Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Christians and Evolution (philosophy)

Let the failure begin... I wasn't able to finish my planned section of the philosophy book for today. I used all my writing time finishing, polishing, and editing the previous chapter. So I'll share some of what I worked on yesterday in this regard, and move on.
It is beyond the scope of this book to engage in Christian debates over the science of macroevolution. [1] Over the last few decades, a significant literature has emerged against it by scientific creationists and more recently, by those who hold to Intelligent Design theory (ID). The former group marshaled biologists, geologists, and other scientists in the 1970s to argue for a young earth whose complexion is best explained on the basis of catastrophes like
the biblical Flood.[i] Their model of the earth’s geology is thus called catastrophism, as opposed to the uniformitarianism of Darwinism. Uniformitarianism assumes that the earth’s geology has resulted from the same slow processes we observe today, just over billions of years.
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Darwinism: the idea that evolution has taken place gradually over millions of years simply by nature “selecting” organisms better equipped to survive in particular environments

mutation: a change in the fundamental molecular structure of an organism

neo-Darwinism: a revision of Darwin’s theory that understands mutation as the method by which organisms arise that are better equipped to survive in particular environments

scientific creationism: a Christian approach to scientific evidence that arose in the 1970s to counter belief in macroevolution. It assumes a literal seven day creation and explains the earth’s geology by recourse to a world-wide flood

Intelligent Design theory (ID): a more recent Christian approach to scientific evidence that suggests it cannot be explained adequately without recourse to an Intelligent Designer, namely, God

uniformitarianism: the idea that the earth’s geology can be explained on the assumption that conditions have largely remained the same over the course of its history

catastrophism: the idea that the earth’s geology is largely explained by a major catastrophe, namely, a world-wide flood

Intelligent design theory takes a slightly different tactic.[ii] It suggests that certain aspects of life reflect an “irreducible complexity” that could not have evolved by chance. They attempt to demonstrate that the evolution of certain things like proteins is a mathematical impossibility by chance, because they are so complex. Unless they were designed, we cannot account for their existence.

At the same time, the evolutionary community has not stood still either. Many evolutionists no longer hold to the strict uniformitarianism of Darwinism and now suggest that the most radical phases of evolution may take place “quickly” in various spurts (quickly meaning over thousands rather than millions of years). This process is sometimes called punctuated (not spontaneous) equilibrium.

Again, our purpose is not to examine the science involved. We can refer to a body of Christian scientific literature that makes scientific arguments against macroevolution.[iii] Other Christian scientists argue for theistic evolution, the idea that God directed the evolutionary process.[iv] When the theory of evolution first began to gain prominence, some Christians strategized to fit it with their Christian understanding. For example, some suggested what became known as the “gap theory,” the idea that dinosaurs and other extinct animals might have lived in between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. They suggested that Satan’s fall from heaven might have caused the world of 1:1 to become “formless and empty” in 1:2.

Over time, however, evolution was used as an excuse for social Darwinism, the idea that the rich and powerful should naturally run over the poor and powerless in society. After all, they were the fittest! It is quite possible that William Jennings Bryan, who famously argued against evolution in the famed Scope’s Trial of 1925, was so vehemently opposed to evolution primarily because of what he saw as its unchristian social implications, more than because it violated a literal understanding of the Bible.[v] That emphasis of scientific creationism came more to the front in the 1970s.

We might briefly mention the biblical texts that most come into play in such debates. The first is obviously Genesis 1, which presents creation in terms of seven “days.” Theistic evolutionists take such language as figurative and poetic rather than a straightforward, literal description. Perhaps the days represent ages of history, they might say. At the same time, fundamentalist interpreters put a high premium on taking the days as literal 24 hour days. Similarly, when Genesis says God made everything “after its kind,” this description is taken to preclude evolution between species.
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social Darwinism: the application of the idea of “survival of the fittest” to its “have’s” and “have not’s,” justifying the domination of the powerful over society’s weak

theistic evolution: the idea that God in some way directed the evolutionary process or at least that macroevolution is compatible with belief in God

Perhaps a greater challenge to the theistic evolutionist view comes from the book of Romans in the New Testament. In Romans 5, Paul tells the Romans that death entered the world through sin, through the sin of Adam in particular (e.g., 5:12). From the similar passage in 1 Corinthians 15:22, it is clear that Paul includes physical death in what he is talking about. [6] Yet evolution requires lots and lots of death to take place before Adam. The theistic evolutionist must thus take Paul’s argument somewhat less than literally.

For some, like Kenneth Miller, the Adam and Eve story might shift into the category we explored at the beginning of the chapter: a story expressing a mystery that does not refer to historical figures.[vi] This solution of course then removes for us Augustine’s “free will” explanation for world-wide evil and natural calamity—we would have no human parent on which to pin the “Fall.” Other theistic evolutionists see God much more involved in the process of evolution. They might accept the existence of an Adam and see him as the first homo sapiens into which God put a soul. They would then see Paul’s language of death really having more to do with spiritual death than physical death. Indeed, they might argue that Adam and Eve themselves were designed to die unless they ate of the tree of life (Gen. 3:22).

What is non-negotiable for the historic Christian is that God created the universe and has all power and knowledge of it as He sees fit. Further, God is involved in the world and through Christ will eventually set right everything that is wrong in it. Within these boundaries, we find some variety of perspective among faithful Christians. Each one will have to decide what they think is acceptable to believe.

