Eric MacDonald on natural selection, purpose, and the problem of evil

February 22, 2011 • 10:13 am

I’m flattered that our discussion of natural selection and its mindless and purposeless nature has inspired a very nice post by Eric MacDonald at Choice in Dying: “Darwin Meets Job.”  For years MacDonald, an Anglican priest, struggled with the problem of evil, trying hard to rationalize it to his congregation as part of God’s plan.  Then he read On the Origin of Species:

It is simply impossible to read Darwin and come away with the idea that the process of evolution is directed or supervised. The completely contingent character of the world is fully revealed, and it’s hard to understand how one did not see this before. It should have been obvious? But not only is contingency obvious. It becomes obvious that, if the way the world is is contingent, then knowledge itself, if not contingent, must be a fully human project, the product of millennia of trial and error. And then, it becomes pellucidly clear that morality itself is human, that goodness is a purely human product, and very fragile, not something simply built into the process by which we came to be, but an extrapolation from that process, and, to the extent possible, a determination to bend the process to ensure better outcomes. . .

. . . Darwin was a modern Job. All he could do in the end was to submit to the forces that were at work in Anne’s body [his daughter, who died at ten of scarlet fever]. Anne was struggling for survival, just as every living organism does, and she lost. She died without leaving any descendents. In the struggle to survive and propagate, she lost. By all accounts, Anne was a bright, happy child. Certainly Darwin’s memorial to Anne tells us that she was. But however happy she may have been, her death spelled the end of faith for Darwin. After that he could not really even pretend, and ceased going to church with the family. I can understand that.

Faith can’t survive the realisation that the whole of the life world is built on struggle and failure, with a glacially slow accumulation of small successes. It is a constant struggle, a struggle that has been going on for billions and billions of years, in which organisms come into being, struggle for survival, and then die, many of them, perhaps most, not leaving any issue, only a favoured few — those selected by a completely indifferent process — surviving to pass on their genes to the next generation. And in that process, billions and billions of living creatures struggle to pass on their genes, and fail. What is the sum of all that suffering, struggling multitude? Can faith in a god survive the knowledge that we are the product of all that misery and affliction? In the Epic of Gilgamesh even the gods do not know why so many had to suffer. That there is no reason should make us much more sensitive to and caring, but it should spell the end of gods.

Read the rest, and if you haven’t yet bookmarked his site, I recommend doing so.

An afterthought: I’m surprised that accommodationists and the National Center for Science Education don’t criticize evolutionists for describing the evolution and natural selection as “purely natural and materialistic processes,” for that steps on the toes of the faithful just as hard as saying that evolution is “unguided and purposeless”.  In both cases divine intervention is explicitly ruled out.

61 thoughts on “Eric MacDonald on natural selection, purpose, and the problem of evil

  1. I’m surprised that accommodationists and the National Center for Science Education don’t criticize evolutionists for describing the evolution and natural selection as “purely natural and materialistic processes,” for that steps on the toes of the faithful just as hard as saying that evolution is “unguided and purposeless”.

    I think the reason is rather straightforward. NCSE et al. don’t have their own agenda. They seek out threats from the creationists and respond in kind as long as doing so doesn’t offend the moderates. A less charitable interpretation would be that they’re marching to religion’s drum. When and if the moderate decide to be explicitly offended by that bit, you bet your tuchus, NCSE will seek rapprochement by throwing those features of evolution under the bus…

    1. Being a Brit I know nothing about the NCSE so I looked ’em up…

      Quoted from the NCSE FAQ page:

      “What is NCSE’s religious position?

      None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.”

      So the paying membership includes theists with an on/off belief switch that is activated when the scientific method is required. This must be a tough row for the NCSE to hoe


  2. Yes. Nobody spells it out quite like a former man of the cloth. The truth has obviously set Eric free, just like the rest of us who used to believe.

    That was an excellent read.

  3. O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
    Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
    Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
    Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
    Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
    Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
    The question, O me! so sad, recurring–What good amid these, O me, O life?

    That you are here–that life exists and identity,
    That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

      1. Oops! Sorry, I thought it was universally known in the English speaking world. Here.

        For me, the perspective that we’re all on the same boat in the middle of the ocean has always been the most honest and simple about who we are and what are we doing here on earth. People create their own purpose, they “contribute their own verse”, and through our contributions the “powerful play” goes on. Figuring out my verse is all the purpose I need.

        1. Damn! And I love Whitman & LoG, too…:blush:

          Memory’s the first to go.


          Whitman’s probably already contributed my verse, though.

          1. Memory problems Diane ? Are you a bird with frayed feathers ?

            I like Walt second only to this guy (but, they both get me through the night):-

            “In White” ~ (Frost’s Early Version Of Design)

            A dented spider like a snow drop white
            On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth
            Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth –
            Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? –
            Portent in little, assorted death and blight
            Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth? –
            The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
            And the moth carried like a paper kite.

            What had that flower to do with being white,
            The blue prunella every child’s delight.
            What brought the kindred spider to that height?
            (Make we no thesis of the miller’s plight.)
            What but design of darkness and of night?
            Design, design! Do I use the word aright?


