January 20, 2021

Ron Rolheiser: Evolution’s Ultimate Wisdom


The other day I quoted from an article by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser. I was so impressed by what he said, even though it was stated simply and briefly in a blog post, that I wrote for permission to re-post the piece in its entirety here at Internet Monk. Because I quoted from this and used its ideas last week, I will refrain from any further comments at this point, and we will have another post this afternoon to complement it.

• • •

Evolution’s Ultimate Wisdom
by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser

Evolution, Charles Darwin famously stated, works through the survival of the fittest. Christianity, on the other hand, is committed to the survival of the weakest. But how do we square our Christian ideal of making a preferential option for the weak with evolution?

Nature is evolutionary and, inside of that, we can perceive a wisdom that clearly manifests intelligence, intent, spirit, and design. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than how in the process of evolution we see nature becoming ever-more unified, complex, and conscious.

However, how God’s intelligence and intent are reflected inside of that is not always evident because nature can be so cruel and brutal. In order to survive, every element in nature has to be cannibalistic and eat other parts of nature. Only the fittest get to survive. There’s a harsh cruelty in that. In highlighting how cruel and unfair nature can be, commentators often cite the example of the second pelican born to white pelicans. Here’s how cruel and unfair is its situation:

Female white pelicans normally lay two eggs, but they lay them several days apart so that the first chick hatches several days before the second chick. This gives the first chick a head-start and by the time the second chick hatches, the first chick is bigger and stronger. It then acts aggressively towards the second chick, grabbing its food and pushing it out of the nest. There, ignored by its mother, the second chick normal dies of starvation, despite its efforts to find its way back into the nest. Only one in ten second chicks survives. And here’s nature’s cruel logic in this: That second chick is hatched by nature as an insurance-policy, in case the first chick is weak or dies. Barring that, it is doomed to die, ostracized, hungry, blindly grasping for food and its mother’s attention as it starves to death. But this cruelty works as an evolutionary strategy. White pelicans have survived for thirty million years, but at the cost of millions of its own species dying cruelly.

A certain intelligence is certainly evident in this, but where is the compassion? Did a compassionate God really design this? The intelligence in nature’s strategy of the survival of the fittest is clear. Each species, unless unnaturally interfered with from the outside, is forever producing healthier, more robust, more adaptable members. Such, it seems, is nature’s wisdom and design – up to a point.

Certain scientists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggest that physical evolution has reached its apex, its highest degree of unity, complexity and consciousness, inside the central nervous system and brain of the human person and that evolution has now taken a leap (just as it did when consciousness leapt out of raw biology and as it did when self- consciousness leapt out of simple consciousness) so that now meaningful evolution is no longer about gaining further physical strength and adaptability. Rather meaningful evolution is now concerned with the social and the spiritual, that is, with social and spiritual strength.

14461561905_94a3f47945_zAnd in a Christian understanding of things, this means that meaningful evolution is now about human beings using their self-consciousness to turn back and help nature to protect and nurture its second pelicans. Meaningful evolution now is no longer about having the strong grow stronger, but about having the weak, that part of nature that nature herself, to this point, has not been able to nurture, grow strong.

Why? What’s nature’s interest in the weak? Why shouldn’t nature be happy to have the weak weeded out? Does God have an interest in the weak that nature does not?

No, nature too is very interested in the survival of the weak and is calling upon the help of human beings to bring this about. Nature is interested in the survival of the weak because vulnerability and weakness bring something to nature that is absent when it is only concerned with the survival of the fittest and with producing ever-stronger, more robust, and more adaptable species and individuals. What the weak add to nature are character and compassion, which are the central ingredients needed to bring about unity, complexity, and consciousness at the social and spiritual level.

When God created human beings at the beginning of time, God charged them with the responsibility of “dominion”, of ruling over nature. What’s contained in that mandate is not an order or permission to dominate over nature and use nature in whatever fashion we desire. The mandate is rather that of “watching over”, of tending the garden, of being wise stewards, and of helping nature do things that, in its unconscious state, it cannot do, namely, protect and nurture the weak, the second pelicans.

