the ‘possibility space’ of the precursors, but this becomes meaningless over longer ranges. For example, we cannot reasonably say that Trilobites are in the ‘possibility space’ of DNA.[92] Rolston proposes that in order to get from DNA to Trilobites there is a need for “the creation of new possibility spaces” over time.[93] Until we account for this, he says, evolution has “possibilities floating in from nowhere.”[94] He sees this as opening the way for accounts of divine providence; it is God who opens up certain possibilities.

Rolston suggests that this change of possibility spaces would be undetectable: “God does not intervene as a causal force in the world, not at least of such kind as science can detect.”[95] This is because God’s influence occurs at the level of chance. He explains that “if once a year God loaded the dice, that would be difficult to detect.”[96] Rolston’s position is interesting because he presents God’s action as simultaneously undetectable by science and yet evident from an assessment of reasonable possibilities. He also characterises God’s activity in temporal terms; God opens up this possibility at a certain time and a different possibility at another time.

It is at first difficult to see how God’s temporally variable detectable influence can be viewed in terms other than intervention. However, it is important to remember that some statistical results can be highly suggestive without automatically implicating divine intervention. For example, if two fair die were thrown and happened to land on the same face this would not be surprising. However, if they both landed on the same random face on many subsequent throws, this would be highly improbable and suggestive, but would not automatically imply that God intervened since no laws were broken. It is not yet known if biological history includes statistically suggestive events of this type.

Keith Ward

Philosophical theologian Keith Ward, like Rolston, accepts the general framework of evolution with natural selection as a central mechanism, but argues this is not a sufficient explanation for the current state of biological affairs. Instead, he believes “mutations must be coherent and co-ordinated”[97] and a “continuing causal activity of God is the best explanation of progress towards consciousness.”[98] Once again using the terminology of chance rather than intervention, he suggests that without this continual causal activity the evolution of humans would be improbable.[99] Unlike Rolston he justifies this claim in explicitly theological and metaphysical terms. Ward argues persuasively against naturalism and determinism,[100] and suggests that the ‘laws of nature’ are not fixed. With this different context established he is free to claim that God steers evolutionary development “towards more complex and sentient life-forms. There is no physical mechanism that produces such a bias. Yet it is not entirely left to chance.”[101]

Ward’s view is self-consistent and theologically satisfying, but it comes at a high price. By asserting the natural order is malleable, he can explain much more than evolutionary history. Such an assertion follows from his theological starting point, but is it consistent with observations of the natural world? At some scales of observation it does seem reasonable to say there are fixed laws of nature.[102]

John Haught

Theologian John F Haught considers Darwinism to be a “reasonably close, though incomplete and abstract, approximation of the way life has developed on Earth.”[103] Unlike Rolston, he believes that the ‘self-limiting scope’ of the sciences will not be able to detect divine action in biological history, but that it exists nevertheless. As such, his view is explicitly a ‘theology of nature.’ He is sharply critical of the argument from design, and the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement in particular, arguing that “the metaphysics of divine humility ... explains the actual features of evolution much more intelligibly.”[104]

Arthur Peacocke

Biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke, suggests that evolutionary history is itself a full and satisfying account of God’s creativity. Furthermore, he is critical of accounts that include ad hoc additional special acts of creation on theological grounds because their presence implies God’s “ordinary absence.”[105] He reserves his harshest criticism for so-called scientific creationists and considers evolutionary accounts of natural history to be “infinitely more Christian than the theory of ‘special creation.’”[106]

Peacocke’s proposal will be heavily influenced by developments in the debate over convergence and universal biology. If evolution is found to be only weakly convergent, then seeing God within evolution requires the eyes of faith. The claim will remain a subjective one, and non-religious observers such as David Hull are free to report that they do not see the Christian God in evolution, instead they see a process “rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror.”[107]

