Creation and Evolution

"Then a Miracle Occurs": cartoon by Sydney Harris

Then a Miracle Occurs –
cartoon by Sydney Harris

Growing up as a Creationist

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, bible-believing household. And so, like many other conservative Christians, I grew up believing in creation as a scientifically valid explanation of existence. To be specific, I believed in young-earth creationism. This literalistic interpretation of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis was profoundly important to my Christian faith and to my view of the world. Although the title of Intelligent Design did not become part of the evangelical zeitgeist until a lawyer by the name of Phillip Johnson published a book called Darwin on Trial, the underpinnings for this concept were part of the fundamentalist world view. Johnson’s book, plus biologist Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, laid the intellectual foundation for Intelligent Design, which has become so well-entrenched in the Protestant community that it is even taught in some seminaries.[1]

The belief in young-earth creationism is the idea that the book of Genesis is meant to be taken literally — that God created the heavens and the earth in a literal seven days of twenty-four hours duration. When combined with the genealogies found in the book of Genesis, the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) determined that the heavens and the earth were created in 4004 BC. This interpretation of Genesis was widespread, and was incorporated into the 1701 printing of the King James Bible. Since the King James Version is accorded such profound respect, the incorporation of Archbishop Ussher’s conjecture became dogma.

When confronted by the higher critics and liberal theologians, an American businessman by the name of Lyman Stewart (along with his brother Milton), anonymously funded the creation of The Fundamentals, a series of 90 essays in defense of conservative Protestantism. The essays were not confined to any specific denomination, but represented a broad defense of the faith against the perceived (and sometimes real) onslaughts of the modern era.  Some of these essays explicitly attacked the scientific theory of evolution, which had the effect of codifying hostility to evolution as an article of faith.[2]

There are problems with the concept of young-earth creationism, problems that are apparent to any scientifically literate person. Yet there were always glib and somewhat satisfying answers to these questions. Like the apparent age of the universe, for example, which was explained away as God creating a fully functioning universe; so when he created the stars in the heavens, he created them with light that could be perceived by us. Thus the knowledge that the stars are billions of light-years away can be explained as a benevolent God creating a universe that was fully operational, which therefore appeared to be older than it actually is.[3]

I gradually became aware that a literalistic interpretation of Genesis was not the only way to interpret the text, and that in some ways it did violence to the author’s intent. Given that the grammatical-historical method of exegesis is widespread among conservative Protestants, the idea that the author may have written Genesis for a different purpose than we were using if for was troubling. Still, I could find no way to reconcile science and faith, especially when the most vocal proponents of science were actively hostile to religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

The Problem of Biofilm

The problem came to a head when I was reading about biofilms. In science class I remember looking into a drop of pond water and viewing a host of free-swimming microorganisms. Many of us are familiar with the ovoid shape of the paramecium, and the amorphous blob that is the amoeba. But what I failed to realize is that most microorganisms don’t exist in a free-floating (planktonic) state, but in groups called biofilms. A biofilm forms when organisms attach to a solid surface, and build a matrix that binds them together, and to the solid surface. Organisms in a biofilm thrive through cooperation, not competition.

Picture of biofilm

Biofilm

The plaque that forms on our teeth overnight? Biofilm. The slick, slimy surface of rocks in a stream? Biofilm. One of the more interesting things about biofilm is that it is generally not comprised of one type of microorganism, but “in nature biofilms almost always consist of rich mixtures of many species of bacteria, as well as fungi, algae, yeasts, protozoa, other microorganisms, debris and corrosion products”, all joined by a matrix of extracellular polymeric substance (EPS). (Montana State University n.d.)  When a free-floating microorganism becomes part of a biofilm, its phenotype changes — meaning it can change its shape and function through alterations in the expression of its genetic material.[4] (Montana State University n.d.) Through a communication mechanism known as quorum sensing, the bacterium understands that it is part of a biofilm, and begins to actively participate in colony behavior, rather than individual behavior. (Proal 2008)

