Review God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution by John Haught

Published in Metaviews

I suppose it’s the residual effect of original sin, but I enjoy reviewing books I disagree with more than ones I agree with. After all, who wants to spend 1500 words inventing new ways of saying “me, too” and “yes, that’s right”? Much better to bring a contrasting view to the author’s work, focus on areas of difference, and enjoy the simple pleasures of controversy. So, since I had heard he was skeptical of a theory of intelligent design in biology — of which I am an advocate — I looked forward to reviewing Georgetown theologian John Haught’s God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. What a disappointment! Looking back over my margin notes for this elegantly written book, I find I have scribbled on various pages: “Great!”; “I agree”; “!”; “interesting”; “Hmm”; and four “Good”s in a row. It isn’t that there aren’t some areas where Haught’s ideas strike me as off the mark. Rather, it’s that on the major points there is so much to agree with. This surprised and puzzled me for a while until I realized that I had been misinformed. Despite chastising design theorists in his book, John Haught believes in intelligent design as much as does William Dembski, the author of The Design Inference. The fundamental agreement, however, is obscured by peripheral issues and a cloud of confusion about what intelligent design theory really is.

Haught’s basic theological view is the following:

However, theology may still provide an ultimate explanation of why evolutionary creativity occurs in the spontaneous and self-creative manner it does. For if ultimate reality is conceived of neither as “mindless and impersonal matter,” as materialism sees it, nor simply as an “intelligent designer,” but fundamentally as self-emptying suffering love, we should already anticipate that nature will give every appearance of being in some sense autonomously creative (autopoietic). Since it is the nature of love, even at the human level, to refrain from coercive manipulation of others, we should not expect the world that a generous God calls into being to be instantaneously ordered to perfection. Instead, in the presence of the self-restraint befitting an absolutely self-giving love, the world would unfold by responding to the divine allurement at its own pace and in its own particular way. The universe would then be spontaneously self-creative and self-ordering. And its responsiveness to the possibilities for new being offered to it by God would require time, perhaps immense amounts of it. The notion of an enticing and attractive divine humility, therefore, gives us a reasonable metaphysical explanation of the evolutionary process as this manifests itself to contemporary scientific inquiry.

In Haught’s view we have been much too self-centered in imagining ourselves the goal and pinnacle of creation, disregarding the long pre-biological history of the universe, as well as the history of life on our planet before the arrival of humankind. That long interval is filled with change, striving, and genuine novelty in which God delights. It is also filled with destruction, suffering, and death. Although admitting the theological problem of suffering remains, Haught finds that the whole evolutionary picture resonates with the Christian idea of God as self-emptying, suffering love. (Haught’s book is written from a distinctly Christian, and particularly Catholic, viewpoint.) I am not a theologian but, like Haught, am a Roman Catholic and I find this aspect of his vision aesthetically attractive.

One of his principal themes is a metaphysics of the future, since “it is the ‘coming of God’ in the mode of renewing the future that ultimately explains the novelty in evolution.” Haught faults both materialists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and intelligent design theorists, such as Phillip Johnson and myself, for holding that the future is in essence contained in the past. For the materialists, it is a case of believing that physical laws unfold deterministically or algorithmically throughout time. For design proponents, says Haught, it is the belief in a fixed, static plan in the mind of God. Both of these stances are stultifying in his view because they preclude the occurrence of anything truly new in the world, anything that wasn’t implicitly already there.

Well, if deterministic laws or algorithms do not account for all of nature, exactly what do they miss? First, says John Haught, they don’t account for the fine-tuning of the universe: “To a good number of scientists today, the initial conditions and fundamental cosmic constants of the universe seem so precisely bent toward the eventual production of carbon, and then life, that they suggest a new basis for natural theology, not in biology but in physics.” Indeed, he explicitly states that anthropic coincidences “point toward something like intelligent design [!] at the very foundation of the universe.” Second, deterministic laws don’t account for mind: “materialist evolutionism leaves out any satisfactory account of how or why subjective experience and eventually consciousness entered into the cosmic picture and became so dominant.” Finally, they don’t account for fundamentally new and hierarchical arrangements in nature, such as the formation of molecules from fundamental particles, the formation of ordered metabolisms from separate chemical reactions, the formation of cells, multicellular organisms, and so on up the order of life. Those new events, Haught argues, require information.

