Bible and Science
TAKING DARWIN AND CREATION SERIOUSLY.
Vicar of Chirk
A Pair of Contradictions.
Darwin and Genesis are often seen as personifications of two contradictory views of the Universe. Darwin symbolises an evolutionary and naturalistic view of the universe from which God is excluded. Genesis symbolises a world-view where everything is created by the direct fiat creative act of God. If Darwin is taken seriously then Genesis is ignored and God is gently squeezed out of existence. Some do just that, the Oxford Zoologist, Richard Dawkins, for example, and the philosopher Michael Ruse in Taking Darwin Seriously (1986), but not so in Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (2000). If Genesis is taken seriously, then Darwin and all his works are seen to be fundamentally flawed, and a "Creationist" position is adopted, in which not only is Evolution rejected, but so are the findings of Geology and Astronomy, and the age of earth is held to be a mere 10,000 years. This dilemma is echoed both by teenagers (and adults!) who say, "I don't believe in God, I believe in Darwin." and think that is the last word, and by loyal Christians who feel that they must take Genesis literally.
Rather than to force a choice of either Darwin or Genesis, this brief paper contends that it is a case of BOTH/AND not either/or, because Darwin and Genesis are complimentary and answer different questions. A Christian must take both together and let the insights of "Darwin" (i.e. a personification of evolutionary biology, and geology) illuminate and enhance the Christian teaching of the creation of the world and all its life. Together they also shed light on four other important issues; The problem of ascribing ages to the planet and its strata; the problem of language; the problem of the nature of man; and the question of design.
TAKING DARWIN SERIOUSLY
For one hundred and thirty years Charles Darwin has come to personify evolution. Evolution means different things to different people, but, in essence, evolution means that all life is descended from a common ancestor, most popularly that we are descended from apes. Parodies and misunderstandings abound, and there is a prevalent view that evolution excludes creation and thus God.
The genius of Darwin in "The Origin of Species" (1859) was that he brought together previously unrelated aspects to biology; Variation and selection (leading to Natural Selection), the Geological Record, Geographical Distribution and the "Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings". One of the main "gaps" in Darwin's theory was the problem of inheritance or genetics. The solution to this was provided by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s but remained unknown until the turn of the century. Genetics was what biologists were looking for and this resulted in the "Neodarwinian Synthesis" of Darwinianism and Mendelism which reigned supreme until Gould and Eldredge put forward "Punctuated Equilibria"(Stop-Go Evolution) in the 1970s. The subsequent argument has been lively and even acrimonious, but few have questioned Evolution as such. Evolution is regarded as much of a Fact as the sphericity of the earth, - and rightly so!
To summarise the arguments for Evolution, these are
1) The Evidence of the Fossil Record.
The geological record shows a progressive "appearance" of life. ; invertebrates with shells at the base of the Cambrian (550m.y.); Vertebrates (fish) in the middle Ordovician (460 m.y.); leading up to Mammals in the Jurassic (180 m.y.); and finally "Man" a few million years ago.
2) "Mutual Affinities"
There are great number of mutual affinities between all forms of life. For example the structure of all vertebrates have much in common. If, say, the fore limbs of a bird, a whale, a dog and a human are compared, they all have the same basic structure and are said to be homologous, and point to a common ancestor.
3) Geographical Distribution.
The oddities of geographical distribution were explained before Darwin by holding that God created different creatures in different places. Thus, for example in the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin visited when on the Beagle in 1834, God with would have created umpteen different finches on different islands. Evolutionarily this is seen as common ancestral finches living in isolation on different islands, and then diverging over subsequent generations. On a longer timescale lifeforms before the Mesozoic in Africa and South America were similar, but have diverged since then. The reason became clear with the discovery of Continental Drift which demonstrated that the two continents started to move apart during the Mesozoic.
This is a terribly brief summary of Evolution, but there is a plethora of good non-technical books, (follow up on the ASA website). Sadly slick and over-simplified TV-style presentations do not help one's understanding.
