Creation and Evolution

10th February 2003

1. Introduction
2. The Conflict
3. History of the Conflict
4. Science and Faith
5. Science's Attitude to Christianity
6. Beware Creationism

1. Introduction

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

— Galileo Galilei

The overarching principle of this talk is that God has created us as rational beings, with the capacity for abstract, logical thought. That can surely only be because he intends us to use it: the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) shows that we have an obligation to use the abilities that God has given us. That certainly doesn't mean that we ignore the bible - but it does mean that, for those parts of the bible that are susceptible to more than one interpretation, we use our minds to establish which we think is correct.

Many of the 19th century scientists understood this: they were mostly ``gentleman-philosophers'' whose goal was to understand the creator better, though science - that is, the study of his creation. For those who approach science today in the same spirit, the pay-off is the same. For a Christian, an understanding of cosmology and the ludicrously huge masses and distances involved can hardly help but inspire worship.

2. The Conflict

The best and most objective science available to us today estimates that the Earth is about 4.5 thousand million years old, and the universe as a whole about fifteen thousand million years old. The fossil record, though patchy and incomplete, clearly shows that evolution has taken place through many millions of years, giving rise, among other creatures, to the dinosaurs, which lived from 220 to 65 Mya (millions of years ago).

In contrast, the most literal possible reading of our English translation of Genesis (referring to the first day, the second day, etc.) suggests that the Earth and the universe that contains it were created in six days - 144 hours.

That literal interpretation was perhaps the most obvious one in the centuries before the rise of science. But even in the absence of scientific evidence to the contrary, there are reasons why ``six day'' creation is maybe not a compelling theory:

I contend that, in the light of these issues, and in the light of what God has allowed us to discover about his universe through science, the literal-minded interpretation must be incorrect. We may agree that the bible is infallible without elevating our fallible interpretation of it to infallibility.

3. History of the Conflict

Why, then, are so many Christians so dedicated to a belief in a 144-hour creation? I suspect it's largely a matter of habit: that belief is inherited from parents (and older Christians) who do not have a scientific background, and passed on uncritically.

The danger with this is that somewhere down the line, the issue has acquired a degree of importance and centrality that it just doesn't merit. Some Christians are worried that if they don't stick to the 144-hour story, they are somehow taking away from God's glory. But I find the story of a fifteen-billion year creation yet more glorious: the idea of God piloting suns and galaxies in their courses to bring the Universe to the point he intended is an awesome one.

The situation is in some ways analogous to that of the Earth's centrality in the Universe. In ancient times, it was taken for granted that this was how the Universe was laid out, because there was no obvious evidence that it might be otherwise. This belief somehow became associated with Christianity, at least in the minds of the leaders of the established church - perhaps guided by an overly literal-minded interpretation of bible passages such as Psalm 104:19-22 (``The sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl [...] The sun rises, and they steal away.'')

When astonomers such as Copernicus first postulated that the Earth and the other planets orbited the Sun, they were opposed by the Church because it was felt that this strange new belief was unbiblical. But no Christian today believes that the Earth is the physical centre of the Universe, nor feels that Christianity is compromised by its orbiting the Sun.

4. Science and Faith

I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.

— Isaiah 45:12, quoted on the home page of the Institute for Creation Research

YES! I agree emphatically with the ICR that God made the Earth and created man upon it. But this verse is about who made the earth, not how he did it. It simply is not about science.

Fundamentally, science is about ``how'' questions. It doesn't even attempt to address ``why'' questions - it doesn't have the tools to ask them, let alone answer them. That's not a criticism of science: it's merely that that's not what science is, in much the same way that meringue is not a building material. No-one would criticise meringue for that, because we understand that its purpose is different.

That's why this session is entitled ``Creation and Evolution'' - not ``Creation versus Evolution''!

The book of Ecclesiastes in the bible contains some thoughts on commerce, but it is not an economics textbook. The book of Acts includes accounts of journeys across the Middle East and Europe, but it is not a geography textbook. In the same way, Genesis is not a science textbook. It simply does not set out to address scientific ``how'' questions such as how the different species arose. It's there to answer ``why'' questions. Why is there a Universe at all? (Because God willed it so.) Why are humans moral while animals are not? (Because God made us ``in his image''). Why does a good God allow suffering to exist? (Because of sin.)