            1. I’m indeed a fall chicken. (Cluck!)

              Not so familiar with Frost, and had never read that. After a little jaunt thru googleland I also prefer this first version of “Design.” Interesting that some critics think it’s upholding the argument from design, and others that it suggests either a malevolent, joking designer, or perhaps none at all. I, of course, read it the latter way.

              It also reminded me that to my grandmother, all moths were “moth millers.”

              Thanks for the interesting journey.

  4. Good article. The Haiti earthquake comes to my mind too – A modern times, purposless destruction of human life on a grand scale.

    1. Just this morning, Christchurch, New Zealand was leveled by a low intensity earthquake right near the city center, which even toppled the tower of their Cathedral.

      1. Has Pat Robertson weighed in yet? I wait breathlessly for his explanation of the Lord’s wrath in a place called Christchurch.

        (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

          1. Well, in his glorious aim, he completely leveled (read: flattened into small chunks of rubble) the Baptist church just around the corner from the Cathedral….

            last I checked, that was one of those religions deemed acceptably christian by old Pat.

            1. Actually it’s been well established that natural disasters are statistically more likely to strike where Baptists are plentiful. In the US, the Bible Belt and Tornado Alley cover pretty much the same territory.

          2. The Anglican Church in NZ ordains woman Bishops and is pretty relaxed about gay clergy. But in that case, why didn’t He smite Christchurch in 2008, when the present Bishop was ordained, or Edmonton, Alberta where she was previously Bishop, or Dunedin Cathedral in 1990 when the first woman Bishop was ordained.

            He also smote the RC Catheral of the Blessed Sacrament (a beautiful Byzantine structure much preferred by George Bernard Shaw to the Anglican cathedral, which he compared to an English parish church) so He’s an equal-opportunity smiter.

        1. I’ve been thinking that the whole day, and feeling a bit bad about it.
          But its not to dissimilar from the reaction to the Lisbon Earthquake… bad things happen to good people, and everyone is left wondering just why that is.

          1. Why is it that the question is always posed in this direction?

            Why do bad things happen to good people?

            Well, why do good things happen to bad people? Or, for that matter, why do bad things happen to bad people?

            Or is it actually possible to have something bad happen to a bad person? I’m not sure our western system of ethics allows that.

            But it certainly is tiresome that we only ask why bad things happen to good people.

            1. Well, to rip something else from the headlines, you get Muammar Gaddafi making crazy speeches in a bunker, about a day away from getting the full Ceauşescu, all of which is his own fault for being cruel. Of course, prior to this, his cruelty got him 40 years of ruling an oil state, and tens of billions in the bank, so its hard to say if the bad ending isn’t worth the decades of high living.

            2. Kevin, Kevin. Obviously you missed the part about how being good is supposed to be rewarded. Except when it isn’t.

      2. The very Cathedral in front of which Ray (Banana man) Comfort first preached before he found richer pickings in the USA. My mother used to go and heckle him (but probably very gently). I think she pitied him.

  5. As to your final question, it’s simple:

    “Unguided” is worse than “natural” or “materialistic” — even though they are effectively synonyms in this context — because theistic evolutionists like to refer to it as a “guided” process, but don’t often (ever?) refer to it as an “unnatural”/”supernatural” process or an “immaterial” process. That word directly and obviously collides with their word. You have to think for two and a half seconds to realize that “guided” and “natural” are incompatible, but any fool can see that something cannot be both “guided” and “unguided”.

    And “purposeless” is worse, because it strikes not just at the buzzwords of theistic evolution, but at the buzzwords of liberal theology itself. Liberal theists are not in the habit of using words like “supernatural”, even when discussing obviously supernatural things like prayer and angels and magic crackers. But they do use the words “purpose” and “meaning” a lot. To observe that the entirety of the earthly saga has been “purposeless” is a swift kick in the balls to religion’s last desperate claim to epistemological validity.

    1. Yeah, I was just about to make a similar comment. Coming from an evangelical background, I can attest to the fact that “purposeless” carries a MUCH more negative weight with the religious than do any of those other terms–though I can’t really articulate why that’s so.

      1. I can’t really articulate why that’s so.

        I can:

        Haven’t you ever heard some religious person claim:

        “everything happens for a reason”

        in response to some senseless tragedy?

        If everything DOESN’T have a purpose, then it defeats many peoples one remaining tie to religion.

        1. Yeah, I hear that one a lot from religious people, including both Christians and New Agers.

          The idea that the universe neither knows or cares about us, and that there is no “purpose” to anything, is horrifying to a lot of people.

  6. Very nice. Indeed there was another Anglican priest from whom Darwin borrowed the idea of pupolations remaining in check due to disease and starvation: Thomas Malthus. Malthus was fully aware of the endless suffering caused by the process, but he attributed it to atonemt for sin. Job, however, was “a virtuous man” as we all know, so Malthus must have got something wrong somewhere.

    1. Ah, well, hereby hangs a tale. For years I have taken Job as a theme for “Bible studies”. It is almost impossible to get people to see the point of Job’s goodness, since, for Christians, as for Malthus, everyone is a sinner, so Job is too! It is almost impossible to get the point across that, for the purposes of this story, Job must be taken as not deserving to suffer so. People will just say, “But we all deserve to suffer!” It’s maddening, but part of the logic of Christianity.

