Of Home

The Flannery O'Connor Repository

index o'connor biography online articles other sites books about this site

Evolution: Part of God's Grandeur
© 18 May 2003, Stephen Sparrow

An itching curiosity that won't go away is the only thing that qualifies me to write this essay. The title says it all and for those on either side of the certainty fence it will doubtless be a "turn off". I am referring here to people who are certain there is no such thing as God; or to those who are equally certain that God exists and six thousand years ago, He sat down and fashioned Adam from a lump of clay. So if you are uncomfortable in either of these two camps, there's nothing to fear in reading on.

No reasonable person can deny the facts surrounding evolution. Evolution itself is a fact. The evidence is all around us. Starlings and seagulls are birds, oaks and cedars are trees, while cats and rats are mammals. Birds have beaks, feathers and lay eggs; trees have roots, trunks, stems and leaves; while mammals are warm blooded, have four limbs and suckle their young: and all of them have DNA1, and so do you and I. Any doubts on evolution lie not with evolution itself but rather with how things began evolving. As G. K. Chesterton2 once pointed out, evolution is not a principle of life but an agent for change; in other words evolution is a mechanism for change and in order for something to change it has to be something to begin with.

The story of evolution starts with the Old Testament book of "Genesis"3, that allegorical story of sublime beauty telling the tale of creation in such a way that its meaning becomes accessible to both children and adults. For children it is a plain statement of who made the world and how it was made; and for adults it should be a mythical allegory clothed with layer upon layer of symbolism and analogy all united in a poem of pure genius that yields the mystery of creation to anyone prepared to contemplate it. And contemplation of "Genesis" complements, rather than contradicts, the data compiled by those scientists who use only physical measurement and comparison in their quest for answers.

From the first verses of "Genesis" we learn that God created the heavens and the earth (the Universe) and "the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep and God's spirit hovered over the water." In other words God's creative omnipotence was present, as it had always existed.

Moving on to the New Testament; the first three verses of the "Gospel of St John"4 use a starkly simple and beautiful formula to describe both God's creation and the Divinity of Jesus Christ:

In the beginning was the word :
the word was with God
and the word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through Him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him .

Leaping further ahead, twelve hundred years in fact, we come to The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri5 and this inspired insight shows up in Canto VII of "Paradiso", lines 139 and 140.

The soul of every animal and plant
Is drawn from its compounded potency

There are probably numerous other references in literature pointing to the potential for nature to evolve but by far the most important in recent times are the 19th Century scientific findings of Charles Darwin6 and Alfred Wallace7. The facts are well known. Darwin received what 19th century scientist J. B. S. Haldane dubbed “a blinding flash of the obvious” after studying the finches of the Galapagos Islands, while Wallace had spent nearly ten years collecting zoological specimens throughout Malaysia, Indonesia and the Amazon Basin. Darwin named his theory “Natural Selection” and Wallace called his “The Survival of The Fittest” Both men had converged on the same idea that organisms responded to changing environmental pressures by either adapting and speciating, or dying out altogether. Neither Darwin nor Wallace knew of each other’s work. Darwin’s conclusions predated Wallace’s but for some years he kept them to himself, feeling uneasy about their public reception. Wallace however knew Darwin by reputation and wrote to him with his findings. Darwin was stunned by Wallace’s letter and especially at the prospect of playing second fiddle to the younger man, but with the help of two prominent scientist friends (Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker) a compromise was reached and a joint scientific paper on the development of species through natural selection was presented at a meeting of London’s Linnaean Society on July 1st 1858. Because of his two popular books, (The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man) Darwin is better known than Wallace.

When The Origin of Species went on sale in 1859, its effect on the general public was both electric and controversial. Almost immediately there was a palpable excitement in the air as if at long last Man was on the verge of uncovering all the mysteries of life. For the worshippers of the "new" theory, the creation story in the book of "Genesis" had become no more than a quaint fable and God was declared officially dead. Many people found this attitude offensive, while others were pleased by it, but neither Darwin nor Wallace, to their credit, appears to have become involved in this public theological squabble. Darwin even concluded The Origin of Species with his opinion that God was the first cause of all things. Nevertheless it has been suggested that family and social pressures played a significant part in Darwin ending his book on that note.

