Why evolution by natural selection and belief in god are incompatible


There were several commenters who disagreed with my assertion in an earlier post that belief in both god and evolution by natural selection are incompatible and forces one to choose one or the other. They pointed out that there were large numbers of people who believed in both god and evolution or that the tremendous suffering that occurs in nature was incompatible with only a loving omnipotent god or that I was being parochial and equating all religious people with the young Earth Christians in the US.

I stand by my earlier statement and want to reiterate why I think it is true. The word evolution, by itself, is vague enough to encompass religious beliefs. All it signifies is that species have changed over time and this can be made compatible with belief in a god. Theistic evolutionists are very common (even Pat Robertson seems to be one) and these are people who subscribe to evolution (in the sense that species are not immutable) but think that their god had some kind of role in the process, though what exactly that role is is never specified.

But evolution by natural selection is a much more precise theory. It says that the evolution of species was shaped by purely natural forces with no supernatural intervention at all. There is no room for god to act at all in any way, large or small, in this process so the nature of god is immaterial. The only god that can be postulated that is compatible is a deist god who creates the universe and its laws and then does absolutely nothing afterwards. I would suggest that the number of deists among religious people is vanishingly small. It is just a convenient debating point for them, put forward to combat the idea of absolutely no god, after which they go back to the comforting idea of an interventionist god.

It is true that Charles Darwin’s disbelief in a god was triggered by the apparent cruelty he saw in nature that made him realize that it was incompatible with a loving god, but he later solidified his position and strenuously opposed efforts by Alfred Russell Wallace to introduce any supernatural elements into the process of evolution, although he called himself an agnostic

So the word evolution is so vague that is can be made compatible with a god but evolution by natural selection rules out a god as almost all religious people anywhere in the world conceive of it.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    There is no room for god to act at all in any way, large or small, in this process so the nature of god is immaterial.

    In fact, that is true for every single materialistic scientific theory: none of them leave anything for a god to do. Whether it’s the Theory of Gravity explaining why the planets move around the sun, Thermodynamics and Fluid Mechanics explaining why hurricanes do what they do, or Neurobiology explaining who we even are, every one of these things preclude an active deity.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    The only god that can be postulated that is compatible is a deist god who creates the universe and its laws and then does absolutely nothing afterwards.

    Not strictly true. I can build a machine that runs fine without my intervention, but that doesn’t stop me from then fiddling with it anyway. To properly understand evolution by natural selection (plus HGT, genetic drift, and all the rest) is to recognize that life can evolve just fine on its own without any man behind the curtain pulling levers…

    … but that doesn’t preclude a hypothetical sky-person from tinkering anyway. For example, perhaps Sie decided Sie was “sick and tired of those me-damned lizards!” and decided to lob an asteroid at the Earth. The science is completely agnostic whether the asteroid was lobbed by a sky-person, or by Centaurians trying to prevent sentient lizards from colonizing space, or whether it was a chance event.

    Accepting the truth of evolution does preclude a god-of-the-gaps theism, though, because you’d be forced to admit there really aren’t any god-sized gaps needing to be filled.

  3. colnago80 says

    Prof. Singham should spend some time over at PZ;’s blog. He has put up 2 posts on the issue of natural selection and, in agreement with Larry Moran, claims that random genetic drift plays an equally important role in evolution.

    http://goo.gl/j3ckz0

  4. says

    I didn’t participate in those earlier comments, but I read a number of them. The thing that stood out to me was what looked to be an error in phrasing. As you say here, “There is no room for god to act at all in any way.”

    The problem is that the word “god” all by itself does not need to mean a tinkering or intervening god. I think there was a comment you left where you said something about this being OK with “pure deism” or something like that. (And you’ve said something similar in this post as well.) That definitely had clarified things, though I’m not sure it would have to be a purely deistic god or just a more-so deistic god. Meaning, you could have a god who tinkers a bit, but that tinkering has no direct influence (it would probably have to have at least some indirect influence, though — i.e, impacting the environment which then in turn has impact on selective pressures) on the evolutionary process.

    I think we would fully agree, though, that most theists (at least here in America) don’t believe in the god I have described and do believe in the incompatible version of a god that tinkers directly with evolution.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    But, but, if evolution is totally controlled by random factors, then how can I claim that I am the very image of God? Without supernatural fiddling, that means I am not the pinnacle and ultimate goal of Earth’s history.
    What about MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE???

  6. says

    I should add that you could also have a really impractical god belief that would be compatible. An all-knowing god, could, for example, possibly know how exactly to tinker with the environment to produce the results it wanted. If you have a god that is that skilled, it wouldn’t be entirely clear why that god couldn’t just tinker directly, though. Such a god belief probably wouldn’t be anything more than a rationalization to maintain such a belief in the face of evidence.