Diagram of Biofilm Quorum Sensing

Biofilm Quorum Sensing

It is not always the case that biofilm is formed by a mixture of microorganisms. Cholera, for example, forms a biofilm in the intestines, which is spread when parts of the colony are dispersed  and are expelled from the intestines, allowing cholera to spread to another host. Peptic ulcers are caused by biofilms of Heliobacter pylori. The pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa forms biofilms in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. These and other biofilms are extremely durable and resistant to antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents. (Mah and O’Toole 2001)

Various Modes of Biofilm Movement

Various Modes of Biofilm Movement

As a colony, biofilm can behave as a single organism.  The biofilm can move, can grow, and can reproduce. (Montana State University n.d.) It contains channels that allow nutrients to circulate. (Proal 2008) Being part of a biofilm is beneficial to a microorganism because the biofilm protects its members from environmental hazards. It is considerably more difficult to kill a microorganism existing in a biofilm than one in a planktonic (free-floating) state, which is why we have to brush our teeth to mechanically break up the biofilm rather than just use mouthwash.

Faith and Science

From my exploration of biofilms I saw an existing pathway whereby a microorganism could become part of a multi-cellular colony — a colony that, in many ways, behaved like a multi-cellular organism. From there the development of a multi-cellular organism suddenly seemed reasonable. And so I began to reexamine many of the pat answers I had been given for young-earth creation, and discovered most of them were nonsense.

  • The argument from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is faulty, because the Earth is not a closed system.
  • The supposed scientific evidences for a young earth (like pleochroic halos), are arguments made by non-specialists, which have been debunked by specialists.
  • The supposed inaccuracies of the various dating methods are accounted for in the methodologies themselves.
  • The argument that radioactive isotopes may have decayed at different rates in the past is theological nonsense. It postulates a trickster God who has more in common with the gods of pagan mythologies than the God of the Bible.

And so on, and so forth. Many of these pat answers had been debunked for decades, yet continue to be proclaimed from pulpits and written up in books for the gullible masses — among whom I number myself. All this would have posed a challenge to my faith, had I not become aware that my literalistic interpretation of Genesis may not have been the author’s intent. Genesis is God’s opening salvo in the war against the pagan gods. You worship the god of rain? Our God created the rain. You worship the god of fertility? Our God created mankind, male and female, and told them to go forth and multiply. Viewed in this light, the creation accounts speak to the relationship God has with His creation, and specifically with humanity.

The creation accounts in Genesis are theological accounts, not scientific descriptions. How do we know that? From the incorporation of ancient cosmologies. God did not see fit to incorporate the details of modern cosmology into the Genesis accounts. Thus in Genesis 1:7, we have an account of waters in the sky, a concept in total accord with ancient cosmology, but without foundation in modern science. Professor John H. Walton (Wheaton College), in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, describes the attempt to make the ancient cosmology fit modern science as “concordism”. Dr. Hugh Ross, or the organization “Reasons to Believe”, defines Concordism as “the belief that the book of nature and the book of Scripture significantly overlap and can be constructively integrated.” (Ross 2012) The problem with concordism is that any description of ancient cosmology is explained away.[5] The “four corners of the earth”, the “pillars of the earth”, the ancient notion of the “firmament” as a solid dome — all are conveniently dismissed  as figures of speech.

This last, the idea of the firmament as a solid dome, is extremely important to our understanding of the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). The ancients not only believed the firmament was a solid dome, but that it could be pierced by a tower, giving them answers as to the composition of the heavens. (3 Baruch 3:1-8) If the firmament in Genesis 1:7 is a figure of speech, how then to explain the Tower of Babel, which was based upon the same ancient cosmology?

The Relationship Between God and His Creation

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In these opening words of the bible, the challenge is made to paganism and all forms of false religion. The truth claims of the Old Testament cannot be ignored. They must be dealt with. Syncretism will not work, because the Bible claims to be the ultimate truth. The cosmos serves as a revelation of God, as an expression of His nature.

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen 1:26-27). The Bible not only claims to ultimate truths about reality, but about human beings in particular. In the creation accounts, human beings are part of the created order, and yet God pays particular attention to human beings.  Therefore human beings are part of God’s general revelation of Himself, yet also are special in that humans alone were created in God’s image and likeness.  Numerous books have been written regarding what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, and this is not the place to go into that. It is enough to note that the first few verses of the bible provide a theological understanding of the nature of the world, of human beings, and God’s relationship with His created order.