However, Darwin had overlooked one important thing and that was how much of an exception Man was to the theory of evolution. By contrast Wallace was aware that the language and culture component of Man's makeup did not fit with Darwin's view. (Of course, language and culture includes justice, religion and art.) Darwin seemed hemmed in by his animal studies, whereas Wallace intuitively knew that all Mankind, from the most "primitive" to the most technologically advanced, used language and symbols to form a culture. In addition, there was no apparent difference in either the structure or size of the human brain between natives who hunted and gathered for a living in Tierra del Fuego, and a modern European who might have played and composed music in a 19th century university town. How did that fit with Darwin's theory given the completely different environments in which these two groups lived? To this day nobody has come up with a credible answer, probably because of the dubious assumption that hunting and gathering required less brainpower than that needed for someone to live "comfortably" in a modern city. The one certainty is this: modern science can explain how mammals with brains evolved but modern science is completely clueless on how one mammal ended up with a mind. A vast amount of scientific data is known about the brain; but about the mind that gathers and comprehends this data; we can only speculate, with the added difficulty that any would be researcher has to try somehow to include himself in the same data he studies and reflects on: an act of intellectual contortion impossible for any sensible bystander to grasp. Anyway, as noted above, the controversy over evolutionary theory that erupted first in Victorian England incensed many people, but it seems highly likely that most of this hostility was based neither on theological (Biblical) grounds, nor scientific ones, but rather because of the infuriating thought that there might be an ape squatting high up in everyone's family tree. I suppose even misplaced pride fits in with God's plan; after all at least "Genesis" allows us to feel we can still hold our heads high no matter how badly Adam and Eve might have behaved.

The theory of evolution, as it became popularly known, opened up an enormous field of scientific endeavor fueled by speculation and the thought of reputations to be made. Because of all the brouhaha, we shouldn't be at all surprised at how many "followers" of the new theory embraced Atheism. The scientific prophets of the day imposed their own dogma on innocent people by hiding their "Faith" behind phraseological sleight of hand and scientism. After all, new fashions whether in clothing or ideas always attract the herd on the lookout for the latest fad. Sadly, these new prophets had willingly confused agent with principle. Their "evolutionary" cart if it was going to move anywhere needed a live horse between the shafts but these men found themselves enslaved to pride, stuck in the mud, unable or unwilling to admit that the new theory required something transcendental added to the front of it. Dante was right on target when he said: often happens that a quick opinion
Inclines in the wrong direction, and after that
The intellect is hampered by vanity. (Paradiso XIII: 118-120)

Now; nearly 150 years later; there is no doubt that Evolution has moved from being a theory, to being a fact. Scientific study of the fossil record and research into genetics has confirmed the general principle, although as noted above, Man with his language and culture is the exception. But, we do know for example that seventy five million years ago dinosaurs roamed the earth; and now they don't. What is not known is how everything started. What set Evolution going? Science within its limits has done well to point to some probable causes such as the Big Bang theory, but it must be kept in mind that not one single event in the universe happens without it conforming to the laws of physics, which presupposes the existence of a lawmaker. The truth of course lies hidden inside the mythic symbolism of "Genesis", but because of the nature of belief and absolute truth, none of us will ever know the answer in this life. But, remembering how the "try hard" atheists are always attempting to pull the rug from under those of us who believe in an omnipotent God, I think we should do the same to them. I think we should disturb their equilibrium and sow a few seeds of doubt among those who "rest" secure in their "faith." A faith I might add that holds fundamentally and dogmatically to the position that life has no meaning: and here is where I will introduce the person of Simone Weil.

