Science in Christian Perspective
Creation and/or Evolution
DAVID L. WILLIS
Department of General Science
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon 97331
From: JASA 29 (June 1977): 68-72.
The two terms in my title are regarded by many people as violently antithetical. It is my purpose to demonstrate that such is not necessarily the case. I shall attempt to show that the Biblical record of creation allows more evolutionary change than many socalled "Creationists" admit. Conversely, the scientific evidence for a totally evolutionary scheme of life is not nearly so conclusive and overwhelming as so-called "Evolutionists" often state.
Let me state the assumptions upon which I propose to build my arguments. The first assumption is that the Old and New Testaments constitute a trustworthy and accurate record of God's relation to man and the natural world. This record is divinely inspired (in the orthodox sense of the term), yet it bears the distinctive imprint of its various human writers and the sources from which they drew their information.
Secondly, the creation account in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, while pre-scientific and nonanalytical in character, is nevertheless an accurate general description of the origin and subsequent early development of the natural world. It may not be merely written off as unrelated to the scientific evidence. However, the abbreviated and summary nature of the account and its strongly anthropocentric viewpoint should caution us against attempting any detailed correlation with the geological record.
Thirdly, the application of man's God-given capacities for logical and systematic investigation of the natural world-scientific study-is a valid enterprise. It is valid precisely because the results of creation appear to he a basically rational and comprehensible universe. However, it should be noted that the scientific study of non-repeatable occurrences of the distant past involves a very large margin of uncertainty compared to the investigation of contemporary events. Although science deals with natural rather than supernatural processes, it is not thereby intrinsically biased toward atheism.
Lastly, since we regard the Biblical record to be an accurate sourcebook and the application of the scientific method to the natural world a valid approach, there can exist no ultimate conflict in our interpretation of the two. Given our assumptions, apparent discrepancies must be the result of incomplete evidence or faulty interpretation of one or both sources. A major goal of the Christian scientist is to formulate and/or identify positions which satisfactorily harmonize the scientific evidence with the Scriptures, without doing violence to either.
Genesis Record of Origins
With these assumptions clarified, let us next consider the Genesis record of origins. This portion of the Bible is familiar, perhaps too familiar. With such passages, there is always the danger of reading into the text meaning that is not there. (For example, how many of you conceive of Adam as any other than a red-blooded, all-American boy? We don't get this racial bias from the text, but from our own mental interpolation.) A hyper-literal interpretation of Genesis accompanied by a wholesale reading into the text of inferred or supposed concepts characterizes much of the current Creationist movement. Christian scientists must come to grips with this approach.
The self-styled "Creationists" make much of a "literal" interpretation of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Explicit in their view is a series of recent creative acts that produced a world and its array of living forms much like those of today. Creative acts are usually defined as instantaneous and involving neither natural processes nor use of pre-existing materials. Greater or lesser emphasis may be placed on a universal cataclysmic deluge which accounted for fossils and other such troublesome artifacts. This literalistic interpretation is commonly promulgated as "The Christian View of Creation." With this approach to creation in mind, let us examine the pertinent Biblical terms and their apparent meanings.
Translation of Key Words
Attention immediately centers on the Hebrew word bara, commonly translated "create." This word or its derivatives occur only seven times in the Genesis record of origins (1:1, 21, 27 [three limes]; 2:3,4) and about forty times elsewhere in the Old Testament. God is always the subject of the verb and it normally refers to some unique formative action. The product may be concrete ("man"-Gen. 1:26) or abstract ("a clean heart" Psalm 51:10). Beyond this point one cannot realistically drive the meaning of the term. It is important to recognize here that the Old Testament is the only extant Hebrew literature of its era. Thus, for such infrequently used words the opportunity to crosscheck their range of meanings with the context of other literary types is absent. The point is that we do not have a precise definition of tiara from the Bible, itself.
Does tiara uniformly refer to an instantaneous creation without process or use of pre-existing material? Let us examine the instances where it is used. In Genesis 1: 1 (" In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."), the traditional meaning very well may, apply. Unless one assumes that matter is eternal, this verse apparently records the origin of matter de novo and its assembly into the astronomical bodies. However, the verse is a brief, but majestic statement of results, not necessarily ruling out process.
The next occurrence is in Genesis 1:21 ("And God created great whales, and every living creature that
moveth ). The context here does not define the nature of the creative act. From verse 20, one might infer that some natural process was involved.
