Darwinism, Animal Suffering and Theology

I have nearly finished reading Christopher Southgate's wonderful new book The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (WJK, 2008). My thanks to the kind people at Alban Books who gave me a review copy.

The fundamental problem that the book seeks to address is the problem of the suffering and death of countless animals over the vast history of evolution. How could the God of Christian theism use such a brutal process to create? The book wisely takes contemporary scientific accounts of the history of earth and of life on earth as a given and seeks to do creative theology in the light of them (rather than taking a creation science route of challenging the science in order to defend a literal reading of Genesis).

Historically Christians might have said that all the bad things in the natural world - earthquakes, diseases, predation, suffering, animal death, etc. - are the result of the fall. Southgate argues that this 'solution' simply will not work. All these evils were around long before humans came on the scene. Blaming them on a postulated angelic fall is also a non-starter (the world, says Southgate, is the way it is as a result of divine fiat and demons cannot unleash chaos on creation that God cannot hold back).

Creation is clearly groaning (Rom 8) - and seems to have been doing so since before we came around - but can it be good (Gen 1) at the same time? That is Southgate's question.

I appreciated the fact that Southgate faces the problem of evolutionary suffering (no burying of the head in the sand here). I also appreciated the fact that he faces the issue of animal suffering as a theological problem (98% of the species that have existed on earth are now extinct!). Too often the issue of theology is handled only in terms of human life.

In a nutshell Southgate's approach is as follows

He maintains that the Darwinian system is indeed good and generates all of the values that we hold dear in living things.

He acknowledges that the Darwinian system also - and necessarily - generates a lot of pain, suffering and death.

He proposes that an evolving creation was the only way that God could generate the wonderful biospehere with all the values it contains. Consequently if God wanted to create a universe with all the goods that ours has he has to create one that has the costs.

But all this is a fat lot of consolation to the individual animal that is a 'victim' of this Darwinian world. Such an animal has value to God (Southgate develops an interesting, speculative, Trinitarian account of the value of individual animals) but is thwarted from living up to its potential.

Following, amongst others, John Wesley (!) Southgate holds that an adequate theodicy of animal suffering requires that God, in his goodness, grants some kind of eschatological redemption/recompense to the individual creatures that have been victims of evolution. I must confess that I found this the most interesting part of the book because, to my amazement, I found myself pretty convinced. I think that I have become an advocate of Pelican heaven! Not simply that there will be animals of certain types in the new creation (e.g., sheep) but that some of the specific animals that have existed in this creation (including dinosaurs, etc) will there there!!! I never thought I'd be persuaded of that!

Creation has a teleological goal and so the goodness of creation will be fully realized in new creation.

Southgate also explores the 'suffering' of God with his suffering creation (not simply humans) and see the cross as essential for the redemption of all creation and the resurrection as the inauguration of new creation (with implications for animals). Lots could be said here but you can read it for yourselves.

Southgate defends a high anthropology. God has a special concern for humans and humans have a special role in working with God for the redemption of creation. He suggests that part of God's calling upon humanity is to use our intelligence and technology for the good of creation (and this can include genetic manipulations). Fascinating stuff.

I have yet to read the final chapter but I see a call to eschatological vegetarianism. That'll be fun!

I have found this book to be exceptionally clear, refreshingly honest, biblical (in a non fundamentalist sense), theologically orthodox (honest!), thought provoking and very helpful.

Of course, I have questions and I am not persuaded by all of it. For instance, I have always been wary of the argument that says that the only way that God could achieve goal X is by route Y. I just don't know how we could know whether such claims are true or not. That said, I am open to the possibility that Southgate is right here but I am not prepared to accept it just yet. I also have always had a soft spot for classical theism and I tend to shy away from discussions of divine suffering and kenoticism unless they are qualified in careful ways (and I confess that I do often shudder at some of the kenotic discussions that those at the interface of theology and science sometimes engage in). Southgate handled both issues well but I need to ponder things some more. I think that my version would be a tad more classical.

