Is Evolution Compatible with Creation?
(how can the "cruelty and waste" of evolution be reconciled with creation by a good god?)
Degeneration or Progress in History?
There is certainly a conflict between science and religion if the texts of most religions are taken literally because most religions originated long before the idea of evolution was taken seriously. Many of them present the history of the world as a degeneration from a golden age. Far from evolving or improving, in their view things are progressively getting worse.
Traditional Hindu texts speak of this as the age of Kali, the worst of the four ages of the cosmos, which is destined to end in degradation and chaos. Traditional Buddhism predicts a slide into ignorance, until Buddhism itself disappears, only to be renewed by the appearance of some future Buddha. Judaism and Christianity speak of Adam and Eve in a "garden of bliss," not having to work, surrounded by fruit and vegetables, beyond the reach of disease and death. Things have certainly gotten worse since then. Even the site of the garden has been lost; its gates are guarded by angels with flaming swords; and death, pain, and labor are parts of the human lot, punishments for the sins of our first parents.
Philosophers in all these traditions know how to read the scriptures metaphorically and are rarely committed to such literal readings. Nevertheless, they often have a more sophisticated reading of the degeneration thesis. For Thomas Aquinas, the best-known medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian, all efficient causes must contain as much reality as their effects: "[A]ny perfection found in an effect must be found also in the cause. . . . [E]ffects obviously preexist potentially in their causes" (Summa Theologiae, ia, question 4, article 2).
It is the word obviously in this quotation that brings out the difference between the medieval view that the greater cannot come from the less and the modern evolutionary view that it obviously does. For a modern evolutionist, more complex and organized things "obviously" have developed from simpler and less organized things. So, the best explanation of the integrated complexity of things in our universe is given in terms of very simple initial states and a few laws of nature. The simple explains the complex, as a long cumulative build-up of simple and transitory elements produces more complex and enduring entities.
To a medieval philosopher, this argument is not at all obvious. In the first of his "Five Ways for Demonstrating the Existence of God," Aquinas says that "to cause change is to bring into being what was previously only able to be, and this can only be done by something that already is" (Summa, ia, question 2, article 3). Something can only become hot, he says, if it is caused to do so by something that is already at least as hot.
If this is accepted, it seems to follow that complex things can only be caused by even more complex things and that God, the first cause, will have to be more perfect and real than anything God causes. It may also seem that stupid people can only be caused by even more stupid people and that God must be the most stupid, as well as the cleverest, being there is. To get around this, Aquinas has to argue that stupidity is not a positive quality. It is just an absence of cleverness. But God should also be the reddest and bluest and greenest of all things or perhaps the most brightly colored thing there is. To a modern mind the argument sounds very fishy (perhaps God is also the fishiest thing there is?).
What is interesting to a historian of ideas, however, is the contrast between a medieval and ancient Greek view that all good things must spring from a reality of greater goodness or perfection and the evolutionary, post-nineteenth century view that very complex and good things can develop from simpler and less perfect forms of being.