The second-century theologian, Irenaeus, once famously said: The glory of God is the human being fully alive! In our own time, Gustavo Gutierrez, generally credited with being the father of Liberation Theology, recast that dictum to say: The glory of God is the poor person fully alive!” And that is as well the ultimate glory of nature.

• • •

Used with permission of the author, Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser. Currently, Father Rolheiser is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio Texas. He can be contacted through his website, www.ronrolheiser.com. Facebook www.facebook.com/ronrolheiser


  1. Sounds nice, even spiritual, but assigning human characteristics to nature doesn’t make it true. Without self-awareness, compassion and empathy have no place. Sure, SOME animals exhibit something that looks like those traits, but that is only rarely seen.

    This seems more like wishful thinking.

    • Robert F says

      I agree with you, oscar. The personification of nature, and the idea that nature has some kind of personal interest in developing “character and compassion, which are the central ingredients needed to bring about unity, complexity, and consciousness at the social and spiritual level”, involves a lot of unwarranted projection of human traits on to the screen of non-human existence. The fact that he only refers to Teilhard de Chardin, who was not an evolutionary biologist but a paleontologist and geologist, to support his personification of nature’s supposed interest, at this point, in developing empathetic qualities highlights the weakness of his idea.

      Also, I don’t think evolutionary science supports the idea that biological evolution has reached its apex in humanity, and instead is now going over to the development of spiritual and social strength. To distinguish between “meaningful evolution”, which supposedly is now interested in development of spiritual and social qualities, and mere biological evolution, which he says has reached its terminus, is to introduce a principal into the scientific concept of biological evolution that is alien to it.

      This idea developed in the article amounts to special pleading grounded in religious interests alone, not in scientific observation.

    • Robert F says

      And I don’t see how this isn’t “god of the gaps” theology. We find an open gap in current scientific understanding where we can introduce our traditional ideas about God, and we insert them there, where they reside like an unwelcome house guest claiming relationship but bearing no resemblance to those who actually live there.

  2. I followed through and read this when you posted your original post. Very interesting. Especially the idea of humans as ‘anti-evolution’. Interesting also the idea that God didn’t create suffering, but that man didn’t live up to his role in ‘finishing’ creation. Though not sure how that would have worked out practically (lion and lamb?).

    Does anyone here know how much of this is original Ron Rolheiser, and how much is inherited from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? I realised that I have an unconscious residual prejudice against him from the heavily creationist readings of my distant youth. Maybe I should be remedying that.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Interesting also the idea that God didn’t create suffering, but that man didn’t live up to his role in ‘finishing’ creation.

      Sounds like the Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam.

    • “Interesting also the idea that God didn’t create suffering, but that man didn’t live up to his role in ‘finishing’ creation.

      The way I’ve read this series of posts, suffering and death have been inherent in the (incomplete) creation from the very beginning – the default mode so to speak.

  3. First. Kudos on an article referencing Pierre Tellhard de Chardin!
    Second, JS Spong in one of his books gives insite into the connection between religion and evolution. To summarize, evolution itself evolved from the survival of the strongest individual or clan to the survival of the species itself. For the species to survive, heroic, selfless acts are required. Religion, too, evolved from sectarian focus around tribal deities leading the victory against weaker opponents to a universal deity championing the survival of the species itself.

    Very simply, war, genocide, and sociopathy/selfishness in general threaten the very existence and future of the entire human species. Survival of the “fittest” of one clan against the other in a nuclear age threatens the species with extinction. The loss of one member who is physically unfit but contributed scientifically may endanger the overall survival of the species. The death of the one to save the many is not only noble but crucial for humanity to survive. Love, as a selfless focus on the needs of others, is quite compatible with evolution. Self-obsessed philosophies like that of Ayn Rand, are contrary to the survival of the human species, despite its claim to champion the survival of the fittest.

    • “To summarize, evolution itself evolved from the survival of the strongest individual or clan to the survival of the species itself. ”

      To which Richard Dawkins of The Selfish Gene would respond by simply allowing his head explode.