French philosopher Simone Weil8 was a very canny lady whose rigorous honesty enabled her to see easily through any falsehood. Her background was both Jewish and agnostic and she displayed genuine brilliance while at university in Paris in the late 1920s. One profound thing she said was, "when a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door." And no group of people deserve to have that statement applied to them more forcefully than do scientists who try to evade or avoid the taking into account of anything transcendental when examining their data. Talking of science, Weil said, "a science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless." But she wasn't finished with scientists yet. They exasperated her with an often blinkered approach to their work. From the Weil collection published as The Need For Roots, she wrote, "as comedy, no dialogue of the deaf can compare with the polemic between the modern mind and the Church. The unbelievers select as arguments against the Christian faith, in the name of the scientific spirit, truths, which are indirectly, or even directly, manifest proof of the faith. Christians never perceive this and they make feeble attempts, with a bad conscience and a distressing lack of intellectual probity, to deny these truths." The controversy that still simmers over evolution is a classic example of that truism. Now consider this piece of vintage Weil from Oppression and Liberty: "One could count on one's fingers the number of scientists in the entire world who have a general idea of the history and development of their own particular science; there is not one who is really competent as regards sciences other than his own. As science forms an indivisible whole, one may say that there are no longer, strictly speaking, any scientists, but only drudges doing scientific work."

Okay, that's enough ridicule for now so let's get down to the nitty gritty of why Simone Weil felt this way about dubious science and dubious scientists. Weil, from a position of neutrality could see both sides of the barricade. On one side crouched modern science attempting to use evolution as a crutch to help provide an explanation and final solution for existence, while on the other side stood religion, stubbornly defiant and refusing to give up on God as the author of life.

Simone Weil had good reasons for holding the opinions she did. It all boiled down to the apparent dichotomy between evolution/natural selection; or force as she called it, and the principle of justice (and mercy), and I'm sure if Alfred Wallace was alive today he would agree that justice and mercy were part and parcel of language and culture. Anyway, Simone Weil noted the tremendous prestige of science and spoke of how: 

It has been assuring us that force is what really governs all phenomena. [But] It is affirmed at the same time--and in the same breath--that human relations should be founded on justice. This is a flagrant absurdity. It is inconceivable that everything in the universe should be entirely subjected to the rule of force and that man should alone be exempted from it...

There is only one possible choice to be made. Either a different principle must be perceived at work in the universe, alongside force, or force must be recognized as being the unique and sovereign ruler over human relations. The former possibility is in opposition to science as Galileo, Descartes and Newton founded it: the latter, is irrevocably opposed to humanism. To admit both at once, is to submit to a lie... Force is not a machine for automatically creating justice. It is a blind mechanism which produces indiscriminately and impartially just or unjust results, but, by the laws of probability, nearly always unjust ones...

Where force is absolutely sovereign, justice is absolutely unreal. This we know experimentally. Justice is real, deep in the hearts of men.... If justice cannot be erased from the heart of Man, it must have a reality in this world. It is science, then, which is mistaken. Not science, to be precise, but modern science.

That long quote of Weil's is from a biography of her written by Jacques Cabaud9 and it effectively demolishes any idea that justice and mercy could have evolved. In effect it says that if there is no God then this world is ruled by force alone. If no just and merciful God exists, then why should any of us be just and merciful, and why should we expect justice and mercy from anyone else? So let's look at the stance of the Atheistic evolutionist who believes stuff like this and who blithely tells us that justice came about as a result of evolutionary progression: that justice is genetic. Are we not entitled to ask about the possibility of cloning justice? Yeah, let's all celebrate the arrival of "Survival of the Nicest"; "Survival of the Most Just". We all know that Adolf Hitler10 tried to achieve it, admittedly using extremely crude and barbaric methods. But, there are even more objections to the ridiculous idea of genetic justice. What did justice evolve from? What was justice before it became justice? I didn't see anybody's hand shoot up with an answer. So let's fill in the blank spaces with some common sense.

In reality, freewill and justice are different aspects of the same thing. Neither can exist without the other. Justice is the only object of freewill and freewill is the only means by which justice is achieved. The idea that justice is a product of evolutionary natural selection is impossible since it must be remembered that evolution/natural selection always works to the advantage of the best adapted organism-- i.e. the strongest and fittest. Justice reverses that bias by proclaiming the sacredness of all human life from the very weakest and most defenseless to the strongest. Given the way in which evolution is perceived as operating, justice could never have evolved. The first intimation of it would have seen justice eliminated.

