April 30, 2021

Natural Selection, Darwin, and the Biblical Worldview

How the same thing appears so different to different eyes.

Noemí Durán

We tend to associate natural with good. A natural lifestyle, eating natural food, and natural remedies are all presented as superior to anything processed and artificial. After all, the word natural comes from nature, and nature is good, isn’t it?

“Natural” and “Transmutation of Species”

There is a term, widely used in biology, that also contains the adjective natural and that for many people is also a good thing. It is natural selection. Natural selection relates to the “struggle for existence” coming from observed differences in survival and reproduction, with organisms best adapted to their environment producing more descendants. Life is seen as a constant competition in which natural selection ensures that only the “fittest” win, while the weak and the clumsy fall by the wayside. If the qualities responsible for the survival or demise of certain individuals come from the genes they possess, natural selection results in the best genes remaining in the population while the deficient genes are eliminated. Thus, some would say, even if the means are a bit harsh, the end is the improvement of the species, and therefore the unflinching, unfeeling elimination of unfit organisms by natural selection is justified, a kind of natural good.

We find many evidences of how the creation was and how it should be.

This was the view of Charles Darwin, the scientist most associated with the concept of natural selection. Although he was neither the first nor the only one to propose the idea, Darwin spread it throughout the academic community of the nineteenth century via his famous 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. One of the main tenets of this book was to establish natural selection as the agent responsible of the “transmutation of species,” the slow and progressive change that turned one species into a different one by accumulation of adaptive variations over time. Although not mentioned in the title, Darwin’s second goal was to argue in favor of common ancestry for all organisms. He connected common ancestry and natural selection together by assuming that natural selection could accumulate small beneficial changes over millions of years into large evolutionary changes. His concluding paragraph clearly shows Darwin’s conviction that natural selection and its effects on earth were something absolutely good:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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.”1

In the second edition of The Origin, published in 1860 only a few months after the original, Darwin added a short phrase to the paragraph, which then read:

“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 . . .”2

Natural Selection and “by the Creator”

According to historians and the testimony of Darwin himself,3 this addition does not reflect Darwin’s regret at presenting a purely materialistic theory that left out the Creator, but was rather an attempt to placate the enormous criticisms that the first edition had received from different religious sectors. That was not unexpected. Long before publishing his book, Darwin was fully convinced that the diverse forms of life were not God’s designed creation but the product of a blind, undirected natural process. His core ideas were already formulated in the notebooks he wrote in the 1830s based on his observations during the voyage of the Beagle. However, when he shared his ideas with his deeply religious wife, Emma, along with some of his scientific colleagues, Darwin soon realized how difficult the acceptance of his theory would be in a Christian society. That is one reason On the Origin of Species took a long time to write and ended up as a thick and ponderous book: Darwin spent more than two decades compiling supporting evidence and forging alliances with respected scientists of his time. The book launch went more or less as expected. All copies were sold in a single day and generated a great deal of controversy. Along with scientific critiques, his religious materialism drew serious criticism. Darwin decided to make some rhetorical concessions for the second edition, but the materialistic essence remained unchanged. Natural selection was the mechanism responsible for accumulating changes; it endured as the true creator making endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, while God was relegated to a secondary role, if any.

Darwin defined himself as an agnostic,4 explicitly rejecting the Bible’s divine inspiration, so his ideas were consistent with his stance toward religion. Today, however, there are Christians who claim to be Bible believers and state that Darwin’s materialistic theory is completely compatible with biblical teachings. According to them, God used natural selection to create and thus, because natural selection was God’s means of creation, it is both natural and good.

But this is not what is written in the Bible. It is true that the Bible describes nature as good. In Genesis 1 God Himself evaluates different components of His creation and certifies six times that they are good. Then in verse 31, when His work is complete, He reaffirms his verdict by assessing the creation as very good.28 1 4 1

So, yes, nature was good . . . before Genesis 3. After that, not so much. At the very moment of the Fall, when Adam and Eve decided to disobey God, they condemned the rest of creation to suffer the curse along with humanity; nature’s goodness was tarnished by the consequences of sin. One of the first consequences, readily apparent when reading the text, is a shift in priorities within the human mind. In Patriarchs and Prophets Ellen White states that Adam ate the forbidden fruit out of love for Eve, but a short time after the bite, he was blaming her, and God Himself, for the transgression.5 This same transformation from selflessness to selfishness soon spread to the rest of nature, and that was the very moment natural selection entered the world. Obviously the Bible does not specifically mention the term, but the description of subsequent events perfectly fits our current understanding of the process. Natural selection has to do with resource shortages, a fight for survival, and with death. That is the norm in nature today, but it was not the case before Genesis 3. Food was plentiful (Gen. 1:29, 30), and nothing in the text suggests any struggle, violence, or fear in the original plan. All of that came later, for it was only after sin that the earth had to be forced to bear its crops (Gen. 3:17), plants developed defenses to avoid overgrazing (verse 18), and enmity arose between humans and animals (verse 15).

