God & Evolution

March 01, 2009

God & Evolution

One of the mysteries of the early 21st century is why one set of Christians go round churches trying to persuade another set of Christians to disbelieve the theory of evolution. The mystery deepens when one remembers three important facts. The first is that scientific theories become established or fall by the wayside as a result of publishing evidence in peer-reviewed journals, not by popular vote. Far from being a ‘holy cow’, evolution is no less immune to counter-evidence than any other theory, and any scientist publishing hard data significantly undermining Darwinian evolution (such as rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian, human foot-prints beside dinosaur foot-prints or variation in genetic codes between species) would be an instant celebrity.

The second fact which highlights the mystery of campaigns to attack Darwinism is that evolutionary theory has been hugely strengthened over the past decade by the advent of genomics: the sequencing of the DNA of hundreds of living organisms, including ourselves, revealing a mass of new data that can only be explained by an evolutionary history, and establishing our own common inheritance with the apes. Christian opposition to Darwinism has increased at precisely the time when Darwin’s theory is being most powerfully supported by new discoveries. The complete DNA sequence of the wonderful platypus, published in Nature in 2008, provides further stunning information about evolutionary history.2 Really successful theories in science are those that continue to make sense of empirical data. Like amoebae engulfing food particles, so the Big Theories absorb the new results with effortless ease, and evolution is exemplary in this regard. Of course biologists still argue about the mechanisms of speciation; whether natural selection is at the level of the gene, the genome, the organism, or even the group; and about the details of different evolutionary lineages. But most biologists are in no doubt that the evolutionary account is broadly correct, and indeed the theory provides the framework within which all current biological research is carried out.

The third fact which deepens the mystery even further, is that such anti- Darwinian campaigning is a modern phenomenon. Mainstream denominations in the 19th century were rather quick  to baptise evolution into the Christian doctrine of creation. The historian James Moore writes that ‘with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution’3, and the American historian George Marsden reports that ‘... with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s’4. Ironically, amongst the writers of the Fundamentals, that mass-produced series of 12 booklets published in the period 1910–15, which later contributed to the emergence of the term ‘fundamentalism’, we find a number of evangelical writers firmly committed to Darwinism, such as Benjamin Warfield, who called himself a ‘Darwinian of the purest water’, James Orr and the geologist George Wright.

Creationism is largely a late-20th century phenomenon, at least in Europe.

Something has changed.

What has changed? From a sociological perspective, the phenomenon looks less mysterious. There is a very familiar process in the history of science whereby one of its big theories, like Big Bang cosmology or evolution, becomes highly successful, and then various interest groups move in to utilise the prestige of the scientific theory in support of their particular ideology. Unfortunately, the end result is that in the public consciousness the actual meaning of the label given to the theory itself changes, and so ‘Theory X’ becomes socially transformed into ‘Theory Y’, with all kinds of philosophical barnacles attached to it. Evolution has suffered particularly badly from this kind of process and has been used in support of virtually every kind of ‘ism’ imaginable, including socialism, capitalism, racism, eugenics and atheism. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, Darwin ‘had the luck to please everybody who had an axe to grind’.

Ideological transformations need various kinds of energy inputs to nurture and sustain them, and in this context Richard Dawkins et al have done a great job by seeking to invest evolution with a radical atheist agenda, thereby unwittingly supplying fuel for the creationist cause. ‘… Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin’ claims Dawkins, ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist’.5

Philosopher Daniel Dennett similarly tries to show that evolution supports atheism, asking whether the complexity of biological diversity can ‘really be the outcome of nothing but a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance? And if so, who designed that cascade?’ Dennett answers his own rhetorical question by saying: ‘Nobody. It is itself the product of a blind, algorithmic process.’ ‘Evolution is not a process that was designed to produce us.’ In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon and Schuster, 1995) Dennett pictures evolution as a ‘universal acid’ destroying in its path any basis for ultimate meaning and purpose in life. No wonder creationists are so active.

The creation narrative and the evolutionary narrative

The first and important response to all this is to knock the philosophical barnacles off the theory of evolution  in order to allow it to do its important scientific task: to explain the origins  of biological diversity on this planet. Evolution as a biological theory has  no ideological implications. It simply represents the inference to the best explanation to account for a huge mass of disparate data that spans a great array of different disciplines. Scientific theories are like maps that join up many different types of data to render them coherent. Evolution provides a brilliant historical narrative to make sense of biological life on this planet in all its remarkable  variety.

The other narrative, the Christian doctrine of creation, refers not mainly to the origins of things, but why they exist. The biblical claim is that all the matter and energy of the universe only exists because God wills it to exist. God is transcendent, distinct from the created order, but at the same time also immanent in its every aspect. All things exist by the creative and sustaining power of the Lord Jesus, the Word of God. ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’.

