FOR 40 YEARS, I have taunted high school seniors with the problem of God. Given their only recently evolved capacity to reason and its concomitant resistance to authority, it would be easier to market acne. The ethos confirmed them, long before the church did, as relativists ("Up to the individual"), materialists ("Show me!") and pragmatists ("This on the test?").

But I always held the trump card (I thought): the elegant human eye, a near-perfect mechanism whose exquisite parts are pointless without the others. A transparent lens corrects for colour and spherical distortion; an iris diaphragm fine-tunes focus continuously, even for those whose vision is otherwise impaired. The retina’s 125 million colour-coding cells automatically switch among wavelengths. They take three-dimensional colour pictures as long as one can stay awake, and they never need developing or new film. Then images converge into a brain that turns them into abstract ideas. And often if they are damaged they repair themselves. No way could that just "happen" in correct sequence, even with a gazillion lucky chances! It is as close to certainty as one can get that God, not evolution, created the universe. Darwin himself found the eye a puzzlement: "To suppose the eye with all its inimitable contrivances... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."

For 40 years, I was smug as a bug in a rug.

Then, to my chagrin, I found not only that the eye could evolve, bit by infinitesimal bit, but has done so more than once. And the defenders of that capacity were not only apostolic atheists like Richard Dawkins and fair-minded agnostics like Steven Jay Gould, but also an evangelical like Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and Catholics like the Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller and Jesuit George Coyne, former head of the Vatican Observatory. Evolution had more latitude than I had guessed even from John Paul II’s address "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth" (1996) and Joseph Ratzinger’s "In the Beginning" (1986).

It was like the shock I had studying theology, accepting that snakes never talked, or learning that scientists find the Bohr model of the atom, with its companionably orbiting electrons, as far from actuality as 15th-century maps: not useless, but quite inadequate. I was Alec Guinness standing amid the ruins of his beautiful bridge on the River Kwai.

The unpleasant facts: Limpets have just a few pigmented cells in an eye-spot, but these are effective enough to sense predators. One step up, split-shell mollusks’ eyes recede into pits; the marine snail, the Nautilus, has its focus narrowed by a pinhole lens. Octopuses and most vertebrates have sharp-focus camera eyes just like ours. Using computer mock-ups (and presuming a pre-existent photo-sensitive cell), the Swedish biologists Dan-Erik Nilsson and Susanne Pelger estimated that an animal could go from flat-skin eye to camera-lens eye in less than 500,000 years. Cells have "motive, means and opportunity".

But does Darwin necessarily displace God? For a philosopher, "random" means "haphazard, purposeless"; but for a scientist it merely means "imperfectly predictable", lacking certainty but still constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry and the particular environment. By definition, unexpected changes are a break from what had been pretty much predictable behaviour. And while mutations in a species over vast savannahs of time do arise from purely chance "blips" in cell replication, the selection and continuance of those changes is anything but haphazard. Only changes making the host a better predator (or more elusive prey), a more seductive attraction to mates and provider for young win the chance to continue in the opportunistic game.

So at horse races, experts who study the contenders, controllers and environment make quite confident guesses about outcomes. Similarly, atomic probers track errant electrons, and theologians grapple with the elusive Creator. The astounding rationality of the physical world, coupled with the analytic and imaginative powers of the human mind, give rise to both science and theology – making educated guesses about unseen causes of visible effects. Annie Dillard writes: "What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?" Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg are like Isaiah, Paul and Rahner in exploring the same terra incognita with approximating tools, assessing all the pertinent factors and taking calculated risks. Despite our inadequate grasp of the divine nature, God would seem the best odds-maker in the universe.

Many believers in creationism and intelligent design balk at yielding much to evolution (or relativity or quantum theory), lest it jettison God after such long service. Atheist evolutionists worsen matters by reminding us that God gave us an appendix with no function but to rupture on occasion, viruses whose sole aim is to destroy, and a world "red in tooth and claw". In "River Out of Eden", Dawkins writes remorselessly: "This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit things might be neither good nor evil. Neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose."

