IN THE MID-NINETEENTH century Charles Darwin corresponded regularly with Asa Gray, a Harvard professor of botany who was an evangelical Christian. Gray was dedicated to scientific empiricism, but in those days he opposed the idea of the evolutionary transformation of species. He held the traditional view that God had individually designed and created the bodily forms of living organisms.
For some time, Darwin tried to break down Gray's resistance. For example, in 1860 Darwin wrote to Gray:
I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it. I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man?
Many or most persons do believe this; I can't and don't. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat, that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed. (1)
Gray was quickly persuaded by Darwin's thesis that species evolve, but in spite of many powerful arguments like this one, he stuck to the idea of divine design. He would argue that species might evolve by Darwin's process of natural selection but God must somehow guide the process. In fact, even Darwin himself was swayed by Gray's arguments. Once he reprinted one of Gray's reviews of his theory at his own expense, and across the top he printed the slogan "Natural Selection not Inconsistent with Natural Theology."
Guided Evolution Rejected
Darwin soon rejected Gray's method of harmonizing evolution with theology, and so did many mainstream Christian scientists. As David Livingstone put it in his history of the Christian response to Darwinism, "Christians were soon to abandon this version [of Asa Gray] in favor of a more holistic design located in the regularity of natural law." (2) In other words, instead of guiding nature organism by organism to bring forth specific designs, God designed the laws of physics in such a way that all organisms would emerge automatically by Darwinian evolution.
The reason for abandoning Gray's guided evolution is this: The laws of physics (in Darwin's time and now) do not allow for some nonphysical agent to manipulate the course of events. Therefore, if God were to guide the natural processes to come up with particular species one by one, He would violate the laws of physics.
Gray argued in favor of evolution by saying, "If the alternative be the immediate origination out of nothing, or out of the soil, of the human form with all its actual marks, there can be no doubt which side a scientific man will take." (3) The scientist will certainly prefer a process of evolution that follows the course of nature. But if occasional big violations of the laws of physics are to be rejected, why accept large numbers of small violations? Thus the scientist who accepts Gray's argument for evolution is likely to opt eventually for a fully naturalistic evolutionary process that does not violate the laws of physics at all.
For Christian theologians, this choice is not hard to justify. This was demonstrated by George Frederick Wright, a geologist, evangelical minister, and friend of Asa Gray. Wright rejected guided evolution, and he used the doctrines of Calvinism to argue that God is concerned only with the ultimate cause of creation the laws of nature. Wright was able to satisfy physical scientists and Darwinian evolutionists by asserting that Darwinism was "the Calvinistic interpretation of nature."
Of course, the real laws of nature may differ from the laws of physics. In my last column I pointed out that the Vedic literature clearly supports this view. Since no scientist has ever shown that all natural phenomena obey known physical laws, students of science and religion might be wise to seek alternatives to using physics as the basis for understanding God's role in nature. I would therefore like to describe in more detail the Vedic version of the creation of living species.
To do this, let me return to another topic mentioned in my last column Saint Augustine's idea of "seed principles." According to Augustine, at the moment of creation God planted in nature rationes seminales, or "rational seeds." In due course of time, these seeds produced the forms of living beings by a natural process of unfolding. The rational seeds cannot be directly perceived by human senses, but each seed contains the potential for manifesting a specific gross form. According to the Catholic philosopher Frederick Copleston, the idea of the rational seeds did not come from Christian scripture or tradition. Augustine got the idea from the pagan philosopher Plotinus, and ultimately it came from the Stoics. (4)
Some scientists say that Augustine's theory foreshadows the modern idea that the laws of physics unfold the development of species through Darwinian evolution. These scientists suggest that the physical laws can thereby be regarded as "seed principles" of creation. This is certainly not what Augustine had in mind, but Augustine's idea does turn out to be strikingly similar to the concept of divine creation presented in the Vedic literature.
According to the Vedic conception, Krsna brings about creation by investing His potency in seed forms called bijas. This idea is illustrated by the following passage from a lecture on the Srimad-Bhagavatam given by Srila Prabhupada in 1972:
Krsna's energy is so powerful that He puts the potency in a seed. Bijam mam sarva-bhutanam, Krsna says. Bija means "seed." "For whatever is coming out, being manifested, I am the seed." This means, "It is manufactured under My supervision." Just find the seed of a banyan tree. It is a small grain, like a mustard seed. But you sow the seed, and a gigantic tree will come out. Unless the energetic tree is there within the seed, how does it come out?
