Apex or Ex-Ape?

It’s no secret that evolution has been controversial in Christian history. But why? First, there is the clash with the literal reading of the creation stories of Genesis, namely with the time element. Genesis 1 depicts creation lasting one week of twenty-four-hour days, whereas it must have taken billions of years. Genesis also has the sun created on the fourth day but how could there have been “evenings and mornings” before there was a sun? It is reasonable, I think even likely, that whoever had the sun created on the fourth “day” wasn’t thinking of solar days, so “literalist” readers of Genesis chapter 1 may be in a snit over nothing at this point.

Creationists protest that when Genesis 1 says animals multiplied “each according to its kind,” it rules out the evolution of one species from another. But surely Genesis doesn’t mean to exclude the kind of mutations Darwin talked about. They are minor things, like the amount and color of fur. It’s zillions of these little changes that eventually accumulated to form new species. (Nobody’s talking about a bird hatching out of a fish egg.) Creationists will often tell you they have no problem with “micro-evolution,” only with “macro-evolution.” But when you step back and take the long view of the results, micro-evolution is seen to be the trees, macro-evolution the forest.

So Genesis doesn’t explicitly rule out evolution by gradual mutation. The real trouble is that neither does Genesis give any hint of the complex process of evolution, and it’s absurd to try to read it between the lines as some do. The truth is if you accept evolution, you are accepting a fundamentally different version of how life came about. Like early Greek philosophers Thales and Anaximenes, who tried to figure out the origin of the world, the author of the biblical creation story did his best but he was wrong. That’s no surprise. He didn’t have the complex geological and biological information we have at our disposal. But, come to think of it, neither did Anaximander. And he had, about the same time as the Genesis 1 creation account, surmised that all life must have emerged from the sea and that humans specifically must have descended from a hardier animal species. (Anaximander just didn’t know the mechanism. That’s what Darwin discovered and dubbed natural selection.) So evolution was already a theory current in biblical times but the Bible doesn’t mention it.

The conclusion is that Genesis can no longer be considered a revelation of information. Of course, it never claims to be. The writer doesn’t say “Hey, God told me this is how it happened!” And this is what anti-evolutionists have feared: the idea that the Bible’s value is not after all in providing us with infallible information about secret things. If it only presents us with ancient speculations about the beginning, why should we not conclude it’s doing the same thing when it comes to the end? Maybe all the things said in the Bible about heaven and resurrection are just human theorizing too. Indeed, they are. But a conclusion is not to be rejected merely because we don’t like it. That’s the most anti-scientific attitude of all, and it has too often marred religion.

Second, there’s the problem of evolution’s randomness. It is naive to say that in evolution we can see God’s creative plan being realized. The whole point is that it’s a purely random process. It was a chance combination of mutations and environmental conditions. If it were divinely guided, why didn’t it take a lot less time? And why all the dog-eat-dog destruction along the way, the grim contest of the survival of the fittest?

Briefly, let me say that this is indeed a problem, but at least it’s not a new problem. Isn’t it exactly the same challenge to faith when you look at the chaos of the world around you every day? If you say you believe God’s in control, it leaves a lot of explaining to do. And yet believers have come to feel they can live with the bafflement. The red randomness of evolution is simply more of the same.

The third problem is that of the Fall. Francis Schaefer used to argue that if Adam did not fall from a position of moral superiority, then it’s nonsense to talk about Christ restoring humanity to a superior position. From animalism we came, and to animalism we will return. You can’t expect much from animals, so it’s dangerous to tell young people that’s what they are. But is this the only religious way of looking at it? Though they didn’t mention evolution, Saints Irenaeus (second century) and Athanasius (fourth century) both had a doctrine about the Fall that fits perfectly with evolution. They said that Adam did not fall down from a position of created perfection. He was a work in progress. What he did wrong was to interrupt and reverse the process before it was complete. Christ came to “recapitulate” the intended evolution of humanity toward maturity. He was the second Adam who didn’t fall but kept going all the way to perfection, enabling us to follow him.

Augustine Hulsbosch, in his 1965 work, God in Creation and Evolution, showed how this fits in marvelously well with evolution. He reminds us of the difference anthropologists draw between natural selection and cultural selection. Natural selection would purify the race of near-sightedness by having all the near-sighted ones get run over by cars. It is the game of chance between mutation and environment. But cultural selection means that we can turn the course of the river of evolution by conscious decision: we decide that individual lives mean as much as species survival, so we invent eyeglasses. They save us from getting killed, but the race will never be rid of near-sightedness.