(John 1:3, my italics). In Colossians 1, one of the most amazing passages in the New Testament, Paul speaks of the Son being ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation’ (verse 15), and then immediately goes on to say: ‘For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (verses 16–17, my italics).

In other words, the complete created order, in all its breadth and diversity, goes on existing by the same divine  Word, the Lord Jesus, who brought  everything into being in the first place. The point is further underlined by the writer to the Hebrews when he writes that ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word ’ (Hebrews 1:3, my italics). God is the one ‘for whom and through whom everything exists’ (Hebrews 2:10). If God did not keep on willing the created order to exist by his powerful Word, then it would stop existing.

So all that scientists can describe is the out-working of God’s will, mediated through secondary causes, for there is nothing else to investigate. But the narrative that they provide, the ‘how did God do it’ narrative, is complementary to the creation narrative, which addresses a different set of questions: why has God brought all things into existence? Why are we here and what is our future?

Biologists who seek to invest evolution with an atheistic agenda have simply missed the point. It is not that evolution cannot be presented in a way that appears compatible with atheism – of course it can; but equally you can baptise evolution into virtually any world view you like and it will fit comfortably within most. In other words, scientific data are simply unable to adjudicate between different metaphysical world views  which  have   to be assessed on different grounds.

Asking a different kind of question is more useful: ‘Is evolution consistent with a particular world view? – the kind of question that scientists often ask in the Discussion sections of their papers when assessing their data in relation to rival theories. Christian theism does rather well in answering that kind of question in the evolutionary context, much better than atheism. If there is a personal God with intentions and purposes for his creation, then we expect order, directionality and the emergence of personhood. This is precisely what evolution delivers. Taken overall it is far from being a chance process, with design space repeatedly filling up with organisms living  within the constraints of particular ecological niches. Very similar organs, structures and biochemical pathways evolved independently many times in the remarkable phenomenon known as convergence, because these are what you need to flourish in a given niche. On a planet of light and darkness you need eyes, so eyes are what you’ll get, and indeed compound and camera eyes have evolved independently more than 20 times. The arrow of biological time also displays a marked increase in complexity over its 3.8 billion years, leading eventually to the recent (past 2 million years) remarkable explosion in brain size, and the emergence of humankind with the most complex known entity in the universe located between the ears – equipped to pray, worship and know God. Such a historical narrative seems quite consistent with the creation narrative which the Bible provides.

The hard questions

Once we accept the full validity of both types of narrative, we can begin the important task of seeing how the accounts resonate, for they are complementary accounts about the same reality. There are some genuinely challenging questions to address at this juncture: Why does God use such a long process, involving so much animal pain and death, to fulfil his purposes? Who were Adam and Eve? How do we understand the Fall in the light of evolution? It was partly to address those kinds of question that I wrote Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose? We don’t decide that these are difficult questions, awkward apologetically, and so conclude that the science must be mistaken (the ostrich approach with its head in the sand). Likewise creationists are wrong in thinking that if you accept evolution, then somehow basic Christian doctrines will be watered down or even jettisoned. That is not my experience, nor do I observe that happening in the lives of my many Christian colleagues who are evolutionary biologists. But Christians do need to pay serious attention to the way that the scientific and theological accounts relate to each other: we cannot take the intellectually lazy route of keeping the narratives in watertight compartments.

To take one example: how do we understand the Biblical teaching about Adam and Eve? I take the early chapters of Genesis to represent a profound theological essay, written using figurative language, that is foundational to our understanding of  the  rest  of  the Bible.  It is not scientific literature. Indeed it cannot be scientific literature because this only began to emerge as a more specialised form of language two thousand years later with the founding of the first scientific journals, and the further specialisation of this scientific genre of literature has been continuing ever since.

Understanding of our own evolutionary lineage has been steadily improving over the past 50 years, taking something of a leap forward with the completion of the Human Genome project in 2003. Our genomes are littered with the fossil evidence of our evolutionary history, including thousands of pseudogenes, genes that are functional in other mammals, but switched off in faithfully replicated ever since; and transposons (‘jumping genes’) that act as similar signatures of our inheritance. We are all walking fossil museums; every cell of our body contains a little history book, written in the language of DNA.

The current scientific understanding is that Homo sapiens, anatomically modern humans, most likely evolved in Africa from an archaic H. sapiens species such as H. heidelbergensis, although the details remain unknown. The oldest well- characterised fossils of anatomically modern humans come from the Kibish formation in S. Ethiopia and their humans because we don’t need them; retroviral insertions in which a virus has left its calling card in a primate ancestor millions of years ago, a stretch of DNA estimated date is 195,000 +/– 5,000 years old. Some limited expansion of our species had already taken place as far as the Levant by 115,000 years ago, as shown by partial skeletons of unequivocal H. sapiens found at Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel. But significant emigration out of Africa does not seem to have taken place until around 70,000 years ago onwards, with modern humans reaching right across Asia and on to Australia by 50,000 years ago, then back-tracking into Europe by 40,000 years ago, where they are known as the Cro-Magnon people. By 15,000 years ago they were trickling down into America across the Bering Strait. By the time we reach the Near East culture portrayed in the early chapters of Genesis, most parts of the world were populated by humans, albeit very sparsely compared to now.