[1] For the spectrum of positions Christians have taken on this issue, see Greg Boyd, ed., Across the Spectrum (***).

[i] E.g., Henry M. Morris, Scientific Creationism (Green Forest, AR: Master, 1974).
[ii] E.g., Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer, Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000).
[iii] In addition to nn.ii-iii, we might also mention Michael J. Behe’s, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Free, 2006).
[iv] E.g., Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: Cliff Street, 1999).
[v] See Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 189.

[6] For an arugment that Paul does not have physical death in view, see David Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (***).

[vi] See n.iv. Another excellent resource for Christianity in relation to science is Francis Collins' The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (***).


James F. McGrath said...

Hi Ken! There's a good treatment of the subject of "uniformitarianism" in Davis and Young's book The Bible, Rocks and Time. In essence they point out that the accusation of "uniformitarianism" remains a popular one for young-earth creationists to throw at "evolutionists", but what was historically meant by "uniformitarianism" as a philosophical outlook is rejected by mainstream science, in the sense that there is pretty much a universal agreement that catastrophes and unusual events, as well as gradual processes over long periods of time, are part of the story of the earth's geological and biological realms.

Ken Schenck said...

I mentioned this in a footnote (e.g., the idea that a catastrophe caused the dinosaurs to become extinct). Do you recommend I take the reference out completely?

ebernius said...

Another good bibliography possibility: The language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief (by Francis S Collins, director of Human Genome Project).

Anonymous said...

It's not just that a catastrophe caused dinosaur extinction, but that volcanoes, floods, uplifts, earthquakes, etc., caused particular geographic phenomena to be formed (relatively) rapidly (in geological time). Such causes are neither uniformitarian, nor slows, but are natural and have been incorporated into scientific explanations for geological phenomena.


Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Elaine... I'll add it.

John, certainly didn't mean to imply the absence of anything of that sort. Sounds like this distinction is so unhelpful I may as well take it out.


Kevin Jackson said...

The book that Greg Boyd edited: "Across the Spectrum" has a section where it addresses all of the major Christian creation theories. I found it helpful.

bobxxxx said...

It is beyond the scope of this book to engage in Christian debates over the science of macroevolution. Over the last few decades, a significant literature has emerged against it by scientific creationists and more recently, by those who hold to Intelligent Design theory (ID).

Scientific creationists? There is no such thing. Creationism = MAGIC. There's nothing scientific about magic.

Intelligent design theory? Intelligent design is not a scientific theory. Intelligent design = MAGIC. There is nothing scientific about magic.

Theistic evolution is a terrible disgusting idea, as stupid as theistic gravity.

Evolution, including what brain-dead creationists call macroevolution, is a bloody fact, as strong as any other fact in science. Educated people accept evolution, without any supernatural intervention, because the evidence from many branches of science is massive and powerful.

I recommend this excellent easy-to-understand 2009 book: Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne.

Anonymous said...

Alister McGrath is also one that provides interesting thoughts in this area. As a trained scientist and theologian, he brings an unique perspective.


Ken Schenck said...

Bob, you make me smile. You sound like a fundamentalist!

You may be right about the science. No way you could prove you were right about the theology. Objective (at least attempted), dispassionate (at least attempted) argument and discourse, that's the ticket for me.

I know Christians aren't necessarily any better at it than anyone else. And I know I sometimes disintegrate into foul rhetoric myself (I'm sure I'm more entertaining at those points, though not more Christian).

Martin LaBar said...

I think you may have meant "punctuated equilibrium," rather than "spontaneous equilibrium."

Ken Schenck said...

:-) oh cursed mind of mine!

Martin LaBar said...

I'm sorry, but I'm commenting again.

Thanks for doing all this, in the first place.

Not everyone agrees with you about death in Romans 5 being primarily physical. One example is David Snoke, in his A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, which you might consider adding to your notes, for this, and other reasons. Snoke believes that Paul is talking about spiritual death in Romans 5.

Intelligent Design is both a concept, and a political movement. Some Christians, including me, believe in an Intelligent Designer, but want no part of the political movement. I have pointed out some of the reasons for this here.

Thanks for your work.

Ken Schenck said...

Comment any time, Dr. Labar. I've edited the piece in the light of all the suggestions and comments made.

By the way, I didn't mean to suggest that physical death was the only death in Romans 5. It is only that given 1 Corinthians 15, it seems special pleading to deny that it is included in what Paul meant.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The "facts" of science are always being enlarged, due to scientific investigation and discovery. So, understanding "facts" are not infalliable, just tentative, until we know more later down the road....

So, we "accept" evolution's "theory" because of pragmatic usefulness. The question for the religious, is what does this do to what we "know", and how we understand and formulate our "being in the world".

Hopefully, we do not re-formulate a "wall of separation" between science and religion, like the fundamenatlists did at the turn of the century. But, it seems that some would like to maintain that wall, as a means to be "practical/functional" about maintaining "religion's" value in the world today. That is a question to be resolved, as to one's ethics, and personal values.

Craig Moore said...

Let's not forget how Darwinism influenced progressive thought with the expectation of "inevitable progress." I think you can still see this influence in utopian thinkers whether they be liberal or conservative.