Over at bigquestionsonline.com Michael Ruse has a thought-provoking article about whether evolution has a direction.
He reviews what philosophers, theologians, and scientists have said. But he does not come to a solid conclusion. He ends up with a speculation about multiple universes, a questionable concept from speculative physics, that does not help much.
Nevertheless, it is odd that even atheists like Dawkins have held that the supposedly random process of evolution has a direction.
At the end, Ruse lists these discussion questions:
1. To what extent does the Enlightenment idea of progress influence our understanding of evolution?
2. Is the idea of evolution without direction incompatible with theism?
3. How else might we understand the idea that evolution has a direction from a secular point of view?
4. How much freedom or flexibility does the Christian have in considering what kind of being we might have been while still being “made in the image of God”? Could we have been asexual? Could we have had three sexes? Could we have been cannibals? Could we have been old-aged at twenty?
All these are worth considering. But I will reflect more about the first one.
The Enlightenment, or at least Hegel, was more about history than evolution. The German word, Entwicklung, means development. Hegel and the Hegelians used it to speak of progression in history. But it usually got translated into English as evolution. This had a lot to do with contemporary confusion between biological evolution and social progress.
We today talk about how some people have evolved and others haven’t. This confuses the idea of personal growth, maturation and formation with an idea of evolution. As a scientific theory, evolution is what has happened over eons to species. It explains the biological process by which humans came to be.
I believe in evolution, but it is a limited concept. It does not really explain how life could emerge from matter. And it, especially, does not explain how mind or spirit could emerge from life.
Hegel had a theory about how mind or spirit (the German word, Geist, stands for both) progressed and developed throughout history. Darwin’s theory stimulated the thinking of people who were trying to digest Hegel. But to use the Enlightenment idea of social progress as a parallel to biological evolution goes way beyond the scientific theory.
Today the idea that there is a right and a wrong side of history is part of political rhetoric. The very word “progressive” carries the idea that history has a direction and we are helping it along. In a way this is a return to the 19th century popularity of postmillennial eschatology. My own denomination was born to this. Most of our congregational constitutions still say that our purpose is “to build the kingdom of God.” When we have built the kingdom on earth, there comes the consummation the prophets foresaw.
But two world wars, the great depression, the holocaust, the cold war, assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and so on in the 20th century caused a lot of people to back off from the optimistic belief in social progress. Yet the idealism did not really die. Think of 20th century rock and roll (Peace Train, Imagine).
President Obama told supporters that the recent election represented a “comma” in the movement of progressivism. Hillary Clinton says that she still believes the “future is female”. So there are ideologies claiming history has a direction.
These beliefs probably explain the overreaction to the election of Donald Trump (and to Brexit). People who believed that history was inexorably moving in a certain direction had that belief threatened. It led to a crisis, cognitive dissonance.
Investors think not in terms of an all-encompassing direction but in terms of bear markets and bull markets, cycles, and oscillations. So Wall Street, so far, has had a very different reaction to events than we see in the protests.
From my point of view, the danger for Christians might be in holding a false hope. It seems to me that the biblical, prophetic hope is not in some open, inclusive political domain, although such a domain may be a good thing on other grounds. Also, hope is not in economic development and technological advance, although these continue to make life better for more and more people. Rather, the hope faith offers has something to do with divine forgiveness and future resurrection. Of course, I work for and hope for improvement now. I just recognize it is a struggle with advances and set backs.
Teilhard de Chardin is a theologian who directly addressed this issue. He saw the move from simplicity to complexity in the universe as the divine direction. He looked for an “Omega Point” of consummation. Thus he built on Henri Bergson’s concept of creative evolution. There are a lot of good insights in this way of thinking. But I have questions.
Does complexity mean that something is better? Simplicity has its fans.
What is the meaning of the struggles and oscillations that we see, the steps back that follow steps forward?
Why not think that we reached our peak some time in the past and are now in decline?
Where does death and eternal life for the individual fit in?