Christianity and Science, 2: Evolution

Michael A. Covington Ė Beech Haven Baptist Church Ė 1999 November 7 (+ revisions)

DISCLAIMERS:

(1) I am not a professional biologist and cannot give expert opinions on biological questions.

(2) There is a very large literature on this subject and I have not read all of it.

Note: Because of developments since 1999, this page needs revision. For some updates, see the box like this one at the bottom of the page.

To the reader:

These remarks were prepared for presentation to a church group. I assume that most of you have been told that there is a serious conflict between evolutionary biology and your Christian faith. That is the issue I want to address.

I am not going to offer a quick, easy, super-simple solution. I particularly want to caution you against the cult-like or sect-like tactics of many people who do. They want you to buy their "theory," jump on their bandwagon, and become a follower of Christ-plus-somebody-else. Some particular theory of origins gets treated as more important than the Gospel.

I am also not going to give you a license to ignore a major area of modern science. Regardless of what you ultimately conclude, the evidence that leads to evolutionary theory is important and is real evidence. Scientific evidence is God-given just as much as the Bible is God-given.

Ignorance does not glorify God. It is one thing to say, "I'm not an expert, so I don't have a definitive answer." It's quite another to boast about how little you know about this "atheistic science stuff" while simultaneously claiming to have everything all figured out! Please be humble in the face of God's revelation, including the part of His revelation that He gave through the natural world.

I particularly have no tolerance for people who tell students, especially young children, to be disrespectful to their science teachers. Such people are dishonoring the name of Christ. Most science teachers simply want to teach the theory (as theory) and the evidence that supports it; they don't want to argue with you, especially if you know far less than they do about their subject, and you come at them accusing them of something evil. I advise Christians not to challenge teachers unless the teachers make metaphysical claims that go far beyond science (e.g., "Darwin proved there is no God") or dispense inaccurate information about Christianity.

Finally, we must not give the impression that we, as Christians, are opposed to honest scientific investigation, nor that we believe in God merely because we can't think of any other way for biological speciation to occur.

— Michael Covington, 2010, 2011

PREMISE:

Evolutionary theory is not going to go away. The fruit of 150 years of scientific research will not disappear; the evidence for evolution is definitely evidence for something important, even if it has not yet been correctly interpreted. As a modern, educated Christian, you wonít get out of having to learn about this and deal with it.

What does present-day evolutionary theory actually claim?

(a) The earth is very ancient and the development of life took millions of years (or more).

(b) All living things have common ancestors. (Note: This does not mean we are descended from any monkeys or fish that presently exist.)

(c) The mechanism through which species evolved was random mutation and natural selection. (Not the adaptations of individuals to their environment during their lifetime. Only genetics matters, not acquired characteristics.)

(d) Evolution could and did produce distinct species (reproductively isolated from each other), not just varieties or population shifts within a species. (Like the difference between dog and cat, not just the difference between bulldog and poodle; nor "microevolution" [below].)

(e) Evolution is mindless and not working toward a goal. Living things vary randomly and some of the variations survive. Nobody knows where itís heading, and thereís no guarantee that its products will survive in the long run.

(f) Evolutionary theory has nothing to say about the origin of the universe, the earth, or the laws of physics and chemistry. It deals only with life-forms that have heredity and mutation.

Stages in the development of evolutionary theory:

(a) Darwin 1859: random mutation and natural selection.

(b) Concept of a "struggle for survival" in which success = survival value. (Led to ruthless extreme-right-wing economics in the 19th century.)

(c) Discovery of DNA as the means by which genetic characteristics are transmitted.

(d) More recent discovery that substantial portions of DNA are skipped; you can carry around, and transmit, genetic material that has no visible expression in your body.

(e) Concept that populations (not just individuals) evolve; thus, "altruistic" (unselfish) characteristics can evolve which benefit the community (with related DNA) at the expense of the individual. (If I want my DNA to survive, I can either have children of my own or help my relatives prosper.)

Evidence for evolution

(a) Geological and astronomical evidence that the universe and earth are ancient

(b) The fossil record (incomplete)

(c) Comparative anatomy

(d) Comparative DNA sequencing

(e) Observed "microevolution" within species (drug-resistant bacteria, etc.) (hard to distinguish from population shifts among varieties that were already present)

What do we mean by "evolutionary theory"? Several things...

(a) Historical claims that the earth is ancient, that life developed gradually over millions of years

(b) A new concept of relation between cause and effect: The concept of random variation followed by natural selection provides a new mechanism by which nature can work; a mechanism not envisioned by philosophers before the 19th Century. It has been used not only in biological theories, but also in computer programming as a way to adapt programs to data.

(c) Explanatory claims that random variation and natural selection are a complete explanation of how and why life-forms developed.

(d) Predictive claims: are there any? (Sir Karl Popper says "What survives, survives" is an empty kind of theory!)