By “information” I mean, in a broad and general sense, the overall ordering of entities-atoms, molecules, cells, genes, etc.-into intelligible forms or arrangements. The term “information,” of course, has more specific and technical definitions in physics and engineering, but these need not concern us here. The point I wish to emphasize here is that the use of the metaphor “information” by scientists today is a transparent indication that they now acknowledge, at least implicitly, that something more is going on in nature and its evolution than simply brute exchanges along the matter-energy continuum. Though it is not physically separate, information is logically distinguishable from mass and energy. Information is quietly resident in nature, and in spite of being non-energetic and non-massive, it powerfully patterns subordinate natural elements and routines into hierarchically distinct domains.

Haught specifically cites the information in DNA as being beyond the laws of chemistry and physics, even though it violates no natural law. To help explain, he adapts an analogy from Michael Polanyi where a hand moves a pen on paper in meaningless scrawls, but then begins to write a coherent sentence.

Physical continuity remains, but this continuity does not rule out an overriding logical and informational discontinuity. At the level of a purely chemical analysis of the bonding properties of ink and paper nothing new is going on when the informative sentence is introduced suddenly. From the point of view of physical science, things are the same as before. Yet from another kind of perspective, that of a human mind capable of reading written information, there is all the difference in the world.

Exactly right! And I’m sure William Dembski, of the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University, would concur. Intelligent design is easily recognizable in the specified complexity of the coherent sentence, in the information carried by the ink marks on paper which transcends the laws of physics and chemistry while nonetheless obeying them. So, too, is intelligent design recognizable in DNA and the structures it specifies, such as, say, the blood clotting cascade or the bacterial flagellum which I discussed in Darwin’s Black Box.

Well, if John Haught agrees with all of this, why does he keep at arm’s length the term “intelligent design” and the intellectual movement associated with it? He has several interrelated objections, all of which result more, I think, from miscommunication and stereotyping than from real intellectual difficulties. The first and most important objection is that Haught appears to think intelligent design theory (IDT) holds that God forcibly rearranges nature through “special creation,” or somehow breaks natural laws to introduce design. This seems to be theologically unpalatable to many thoughtful religious believers. Fortunately, it is based on a misconception-intelligent design theory requires no such scenario. IDT simply explains that the design of a system is empirically detectable from its physical attributes, especially, as Dembski points out in The Design Inference, from “specified complexity.” It makes no statement about how the design was effected. Although a number of people associated with the intelligent design movement do favor special creation as an explanation for the design of life, others do not. The only point all hold in common is that biological design is objectively detectable. Personally, I find Haught’s idea that God introduces information into a developing, responding universe to be appealing, and see no reason why it couldn’t be correct. My only addition would be that, like the sentence in Polanyi’s analogy, at least some of that information is empirically detectable.

A second, related objection is that IDT doesn’t allow for anything truly new, conceiving of the shape of life as a fixed plan in the mind of God. Again, however, that is not required (although some may prefer that scenario). It is perfectly possible, as far as IDT is concerned, that God didn’t have a rigid plan for the universe, and introduced true novelty at many points into a receptive universe without violating any natural law. IDT only asks whether the information is detectable; the manner of its introduction is an interesting-but-separate question.

A final objection of Haught’s is that “the notion of God as an intelligent designer is inadequate.” I agree entirely. But I don’t know of anyone who does hold that the notion of intelligent designer exhausts the attributes of God. Clearly God is much, much more than just a designer; nonetheless, he is at least that, as Haught himself acknowledges. Certainly God may also be “an inexhaustible and unsettling source of new modes of being.” Such a conception of God fits easily with IDT, because intelligent design theory focuses exclusively on whether design is empirically detectable.

In sum, God After Darwin is a rich source of provocative ideas for everyone who is interested in the fruitful interaction of science and religion, and it deserves a wide readership. Besides what was discussed here, many intriguing theological concepts are investigated, such as original sin, grace, ecological concerns, the nature of matter, and more. Most heartening to me, however, was the realization that Professor Haught (and undoubtedly many other religious intellectuals) disdains intelligent design theory simply because of misconceptions which can be corrected.

Michael J. Behe

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael J. Behe is Professor of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978. Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures. In his career he has authored over 40 technical papers and three books, Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, which argue that living system at the molecular level are best explained as being the result of deliberate intelligent design.