In the Beginning
Navigating a safe passage through the stormy creation/evolution debate
The subject of evolution is a thorny issue for Christians who take seriously the early chapters of Genesis. For many, the creation/evolution debate symbolises the great divide between belief in the existence of a supernatural God and belief in a totally materialistic and impersonal universe, the great divide between the theist and the atheist.
On the side of atheism a particular scientific theory, 'evolution by natural selection', stands as the great unifying principle that has supposedly explained the entire drama of life in all its wonder and diversity without any help from God. In this scientific scheme of things, the very idea of God is a totally irrelevant concept - the product of myth and superstition.
The Christian must surely stand in total opposition to the materialistic claims of atheism. God, in Christ, is the supreme Creator and sustainer of all creation " . . . by Him all things were created . . . and in Him all things hold together".1
However, the 'creation versus evolution' argument is not really resolved by Christians simply dismissing as completely untrue all that the materialist would claim of evolution. Such an approach might produce a superficial reassurance that the Biblical narrative is being truly honoured, but in the end it generates a whole set of additional issues that questions both the integrity of Scripture and that of carefully conducted science.
The Christian is called to take seriously God's truth communicated both through the Bible and the 'book of nature' - concerning the latter, science conducted with integrity must surely have important things to tell us. How do Christians work through the big issues that lie at the very centre of this potentially divisive debate, focusing on those things that acknowledge the centrality of Biblical truth as well as the findings of good, honest science?
How do we read Scripture?
How are we to read the Biblical texts? Clearly, not all Scripture is to be read in a literal, historical sense.
Poetry, allegory, parable, oration, proverb, genealogy, legal language, powerful imagery and historical narrative - all these forms have been used by Biblical writers to convey timeless and eternal truths. To read a factual, historical narrative as imagery (as does the modern liberal with the Resurrection), or powerful imagery as factual (eg. Ezekiel's visions) will, in terms of the intent of Scripture, be absolutely disastrous. Great care must be taken to appreciate the particular narrative form that was chosen by the writer of a given passage of Scripture.
One must never assume that a literal rendering of Scripture is the only faithful interpretation. Take an obvious example: John the Baptist sees Jesus in the distance and cries "Behold the lamb of God that bears away the sin of the world". Now Jesus was not literally a lamb in the zoological sense of the word. Rather, John is making one of the most powerful theological statements in the whole of the Bible, and in language that was clearly metaphorical, not literal.
The statement "her eyes blazed with fire" has an absurd meaning if taken literally. However, it effectively conveys a sense of intense anger when read in its intended metaphorical sense (and is a much more powerful means of communicating this emotion than a scientific measurement of the enlarged diameter of the woman's pupil would be). Language is incredibly 'plastic' and needs to be read as its writer intended.
How, then, should we read the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis? Is it true in a theological or scientific or figurative sense?
The cultural context in which Genesis was written gives us a clue. What were the crucial issues of the day in the first millennium BC? Would the author of Genesis have been concerned with clarifying for the Israelites truths about the scientific processes of creation? Hardly! Such issues, although of great interest to us 'moderns', would have had little meaning to a prescientific culture.
The Israelites were surrounded by cultures steeped in polytheism - the Egyptians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Persians and Babylonians all worshipped many gods. There were sun and moon gods, gods of light and darkness, sky and earth gods, river and sea gods, gods of vegetation, animal gods and fertility gods. There were even human gods.
What the writer of Genesis thunders out is a clear, no-nonsense message to the ancient Israelites - there is but one true God! Genesis is about the binding truth of monotheism, the absolute lie of polytheism. What more effective way of dismissing the 'gods of nature' as being 'no gods at all' than to declare that all realms of nature were the creation of the one true God?
The divine 'work' of creation is quite naturally correlated with the six working days of the Hebrew week - six days of creative work in which each realm of the natural world is declared to be created by God, and therefore not divine, and then the seventh day of rest. (Genesis 1 might well have read quite differently if the ancient Hebrews had in fact lived by a five day rather than a seven day week.)
Each day of creation sees the creation of a particular aspect of nature, in effect destroying for all time the notion that any part of the creation should have the status of a god. On day one the gods of light and darkness are dismissed; on day two the gods of sky and sea; on day three the gods of earth and vegetation are addressed; day four deals with the sun, moon and star gods; days five and six strip the animal kingdom of any divine attributes. Finally, on the sixth day also, the status of humans is defined: we are the creation of God with a divine likeness, but not a divine nature.
