I thoroughly enjoyed a lecture yesterday by Elliot Sober, philosopher and evolutionary scholar at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Sober delivered an invited seminar as part of our year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin‘s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species.
Sober was a dynamic speaker and gave a great lecture. His thesis was that there are not just the two endpoints of the evolution debate that seem to be the media’s focus, i.e., belief in God or belief in evolution. Sober laid out a case that theistic evolution, the philosophy that the tenets of evolutionary biology are consistent with the belief in a supreme being, is a perfectly viable position to take, and that it is by no means a recent construct.
I was most interested, however, in some of the biographical information Sober presented on Darwin. He provided several sources from Darwin’s later writings in which the Victorian naturalist describes himself as a “theist” and later an “agnostic.” He ultimately penned that the notion of an ultimate creator was “beyond the scope of man’s intellect.” The idea that Sober attempted to present was that Darwin’s progressively dwindling faith had little to do with evolution and very much to do with tragic events in his life, cynicism toward the self-righteousness of the religious establishment, and his observations of the tremendous amount of evil and suffering in the natural world. In short, Darwin’s rejection of religion is similar to that of just about every person who has ever rejected religion.
Darwin famously became embittered toward religion in his grief over the death of his daughter. But Sober described Darwin’s thoughts on the profusion of evil in the world, especially examples laid out in correspondence with Asa Gray, as the real key to understanding Darwin’s rejection of religion. For example, Sober presented the life history strategy of certain Ichneumon wasps, in which the female inserts eggs into the body cavity of a caterpillar and the eggs hatch into larvae that eat the host alive from the inside, as something Darwin and Gray corresponded about. Darwin could not rectify such a design as illustrating the handiwork of a benevolent creator.
It was on this point that I wish Sober had been more forceful. The question of “why is there evil if God is good” is something that we Christian soldiers learn to rebuff in the first few days of Sunday School. Jesus spoke of unfortunate events, such as a tower collapse in Jerusalem that killed many people, and used these as examples to demonstrate that suffering is not a sign of sin. Suffering just happens. It’s how we react to it that can lead us either to sin or to grace.
But Darwin was writing not so much about errant suffering in the world, he was really getting at “evil by design.” It’s not some weird accident that some wasp larvae develop within the bodies of caterpillars and eat them alive – their brains last – this is what the wasps are designed to do. It’s one thing for God to allow suffering to occur in the world, it’s quite another for God to have intentionally created that suffering. If God has independently created each species, then God has independently – and thousands of times – created species that do simply horrific things to other species. The species doing those horrific things need to do them in order to survive. God’s design is designed evil. One cannot simultaneously believe in a God that is all good and has willfully created all life.