Oil and water? A constructive approach to the question of Christianity and evolution

Christopher McDowall offers an explanation of how evolution can complement creationism

Chris is a postgraduate student at VUW, studying marine biology. This article first appeared on his blog, amicablediscourse.wordpress.com. It also featured in the October 2015 edition of CRUX, our church zine.

people-world-universe

the great improbability of Homo sapiens turning up the way we have done is a humbling reminder – that we have been given a special appointment to the role of being God’s image bearers in the world, a job that packs some serious levels of authority and responsibility.

Science is an academic discipline which amasses empirical knowledge about the natural world, and Christianity is a religion which has had massive historical influence. Since the Enlightenment at least, Christianity and Science have been expected to politely keep out of each other’s way. But the theory of evolution – brilliant and revolutionary by any scientific standard – has incited a more mixed reception amongst Christians. Like many other Christians and scientists out there, I find this a shame. Here I will offer a more constructive approach to the question of Christianity and evolution.

In order to understand the discordant Christian response to evolution, the doctrine of Creation must first be explained, as it is the orthodox Christian account of the nature of the relationship between humanity, God, and Creation (i.e. the world or the universe). The doctrine of Creation claims that God created (and is creating) the universe, that He created (and is creating) humanity in His image, and that this gives us a unique position of authority, dignity and responsibility.

For some Christians, these core features of the doctrine of Creation rely on a literal interpretation of the first two chapters of the book of Genesis. This ‘7-day’ creationism stringently insists on the details – for example the universe and everything in it were created in seven 24 hour days, and birds appeared before terrestrial animals. But scientific discoveries about the age of the Earth and about the evolutionary origin of Earth’s species clearly show that this part of the Bible is of a literary genre that is not to be read as literal.

7-day creationism was not always an unreasonable scientific worldview, but it is has now been intellectually untenable for over one hundred years, and its presence in mainstream Christianity is a problem. It is asking people to choose either science, or Christianity. Reinforcing this dichotomy from the other end are Richard Dawkins and company (the ‘new atheists‘), who also insist that people must choose between their religious and scientific beliefs. But no such choice need be made by anyone. I will now sketch a tentative outline of how evolution can actually complement the doctrine of Creation.

Evolution is often portrayed as being random and unpredictable – ‘indeterminate’ in more scientific terms. Stephen J. Gould – a famous biologist – once quipped that if the tape of evolutionary history were to be replayed, events would unfold differently every time. This comment was made in reference to the Cambrian Explosion, a period during which nearly all of the animal phyla appeared (each with a unique ‘body plan’). A good deal of these phyla have since become extinct, and Gould claimed that instead of being poorly adapted or not diverse enough, these extinct phyla were just unlucky. The merit of this view is debated back and forth a bit amongst scientists, but let us suppose it to be true, and that evolution is indeed indeterminate in this way. Does the indeterminacy of evolution undermine the doctrine of Creation? If things could just as easily have turned out differently, then how can humanity claim to be special?

Does the indeterminacy of evolution undermine the doctrine of Creation? If things could just as easily have turned out differently, then how can humanity claim to be special?

This question can be answered with some perspective. Consider for a moment the absurdly improbable odds of you coming into existence. Your parents had to survive to adulthood and meet each other. For each of them, the right sperm had to find the right egg… and so on, all the way back to your first sexually reproducing ancestors, hundreds of millions of years ago. But while this vanishingly small probability inspires the occasional piece of science-y clickbait, it does not tend to keep people awake at night – and it is all thanks to the anthropic principle. This is a philosophical reminder that since we exist, we can retrospectively take it for granted that the universe allows for us to exist. So even though it is incredibly improbable that your parents gave birth to you and not to some hypothetical sibling, the fact that you do exist makes this unlikeliness feel trivial.

To some, this interpretation of the anthropic principle – that our extreme unlikeliness is trivial – will ring hollow. However, Christians can argue under the doctrine of Creation that the great improbability of every individual is not trivial at all, rather it is part of what it means to have been specially made by God. In the same way, the great improbability of Homo sapiens turning up the way we have done is a humbling reminder – that we have been given a special appointment to the role of being God’s image bearers in the world, a job that packs some serious levels of authority and responsibility.

Now let us go back a step and return to the question of whether or not evolution is determinate – if we replayed evolutionary history, what would happen? History can only happen once, but one can still make predictions about the future, especially if there are multiple case studies to draw on. In evolutionary biology, the many cases of ‘convergent evolution’ serve to fill this role. Convergent evolution is where species from entirely unrelated lineages wind up doing things the same way. For example, although sharks and dolphins are separated by about 400 million years of evolutionary history, most people would struggle to distinguish between them at the beach. And the complex eyes found in both vertebrates and cephalopods (i.e. octopuses and squid) function in almost exactly the same way, even though these lineages separated about 540 million years ago.

Predation, flight, plant-fungi symbioses, hearing, smell, sex, multicellularity, and many other behaviours, organs, physiological abilities and ways of reproducing have all been ‘invented’ independently by all sorts of different lineages. In light of these manifold examples of convergent evolution, it seems likely that even if the tape of evolutionary history were replayed, one could still expect to end up with a highly familiar-looking set of species. Even intelligence has appeared in multiple lineages – not just in humans (although we lead by a strong margin) – but in other mammals, in birds, in fish, and in octopuses as well.

So with evolution we are in a situation where highly indeterminate processes decide whether or not a particular individual or species comes into existence, but highly determinate and predictable processes decide that there will be predators, and there will be eyes, there will be multicellular life, and there will be intelligence. Christians can therefore rejoice in the knowledge that all of us unlikely individuals and species are fearfully and wonderfully made, but also appreciate the comprehensible unfolding of Creation’s tapestry.

In Genesis, God first made the universe, the Earth, the plants and the animals. He looked at everything and said “it was good”. Then He made humans in His image, took a second look at everything, and said “it was very good”. Christians should be proud that God chose us, both as individuals and as a species, to be his image bearers on Earth. Now bearing the image of God is not about being the most powerful and intelligent species on Earth, it is about learning from Jesus Christ what it means to love God and to love our neighbour. It is also about respecting the other good things that God has made and how they are all essential components of the amazing world He has given to live in. If we abuse Creation, we spurn God’s loving gift to us and we destroy the home of our neighbour.

original artwork by Greta Menzies.

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