But I can honestly say that this is the best book I have yet read on the issue of the suffering of the Darwinian system. I highly recommend it.


brett jordan said…
Blast! Another book i've got to read!
Ken Smith said…
Very interesting. I've wondered about this question for a long time, as it's been one of the few bits of evolution that I haven't been able to reconcile with orthodox theology. The best solution I've been able to come up with is to point out that evolution itself is a very little like the crucifixion. Christians have always believed that Jesus' death and resurrection wasn't an isolated event, but was somehow built into the very nature of reality. And we discover, looking back at the people and animals that were our ancestors, that we are only here because of the pointless, sacrificial death of billions of "hopeful monsters", creatures bearing maladaptive genetic mutations that were all but guaranteed to result in their owners' painful deaths and the extinction of a particular genetic branch. We are here, and our bodies work more-or-less well, because they are not here, and because their bodies did not work well. And when you think about it, that's not a bad picture of the death of Christ. "By his stripes we are healed," as Isaiah put it.

I'm not sure from your description if that's the direction Southgate takes this, but I think it's certainly compatible with your description of his theodicy.
Nate Long said…
It completely astounds me that Brits seem to have universally accepted the idea that science supports Darwinian evolution. There is simply an overwhelming amount of data to the contrary. I would dearly love to see a sociological study of how the convincing of an entire nation of a fraud was accomplished.

I know, I know, I'm going to be taken as simply another backwards, ignorant, American Creationist (horrors); but that is, I suppose, my point. There is in fact, highly intricate, scientifically sound, mountains of data evidencing the inadequacy of Darwinian evolution, yet I consistently read British Christians that simply take it for granted that evolution has been proven. Amazing, and intriguing. At some point, I'm going to have to look into this...
Nate Long said…
p.s. by "look into this" I am referring to the social history of this cultural shift.
Robin Parry said…

Love it! Thanks.

We Brits think Darwin was right because ... well, he was British for goodness sake so he must have been right!!!

That was a joke.

But seriously - I am well aware of the scientific evidence you refer to (if you mean the stuff discussed in ID literature). I have read my Behe, my Dembski and my Johnson. I am also not a scientist so my judgements are not of much relevance when it comes to assessing the scientific truth of various claims one way or t'other. All that I can say is that I have read scientists pro and contra and find the evidence for neo-Darwinism to be much stronger than the case against.

But I leave that debate to the scientists (almost all of whom, I must add, accept the basic shape of neo-Darwinism).

Robin Parry said…

Oh - I also intended to add that whatever one makes of Darwinism the scientific evidence does unambiguously support the claim that there were earthquakes, diseases, animal suffering, animal death and species extinctions long before humans came along. As far as I have read ID people accept this claim. (I know that creation scientists do not but I put them in another category from ID people and - confession time - I tend not to take them seriously.)

So one would still have to deal with the problem discussed in Southgate's book.

What is your account of natural 'evils'?
Robin Parry said…
Having read the final chapter I see that Southgate does NOT call Christians to embrace eschatological vegetarianism
Anonymous said…
The traditional explanation that all natural suffering is a result of sin is insufficient. Thanks for some interesting approaches.

Even before the Fall, as literally read in Genesis, accidental animal suffering would have been inevitable without the frequent special intervention of God.

Possible pre-lapsarian accidents in Eden:
Vegetarian animal accidentally chews a leaf which has an insect on it. Baby bird falls out of nest before it can fly. Chimp misjudges branch when swinging and falls. Elephant steps on sleeping small animal. ...

Any set of 'blind' natural laws in time and space WILL result in natural suffering sooner or later. If you deny this then devise a set of natural laws in time and space which could never cause harm.

Gavin Ortlund said…

fascinating post, thank you. I am going to order the book. I am wrestling with this exact question on my blog right now.

It seems to me that it is a serious problem whether one accepts neo-Darwinism or not, because whether you are an old-earth creationist or a theistic evolutionist, you have hundreds of millions of years of predation and suffering.

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