Science in Christian Perspective



The Doctrine of Special Creation Part IV. 
Evolution and Christianity

Department of Natural Sciences 
Loyola University of Chicago 
Chicago, Illinois 60611

From: JASA 27 (December 1975): 164-167.
This is Part IV of a font-part paper being published in the Journal ASA during 1975. It is an analysis of Biology: a Search far Order in Complexity (Moore and Slusher, eds., 1970) published by the Creation Research Society.


There is a striking parallel between the present reluctance to accept evolution and the resistance to the idea of cpigenesis in the 18th century. Both ideas involve change in the organic world. In the introduction to a 1785 French edition of the works of Lazzaro Spallanzani (172-999) on embryology, the Swiss naturalist and clergyman Jean Senebier (1742-1809) based the concept of preformation on Genesis. He claimed that God had created, in the beginning, all the organisms, fully formed and alive, that ever would inhabit the Earth. Preformation therefore meant, for him, the preexistence of the organism prior to its parent. With impressive microscopic evidence at his disposal, be it noted, he could then argue that during development there was no differentiation, for none was needed: no production de novo of tissues and organs, but a gradual unfolding of what was already there.

Sen ebier let it be known what he thought of those who argued otherwise: they were atheists, the lot of them. He went on to explain (1785, p. xxxi):

As for the moment of creation of these fetuses which must people the earth with man, animals, animalcules, and plants through its duration, I can only fix it at the moment of creation. The sacred historian informs us that God ceased from creating at the end of the sixth day. The experience of all the centuries informs us that God has created nothing anew [de nouveau].

Epigenesis, with its emphasis on internal transformations by a sequential, orderly differentiation, was, for Senebier, clearly a threat to theism. It meant that all living organisms had not, after all, been created ex nihilo in the beginning. Logically, it meant a series of encapsulated creatures in miniature. An acorn contained a dminutive oak-with yet other acorns, enough for a whole forest. Encapsulation ("ovism," as described here) was indeed the most elaborate and complex of the various versions of preformation extant in the 18th century. The devout were assured that Mother Eve carried tucked away in her ovaries all the members of the human race who were predestined to walk the earth-one egg inside the other, so to speak. Presumably the world would end when they were used up (Adelmann, 1966, II, p. 894 passim).

Epigenesis (including, of course, chemical preformation) has become so deeply embedded in biology since Senebier's time that no one today questions the idea that organisms develop gradually from an ovum, even though this can scarcely be observed with ease. Not even the authors see a threat to theism in their epigenetic treatment of development (p. 126-137).

It is therefore appropriate to wonder whether the authors are not inconsistent in denying evolution, on the one hand, while fully accepting epigenesis, on the other. If the basic kinds of organisms "were placed on the earth by direct action of the Creator" (p. 398), why not all organisms, also in the beginning? Inasmuch as the special-creation doctrine denies evolutionwere right; development is due to efficacious changes.

Perhaps the processes in development we now regard as epigenetic are really only apparent-a beguiling thought. Perhaps, then, the preformationists were right; development is due to effacious changes in opacity, to the shifting of position, and to unequal growth rates, by enlargements and extensions, of tissues and organs that are already there-incidentally, a notunreasonable explanation before epigenetic mechanisms were identified (HaIler, 1758, II, p. 172-190, translated in Adelmann, 1966, II, p. 878-884).

Happily, Senebier is remembered today for his meticulous experiments on photosynthesis during the 1780s, not for his dismay over what happens in an egg. The resistance to epigenesis, like the earlier resistance to gravity and the later resistance to evolution, was only a temporary step, albeit a retrogressive one. But it could be no more than a delaying action. It is as though science could not return to a former position.

Notwithstanding the continuities we must discern in the history of biology, I can think of no instance where a new conceptual view, once embraced, was rejected for a return to that of a previous age. This is the second reason why I cannot see how the authors, however sincere they may he, can expect much success in their efforts to return biology to the early part of the 19th century. Science, like time, is a forward movement.

Plato, Aristotle, and Darwin

We have seen that, historically, the special-creation doctrine views nature primarily in Platonic and Aristotelian terms. Animals are arranged on an ascending order of distinct taxonomic entities. There are variations on each level, to be sure, but each "type" of organism has an independent existence with no hereditary relationship with its neighbors. The levels represented by these animals are viewed as iocreasmg upward in structural complexity and moral worth, toward man, who enjoyed an exalted position at the pinnacle of creation.

It was this vision of nature during the 18th and 19th centuries and now in the text under review that to a large extent was equated with the account of di vine

It is ironic that the possibility of progressive change was advanced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that the authors would now uphold a return to Greek doctrine.

  creation in Genesis. This vision was congenial to the superficially pious, but the meaning of divine creation was thereby obscured. For this hierarchic view of organic nature was really an expression of the Creek tradition, particularly Plato's Timeens and Aristotle's History o/ Animals; it could have perforce little in common with the Biblical doctrine of divine creation. Those who failed to recognize the Creek component in the doctrine of special creation, falsely based on Genesis, therefore thought erroneously that Darwin's theory of evolution was an assault on the Bible. Thus we may understand the dismay evoked by the introduction of new ideas. For those who thought the Lord had created the animals all at once, instead of at successive intervals, even the idea of a series of catastrophes could jar their sense of stability. The discovery of fossils of animals now extinct raised the disturbing question of why the Lord, having once created such handsome creatures, should find it necessary to get rid of them, (Some thought they had been created to confound the horrid geologists.)