How do we relate the anthropological account of human origins with the Genesis text? Three main types of model have been suggested to help in this task. Like models in science, their role is to suggest possible scenarios.

Model A

Model A is an ahistorical view which suggests that there is no connection at all between the theological and biological narratives. The purpose of the early chapters of Genesis, from this perspective, is to provide a theological account of the role and importance of humankind in God’s purposes, cast in the mould of a narrative of Adam and Eve, which is a myth in the technical sense of being a story or parable having the main purpose of teaching eternal truths without the constraints of historical particularity.

The Fall in this view is the eternal story of Everyman. It is a theological narrative that describes the common human experience of alienation from God through disobedience to God’s commands. Every person repeats the story in their own experience as they fall short of what God expects of them.

Model B

Model B is a gradualist protohistorical view which suggests that as anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa from 200,000 years ago, or during some period of linguistic and cultural evolution since then, there was a gradual growing awareness of God’s presence and calling upon their lives to which they responded in obedience and worship. It was natural at the beginning for humans to turn to their Creator. In model B the Fall then becomes the conscious rejection of this awareness in favour of choosing their own way rather than God’s way, and the early chapters of Genesis a re-telling of this protohistory in a form that could be understood within the Middle Eastern culture of the Jewish people of that time.

Model C

Model C is also a protohistorical view  in the sense that it lies beyond history as normally understood, but like model B looks for events located in history that might correspond to the theological account provided by the Genesis narrative. Unlike model B, this model locates these events within the culture and geography that the Genesis text provides. According to model C, God in his grace chose to reveal himself to a couple of Neolithic farmers in the Near East, calling them into fellowship with himself – so that they might know him as a personal God. This first couple, or community, have been termed Homo divinus by John Stott6, the divine humans, those who know the one true God, the Adam and Eve of the Genesis account. Being an anatomically modern human was necessary but not sufficient for being spiritually alive; as remains the case today. Model C draws attention to the representative nature of ‘the Adam’, ‘the man’, as suggested by the liberal use of the definite article in the Hebrew Genesis text.

This was the moment at which God decided to start his new spiritual family on earth, consisting of all those who put their trust in God by faith, expressed in obedience to his will. Adam and Eve, in this view, were real people, living in a particular historical era and geographical location, chosen by God to be the representatives of his new humanity on earth, not by virtue of anything they had done, but simply by God’s grace. When Adam recognised Eve as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’, he was not just recognising a fellow Homo sapien—there were plenty of those around— but a fellow believer, one like him who had been called to share in the very life of God in obedience to his commands. Just as I can go out on the streets    today and have no idea just by looking at people, all of them members of the species Homo sapiens, which ones are spiritually alive, so in model C there was no physical way of distinguishing between Adam and Eve  and their contemporaries. It  is  a model about spiritual life and revealed commands and responsibilities; it is not about genetics. The Fall in model C a broken relationship between humankind and God. Adam in this model stands as the Federal Head for humankind so that as he disobeys God, sin enters into the world like a pandemic. In parallel  manner, Jesus the ‘second Adam’ stands in Federal Headship to humankind, so that all who trust in His atoning work on the cross are rescued from the power and penalty of sin. ‘For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive’ (Romans 5:21-22).

Personally I tend towards model C, which does greater justice to the New Testament Pauline passages about Adam (especially Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). The model also accommodates model A in that the Fall is something we all replicate in our own beings. All three models affirm the facts of our becomes the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the expressed revealed will of God, bringing spiritual death in its wake, evolutionary history, the reality of our sin – our disobedience to God’s will, our consequent separation from God and need of redemption.

Conclusion

As we mark Darwin’s double anniversary this year (birth: 1809; Origin of Species, 1859) my hope is that Christians will be celebrating Darwin enthusiastically, for he has provided us with a great theory that provides the framework for all contemporary biological and biomedical research. All truth is God’s truth. But Christians have an extra reason to celebrate: creation theology places the evolutionary narrative within the larger scheme of God’s purposes. Thankfully there is more to life than biology. ©

E N D N O T E  S

1 This is an edited version of an article that has also been published in Third Way magazine under the title: ‘Viva la Evolution!’

2  See: Nature 453, pp175-183 (8 May 2008).

Moore, J.R. (1979). The Post-Darwinian Controversies - a Study of the Protestant struggle to come to terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900. CUP, p92.

Marsden, G.M. (1984). In Science and Creationism

(ed. A.Montagu). Oxford University Press,    p101.

Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. Longman, p6.

Stott, J.R.W. (1972). Understanding the Bible. London: Scripture Union, p63.



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