Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Evolution: Some Thoughts

For many years there has been an ongoing controversy between those who embrace Darwin's Theory of Evolution and those who say that the truth is a literal interpretation of the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis. With the help of a couple knowledgeable writers on this topic, I want to raise a few questions and offer my own perspective.

Recently I completed "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution," by David Quammen. This is a fine book to read (although I listened to the recorded version), very accessible, and as the title says, an intimate look at Darwin with a lot of information about his family. Quammen is an award winning writer who has a knack for taking scientific subjects and making them easy for anyone to read and understand. Quammen used to write a column for Outside Magazine, and is the author of "The Song of the Dodo," "Natural Acts," and "Wild Thoughts from Wild Places." In this article I'm also drawing extensively from Kenneth R. Miller's book Finding Darwin's God, which I would also highly recommend to anyone interested in reading more about this interesting topic. I want to use a quote from Quammen's book as an entrance to sharing some thoughts I have about evolution.

This quote is from disc 5, track 21 and at first addresses the nature of variations and natural selection in the process of evolution, which I include as simply a lead in to the heart of the quote which begins with the sentence, "But if variations are undirected..."

".... variations do have physical causes,they just don't have pre-ordained purposes. For instances, a drought might increase the rate of variation in a species, he thought, without necessarily invoking any particular variations that improves a creature's tolerance for drought. Or the drought might yield one variation that improves drought-tolerance plus five others that are useless or harmful. If so natural selection would tend to preserve and multiply that one. Selection is directional. Variation, offering raw material to the selection process, is not directional. But if variations are undirected, and if natural selection calibrates only the fitness of each creature to survive and reproduce, then is it possible to believe that God created humans in his image and likeness endowing us with a spiritual dimension not shared by the best adapted orchid or barnacle. Arguably not. There's a genuine contradiction here that can't easily be brushed away, but let's be clear. This is not evolution vs God. The existence of God, any sort of God, personal or abstract, imminent or distant, is not what Darwin's evolutionary theory challenges. What it challenges is the supposed Godliness of man, the conviction that we above all other life forms are spiritually elevated, divinely favored, possessed of an immaterial and immortal essence such that we have special prospects for eternity, special status in the expectations of God, special rights and responsibilities on earth.That's where Darwin runs afoul of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and probably most other religions on the planet."

Most Christians subscribe to the idea that humans are a spiritually superior life form, endowed, as Quammen puts it, with an "immaterial and immortal essence," or soul, and with a special future in eternity. Many Christians also discard, without much consideration, Darwin's theory of evolution. I believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is probably correct. The evolution theory seems solid and durable. It's been challenged continuously, and still endures. It also explains much that Genesis does not address or even try to explain.

I don't believe the creation took place in six twenty-four hour days sometime in the range of six to ten thousand years ago. Humans are the ones who like instant results. We have instant oatmeal, instant rice, and instant-on television sets. We want instant relief from any kind of discomfort. So it's perhaps understandable that we would also want an instant creation. However the desire for instant gratification is a human, not a divine, characteristic. Why would God be in a rush? Why would God, who most Christians believe has always existed and never changes, suddenly be unable to go on for even another week without a "creation?" It doesn't make sense. It's not the way God works.

As Miller points out in his book, which is subtitled, "A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution," if those who reject evolution for a relatively recent "instant" creation are correct, then the dinosaur bones accurately dated to millions of years ago, and representing creatures who no longer exist, were just placed in the earth by God to deceive people. That means God is a trickster or a deceiver who tries to fool people. I don't buy that.

The Biblical evidence for evolution is strong. Strongest of all is perhaps the knowledge that the theory of evolution is similar to the way God works as recorded in the Bible. Let me explain. Christians believe that our God is a personal God who has tried repeatedly over thousands of years to develop a relationship with humans. His early efforts included selecting a special people or nation. Later he used prophets to try to accomplish the same goal of developing a relationship with humans. In the New Testament he sent his son to demonstrate a new way of living and relating to God and other humans. We know from Philippians 2:12 ("...work out your salvation with fear and trembling..."), and 2 Corinthians 2:15 (...among those who are being saved..."), that salvation is a process. We know from Matthew 18:22 ("...seventy times seven...") that forgiveness is also a process. We witness in our own physical lives a process of growth extending from birth to death, and observe the same process at varying rates in all of life on this earth. Many of us can attest to a similar on-going process in our spiritual lives. We know that the relationships we have with other humans from our most intimate companions to casual acquaintances also go through a process of growth, or sometimes a process in the opposite direction, that is a growing apart. So why wouldn't creation also be a process.... as contrasted to something that God tried once thousands of years ago and then gave up on, as if it was a bad idea, which is really what the creationists and "intelligent designers" are saying, isn't it?