In this scheme of things all of nature is completely emptied of any divine status. All is the creation of the One true God who alone is to be worshipped. The very foundations of idolatry are destroyed once and for all.
In one important sense the creation account in Genesis can be read as the ultimate political declaration - it is God who is in control of the cosmos! He alone commands and it is done. This idea of God as supreme commander of all creation is a powerful principle relevant to all people, both then and now. This was the momentous truth that needed to be hammered into the minds of these ancient people: the gods they perceived as controlling their world were utterly without power.
A literal reading of Genesis 1
Genesis 1 contains powerful religious truths that are entirely missed if we approach it with a purely literal, secular, scientific mindset. If we insist, for example, that creation took place in six literal 24-hour days in the order given, a whole set of difficulties arises that stretches the bounds of the imagination.
Nowhere does it mention the creation of water. Are we then to assume that water is co-eternal with God? Hardly! Light is created on the first day, but the sun and moon do not appear until the fourth.
Then there is the appearance of vegetation on the land on the third day, again before the sun appears. This is hardly consistent with what we know scientifically about photosynthesis, the process plants use to grow. It requires sunlight.
There are even bigger problems if one argues, as is often done, that the 24-hour periods were vast periods of time, so exploiting the scriptural statement that "one day of the Lord is as a thousand years". If one then doggedly clings to the view that what we have in Genesis 1 is the actual historic, scientific sequence of creation then some sort of 'temporary lighting' must have been installed during this vast period of time until the sun is created on the fourth day.
A number of other features suggest the inappropriateness of a literal reading of the creation texts. On the seventh day God finished his work and 'rested'. The idea here is surely the completeness of the divine work of creation. The all-powerful Creator obviously did not need to rest in the sense of 'needing a break' from his arduous labours.
To the ancient mind numbers had a symbolic, even sacred, value. People thought numerologically much more than numerically. The number seven symbolised completeness, wholeness, plenty. There are seven golden candlesticks, seven spirits, seven words of praise, seven churches. Joshua is instructed to march the army of Israel around the walls of Jericho on the seventh day seven times to achieve complete destruction. Even Leviathan had seven horns - the complete monster! Biblical language has a richness that is all too easily missed if we fail to appreciate the importance its writers placed on the power of symbolism. A literal reading simply misses the point.
Many pieces of scientific evidence, derived particularly from astronomical observations, seem to point to the universe and the earth being very, very old. (See The Age Of the Earth, p.12.) To claim that the earth's age is no more than, say, ten thousand years because of a particular insistence that the creation narrative must be read in what may well be an entirely inappropriate literal sense, is to cut off all effective communication with the scientific community, many of whom are striving to carry out high quality scientific inquiry and are not motivated by any hidden religious or anti-religious agenda.
Promotion of a so-called 'Bible-based Science' may well result in the wider truth of Scripture being unfairly dismissed as meaningless to modern secular people. The credibility of the wider Biblical revelation also suffers. Sadly, I suspect that the Science-from-the-Bible movement, by insisting that any scientific account of origins must conform to a literal reading of the Genesis account, has provided modern science with an easy excuse to reject as totally irrelevant the truth of a Creator God.
The Problem of Evolution
Having examined the fundamental issue of how we interpret the Biblical narratives, it is now possible to take a fresh (and less threatened) look at scientific issues in relation to the creation account.
Assuming that the creation account does not lock us into a strictly literal interpretation, we are free to explore the 'beginnings' issue in a way that respects the findings of science practised with integrity. By separating the religious from the scientific we do not require the Bible to answer scientific questions or science to answer religious questions.
What now is our reaction to the issue of evolution? Firstly, it is important to define the concept of evolution very carefully. Evolution is a word that has become very popular in modern advertising currency.
Readers may recall several years ago how one Japanese car manufacturer advertised its then latest model as having evolved by "natural selection"! One of Mitsubishi's recent models is called 'EVO IV'! The implication in all this advertising is, of course, that the product has changed for the better, it has undergone increased sophistication and improvement - it has evolved!
In the biological world the word 'evolution' is used in three quite different ways. Firstly, it can imply a pattern of change or modification over time. Secondly, it signifies connecting relationships - that animal species possessing dramatically different characteristics are linked through a common ancestry. What is meant here is that one species has 'evolved' or changed over long periods of time into another as represented by the so-called evolutionary tree - generally depicted in a grossly over-exaggerated form in standard biology textbooks.
The third use of the word 'evolution' conveys a very different meaning to the first two. Here it is used in the important, and I believe sinister, sense of providing an entirely materialistic or Godless explanation of how evolutionary change might have occurred.