TAKING CREATION SERIOUSLY
Open any childrens' Bible on the first page and you are usually confronted with an idealised picture of a lamb frolicking with a lion. Thus from an early age people are encouraged to believe in a literal six-24 hour day creation. This aids and abets youngsters to give up their faith at an early age, but the problem often persists to adulthood, leaving them with a nagging doubt that God could not have created the world because of Darwin.
The Bible begins with the marvellous double "account" of Creation. I say double because Genesis 2 differs from Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is the best known with its structure of creation on six successive days. Approach it literally and you are in mess. Attempting to tie it in to scientific discovery always fails, as is inevitable as the Bible was "written" 3000 years before the rise of Geology. See it as a hymn to God the Creator and it comes to life. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". The focus is on God, the Rock of Ages, not the ages of rocks. Again "And God said" occurs nine times as an introductory formula for God's creativity. Ultimately Genesis One is a "Whodunnit" not a "Howdunnit"!
Genesis 1 and 2 are not the only parts of the bible, which speak of God the Creator. Take the last five chapters of the Book of Job, or Isaiah chapter 40 from verse 12, some of the Psalms especially 8, 19,and 95 (the Venite) to mention a few from the Old Testament, and John chapter 1 and Colossians Chapter 1 verses 15 to 20., both of which speak of a "Cosmic" Christ.
Taking Creation seriously is an affirmation that God is the Creator of all that is, with a realisation that the Bible gives no scientific explanation. Science will inform our understanding of Creation, not overthrow it.
4004 B.C. AND ALL THAT.
In the margins of many old Bibles, we will find dates in years B.C. for the Old Testament. For Creation the date is 4004.B.C., and this date is usually ascribed to Archbishop Ussher of the seventeenth century. Up to 1650 most Jews and Christians reckoned the age of the earth to be a few thousands. With the rise of scientists such as John Ray, Whiston and others before 1700 the earth was seen as somewhat older. The flowering of geology at the end of the eighteenth century with Smith, Cuvier, de Saussure and Hutton developed that further, and before long talk was of millions of years. Many of the early geologists were Anglican clergy and soon the churches took the vast age of the earth on board. There were a minority of Christians who opposed geology as did some of Faraday's colleagues at the Royal Institution. By 1860 hardly any clergy or educated Christians believed in 4004.B.C. One orthodox Evangelical writing in 1862 wrote, "Some school-books still teach to the ignorant that the earth is 6,000 years old. No well-educated person of the present day shares that delusion." (Alas, many share it in 2001!) So much for Richard Dawkins' claim that in 1862 churchmen favoured the 4004.B.C.date for creation. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce was typical of that day, as he completely accepted the geological timescale and was well-informed in matters scientific. His attack on Darwin was not theological obscurantism, but the last fling of a soon-to-be outmoded scientific view. Poor Soapy Sam, history has been very unkind to him. In fact, the usual story about Wilberforce being trounced by Huxley in 1860 is not supported by contemporary reports.
Putting actual dates to the age of the universe, the earth or rock strata proved difficult even though Ussher was dethroned. Before 1860 there were simply guestimates of millions and hundreds of millions, but no figures could be given. In the first edition of "The Origin" Darwin reckoned that 306,662,400 years had passed since the mid-Cretaceous, and was berated for it. (In fact, it was a very good reckoning, as today's figures are about 100,000,000 years, only a factor of five out.) In the 1860s Lord Kelvin estimated the age of the earth first at 100 million years and later at 24 millions. Geologists were none too happy, but accepted them. It was the application of Radioactivity to geological dating that began to give numerical dates. For forty years now the age of the earth has been unchallenged at 4,600 million years, and the oldest rocks at 3,800 million. and the base of the Cambrian at 550 million. To the geologically uninitiated they are mind-boggling, but then so are the structure of the atom and black holes.
Some Christians have great problems over these vast ages and suffer from chronological vertigo, but they are brute facts we cannot deny. As Christians, we should see the hand of God in the unfolding history of our planet, and let this not only increase our wonder of Creation but more importantly of the Creator.