Why does evolutionary theory bother us?

(a) Conflicts with traditional Christian opinion that the Bible indicates the earth is young.

(But this is not the only traditional Christian view; cf. Augustine, Aquinas, and others.)

(b) Many people see evolution as a complete godless explanation of how we got here.

(1) Shallow level: This is rather like starting the history of the world with Ronald Reagan!

Weíre still no closer to an explanation of how we got a planet on which life can exist.

(2) Deeper level: Some scientists and philosophers see natural selection as the key to explaining origins and development of everything, not just life. This is very speculative.

(3) In the popular mind: the Darwin fish, etc. People seem to think evolution eliminates God.

(c) There was a desire for a godless explanation of a self-improving universe before Darwin came out with his theory of natural selection.

(d) Some philosophers (e.g., Dennett) see evolution as an explanation for how the human mind arose out of mindless matter. Again, this is rather speculative.

(e) On the part of defenders of science, we sometimes see dogmatism and a "will to believe" that involves concealing difficulties with evolution; a determination to tell the whole story even if the evidence doesnít warrant all of it. This kind of dogmatism tends to undermine science and deny it the respect it deserves. For some people, science is their religion, and has to be stretched to fill that role.

Is it all "just a theory"?

(a) If you mean itís apt to be totally knocked down at any moment, no... Itís a well-established, well-developed theory. Rejecting it would involve accounting in some other way for a very large body of related facts.

(b) If you mean some parts of it are better established than others, yes. Thatís honest science. The same is true of quantum physics, relativity, etc. ...

(c) Anyone who advocates any scientific theory should be able to name some difficulties with it and propose ways of accounting for them. (Asking a person to critique his own pet theories is a very good type of Ph.D. oral exam question.) If you are not aware of any difficulties with a theory, you donít really understand how the theory relates to the evidence.

(d) Do we balk at the metaphysical claims of evolution? Certainly! We donít think it has eliminated God or explained our place in the universe. Those claims belong to philosophy or theology, not biology, and should be subjected to appropriate kinds of criticism.

What are some possible difficulties with evolutionary theory? (I am not an expert...)

(a) Missing links (incomplete fossil record) Ė By nature, most lifeforms are not preserved in fossils. Fossilization requires rare conditions. Also, "missing links" tend not to last long — evolution proceeds at a very uneven pace ("punctuated equilibrium") because it depends on random variation.

(b) Impossible links (irreducible complexity) Ė In order for evolution to work, every change has to increase survival value. But changes can only be made gradually. Thus, there is a difficulty (already noted by Darwin) about the evolution of things that are of no use when only partly developed. Examples: wings, eyes, biochemical processes (M. Behe). Irreducible complexities are controversial, and the Darwinists' usual response is that they involve exaptation, i.e., changing the use or purpose of something as it develops. E.g., underdeveloped wings may not work as wings, but they may be advantageous as something else.

(c) Abrupt appearance or uneven rate of development. There seem to have been bursts of development much faster than normal evolution. (This may simply be a consequence of dependence upon random variation; computer simulations are beginning to throw light on this.)

(d) The emergence of the human mind and language (possibly quite recently) is something of a challenge because so very much progress was made so rapidly.

What does the Bible actually say?

(I donít want to hold doctrines that are not actually taught in the Bible Ė not even "The earth is 6,000 years old." The translatorís footnotes are not Godís word!)

Read Genesis 1.

This is an old passage, apparently written or passed along by word of mouth before the rest of Genesis was written in the time of Moses. It refers to God as Elohim rather than Yahweh.

Note...

(0) What presuppositions are you bringing to the Bible? (If you imagine a globe in space when you read Genesis 1:1, you are envisioning something no ancient Hebrew could have envisioned.)

(1) Is a "day" 24 hours or is it a period of work? Ancient Hebrews didn't have clocks. End of 7th day was not announced.

(2) Order of apperance of lifeforms closely matches the fossil record.

(3) "Let the earth bring forth..." Ė development of life by a divinely initiated natural process?

"The word of God in the language of man." All this was written in a form designed to be understood in very ancient times.

Highly recommended book: Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (which points out how to correctly read Genesis 1 and 2; they describe the cosmos as seen by a person on the ground, not out in space!).

Another bundle of difficulties: Evolution requires us to rethink what we believe about the role of (animal) pain and death in biological history. We can no longer assume there was no animal pain or death before Adam's fall. But did the Bible ever teach that in the first place? (Interesting essay by Rich Deem on www.godandscience.org.)

A menu of possible opinions for Christians:

(a) Recent creation ("young-earth" creationism): The earth is indeed 6,000 to 10,000 years old, and perhaps so is the universe.

-- Often thought to be the only traditional Christian opinion, but itís not. Augustine, etc., in the early church and the Middle Ages already took it for granted that the universe and earth are ancient and that the Bible does not give their age.