Dualilsm - The Modern Worldview

Dualilsm – The Modern Worldview

When thinking about the natural world, and God’s relationship with it, we often use the terms natural and supernatural. Thus, we have the natural order, the world of matter and energy, and the supernatural world, the world of the non-corporeal beings and of God. This is a dualistic system, in which the material and spiritual are differentiated, and differ in value. But this is not the scriptural view. The scriptures speak of the created order  —  of the heavens, the earth, and the angelic powers — and of the uncreated God. The created order contains both the material and the spiritual, while God reigns over all — “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same.” (St John Chrysostom 2011)

It will not do to speak of God as supernatural, as though God exists apart from His creation, only now and then reaching in and altering the natural laws to perform miracles. That is not what the Bible teaches. From the very moment of creation, God was intimately involved with the created order. From the very start, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Bible tells us that God is actively involved in “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). Therefore it is wrong to speak of the natural and supernatural realms. Theologically, speaking in this way places God and the angels as part of the same order, making it difficult to separate the creator God from his non-corporeal creations. If God and the acts of God are all part of the same supernatural order, then in what way can we separate God from His creation? In what way are we speaking of a personal God, rather than an impersonal force, an organizing principle of sorts. No, speaking of God and His almighty acts as supernatural acts diminishes God, and brings Him down to our level.

And so we come to the various means of discussing the relationship between the scientific description of evolution, and the theological description of creation. There are those who seek to meld the two by proposing God as the answer for the unanswered questions of science. This “God of the Gaps” concept doesn’t work, because as science progresses, the gaps become ever more narrow, squeezing God out of the picture. This is the problem with Intelligent Design, because it is simply a variant of the God of the Gaps idea, postulating God as the answer to the question of irreducible complexity. But science is increasingly finding answers to the problems posed by Intelligent Design, once again squeezing God out of the picture.[6]

For many evangelical Christians who are also scientists, the concept of Theistic Evolution is a satisfying one. The idea is that God created the universe and everything in it, using the process of evolution. When coupled with the theological concept of God’s foreknowledge, it seems possible that God created a process that would ultimately result in human beings. The problem with Theistic Evolution, in its most common formulations, is that it is based upon the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. As Francis S. Collins describes it, Theistic Evolution postulates God as the special cause of the existence of the Moral Law and the universal search for God that exists within humanity. But this is imposing a theological and supernatural explanation for the uniqueness of humanity, rather than a scientific one. Therefore, the concept of theistic evolution will not do.

Personally, I am comfortable with understanding that God created the heavens and the earth, and created humanity in the image the likeness of God. I am also comfortable with the scientific explanations for the origins of the material world, of life, and of human beings. I see no conflict between the two, but I also see no need to create some sort of grand unified theory. Science answers the questions that theology does not, and theology answers the questions that science does not. Each can inform the other, but attempting a formal unification stifles the human element in both.

For some,It is comforting to think of science and theology as operating in two different domains, but the scriptures tell us otherwise. God is everywhere, and in everything, and upholds all things by the word of his power. Placing God into His own domain apart from science is nothing more than placing God in a box, tying that box with a pretty bow, and placing God on the shelf where we can admire Him from a distance.

This reminds me of Forest Gump’s speech at Jenny’s grave. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” To me, the answer to Forest Gump’s question about destiny and the modern question regarding creation and evolution are similar. Maybe both are happening at the same time. It’s kind of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: when we look only at the creation ex nihilo, we miss the science; and when we look only at the science, we miss God.

Bibliography

Applegate, Aaron. “Feral hogs are running wild in Back Bay refuge.” PilotOnline.com. January 20, 2014. http://hamptonroads.com/2014/01/feral-hogs-are-running-wild-back-bay-refuge (accessed March 15, 2014).

Collins, Francis S. The Language of God. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Harmon, Katherine. “When Grasshoppers Go Biblical: Serotonin Causes Locusts to Swarm.” Scientific American. January 30, 2009. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-grasshoppers-go-bibl/ (accessed March 15, 2014).