Any argument for a restricted meaning of tiara is badly shaken by the context of the remaining usages in Genesis. In verse 27, the verb is repeated three times in connection with the origin of the first humans. However, the previous verse states, "And God said, Let us make man in our image . The word "make" here is the Hebrew asah. It is the common term for "make" or "do" and is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament with a wide range of meanings. The subject of this verb is variously man, God, animals, etc. It commonly involves natural processes and use of materials. Furthermore, in Genesis 2:3,4, the words tiara and asah are used interchangeably in immediate and parallel context. In view of the very general meaning of asah, it would strain the clear statements in these passages to attempt to assign a special and restrictive meaning to bara.
If creation is to be understood as an event without process or use of pre-existing material, one is confronted with the description of Adam's origin in Genesis 2:7. Here the pre-existing material ("dust") and at least some process ("breathed into his nostrils") are clearly stated for even a literalist to see. The word here translated "formed" is also significant. It is the Hebrew yatsar, whose root meaning is to mold or form. It is commonly used of human or divine activity in the Old Testament and relates to a variety of manufacturing activities, among them pottery making. Whether in this context God was making the original human crackpot, I'll leave to your decision!
In summary, one cannot derive from the context in Genesis 1 and 2 the restricted meaning of "create" that the creationists desire. The special term tiara is used interchangeably with common words for acts of purely human production. In fact, in Isaiah 43:7 all three of the above words are used in a perfectly
The biblical record of creation does not rule out the divine employment of natural processes in either origins or subsequent development. The record simply states that behind all matter and life stands God, the Creator.
parallel series to describe God's relation to the Jews! We must avoid insisting
on a special definition for the word "create" which goes beyond the
more general use in the Bible, itself.
Must Creation Be Instantaneous?
The emphasis on creation being instantaneous, or at least without use of long time periods is another problem. This emphasis often is tied to an interesting theological attitude. I sadly remember a debate with a well-known conservative Old Testament scholar several years ago on these matters. He fervently insisted that a series of instantaneous creative acts over a literal period of six days was a key Christian belief related to the omnipotence of God. I can't forget the look on his face when I mischievously reduced his argument to absurdity. My observations went something like this, "If God's omnipotence is revealed by a six-day creation, then wouldn't He be more omnipotent (sic) if He accomplished it in only one day? He would be still more omnipotent if it took place in only one hour, etc., etc." In dealing with such matters we must always remember that it is not a question of what God can do, but what He did do.
The Genesis record of origins does not contain a clear statement of its purpose. We would probably agree that this purpose is religious, not scientific. However, it is not thereby scientifically in error. The common denominator of religions of the ancient world was the identification of deity(ies) with natural features or manmade images-idolatry. The repeated religious failure of the Jews was to lapse into the idolatrous customs of neighboring cultures. The Jewish prophets regularly pointed out that the God who "created heaven and earth" cannot be appropriately represented by an image or a natural feature of the creation. In other words, a clear view of the creator-role of God is antithetical to idolatry.
In our time old-fashioned idolatry is somewhat out of style. Instead of an overeagerness to see God in every tree or stone, our age would largely reason Him out of business. Here, again, the emphasis on the Creator-God is pertinent. Atheistic humanism that sees man as "the measure of all things" may be opposed by the clear statement, "In the beginning God created.
It would be tragic if the definition of creation were made so restrictive as to be wholly incompatible with the record of science. This would allow our contemporaries to avoid the philosophical impact of God the creator because of our scientific obscurantism.
The biblical record of creation does not rule out the divine employment of natural processes in either origins or subsequent development. The length of time involved is not an essential factor. The record simply states that behind all matter and life stands God, the Creator. The details of origin (creation) and subsequent change (evolution) are in the realm of science, not theology. Any attempt to read all of the scientific evidence through the narrow slit of a particular restrictive "creationist" interpretation is both unfortunate and untenable.
Dogma of Evolution
Just as some "creationists" promulgate a narrowly literalistic interpretation of Genesis, so many contemporary scientists proclaim the dogma of evolution. Before evaluating this matter, let us carefully define the term. Evolution basically means "change." As used by biologists, it refers to changes in populations of living organisms by natural processes over a span of time. There are really two levels of usage for this term, although the important distinctions between them are often blurred in common practice. Limited evolution (microevolution) involves the formation of new species or varieties by natural selection operating on the genetic pool of a population over a limited period of time.
