A Personal View of the Evolution Issue

Allan H. Harvey
steamdoc@aol.com

As a Christian who is also a scientist, I have a special burden for the distress in the Christian faith over "evolution." This essay summarizes my views with regard to the science, the relevant portions of the Biblical record, and the larger issues of relating science and the Christian faith. I am not an expert in either evolutionary biology (though I know some basics and understand how science works in general) or in Biblical interpretation (though I take that seriously), so those two sections should not be considered as having been produced by an expert. I do feel that, with God's help, I have some good insight into the ways in which science and faith relate, so I consider the third section to be the most important part of this essay.

Evolution as Science

People often engage in pointless arguments as to whether evolution is established "fact," "only a theory," etc. I feel that much of the misunderstanding arises because the word "evolution" covers so much ground, and people throw the word around without making clear exactly what ideas and positions they are attacking or defending.

One meaning of "evolution" is simply "change over time." With regard to life on Earth, it is abundantly clear that things have, indeed, changed over its history. So, in that sense, "evolution" is undeniable. But this is not what most people mean when they use the word.

A second, more common meaning of "evolution" involves the relationships of species. Here, it has to do with the development of current forms of life from earlier forms, including common ancestry relationships. Examples would include the evolution of modern dogs and wolves from a common ancestor, or the evolution of amphibians from fish. Evolution in this sense is well established for many cases (though, as with all science, coming to this conclusion involves some interpretation of the evidence and is not 100% "proven") through both the fossil record and molecular genetics. This makes the hypothesis that all living creatures (including humans) are related in this way a plausible (and even probable) scientific result. Note that this definition says nothing about the mechanism by which these species developed from their common ancestors.

A third meaning is in specific reference to Darwin's theory of evolution. Since this theory is often misunderstood, it is worth explaining briefly. In particular, it must be recognized that Darwinian evolution is not a matter of things developing "just by random chance." Darwinian evolution has two fundamental pieces. One is the genetic variation of offspring (which is the "chance" part and is due both to the normal genetic variations within a species and to mutations). But the other is "natural selection" (which is not random), in which the fittest offspring (best suited to their environment) survive, producing more offspring who pass on their genes. Over time, this combination of genetic variation and natural selection produces new species. On a small scale, Darwin's theory has been well verified. Directly observed examples include the evolution of bacteria resistant to certain drugs. For species that reproduce over longer timescales, the inferences for evolution must be made less directly. But it is now quite clear that, at least on some scales, Darwinian mechanisms are indeed a valid description of nature.

At this point I need to pause and explain why blanket denials of "evolution" by Christians make the faith look silly to scientifically literate non-Christians. Meanings 2 and 3 above are a large part of the scientific understanding of "evolution." For anybody to completely deny those established facts of nature is almost as nonsensical as claiming that the Earth is flat. Of course what Christians are really objecting to is usually some broader meaning of the word. But, by failing to make careful distinctions, they sound as if they are denying everything associated with "evolution," which does a disservice to the faith by associating it with nonsense. Unfortunately, the objections themselves are often nonsense, such as the misuse of the second law of thermodynamics and the arguments for a young Earth.

A fourth meaning of "evolution" is the hypothesis that Darwinian mechanisms explain the development of all life on Earth. Here, things are more speculative. While evolutionary theories provide a viable explanation (and the best scientific explanation we have so far), they are not 100% established by any means. These theories have great explanatory power, and agree well with most evidence. But the evidence is sparse enough to leave room for doubt, and there are some things which current evolutionary theory has a hard time explaining. Much has been made recently of so-called "irreducibly complex" systems, such as Michael Behe discusses in his controversial book Darwin's Black Box. While I feel that Behe's work (though of higher quality than the anti-evolution sniping of others such as Phil Johnson) is not nearly as damaging to evolutionary theory as some would like to think (anybody who is impressed by Behe should balance that by reading Finding Darwin's God by Christian biology professor Kenneth Miller), he does raise some legitimate issues. I think sometimes scientists, for fear of encouraging abominations like the "creation science" movement, are reluctant to admit that there are still unanswered questions with regard to evolution. Ultimately, we will be better off if everybody is honest about both the strengths and weaknesses of this and any other scientific theory.