This last use of the word is more generally referred to as neo-Darwinism or 'the modern synthetic theory of evolution'. It brings together three main ingredients: Darwin's idea of natural selection, the modern theory of genetics (how inheritance works via our genes), and the mathematics of how gene distributions vary within a given population.
In any discussion of evolution we must be very careful to indicate clearly in what sense we are using the term. All too often people, and particularly Christians, confuse these three meanings.
Assuming the creation narrative in Genesis is not demanding that we treat it as a literal account of how it all began in a scientific sense, are any of the three common meanings of the term 'evolution' compatible with the broad principles of Biblical truth?
Take the first two. Is a progressive pattern of biological change or modification over time (even great periods of time), and the concept of interconnected relationships, at all compatible with the absolutely essential Biblical insistence of a Creator? The answer is surely yes!
That life-forms might have been progressively formed and developed in complexity and sophistication with time, and are therefore linked by definite relationships, is perfectly consistent with a truly intelligent process of Divine creation, just as the modern Mitsubishi EVO IV motor car stands in an 'evolutionary tree' of automotive developments that have taken place over a considerable span of time. An evolutionary tree depicting the development of the modern motor car would include the sequential invention of the wheel, the bicycle, Stephenson's Rocket, the Ford Model T, leading right up to the modern hi-tech Mitsubishi EVO IV.
In no way do we detract from the remarkable qualities of human inventiveness and creativity that are at the very heart of the motor car's historical development when we say that it has evolved from quite primitive beginnings. In fact this very process of technological evolution should give us cause to celebrate the marvellous quality of human intelligence and ingenuity.
The 'evolution' of the modern motor car is powerful witness to the fact that at the very heart of this technological creation is human intelligence and purpose. In an analogous, but of course qualitatively vaster sense, the biological unity we observe so strikingly in the living world is highly suggestive of the intelligence and purposefulness of a marvellous Creator. It is certainly not the result of a mindless, Neo-Darwinian process.
The evolutionary tree of life, so often used by science to promote a God-excluding materialistic explanation for the entire living world, is instead strongly suggestive of Divine creativity - expressing as it does a wonderful degree of mind, intelligence, and purpose. The word 'evolution', when used to convey the twin ideas of both modification with time and interconnected relationships, are certainly not in conflict with Divine creativity.
Thus far, I see no reason why the Christian should feel threatened by the concept of biological evolution in the first two meanings of the word. Either meaning still carries with it the absolutely essential requirement of an intelligent, purposeful, creative 'super-engineer' - God!
On this basis we can take much of the tension and unease out of the creation/evolution debate. Without feeling at all threatened by the findings of science conducted with integrity, the Christian can still hold fast to the all-important belief in a 'God who has created all things'.
But there is danger lurking nearby. The third meaning, ie. neo-Darwinism, must sound loud warning bells for any clear-thinking Christian who is at all concerned about preserving the integrity of both science and the Bible.
Neo-Darwinism poses, in a spirit of blatant scientific dishonesty, as the naturalistic explanation for life. Arch neo-Darwinist and God-bashing Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins contemptuously pronounces that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist".2
Neo-Darwinists claim that all of the living world can be explained by the principle of Darwinian natural selection acting on heritable changes in the offspring of an organism. The theory is indeed the 'crown jewel' of a widely held scientific world view that is arrogantly God-denying.
To explain what I believe is the fundamentally flawed nature of neo-Darwinism in such a short article is impossible. But the following brief comments may give readers a glimpse of the problem.
Firstly, vast amounts of time (we might call this 'megatime') are assumed by the neo-Darwinist to provide virtually unlimited opportunity for changes to occur in organisms. These changes, taking place in largely random directions, are then pitted against the forces of nature in the Darwinian sense of `do or die'. This 'natural selection' is said to provide the driving force for Darwinian evolution.
Now, time on its own is totally uncreative. Our motorcar analogy shows us that megatime on its own would not have given us the modern Mitsubishi EVO IV! Time on its own achieves nothing except the passage of time. So the fact that the universe is very old explains very little about how life actually unfolded.
Natural selection is supposed to be the purely material (ie. nonintelligent) process by which particular biological versions of an organism are selected that are best able to survive in a particular environment. The terms 'struggle to survive' and 'survival of the fittest' are oft-quoted expressions conveying this idea of an organism being selected because it is best 'tuned' to its environment. The particular changes or modifications in the animal that make it more successful than its competitor are passed onto its offspring, and this is where genetics plays such a crucial role.
