Evolution Science and Creation Theology
Anthony J. M. Garrett
63 High Street, Grantchester
Cambridge CB3 9NF
(This paper is dedicated to the memory of David Stove.)
In writing an article on the theology of human evolution I must first declare that I have no expert knowledge, either as theologian or as evolutionary scientist (I am a physicist); but I have been concerned to advocate the theory of evolution in the face of modern ‘creation scientists’, once as an atheist and now as a Christian. This debate is too often conducted as a scientific debate, which it is not. It is a theological debate; and only when that is realised can there be hope of mutual understanding and agreement. My article is written primarily for Christians of any view on evolution, but atheists who wish to engage in genuine debate with creation scientists may learn how better to do this.
On one side of the argument are those who believe that man has evolved by a continuous chain of reproduction, over millions of years, from far simpler creatures. Today people who believe this are mostly atheists, but many Christians have accepted the theory and many — like myself — still do. On the other side are the creation scientists, Christians who have faith that the account of the creation of the world and of man given in the book of Genesis is “literally true”; since this account cannot be reconciled with that of evolution, they maintain — in good faith — that evolution is false. The debate is as old as the theory of evolution, now in its second century, and runs with an intensity of polarisation that is painful for all.
In the Bible we find two ways of explaining what is happening. One says that God makes something happen. The other describes events in terms of earthly cause and effect: David slew Goliath by using a primitive catapult to project a stone at him with lethal aim and speed. We learn that these two types of explanation are not opposed, but complementary. They are both true at once. God was working through David (and Goliath!)
The idea, that God works through earthly happenings that to us have earthly explanations, is one that is familiar to all Christians. When it comes to evolution, though, the two categories of explanation are held by some to be not complementary but opposed. The God-did-it account of the creation of humans given in Genesis, and the account of human creation using descriptive tools like logic that are themselves part of creation, are seen as opposed. This is due to a misunderstanding about purpose. Because evolution gives a cause-and-effect account of human origins, it says nothing about the purpose of its subject. It is exclusively about how, not why. The Bible reveals that there is a purpose to human life: it is, ultimately, to glorify God who is our creator and redeemer. At this point we can see what causes the trouble: because evolution gives an account of human descent that is silent about purpose, people mistakenly suppose it asserts that there is no purpose to human presence. This is a logical error. Evolution, being silent about purpose, cannot be taken to imply that there is or is not purpose to human existence. To support or attack the theory on the grounds that it implies there is no purpose to human life, as some atheists and some Christians respectively do, is to commit this error. Belief in divine purpose is a matter of faith; those who accept it may see it running through evolution as through everything else. Those who disbelieve it will suppose there is no complement to evolution’s account.
Let me place the issue in a wider perspective. (This paragraph can be omitted.) It has been the whole drive of the Enlightenment movement that began in the 18th century to extend the successes of the new, purpose-free, cause-and-effect descriptions of matter known as science into the human realm. The deployment of human reason to seek cause and effect in these areas can be very valuable; however the Enlightened typically suppose that their purpose-free description is the only one there can be. The atheists who are attracted to evolution are therefore in the main stream of the last two hundred years of thought. Unfortunately, Western Christianity was in no position to correct the error. By accepting the false supposition that faith and reason were opposed and not complementary (see the Appendix), it had unwittingly prepared the ground for the Enlightenment. Therefore as reason advanced, Christian faith declined. When it finally stood and fought, over the issue of evolution in which the perceived crisis of purpose was most acute, it had lost the ability to point out that the twin descriptions of an event, God’s-eye (faith) and man’s-eye (reason), were complementary, not opposed. It was able only to fight an ‘away match’ on the ground of reason. Its counter-attack was essentially that of today’s creation scientists, who call for stronger faith and dispute evolution on erroneous scientific grounds. (This debate will be discussed later.)
Having been very general, let me now become specific. If the Genesis account is true, how can it be reconciled with evolution’s account? The answer lies in the creation scientists’ claim that the Bible is “literally true”. On closer examination we find that “literally true” is a tautology. It unwittingly hides what is meant, that the Bible is materially or physically true; and, unlike the tautology of “literally true”, this claim involves interpretation of the Scriptures. Understanding this, we can now debate the interpretation. It is a theological debate.
Material truth is one of many forms of truth. If I invent a morality tale, to explain a moral truth, everyone will understand that I am telling a truth even though the characters in the tale never materially existed. It is an assumption of the scientific, material-dominated culture in which the creation scientists live that material truth is the highest truth. Since there are other forms of truth, this is not necessarily so. Moreover I can prove to Christians that the Bible is not meant to be read exclusively in this way. In the four Gospels there are differing and materially irreconcilable accounts of where Jesus was, what he did and said, during certain events. Taken as material fact in the way the creation scientists (and seekers of the ‘historical Jesus’) claim, the Bible therefore contradicts itself. If, as Christians believe, the Bible is the word of a God who does not contradict himself, the error must lie in insistence on an exclusively material interpretation of those passages which might be interpreted in more than one way.
