The waywords team met for breakfast last week. Michael and Chris ate animal products, while I enjoyed a vegan repast (steel-cut oats, soy juice, coffee) in accordance with the diet allowed in Genesis 1:29. This diet includes every seed-bearing plant but no animal products.

At some point during our discussion, Michael brought up the topic of evolution, and possibly writing about it on this blog. I looked at Chris and said, “If you bring the gasoline, I’ll bring the matches.” Chris didn’t say anything. Michael wasn’t sure what to make of it, until I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

Seriously though, since this topic came up in Michael’s earlier post, I thought I’d write a little about it. First, as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t believe that Genesis 1 teaches a literal 168-hour creation. So I really was kidding about the gasoline.

Now here’s how I understand the state of scientific opinion.

  • First, there’s general agreement about the age of the universe and of the earth.
  • Second, nobody in the scientific community claims to know how life began. The Miller-Urey experiment has been pretty much discredited, and what we’ve learned about the astonishingly complex structure of the simplest living things has given rise to the phrase “irreducible complexity.” Though the Intelligent Design movement has been reviled and ridiculed by the scientific establishment, nobody has a plausible explanation of where life came from.
  • Then, on the question of where the many species on earth came from, Darwin gets a mixed review. On one hand, his “tree of life” is remarkably consistent with what biologists believe is the pattern of macro-evolution, as deduced from the contents of so-called “junk DNA.” These are parts of the genome that have no known function, but get replicated along with everything else “for free.” When a little change appears in some species and not in others, it’s reasonable to conclude that they’re related in some way.

    On the other hand, Darwin was spectacularly wrong on the timing of all this. He thought that changes would be gradual over time, but the fossil record shows essentially a whole lot of nothing, followed suddenly by a whole lot of everything. That is, though according to his theory we ought to have periods of only simpler life forms, then periods of more complex stuff, then periods of yet more complex stuff, and periods of even yet more complex stuff, until we get a whole zoo… there is no such gradation. Also contrary to what Darwin predicted, we have not found bazillions of transitional forms. So Darwin was astonishingly brilliant in noting connections among species, but spectacularly wrong in his guess about the time scale involved.

So, is evolution compatible with Christianity, with the Bible? That depends on what one means by “evolution.”

If “evolution” means the hypothesis that life on earth came about entirely as an accident, then it is absolutely incompatible with the Bible. Though Genesis 1 doesn’t address the question of how each species appeared, it is absolutely clear that we were created by God to rule with him. So in particular we were not created to be slaves, not manufactured from the blood and flesh of lesser (loser) gods, and most certainly not accidental products of undirected chemical reactions.

But if “evolution” means the idea that different species are related to each other and that God might have taken intermediate steps to develop more complex species, then I don’t have much of a problem with that.

However, as Chris pointed out, evolution does require a lot of death. And since Paul teaches that death entered the world through sin (Romans 5:12) — at the fall (Genesis 3) in other words, maybe evolution wasn’t the way God created the breathtaking variety of life we see on Earth.

Having given this most of five minutes’ thought, and having no real theological education, here’s what I think. Maybe physical death was a reality even without the fall — but instead of being a source of terror, as it is for many of us, it was just considered a natural kind of thing, as the hrossa did in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (Wikipedia article here). How can I justify this interpretation, beyond my desire for everybody to just get along?

Well, let’s take a look at the text. According to Genesis 2:15-17, God told Adam he’d die when he ate the forbidden fruit. (The King James version renders it “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” So they disobeyed, they ate the fruit, they were thrown out of the garden, and Adam lived at least 800 years afterward (Genesis 5:3-4). So I’m going to say that Adam experienced a spiritual kind of death when he ate the fruit (or “in the day” he ate thereof); he physically died at least 800 years later. And even if you don’t believe the literal interpretation of Genesis 5, Adam and Eve had two sons and lived long enough to see Cain kill Abel… and to have another son, Seth, after Abel was killed.

So I think the death that entered the world in Genesis 3, the death that happened to Adam immediately, was a spiritual separation from God; the full life cycle (birth, growth, reproduction, physical death) might have been in operation before the fall. So the forest floor might have been littered with dead leaves and insect bodies. Maybe.

All this is speculation, though. The Bible doesn’t really say.

And really, what difference does it make? What this means to me, besides the chance to have a little fun at Michael’s expense, is with all the other issues we have to disagree with the world about, the possibility of evolutionary processes need not be a sticking point.

So I really don’t believe that we have to check our brains at the door when we walk into church. Nor should we.

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3 Comments on “Evolution?”

  1. bobcu Says:

    “Though the Intelligent Design movement has been reviled and ridiculed by the scientific establishment, nobody has a plausible explanation of where life came from.”

    Actually there are many plausible explanations for how the first living cells developed. Use google to look it up. (Hint: Your magic fairy didn’t have anything to do with it.)

    Intelligent design means magically created. It’s a childish idiotic idea. It’s for people who are too lazy to think so they solve problems by saying “It was magic”.

    “But if ‘evolution’ means the idea that different species are related to each other and that God might have taken intermediate steps to develop more complex species, then I don’t have much of a problem with that.”

    I have a big problem with your sticking God in there. You are saying “I don’t understand, therefore the entire scientific community must invoke my magic fairy.”

    Scientists and other educated people don’t invoke magic for anything. There will forever be gaps in human understanding. These are research opportunities, not places to hide your magic-man-of-the-gaps.

    You talked about Genesis a lot. Why? It’s just an ancient myth. A nice story for children. It most certainly has absolutely nothing to do with science.

    Scientific facts don’t have to be compatible with any religious belief. Scientists could care less what any holy book says or what some know-nothing preacher says. All religions and Mr. God Himself are nothing more than inventions. All religious ideas including the Magic Fairy are obsolete. Intelligent people don’t need medieval fantasies.

  2. @bobcu

    I’ll have to agree with you that there are plausible explanations. But a version of Collin’s point is still true because many of those plausible explanations are not more experimentally verifiable than the conjecture that life was created was God. Besides, the larger point Collin (and I) are trying to make is that there is less inherent contradiction between belief in an intelligent designer and God. Take, for example, Wolfram’s conjecture that the universe can be reduced to an algorithm or algorithms. Wouldn’t those still require a programmer?

    Now here’s a challenge for people with your aesthetic tastes (for more reductionist ontology): if Genesis is “just an ancient myth” than how do you explain why so many people still read and learn about it today? There are plenty of other creation myths, but none so cherished in Western civilization. What’s your explanation for this cultural pheonmenon? If all religions are “inventions” than why are some more persistent over time and across cultures?

  3. Collin Says:

    bobcu: this may not help, but i’ll give it a whack anyway. if your brain and mine are products of accidents, and if thought is a by-product of unguided electro-chemical reactions among neurons, what reason have we to trust it? methinks this epistemological problem non-trivial.

    something else that bothered me quite a lot when i thought that physical science had the one word of truth… some actions are right and others are wrong, which i believed (and still do) are somehow ultimate reality; they’re not just social conventions. if the physical sciences claimed to explain the universe, but didn’t explain morality (or “right and wrong as a clue to the meaning…”), they seemed to me deficient.

    finally: if you think i’m uneducated and/or unintelligent, why not just mutter to yourself, “hurmpf, religious idiot” and close the tab/window on your browser? in other words, what’s going on in your life that made it worth your while to pelt me with insults? are you watching to see if i turn the other cheek? (or if i’ll somehow manage to find the shift key?)

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