Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Evolution and Progress
distributed 2/8/13 - ©2013

Over the next few days, about 600 congregations in the United States will observe "Evolution Weekend". In classes and worship, they are claiming "an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science." That's a very worthwhile, and challenging, conversation to have in churches.

An affirmation of evolution -- in the broadest sense -- may be very important as our culture tries to cope with the eco-justice crises that are deepening around the planet. We can find hopeful and helpful opportunities for change if we choose evolution over progress. The two are often seen as closely linked, but there are important differences. Clinging to progress will doom us; evolution can open fresh possibilities.

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I'm sure you've seen some variation of the classic illustration of human evolution, a sequence of five images moving from an ape to a modern human -- almost always ending with a white male, by the way. The picture is well enough known that it is widely lampooned -- leading to Homer Simpson, for example, or showing the end as a step "backward" into someone slouched over a computer.

Biologists generally don't like that image of human evolution, because it suggests a fairly linear progression toward a specified goal -- a goal which happens to be us. That idea of progress is the way some religious folk have pulled together faith and evolution, by seeing God's guiding hand in the process. (In 2011, I critiqued the notion of humans as the intentional pinnacle of creation, writing about "a hymn that made me gag.")

When evolution is seen as progress toward a goal, then the thing that evolves is seen as improving, becoming more advanced, becoming "better" with each change. We have a pretty clear idea of what is good, and we take delight as things move toward that goal. So, from our perspective, the "most evolved" species are seen as big-brained mammals.

The problem is, most scholars of evolution reject the notion of a goal. Evolution is about change and adaptation, but not about progress. Evolution selects the creatures that are best adapted for their present situation, which may or may not be a path to future success.

If you really want to stretch your brain about evolution, read Steven Jay Gould's book, "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History." His title draws on the familiar Jimmy Stewart movie, and the idea that if you could re-play history, it probably would not turn out the same way. Re-running billions of years of evolution would come up with a very different world, quite possibly one without humans.

I considered myself very well versed in evolutionary biology, and Gould's book really shook up my thinking when I read it 20 years ago. There are definite theological challenges to non-directed evolution, and there are wonderful ways that Christianity can bring good news within that worldview.

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So, what does this have to do with environmental activism and social change? How does evolution -- in culture, not biology -- open up different possibilities than progress?

Our modern culture is fixated on progress, on moving toward a goal, and that "progress" generally is defined in ways that leads to devastating creation. In common usage, progress is about growing the economy, having more stuff, using more technology, and exerting more control over nature. (I fleshed out that idea in "Progress-ive Values".)

When our culture has such a clear and firmly held notion of progress, we're unlikely to change direction. If our definitions of improvement are to do even more of what is causing the problem, then we're in big trouble.

But if we can see evolution as adaptation and fitness, instead of progress and improvement, then we're able to explore fresh possibilities. Indeed, humans have been such a "successful" species because we are remarkably adaptable, not because we're able to prosper in only one climate, or with one kind of food. Evolving and adapting, instead of progressing, allows dramatic changes, both personally and culturally.

Let me give a very personal example. My professional journey has been one of evolution and adaptation, not progress -- and it has been a wonderful journey! As a youth, I planned to be a doctor. In college, I felt the pull toward ministry and shifted direction. After 10 years as a pastor, I made another big change and went back to school for studies in religion and social change. That was followed by a stretch doing consulting and computer work with non-profit agencies. Then -- I won't say "finally"! -- I started Eco-Justice Ministries.

All of those turns in my career path were dramatic shifts. They each required that I discard a long-held goal, a definition of success, and a path that I had called "progress." Each turn was a time of adaptation to changes in my life and in the world. I could never have envisioned or predicted where my life has taken me. This has not been a thought out or intentional movement toward a personal career goal. It has been an evolutionary process, not a linear work of progress. And I know of countless others who have similar life journeys of evolutionary change.

I'm suggesting that our modern culture needs to do a similar thing in letting go of what we have called "progress", and entering into the adventurous spirit of evolution. An evolutionary approach allows us to look honestly and seriously at the world around us, and it calls us to consider how we might live most appropriately in this world.

Our culture's definition of progress is leading us ever-deeper into catastrophe. We are destroying the basis of our own future, and devastating the world around us. We need to let go of the goals that have shaped us, and adapt to this radically new situation. We need to evolve into a different sort of culture -- or a variety of cultures -- that are sustainable.

James Gustave Speth wrote, "all we have to do to destroy the planet's climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today." The vision and values that we have called "progress" are no longer appropriate.

Evolution gives us a different framework for understanding our choices. Just as species have evolved in relation to their environment, and just as many people have had evolutionary change in their lives, so too can cultures adapt and evolve. We can let go of our flawed notion of "progress" with the assurance that change can be life-giving.

The Christian gospel is full of promises about change -- that we can be "made new", that we can choose between life and death, that love can break into the world and transform it. That change is impossible if we cling to the vision of progress that is leading us into destruction. So I pray that we may change, that we may evolve, that we may become something new and different and wonderful.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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