God and Darwin

There is a fascinating conversation going on between Ross Douthat, Daniel Larison, Andrew Sullivan and our own Alan Jacobs on the general topic of religion and evolution.

Larison argues that many religious doctrines do not exclude evolution:

Tell the Christian that he must either endorse evolutionary theory or accept the Bible, and he will typically take the Bible, especially if he is not grounded in an authoritative teaching tradition that tells him that this choice is a false one.

Interestingly, one can show that this is a false choice when arguing from a purely scientific / rationalist perspective as well. In a somewhat technical article in National Review, I argue that one can derive the following three statements from the mathematical structure of the evolutionary algorithm:

1. Evolution can not begin ex nihilo, but instead requires pre-existing building blocks, both in the form of an initial population of objects and in the underlying rules of the algorithm itself. That is, it does not solve the problem of Creation.

2. Evolution is a device designed to find a specific needle in a haystack – the most fit potential genome. That is, it has a goal

3. All of the information required to know the goal of the process is embedded in the combination of the definition of the possible genomes and the laws of chemistry that determine the fitness of each possible genome. That is, the goal is knowable before the process of evolution begins.

One needs no reference to any religious text of any kind to understand that the idea that evolution implies atheism is false.

When it comes to applying this reasoning to political decisions, Andrew says that:

If a candidate cannot accept Darwinian evolution, then I simply lose all respect for him or her. I do not trust their empirical judgment, which means I don’t believe their political decisions will be affected by, er, reason.

While I think the second half of the latter sentence goes a little far, in the end I agree with this. I doubt that, in practice, I would ever vote for a candidate who rejects evolution.

That said, I find the rejection of evolution by a thoughtful Christian candidate to be more poignant than risible (and I suspect Andrew shares this reaction). Further, since evolution doesn’t make many everyday-observable predictions, it remains a pure abstraction for almost all politicians, and therefore I’m not sure that “rejecting evolution” will necessarily predict any especially wacky future policy decisions. This is why I agree with Larison that one’s reaction to evolution acts, at least in part, as a social marker – try asking 99% of the smirking journalists who ask candidates these questions about any technical aspect of the relevant science, and get ready for the mouth-breathing.

Nevertheless, in my view Andrew’s bottom-line is correct: rejecting evolution remains a correctable error in reasoning that should be corrected.