(Recently, Creationists have tried to demonstrate that the geological methods are fatally flawed, and that the earth is but a few thousand years young. Not one of the Creationist arguments has any substance to it. It is sad to be so negative, but Creationism is a confused hot-potch of bad science, misunderstanding and misrepresentation.)
The problems some have over geology is caused by a too literal view of the Bible, and not allowing the pre-scientific biblical writers to communicate truth about God in a non-literal way. It also does not recognise that most educated Christians never took Genesis literally!
DAFFODILS... TOSSING THEIR HEADS IN SPRIGHTLY DANCE
Thus wrote Wordsworth in I wandered lonely as a cloud and it makes the point far better than to say "a group of 137 Narcissi pseudonarcissus were oscillating in a wind of 14.5 k.p.h. (Force 3 Beaufort Scale)". Literalism is the scourge of all language, as it refuses to recognise idiom or imagery, or to recognise that there can be no one-to-one correlation with the object described. Poetry is the most dependent on imagery, and scientific language supposedly the least so, but what about Tectonic Plates etc. Scientists make much use of imagery, but this is often not acknowledged. The Bible contains a variety of language from history and letters to poetry and early Genesis, which has been called saga, legend, myth and (my preference) proto-history. Literalism often ends up in absurdity. Countering the literalism of a student, who wondered how the mountains "skipped like rams" in Psalm 114, the Evangelical Charles Simeon (d1836) replied humourously "Yes, with a hop, skip, and a jump!" Historically literalism has been a problem over the Bible only for the last hundred and fifty years. Further to try to shoehorn the Bible in a scientific worldview is utterly absurd, as biblical writers predate science by a couple of thousand years. The great Reformer John Calvin, writing in his Commentary on Genesis centuries before Darwin, is very apt on this matter; "Moses wrote in a popular style...he had respect to us rather than to the stars...(and finally) He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere." To Calvin the important was what the Bible said about God, not science. This echoed more recently when Pope John Paul said, "The Bible tells us how to go to, heaven, not how the heavens go".
THE PARAGON OF ANIMALS Hamlet II.ii.318
Much of the hostility to evolution is because of the fear that humans will be reduced to mere animals. After all if we are descended from apes then we must be apes! This was one of Bishop Wilberforce's major concerns with evolution in 1860, and his review of "The Origin of Species" is full of witty dismissals as "our unsuspected cousinship with mushrooms" and "our fungular descent". This fear of being nothing but an animal, and ultimately nothing but a collection of atoms is a common theme to much anti-evolutionary thought today, whether secular or religious. To allow evolution by purely "natural" means is often seen to be reductionist, and often God is brought in to "intervene " at suitable moments, such as the formation of life itself, or the first human. I have much sympathy with a concern over a reductionist outlook on life, which is fairly common today. However to attempt to disprove Darwinism to keep reductionism out is doomed to failure. All science is methodologically reductionist, it has to be. That does not mean it has to lead to philosophical reductionism. Science will not give values, they have to come from elsewhere, and may be religious, ideological or simply pragmatic. In the final analysis it is one's belief system which gives one an assessment of the nature of humanity.
For a Christian humans are be made in the Image of God. "The Image of God" is a recurrent theme. It first appears in Genesis chap 1 verse 26, "Then God said, "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness". Over the centuries there has been considerable discussion on what the "Image" is. Suggestions include the moral sense, the religious sense, and the intellect. Most importantly the Image signifies something special about humanity, and possibly cannot be rigorously defined.