      I don’t have any strong opinions on the matter myself, but the idea of group selection vs. selection at the individual level remains very much contentious within evolutionary biology, from what I gather.

  4. Roger Goatse says

    The notion that evolution is teleological is not a scientific one, but rather belongs to the tradition of evolutionary woo that proceeds from Theosophy to Henri Bergson to Ken Wilber, and in which Fr. Teilhard fits rather comfortably. This is not to discount his scientific contributions, but these have to be distinguished from his theology.

    The above article additionally relies on theistic arguments that are now generally regarded as fallacious, and labors under the belief that evolutionary scientists have overlooked nurturing behavior in favor of Conan the Barbarian. (How very 19th century.) Beyond that, even if evolution can somehow be reconciled with God’s benevolence, this would hardly exhaust the problems of theodicy.

    • Exactly. As well, statements like, “[our calling is to] nurture and protect our second pelicans” fails to come to terms with the concept of biosphere and balance. If we actually did nurture and protect white pelicans, the results would likely be disastrous (I suspect this is a metaphor, but it is true of any biology).

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        Very practically, an exploding pelican population will strain fish stocks. But thwn we breed more fish. Ok, but are they going to eat? Well then we breed/grow more of that. … and quickly the whole thing becomes a little farcical.

        Also, a pet peeve: Fittest in “survival of the fittest” doesn’t necessarily imply strongest, fastest etc etc – it implies the one who fits best to the circumstances. Arcane use of the word “fittest”.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Actually, “fittest” means those more likely to reproduce and pass their DNA to offspring.

          • Not really. There has to be sustainability and scalability. Reproduction is one of the circumstances that makes a specie fit, but there are a good many others. For example, in the K/T ME, pterosaurs were not fit to survive, while small winged mammals were. Wasn’t related to proliferation, but external compatibility. Fwiw, the Permian ME wiped out 96% of species. All the proliferation we now witness came from only 4% of extant species at the time.

    • Robert F says

      This. Teleology can be read into evolutionary theory, but it has not been discovered by scientific research.

      • I would say that teleology cannot be discovered by scientific research, by construction, by definition.

  5. Okay, so lik six misunderstandings of evolution in this. One is that evolution moves toward an ‘apex’. Well no it doesn’t: all that defines evolutionary fitness is living long enough to reproduce. Every organism alive today is 100% ‘fit’ and 100% ‘well-adapted’. Humans are a fit species, but so is rock lichen and the several million diatoms you swallowed with your morning coffee.

    And that’s the other thing: Everyone assumes ‘survival of the fittest’ (which is something Darwin never wrote or said but came later) means brutality, amorality, devil-take-the-hindmost-ism. It doesn’t. To be sure, there is such a thing as predation but survival and ‘fitness’ as I said, actually requires very little violence. I may need to kill a cow or pig to feed my family (or maybe I don’t and can just get by eating plants) but, contra creationists, there is nothing in the theory of evolution that recommends barbed wire and Zyklon B.

    Oh and finally just to slay an urban myth: no, Mein Kampf was not dedicated to Darwin. In fact, works treating on ‘creative evolution’ were on this list of those to be burned by German students.

  6. It is very difficult to reconcile the loving all-seeing Abba of the New Testament with the blind* voracious mechanism of evolution. Did it really require 3.5 billion years of death suffering waste extinction for God to decide it was time for us?

    Of course we can take the fundamentalist creationist point of view and deny the whole thing. There is obvious peace and safety in that. If ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise. A popular choice.

    But if we decide to accept the scientific consensus, and the evidence of our own senses, and yet wish to retain the values and claims of Christianity then we have some hard considering to do. Easy to understand the unwillingness to do this, impossible to respect those who will not.

    While I admire Rolheiser’s attempt I’m afraid his “solution” consists of question begging since it assumes design and intentionality in the evolutionary process when in actuality that’s just the question that needs to be asked.

    *Would it improve matters significantly if it was not blind but intentional?