Mah, Thien-Fah C., and George A. O’Toole. “Mechanisms of biofilm resistance to antibicrobial agents.” TRENDS in Microbiology 9, no. 1 (2001): 34-39.

Matin, A. C. “Biofilm Studies.” Matin Lab Home Page. n.d. http://www.stanford.edu/~amatin/MatinLabHomePage/Biofilm.htm (accessed March 15, 2014).

Montana State University. “Center for Biofilm Engineering.” What are biofilms? n.d. http://www.biofilm.montana.edu/node/2390 (accessed March 15, 2014).

—. “What are key characteristics of biofilms?” Center for Biofilm Engineering. n.d. http://www.biofilm.montana.edu/node/2410 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Proal, Amy. “Understanding Biofilms.” Bacteriality. May 26, 2008. http://bacteriality.com/2008/05/26/biofilm/ (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ross, Hugh. “Defending Concordism.” Reasons to Believe. July 16, 2012. http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism (accessed March 15, 2014).

St John Chrysostom. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.

Wikipedia. Biofilm. February 26, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofilm (accessed March 15, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 


[1] I remember seminarians at Concordia Theological Seminary telling stories of Lutheran professor and theologian Kurt Marquart (of blessed memory) and his engrossing lectures on the subject.

[2] Three titles specifically addressing the Theory of Evolution are as follows: The Passing of Evolution – George Frederick Wright; Evolutionism in the Pulpit – Anonymous; and Decadence of Darwinism – Henry H. Beach. There are other essays which discuss evolution in a range of contexts, which are basically hostile. One that is not is Science and the Faith by James Orr, who argues for science and faith as operating in different domains.

[3] The concept of apparent age is not a scientific concept, because 1) it doesn’t really explain anything, and 2) no testable hypothesis can be derived from it. Instead, it is a theological concept used to resolve otherwise insurmountable difficulties. In this, it has much in common with the deus ex machine of literature, where a seemingly insurmountable difficulty is resolved by some unexpected intervention — like the appearance of the adults at the end of William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies.

[4] Many organisms have one genotype which can be expressed as different phenotypes, depending on conditions. For example, certain grasshopper species change their phenotype due to overcrowding, becoming locusts. Locusts look and behave differently than grasshoppers, yet are the same species. In fact, an individual grasshopper can become a locust within 2-3 hours, while the transition back to grasshopper takes several days. (Harmon 2009) Domestic swine, when released into the wild, undergo transformation into a wild hog. The phenotype for the domestic pig and the wild hog are both contained within the genotype of the swine, but the expression of the genotype changes as environmental conditions change. (Applegate 2014)

[5] Another major problem with concordism is that it uses evidence from science to explain away science. It uses the discipline of science to prove the Bible, when the scientific consensus is always subject to change as new evidence presents itself. Thus Newtonian physics gave way to quantum mechanics, and so on. Proving the Bible through science is the equivalent of building your house on shifting sand. Eventually the rains come, and then your faith is shaken.

[6] Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and also an evangelical Christian, describes how the standard arguments for Intelligent Design —  the blood-clotting cascade, the eye, and the bacterial flagellum — all are being answered by science, which dismantles the scientific pretentions of Intelligent Design. From a scientific perspective, Intelligent Design is not scientific because it is not forward looking: it fails to predict other findings and suggest other avenues of scientific exploration. (Collins 2006, 186-193)

 

2 thoughts on “Creation and Evolution

  1. Lest the reader think I have fallen under the sway of liberal theology, here is a similar description from Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE).

    In many ways the supreme expression of Mosaic wisdom came at the very beginning of the Torah, in the revealed account of divine creation that opened the Book of Genesis, which was the divine answer to the deepest of all human quests: Where does the world come from? Where do I come from? “It is quite foolish,” Philo explained, “to think that the world was created in six days or in a space of time at all.” That is not what the creation story in Genesis really meant. Rather, God created the patterns and Ideas from which, in turn, the visible world was produced.

    Pelikan, Jaroslav (2006-01-31). Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures (pp. 56-57). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.