So while natural selection is over for us, cultural selection is not; we can evolve further by cultivating the genes natural selection gave us for altruistic behavior. This is what Christian theology calls “sanctification.” This is what Colossians 3:9-11 and Ephesians 2:11-15 mean when they urge you to put on the new humanity because Christ has made obsolete the old human species and produced a new humankind in his image. That’s cultural selection.

It’s no use to pretend that the theory of evolution poses no challenges to the traditional Christian conceptions at any point. Certainly it does. And responsible Christians will not simply close their eyes and hope it will go away. And as believers rethink their faith in the light of new knowledge, that faith changes, grows, and—yes—evolves.

And so, having stressed that it is foolish as well as religiously unnecessary for believers to fight against the evident truth of evolution, I would now like to demonstrate a fascinating irony, namely how Genesis itself provides the most basic clue for understanding the deep anxiety that produces fundamentalist anti-evolutionism. To do this I must dip into the work of the recently deceased and highly celebrated anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

In his foundational essay, “The Structural Study of Myth,” Levi-Strauss used the Oedipus Cycle (the plays of Sophocles and the various myths on which they were based) as an illustration of how the interpreter can isolate a “deep structure” in any myth, separate and distinct from the narrative plot, if there is one. As I understand it, Levi-Strauss was trying to understand apparently non-narrative myths cherished by primitive cultures. They had no plot, not one evident to a Westerner anyway, but Levi-Strauss reasoned they must be about something. It was just a question of how to crack the code, and he did it. Levi-Strauss counsels us to leave aside the plot and rather group the various elements according to their relations. Can you find names with similar meanings? Do you notice recurrent similar events and plot turns? It’s like ignoring the sequence of notes in a piece of music and grouping the notes together. Levi-Strauss says by isolating the various choices of name, incident, and so on, you can infer, in any myth, a deep structure yielding two sets of binary oppositions. You will have Set A consisting of A+ and A-. You will have Set B consisting of B+ and B-. And Set A will be opposed to Set B. Every myth, built as it is on a substructure of this kind, will be seen as a pre-logical way, not exactly of solving problems, but rather of “mediating” them and thus dealing in the only fashion available with a basic conundrum or dilemma vexing the primitive mind.

The plot of the Oedipus Cycle is obvious to any reader. It has to do with the tragic irony that one’s best efforts to avoid one’s destiny often are the very means of bringing about that fate. It is profound and sublime. But Levi-Strauss is sure there is something else, something more below the surface. He seeks the deep structure that motivated interest in the story before Sophocles came along. And once he isolates all the similarities and “bundles of relations,” as he calls them, he has four categories, including a pair of sets of binary oppositions. On the one hand, there is a set of scenes in which a human being slays an earth elemental (a dragon and a sphinx) and, apparently irrelevantly, a set of related names, all implying some sort of handicap. Oedipus = club-footed. Laius = lame, Labdakos = left-handed, and so forth. On the other hand, there is set of family relations gone bad by getting too close for comfort: Oedipus marrying his mother; Antigone forfeiting her own life to see to her brother’s prohibited burial. Opposed to this, there is another set of family relations, gone bad because of intrafamilial strife: The Spartai kill one another, Eteocles kills his brother; Oedipus kills his father. What’s going on here? Something surely is, Levi-Strauss reasons, because the ancient storyteller was hardly forced by his basic plot to include any of these bits and pieces, much less recurrent ones. It’s no coincidence that these elements are present and recur.

