Lichen, Barbara Page, 2007,
© Lichen, Barbara Page, 2007,

The process of evolution has produced a world of great beauty, diversity and complexity. Ants form structured societies, trees reach for the skies, and whole ecosystems thrive in inhospitable-sounding places like underwater caves, deserts or deep-sea trenches. Where the air is clean, rocks and anything else that doesn’t move is covered with a crust of lichen – a partnership between fungus and algae (or bacteria) that survives even the harshest of weather. The constant adaptation of living things to their environment through the accumulation of tried and tested genetic changes produces the most incredible solutions to living in different environments.

Oddly (to me), the concept of progress in evolution is debated among biologists. Change happens, but is it directional in any way? Denis Alexander spoke on this subject at the Faith and Thought conference in October last year. I was fascinated to hear about the changes in ideology among scientists over time, and I wonder how their views will develop in future years?

In the early days of evolutionary theory, progression was all the rage. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin – the earliest advocates of evolution – wrote that living things improve over time, climbing the great escalator of evolution. Charles Darwin was a bit more cautious, saying that although progress does happen in ecosystems, it’s not inevitable; he thought that living things don’t necessarily have an innate tendency to progress upwards in the scale of evolution. In fact, he didn’t use the word evolution for a long time because it smacked of progressionism!

Why the scepticism? Darwin’s experience led him to question whether every living thing is triumphantly climbing a ladder to more ‘superior’ forms. We often think of ourselves as being more advanced than other creatures, but in what sense? There are plenty of organisms that could be said to be more successful than us in biological terms, but which are relatively simple. Bacteria have colonised every ecosystem in the world, and it has been estimated that if you weighed all the bacteria in the world they would have a mass greater than the plants. Likewise ants are more numerous than animals. Small and mighty!

In a religious or philosophical sense, I know that I am worth more than a bacterium. What I’m interested in here is, although I can hold the metaphysical view that progress towards a goal (us) has happened in the world, what does the science say?

Academic science writing has been largely un-progressive since genetics came along in the 1920s and 30s. The fact that mutations are so involved in evolution shows that what is driving the process might not be so directional after all. On the other hand, there is evidence for directionality in some areas of biology.

We can certainly see an increase in the complexity of organisms over geological time, and we can also see an increase in adaptation. Plenty of respectable modern biologists, such as E.O. Wilson and Ernst Mayr have claimed to see evidence of progress in evolution, but the jury is out on whether increases in complexity are actually driven (or pulled) by anything. One arguments is that as genetic variation increases through mutation, complexity will inevitably increase.

In the end, does it matter if we see progress in evolutionary biology? Progress does not equal purpose. As Denis Alexander pointed out, God can use evolution to fulfil his plans regardless of the exact detail of the mechanism.

We can also be humble, sitting at the end of our branch of the evolutionary tree. We are special because of God’s relationship with us, not because of anything fabulous we have done ourselves. We can simply enjoy being part of an amazing world in which we share our DNA with single-celled algae, lobsters and orang-utans.

6 thoughts on “Progress?

  1. Gary Hoek January 23, 2014 / 11:53 am

    Ruth, thank you for this well written, incisive article. Much appreciated!
    Kind regards
    Gary (South Africa)


  2. Andrew Nightingale January 23, 2014 / 3:24 pm

    Nice article, especially drawing the difference between progress and purpose. I’d have been quite happy if the inventors of the printable gun were unable to make any progress.

    Purely for the purposes of generating discussion I’d like to know why you think why God chose evolution as a the mechanism of creating humanity, given that natural selection seems to be such a slow and wasteful method of biological refinement? It also requires a great deal of suffering and premature death in order to work and often favours creatures that blight humanity by merit of their short generation times (malaria, MRSA, HIV)


    • Ruth Bancewicz January 27, 2014 / 11:00 am

      Hi Andrew,

      Good point, and yes – challenging questions! Well, the part about suffering is a challenge, though I’m not sure about the others

      Slow – if you look at the Bible and his work on people’s lives, God often works on much longer timescales than we would choose. He doesn’t often do quick fixes.

      Wasteful – humans are slow to gather natural resources so we guard them carefully. We have finite strength and time. We also and need to make sure we don’t destroy the natural environment by working in ignorant or necessarily destructive ways (we’re pretty good at being destructive) and cause the death of ourselves and other creatures. So being economical is a good thing for us, most of the time. But God can do as he pleases, who says one plant producing a thousand seeds so it can have a few offspring is a bad thing – it feeds other creatures, and fertilises the ground as well. It’s generosity!

      So we need to make sure we don’t ‘make God in our image’

      On the suffering, that’s more tricky. Animals aren’t moral beings, and I’m not sure the less sentient ones actually suffer. I’m not sure why suffering is part of the good world God made, but I’m not sure I can answer in this short space. What I do know is that God is loving and I don’t always understand him, he helps us to cope, and we have hope for a suffering-free future. Also, our wrongdoings break our relationships with each other and the environment around us. Who knows how things would be right now if we hadn’t done wrong?

      If you want some more resources, try this book which explores a few views.


    • michala February 6, 2014 / 11:39 pm

      I agree Andrew why would God use the process of evolution?it is a great assumption Mutations usually involves death and disease .Thankfully new theories have emerged since the dark ages ( Darwinism) and a new understanding on the many cases evolution is not a slow process and can happen quickly .also there are non random elements.natural selection is not just the one and only driving force with other processes to can scientists support a theory which has been modified from its original meaning due to scientific that’s progress and scientists should embrace new theories if one appears inadequate.ah yes progress – its a two way street and it depends who’s looking and why .


  3. Derek J White January 24, 2014 / 11:11 am

    Thanks for the article Ruth—as ever worth reading.

    The ‘jury may well be out’ regarding there being any directional ‘capability’ for things ‘natural’; the same obtains when applying metaphysical possibilities. From a metaphysical perspective one may conclude that this world is the best possible world—a world in which God could bring about the best of all ‘possible’ outcomes. This does not limit God’s ability but allows for God’s overall purpose—most likely the ascent of man. Andrew Nightingale’s questions are important: Why should the system have to allow for such waste? Why should it so often favour ‘creatures’ that blight humanity by merit of their generation times?

    My answer would be that this is the best of all possible worlds for God to bring about the best of all ‘possible’ outcomes, and that there are, most likely, creatures that object to the best of all possible outcomes and —with their particular knowledge and superior [ i.e. to man’s not God’s] capability —seek to subvert God’s plans and objectives.

    I am not a scientist but have a fervent interest in the subject of: Evolution, Evil and the Goodness of God. DW


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