Darwin broke this static view of nature. By focusing on populations that interact in space and time he made unnecessary the Platonic types and Aristotelian hierarchies. Moreover, man could no longer occupy an exalted perch on Aristotle's "scale of nature." Darwin introduced a dynamism never before known; modern ecology became possible, and there were even implications for biology-teaching. The arbitrary division today of an introductory biology course into the two segments of botany and zoology represents a survival of this older, hierarchic view in which every living thing is fixed in its place.

As we have also seen, "special creation" has been falsely equated with the Biblical tradition. As an interpretation of organic nature with roots in Plato and Aristotle, it should be distinguished from the doctrine of "Creation," which is a Judaeo-Christian affirmation of creatio ex nihilo; the world came from nothing, not from a preexistent something. Creation implies the religious mystery of divine sovereignty and transcendent holiness, which thereby assure that nature is coherent, knowable, predictable, and good. A careful reading of Darwin indicates that he was aware of the difference. In fact, he allowed for (I do not say he asserted) "Creation" on p. 188, 189, 484, and 490 of the first edition of the Origin, and this allowance was retained in all other editions as well (for example, in the last few paragraphs of each edition).
The doctrine of Creation carried three important ideas; (i) ultimate origin ex nihilo; (ii) linear time; and (iii) future fulfillment. (See Genesis 1, 2; Psalms 19, 90; Isaiah 44;24; John 1;1-3; Romans 8;18-23; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Peter 3; and Revelation 10;6, 22;13.) This doctrine assumed new importance during the 16th and 17th centuries, when natural philosophy began to recognize a clear distinction between the created and the Creator. Natural philosophy banished the ancient gods, goddesses, and "spirit" from nature, which thereupon lost its animistic components yet remained sacred because of its divine origin. Nature could then become an object of scientific study in the modern sense, for it could be viewed as a system of matter in motion, controlled by natural law, and separate from the Deity. This meant a radical shift from the Greeks' unvarying, cyclic, and finalistie view of nature (Burtt, 1954; Collingwood, 1960).

The doctrine of creation contributed to the idea of progress-which implies that nature has a history and a goal. This also means that nature can experience novelty, and with it the possibility of change for the better in time (Gilkey, 1965). We perceive a linear, progressive sequence in the fossil record, and we identify adaptation as a biologic fulfillment of change in linear time. The idea of progress-necessary for the theory of evolution-was strengthened by the secularization of an attitude toward nature that was drawn initially from the Judaeo-Christian tradition (Wagar, 1967). It is therefore no accident that the theory of evolution arose in the West.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) saw nature as a created object, and he recognized the significance of change in time-evidenced by comets, sunspots, novae-for the possibility of scientific progress. He was also clear on the "use of Biblical quotations in matters of science" (1651) in what still remains a useful discussion of the relationship between science and religion. As Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) remarked, "the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modem scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology" (1925, p. 19).

It is the prospect of progressive change in time that haunts the authors of this book. This is the same view of change that caused alarm in the time of Galileo and Newton and that caused Senebier to take fright at an egg. It is ironic that the possibility of progressive change was advanced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that the authors would now uphold what must be, in effect, a return to Greek doctrine. They think it may he possible to resolve the paradox of what Asa Gray once called the "designed and the contingent" (Dupree, 1963, p. 225). But theirs can only be a minority opinion, for contemporary Protestantism as a whole has long since made its peace with Darwin.

Science and Christianity Both Suffer

The interpretation of creatio ex nihilo I have been discussing was obscured, to some extent, by the natural theology of the 18th century, and certainly by the doctrine of special creation in the early decades of the 19th century. I fear this textbook will obscure it even more. A theology doctrine-Creation-of high importance in the history of science has been equated with the science of a bygone age. We shall have, therefore, neither true religion nor modern biology. Christianity must now depend on the accuracy of geologic claims made more than a century ago. And biology must absorb again the main elements of Plato and Aristotle.

The doctrine of special creation obscures the troublesome yet edifying questions of the responsibility of man to his Creator and of man's responsibility to his fellows and to nonhuman nature. As Hugh Miller warned: "The true question is, not whether or no Moses is to be believed in the matter, but whether or no we in reality understand Moses" (1857, p. 351).


Leonard G. Wilson, of the University of Minnesota, gave me his comments on my interpretation of catastrophism. Arthur L. Herman, of the Philosophy Dept. of Wisconsin State University, Stevens Point, commented on my interpretation of Plato. Douglas S. Wilson lent me his copy of Hugh Miller. H. William Lunt, formerly of Chicago State University, Frank E. Miller, of Bloom Township High School (Chicago Heights, IL), Maybelle T. Ryan, of Kennedy High School (Chicago), and Walter P. Trost, of the YMCA Community College in Chicago, voiced useful opinions while I was preparing the article.


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