Neo-Darwinian Evolution and the Problem of Evil

In his book Darwin’s God, Cornelius Hunter sets forth a compelling thesis: that Darwinian evolution came about largely as a theodicy (solution to the problem of evil) and continues to depend more heavily upon theological underpinnings than scientific particulars. Hunter concludes, “Ultimately, evolution is about God” (Hunter, 175).

Whenever we observe the natural world we see much imperfection: disease, suffering, inefficiencies, and death. This is referred to as “the problem of evil,” as it has been asked (for centuries) why natural evils exist at all if there is an all-wise, all-powerful, benevolent Creator of all things. In other words, couldn’t such a Creator have prevented these atrocities? Hunter’s assertion is that Darwin’s theory on the origin of species is, at its heart, a theodicy, and the theological assumptions Darwin made have endured up to present day in the writings of Neo-Darwinian evolution proponents.

Two interesting facets of Hunter’s argument involve 1) the prevalent use of negative theological conjecture in evolutionary writing throughout history that betrays the utter dependency the theory of evolution has on its theological underpinnings, and 2) the malleability that allows the theory to accommodate any and all present and future evidence.

Negative Theology

The phrase “negative theology” is used to describe a pervasive method of evolutionary rhetoric that involves making a case against divine creation rather than a case for Neo-Darwinian evolution itself. Darwin utilized negative theology repeatedly; he interpreted various characteristics of life as evidence against special creation. This served as indirect but highly effective support for his naturalistic theory.

I did my first cover-to-cover reading of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species last February, and I agree with Hunter that much of Darwin’s argument hinged upon his theological ideas. Consider this quote from Darwin’s Autobiography:

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes…A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient. It revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; and the abundant presence of suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.

So, you can see that the problem of evil was highly influential upon what Darwin believed about the natural world. His theory removed the direct link between the Creator and the creationmaking natural evil a product of natural processes rather than divine intention.

Negative theology has persisted in evolution literature. Mark Ridley, for example, argues in Evolution that the universality of the genetic code undermines the idea of divine creation. Hunter responds, “Apparently Ridley believes that if there is a Creator, then he is obliged to use different genetic codes for the different species…this homology is not positive evidence in favor of evolution but rather negative evidence against the competition” (Hunter, 44). Arthur Lindsey also touted homologies as evidence against special creation when he said that similar structures in different organisms “cannot logically be supposed to have been wholly independent in origin” (Hunter, 99). Lindsey saw homologies (similar features appearing in different animals) as a sub-par equipping of organisms that live in different environments. He argued that if organisms were specially created they would have wholly unique features designed precisely for their particular mode of life. As the literature shows, evolutionists frequently rely on this metaphysical constraint (their assumption about what a Creator would or would not do) to support their case; without it they are left with nothing but highly speculative and subjective interpretations of the natural evidence. The irony, says Hunter, is that “evolution, the theory that made God unnecessary, is itself supported by arguments containing premises about the nature of God” (Hunter, 11).

Bending the Theory to Fit Any and All Evidence

For a theory touted as “scientific,” evolutionary theory has a very unscientific characteristic. Hunter explains how it can be manipulated to any extreme in order to achieve harmony with any and all natural observations. A prime example of how much it can be (and is) manipulated to accommodate the actual evidence—and the lack thereof—is evolutionists’ treatment of the fossil record. Hunter points out how problematic the record is. For instance, a gradual change of species over time is not what the evidence indicates. Rather, there are long periods of no change punctuated by the sudden appearance of new forms. In addition, the new species are complex at first appearance and often remain unchanged until extinction or until present day. While it is true that the earlier organisms are simpler than those succeeding them, transmutation is not evident. So how do evolutionists solve these problems? They propose theoretical fossil forms to fill in the gaps and suggest unknown mechanisms of biological change; they even admit to this practice (Hunter, 69). In essence, it doesn’t matter what the fossil record has produced or eventually offers up for scientific evaluation; evolutionists will concoct the appropriate hypotheticals needed to prop up their theory. Hunter says, “Darwin’s theory of evolution has been expanded to the point where it can explain practically anything. Slow change, fast change, no change, and even reverse change…But what this really shows is how adaptable evolution is to whatever evidence comes along” (Hunter, 80). This observation further supports Hunter’s thesis that evolution isn’t as dependent upon the scientific particulars as it is upon its metaphysical premises.

Ultimately, evolution is a theory that has been largely upheld by theological presuppositions and distorted ideas about the nature of God. It is by no means independent of religious thought as its advocates claim, Hunter argues. Without those ideas, it is left to stand on speculation and contrivances in response to the evidence.