Science in Christian Perspective



Evolution: A Personal Dilemma
Department of Anatomy and Human Biology
University of Western Australia Nedlands, W.A. 6009 Australia

From: JASA 29 (June 1977): 73-76.

Remarkably little appears to have taken place over the past 10 years or so in Christian thinking on evolution. The same camps are still there, their front lines looking remarkably like those of a decade ago. Much the same propaganda is put out by the respective combatants, and the lines of battle look as solid and stagnant as they have done in recent memory.

Whether or not we appreciate the battlefield allusion, we cannot easily deny the underlying reality of warfare. It can be argued of course that, while evangelicals do disagree over the mechanisms and scope of evolution, they are basically agreed over the reality and omnipotence of the Creator-God and over the fundamental importance of creation as a major theological truth. This undoubtedly is the case, even if the statement as it stands is unduly simplistic. In spite of this however, the creation-evolution controversy remains a deep-rooted cause of division among evangelicals.

This article, as its title suggests, is a personal view of the debate. It is not intended to he an academic exposition either of biblical or scientific issues. It is simply an expression of the feelings of one person who, by virtue of his standing as a human biologist and Christian, finds himself constantly surrounded by evolutionary thinking and also more specifically by evolutionary humanistic thinking. For me therefore, the evolutionary debate cannot he shelved as of merely theoretical interest. Neither can I adopt an intellectual position which does not make sense for me as a human being. And neither can I content myself with a belief which is of little relevance in solving contemporary ethical and social issues.

The end result is that I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. I have no easy answers one way or the other. But I do not despair. Perhaps there are others in a similar position to myself, dissatisfied with the usual evangelical answers and looking for a new way out of the dilemma whatever that might be.

The Controversy

The majority opinion among some sectors of the evangelical community still seems to be that the choice between creation and evolution is an "either-or" one. Either creation or evolution. Such an option precludes compromise of any kind. Indeed compromise is regarded in its perjorative sense, in that to compromise on this issue implies a denial of certain basic biblical truths.

One of the major reasons for this attitude, it seems to me, is that emotional and philosophical considerations have been allowed to hold sway at the expense of theological and scientific principles. On the one hand this means that for many scientists (generally those who are humanists anyway) the theory of evolution has been transformed into the dogma of evolutionism. This provides them with what to them is a satisfying philosophical and humanistic alternative to the doctrine of special creation. Evolutionism contains within itself the potential for explaining the whole of the cosmos in strictly natural terms, with the result that the need for a god or for any supernatural agency apparently disappears. There are many variations of evolutionism, some of which have religious ideas built into them. In its extreme form however, it is distinctly atheistic and, for many people, serves as a god-substitute. It is hardly surprising that evangelicals with a high view of Scripture vehemently oppose evolution in this guise. It is just as well to remember though that evolutionism is a philosophical extension (some would say travesty) of the more scientific evolutionary theories.

At the other extreme we meet those Christians for whom the literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, in the context of a static world-view, almost completely rules out the possibility of change in living forms. Such a position cannot, by its very nature, be influenced by the findings of science and in particular of the so-called historical sciences such as geology and palaeontology. Consistency demands that these sciences be reinterpreted, with biblical data (generally the Noatic flood) and catastrophic concepts as the starting point, as opposed to contemporary scientific concepts with their dependence upon uniformitarianism and immense periods of time. Almost invariably, the advocates of this type of position are strongly antievolutionary, viewing it in essence as specifically anti-Christian, with creationism the only valid Christian alternative to evolution. This position additionally leads to a Christian vs science stance, with science conveying overtones of atheism.

It is not my intention to argue the pros and eons of either extreme position here, except to remark that both are agreed on one point. Both view evolution as a philosophical system. To the one, it affirms the freedom of nature and autonomy of man; to the other, it is a denial of God as God. Unfortunately, advocates of both points are frequently guilty of failing to define the way in which they are using the term "evolution", with the result that no distinction is made between its scientific and philosophical connotations. To fail to distinguish between observation and hypothesis in scientific thinking, or between limited and broad generalizations in science is simply misleading, especially when the end result is presented as an incontrovertible law with universal applicability. On the other side, it is not unduly helpful to ignore the legitimate scientific aspects of evolution because these do not fit neatly into a particular interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis.

