Last year Mr Tom Mcintyre produced this quote from the Blessed John Henry Newman (letter to Catholic Herald, 2 August): “Darwin’s theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine prescience and skill…(I do not see that) the accidental evolution of living beings is inconsistent with divine design – it is accidental to us, not to God.”
This was very much the answer I got from the holy Jesuits in 1944, when I was at preparatory school. Nowadays Newman would no doubt cut out the subjunctive and accept that, insofar as any scientific truth can be certainly stated, the principle of evolution can safely be held as true.
And so, I accept it. Yet I find it hard to rid my mind of some oddities. Why did God, who by definition is capable of creating what he wishes by his fiat, set about to work through such a complex way?
Take the timetable. Assuming that no universe existed before ours, the Almighty allowed nearly fourteen thousand million years to pass before the first member of our species appeared – less than two hundred thousand years ago. And this was on a planet, related to one star in an immense galaxy which was, in turn, a single instance amongst uncountable others. Long time, no see – don’t you think?
This ancestor of ours was himself the product of a long chain which appears to have started from the simplest elements stimulated into biological action by some phenomenon about which we can only guess. And then comes the random development of that chain, filtered by no more than the fact that characteristics which helped survival survived and those that didn’t didn’t.
The result, scientists claim, is that there are now just under 9 million species on earth. And some of them are very rum. But perhaps the rummest of all is us: creatures with brains of astounding complexity, sufficient to do mighty things and stupid enough to engage in mighty follies. It’s very odd.
If you encountered some intelligent human who, by chance, had no knowledge of these things (perhaps, Man Friday) – and told him the story, his eyes would widen, he would laugh with incredulity, and soon he would wander back to his lonely island, wondering at his bad luck that the only human he happened to meet, would turn out to be a village idiot.
Had you persuaded him to humour you a little while longer, you could of course explain that if God was, by definition, almighty, the whole thing would be no problem. What’s a billion years here or there for the Almighty? What’s a billion universes here or there? How about all the atoms in the universe, how about all the interactions of atoms since it all began? You could continue by pointing out that the Almighty could see, stage by stage, every step of evolution – knowing that it would all turn out right in the end.
But would he be convinced? Might he not simply say: “Of course, if you have defined your god as a being with infinite powers, you have already assumed what you have set out to prove. You still have not shown me why he chose to go through such immense complications in order to create human beings, when he could have done it all much more straightforwardly. Isn’t the simplest, and therefore the most satisfactory, explanation that this is all a natural phenomenon, and not a matter of creation at all?
And what would you say next?