THE WATCHMAKERS NEW EYES
Every few years the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins publishes another best-selling semi-popular scientific work, which are always controversial. The first was "The Selfish Gene". In 1986 "The Blind Watchmaker" was published, and is excellent on how evolution happens through "chance". The very title is a dig at God, as he is at pains not to allow the existence of God. All life forms evolve through small changes going on randomly, and his computer modelling on how this could happen is most convincing. The "design" we see in life-forms, happens by chance, almost blindly, hence the title "The Blind Watchmaker". This is an allusion to Paley's argument of a Divine Watchmaker (Natural Theology; 1802, one of Darwin's textbooks). The theme of Paley is that, if we find a watch we conclude a watchmaker, and thus if we find animals, then we conclude an animal maker and that is GOD. To man, evolution by such chancy natural means excludes the creative action of God. (This was the heart of opposition to Darwin in the 1860s). That is, if natural selection occurs, then there is no "design", then God is not Creator.
This was, and is, seen to be a problem over the living world but not the inanimate world of rocks and landscape. That is, it is acceptable to consider that over the aeons of geological time, the geological structure of the earth developed without the assistance of a Newtonian "Divine arm", but the "Divine Arm" is necessary for the development of life. Last century several of Darwin's opponents took this line, including Wilberforce, and the geologist Adam Sedgwick.
To some all these discoveries have excluded God from the creative process. This is inevitable if one conceives of the Creator making man as a baker moulds a gingerbreadman. This crude and childish picture of God helps no one. Seeing the hand of God at work does not necessitate such "direct" involvement! An atheist will see "design" as a chance happening, a theist will see "design" as a recognition that God is above and behind all things.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork
Psalm 19 verse 1
Not all "design" is beautiful, some is frankly horrific. Darwin could not see the work of a Benevolent Designer in the Ichneumon fly. This lovely little creature lays its eggs inside a caterpillar. The eggs hatch and proceed to eat the caterpillar alive, keeping it so until the larvae emerge. "Design" does not point conclusively to a Good God.
Beauty of (apparent) design is a problem to the atheist
Suffering is a problem to the Theist.
THIS VIEW OF LIFE (AND DEATH)
Of the evolutionary picture Darwin said, "There is grandeur in this view of life". But he should have added "AND DEATH". The natural world is incredibly wasteful of life; just consider frogspawn. The spawn will produce hundreds of tadpoles, and if TWO survive to become frogs and breed, that is success. Three is a population explosion. The fate of the tadpoles is varied, some, to the horror of children, are eaten by other tadpoles. Then, one of my joys in late spring is to hear the Cuckoo calling. The music of the adult is not matched by the morality of its offspring casually heaving out its adopted kin. Life is shot through with suffering and death. Nature is Red in Tooth and Claw. Human life is also often cruel and short. Surely "an all powerful, all-loving God simply would not allow small children to die in screaming agony"? Suffering is the great problem, whether personal, intellectual, or religious.
The evolutionary picture is very clear; suffering and death have been around since life began some 3,000 million years ago. Fossil graveyards are common; animals have been fossilised in the act of predation. This is not what Milton wrote of in "Paradise Lost"-
"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden fruit, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe".
Beast now with beast gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish; to graze the herb all leaving,
Devoured each other. P.Lost X 710-12
The link is clear, suffering and death are a result of human sin, and before the Fall of Adam and Eve there was no suffering or death. From Genesis 3.18, it is also held that prickly plants are the result of Sin. To adopt this view, as do Creationists, puts one in a dilemma; either Christianity is wrong, or science is wrong. Fortunately Milton was wrong, and though his influence has been prevalent, it has not been the only one. Since the rise of geology in 1800, this view has been untenable, but it has not always been possible to bury it, especially in popular Christianity. Very often Milton's view is accepted as the traditional view, and as the notorious Bishop Colenso said in 1863, "We literally groan , even in the present day, under the burden of Milton's Mythology." (He was actually echoing the American geologist, Edward Hitchcock.) We still do! Undoubtedly, before the rise of geology there was no evidence that there was death before the Fall. Even so many theologians accepted that death did occur before the Fall, e.g. Aquinas, and Isaac Watts. Oddly many of these believed that thistles and thorns came in at the Fall (Gen 3.18).
