Francisco Ayala's Problem with Evil and Design

Francisco Ayala, who recently debated William Lane Craig on the viability of ID, has written a review of Stephen Meyer’s prominent book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. The publication of this book has led to a flurry of exchanges among proponents of evolution and ID, but that will have to be the topic for some other time. In this post I mainly want to focus on two key points that Ayala makes in his review, which he also used in his debate with Craig. An earlier post offers some of the responses from Craig, Bradley Monton (the moderator), and others following the debate, which may provide some background and context for my following comments.

In both the debate and his review, Ayala brings up the argument of flawed design. From his review:

But humans are chock-full of design defects. We have a jaw that is not sufficiently large to accommodate all of our teeth, so that wisdom teeth have to be removed and other teeth straightened by an orthodontist. Our backbone is less than well designed for our bipedal gait, resulting in back pain and other problems in late life. The birth canal is too narrow for the head of the newborn to pass easily through it, so that millions of innocent babies—and their mothers—have died in childbirth throughout human history.

I could go on about human features that betray a design that certainly is not intelligent….
Ayala cites these examples to argue that God could not have had a hand in designing these features. Though I haven’t looked into the particular examples that Ayala raises here, I wouldn’t be surprised if they can be addressed in a manner similar to how I examined the more common examples of the “flawed” vertebrate eye and the human breathing system (and the follow-up).

What’s interesting to me is that, whereas atheists cite “design flaws” to argue that a Creator God does not exist (or is not very intelligent), Ayala argues that attributing biological design to God actually goes against the Christian belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God. He concludes his review with the following:
More that [sic] twenty percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion during the first two months of pregnancy. That is because the human genome, the human reproductive system, is so poorly designed. Do I want to attribute this egregiously defective design to God, to the omnipotent and benevolent God of the Christian faith? No, I don’t. It would not do to say that God designed intelligently the human genome and that it then decayed owing to natural processes. If God would have designed the human genome, surely He would have done it so that this enormous misfortune would not happen. Think of it: twenty percent of all human pregnancies amount to twenty million abortions every year. I shudder at the thought of this calamity being attributed to God’s specific design of the human genome. To me, this attribution would amount to blasphemy.

Before the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the like were attributed to direct action by God, so that the tsunami that five years ago killed two hundred fifty thousand Sumatrans might have been interpreted as God’s punishment. Now we know that these catastrophes are the result of natural processes. Similarly, people of faith would do better to attribute the mishaps caused by defective genomes to the vagaries of natural selection and other processes of biological evolution, rather than to God’s design.
This is similar to the theological problem of evil argument that Ayala spent much of his time elaborating on in the debate with Craig. In the debate, Ayala also made a big deal of his claim that if God designed the "flawed" human reproductive system, then God would be responsible for over 20 million spontaneous abortions a year.

First, I consider it highly specious for Ayala to consider these spontaneous abortions as an egregious wrong when he himself seems in favor of embryonic stem cell research that could potentially involve the deliberate destruction of hundreds of thousands of living human embryos.

Second, I am not convinced that Ayala's theistic evolution position fares any better in resolving the theological problem of evil. It is helpful here to understand how Ayala views God's role in creation.

During the Q&A session of the debate with Craig, Ayala was asked a very interesting question: "How can you say that God is not the designer of organisms, while still saying that you believe in God? What is God's role?"

In his response Ayala used the analogy of genetic programs and drew a distinction between being the designer of the digital organisms versus being the designer of the program. He claimed that God can be the designer of the universe without being the designer of each individual organism. From this Ayala argued since God did not actually create the organism, this freed God from being responsible for the flaws in the resulting organism.

But as Craig pointed out in his rebuttal, this does not avoid the problem of evil, because even if God only designed the "program" (ie the rules governing evolution by natural selection), God would still be complicit in the results of said program. So God could still be found responsible for the examples of suffering that Ayala believed were problematic for ID. Simply ascribing these "mishaps" to the "vagaries of natural selection and other processes of biological evolution" does not absolve God if He caused these processes of biological evolution. Who do we blame when Windows crashes? We don't blame the software, we blame the Microsoft programmers who designed the software.

In addition, the "flawed design" argument could just as easily be applied to Ayala's position, for if the examples of design flaws that Ayala described were truly flaws, then they came about as the result of the "program" that God wrote, which would mean that God wrote a flawed program. Ayala's claim that, "If God would have designed the human genome, surely He would have done it so that this enormous misfortune would not happen" could be validly rephrased as: "If God designed the mechanism for evolution, surely He would have done it so that this enormous misfortune would not happen." So if Ayala believes that God had any hand in the creation of the universe, then the theological problem of evil applies just as forcefully to his position.

Time and space do not permit even the beginnings of a positive response to the theological problem of evil. The purpose of this post is simply to show that Ayala's position does not avoid the same theological issues he raises against ID, and I remain unconvinced by his argument that theistic evolution is a more theologically sound alternative.

For further reading:
Tom Gilson also addresses Ayala's problem of evil argument in his review at Thinking Christian of Ayala’s book, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion.

Another commentary on Ayala's review which also questions whether theistic evolution answers the problem of evil can be found at The Design Spectrum.

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