  7. Ed says

    Science and religion appear to operate on two opposing epistemological foundations; science based upon falsifiability or doubt, and religion based upon credulity or faith. It seems to me, that whatever epistemic standard one chooses, consistency is paramount. Claiming to “know” or “believe” a proposition by authority, experience, tradition, revelation, and then rejecting the “knowledge” and “beliefs” of others who are using the very same epistemic standards is mind-numbingly incoherent.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Maybe I’m missing a subtle philosophical point, but surely any theory/model which is incomplete and/or which incorporates randomness (in other words, all theories/models), always has room for tinkering sky fairies.

    Gods aren’t precluded until you have a Theory of Everything. But they are, and always have been, simply unnecessary.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Maybe I’m missing a subtle philosophical point, but surely any theory/model which is incomplete and/or which incorporates randomness (in other words, all theories/models), always has room for tinkering sky fairies.

    If someone wants to argue for a God who is indistinguishable from random chance, they can go ahead; I will not oppose.
    I will object later on when they pull the ‘bait and switch’ and try to substitute the God they actually believe in.

    Also, see Occam’s razor.

  10. wtfwhateverd00d says

    @4. colnago80 A moar important role!

    “First thing you have to know: the revolution is over. Neutral and nearly neutral theory won. The neutral theory states that most of the variation found in evolutionary lineages is a product of random genetic drift. Nearly neutral theory is an expansion of that idea that basically says that even slightly advantageous or deleterious mutations will escape selection — they’ll be overwhelmed by effects dependent on population size. This does not in any way imply that selection is unimportant, but only that most molecular differences will not be a product of adaptive, selective changes.”

  11. wtfwhateverd00d says

    But evolution by natural selection is a much more precise theory. It says that the evolution of species was shaped by purely natural forces with no supernatural intervention at all. There is no room for god to act at all in any way, large or small, in this process so the nature of god is immaterial. The only god that can be postulated that is compatible is a deist god who creates the universe and its laws and then does absolutely nothing afterwards. I would suggest that the number of deists among religious people is vanishingly small. It is just a convenient debating point for them, put forward to combat the idea of absolutely no god, after which they go back to the comforting idea of an interventionist god.

    Your deist god sounds like a large group of software developers, mathematical modelers, game developers and sim developers I know.

    A lot of computer simulation games seem to be based on a deist god model, including John Conway’s Game of Life.

  12. corwyn says

    Maybe I’m missing a subtle philosophical point, but surely any theory/model which is incomplete and/or which incorporates randomness (in other words, all theories/models), always has room for tinkering sky fairies.

    Not necessarily. Randomness can be checked. If some process supposed to be random, is producing results which don’t fit the criteria for randomness, people will notice. If a god decides to cure cancer for his favorite people, oncologists will inquire why, and will reformulate their theories to incorporate that new data, at the expense of randomness.

  13. mnb0 says

    Much better, but still not sufficient.

    “It says that the evolution of species was shaped by purely natural forces with no supernatural intervention at all.”
    The clever theist will say that god implemented those natural forces with the goal to produce Homo Sapiens. I don’t buy it, but that’s not the same as refuting it. When you ask for evidence the reply is “this is theology, not science”. For the theist it’s enough that it’s logically possible.
    Mutatis mutandis the same for the examples brought up by Chiro above.
    I recommend anyone seriously interested in these issues to read Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science. In slightly more than 400 pages he tears theism completely apart without superficialities like “science doesn’t have room for any god”.
    Since I read the book I grant myself a 7 on the Scale of Dawkins, but that is no reason to use bad or insufficient arguments.

  14. colnago80 says

    Re #11

    Certainly, that’s the opinion of Myers and Moran but it is not the opinion of Dawkins and Coyne. I am in no position to pontificate as to the relative importance of random genetic drift vs natural selection.

  15. colnago80 says

    Re mnhb)

    Then god would have had to send the asteroid that hit the earth 65.5 million years ago as, without that collision, we wouldn’t be here.

  16. says

    Brings to mind the Monty Python take off of the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’

    All things dull and ugly,
    All creatures short and squat,
    All things rude and nasty,
    The Lord God made the lot.

    Each little snake that poisons,
    Each little wasp that stings,
    He made their brutish venom,
    He made their horrid wings.

    All things sick and cancerous,
    All evil great and small,
    All things foul and dangerous,
    The Lord God made them all.

    Each nasty little hornet,
    Each beastly little squid,
    Who made the spiky urchin,
    Who made the sharks, He did.

    All things scabbed and ulcerous,
    All pox both great and small,
    Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
    The Lord God made them all.

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