Many of the controversies within the creation-evolution realm result from ambiguities over the use of the term "evolution". System-building is a philosophical past-time, and philosophical thinking invariably predominates over scientific thinking when evolutionary issues are in the balance. Unfortunately, this is a general tendency applying to both humanists and Christians. The result, almost invariably, is confusion and much unnecessary controversy.
Probably all of us desire to see life in terms of some vast system, by which any and every aspect of life can be satisfactorily explained. There can he little doubt that an evolutionistic synthesis provides such a framework for many scientifically inclined humanists. The temptation for Christians is to build an alternative system based upon a relatively static view of creation. But is this what Christians should be doing? This, to me, is the crux of the creation-evolution controversy, and yet as far as I can see it is the one issue that is studiously avoided.

Evolutionary Theory

In order to answer this question, we need to examine very briefly one or two aspects of evolutionary thinking. In its scientific usage, evolution embraces either the special theory of evolution or the general theory. Of these, the special theory refers to the relatively small changes that can he observed to occur in living species of animals and plants with the production of new species. The general theory, by contrast, asserts that all the living forms in the world today have arisen from a single source which itself was derived from a nonliving form. Simplistic as is this distinction, it draws our attention to two important points. The special theory is a strictly experimental discipline, with the result that its scope is limited and its generalizations few. The general theory however, is a far more speculative affair, making vast assumptions and suggesting far-reaching hypotheses. The one is science in its narrow, disciplined sense; the other is science in its broad, predictive sense. The one is capable of rigorous scientific testing; the other is not and never will be.

The dividing line between the general theory of evolution and philosophical evolutionism is a fine one. Moreover it may on many occasions he difficult to determine, while on others it may he blatantly ignored. I want to suggest that the principal distinction between them lies in the reliance which is placed on the assumptions and speculations. In the scientific arena the speculations are regarded quite openly as speculations. They have a purpose in holding together a scientific idea long enough for it to be tested in some way. Subsequently they are discarded if found wanting, or modified and strengthened if proved useful. In the philosophical arena speculations are readily transformed into essential concepts. Their speculative nature is soon forgotten and they emerge as indispensable principles.

The Christian is free to view the scientific validity and usefulness of evolutionary theories in an objective manner, and is therefore able to retain the distinction between the scientific and philosophical aspects of evolution.

The reliance we place, therefore, upon the assumptions and speculations of the general theory of evolution depends on our philosophical presuppositions. For the humanist they are essential if he is to possess a coherent and unified picture of the world. Hence evolutionary theory undergoes a mutation to become evolutionism. However, a Christian with a biblically-orientated view of the world is free to accept or reject such assumptions. The Christian possesses a degree of freedom unknown to the humanist who, as we have seen, is driven by his philosophical premises towards an evolutionistic position. The Christian is free to take a far more objective view of the scientific evidence. This indeed is a precious liberty in such a difficult area, and it behooves him to value this freedom highly and to use it aright.

A Christian today is in a position where he can accept or reject the current assumptions underlying scientific theories of evolution. There is one proviso however, and this is that as long as he is thinking scientifically his sole criteria must be scientific ones. The possibility of rejection of evolutionary ideas is open to him, as it should be to all scientists. Nevertheless, in scientific terms, the rejection of one hypothesis follows from its inadequacy to account for available evidence and, in turn, leads to the emergence of a more satisfactory hypothesis. Both old and new hypotheses are subject to the same scientific principles of experimental testing. The controlling principle is the scientific evidence. From this it follows that evolutionary theories cannot be regarded as permanent or impregnable, that is, as long as they are viewed scientifically. Such a statement does not allow us to jump to the opposite conclusion either, that their demise is imminent. The Christian is free to view their scientific validity and usefulness in an objective manner, and is therefore able to retain the distinction between the scientific and philosophical aspects of evolution. It can also he argued that, if these aspects of evolution are distinguished, the detailed mechanism of evolution will be of no concern to the Christian as a Christian.

