Thoughts on evolution

J: “I know you probably get this a lot, but I was just wondering what your opinions on evolution are.”

Before we start talking about evolution, it’s important to consider why the issue matters. From a scientific perspective, even infallible proof that evolution occurred (by “evolution” I mean the theory that biological complexity can be explained through natural processes as opposed to intelligent design) would hardly remove the need for some sort of God to explain the world. Throughout history, scientists and philosophers have recognized that various aspects of the universe strongly suggest the existence of a Designer: the simple existence of “something rather than nothing,” to quote Leibniz; the strange suitability of the universe for life, called the Anthropic Principle; the existence of any sort of biological life; and finally, the remarkable complexity of biological life.

Because evolution operates through the mechanism of the survival of the fittest, and because being alive in the first place is a fairly universally acknowledged prerequisite for survival, evolution can only appear on the scene once biological life exists. This means it has nothing to say about the sheer existence of the universe, nothing to say about the Anthropic Principle, and nothing to say about the very first appearance of biological life. All of these still appear to demand a creative Intelligence which evolution is absolutely unable to replace.

But that’s not really why we talk about evolution. Evolution matters because it appears to contradict the creation account found in Scripture. The first few chapters of Genesis describe the creation of complex life forms from nothing, over the course of six days. Evolution requires millions upon millions of years. The two pictures cannot both be right. Well, where does that leave us?

Whenever the Bible and our experience of the world appear to contradict one another, we have three basic options: (1) assume the Bible is simply wrong, (2) assume we’re misunderstanding the Bible on this point, or (3) assume we’re misunderstanding the evidence of our experience. If we take the first option, it’s hard to see why one would bother believing the Bible about anything else. A religious document which claims to be inspired and then makes an objective error isn’t much of a religious document. For a Christian whose assurance is built upon the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15-16) and reinforced by the wealth of external evidence for the truth of Scripture, the idea of an errant Bible is nearly unthinkable. While it can be acknowledged as a logical possibility, in the same spirit that Paul entertained the idea that Christ did not rise from the dead (I Corinthians 15:12-19), it is hard to imagine the weight of evidence that would be required to make the first option more plausible than either of the other two.

So it appears that either we’re misunderstanding the Bible or we’ve got the science wrong. Either one is possible. Both have happened before. Simply flipping to “Election, theories of” in the nearest theological dictionary would be sufficient to demonstrate that Christians disagree about what the Bible teaches on some points of theology. Even perfect truth may not be perfectly comprehensible to imperfect creatures. So we cannot immediately discount the possibility that we may be missing the meaning of the first chapters of Genesis.

On the other hand, entire encyclopedias could be filled with things about which science was quite sure and quite wrong. A few months ago I saw a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson going around Facebook: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It was nice to know that science’s confidence in a geocentric universe, spontaneous generation, the importance of balancing the humors to prevent disease, the circulation of blood by the liver, and the impossibility of subatomic particles were all true, despite my disbelief… Of course, science now knows those things to be false, and I suppose we could assume it is now, finally, right about everything–but I don’t have that kind of faith. It’s possible evolutionists are simply drawing the wrong conclusions.

Recognizing that either the science or our understanding of the Bible could be wrong doesn’t leave us at an impasse, though. It just means we have to consider the evidence.

Turning first to the Bible, I ought to qualify my earlier observation about the possibility of misunderstanding Scripture. Some points of theology are genuinely rather opaque. I think my position on infant baptism is the correct and biblical one, but I’m quite prepared to admit I may be surprised when I get to heaven. The answers to other questions are more clear; the chance that we’ll arrive in glory and learn that the Apostle Paul was merely a literary construct is precisely zero.

The clarity of the Genesis account falls somewhere in the middle. There are certainly other parts of the Bible, such as portions of the Psalms and various prophecies, which should be read metaphorically, so we cannot say a priori that parts of Genesis might not fall into the same category. However, reading Genesis in that way would strain the text quite severely.