Of course the Bible does reveal a material truth that is central to the Christian message, namely the Incarnation; but it never separates material truth and spiritual truth. They are, ultimately, one. (Jesus Christ: “I am the truth”.) I suggest that the Genesis account of creation is a deeper kind of truth that is more than material. It is God’s view of the process, revealed to man. Not surprisingly, this will be hard to understand! It also leaves room for a complementary account using descriptive tools which are themselves part of creation. Such an account is evolution.
Evolution requires also that the Earth be many millions of years old, clashing with the timescale of a few thousands of years that derives from a material, non-symbolic interpretation of the Genesis genealogies (and the assumption that every generation is represented). Here the clash is not only with evolution, but geology and astrophysics, both of which indicate the multi-million year timescale. Some creationists prefer not to face this issue, obviously because geology and astrophysics have greater acceptance than evolution. Others carry through their interpretation, and, because the Bible is silent on geology and astrophysics as it is not on human descent (from Adam and Eve), they perceive a gap which they fill with their own geological and astrophysical theories. Instead of listening to nature on its own terms, as conventional scientists do, they have an agenda, since all evidence that contradicts a material interpretation of the Bible is seen as inaccurate or lies. This does not make for good science, and scientists find this ‘creation science’ to be riddled with elementary inconsistencies. They are perplexed by its failure to go away in the face of scientific argument and education. This is because the debate is not a scientific one but a deeper, theological one. Here the theological account set out above applies, plus one further point. At the end of all scientific argument, the ultimate creationist position will be that fossils in rocks that were once sea floor, and can only have been uplifted over aeons, were never living beings but created in the rock by God. The resulting confusion would indicate the action of a capricious, mocking God; while he has a sense of humour (we who are in his image have one), we do not recognise in this act the God of overwhelming constancy who speaks to us in the Scriptures.
In fact, far from being opposed to Christian theology, I hold that the theory of evolution is deeply conditioned by it. It would be an enormous coincidence if the scientific method arose within the only culture to have been evangelised for many centuries by chance. Science is an enterprise that seeks to make the world more comprehensible to man, and Christianity is the only faith to maintain that the world is comprehensible to man, since in Christ the creator has made himself known and through him all is knowable. Christian faith that the world is comprehensible to man, and that the enterprise of trying to comprehend it is therefore worthwhile, finally bore the fruit that is science. It could not have happened elsewhere. Evolution is a fully scientific theory and is part of the Christian tradition of seeking order in creation, even though it makes no explicit reference to God.
I have stated that a purpose-free, cause-and-effect description of human descent is worth seeking, and that the theory of evolution provides one. But is it the correct one? This is a purely scientific issue having nothing to do with the theological debate over creation science (though this often masquerades as a scientific question). Having, I hope, diverted the excess heat out of the debate, I will outline the evidence for evolution and its mechanisms.
The basic idea is that there is a wide variation in physical and behavioural characteristics among individuals of a distinct species. This diversity — in height, build and skin colour in humans, for example — reflects a diversity in the gene pool of a species. (Genes are chemically encoded instructions, inherited from parents, for particular characteristics.) Some individuals will be better adapted to survive in a particular environment; for example, moths whose wing colour more closely matches the bark of local trees are more likely to escape being eaten by birds and pass on their own colour-coded genes (‘natural selection’). Bacteria that are resistant to a particular antibiotic will preferentially survive in a hospital that uses it; this has been observed. The species responds to the environment and to changes in it. Differences can be brought out by so small an incident as one group wandering off from another into a different environment; this has led to differing human skin colours, for example. A species can slowly spread across a broad range of environments, adapting itself along the way so as to produce different-looking individuals in different areas; if the environment in one of these areas then undergoes a dramatic change, the species there may alter so much as eventually to be unable to interbreed with its parent species. A new species has been created.
This account explains how a species having a diverse gene pool adapts itself to an environment. However, natural selection clearly acts to reduce the diversity of the gene pool. The opposing effect, tending to increase genetic diversity, is mutation — changes at the genetic level due to miscopying as cells divide, or other local chemical mechanisms, that then express themselves as new characteristics. (We see only the viable mutations — most mutant cells, including fertilised eggs, die immediately upon their creation.)
No evolutionary theorist would dispute the truth of the statements in the last two paragraphs. The question is: can this mechanism give a full account of the ancestry of all species — including humans — and if so, is it the only or the dominant mechanism by which descent takes place? Because the mechanism clearly does operate, and because nobody has been able to think of any other, the answer is generally taken to be yes. This supposition permits the putting of further questions to the data, not all of which have been answered today. Because of this, some take it that the answer is no, while others assert that it is the enormous complexity of ecosystems — of many species competing by means of distinct strategies in a wide variety of environments — which is responsible. The onus is on the Noes to propose other mechanisms and on the Yesses to fill out their framework, consistent with what is seen.