  7. Christiane says

    it always wondered me how fundamentalists could embrace Ayn Rand’s economic ‘survival of the fittest’ and reject the biological ‘survival of the fittest’ model . . .

    the strange ways of a religious ‘worldview’ that embraces a hatred of the poor together with a demand for an end to abortion . . .

    so many contradictions, so many

    and I think it begins with a stark worship of a ‘wrathful God’ who ‘killed his son’ to appease his wrath . . . a religion devoid of loving-kindness and above all, devoid of mercy, and yes, extremely ‘self-obsessed’ with one’s own ‘salvation’

    but I don’t know how it will all end . . . I’m not sure I want to know

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      it always wondered me how fundamentalists could embrace Ayn Rand’s economic ‘survival of the fittest’ and reject the biological ‘survival of the fittest’ model . . .

      They see themselves as The Fittest.
      And Personally Benefit from the arrangement.
      Rand’s philosophy is one of Utter Selfishness Uber Alles, and “MINE! MINE! MINE!” is always going to be popular. Just ask Daffy Duck:

  8. In my opinion, some of you are reading too much into this article, which in my view makes only a single observation – that evolution has produced a highly evolved human species that is now capable of taking care of the weaker members of the world that might get “weeded out” by natural processes. Of course, as a Catholic, RR is making this observation as one who does not “personify nature” but rather sees the wisdom of God evident in its processes. This is most definitely a theological point, not a scientific one. I was struck by how his simple observation parallels the vocation bestowed upon humans in the creation story. Genesis portrays humans as people with a calling. According to RR, evolution may suggest that humans have some capacity to fulfill it.

    • New poster here.

      Anyway, RR’s post is flawed for the reasons others have pointed out, but I think there is the seed of a good idea here. The natural world is very cruel and maybe redeemed humans are supposed to fix this in some fashion, but my imagination stops working at that point. I liked the scene in Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” where a woman who was married to the character dubbed the Tragedian somehow redeemed every animal she had encountered in her earthly life, but that’s more an imagined resurrection of animals in a future life and doesn’t really fit with what RR seems to be imagining.

    • Re: reading too much into/demanding too much from the article, it’s probably true from 30,000 feet that the overall theme of RR’s post fits well with the “vocation” approach that you’ve been examining. But it’s also hard to look past the details. This is difficult territory.

  9. *…has produced a highly evolved human species…*

    That’s not how evolution works. From the perspective honest-to-goodness biology, ‘highly evolved’ is a non-meaningful phrase.

    Now, stepping back about 5 steps, does your broader point stand? Sort of, yes. We’ve developed medicine to the point where we can extend the lives of people who would otherwise have died in infancy or childhood to the point where we’ve improved their fitness (viz. they can now live long enough to potentially reproduce).

    But to the extent they are able, other species do this too: We have many examples from the animal kingdom of individuals acting to expend resources protecting the lives of others. Lionesses do communal ‘child care’ while some of them go off to hunt. Primates share food and alert each other to danger (though they do so via a dominance hierarchy that looks *suspiciously* similar to our own).

  10. A hearty amen. I think this is where we have arrived in our age. The scary part is that this evolutionary stage is predicated in our agreement and cooperation. Things could progress or turn back based on the collective choice.

  11. I have not been able to get over, under, or around the three terse but obvious propositions of Rabbi Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People):

    Kushner said you can pick any two of the following beliefs. You can’t believe all three:

    1. God is all-powerful.
    2. God is all good.
    3. Evil and suffering exist.

    Myself, I’ve had to give up #1.

    If God is all-powerful, but my devout friend suffered a horrible death from cancer, then #2, God is all good, has to be wrong. How do I know? Because if I were all-powerful, *I* would save a suffering innocent person, and I’m not even close to “all good.” So if an all-powerful God is also all good, he *has* to be “gooder” than me. And yet he did not save her, while much-badder I would have. So He either is *not* all good or *not* all powerful. I choose to believe He is all good, because that is my experience of Him in mediation and prayer throughout my life (and the experience of vast number of better Christians than I, including Julian of Norwich and, I think, St. Francis).