A fifth meaning of "evolution" is sometimes called "chemical evolution" or "abiogenesis." Darwin's theory itself is only for the evolution of life from other life. It has been hypothesized that similar mechanisms worked in the development of the first life from chemicals. This is an area where the science is necessarily very speculative. Some scientists argue that the odds against this make it a practical impossibility, which others believe they are taking steps toward a viable explanation. I am not qualified to judge these arguments; I will simply point out that the disagreement among qualified scientists is a good indication that the answer is not clear-cut either way.

A sixth way in which "evolution" is sometimes used is to refer to a metaphysical position in which atheistic philosophy is grafted onto the science in the mistaken belief that finding a natural explanation for something puts God out of the picture. An example is Carl Sagan's line, "The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be." This is sometimes called "evolutionism," though a better term is simply "naturalism" or "metaphysical naturalism." Such philosophical extrapolations are completely unscientific, and it is shameful when some try to pass them off as results of science.

In summary, the word "evolution" can be used for a variety of things, ranging from scientific results that are essentially certain to philosophical positions that are not science at all. It is important for all people who consider such issues to be precise in defining what they mean when they attack or defend evolution; sloppiness in this area leads to misunderstandings and makes productive discourse impossible.

What Does the Bible Say?

Is "evolution" in opposition to the Bible? The automatic answer of many people, both Christian and non-Christian, would be "Yes." I believe, however, that it is only the unscientific meaning #6 above that is a problem, and that whether or not the scientific theory of evolution is a correct description of the development of life has no bearing on the Christian doctrine of creation or the truth of the Bible.

A rigidly literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 does give a picture of God's creation of life that clashes with evolution. But such a reading of the Bible would also give us a universe with a flat Earth at its center and the stars fixed in a solid dome that holds back the waters above. It would contradict other well-established findings of science, such as the large age of the Earth, the order of appearance of the Sun and Earth, and the order of appearance of the sea and dry land. In addition, such a reading is not even internally consistent, as the order of events in Genesis 2 does not match Genesis 1. It therefore makes sense to consider that these chapters are not meant to be a journalistic, scientifically precise chronicle of events.

A discussion of the interpretation of Genesis would be too long a digression here. I will just say that I have come to believe that the main message of the parts in question is simply that God created everything, including humans. The vehicle by which that message is delivered is an account that the original audience could relate to, but which does not try to be a scientific account of origins any more than the parable of the Good Samaritan tries to be an account of road conditions in ancient Palestine. The line attributed to Galileo is relevant: "The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go."

Of course, even those who believe these chapters are teaching something about the "how" of creation need not reject evolution outright. There is nothing in the text that demands that God must have done the creating in a direct and instantaneous manner. Throughout the Bible, God's activity often gets carried out through "natural" processes (like the wind that caused the sea to part for Moses), and there is no reason this could not be the case here. In fact, one could make the case that the "let the earth bring forth" of 1:11 and 1:24 and "let the waters bring forth" of 1:20, along with Adam's "dust of the earth" origin (2:7), point to God's use of natural, perhaps evolutionary, processes.

Finally, it is worth mentioning what the Bible does tell us about creation. As mentioned before, the primary teaching is that everything, including us, owes its existence to God. The Bible also teaches us that the creation reflects God's own nature. One thing I take from that is that God made an "honest" universe that will not give us false answers if we ask it the proper questions. This means that, while science (like all human endeavors) is not infallible, it does not have to worry about getting false results because God is playing tricks on us. For example, while we can question the interpretation of fossil evidence, it is not a Biblical option to say that God is deceiving us by putting the fossils there to testify to a history that never happened.

Relating Science and Faith

Rather than addressing the "evolution" issue in isolation, I believe one should first understand how scientific issues relate to Christian theology in general. Then, whatever questions arise can be addressed in a mature and God-honoring manner. In this section, I will make four points regarding these larger issues.

1. All truth is God's truth.

Christians through the years have affirmed that God has given us "two books": the Bible and his creation in nature. Since God is the ultimate Author of both, we need not fear that either revelation, properly interpreted, will lead us into falsehood. If there seems to be a conflict, it means that either our interpretation of nature (science) is wrong, or our interpretation of the Bible is wrong, or possibly both. There can be no warfare between "scientific truth" and "Biblical truth," because both come from the one truthful God. What we often find instead of conflict is that the "two books" offer complementary insights into a single God-given reality, like pictures taken from different angles. The insights of science may be of less eternal significance, but they are no less valid.

