In the previous post, I wrote to Nate, “The truths revealed in the cosmos, the fossil record, and our own DNA may at first be jarring to Christian faith. But when we stop resisting these truths, and begin the work of combining them with the revealed truths in the Bible, the exciting journey toward a fuller understanding of truth begins. And I am jazzed about that journey.” I have been on this journey for several years. However, most of my OutsideTheBox posts have concentrated upon the issue of evolution. The question of our evolutionary history is a settled issue for me. To me, the theological implications of evolution are of much greater interest and import. A friend recently encouraged me to post more on the impact evolutionary cosmology and biology have upon Christian theology. This I will do in a new series of posts under the heading of “Fusion”, with an open invitation for readers to join in with comments and questions. Many Christian sites are responding to apparent contradictions between science and faith. My purpose in this Fusion series of posts is to step beyond these problems to ask the question, “If science and the Bible are both revealing truth, what happens when we combine them? What new insights result from the fusion of growing natural revelation and special revelation?”
In a recent online discussion, a Creationist explained to me the problem he has with evolutionary science: "So God did not create man in his own image? ...in a old universe with macro-evolution ... we are not special .."
In his view, anything other than the special creation of mankind would mean that we are nothing more than an evolutionary accident. And so, along with many other Christians, he opts for a Creation that is precisely engineered and micromanaged by its Creator.
However, there are serious problems with a micromanaging God, not the least of which is vulnerability to the challenge of Epicurus (see my recent post on Epicurus and the Problem of Evil). Is there a way out of this dilemma? Is it possible that God could create a universe that evolves on its own, without his constant interventions, and still have a predictable outcome: Man, created in his own image? The answer may be found in the principle of Evolutionary Convergence.
First, a little background: Convergence, is defined by Wikepedia as “the approach toward a definite value, as time goes on.” The term has various technical and mathematical applications, and is used in many social sciences. Of interest to our discussion is the principle of convergence as it is used in evolutionary science.
Convergent evolution is based upon several observed phenomena. Here are a few fascinating examples:
1) Wings, with similar aerodynamic construction, have developed independently in birds and in bats, suggesting that the wing itself is a predictable outcome, a natural adaptation waiting to be “found” by natural selection.
2) Camera-like eyes, with similar characteristics, but with significant design differences, have developed independently in mammals and cephalopods (squids and octopuses, e.g.). Interestingly, the eye of the cephalopod is of superior design. Instead of the internal wiring from the retina which results in the blind spot in our eyes, the cephalopod’s eye has external wiring, eliminating the blind spot. Still, the eye is another example of an advantageous adaptation waiting to happen!
3) Adaptive Spaces: perhaps the most compelling example of convergence in evolution is the remarkable correspondence in the fauna that developed in Australia and that which developed in the rest of the world. That is, the array of marsupial animals in Australia bear many similarities to the array of placental mammals elsewhere. It is clear that the geographical separation of these two animal groups happened very early in the evolutionary tree. And yet, within the two groups, many of the same types of animals emerged over time, suggesting that certain “adaptive spaces” or “ecological niches” were waiting to be filled, and that the random processes of natural selection were predestined to find them.
In fairness, this principle of convergence is still a matter of debate among evolutionary scientists. American evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould famously defended the principle of contingency: he claimed that if we could turn back the clock to the beginning of evolution and start the process over, an entirely different set of living things would emerge, that every new random development is “contingent” upon those that preceded it. British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris leads the charge for the other side, making the case for convergence. He claims that our observations of phenomena suggest that if we turned back that clock and started evolution all over, a very similar set of living things would emerge. The random processes might vary, details could be different, but the ultimate outcomes might be substantially the same. The result of the process would be a set of organisms bearing remarkable similarity to that which we observe today.
I have been reading a fascinating anthology on convergence, edited by Conway Morris (and recommended to me by Isaac, a frequent OutsideTheBox commenter) which outlines the current state of convergent evolutionary science. This science suggests that the process of evolution quite naturally will find itself moving toward certain predictable outcomes, including sentience (perception, subjectivity) and intelligence.
Back to our Creationist’s objection to evolution. How does convergence impact his claim that in evolution, man is not special, that we are mere accidents, and certainly not the intended image bearers of the divine which the Bible declares us to be? Convergence suggests to me that God could create man “in his image” through unguided random natural processes; that without knowing, or needing to control, every detail of the process, the outcomes were from the very beginning quite predictable; that God used a remarkable plan to forge mankind by creating an awesome DNA language, stepping back, and watching his spectacular handiwork unfold. It suggests that it was not necessary for God to micro-manage the creative process we call evolution, or step in from time to time to tweak it, or add certain design elements into the mix.
Since I started my quest for a deeper understanding of God and his ways, I have been looking for that principle that could wed the seemingly contradictory ideas of randomness and design. Such a principle would profoundly effect theology. The answer may lie in evolutionary convergence.
In future posts, I will seek to understand how a non-interventionist God effects theodicy (the problem of evil), and why God might have chosen such a non-interventionist approach in the first place.