With an ear open to the concerns of the ancients, Levi-Strauss recognizes the point of the myth as an attempt to deal with an age-old concern of human beings, whose cultural lore told them that human beings were at first born directly from Mother Earth, not conceived and born by fellow human parents. Of course any fool can see where babies actually come from, any grown-up fool, that is. But don’t we still tell kids, gullible as they are, that babies come from the cabbage patch or the stork? Fairy tales like that must have set up a conflict in the minds of the ancients, and they couldn’t just accept the biological facts without somehow feeling guilty for leaving behind the faith of childhood. And this is the dilemma, alien as it may seem to us, that the deep structure of Oedipus is dealing with. Remember the scenes in which humans kill earth-elementals? And those names implying stumbling or limping? This set of oppositions illustrates the attempt of humanity to deny their earthly origin in favor of belief in human procreation. They can try it, but it will prove a hollow victory, costing more than it is worth. One cannot trample the earth underfoot and get away without crippling. The earth-dragon, like the symbolic “Don’t tread on me” snake of the colonial flag, says, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.” Hence the limping. What price does humanity pay for denying Mother Earth? For over-valuing blood relations with fellow humans, we pay the price of family dysfunction: incest, fratricide, and parricide. Evil came into the world through choosing human procreation over the innocence of being children of the earth. So the opposing sets of binary oppositions amount to this: denying our birth from the earth is to being lamed as over-valuing blood-ties is to valuing them too little.

I say this is an ancient and alien-sounding problem, but in fact it has more than one kind of contemporary relevance. For one thing, it seems to me that a modern expression of the same problem is the ecological crisis we face. What lies at the root of it? Is it not our refusal to recognize that the earth is our mother? Instead, we treat the earth as a thing to be exploited, to be conquered. We live unnaturally in many ways, behaving as if we regret the planet we live on and are trying to “terraform” it into something more to our liking, cement sidewalks, air-conditioning, muzak, and all.

As soon as I read Levi-Strauss’s analysis of the Oedipus Cycle, it was immediately obvious to me that the Garden of Eden story in Genesis chapters 2-4 evidences exactly the same deep-structural agenda. To make a long story short, there is first the ominous denial of humanity’s earthborn origin. Remember, God causes all the animals, plants, and the man to emerge from the ground. All is thus far harmonious. But then he introduces human-from-human origin, as Adam gives birth to Eve, and the two defy God’s ban on sexual procreation, which eventuates in Cain’s birth. Then everything goes to hell fast. Humanity is alienated from the ground, which will yield food only with difficulty. Cain kills his brother and is exiled from the ground he had tilled, forced to be a nomad. Humans slaughter animals for their skins for the first time. Cain under his alias Tubal-Cain invents weapons of war, and Lamech uses them to kill those who insult him. And so on. In the Book of Genesis, as in the Oedipus Cycle, we witness the anxiety of a psycho-cultural shift from belief in birth from the earth to belief in birth from humans like ourselves.

And, ironically, that’s not the only place we witness it. For is not the anxiety of the fundamentalist who opposes Darwinism the same fear? For evolution would erase the impassible barrier between the human race and the other animal species. And fundamentalists are loathe to admit that we have the ape and the amoeba for our cousins. They deny the earthly origin and kinship of the human race, preferring to believe humanity a special creation of God over and above the swarming legions of animals. And the political-educational fracas we now witness is more of the Cain-and-Abel strife that the myth says results from this denial.

Seventy-seven years ago, atheist author H.P. Lovecraft wrote prophetically of the fundamentalist “future-shock” reaction to evolution. We do well to take his words to heart:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each training in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality and of our frightful position therein that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Other Religions

What stances are taken by the thinkers of non-Christian religions? Do they accept or reject evolution? Or do they attempt to modify it? It makes sense to ask after Judaism first, as it shares the same creation scriptures with Christianity and thus faces the same challenge. In general, one may say that Orthodox Jews take the same approach to scripture and evolution as Roman Catholics: theistic evolution. Both tend to believe that evolution as demonstrated by science was the means the creator employed to make the world, whether or not any purposive trajectory may be discerned in the apparently random process. The one reservation Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics make, as well as many Muslims, is that they believe a special act of God was needed to make members of Homo Sapiens Sapiens what they are. God injected or imparted the soul specially. This seems necessary to prevent classifying humanity among the animals. I don’t know if this theological proviso should even be taken literally. To me it sounds more like an emphatic observation of the great difference between us and our less intelligent, less reflective animal brethren than an explanation of why that is so.

Why do these faiths have less difficulty admitting the truth of evolution? Simply because they are less tightly bound to literalism in scriptural interpretation. On the one hand, Jewish and Catholic interpretation has always been governed by official tradition. Jews believe that there are two Torahs, one written and delivered to Moses on stone tablets, the other oral, spoken to him on the same occasion or in the Tent of Meeting, and that even when rabbinic tradition is not simply a transmission of that material it should be taken as equally authoritative since it is understood as an unpacking of what is implicit there. Likewise, Catholics believe the apostles must have taught considerably more than their occasional writings happen to touch upon, and that their oral instruction to the bishops has been passed down to every new generation of their successors. On the other hand, Muslims believe the Bible has been corrupted at some points and is generally superceded by the Koran anyway, and the Koran is less explicit on the matter of creation.

