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.
Anonymous 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...
Anonymous 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.
Hermia said…
Nate Long and Robin,

Once I enjoyed a fantastic presentation by Robin, in which he said, "I don't want to risk screwing up my doctrine of God, just so I can hold onto a doctrine of Hell."

I just want to echo that with the issue of plain reading of the biblical creation and Darwinism here:
"I don't want to risk screwing up my doctrine of the Creator (who revealed Himself as a good and great God by His 6-day creation), just so I can hold onto a doctrine of theistic evolution, which requires suffering and death to create a "good" earth."

BTW, I have a Ph.D. in biology and studied at , i.e. antibiotic resistance in bacteria, according to Dr. Behe (the author of the book). It was during my Ph.D. study when I found that there is no information increase in resistant bacteria strains that are artificially selected by our antibiotics. Mutation and natural selection cannot create new information to give us any evolution. Resistant bacteria are either handicapped in their regulatory control of their genes or simply lose/deformed the drug target to survive. Without the antibiotics around, resistant bacteria strain are weaker than the wild-type. In sum, our war with pathogenic bacteria is a trench war fair rather than an armed race. According to Dr. Behe and many honest biologist will agree with him, that's the most Darwinism can explain: beneficial mutation. Of course, you can read more of this in Dr. Behe's book.

About the earthquakes and geology, they happened during Noah's flood when the fountains of the deep burst forth (Genesis 7). There are many evidence for catastrophic geology and uniformitarianism is getting out of the way. But I am not a geologist, you can look it up for yourselves in sites like: creation.com. Though I can see you guys do not agree each other, this is intriguing: why people want a beautiful restoration will refute a beautiful beginning of the creation (or vice versa)?

I think biblical creationists and biblical universalists shall be among the first to agree on each other!

But I hope that will be soon.
Hermia said…
Oh no! The title of Dr. Behe's book did not appear it is: The Edge of Evolution. Antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon Dr. Behe considered as the edge of evolution, beyond that Neo-Darwinism has no explanatory power for the design we see in any organisms. Anyway, my 3rd paragraph shall read:

"BTW, I have a Ph.D. in biology and studied at the Edge of Evolution , i.e. antibiotic resistance in bacteria, according to Dr. Behe (the author of the book)."
Robin Parry said…
Thanks Hermia

I am not qualified to comment on the biology you discuss. I also appreciate your theological concern. However, it seems to me that there is a very real issue that needs to be faced up to here (animal suffering before the existence and fall of humans). While it would be lovely if we could tell a simple narrative in which there was no suffering until humans sinned—it would be theologically elegant so I see the appeal of it—we have to do our theology in the actual world we live in. And whatever you think about Intelligent Design, and I see that you have done research in this areas, the animal-suffering issue remains. To remove it one must be far more radical than ID and go for the full young-earth creationist model, which is a route I think deeply problematic and implausible. If one is not prepared to go there—and I am not for many reasons—then one has to find a way to deal with the uncomfortable reality that we find. Southgate was making an attempt to do that. He may not be right, but if he's not then we need to consider other ways. But the creationist approach is not a live option for many folk today, myself included. So we need to look elsewhere.

Hermia said…
Hi Robin:

Thanks for your prompt reply...I understand that the full "young"-earth creationist model is not appealing to many people today. After all, most of us were educated for more than 5 years to believe that evolution (or uniformitarianism: the present is the key to the past) as facts.

I have done many years of research before I embraced the plain-reading of the bible from its first book! And it has been so liberating! Yes, I believed the history recorded in the bible and the earth was created around 6000 years old. But I don't call it young-earth model, for 6000 years is not that young!

BTW, here is roughly how (as accurate as I can recall now) the "mountains" of evidences for evolution I learnt in school started to collapse:

One day, a colleagues in the laboratory I worked with asked this question after I expressed my doubt in evolution:

"So you don't believe in evolution? But every biologist believed in that!"

...then I replied, "But none of us find any proof for it or has ever observed it."

then my colleague honestly admitted that, but added, "But the geologists have proved it!"

Then another day walking around the campus, I visited the geography department, its exhibit showed that there are phenomena that cannot be fitted into uniformitarianism or millions years of earth history, (such as too low salt content in our ocean)...

then I read something like, "though geologists cannot prove the age of the earth, the biologists have proved evolution (which needs millions of years!)"

I was like..."since when have we proved that!"

Then I know where has been the support for evolution or millions of years earth history come from!
I called that circular reasoning by two semi-circles, namely biologists and geologists:
Biologist keep their belief in it assuming geologists have proved it and vice versa!

That's how evolution started to collapse for me: from fact, to theory, to not-working hypothesis, then to plain speculation by puny men. But it took me around 10 years to unlearn and relearn.

I would rather trust God's eye-witness account: He meant what He said and He said what He meant. He was there when the history of earth starts, no scientists were!


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