By contrast, general evolution envisions an extension of such limited changes to account for the origin of all living and extinct species of organisms from a single source over the span of geological time. It is this broad generalization about the presumed interrelationship of all living things that is usually intended by the unmodified word "evolution." In addition, chemical evolution is a term frequently used today. It refers to assumed pre-biotic changes on the primeval earth which gave rise to the first organism(s) by purely natural means.
Judging from the outcries by leading biological and scientific societies and leaders regarding textbook controversies, general evolution is yet a strongly-held contemporary dogma, if not a sacred cow. Introductory biology textbooks commonly treat the theory as proven beyond all shadow of doubt. Statements such as, "the vast majority of scientists accept evolution," suggest that scientific troth is determined by the ballot box. From my own experience in 21 years of teaching, few students (or faculty for that matter) are aware that a significant minority viewpoint exists. I mean from a scientific, not a religious basis. Let us consider some of these criticisms of the general evolutionary theory.
Criticisms of General Evolution
Several contemporary biologists have attempted to make the point that most of the evidence presented for general evolution, in fact, substantiates only limited evolution. General evolutionary theory is primarily a grand extrapolation of this evidence. Limited evolution is rather clearly demonstrable, whereas general evolution should be regarded much more hesitantly at present.
In the preface to his book Implications of Evolution, C. S. Kerkut, a leading invertebrate zoologist at the University of Southampton, England, suecintly summarizes the situation,
May I here humbly state as part of my biological credo that I believe that the theory of Evolution as presented by orthodox evolutionists is in many ways a satisfying explanation of some of the evidence. At the same time I think that the attempt to explain all living forms in terms of an evolution from is unique source, though a brave and valid attempt, is one that is premature and not satisfactorily supported by present-day evidence. It may in fact be shown ultimately to he the correct explanation, but the supporting evidence remains to be discovered. We can, if we like, believe that such an evolutionary system has taken place, but I for one do not think that "it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt." In the pages of the book that follow I shall present evidence for the point of view that there are many discrete groups of animals and that we do not know how they have evolved nor how they are interrelated. It is possible that they might have evolved quite independently from discrete and separate sources. (pp. vii-viii).
Dr. John T. Bonner of Princeton University, in his review of Kerkut's book in the American Scientist,
responded with deep feeling to Kerkut's approach,
This is a book with a disturbing message; it points to some unseemly cracks in the foundations. One is disturbed because what is said gives us the uneasy feeling that we knew it for a long time deep down but were never willing to admit this even to ourselves. It is another one of those cold and uncompromising situations where the naked truth and human nature travel in different directions. (p. 240).
A quite different criticism of aspects of general evolution has been raised by several mathematicians in recent years. The thrust of their criticism was that computerized mathematical models of evolutionary phenomena did not fit the evolutionary time scale. There simply hasn't been enough time to account for all the presumed evolutionary changes based on a mechanism of natural selection of mutant characteristics. Moreover, they objected to the concept that blind selection (chance) could result in cumulative improvements in populations. No mathematical models could encompass such a situation. In other words, the proposed means are inadequate to account for the presumed results of general evolution.
A formal symposium featuring a frank confrontation between some of these mathematicians (led by Dr. Murray Eden of M.I.T.) and well known evolutionary theorists was held in 1966. The proceedings of this symposium were published under the revealing title of Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution. The verbatim transcript of the discussions following each position paper revealed just how closed was the circle of evidence considered by some evolutionary thinkers.
Loren Eiseley, giving the introductory address at the symposium identified the problem,
- . we should give serious thought to the question of whether we have reached a certain point of hesitation in our seemingly clear explanation of the way evolution comes about. Have we really answered all the questions; .In connection with some of these obscure problems of related mutations, or variations that have to be related almost from the beginning in order to be effective, he [Darwin] was not as confident in some of his expressions as the neo-Darwinists . The point, it seems to me, - . - lies - - - over in another domain of the organismic approach, the problem of whether there are some aspects of life, and of chemistry under the control of life, which are not yet totally accountable for with the meant at our command. (pp. 3-4).
Here, he is clearly addressing the almost cocky attitude of some molecular biologists today who insist that life is only an extension of chemistry and physics. Eiseley gently suggests that such a conclusion may be a trifle premature in light of many unexplained phenomena of life.