Orthodox Jews have various resources for considering creation and its problems. For one thing, one tradition reports that there had already been 975 generations before Adam. So things didn’t start with him. Second, the mystical Kabbalah was based on esoteric readings of the Torah, and by such reckonings it was revealed that our history had been preceded by untold cosmic cycles of millions and billions of years. In general, Orthodox thinkers believe that the unfolding vista of nature as revealed by evolutionary science only makes poor mortals appreciate more fully the magnitude of the creator’s feat by making plainer the amazing methods he used. Such language does not imply divine interference with the immanent processes but rather, I think, abashed reverence for the system of natural laws that God established.

Other Jewish theologians, with the familiar reluctance to think of human beings as “kin to the monkeys,” say they gladly recognize the centrality of natural selection and mutation in biology today but merely prescind from extrapolating backwards to any theory of human origins. Fair enough.

Turning to East Asian religions, those that began there at any rate, it’s tempting to say that Buddhism has no dog in the race, since Theravada Buddhists do not believe in a creator, and there is no single authoritative Hindu creation myth. Certainly Hindus do not by and large oppose modern science. What I think calls for comment here are certain elements of the Hindu-Buddhist cosmology that have long seemed to me to offer the basis for a religious doctrine of evolution.

First, the Indian religions believe in the reign of law in the natural and supernatural worlds. Karma, the law of cause and effect, governs what happens, not gods. The gods exist, even in Buddhism which demotes them in importance, but they are not superior to Karma, any more than the Greek gods were superior to Fate.

Second, life occupies six niches, seen or unseen. Starting with human beings, we can descend to the state of animals, then lower to the realm of pretas, or hungry ghosts, like Tantalus, doomed to never-ending pangs. A long drop down from here is the precipitous descent into hell whose horrors in Buddhist reckoning far exceed the nightmares of the Christian hell. But above humans there is the tier of the Asuras, divine beings who do not rule. They are like the Greek Titans. Above them are the deities, the Devas. Keep in mind, these are not abstract entities. Far above them in the scheme of things is Nirvana, Brahman, the Dharmakya. That is the ultimate goal of salvation.

A person may ascend and descend this ladder one or many times during the passing aeons. One’s actions, good or ill, govern the prospect of one’s next rebirth. If the Jataka Tales of the Buddha are anything to go by, even animals may behave in moral or immoral ways, causing them to ascend or descend within the narrow range of the bestial hierarchy, it being better to be a stallion than a swine. One might call good behavior leading to higher rebirth a kind of survival behavior. Those who practice piety, charity, and duty ascend the ladder, just as those creatures who eat hardier and propagate their kind more busily will dominate the next generation genetically.

Third, besides the upward (or downward) course of the single individual, there is also, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, the belief in a general and inevitable upward trend whereby all beings will one day reach full sentience and thence enlightenment, whereupon all will have attained the Buddha-nature, hitherto only latent within them. It is the job of the Bodhisattvas to aid and guide the rest of sentient beings to this final consummation. The latent Buddha-nature in all things would seem to provide the urge Alfred North Whitehead described as the will of species “to live, to live well, and to live better.”

But then again, that’s just another variety of “teleological evolution,” and that’s pseudoscience. As Jacque Monod proclaimed, “The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.” And from this we can take two lessons. There are better and worse varieties of pseudoscience, and theistic evolution is one of the less harmful. Theistic evolutionists do not all bring in God as a filler of specific gaps, gaps which we will someday learn to fill with hard-won knowledge. They merely posit by faith that God was in there somewhere, somehow. They look at natural selection as it stands and say, “God wanted it that way.” This is infinitely preferable to Creationists who look at natural selection and sneer, “God doesn’t like that at all!” And as for Monte Carlo, personally I think that “grace” is just the religious euphemism for “chance.” We look at our presence in this delightful world, we consider the 900-degree skies of Venus and the extinction of the trilobite, and we think, “There but for the grace of God, i.e., except for luck, go I!”

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