May 7, 2012
The quick answer to this question is this: We cannot make evolution into a better story. Let me explain.
A story is a narrative account of a motivated character who acts to achieve certain goals or ends over time. Every great story you can think of—from Homer’s Iliad to your favorite television show—involves characters who pursue goals over time, characters who want something and set out to achieve it. In this sense, the classic biblical creation stories are very good stories. You have a main character—God, the creator—who sets out to achieve something over time. There is purpose and design to what God, the main character, does. God is an agent—a self-conscious, motivated actor. All stories have agents.
Evolutionary theory, however, is not a story in that there is no prime agent, no self-conscious and motivated main character who strives to achieve something over time. For this reason, there is no overall narrative arc or design, no purpose that is being achieved by a purposeful agent. Instead, you have random, mechanical forces—variation, selection, and heredity. Bad story! But, at the same time, extraordinarily brilliant and elegant theory, for it provides a compelling and scientifically testable explanation for life on earth.
At the end of the day, science depends on great theories rather than great stories. Theories explain how the world works in terms of basic laws, testable hypotheses, empirical data, and logic. Science traffics in theories. By contrast, stories depict human experience in all of its phenomenological richness and complexity, calling upon the basic ideas of character, plot, and so on. Theories and stories are very different. They can’t really be compared. You have great theorists—like Darwin and Einstein. And you have great storytellers—like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jane Austen.
We don’t expect great scientists to tell wonderful stories about life, and we don’t expect great novelists to develop scientific breakthroughs about how the world works. For the most part, religion traffics in stories, images, rituals, beliefs, and many other compelling human experiences and practices that are not really subject to scientific scrutiny. Religion and science are different—just as stores and theories are different.