However, if evolution is strongly convergent, the subjective component is reduced, and the presence of suffering is balanced by the realisation of intended outcomes. One of Peacocke’s most well-known metaphors for God’s creativity can be constructively connected to the idea of fitness landscapes. When describing the role of natural selection he says “it is as if chance is the search radar of God, sweeping through all the possible targets available to its probing.”[108] In the strong-convergence scenario the radar is revealing the contours of a fixed and God-given landscape. Furthermore, depending on the intensity of the radar beam, more or less detail will be revealed. Drawing on his knowledge of biochemistry Peacocke is optimistic that the puzzle of the origin of life will be solved, suggesting “the emergence of life was inevitable, but the form it was to take remained entirely open and unpredictable.”[109]

Peacocke has no doubt that Evolution does ‘do the work of a friend’ for the Christian religion, and often cites Aubrey Moore’s conclusion as the correct one. For him “Christian theology continues to be vastly indebted to the view of the transformations of the living world into which Darwin initiated us.”[110]

An increased role for general providence?

It should be remembered that the Christian conception of divine providence must be found to be coherent in two cases. The first, as has been discussed, is where special divine action seems necessary. The second case is less often discussed, and is in some ways equally challenging. Divine providence must also be coherent when special acts of God are absent. The vast majority of the experiences of Christian believers do not involve miracles. Instead, they include the ordinary functioning of the natural world. It is for this second problem that evolution does indeed ‘do the work of a friend for the Christian religion.’

Serious reflection upon evolution has shown that it is inappropriate to characterise the story of terrestrial biology as simply the outworking of chance and necessity. These are indeed the two underlying elements, but it misses out much that needs to be said about the two in combination. This insight also applies to the theology of providence. It is inadequate to describe God’s providential action as just general or special. Interaction with the evolutionary sciences has helped reveal how general providence, when coupled with chance, can do much of the work normally attributed to special providence.

Relating general providence to science is far less problematic than special providence because it is generally accepted that science allows for fixed laws. Science offers no explanation for the origin of the laws and constants – by definition – and so the door is open for religious believers to attribute these permanent properties and potentialities to God’s general providence.

For example, we can affirm that it is God’s will that there should be gravitation. We know of no place where gravity is absent. We can also claim that it is God’s will that there should be electrons and protons; they too are found throughout creation. Note, however, there were no protons in the very early universe. A period of evolution was needed before they condensed from quarks. As far as we know, their eventual appearance was not contingent, but an inevitable outcome of the laws and constants in our universe. As we turn to the chemical elements we reach a crucial phase. The evolution of some chemical elements was inevitable, but not all of them. As we turn to the existence of liquid water oceans, we must pause. The properties of liquid water are unambiguously caused by the laws of nature, and so attributable to general providence, but it is quite possible that an unlucky version of our universe would have no rocky planets with liquid water.[111] Water exists because of contingent general providence. The point of this diversion into physics has been to show how the effects of general providence are not fully captured when it taken to mean ‘all-pervasive.’

If we can say it is God’s will that there should be protons, we can we say it is God’s will that there should be liquid water. Importantly, there is no sharp dividing line between the (less than 100%) probability of water existing, and the formation of amino acids, and (if accounts of strong convergence or universal biology hold up) the arrival of intelligent beings.

While at first glance it appears as though there are just two options for relating providence and evolution, this discussion has shown the need for a third.

Theology of Creation in the light of evolution: three scenarios

Creation: Evolution enhanced

The first option is as follows: God takes the dust of the ground, (general providence) and supplements natural selection by bringing into being particular probabilities in order to create human beings. This additional influence may be detectable (i.e. it is a case of special providence). As we saw earlier, Rolston describes this special divine action in terms of a temporal ‘opening up of possibilities.’ Haught, drawing from Whitehead’s process philosophy, considers it the effect of the ‘divine lure.’ Note: this option is dependent upon an unspecified account of special divine action.

Creation: At the mercy of evolution

The second option proposes that God takes the dust of the ground, and allows natural selection to run its course (general providence). There is no providential involvement or intervention. This means God is at the mercy of the significant contingency inherent in the process. Peacocke’s proposal could be viewed this way.