The fossil record is appealed to as conclusive evidence that general evolution has occurred according to the classic pattern. It is not always made clear that while fossil remains are "facts," the interpretation of their interrelationships in time and space is often tenuous. Frequently, lines of descent for a series of fossil "species" (such as the horse) are based on fossils found at random in widely remote regions of the earth. To justify such questionable interpretations, appeal is made to hypothetical dispersion routes, corridors and filters. Elaborate biogeographieal schemes have been propounded of which P. J. Darlington's Zoogeography: The Geographical Distribution of Animals is a classic. All such schemes envision an essentially stable system of continents which changed in only minor geographic details.
The revolutionary development of the geophysical theory of plate tectonics during the past decade has now established that the continents indeed have moved extensively and continue to do so. The older idea of continental drift is again in vogue, but now with a reasonable scientific mechanism. Evolutionary schemes based on former biogeographical concepts are now hopelessly obsolete. Hypotheses about the adaptive radiation of various plant and animal groups, relict populations, etc., are now undergoing wholesale revision. A recent volume in this area, Evolution, Mammals, and Southern Continents, is one of the first books on historical biogeography to appear since continental movement became a fact. Anyone familiar with the former schemes is shocked to discover just how many settled issues have suffered major surgery or been abandoned. Clearly, it is premature to be dogmatic about the implications of at least the terrestrial fossil record at this point in history.
Philosophical Inadequacies of Darwinian Theory
Too frequently, scientific considerations of evolution deal exclusively with the hard data and their interpretation. Such is the framework of scientific training. Philosophers of science, however, view the subject with a much broader perspective. It is from this angle that some of the most serious objections to Darwinian evolution come. Many names are associated with this attack, but Dr. Marjorie Crene, of the University of California at Davis, is the most readable from my perspective. In her book The Knower and the Known in a masterful chapter entitled "The Faith of Darwinism" she charts the philosophical inadequacies of Darwinian theory. I would recommend her writings to anyone seriously interested in this subject. A few quotations may whet your appetite.
Relative to the oft-cited case of industrial melanism and English peppered moths, she states:
Here, say the neo-Darwinians, is natural selection, that is, evolution, actually going on. But to this we may answer: selection, yes; the colour of moths or snails or mice is clearly controlled by visibility to predators; but 'evolution'? Do these observations explain how in the first place there came to he any moths or snails or mice at all? By what right are we to extrapolate the pattern by which colour or other such superficial
As a biologist and a Christian committed to the Scriptures as God's revelation, I believe that the concepts of creation and evolutionary change, properly understood, are compatible.
characters are governed to the origin of species, let alone of orders, classes, phyla of living organisms? But, say the neo-Darwinians again, natural selection is the only mechanism we observe in present-day nature. But again, if this were so, we should still have no right to say that the only mechanism we see at work now is the only one that has been at work in all the long past of the living world. Nor, for that matter, is it the only 'mechanism'. (pp. 193-194).
Her most telling criticisms deal with the inadequacy of natural selection to really "explain" the facts of life:
It is precisely the insistence on the equation of life with adaptation that defines the limits of Darwinism, and it is doubt of the all-inclusiveness of adaptation as a concept definitive of life that motivates the most effective objections to the Darwinian synthesis . . . . One may indeed ask whether all adaptations have arisen by Darwioian-Meodclian means; but one may also ask, as some eminent biologists do, whether evolution, on a large as well as a small scale, is essentially a matter of adaptation at all . . . . There are, indeed, all the minute specialized divergences like those of the Galapagos finches which so fascinated Darwin; it is their story that is told in the Origin and elaborated by the selectionists today. But these are dead ends, last minutiae of development; it is not from them that the great massive novelties of evolution could have sprung. For this, such dissenters feel, is the major evolutionary theme: great new inventions, new ideas of living, which arise with startling suddenness, proliferate in a variety of directions, yet persist with fundamental constancy-as in Darwinian terms they would have no reason in the world to do. Neither the origin and persistence of great new modes of lifephotosyntlscsis, breathing, thinking-nor all the intricate and co-ordinated changes needed to support them, are explained or even made conceivable on the Darwinian view. (pp. 196-197).
Perhaps the most revealing evaluation of evolutionary theory she gives is from the philosophical standpoint.