In any competition, the strong win out and the weak go to the wall. But justice is divine and its visible strength lies in its role of defending the defenseless and that role rests with the free will of individual human beings. As I said earlier, without freewill there could be no such thing as justice and of course without justice, free will would be an absurdity. The two are bound together like husband and wife. And so, as Simone Weil said, "if justice cannot be erased from the heart of Man, it must have a reality in this world." So question: where did justice come from? Answer: justice has its roots in God; a just God is a loving God. I think it is safe to say that the principle of justice can only have come through God and the corollary is that when it comes to the propensity for loving or hating, the human heart is the same now as it always was and evolution has had nothing to do with it.

Evolution resembles a journey; which, like all journeys, brings about change. Assuming typical development and lifespan; individual organisms such as mammals are conceived, born, grow, mature, fail and die in much the same way as species arrive on the scene and disappear. Dinosaurs once "ruled" the earth only to be replaced by the mammals and the human journey is definitely one of evolution; a journey in which, in various ways, we grow and mature physically, psychologically and also spiritually if we open ourselves to God's grace; until such time as we encounter those last four things; i.e. death, judgment, heaven and hell. As human beings we are the only organism in the world that indulges in art, forms councils, passes legislation and celebrates occasions. We are the only organism that can embrace a fear of itself, admit to being bored, commit murder or suicide, lie or tell the truth. In our fallen state, we do our best to "force" our version of justice on others because so often we forget or reject the loving example and teaching of Jesus Christ. Another instance of our human uniqueness is our impatience and our intolerance of mystery. We have to know everything. Like Adam and Eve, we have an insatiable curiosity and, especially, we want to know the purpose of this world. Why we are here? Where are we going? And that's not unreasonable either; after all we are endowed with the faculty of reason (a mind) to help us to know God and to know of His plan for each of us. But, since The Fall, we won't find those answers on our own and as all questions are in reality the start of a journey, we must return to the beginning for answers. In other words, we must return to sacred scripture; the book of "Genesis"; the story of creation and that ancient rebellion.

But I hear people asking, "if God is really God; why is He so coy about allowing us to know the answer; why are we barred in this life from seeing the complete picture?" That really is the mystery isn't it? Again the answer lies with "Genesis"; the dogma of The Fall. Dogma that is the guardian to that mystery. If you hate dogma, you've got no starting point, and remember that scientists also have dogmatic starting points; even if their dogma is only that they oppose the acceptance of all other dogma. Undoubtedly the human inhabitants of the Garden of Eden did at one time have most of the picture; well, they had their innocence anyway; and then went and lost it. But many people won't wear that story. As far as they're concerned, their ancestors undoubtedly strolled out of that garden to God's applause and still dressed in ball gowns and tuxedoes. If we really think like that, we're well on the way to thinking we can perfect ourselves totally unaided, aren't we? And doesn't that make you wonder about all of history; about how long the human race has been on its quest for perfection and especially about the blood soaked state of the last hundred years? Our failure to achieve "perfection" doesn't bear thinking about, does it? No wonder we're an angry mixed up bunch. The existence of evil and what it drags in its wake-- e.g. hatred, vengeance and cruelty--constitute a proof if you like of each human being's need for redemption. But what say God stopped being coy and played "fair" with us and in this life gave us "proof " of His humanity-- i.e. the divinity of Jesus Christ? The major result would surely be that all of our freedom would vanish. Everyone would rush to believe and the "society of the most just" would have arrived! As Charles Péguy11 said, "until the Day of Judgment, when they will no longer be necessary. Christianity's best proof, its only proof, is not to offer proofs. Otherwise there would be no liberty for Man."