2. Distinguish "who" and "why" from "how".

It is the function of science to answer questions of "how" things in nature happen, but science is inherently incapable of answering the deeper questions of purpose and meaning. Similarly, the Bible tells us the "who" and the "why" with respect to creation and many other things, but it is generally silent on the "how." We get into trouble when we approach either the Bible or nature with inappropriate questions. The Bible answers many important questions about God's character, how we need to orient our lives, etc. But we misuse the Scripture if we come to it with questions it was not meant to answer, whether it be the scientific details of creation or who will win the World Series next year. It is also a problem when answers to "how" questions (or the absence of such answers) are mistaken for answers to "who" questions; that is the next topic.

3. Reject the "God of the Gaps".

In ancient times, it was common to point to rain, thunder, or other mysteries in nature and attribute them to some god. Unfortunately, even today many people think of God primarily as the explanation for things they don't understand. To define God in those terms, especially when Christians base their apologetics on the existence of such gaps, is a major error for at least two reasons.

First, it sets up the faith for a fall if science does ever succeed in finding a "natural" explanation for what has been attributed to direct intervention by God. It is especially dangerous to draw a line in the sand and insist that the truth of Christianity depends on the existence of a particular gap. Some seem to have drawn such a line with regard to the evolution of life, which may be paving the way for an embarrassment comparable to that caused by the church's insistence on the "Biblical truth" of a geocentric universe in Galileo's day.

Second, it undermines the vital theological truth that all things are under God's authority, not just those things for which we have no natural explanation. We now have explanations for "how" rain and thunder happen, yet the Bible tells us that God is ultimately responsible for them. "Natural" processes are just as much acts of God as flashy miracles, and we are putting God in a box if we insist on defining him as a gap-filler. In mathematical language, we can say that the "God of the Gaps" fallacy views "natural processes" and "things God does" as two disjoint sets, when the correct Christian view is that the first is a subset of the second.

Another way of looking at the "God of the Gaps" error is that it mistakes answers to "how" questions for answers to "who" questions. This cuts both ways. Some Christians have pointed to the absence of a "how" answer at a particular time and concluded that theism has been proven. Every time science finds an answer to a "how" question, some atheists interpret it as God being squeezed a little closer to nonexistence. It is sad that both sides have accepted a "scoring system" in which advances in scientific knowledge count as points against theism. This happens because both sides have bought into the "God of the Gaps" fallacy.

There may or may not be "gaps" in nature due to "unnatural" interventions by God. The important thing to remember is that these gaps do not define God (who is sovereign over the whole fabric of creation, not just the gaps), and that the Christian faith in no way depends on the existence of such gaps. Our faith is based on what we know about God, not on what we don't know about nature.

4. Separate the philosophy from the science.

The theory of evolution has been used as a tool by those arguing for atheism. However, as we have seen, this is not a valid use of the science itself; it is a philosophical extrapolation abetted by a "God of the Gaps" outlook. To reject the science because some abuse it in this manner would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Around 1800, some were using the determinism and broad explanatory success of Newton's science to advocate atheism. I don't know how churches responded, but it would have been a sad misdirection of effort for them to attack Newton's science (even though, like Darwin's science, it was not perfectly established as "fact"). Instead, the right thing in such situations is to reject the philosophical falsehood that having a scientific explanation for something in nature excludes God from being the creator and sustainer of that something.

Resources

In closing, I want to mention a few books that I think will help in developing a mature view of science and faith. The best introductory book in my opinion is The Galileo Connection by Charles Hummel (InterVarsity Press, 1986). Close behind are God Did It, But How? by Robert Fischer (ASA Press, 1997) and Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World by George Murphy (CSS Publishing, 2001). Finally, at a somewhat more advanced level (one should read Hummel's or Murphy's or Fischer's book first, and it would also help to have some science background which is not as necessary for the other three books), I recommend Putting It All Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith, by Richard Bube (University Press of America, 1995) and The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling us about the Creation, by Howard Van Till (Eerdmans, 1986).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Page last modified May 27, 2002