So what do we do with the idea expressed in the quote from Quammen's book. Quammen points out that the status of God is not threatened by Darwin's theory of evolution, only the status of humans. Is it possible that it's not our religious beliefs getting in the way of accepting Darwin's theory of evolution, but only our egos? Do we believe that we're simply too good to be genetically related to other species? The biological relationship is undeniable. Most, if not all, other animal species are "alive" in ways very similar to humans, ie beating hearts, moving limbs, etc. There are similarities in the DNA of humans and many other species. Moving backwards into prehistoric times we observe that the fossil records seem to indicate a merging of species.

Is it really demeaning to suggest that we are like other species, plants as well as animals, or does it simply acknowledge the obvious, that we are a part of an amazing and complex process filling the earth with life and hope. Most creationists will acknowledge that God "uses" natural processes to do most everything that happens naturally on Planet Earth: the change of seasons; migration; hibernation; the birth, growth, and death of all species; earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, hurricanes, and tsunamis; other weather variations; the blooming of flowers and the falling of leaves, and much more. So why wouldn't God also use natural processes to originate species, including the human species? God is consistent and predictable. If we say that in order for new species to begin, God had to specifically create each one, we are saying several things that for me are incompatible with what I know and believe about God.

First, as I mentioned before if we reject Darwin's theory of evolution we are saying that the creation was something God did a long time ago, and then quit doing as if it was a bad idea. I think the creation was and is a great idea. It's ongoing, and being a part of it as ourselves is the best gift any human will ever receive

If we claim that species were created by a specific act of God, instead of through the natural process of evolution we're saying that God was not great enough to include the creation of original species in the natural process. That cheapens and diminishes God's greatness.
The third problem that arises from rejecting Darwin is that it pushes God out of the mainstream of our lives and relegates his participation in the natural world to the areas where our comprehension is incomplete. There was a time in history when it was heresy to say that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Later scientists discovered that the Earth was, in fact, not the center of the universe. Columbus was criticized for believing that the earth is round, in part because of a Bible passage that speak of the four corners of the Earth. Columbus was right. The Bible was being misinterpreted by the religious leaders. Now we're told that Genesis contradicts Darwin, so Darwin must be wrong. Never mind that there are two remarkedly different versions of the creation story in the first couple chapters of Genesis. Once again the Bible is being misinterpreted, this time by the creationists. There is more in the Bible about the creation that is not found in Genesis. That, of course is what we learn from the Bible about the nature and behavior of God, which I addressed in the previous paragraphs.

If God wants to be an active part of our lives then why would he choose to exist and act only in those areas of the creation and nature for which we have no scientific explanation. As Miller points out, if our ability as humans to believe, and also to study and learn, that is if faith and reason are both gifts from God, they should work together to enhance our knowledge as well as strengthen our connection with God. However the creationists claim that they contradict or are in conflict with each other. That belief damages our ability to learn from the world we live in and weakens our trust in a supreme being.

If we claim God acts as a creator only in the areas of the natural world that may not be completely comprehensible to us, that means every time we make a new discovery or for the first time find a scientific explanation for some previously mysterious natural process, we push God further and further into the shadows of our knowledge. That does not pose a threat to science but it definitely does threaten our religious faith. To quote Miller; "If a lack of scientific explanation is proof of God's existence, the counter logic is unimpeachable: a successful scientific explanation is an argument against God. That's why this reasoning, ultimately, is much more dangerous to religion than it is to science" (Page 266).

As a Christian and an evolutionist I believe that Darwin's Theory of Evolution is more biblical and theologically sound than believing that God created everything in six twenty-four hour days. Here is an partial list of my reasons:

1. Evolution more closely reflects what we know about the nature of God and how he/she works in the creation, not impatiently, seeking instant gratification and results, and without purpose and reason, but slowly, methodically, and within the context of the existing natural processes.

2. If God wants to be a part of the lives of humans as demonstrated by his son Jesus who personally ministered to people (It's in the life and actions of Jesus that we get the best possible picture of who God is and what God is like), then why would he exist and act as a creator only in the shadows of our knowledge, as the creationists claim?