-- Young-earth creationism (as an essential doctrine rather than an opinion) was popularized by the Seventh-Day Adventists about 150 years ago as part of their system of interpretation of prophecy. The Adventists have a number of non-Biblical doctrines, e.g., that Ellen G. White (1827-1915) was a prophet, and that Jesus "entered the heavenly sanctuary" in 1844.

(a') Recent creation with the appearance of age: Omnipotent God could have created the Earth 6,000 years ago in a physical state indicating much greater age (fossils, geological strata, light rays in transit between distant galaxies, etc.). He might even have needed to do this for physical stability (a brand-new planet wouldn't be suitable for life; we want one that is not going to change much for several thousand years; so it has to be created in a mature state).

Problems with this view: (1) There is not a hint of this in the Bible; (2) If He did it this way, God has to have created lots of false evidence for specific events (life and death of individual animals, light from specific distant supernovae, etc.) and this is contrary to his character.

(b) Theistic evolution: The other extreme. Darwinian evolution is how God created life. He just set it going and let it work...

(c) "Intelligent design"/"slow creation": God created life through a gradual process in which Darwinian evolution may well have been an important mechanism, but it is not the whole thing; God intervened to direct the process in particular ways.

An important philosophical mistake

Science assumes that nothing exists that it outside its reach; the laws of nature are consistent and nature is perfectly self-contained. ("Naturalism.")

It would be a circular argument to start with this assumption and work around to conclude exactly what was assumed. Yet this is a common tactic in trying to explain the universe.

Itís like the drunk who dropped his keys in the dark but looks for them under the streetlight because thatís the only place where he can see.

The prism and the rainbow: This is the title of a book by Joel Martin in support of theistic evolution. He points out that we didn't stop believing in the rainbow as a sign of God's covenant with Noah when we learned how rainbows are formed by refraction of light. In the same way, if we learn that God has created mechanisms for lifeforms to diversity, and has used them over long periods of time, that doesn't mean there is no God!

What we need to do as Christians

(1) Stop trying to abolish a major area of science. If science seeks truth, it may find it!

(2) Do not support bad science in the interests of defending the Bible. You do not glorify God by supporting ineptitude, crackpots, or anti-intellectualism.

(3) Educate ourselves. Let the world know that we can respond intelligently to evolutionary theory and we are allowed to examine the evidence and hold a variety of opinions. Many non-Christians think we are not even allowed to think about evolution.

(4) Encourage the public schools to teach evolutionary theory as science, to distinguish between scientific and metaphysical claims, and to stick close to the evidence. (If you teach science in a way that isnít evidence-based, youíre not teaching science. Science is ongoing investigation. It does not demand or deserve the same kind of faith-commitment as a personal relationship with Christ.)

(5) Move the battlefield away from evolution! Evolution (even if it 100% true) does not disprove God. (It narrows down our interpretation of Old Testament chronology, and it requires us to make a clean distinction between biological and spiritual death. But that's all. Do people think we believe in God only because we can't think of any other way for lifeforms to diversify?) Our mission is to bring the Gospel, not debate technical points in biology.

Recommended reading:

David Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth.

C. S. Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," in Christian Reflections.

Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God.

Mere Creation, collection of papers published by Inter-Varsity Press.

Joel Martin, The Prism and the Rainbow (see also www.prismandrainbow.com).

Updates:

In late 1998, William Dembski's book The Design Inference used statistical arguments to argue that the universe as we know it must be the product of an intelligent designer. There ensued a rather confused public debate in which people equated Intelligent Design (Dembski's hypothesis) with Christianity and/or with young-earth creationism. There were also alarming statements made by scientists who seemed to object to anyone questioning the evolutionary paradigm.

I want to make it clear that Christians are not obligated to believe Dembski's specific proposals. We believe in "intelligent design" in some sense, of course, but it is consistent with Christian belief to say (as British theologian Arthur Peacocke did) that evolutionary processes might be the "disguised friend" of Christian belief because they show that the miracle of creation is going on constantly, under our noses, rather than being confined to a remote and inaccessible prehistoric time. Or to put it more simply, we may just be finding out something about how God did it.

Several excellent books about science and Christianity have come out. Let me particularly recommend the ones by Alister McGrath and H. F. Schaefer.

On the understanding of Genesis 1-3 see especially Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth. Whether or not you agree with this conclusions, the point is that we have embellished Genesis 1-3 with a lot of mental images that probably aren't anything like what it was meant to communicate.

I also want to caution my fellow churchgoers against cult-like movements that claim to have the answer to questions about origins. Beware of anyone who promotes his "theories" directly to an untrained audience rather than to expert critics. Beware especially of anyone who tries to instill in you a great distrust of almost everyone else. That's how cults get started.