Alternatives to Evolutionary Theory

If these points are accepted, they will have a number of consequences for the Christian. As a start he will strive hard to view evolution in precise terms, so that he will sec clearly where alternatives are required and the nature of such alternatives. For instance, in rejecting the anti-Christian stance of evolutionary humanists, he will he in a position to decide which emphases are of a religious nature and which are scientific in character.

The importance of this distinction cannot be overemphasized, because while it is honouring to God to reject a false religious position it is far from honouring to Him to reject experimental findings in the name of Christ. Linked with this is the nature of the suggested alternatives to evolution. Simply because it is felt that evolutionism with its humanistic presuppositions must be replaced with a God-centered view of the created universe, it does not follow that evolutionary theory must he replaced with catastrophic creationism. The former is essentially a religious-philosophical issue; the latter should be a scientific one. In practice however, both are frequently treated as religious-philosophical issues, thereby confusing categories and blurring the true challenges to Christian thinking.

The confusion of categories which may arise can be illustrated by asking what are the biblical alternatives to evolution. In the eyes of the biblical writers this world is dominated by God, not by an evolutionary process nor by autonomous man nor by an emerging Christ-like consciousness. God created, God sustains and God directs. From this it follows that in the religious-philosophical sphere God is the Christian's alternative to evolution-the two are mutually exclusive. It behooves Christians therefore, to think far more constructively about the cosmic role of Christ in the universe-a realm traditionally left to liberal theologians.

At the scientific level, I must call myself an evolutionist... at the religious-philosophical level I am more than happy to call myself a creationist.

Far more controversial perhaps are the possibility and nature of alternatives to evolution at the mechanistic-scientific level. From what I have already said, Christians should not feel any need to find "Christian" alternatives, although as I have also said, Christians (and others) should not he complacent about the alleged adequacy of currently accepted evolutionary ideas.

I do not believe there are alternatives at the mechanistic level which are specifically Christian. This brings me back to the question I raised previously, and which I suggested then was the crux of the creation-evolution
controversy. Should Christians view as their chief task in this controversy the erection of systems of thought designed to combat evolutionary thinking at the level of mechanism? My view is that, in striving to provide such systems, they are misguided. I have a number of reasons for saying this. In the first place, whatever the biblical writers do or do not tell us about the mechanisms of creation, it is in the form of very general principles. Second, even if we today are able to discern the direction in which these principles are pointing, the task of applying them at a detailed level and in terms of current scientific concepts will involve an enormous amount of speculation. This in turn must inevitably be dependent upon a whole host of extra-biblical principles and data. Third, any system based upon general "biblical" principles, however valid it may be in theological terms, cannot by its very nature be experimental and hence cannot he scientific in this sense. This is because the principles, if they are truly biblical ones, are immutable. They are not dependent upon experimental evidence for their validity, and they are not subject to the testing-retesting, proof-disproof approach of scientific experimentation.

A Personal Dilemma

If I reject the creationist systems put forward as alternatives to evolutionary systems, where do I stand? To answer this question I find it necessary to resort to the distinction I have already made between scientific and philosophical views of evolution. At the scientific level I must call myself an evolutionist, not because I particularly like this designation nor because I view evolutionary ideas as unchangeable. Rather, I can find no better explanation at present for the bulk of the available evidence on the development and relationships of living forms. At the religious-philosophical level I am more than happy to call myself a creationist, believing implicitly in the biblical data on the sovereign work of God in creation.