3. I believe the reason many Christians reject evolution is not because it conflicts with our belief in God, but because it challenges our egos and our belief in our own self-importance, compared to other species. We like to think that we are much better than the other animals and plants that inhabit this world, and that egotistic attitude is manifested in the destruction we impose on other species and the environment. Therefore we reject the claim that we are genetically connected with other animals, even though the evidence overwhelmingly proves that we are directly related. It's not that we are less important, but rather that other species are much more important than we acknowledge them to be. They do not exist just for our benefit, but have intrinsic worth and value of their own, independent of any human use or utilization. Most other species do not need us to survive and thrive, but we definitely need them. Human life is sacred but there is something sacred about all of creation.

4. God is great enough to include the evolution of new species within the natural processes that exist on the earth. He/She did not have to step outside that role and make a special effort to bring each species into existence. As Miller puts in; "Life, in all its glory, is based in the physical reality of the natural world. We are dust, and from that dust comes the molecules of life to make both flowers and the dreamers who contemplate them" (Page 266).

5. I believe the creation is an ongoing process, which is consistent with the theory of evolution. God did not try it once and then abandon the creative process. It happens as a part of the ongoing natural processes of the Earth.

6. This reason steps a little further from the focus of this article, but it concerns me that so much emphasis is placed by Christians on embracing one particular interpretation of an Old Testament (OT) story. That which identifies a person as a Christian centers around beliefs about the nature of God, the coming of Jesus, and his Crucifixion and resurrection, not on any interpretation of an OT story. There are no Christians in the Old Testament. The OT predates the origins of Christianity so it's not possible for Christians to legitimately use a particular interpretation of an OT story as an identifying characteristic of Christianity. Yet many Christians believe that one has to reject the theory of evolution in order to be a Christian. Those who do that are adding stipulations to Biblical teaching that don't exist and do not belong there.

Here's another quote from Miller: "As more than one scientist has said, the truly remarkable thing about the world is that it actually does make sense. The parts fit, the molecules interact, the darn thing works. To people of faith, what evolution says is that nature is complete. God fashioned a material world in which truly free, truly independent beings could evolve. He got it right the first time" (Page 268).

"In obvious ways the various objections to evolution take a narrow view of the capabilities of life - but they take an even narrower view of the capabilities of the Creator. They hobble his genius by demanding that the material of His creation ought not to be capable of generating complexity. They demean the breadth of His vision by ridiculing the notion that the materials of His world could not have evolved into beings with intelligence and self-awareness. And they compel Him to descent from heaven onto the factory floor by conscripting His labor into the design of each organism that graces the surface of our living planet" (Page 268).

Later on page 268 Miller asks the important question; if the Creator uses physics and chemistry to run the mechanisms of life on this earth, why couldn't He have used the same processes to create life also? Is that beyond the ability of an all knowing and all powerful God? The kind of reasoning that finds God absent in the theory of evolution is the same kind of atheistic reasoning that does not recognize God at work in a world in which wars rage, children starve, and humans wreak havoc on each other. God has given us the gifts of knowledge and faith. It takes both for us to be truly appreciative of the greatness of our Creator. As Miller writes on Page 267: "Understanding evolution and its description of the processes that gave rise to the modern world is an important part of knowing and appreciating God... True knowledge comes only from a combination of faith and reason."

Leonard Nolt


NathanEvanGillis said...

I can dig this entry- both your thoughts and the direct quotes. I always find these kinds of arguments intriguing, but sometimes I wonder why there is even a debate. Since you're a reader, I would suggest the book Ishmael. Ishmael doesn't address the science of the issue, but it's an excellent look at our place in the world as human beings.

NathanEvanGillis said...

One more thing- I don't know if the authors you quoted ever talked about the history of the creation story or not. I remember learning in the Biblical Literature class at Hesston that many scholars believe that the creation story originated when the Israelites were captives in Babylon. They saw that the Babylonians had a creation story that stated their beliefs metaphorically and unified their people. However, the Babylonian story was destructive- one god killing another, the world beginning with death- and they decided to make a life affirming story that stated the Israelite way of viewing creation. So, metaphorically speaking, the view that we come from the earth (or dirt, or ground) actually fits wonderfully with the theory of evolution, regardless of conflicting details.

Leonard Nolt said...

Thanks, Nathan;
I agree. I also wonder why there is even a debate about this issue and some others too. Thaks for your comments.


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Leonard Nolt