Posted May 7, 2015
Evolution's Ultimate Wisdom
Evolution, Charles Darwin
famously stated, works through the survival of the fittest. Christianity, on the
other hand, is committed to the survival of the weakest. But how do we square
our Christian ideal of making a preferential option for the weak with
Nature is evolutionary and, inside of that, we can perceive a
wisdom that clearly manifests intelligence, intent, spirit, and design. And
perhaps nowhere is this more evident than how in the process of evolution we see
nature becoming ever-more unified, complex, and conscious.
However, how God's
intelligence and intent are reflected inside of that is not always evident
because nature can be so cruel and brutal. In order to survive, every element in
nature has to be cannibalistic and eat other parts of nature. Only the fittest
get to survive. There's a harsh cruelty in that. In highlighting how cruel and
unfair nature can be, commentators often cite the example of the second pelican
born to white pelicans. Here's how cruel and unfair is its situation:
white pelicans normally lay two eggs, but they lay them several days apart so
that the first chick hatches several days before the second chick. This gives
the first chick a head-start and by the time the second chick hatches, the first
chick is bigger and stronger. It then acts aggressively towards the second
chick, grabbing its food and pushing it out of the nest. There, ignored by its
mother, the second chick normal dies of starvation, despite its efforts to find
its way back into the nest. Only one in ten second chicks survives. And here's
nature's cruel logic in this: That second chick is hatched by nature as an
insurance-policy, in case the first chick is weak or dies. Barring that, it is
doomed to die, ostracized, hungry, blindly grasping for food and its mother's
attention as it starves to death. But this cruelty works as an evolutionary
strategy. White pelicans have survived for thirty million years, but at the cost
of millions of its own species dying cruelly.
A certain intelligence is
certainly evident in this, but where is the compassion? Did a compassionate God
really design this? The intelligence in nature's strategy of the survival of the
fittest is clear. Each species, unless unnaturally interfered with from the
outside, is forever producing healthier, more robust, more adaptable members.
Such, it seems, is nature's wisdom and design -- up to a point.
scientists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggest that physical evolution
has reached its apex, its highest degree of unity, complexity and consciousness,
inside the central nervous system and brain of the human person and that
evolution has now taken a leap (just as it did when consciousness leapt out of
raw biology and as it did when self- consciousness leapt out of simple
consciousness) so that now meaningful evolution is no longer about gaining
further physical strength and adaptability. Rather meaningful evolution is now
concerned with the social and the spiritual, that is, with social and spiritual
And in a Christian understanding of things, this means that
meaningful evolution is now about human beings using their self-consciousness to
turn back and help nature to protect and nurture its second pelicans. Meaningful
evolution now is no longer about having the strong grow stronger, but about
having the weak, that part of nature that nature herself, to this point, has not
been able to nurture, grow strong.
Why? What's nature's interest in the weak?
Why shouldn't nature be happy to have the weak weeded out? Does God have an
interest in the weak that nature does not?
No, nature too is very interested
in the survival of the weak and is calling upon the help of human beings to
bring this about. Nature is interested in the survival of the weak because
vulnerability and weakness bring something to nature that is absent when it is
only concerned with the survival of the fittest and with producing
ever-stronger, more robust, and more adaptable species and individuals. What the
weak add to nature are character and compassion, which are the central
ingredients needed to bring about unity, complexity, and consciousness at the
social and spiritual level.
When God created human beings at the beginning of
time, God charged them with the responsibility of "dominion", of ruling over
nature. What's contained in that mandate is not an order or permission to
dominate over nature and use nature in whatever fashion we desire. The mandate
is rather that of "watching over", of tending the garden, of being wise
stewards, and of helping nature do things that, in its unconscious state, it
cannot do, namely, protect and nurture the weak, the second pelicans.
second-century theologian, Irenaeus, once famously said: The glory of God is the
human being fully alive! In our own time, Gustavo Gutierrez, generally credited
with being the father of Liberation Theology, recast that dictum to say: The
glory of God is the poor person fully alive!" And that is as well the ultimate
glory of nature.