A number of objections will immediately be raised to this position. It can he argued that I am compartmentalizing my thinking, holding as I do two beliefs which some consider to be incompatible. To an extent of course I am compartmentalizing my thinking, but only because the nature of the issues is such that their integration into a single system of thought is not readily possible. This is one aspect of my personal dilemma. No one wants to live with tension, and yet tension may be inevitable in this area. No one wants to live with unresolved questions, and yet there may well he questions in this area incapable of resolution at present.

My position is an open ended one and hence unsatisfactory in the eyes of many. Note however, that its open endedness is essentially on the scientific issues where, in my opinion as a scientist, open endedness is mandatory. Even very general scientific principles are subject to revision and, occasionally, rejection. Whether or not this ever happens with evolution I am in no position to judge, but I must keep my options open particularly regarding some of its more detailed mechanisms. How open ended are creationist views? The biblical data are not open ended, biblical interpretation on Genesis 1-il is somewhat more so, while creationist schemes are very much more so. Even on the religious side then, the matter is not as black and white as some would have us believe. Nevertheless, open endedness is not always easy to accommodate in one's thinking, and it constitutes another segment of my personal dilemma.

It will be asserted by some that I am unfaithful to biblical revelation and that my view of the Scriptures is not as high as it should be. In other words, it may be argued that I am not thinking in a truly evangelical fashion. This I would resolutely deny. All I am saying is that the Bible does not speak in an experimental scientific manner. It cannot, because it is God's revelation to man and not man's attempt to unfathom the riches of God's world by a strict system of experimentation. Man needs both these, man uses both these, and God ordained that both should be exploited to the full. This principle is not abrogated in the creationevolution area, simply because misunderstandings and genuine difficulties abound in it. This is a part of my personal dilemma too, because the body of Christ is being torn asunder by claims and counter-claims about fidelity to God's word.

Then there is a final twist to this controversy which puts my personal dilemma in a nutshell, As I look at man from the perspective of both a human biologist and a Christian, how do I see him? When confronted by the numerous problems facing man today, what principles do I resort to in an attempt to solve them? Do I find help in evolutionary concepts, or not? According to some evolutionary humanists, the principles uncovered in studying evolutionary trends should point the way forward for modern man.

It is at precisely this juncture that the limitations of evolutionary thinking become all too obvious. I (and many others) cannot find in man's evolutionary past the principles which will help unravel the complexities of the ethical decisions facing us today. In this regard evolution as a value generating system is bankrupt. We have to look elsewhere for help, and for the Christian of course this is to the Bible. In terms of what I have said previously, we should not expect to obtain value judgments from evolution. And we do not when it is presented as a scientific theory. The only value judgments ever present in evolution are those injected into it from outside, and whenever that occurs we are dealing with some form of evolutionism.

If this is the case, evolutionary theory may have far less relevance for our understanding of man, even in a biological sense, than is generally supposed. We need to ask, for example, whether the evolutionary description of the human brain provides us with much meaningful information about the way in which human beings behave today. Is it, perhaps, more profitable to study the modem brain than the sequence of primate brains which may have preceded the modern one? I will not attempt to answer this question here, as it raises very many intriguing issues. It is, nonetheless, a question to be treated seriously.

Then again, there is the highly subjective issue of my reaction to the time-span of an evolutionary past. Without touching on the validity or otherwise of these time-scales, the meaningfulness of them for life now is debatable. To me, they are no more than of abstract academic interest; they have nothing of the impact of the dynamic of biblical history. Perhaps there is no reason why they should. Nevertheless, their remoteness perplexes me, and I am left wondering about their meaning.

It should he obvious by now that, while I have no ready solutions to the creation-evolution controversy, I am more at home with creation. This is part and parcel of my world-view. Unfortunately it is not part and parcel of the scientific heritage to which I also belong, and I cannot dismiss this heritage and remain true to myself or to that view of God's world which it gives me. I feel something of a stranger in two quite different worlds, two worlds of which I-as one of God's creatures-am very much a part. It is this sense of alienation which is at the heart of my personal dilemma.