In 2004 the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in "Communion and Stewardship" (No. 69): "According to the Catholic understanding of divine causality... even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation." God did not have to rig natural history so a particular branch of primates would begin to stand up and look around, any more than God had to steer us toward Babylon or Rome or Buchenwald. As Kenneth R. Miller writes: "If we can see God’s will in the flow of history and the circumstances of our daily lives, we can certainly see it in the currents of natural history... Given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what he was looking for."

A constantly meddlesome God leads to the Deist "watchmaker" of the 19th century, consolingly purposeful but inflexibly determinist. Our lives would be nothing more than unrolling prewritten scrolls, constantly edited by Someone Else. On the contrary, could it not be that God is more dedicated to freedom than we are comfortable with? God could well get a kick out of watching even genes learning. Divine wizardry is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself.

Science still yields plenty of clues to a Designer, who might not be as intrusive as we have been led to believe. Every planet circles the sun at precisely the one speed that will keep it from drifting into deep space or crashing into the sun. The four fundamental forces in the universe are gravity (the attractive pull of every body), electromagnetism (bonding atoms), the strong nuclear force (binding elements within the nucleus) and the weak force (radioactive decay). If any of these forces were even minutely different, the advent of humans would have been unthinkable. In fact, according to Stephen Hawking, "If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, it would have recollapsed before it reached its present size." Conversely, if gravity were weaker, Big Bang dust would have just continued to expand, never coalescing. If the strong nuclear force were a little weaker, no elements heavier than hydrogen would have formed. If electromagnetism were stronger, electrons would be so tightly bound to atoms, chemical compounds would have been impossible. Any weaker, and atoms would disintegrate at room temperature.

Miller writes: "As God’s great creation burst forth from the singularity of its origin, his laws would have set within it the seeds of galaxies, stars, and planets, the potential for life, the inevitability of change, and the confidence of emerging intelligence." God works not in the intimate, palpable anthropomorphism of Genesis, kneeling in the mud to fashion Adam and turn his rib into Eve, but God is – and always will be – vibrant and at work in every physical law that evolution presumes.

Dawkins flirts with being hoist with his own petard. In "River Out of Eden", he writes, almost huffily:

"We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is ‘for’, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoia – reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion."

Thus is the core of humanity dismissed as merely bothersome, like an appendix.

But the very term "natural selection" seems a misuse of words, since only an intelligence can assess options and choose. How do we get laws out of luck, predictable "processes" out of brute chance? If what differentiates our species from other animals is learning and altruism, why do Neanderthals still wildly outnumber the wise? The atheist popularizers, of course, never use the word "soul", since the only difference they acknowledge between ourselves and other apes is a smattering of renegade DNA. Even the best Christian philosophers, however, have also contented themselves with the woefully inadequate "rational animals", as if that could account for a MASH unit treating North Korean prisoners or Teihard’s obedient silence.

Atheists like Dawkins and Carl Sagan go way beyond their scientific passports. They are disconcertingly learned, sorcerers of analogy, writers of sinewy prose. But when they depart from "how" into "why", they are way beyond their credentials, like athletes plugging Wheaties. To anyone outside a lab, the difference between humans and our chimp cousins is not simply a measurable difference in DNA.

We are the only creatures we know who are aware we are selves, able to use the future tense and to regret. Other animals know facts, that danger is near, but do not seem to ask why. They give their lives for their own but not, like us, for a principle or for people we do not even like. Only we have hungers not rooted in a needful body or coldly rational mind: to be honourable, to find meaning, to survive death. Ignoring those indisputable facts is the rankest reductionism.

Charles Darwin, brilliant herald of this astonishingly fruitful theory, was less simplistic than some of his ardent disciples. In the final sentence of "The Origin of Species", he concludes:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Perhaps we might find more motivated belief if we were more at peace with intriguing questions than prefabricated conclusions, if we could stop needing to prove anything and delight in pursuing the clues.


William J. O’Malley, S.J., teaches English and religious studies at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, N.Y. This is an excerpt from his newest book, "Help My Disbelief"(Orbis).  

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