Natural Selection: Rough and Essential?

When I first studied “natural selection,” the immediate thought that would cross my mind is, “nature’s selection.” Organisms that are better adapted to their environment are more likely to reproduce. These are the creatures that nature selects. Without a doubt, mother nature’s choices seem harsh. This was my initial judgement when I began to explore the philosophical and spiritual implications of evolution.

Our current understanding is that natural selection is reality. Yet, the majority of us (myself included!) close the door to terribly uncomfortable realities. We compartmentalize. On the one hand, the world is a harsh, dog-eat-dog place. On the other hand, most of us believe that God loves us, and we try to love others. Over the years, I have continued to wrestle with these two realities. Perhaps, you have too. That is why I am choosing to explore several philosophical—or more specifically, theistic evolutionist—reflections on potential purposes behind the creation of natural selection. The intersection between evolution and spirituality is a burgeoning area of philosophy, and I would argue that the scholarship has been slow to emerge because of our reluctance to come into contact with a theory in which opinions range from skepticism, to devotion, to utter fear. The latter emotion should not be dominant for those who believe that humans are uniquely created by a loving God who is sovereign over all creation. Mother nature is harsh and beautiful. But, she is only one of God’s creations, so what do we have to fear?

Our survival instinct, in great part, arises out of natural selection. I was driving my car the other day, and a squirrel darted half way across the road and stopped. She stood there for a second and ran back the other way in front of my car (thankfully, I did not hit her!). In the moment, the squirrel is responding instinctually out of fear by freezing, then fleeing. Presumably, the squirrel was not able to carefully contemplate the best route to take because I could later prove that the squirrel’s route and pause were both inefficient. Our responses when we are terrified of a car hitting us are comparably automatic. Unlike the squirrel, our cortex is much more developed, our thoughts complex. Yet, not when we are panicking. Subcortical processes outpace the cortex, and blood flows to our limbs so we can take off running. Survival is part of life, and we are pretty good at it.

Taken from another angle, suicide is not an easy task to accomplish. In our core, we likely feel appalled or devastated when individuals are in such depths of suffering that they engage in a persistent struggle to end their lives. It is a terrible reality. My decision to mention suicide here (which should never be trivialized in any way) is that I have repeatedly questioned whether most of us would stick around if the survival instinct were significantly diminished. Our survival instinct is strong—enough to keep the average world life expectancy at 70 years.1 Interestingly, with approximately 72% of the United States believing in heaven2 (here denoting the existence of a positive afterlife), the need for a strong survival instinct becomes all the more salient when we are having a less-than-heavenly day. Perhaps we have a special obligation to fulfill our purpose on this Earth before moving on? Regardless of the reason, our survival instinct rooted in natural selection ensures that the vast majority of us will not decide the exact time and place of our death. We are destined to keep journeying on this Earth.

Speaking of choice (or the lack thereof), human free will may be intricately connected to natural selection. Emphasis must be placed on human free will because, at first glance, natural selection appears to mesh well with more deterministic philosophies. Natural selection describes how organisms adapt to the environment, and this process (at its extreme) has been interpreted as the absence of free will by influential psychologists like BF Skinner due to the way the environment shapes our behavior. Nevertheless, the way of defining free will that is relevant to spiritual inquiry emphasizes choices such as sacrificially loving others, rather than blinking your eye when a fly buzzes in your face.

Interestingly, and here your personal views of evolution may color your understanding, the cortices (involved in higher thinking and decision-making) evolved after the subcortical, emotionally-dominant regions of the brain. Thus, nature’s selection led to the development of the cortical processes that can override automatic-subcortical responses. In other words, self-control can override binge eating; sacrifice can override romantic love. This is not the case with lower organisms. Mother nature undermined herself by allowing us to sometimes choose over and above nature’s selection.

Natural selection may promote the survival instinct and free will, but can we really make any moral judgements about this naturalistic phenomenon? Or, are we wasting cognitive effort trying to analyze natural phenomena through a moral lens? Given our inevitable resistance to the aspects of reality that we find to be painful, I would propose that our biases against natural selection may be underexplored. And our presumptions concerning the moral implications of natural selection do impact our theological (or atheological) beliefs. Note that moral judgements are being made about the implications of natural selection, rather than a critique of the scientific phenomenon itself.

Traditionally, we are told that natural selection is as cold as death, but the philosophical basis behind this assertion is ripe to be challenged. Gravity sucks when you misstep on a ladder, but we must remember that gravity keeps our planet orbiting the sun. Natural selection is deadly when a microbe evolves resistance to our antibiotics, but great when the majority of the human race has evolved an immune system that systematically responds to attack an infecting virus.3 Questions then arise along the lines of, “Do we need suffering or the survival instinct to become human beings with some type of free will?” and “Does God view naturalistic suffering differently than humans view pain in the natural world?” These questions are beyond the scope of this post, but I hope that you are inspired to keep exploring. My argument is that natural selection cannot be classified exclusively in the negative category before exploring the depths of its implications. Sometimes mother nature makes us feel absolutely horrified, and sometimes we are stunned by her beauty. But, one thing remains clear: natural selection has a complex relationship with suffering, pleasure, fear, free will, and survival: all of which deserve to be explored in further depth.

  1. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015, July 29). “United Nations World Population Prospects: 2015 revision” (PDF). UN. 

  2. Murphy, C. (2015, November 10). Most Americans believe in heaven … and hell. Retrieved from 

  3. This example is from my biology professor. She is an immunologist. A. Montel, personal communication, August 2, 2018.