"Smooth Words" from Francisco Ayala
Francisco J. Ayala, biologist and former Dominican priest, has won this year's Templeton Prize. Valued at $1.53 million, the prize has sought to reward serious thought, writing and research pointing the way to a reconciliation of science and faith. In Ayala's case, for "science" read "Darwinism." So a word or two is in order about the faith of Dr. Ayala.
Advocates of a supposedly religion-friendly Darwinism have seized on the idea of God's acting through secondary causes. In his book Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion, Ayala argues that since God acts through intermediate causation to create geological features (mountains, rivers), why may the same analysis not be applied to the evolution of life? In the latter context, he insists that the idea of God's acting through "specific agency...amounts to blasphemy." For such direct control would imply that God bears responsibility for all the cruelties, pains, and dysfunctions that have accompanied the unfolding of life's history.
But there is a real and important difference between secondary causation of the kind that results in the formation of rivers and mountains, on one hand, and that which, according to the evolutionary model, results in life in all its forms. The operation of geological forces follows paths described by physical laws. Whatever role chance plays, the overall process is predictable. The religious believer may reasonably picture God, having authored those laws, as the creator of geological features, having planned and foreseen what those features would be. Similarly, He is the author of those laws that govern patterns in the weather, in the alternation of the seasons, of day and night, and so on. God could thus confidently tell Noah that "So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (Genesis 8:6).
But life -- including human life -- is different. If Darwin and the vast majority of his modern advocates are right, then the path of life's evolution was inherently unpredictable -- not wholly random, since natural selection plays its role, but generated by chance and governed by no plan, design, or teleology. Ayala himself has said this very clearly: "It was Darwin's greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process -- natural selection -- without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent."
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ayala was addressing himself not to the gullible faithful but to fellow scientists. He explains that an evolutionary account "does not necessitate recourse to a preordained plan, whether imprinted from the beginning or through successive interventions by an omniscient and almighty Designer." His point couldn't be clearer: "Biological evolution ... is not the outcome of preconceived design."
The theistic evolutionary view of those like Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller (when he is in that mood) is just a revived variant of Gnosticism. According to that ancient heresy, a hidden, alien, passive Supreme Being coexists with a creator Demiurge, a blind watchmaker (to borrow the title of Richard Dawkin's book), unconscious, indifferent, and morally irrelevant.
Darwinism, if correct, obviates the need for a traditionally conceived Designer, working in any manner. That is the whole point of the theory. Ayala sees the merit of Darwinism, from a religious perspective, as lying in the fact that it would let God off the hook for aspects of nature that we perceive as flawed. Maybe, but it does so at the cost of emptying life of all divine intention, plan, purpose and meaning.
Ayala calls to mind philosopher Richard Weaver's comment on the project of finding a place for Darwin's theory in a coherent religious worldview. "We hear smooth words to the effect that there is no real conflict," Weaver wrote in Visions of Order. "There is no real conflict anywhere when one side gives up."