It is the proud claim of neo-Darwinism that it does not rely on any special guiding principle, any creative urge. Any role for God is considered entirely unnecessary. The splendour and technological sophistication of the living world is assumed to be accounted for by a completely impersonal set of processes.
But this is simply not true! What we find in the living world is that organisms have a quite amazing 'prolife drive'. They want to live and to go on living, to succeed, to 'become' - these are all highly personal attributes.
The world of the living cannot be accounted for purely in terms of the material laws described by science. There is an undeniably vital dimension to life which remains totally unexplained by the laws of science. To claim that natural selection is a completely material process is utter neo-Darwinian propaganda.
For natural selection to work as a creative evolutionary force it must rely on a deeply prolife, purposeful principle that defies any kind of materialistic explanation. It should be fundamentally redefined as unnatural life-promoting selection.
A Flaw in the Reasoning
The development of such complex organs as the eye has traditionally posed a major problem for neo-Darwinism. However, for neo-Darwinist 'supremo' Richard Dawkins, the explanation as to how the eye might have evolved is to be found in the adding up of very many small changes brought about by random mutations (ie. occasional mistakes in the genes) acted on by natural selection. He insists that
"Vision that is five percent as good as yours or mine is very much worth having in comparison with no vision at all. So is one percent better than total blindness. And six percent is better than five, seven percent better than six, and so on up the gradual, continuous series."3
Superficially, Dawkins appears to have a convincing argument. Any slight improvement in vision will be an advantage and therefore likely to be retained under the pressure of selection. But dig a little deeper and we find a fatal flaw in this sort of reasoning.
Any system that achieves (eg an eye that sees) is an achieving system, not a nearly achieving system! Of course there are degrees of 'seeing', but there is a gigantic technological leap from a non-eye to a seeing eye.
While there are degrees of sophistication in organs of vision ranging from the primitive light-sensing spot possessed by some protozoa (tiny wriggling creatures found in stagnant water) to the high-tech optical system of the human eye, all are, optically-speaking, going concerns - they all 'see' in their own kind of purposeful way. We cannot pretend, as Richard Dawkins seems happy to do, that a 'pre-eye' or a 'pre-light spot' which cannot see in even the most rudimentary sense would be favoured by natural selection.
Richard Dawkins would have us believe that "part of an eye is better than no eye at all".4 By the same absurd reasoning it could be argued that a component representing say five percent of an aeroplane, perhaps its propeller, its wing spar, its nose wheel or fuel tank would be better than no plane at all when it comes to achieving powered flight. Such components, although essential to the achievement of flight, are certainly not better than nothing when it comes to 'taking off'! Likewise, five per cent of an eye lacking any seeing function will not have any 'seeing' power and thus would not be favoured by natural selection.
What is required is a concept or vision of flight that is being intelligently pursued, an essential ingredient that is completely denied by materialists like Dawkins. A propeller or a wing spar will contribute to the achievement of flight, but only if flight is being deliberately sought in a purposeful and creative way.
Without this essential quality of purpose all is in vain. It is plain nonsense to talk of the power of small changes to produce anything of worth in the biological world unless we recognise the crucial element of purpose that must operate at its very core. Here science must surrender its right to explain and yield to a 'higher authority'.
Neo-Darwinism is the classic example of a shoddy pseudoscience masquerading as the real thing, and succeeding in this deception largely by its cunning and dishonest use of language. It denies 'purpose' yet it relies crucially on the operation of purpose. When it uses the term 'natural selection' it is really invoking a process that is highly intelligent, goal-centred and prolife - ie. highly unnatural in a purely materialistic world. Neo-Darwinism is a genuine scientific fraud.
I am convinced that the real battle to be fought by Christians today in the creation/evolution debate is not in defending a restrictive literal interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis so as to deny any kind of evolutionary development. Rather, our energies would be better directed at exposing the impoverished scientific claims made by neo-Darwinism.
Conrad Hyers' book The Meaning of Creation (John Knox Press, Atlanta,1984) is especially helpful in its treatment of the narrative form of the Genesis creation texts.
Neil Broom has been active in University research for the last 25 years, mainly in the areas of metallurgy and the biomechanics of heart valves and the joint tissue. He currently holds a position as Associate Professor at Auckland University School of Engineering, lecturing in the area of Materials Science. He is married to Ruth and has three children, Ben, Reuben and Elizabeth. The family worships at Kohimarama Presbyterian Church in Auckland.