I have never really worried much about evolution. I had decided the Genesis origins account was not literal history before I ever thought the scientific account of evolution was true, so the two were never really in conflict for me.
But many christians, and a few atheists too, think God and evolution are incompatible. Why?
- Evolution threatens our view of the Bible. Instead of seeing Genesis as 100% literal history, evolution at least suggests that perhaps some of it is legendary – or parable or myth if you prefer. But (i) that’s how it reads, (ii) as early as the 4th century the influential christian Augustine warned against literal interpretations of the creation story, and (iii) many respected modern christians (e.g. CS Lewis, Francis Collins and several recent Popes) have no problems with this, so I don’t see any reason to worry.
- Christians need to re-think some doctrines and beliefs. A literal Adam and Eve, the Fall and original sin, must all be reconsidered if evolution is true. Some christians believe little change is required, but I haven’t yet seen a satisfactory formulation that doesn’t make some significant changes. But I don’t feel the changes make as much difference as people might fear.
- What does this say for the New Testament? The New Testament refers to Adam and Eve as if they were literal, so does evolution throw doubts on the New Testament as well? I don’t see it, for the New stands on a firm historical footing regardless of what we think of Genesis, but we may have to accept that Jesus referred to stories that were mythical rather than historical. Again, I can’t see a real problem here.
Some people can’t accept these changes to traditional christian belief, and either dig their trenches against evolution or give up their faith. But christianity has always been a flexible and adaptable belief, and most christians seem to have adapted easily.
Arguments against evolution
A number of perceived weaknesses in the scientific evidence for evolution have been picked up by critical christians:
- Gaps in the fossil record, especially transitional fossils. It is hard to know what we should expect, but scientists believe we have enough to meet this criticism.
- The Cambrian explosion. About 500 million years ago there appears to have been a sudden ‘explosion’ of new species. Critics claim this contradicts evolution, but scientists say it is consistent.
- Transition processes. If evolution via natural selection is true, animals and body parts had to be the result of small changes, each of which was not only viable but also advantageous. Again, critics say some developments (e.g. the human eye) are “irreducibly complex” and could never have evolved, but evolutionary scientists say they are slowly showing how these transitions could have occurred.
- The origin of life. Strictly speaking, evolution is about the development of life, not the beginning of life, but scientists still want to discover how biological life arose from chemicals, a process called ‘abiogenesis’. Many theories have been proposed, but so far none has proved satisfactory. Scientists believe they will discover the secret one day, but this does seem to be a matter of faith. If any aspect of evolution is in doubt, this is it.
There are many christians who are biologists who say the evidence for evolution is strong. The theory makes predictions that can be verified, one of the main tests of a scientific theory. The evidence suggests the critics are probably wrong, although abiogenesis may become the real test.
Evidence and certainty
It is true that some aspects of evolution are so far in the past that they cannot be established with as much probability as scientists might like. But this is a form of historical study, which can yield conclusions that are probable. If christians accept that historical study of the life of Jesus can yield worthwhile conclusions, it seems inconsistent to criticise historical study of evolution for being uncertain.
It also should be said that atheists who accept that historical study of evolution can be adequate while not certain, should also accept that historical study of the time of Jesus can also be adequate while not certain.
Young earth creationism (YEC)
This is the view based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. The Bible doesn’t say how old the earth is, but if you assume the genealogies are complete, a young age (about 6000 years old) can be computed. You have to assume that God created the light travelling from distance stars to make it look like they are millions of light years away. You also have to assume that your interpretation of the Bible is correct, and that evolutionary science is almost totally mistaken – possibly God made things look like they evolved.
There are too many questionable assumptions in this belief for me. It doesn’t seem to gain a lot, but loses a lot – especially credibility.
Intelligent Design (ID)
Critics often lump ID in with YEC, but I think this is a convenient mistake to create an easier target. ID generally accepts the old age of the earth and the evolution of life, but believes that certain key steps, and the process as a whole, could not have occurred naturally. Stephen Meyer: “The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time, or even common ancestry, but it disputes Darwin’s idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.”
It is an attractive idea for christians, but ID struggles to be truly scientific. For even if it is true that God intervened at some points in the evolutionary process, it is difficult to see how that could be established scientifically, for how can you measure God? In the end, it seems to me that ID has some significant drawbacks and few advantages over theistic evolution.
I wonder if it would be more effective to adopt methodological naturalism (the common assumption in science that belief in God can be set aside when studying natural processes, because God has created a world of physical laws) and critique evolutionary theory from within the scientific consensus.
This is the view, held by most scientists who are christians, that God designed the world so that life would evolve via natural selection. Proponents argue that it doesn’t take away from God, but shows his power and wisdom. It has the advantage of allowing science to be carried out using methodological naturalism, while belief in God remains a matter of choice.
Some non-theistic scientists argue that natural selection must be unguided, which obviously leaves no place for God. But these scientists are confusing methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism. If ID cannot, in principle, show that God initiated certain steps in the evolutionary process, neither can biological science show that he did not. Non-theistic scientists may believe that there is no God to interfere, but evolutionary science can’t show this.
- I see no reason why we shouldn’t obtain truth from both the Bible and science.
- Evolution raises some interesting issues for christian belief, but nothing that should cause major difficulty if the christian adopts a theistic evolution view.
- The mode of God’s creation is not the centre of christian belief. It seems a pity when christians get side-tracked off the main game to argue, often among themselves, about this.