To be either a Christian or an Atheist requires an act of faith; a leap in the dark. At least the Christian acknowledges this leap may end in his being caught by God, and yet, if the Atheist seeks truth with a pure heart, he will also end up in God's loving clasp. As St Edith Stein12 wrote in 1938, "God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not." The question becomes the start of the journey and the answer becomes the journey's end. Cervantes13 said, "the road is better than the inn." I'm sure he meant that life is a challenge we must all rise to meet, and it's only when our lives end that we arrive at the innkeeper's door. Whether we gain admittance depends on how we've met the challenge: a perspective backed by Flannery O'Connor14, who bluntly stated that, "redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live."

Evolutionary science is not something to be afraid of, rather it is something to celebrate as evidence of one of the the myriad ways in which God displays his omnipotence and divine love. Evolution, as an agent of change, works through this concrete natural world helping us understand our spiritual destiny; and death is not the end but rather entry into the supernatural world where God's infinite love waits those who have been seeking Him. Dorothy Sayers15 put it this way: "The Church asserts that there is a mind which made the universe, that He made it because He is the sort of mind that takes pleasure in creation, and that if we want to know what the mind of the creator is, we must look at Christ. In Him, we shall discover a mind that loved His own creation so completely that He became a part of it, suffered with and for it, and made it a sharer in His own glory and a fellow worker with Himself in the working out of His own design for it."

Simone Weil, like many others; deserves to be thanked for her courage and honesty in pointing out how the knowledge of evolution, in particular, was being abused instead of being used properly to contemplate the beauty and the order and the harmony of God's creation; a creation so wonderful and overwhelming that Dante was moved to end his magnificent poem with these famous last four lines:

At this point high imagination failed;
But already my desire and my will
Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
By the love that moves the sun and the other stars.


1. DNA: Deoxyribonucleic Acid; a complex molecule found in all living cells.
2. Chesterton, Gilbert Keith 1874-1936: popular English writer, poet, thinker and devout Christian convert
3. "Genesis": First Book of Old Testament. Jerusalem Bible version.
4. "Gospel of St John": Fourth Book of New Testament. Jerusalem Bible version.
5. Dante Alighieri 1265-1321: Italian Poet; author of The Divine Comedy.
6. Darwin, Charles Robert 1809-1882: British Scientist & Naturalist who became famous for his theories on evolution.
7. Wallace, Alfred Russel 1823-1913: British Naturalist & Explorer who independently arrived at the same conclusion regarding evolution as Darwin.
8. Weil, Simone 1909-1943: French philosopher, background Jewish and agnostic. Made her own way to Christianity but was never baptized. Much of her Christian philosophy lay unpublished in various manuscripts and notebooks until ten years after her death.
9. Cabaud, Jacques. Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love. London: Harvill Press, 1964.
10. Hitler, Adolf 1889-1945: Dictator of Germany 1933-1945. Founder of Nazi Party. Under his authority twelve million people--half of them Jews from all over Europe--were exterminated during World War II.
11. Péguy, Charles 1874-1914: French poet and thinker. "Clio I", extract from Temporal and Eternal. English edition. Harvil Press, 1954.
12. St Edith Stein 1891-1942: German and Jewish. Philosopher & Carmelite Nun martyred for both her faith and ethnicity at Auschwitz in early August 1942. Extract from letter 259 in Self Portrait In Letters. Washington DC: ICS Publications
13. Don Miguel de Cervantes 1547-1616: Author of Don Quixote.
14. O'Connor, Flannery 1925-1964: American award winning short story writer and novelist. Extract from "The Fiction Writer And His Country." Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988.
15. Sayers, Dorothy 1893-1967: Distinguished author and playwright. Born in Oxford, England. Won a scholarship to Oxford University and was one of its first women graduates. Extract from Creed or Chaos. Harcourt Brace, 1949. 

Further reading

Chesterton, G.K. "St Thomas Aquinas." The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton Vol. 2. Ignatius Press, 1987. (especially chapter entitled "The Permanent Philosophy".)

Walker Percy. Lost In The Cosmos. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Poems by C. S. Lewis and Robert Frost addressing evolution.

Sparrow, Stephen. "Goaded or Guided"


1995: Brian Collier and Comforts of Home

Contact the site administrator:

Home Page | O'Connor Biography | Online Articles | Offline Articles | Other O'Connor Sites | Books | About the Site