The creation narrative itself appears to be written as history. Perhaps most compelling is the repetition of “And there was evening and there was morning” to mark the days; an odd demarcation to choose if “days” referred to something other than 24 hour periods. Furthermore, assuming the account is not intended to be read literally creates a number of problems in other parts of the Bible. For example, evolution would require death prior to the Fall, despite Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:20-21, which state that death came through the sin of one man. Which raises another problem: the Bible consistently treats the Fall as an actual historical event, but that would require a historical Adam and Eve. Other biblical doctrines are also rooted in a literal interpretation of the recorded events of Genesis, including the doctrine of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:11) and Jesus’ teaching about marriage (Matthew 19:3-6).

Given the strong arguments for reading the Genesis account literally, and the lack of any biblical counterargument on that point, the only reason to suggest we might be reading things incorrectly would be scientific evidence for evolution. It’s an interesting dilemma: a strong but not indubitable case for reading Genesis literally, up against what we’re told is strong scientific evidence that argues in the opposite direction. Personally, I feel I would be prepared to reevaluate my interpretation of the Genesis account in light of truly compelling evidence. The key is the fact that one can make a case–though not a very strong one–for reading the creation story metaphorically. If there’s even a chance that such a reading is correct, it seems reasonable to consider the evidence pro and con.

This brings us to the scientific case for evolution, which I simply don’t find very convincing. Yes, the large majority of scientists believe it (though not all of them), but any scientist will have been taught all through school to simply take it for granted, and very few of them actually do research that could substantially support or rebut the theory–it’s more of an unquestioned background assumption. From the beginning, evolution has benefited from the Enlightenment methodology which automatically excludes God from any scientific inquiry, leaving a naturalistic explanation as the only game in town. And now that it’s so entrenched, surely confirmation bias, group culture, and the need for grant money would weigh the psychological and financial scales against heterodoxy? I’ve noticed in interviews with scientists in fields ranging from biology to physics that they often admit frankly that some challenges to evolution remain unanswered in their particular area of expertise, but dismiss broader questions about the theory with a cheerful wave of the hand toward what they assume is monolithic evidence for evolution across all other scientific disciplines. It’s startling how often this happens when you start watching for it.

As for the actual evidence for and against evolution, I just can’t get around the problem of irreducible complexity–and neither, apparently, can anyone else. Irreducible complexity refers to biological systems, both mechanical and chemical, which cannot function without all their components and which therefore would be impossible to produce through gradual development guided by additional survival benefit at each step, as evolution requires. Dozens of such systems exist, but some that are commonly cited include the eye, the chemical process of sight, blood clotting, cilia, and the cellular structure itself.

Taking the latter as an example, every single cell requires both protein and DNA to exist and reproduce. Furthermore, DNA contains the blueprint for production of proteins, but proteins create DNA. Explain to me how the first cell emerged through natural processes, and I’ll consider the theory of evolution. I recall reading an interview with an origin-of-life researcher who was investigating whether a process involving RNA might explain the origin of cellular life. She observed that her favored hypothesis would require “a near miracle,” which seems rather like cheating when you’re trying to explain away Genesis.

I have literally never heard a response to the problem of irreducible complexity that amounted to much more than, “But they must have evolved, because where else could they have come from?” It is true that attempts have been made to answer the difficulty; for example, hypothesizing that parts of irreducibly complex systems could have evolved in unknown, different environments which allowed each intermediate stage to confer a survival benefit that is no longer evident to us. At some point, however, the explanations simply stretch credulity beyond its breaking point. The fact that one can find a rock somewhere in the world that’s weirdly posed on another rock doesn’t convince me that Stonehenge was produced by random natural processes. Some things are so statistically unlikely that even adding “Plus billions of years!” can’t turn them into a plausible scenario.

I don’t want to ignore contrary evidence, such as methods of dating which–assuming their underlying assumptions are accurate–suggest the age of the earth is in the millions rather than the thousands of years, but ultimately the scientific evidence would need to be very strong to make me even seriously consider reevaluating the most obvious reading of Genesis’ creation account. (And remember, science has been wrong even on questions about which it was quite certain.) Since the scientific case seems weak enough that I’d have questions about it regardless of what the Bible said, I’ve honestly never really even gotten to the point of having to seriously weigh the apparent testimony of science against the apparent testimony of Scripture. Though I don’t think it’s absolutely required by the biblical text, based on the evidence I’m quite comfortable rejecting evolution and embracing a literal reading of the Genesis account.

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