In a sense, to claim all suffering is the result of human sin at the Fall conveniently gets God off the hook, but this can and does create tremendous guilt in a sick person, and thus puts God back on the hook. Space forbids me to examine the unnecessary guilt and mental and spiritual suffering caused by this view, which is still, in essence, held by many today. Suffering and death is something we cannot understand or explain. The evolutionary picture helps us to see that much suffering is the natural order of things, but that is no answer. Neither does this mean that no suffering is caused by Sin. It takes little reflection to see that. There is no theological answer to suffering; clues are given in the Book of Job, and, above all, in the death on the cross.
CONTEMPLATE AN ENTANGLED BANK
"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect..." Thus begins the last paragraph of "The Origin of Species". Wales is full of entangled banks, as is Shropshire the county of Darwin's childhood. These entangled banks are to be found along many country lanes and footpaths, and are covered with an entangled mass of plants, and throughout spring and summer with a profusion of flowers. But what are we "to contemplate...and to reflect."? Darwin is clear and said, "to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms...have all been produced by laws acting around us.... There is grandeur in this view of life...that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved."
Darwin is absolutely right "to contemplate an
entangled bank" and explain it scientifically, and how the various
forms of life present are there by a process of Natural Selection
"selecting" what is best for the particular geology and climate. Once
we get past saying, "Ooh, aah. What a pretty flower?" and the
stamp-collecting approach to Natural History, i.e. simple identification, we
will come to questions of why and how. To say naively "God created it that
way " is, I think, an insult to God. Of course God created it (apologies to
any atheists) but how? In the natural world any explanation will be ultimately
evolutionary, explaining development over time. Or else it will be back to John
The grassy clods now calved, now half appeared
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his brinded mane; P.Lost VII 463-66
and this is what the anti-evolutionary Creationist would have us believe. Milton's poetry becomes Creationist fact. Any who will not accept evolution, are ultimately obliged to hold a similar outlook, even if they accept the great age of the universe. (I say this despite my respect and affection for Old Age Creationists.) An evolutionary perspective will help us to see the interrelatedness of plants and animals not only with each other, but also with the whole environment. Further it will help us to see the influence of past history, not only geological, but also the development of life.
Darwin's contemplation did not stop at the purely scientific, he also contemplated the "grandeur" and the beauty and wonder of what he saw. In the last paragraph Darwin almost goes into raptures over the beauty of the natural world. No matter how "reductionist" one is, there is scarcely anyone who is blind to natural beauty. We also need to contemplate how beauty and our apprehension of it actually evolved and why. Beauty cannot be reduced to molecular vibrations and natural selection.
There are many who marvel at natural beauty, whether they are keen walkers, ornithologists, or simply like to drive in the country. But many get no further than ñ
To worship Nature in the hill and valley,
Not knowing what they love:-
That was Wordsworth nearly two centuries ago, and the outlook is more prevalent today. Many today have great wonder and respect for the natural world and concern for its conservation, but do not know that what they love is God's Creation. To often, I fear, the Church has ignored Creation, because it does not fully accept or understand Evolution and is fearful. As a result people "worship nature" and never know "what they love" and Who made it. Contemplation of an entangled bank ought to lead to contemplation of the Creator.
However the entangled bank is not always so beautiful. The
ugliness comes in many ways. The red we see may not be a clump of Red Campion,
but a Coke tin, reminding us to contemplate what can only be called human sin,
happy to destroy God's world and our enjoyment of it. Or perhaps every plant has
turned brown as local council policy is for tidiness rather than life.
Suffering, death and decay are always there, whether a dead vole covered with
maggots, a raven with a broken wing. From contemplating a beautiful flower, we
may contemplate death, which is never far away from life. It is too simplistic
to say that death is simply the precursor to another life, and perhaps here the
only answer is to contemplate the briars, which can be plaited into a crown.
Nature with open volume stands
to spread her makers' praise abroad
here on the cross 'tis fairest drawn
in precious blood and crimson lines.
Michael Roberts, firstname.lastname@example.org
16 January 2001