Creation: Evolution as the outcome of contingent general providence

These first two options mark out the two ends of a spectrum of possibilities. At the centre of this spectrum is a third: Much as the existence of liquid water can be said to be the contingent result of general providence, it is possible that the requirements for life are sufficiently tied to the laws of nature that it too can be considered the reasonable outcome of contingent general providence. Such an account has no need of additional divine influence because the outcome is sufficiently tightly constrained to achieve God’s purposes. If a divine influence were present, it would be undetectable. 

[5] Concluding remarks

I have argued that when seen in context, the evolutionary sciences do not present substantial challenges for theology. The principle related challenge is the need to provide an account of special divine action that is coherent with the natural sciences. Evolution today appears to provide no help with this problem.  However, due to the statistical nature of the field, it is possible for believers to see the divine hand in the particular pathways that evolution has followed. If further research confirms that Conway Morris is correct when he says that the “emergence of something like ourselves [is] a near inevitability,”[112] this will add substantial credibility to this position.

It is true that the strength of the argument from design in the early nineteenth century provided a temporary apologetic boost to theism in general and claims of special divine action in particular. It is understandable that some scholars lament the passing of ‘classic’ natural theology and hope that it can be resurrected. However, I would argue that once Darwin and others had neutralised this argument, the apologetic options returned to approximately their previous form.[113] Convincing arguments for many Christian beliefs remain intact. Nevertheless, it should be admitted that special providence remains central to mainstream theology, and presently finds little support from the natural sciences.[114]

While the evolutionary sciences are not likely to provide evidence of particular divine acts in natural history, theological reflection upon the creative capacity of natural selection in history can be extremely valuable. As Peacocke has observed “Christian theology has been at its most creative and most vital when it has faced the challenges of engagement with new systems of thought encountered in new cultural contexts.”[115]

It is sometimes claimed that an evolutionary account of creation means that any perception of beauty or design in nature is mistaken, and any inclination we may have to praise God for what we see is naοve; in reality we are looking at the results of a process ruled by chance. A deeper understanding of the evolutionary sciences reveals that this extreme view is false. Everywhere we look we can see the particular (contingent) effects of general providence. As Aubrey Moore went on to conclude, an understanding of evolution reveals that “either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere.”[116]

This essay has tackled a very small part of the puzzle. A more complete analysis should consider the following: the relation of evolution to the problem of evil and suffering, the ongoing work on quantum indeterminacy and special divine action, the proposal that God can use ‘information’ to effect changes in nature,[117] as well as a more thorough investigation of the related metaphysical positions, notably materialism and determinism.




Atkins, P. W. Creation Revisited. Oxford: W.H. Freeman, 1992.

Barbour, Ian G. Religion in an Age of Science. London: SCM, 1990.

Behe, Michael J. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Burkhardt, Frederick, and Sydney Smith. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. Vol. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Conway Morris, S. The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

- - - . Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin, 1991.

- - - . Climbing Mount Improbable. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

- - - . "Put Your Money on Evolution." New York Times 1989, 34.

- - - . River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

- - - . The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Deacon, Terrence William. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human Brain. New York: Norton, 1998.

Dembski, William A. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Durant, John, ed. Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Gore, Charles, ed. Lux Mundi: Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation. London, 1890.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. London: Vintage, 2000.

Haught, John F. God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1977.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. London: Penguin, 1990.

Kauffman, Stuart A. At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. London: Penguin, 1996.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Maynard Smith, John. On Evolution. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972.

Monod, Jacques. Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

Nitecki, Matthew H., ed. Evolutionary Progress. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1817.

Peacocke, A. R. "Biology and a Theology of Evolution." Zygon 34, no. 4 (1999): 695-712.

- - - . Creation and the World of Science: The Re-Shaping of Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

- - - . Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming - Natural and Divine. London: SCM, 1993.

Polkinghorne, J. C. Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Rolston, Holmes. "Evolutionary History and Divine Presence." Theology Today (Princeton) 55 (1998): 415-34.

- - - . Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ruse, Michael. Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

- - - . Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Saunders, Nicholas. Divine Action and Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

- - - . "Does God Cheat at Dice? Divine Action and Quantum Possibilities." Zygon 35, no. 3 (2000): 517-44.

Schopf, Thomas J. M., ed. Models in Paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper, 1972.

Sober, Elliott. The Nature of Selection: Evolutionary Theory in Philosophical Focus. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984.

- - - . Philosophy of Biology. Boulder: Westview, 1993.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Brighton: Sussex Academic, 1999.

Ward, Keith. God, Chance & Necessity. Oxford: Oneworld, 1996.

- - - . In Defence of the Soul. Oxford: Oneworld, 1998.

Weinberg, Steven. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature. London: Vintage, 1993.

Wildman, Wesley J. "The Divine Action Project, 1988-2003." Theology and Science 2, no. 1 (2004): 31-75.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. London: Abacus, 1999.


[1]Charles Gore, ed.R, Lux Mundi: Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation (London: 1890) 99.

[2] It should be noted that one other response is to simply reject evolution and thereby hopefully avoid the challenges associated with it.

[3] Exodus 20:2.

[4]William Paley, Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1817).

[5]Keith Ward, God, Chance & Necessity (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996) 79.

[6]Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 1991) 6.

[7]Ibid. xii.

[8] Qtd. in John F. Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000) 16.

[9] ”Is Mr Darwin a Christian?” Quarterly Review, vol. 108, July, 225-64.

[10] For a fascinating proposal concerning the development of language see Terrence William Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human Brain (New York: Norton, 1998).

[11]Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (London: Vintage, 2000) 45.

[12] See Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) 64-65.

[13]Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995) 133.

[14]Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 224.

[15]Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 176.

[16]Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) 145.

[17] Qtd. in Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 125.

[18]Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 515.

[19] Letter to The Independent. March 20th, 1993.

[20]P. W. Atkins, Creation Revisited (Oxford: W.H. Freeman, 1992) 9.

[21]P. W. Atkins, Creation Revisited (Oxford: W.H. Freeman, 1992). 159.

[22] E. O. Wilson describes his own lapse from Baptist faith in these terms. For him, science had shown that “the biblical authors had missed the most important revelation of all! Could it be they were not really privy to the thoughts of God?” Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (London: Abacus, 1999) 6.

[23]C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996) 25.

[24] See Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion 191-202.

[25] Most notably in David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (London: Penguin, 1990).

[26] William Buckland’s rather clever response was that the Earth was being prepared for our arrival; coal and other resources were being deposited where we might access them easily when needed.

[27] A technical defence of evolution is beyond the scope of this dissertation, but amongst the most persuasive arguments are Kimura and Ayala’s discovery of the ‘molecular clock’ and the ability to reconstruct the branching of species based on genetic change over time. A powerful argument for the existence of a common human/primate ancestor comes from genetic scarring left by ancient virus infections that can be found in both the simian and human genome.

[28] This often quoted remark is from Dawkins’ New York Times review of Johanson and Edey’s “Blueprints: Solving the Mystery of Evolution.” Richard Dawkins, "Put Your Money on Evolution," New York Times 1989.

[29]Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology.

[30]Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. 111, 114.

[31]Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. 112.

[32] See Stuart A. Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (London: Penguin, 1996) 71-86.

[33] Peacocke in  John Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985) 116

[34]Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 51.

[35] Although it could be reformulated for non-Euclidean geometries, etc.

[36] Note at this level of description there is no competition for finite resources and yet the mechanism of natural selection still operates.

[37]Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) 443. See also 168.

[38]Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 20.

[39] See S. Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 108.

[40] See Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity 149.

[41]Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996).

[42]Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 192-193.

[43] For more on fitness landscapes see Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity 57-72.

[44] This was Asa Gray’s concern.

[45]Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History 290.

[46]Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History 318.

[47]Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History 14, 48.

[48] Gould, S.J. and Eldredge N. in Thomas J. M. Schopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology (San Francisco: Freeman Cooper, 1972). See also Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History 54.

[49]S. Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[50] For example, ammonia ice does not float. See S. Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). 25.