    Most fundamentalists, I think, are drawn to believe #1, God is all-powerful. They would “explain” the suffering an death of innocents by saying, as several posters above have said, “God’s ways are not our ways” — he is too far above us and we are wrong to question him.”

    To which I would say that if Jesus is God, then that OT saying is no longer true, because Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If, IF, Jesus is God, we do know what God is like, what He wants of us, and what He desires for Creation. (But, my snarky self slips in, most fundamentalists are uninterested in Jesus’ life and teachings; they just want the Cross and Resurrection, and then quickly to the gospel of St. Paul.)

    Rabbi Kushner, whose 11-year-old son died of the premature aging disease, concluded that God was not all-powerful, based on his reading of the book of Job. Basically, he sees God as saying there, “This is is an extraordinarily complex universe I have created. Not every detail is manageable. Do *you* want to try to manage it better?”

    Many Christians, of course, have said through the ages, “Well, yes, it’s pretty awful *here*, but that doesn’t matter because God has prepared a place for us in heaven that will be wonderful.” Certainly that is my hope, but it’s not, to my grief, a “sure and certain hope,” though I’d give anything if it were. I have doubts about an afterlife, probably also like many Christians through the ages. And in any case, heaven doesn’t answer any questions about innocent suffering here.

    So I must conclude God is all-good, ever seeking to redeem suffering in man and nature through *our* actions, but that He is not all-powerful, and (for instance) almost never intervenes to change suffering and evil “on His own.” He relies on us to do what we can about it, and he strengthens and encourages our spirits, but he can’t do more than that. (Because if He *could* but *won’t*, then He’s as evil as I would be if I had had the means to save my suffering friend, or the African orphans, but I wouldn’t do it.)

    Most Christians emphasize either God’s benevolence or God’s omnipotence, and accept that evil and suffering exist (the rabbi’s proposition 3), but a few, like Christians Scientists, reject #3 and say that evil and suffering are only “mistaken perceptions.” To paraphrase the ultimate snarker, Tom Lehrer, I not sure how they do that if one of them develops appendicitis. 🙂

    Thanks for bringing up the topic; it is one that has taken a lifetime for me to even begin to wrap my head around, and IMNSHO is the major question in Christianity if not in all religions.

    • Interesting he equates evil = suffering off the bat. Remove suffering from that equation, assume suffering just “is”, and does it still apply that there is evil?

      • What’s the first recorded act of evil in the Bible? Eve and Adam’s disobedience? That’s against God, I guess. Cain slaying Abel? That’s really only evil if the author/listeners had a preconception of murder as evil (and arguably post-Ten Commandments).

        Idk. Not going anywhere with this, just thinking poorly.

        • I don’t know either, but I think I understand the old pagan Norse concept of evil better than most Christians ones. Roughly, they believed the spiritual/supernatural world was composed of gods (good) and giants(evil). The giants were chained underground until the Day of Doom. The gods, meantime, ran Valhalla (literally, The Hall of the Slain). Every Norse warrior believed that to die in battle was good, because he would end up in Valhalla with the gods and godesses, sitting around drinking mead and telling stories and having a good time, until the Day of Doom.

          Now, at the Day of Doom (Gotterdammerung), the giants would break free of their chains and make war against the gods and other inhabitants of Valhalla.

          Here’s the interesting part: The giants will win. They will destroy the gods, and any men who are fighting at their side. Evil wins.

          But. What every Norse warrior hoped for was to be standing at the side of the gods and die with them at the Last Day.

          Evil wins, and you know that going in. But you still fight it.

          As a working theory, absolutely impregnable.

  12. I like RR’s post, and I also think that there is some really good pushback here.

    What I most appreciate is RR’s acknowledgement that “nature can be so cruel and brutal”, the “harsh cruelty” of it. If Christian theologians are going to work within an evolutionary framework (and I’m all for this), they’re going to have to stare this “harsh cruelty” straight in the face.

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