Yet, if all this is so, why is the neo-Darwinian theory so confidently affirmed? Because neoDarwinism is not only a scientific theory, and a comprehensive, seemingly self-confirming theory, but a theory deeply embedded in a metaphysical faith: in the faith that science can and must explain all the phenomena of nature in terms of one hypothesis, and that an hypothesis of maximum simplicity, of maximum impersonality and objectivity. Relatively speaking, ncoDarwinism is logically simple: there are just two things happening, chance variations and the elimination of the worst ones among them; and both these happenings are just plain facts, things that do or don't happen, yes or no. Nature is like a vast computing machine set up in binary digits; no mystery there. And -what man has not yet achieved-the machine is selfprogrammed: it began by chance, it continues automatically, its master plan itself creeping up on itself, so to speak, by means of its own automatism. Again, no mystery there; man seems at home in a simply rational world. (pp. 199-200).
In summary, the actual Biblical statements about creation are not as definitive nor as restrictive as to process and time as many creationists demand. Taken at face value, the Genesis account seems to describe the divine origin of a variety of distinctive forms of life. These forms subsequently produced descendants by purely natural processes. The general theory of evolution postulates an ultimate relatedness of all living forms because of a common ancestry and origin. Natural selection operating on random mutations in populations is proposed as the effective method to produce the present diversity of life. However, both the ultimate biological relatedness of all forms and the effectiveness of the proposed mechanism are seriously being questioned today. Kerkut, in the closing paragraph of his book sumarizes the current situation.
There is a theory which states that many living animals can he observed over the course of time to undergo changes so that new species are formed. This can he called the "Special Theory of Evolution" and can he demonstrated in certain cases by experiments. On the other hand there is the theory that all the living forms in the world have arisen from a single source which itself came from an inorganic form. This theory can be called the "General Theory of Evolution" and the evidence that supports it is not sufficiently strong to allow us to consider it as anything more than a working hypothesis. It is not clear whether the changes that bring about speciation are of the same nature as those that brought about the development of new phyla. The answer will be found by future experimental work and not by dogmatic assertions that the General Theory of Evolution must be correct because there is nothing else that will satisfactorily take its place. (p. 157).
Several hypotheses which would harmonize the biblical statements with the current scientific evidence exist. One is particularly attractive to me. It proposes that the major forms of life were indeed brought into existence by some unique and non-repeatable mechanism (creation?). Thereafter, natural selection or other natural factors led to diversification within broad limits. Determination of the range of these limits is a subject for scientific investigation and, thus, must remain an open question for the present. This approach actually fits the general data of paleontology as well as the general theory of evolution does. In addition, it serves to explain the evident absence of transitional forms between major groups of organisms and the lack of evidence for phyletic evolutionary origins.
Most importantly, such an approach allows for new scientific data to he accommodated without the necessity of a major revision of one's theoretical foundations. This latter point is crucial, as witness the exhaustive efforts of certain "creationists" to discredit any and every type of evidence for a great age of the earth. They are forced into such desperate actions because the concept of a recent earth is a key plank in their philosophical platform. To borrow the language of the "uptight" generation, our broad hypotheses should "hang loose," avoiding rigidly fixed positions which, like the Maginot Line of the 1940's, may be outflanked by a novel offensive.
As a biologist and a Christian committed to the Scriptures as God's relevation, I believe that the concepts of creation and evolutionary change, properly understood, are compatible. One need not sacrifice the accuracy of the Genesis account or the validity of the scientific record in any shotgun marriage. Thus, the divine origin of the forms of life by methods at present unresolved is not in opposition to present scientific evidence. Nor, on the other hand, is the occurrence of extensive evolutionary change over great periods of time irreconcilable with the Biblical record. The "golden mean" of truth in this area will be found neither with the hyperliteralism of some creationists nor with the narrow dogmatism of the more numerous neo-Darwinians.
1Kerkut, G.A. (1960) Implications of Evolution. New York, Pergamon Press, 174 p.
2Bonoer, John Tyler. (1961) Perspectives. American Scientist 49:240-244. June.
3Moorbead, Paul S., and Martin M. Kaplan (eds.). (1967) Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution. A Symposium held at The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, April 2526, 1966. Philadelphia, Wistar Institute Press. 140 p. (The Wistar Institute Symposium Monograph No. 5).
4Darlington, P. J., Jr. (1957) Zoogeography: the Geographical Distribution of Animals. New York, Wiley.
5Keast, Allen, Frank C. Erk, and Bentley Glass (eds.). (1972) Evolution, Mammals, and Southern Continents. Albany, S.U.N.Y. Press. 544 p. (Reviewed by David S. Woodruff in Science 180:603-605, May 11, 1973).
6Grene, Mariorie. 11966) The Knower and the Known. London, Faber and Faber. 283 p.