[51] See Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 18, 164, 167, 170, 235.

[52]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 109-110.

[53] See Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals 106, 196.

[54]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 208.

[55]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 38, 42, 72-104, 328.

[56] See Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals 222.

[57]Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals 202.

[58] See also Dennett’s description of the ‘Library of Mendel’ Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 107.

[59]Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals 88.

[60]Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life 172. See also 159-162.

[61]Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History 35.

[62]John Maynard Smith, On Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972) 98.

[63] See the final chapter of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon (Brighton: Sussex Academic, 1999).

[64] Gould in Matthew H. Nitecki, ed., Evolutionary Progress (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) 318.

[65]Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986) 203.

[66]Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion 85.

[67] I must emphasise that this kind of visual is easily misunderstood. It is unlikely we could ever draw the universal fitness landscape and point out these features on it.

[68] It is important to remember the landscape is still primarily an abstraction, so population density does not necessarily correspond directly to proximity of organisms in an actual habitat.

[69]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 309.

[70]Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker 5.

[71] Qtd. in Holmes Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 424.

[72] Qtd. in Holmes Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 424.

[73]Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion 64.

[74] Qtd. in Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 48.

[75] See Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 46-50, 67.

[76] Although the most promising scenarios require quite different chemical environments lessening the chances that the amino acids would be found together. See Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 63.

[77]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 108.

[78]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 108.

[79] See Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life 57-59, 126.

[80]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 238.

[81] See Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (London: SCM, 1990) 157.

[82] See chapter 11 of Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). See also Dawkins on cultural evolution: Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker 216.

[83] Two supporters that should be mentioned are Julian Huxley (predating Dawkins’ use of the term meme) and Daniel Dennett.

[84]Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life 69

[85]Ruse, Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion 28.

[86] This task will very probably be assisted by Artificial Life experiments.

[87]Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature (London: Vintage, 1993) 241-262.

[88] See Ward, In Defence of the Soul 46-47.

[89]Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History

[90] See Ibid. 20.

[91]Ibid. 429.

[92] See Holmes Rolston, "Evolutionary History and Divine Presence," Theology Today (Princeton) 55 (1998) 425.

[93]Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 427.

[94]Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 359.

[95]Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 368.

[96]Rolston, Genes, Genesis and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History 368.

[97]Ward, God, Chance & Necessity 118.

[98]Ward, God, Chance & Necessity 78.

[99]Ward, God, Chance & Necessity 77.

[100] Ward argues that a “coherent idea of a personal Creator God entails that the laws of nature are not deterministic.” See Ward, God, Chance & Necessity 82.

[101]Ward, God, Chance & Necessity 83.

[102] He explicitly states that “It is very probably false that objects act only in accordance with certain laws of physics.”Keith Ward, In Defence of the Soul (Oxford: Oneworld, 1998) 54.

[103]Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution 15.

[104]Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution 55.

[105] Peacocke in Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief 110-112.

[106] Peacocke in Peacocke in Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief110.

[107] Qtd. in Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution 6.

[108]  A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science: The Re-Shaping of Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 95.

[109] Peacocke in Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief 116.

[110] Peacocke in Peacocke in Durant, ed., Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief127.

[111] Though, of course we could have solid ice that in the low-pressure environment of space sublimes without passing through the liquid phase.

[112]Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe 328.

[113] Although it should be noted that the argument from design is still held to be valid by some, notably advocates of ‘Intelligent Design.’ See William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

[114] Nicholas Saunders offers the following bleak appraisal: “Would it be correct to argue on the basis of the forgoing critique that the prospects for supporting anything like the ‘traditional understanding’ of God’s activity in the world are extremely bleak? To a large extent the answer to this question must be yes.” See Nicholas Saunders, Divine Action and Modern Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 215.

[115]A. R. Peacocke, "Biology and a Theology of Evolution," Zygon 34, no. 4 (1999) 697.

[116] Moore in Gore, ed., Lux Mundi: Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation 99.

[117] This can be found in the writings of Peacocke, Ward, Rolston, Haught and the Intelligent Design movement.