Natural Selection: A Christian’s View

What then should a Christian’s view of natural selection be? Is it an invention? Is it nature’s great creative force? Is it good? Is it natural?

There is no doubt that natural selection exists and acts in nature. Charles Darwin devoted a large part of his book to revealing it, and we can easily see it in action in any nature documentary on the African savannah, or just looking around in a forest. Animals fight; some die. Some of them survive to reproduce. Sometimes it is because of features that help camouflage
them, or help them run faster, or be more attractive. Survivors end up parenting the next generation, and their features increase in the population. Darwin got that part right.

As an expert himself in pigeon breeding, Darwin compared the changes made by artificial selection in some animals with those observed in nature between similar species. He used his observations of the Galapagos mockingbirds and other groups of similar species to propose that geographical isolation could cause a species to adapt differently in different environments, resulting in variations of the same organism. He proposed that natural selection may cause a species to split into two or more similar species. And he was right. That idea may have surprised some people in Darwin’s time who believed in the Platonic fixity of species. But today change driven by natural selection is widely accepted by scientists, evolutionists, and creationists alike. We call it speciation, and there is nothing in the Bible against it. Indeed, the very changes that Genesis 3 announces as consequences of sin could well be considered as a biblical reference to this process.

But that’s all natural selection can do. It works only on available variations among organisms within the groups God created. It can turn one population of finches into two populations of finches with slightly different characteristics, such as beak size or feather color, but it can’t turn a finch into an eagle, because finches lack characteristics of eagles for natural selection to select. How much more impossible to turn a bacterium into a human being!

Darwin extrapolated the role of natural selection to advocate for a godless nature. But it makes no sense for a Bible believer to embrace materialistic arguments that do not hold up either scientifically or theologically. According to our current understanding in biology,6 the changes necessary to turn one kind of organism into a different one—a bacterium into a giraffe or seaweed into oak trees—cannot happen by natural selection or by any other unguided process. In addition, those who claim that God used natural selection to make them directly contradict both the biblical record of Genesis 1 and the central message of the entire Bible. The very concept of natural selection goes against everything the Bible tells us about God. It implies competition, struggle, selfishness, destruction of the weak, and death—all things that go against God’s loving character and His selflessness.

In summary, natural selection exists and acts in nature. It can cause changes in the frequency of already-existing traits within populations and even the formation of new species within the same kind of organisms—such as wolves, dingoes, and domestic dogs, all of which are different species, yet happily interbreed. However, as a process that involves predation, suffering, and death, it should not be considered essentially good, or God’s method of creation. What the Bible calls good, an environment of abundance and peaceful relationships, is exactly the opposite of a world ruled by natural selection. Natural selection was not present in the two first chapters of Genesis, and thus it was not part of God’s original plan for our planet: God is love (1 John 4:16).

There is only one question left: Is natural selection natural? The obvious answer would be yes, because it is found in nature. Natural selection entered the world with sin and is now part of nature, but fortunately it is only a small part of it. If we contemplate the natural world carefully, we find many evidences of how the creation was and how it should be. Ecosystems function because many different organisms collaborate with each other, plants and animals help each other, and animals living in social groups show empathic and even altruistic behaviors. God created the world out of love and with love, and that is something that not even several thousand years of sin and natural selection can erase.

  1. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: A Variorum Peckham (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959).
  2. Ibid.
  3. E. Janet Browne, The Power of Place, vol. 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 200.
  4. http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/what-did-darwin-believe-article, accessed April 2021.
  5. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 57.
  6. Ariel A. Roth, “Chance or Design? The Long Search for an Evolutionary Mechanism,” Dialogue 12, no. 1 (2000): 9-12, 29, available at https://dialogue.adventist.org/645/chance-or-design-the-long-search-for-an-evolutionary-mechanism; Leonard Brand and Arthur Chadwick, Faith, Reason, and Earth History, 3rd ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2016); Michael J. Behe, Darwin Devolves (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2019).

Research scientist Noemí Durán directs the Inter-European Division branch office of the Geoscience Research Institute, Sagunto, Spain.