      1. Yeah, I’m always very skeptical when someone tells me to become a better person, I need to suffer profound abuse. In other words, “No pain, no gain.” That’s consistent with self-hate, not a compassionate God.

        1. The best part is that, because God is omnipotent, the only reason that “no pain, no gain” would work is because He wants it to. It’s not like there’s some cosmic rule that He can’t get around; if the world is sadistic, that’s a reflection upon its creator.

          That’s part of why I never understand religious people who claim that their views are more “attractive” or “fulfilling”; would you prefer to live in a universe that is merely uncaring by accident, or in one where you have no mouth and must scream?

  7. Its funny, the more you consider the way the natural world works, the more suited a pantheon of jerks seems to be a better way of explaining the world than some Love God. Especially when you consider how often monotheism is trumpeted as more ‘sophisticated’, yet it has always fundamentally failed to explain how there is a good God, a just God, and a world where good and bad fortune fall at random.

    1. Yeah. One would think a loving, just God would at least start everyone off on the same footing… no birth defects, etc.

      1. That’s because His ways are mysterious.

        I got that response once. I was told that because God is God and I am not, I don’t have a Godlike mind, so I can’t expect to understand stuff that doesn’t really appear to add up.

        So don’t try to make sense of it. Humans are too dumb for that. Just believe it. (so much for compatibility with science, right?)

        1. I don’t care much for mystery except when watching a Vegas magician show.

          I know a couple that had a stillbirth due to umbilical cord strangulation. They believe God had a plan and reason for this. Sux for the kid though.

          1. God miraculously wants them to vote exactly how they want to vote.

            I’d love to run a major poll that asks the question, “on what topic do you most disagree with God?” I wonder what answers you would get out of it.

    2. “G_d has a plan for you, and it might turn out to be nasty and brief. Best to savor the tequila slowly with your compadre and continue the conversation.” Douglas Menuez

  8. And now for the other side of the argument. A Discovery Institute guy is writing about how we should look to Wallace and his notions something directing evolution as a way to bridge the divide between people who understand nature is natural and those who don’t.

    I threw in a comment or two, but I think it could use more people posting to tell the author how wrong he is.

      1. I read that a while too, and it can be very entertaining. Unfortunately, that blogger cannot help but insert rabid rants against how the Democrats are all commies and want to destroy the USA into every third blog post. And he(?) does not tolerate critical comments, expecting all commentators to limit themselves to cheer-leading. Pity that.

          1. I haven’t found SC to rant either. I don’t always agree with his politics but do find his views thoughtful and usually non-emotional. Maybe he used to be that way, maybe he’s coming ’round? 🙂

            But in his posts on Discovery Institute dealing and other creationist crap, he’s spot on. Try his blog out again.

      1. I mean, does logically rule out “divine intervention,” which is the wording used.

        It doesn’t rule out a pointless guide who doesn’t guide but just lolls around watching, like a lazy teenager.

          1. Exactly. That loving God had a purpose for this kid and his(?) skin and bones. (One man (and woman’s) sin ~6000 years ago is the cause of this.)

            It was to convince Christians to donate food. See? There is a reason for everything.

            Everytime I see something like this I slap myself for previously being a believer. Sorry. It was my upbringing. (I don’t hold anything against my family for it though.)

  9. What is the sum of all that suffering, struggling multitude?

    How fleeting, how humble is human life!

    Of course, that doesn’t mean our lives can’t be filled with beautiful and meaningful experiences. Meaning we create ourselves, not meaning which is imposed. Given that our lives are so “flüchtig,” why, oh why do so many waste it wallowing in the mire of religion?!

  10. I’m surprised nobody’s yet mentioned Epicurus. Darwin and Job notwithstanding, he really did settle the question most emphatically centuries before the Caesars.

    Only two questions need be answered: Does evil exist? And, are there any gods capable of eliminating or preventing said evil?

    Some Christians actually go down the path of claiming that evil does not exist. It’s truly terrifying to encounter such a psychopath, but they’re out there. Most Christians, of course, are obsessed with evil, so that is answered in the affirmative.

    And, for the second question…well, not only are the Christian gods said to be all-powerful, but they, too, are obsessed with evil. Fighting evil is their forte.

    But the two claims are obviously incompatible. If the Christian gods were capable of eliminating evil and wished to do so, they would.

    At this point, the excuses start flowing like beer at a frat party kegger, with “gods love free willies” topping the list. But what Christians fail to recognize is that all they’re doing is putting a label to their pantheon’s incompetence or malice. Is Jesus unable to keep the willies free while he’s stamping out evil, or does he love evil so much that it’s that much more important to him than freeing willies? Is he impotent or evil? There really isn’t any other choice.

    Pulling out the seemingly-neverending list of evil Jesus quotes (bring a sword, hate your family and yourself, kill all non-Christians, mutilate yourself if your eyes linger over a pretty woman, etc., etc., etc.) at this point in the conversation is a guaranteed way to really upset a Christian.



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