The early chapters of Genesis simply don't read like a documentary account. The style of the prose is very different from, for example, that of the gospels, which can't be read in any other interpretation than that of history. Instead, the early part of Genesis reads more like a summary - a ``story so far'' - an ``in last week's episode''.

So I would argue that there is simply no conflict between science and faith, because they address completely different areas. Science has very little light to shed on faith issues, just as it has little to say about, for example, poetry or love. Again, this is a criticism neither of science nor of faith (not, for that matter, or poetry or love!) Just a recognition that they are different things that address different parts of our humanity.

5. Science's Attitude to Christianity

The well-known palaeontologist Robert Bakker, in an interview with Prehistoric Planet makes two important points. The first is to do with one eminent Christian's attitude to science:

St. Augustine [...] came up with the conclusion that the story in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 was not a simple historical sequence of events. It just couldn't be. It's not what the words meant. It just wasn't.

— Robert Bakker

And the second, conversely, is to do with the correct attitude of science towards Christianity:

Scientists nearly all the time [...] have the assumption that all religion is silly superstition. That all religious belief is stuff you've got to cure yourself of, get rid of, if you're going to be a good scientist. Noooooooo.

— Robert Bakker

Evolutionary scientists are not out to get you! There are plenty of Christians on the Dinosaur Mailing List, and with a very few exceptions everyone is helpful and friendly. The disapproval and contempt of scientists is for the most part reserved for those who ignore or manipulate scientific evidence to reach a pre-selected conclusion - not for those, like most Christians, who simply do not do science at all.

Some Christians will argue that Evolutionism leads to a godless world-view. But ``An idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it'' (Don Marquis.) Which, by the way, I've seen used by Christians to disclaim responsibility for the inquisition. As C. S. Lewis observes, we believe in a thing not because it is modern, or helpful, or leads to desirable ends, but because it is true.

6. Beware Creationism

Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel.

— 2 Timothy 2:24

Avoid foolish controversies [...] and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

— Titus 3:9

Finally, it is my painful duty to warn Christians against creationism - that is, the attempt to build a ``scientific'' justification for belief in a six-day creation that happened about six thousand years ago and in which evolution does not happen. Devotees of creationism make strong claims for its validity, but it is overwhelmingly rejected by professionals in the field. This rejection is most reasonably interpreted as a reflection of the ineptness of well-meaning but incompetent amateurs. Realistically, this is a much more likely explanation than creationists' favourite interpretation that there is a huge anti-creationism consipiracy in mainstream science.

Writing as both a Christian and a scientist (amateur), what disturbs me most is that the dishonesty or incompetence of some creation scientists can only be dishonouring to God. Take for example the implication in Dr. Duane T. Gish's Dinosaurs by Design that evolution requires birds to be derived ornithischians (because ``ornithischian'' means ``bird-hipped'' whereas ``saurischian'' means ``lizard-hipped''). Anyone who knows anything about dinosaur-bird evolution knows that orthodox science has birds evolving from saurischian dinosaurs, and that the superficial resemblance between hip structure in birds and ornithischian dinosaurs is just that - superficial (and, for what it's worth, not particularly striking anyway).

So why does Gish's book imply that evolution says birds evolved from ornithischians? We're left with only two possible reasons, and neither is very palatable:

  1. The author did not know even the basics of dinosaur science, and did not trouble himself to do even a bare minimum of research before writing his book on the subject.

  2. He knew exactly what he was doing, and deliberately painted a false and nonsensical parody of the true evolutionist position because a straw horse is easier to knock over.

Which of these two alternatives do we find less unappetising? That the author is incompetent, or that he is dishonest? I don't feel comfortable criticising fellow Christians like this, but I simply can't find a third explanation.

Christians need to realise that conflicts like this do not draw scientists towards the gospel. Quite the opposite: most scientists, on reading a transparently flawed argument like Gish's will see more evidence to back any existing erroneous belief that Christianity is fundamentally incompatible with thinking straight, and will become more hostile to the gospel.

At best, Creationism is the wrong battle to fight. Far better to spend your time arguing the historicity of the gospels or the reality of God's work today.

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