Two prominent concerns are the paucity of intermediate types in the fossil record; and how (for example) a bird’s wing could have evolved, given that a half-sized intermediate organ would be useless for flying. Both can be explained on the orthodox picture; I shall do this and then set out the direct evidence for human evolution. For further detail, see the many popular books by Stephen Jay Gould.
Certainly some missing links between species are found in the fossil record. Their low incidence on the present mechanism would be explained if differentiation into distinct species took place on timescales short compared to the ages of species. This ‘punctuated equilibrium’ looks a lot more plausible as we learn more about how much of the Earth’s history has been dominated by sudden and violent environmental changes (‘catastrophism’).
As to intermediate organs such as half a wing, the objection implicitly assumes that the appendage would be used for flying only. When it first began to evolve it would have had some other function, for which it proffered immediate advantage; when big enough it might then have started evolving specifically as a wing. Flamingos use their wings not only to fly but also to shield the water that they are inspecting for fish from the sun’s glare, for example. Intermediate organs can have intermediate functions.
Here is the evidence for the assertion that man is descended by a continuous chain of reproduction from far simpler organisms. First, the fossil (and bone) record shows an ever-increasing complexity of organisms as time goes on, including some intermediate forms, and most recently man-like creatures. Second, the embryo of higher animals undergoes a series of changes that corresponds remarkably closely to the differences between successively more complex creatures still in existence today. The human embryo first forms a hollow sphere of cells which resembles a primitive organism found in ditches; one end of the sphere then pushes in to resemble a sponge-like creature; later the cavity between the nose and mouth is pierced by slits that are similar to fish gills; the nostrils become connected to the edges of the mouth by grooves as in the shark; the limbs initially resemble those of quadrupeds, with fingers and toes webbed like a dog’s; for a while hair covers the whole embryo, like an ape; even for a while after birth the big toe is, as in apes, opposed to the other toes. How could all this be, other than the embryo climbing its own family tree? (As Haeckel put it: ontogeny is a short recapitulation of phylogeny.) Please ponder this in the light of my statement that God is not a capricious joker. Third, there is the existence of useless organs such as the appendix, useful in animals of close structure to man’s. What else could this imply than a common ancestor and a subsequent divergence? Fourth, there is modern evidence from DNA, which makes up genes and is the medium of transmission of inherited characteristics. The DNA of man is very close, link by link in its helical chain, to that of even very simple creatures; and the similarity grows above 95% as the similarity to man of the animal increases. This constitutes a great body of evidence.
In conclusion I call on atheists who think that the Genesis account is simply outdated to accept that evolutionary theory says nothing about purpose either way. I call on creation scientists to recognise the untenability of an exclusively material interpretation of Scripture — witness the resulting inconsistencies in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life; to accept that the Genesis account and evolution’s account may be complementary, just as God’s hand may be seen in events we give routine cause-and-effect explanations to; and to ponder in this light what might be seen, and why, as we trace our ancestors back through successive generations. Last, I call on all sides to recognise that this is primarily a theological debate. There might then grow the mutual understanding that leads to reconciliation.
Contemporary Western culture typically sees faith and reason as opposed. By ‘faith’ here, I do not automatically mean Christian faith, simply suppositions that someone believes in but is unable to prove. I think that everyone has these, because everyone has to start from somewhere. If your suppositions come from the prevailing culture you will probably not be aware that you hold them; but if you spend some time in a quite different culture you rapidly become aware of what you take for granted, and what people of that different culture take for granted that you do not.
Two examples: people who engage in ‘comparative religion’ have as starting point the criteria they use to compare religions; and Christians are people who are called to start from faith in Jesus as Christ, a man as God, who died as and why the New Testament states.
Reason is one of the tools that enables you to progress from your (faith-held) starting point in dealing with the world as it comes to you. Reason is therefore not opposed to faith, but complementary to it. It is the preferred tool in the West.
If you find someone arguing for a particular starting point then that point is not really their starting point but an intermediate position. Their real starting point and faith lies in the tools they use in that argument.
(One thing that can never be proved or disproved, by reason or anything else, is the existence of God — because such arguments would necessarily set the tools they use above God, in contradiction to the meaning of God as above all else. Necessarily it is a matter of faith.)
The history of the relation between faith and reason in the West, and its profound effect on Western life, is outlined with great clarity in the recent book Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin. His theme is that St. Augustine correctly understood and summarised this relation in the phrase credo ut intelligam — I believe in order to know — but that faith and reason began to come unglued following Thomas Aquinas’ somewhat Aristotelian interpretation of Christian theology, which distinguished things that can be known by faith and things that can be known by reason. All exegesis, since it uses the tools of the prevailing, earthly, fallen, culture, is provisional; and, as Western culture moved on, Aquinas’ ideas, definitive for their day but overly entrenched, led to growing problems. The line is traceable through Descartes, who sought to start from faith in cogito ergo sum, to the ideas of the Enlightenment and on to today’s total polarisation. To anyone interested in these ideas and their enormous consequences in everyday life I strongly recommend Newbigin’s book. Western Christianity will not be able to deal with the problem unless it sees it in its full depth.