Critical ThinkingReligionScience

Can evolution and God coexist? Yes.

The Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, really exists. But what about the namesake? Well Higgs certainly exists, but does God? This, my last in a series on evolutionary science and religion, is not going to answer that to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, it begins as an indulgence to briefly become a cryptozoologist – one who studies “cryptids”: animals whose existence has not yet been proven.

 

God is certainly the most elusive of all cryptids, given his credited role as creator and sustainer of everything. But a good behavioral ecologist is not completely stymied by being unable to observe their study animal. You can still learn a lot about a creature by where it lives and its effects on the habitat. In this way, I can look at nature and infer six things about God.

 

1. God is truly elusive and excellent at hiding. What animals share these characters? Predators capturing their food through stealth and surprise, and those at high risk of becoming meals for predators.   Such species are really good at hiding: you can walk through the woods and pass within 10 feet of a deer or a cougar and never see them. But other species are so large or well protected, they don’t care about being observed. Sail out from the California shore and you’ll see blue whales cruise by. They have no interest these days (thankfully!) in eluding humans. One would think that an omnipotent creator would be blue whalish, cruising the universe unmindful of being obvious. Apparently God does care – preferring to hide with Sasquatch and Nessie behind that tree you walked past! Is God worried that if seen, we’d pounce and devour? Highly unlikely. Is God a predator ready to take us down at any moment? Perhaps, if you take the bible literally, but there is no evidence for a supernatural cause in all the ongoing nastiness in the world. Why does God hide? I don’t know.

 

2. God likes to be surprised. The physical universe is dominated by the bizarre rules of quantum mechanics where one cannot know everything at once. ‘Nothing’ is probably not really nothing, and whole universes might spring into being from a few vibrating strings. And then there is the biological world governed by the most random and unpredictable process of all: evolution. It has always struck me that being omniscient and knowing everything that has and will happen would be a curse, and not something any god would want. How could you take joy in living when there is no hope of a pleasant surprise? Instead, create a world and process where life emerges and rearranges itself into an infinite variety of shapes and behaviors. Shows most worth watching are those where you don’t know what will happen next! Has God then on occasion rewritten the script? When dinosaurs finally got too predictable, perhaps giving an asteroid a nudge into a collision course? I don’t know.

 

3. God likes diversity. The biggest self-delusion in religion has to be that the spectacular size and diversity of the universe is all dross and window dressing, merely to impress the one species, living on the only planet in the whole of creation that matters. If there is a God, shouldn’t we absolutely expect that really interesting stuff is going on everywhere? And what would be more interesting than replicating evolutionary biology across any number and variety of planets. And as for life on Earth, why would there be a million species of beetles and a billion species of bacteria if, as the saying goes, God did not have an inordinate fondness for such diversity. How much diversity is there across the universe in living organisms? I don’t know.

 

4. God likes diversity in humans. Why else do we come in so many shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, abilities, and sexual proclivities? If God likes us short, tall, brown, white, black, conservative, liberal, blue and brown-eyed, why not as heterosexual, homosexual, transgender or whatever? Is there just one best way to be a human being? I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t look that way.

 

5. God likes intelligence. My most compelling reason to believe in God is the spiritual experiences that a number of other (!) people have had. One could potentially explain them as a neurological happenstance, but the alternative hypothesis is an ‘elusive’ god who really does like us. Since our species has evolved the intelligence to know and worry about mortality, would not an interested god help out a bit? This is exactly what a cryptozoologist would predict a caring, omnipotent cryptid ought to do. Indeed, when I hear or speak to people with such experiences, what is almost always related is how positive and comforting it is about their lives and their eventual demise. Tellingly, such encounters never mention 6000 year old universes or ask for more homosexuals to be stoned. Is God revealing that we ought to smarten up and leave fallacious dogma behind? I don’t know.

 

6. God likes cooperation. By any number of measures, the most successful species on earth are the social insects (ants, bees, wasps, and termites) and humans. Case closed. Will God cease being elusive when we reach an advanced enough state of diversity, intelligence and cooperation to be interesting to talk to? I don’t know.

 

Of course you have noticed that I close every inference about God with a statement of “I don’t know”. That’s what science does: draw the strongest conclusions you can from the available data but be prepared to adapt those conclusions in response to contradictory findings. This includes acknowledging that there are truly unanswered questions, even quite important ones. Indeed, we can be pretty safe in saying that there is a lot more about the universe and life on earth that we don’t know or understand than what we do. (And that’s why I love being a scientist – to ever so slightly shift that asymmetry.)

 

For me, evolution and God can easily coexist. Coexistence between religion and science is much more difficult, however. When Ken Ham puts forth his interpretation of a book written thousands of years as the unequivocal truth, it is his opinion and he is welcome to it. When he purports, however, that his unshakeable belief in dogma is no different than what scientists do, and therefore should be placed on an equal footing to be taught in schools, I object. What I did in the above was put the notion of God through my lens of evolutionary science. Religiously inclined (or not) people may very well disagree with my inferences. Again, that’s what scientists do. But if religion and science are ever to reach a common ground, it must be religion that adopts the core principle of science. Not to deny the possibility of God, but instead, to admit that just like with the natural universe, there is much more we don’t know about God than what we do know. Dogma must always be willing to give way to new knowledge.

 

Enough said by me. Where do you stand? Can God, religion and science coexist and be mutually enlightening? Is the relationship between religion and science a subject we should explicitly talk about in school and not just blog about?

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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