Like Augustine's rationes seminales, the bijas, or creative seeds, are placed within matter at the initial moment of creation. This is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.26.19), which says that the Supreme Personality of Godhead (Maha-Visnu) impregnates the womb of material nature. Nature then delivers the sum total of cosmic intelligence. This cosmic intelligence includes specific information defining the karmic destiny of the conditioned souls.
Initially material nature is in a quiescent state, called pradhana. At the moment of creation, Maha-Visnu injects into the pradhana innumerable conditioned souls, along with seed information defining their karma. This information guides transformations of material nature which give rise to the bodily forms and situations of the conditioned souls.
Subtle Forms of Energy
A crucial difference between this model of creation and modern evolutionary theories is that the injected seed information involves specific details for individuals. Rather than compare this information to the laws of physics, we could better compare it to the software of a virtual-reality system. When virtual-reality software is inserted into a suitable computer, the computer generates illusory bodily forms, which the players in the virtual-reality game experience as real. The intelligent design of the software by the computer programmer corresponds to the intelligent design of the seed information by Maha-Visnu.
One might argue that a computer contains complex electronic circuits designed to run its software but in nature we find nothing but randomly moving atoms and subatomic particles. If "seed information" were injected into nature, how would it be able to generate the bodily forms of living organisms?
This question is not answered by Augustine's sketchy theory of the rationes seminales. The Vedic literature, however, gives an answer. Just as gross physical seeds are always produced and disseminated by living organisms, so the seed information injected by Maha-Visnu is always controlled and manipulated by living beings.
In the Brahma-samhita, texts 7-10, it is said that the impregnating glance of Maha-Visnu becomes manifest in the material world as a being named Sambhu. The conceiving potency of nature, known as Maya, likewise appears from Rama Devi, the eternal consort of Visnu. From the union of Sambhu and Maya, innumerable living beings are generated through sexual procreation. The bodies of these beings are made of spiritual and subtle forms of energy unknown to modern physics. The gross physical bodies of our experience are generated from subtle living forms by the interaction of gross and subtle forms of energy. Thus the basic rule is that life forms are generated from seeds by a process of reproduction, subtle forms giving rise to gross forms.
Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright felt that creation must be the work of God but it should not violate the course of nature. We can see that the Vedic account of creation satisfies these two requirements. It does so, however, by speaking about spiritual and subtle phenomena in nature that are completely outside the scope of modern physical science.
A Deeper View of Cause and Effect
The Vedic account also provides an answer to Darwin's questions about design in nature. The Padma Purana explains that karmic reactions to activities exist in the form of seeds stored within the heart, or subtle mind, of an individual. (5) In due course of time, these seeds fructify in the form of specific physical events.
This is the Vedic explanation of why lightning strikes Darwin's "innocent and good man" standing beneath a tree. The lightning stroke is not delivered whimsically by a wrathful God; it comes naturally as a reaction to the man's past actions. But the natural system that brings about this reaction is designed by God for the explicit purpose of administering divine justice. Even the eating of gnats by swallows is part of the divine plan. Gnats and swallows also have souls, and the experiences they undergo in the course of nature are designed to bring about progressive evolution of their consciousness.
The karmic seeds culminating in the lightning stroke consist of subtle energy. They are transferred from body to body in the process of transmigration of the soul, and they manifest their effects through complex control systems operating within nature. According to Vedic literature, these control systems are directed by living beings known as demigods, and ultimately they are under the supervision of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Darwin's theory of evolution can be seen as an attempt to give an alternative to the idea of whimsical, sudden creation by divine fiat. The theory attempted to explain the origin of species rationally in terms of a natural process of cause and effect. According to the Vedic literature there is indeed a rational process of creation. But it involves concepts and categories of being that go far beyond the limits of present-day science.
1. Darwin, Francis, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, New York: Basic Books, 1959, p. 284.
2. Livingstone, David N., Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987, p. 64.
3. Frye, Roland Mushat, ed., Is God a Creationist? New York: Scribners, 1983, p. 112.
4. Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Vol.II, New York: Doubleday, 1963, p. 76.
5. Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, The Nectar of Devotion, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1982, p. 6.
Sadaputa Dasa (Richard L. Thompson) earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University. He is the author of several books, of which the most recent is Alien Identities: Ancient Insights into Modern UFO Phenomena.