Monday, 30 June 2008

Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Here's an article I wrote for a local Church magazine (the consortium of Churches in Abingdon).

Dr. I.G.D. Strachan

This article represents my own opinion on this complex subject, arrived at after wrestling, as honestly as I could, with the issues involved. I hope that my views may not cause dismay for some people – but that the reader will be encouraged to explore these issues, and come thereby to a greater understanding of the marvellous creation in which we live.

Introductory thoughts

On the windows desktop of the computer I am using to write this article is a picture of one of the most awesomely beautiful sights in all creation, the Andromeda galaxy, which is the nearest neighbour to our own Milky Way. Its bright centre and swirling spiral arms are witness to mighty processes that have happened over aeons of time. Astronomers have estimated that the distance from us to this galaxy is of the order of fifteen million million million miles. It takes light around two and a half million years to reach us from Andromeda. So looking at the Andromeda galaxy gives us a window on the past – we do not see it as it is now, but as it was two and a half million years ago. The galaxy itself is so large that light takes around a hundred thousand years to cross from one side of it to the other.

What are the thoughts that come to me, as a Christian believer, when faced with such mind-boggling facts, revealed by science? They fill me with a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer scale and majesty of the Universe that God created. Furthermore they fill me with gratitude that the God who created such immensity also cares intimately about something so small and apparently insignificant as me. They bring to mind the words of the Psalmist:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:3-4).

Young Earth Creationism

For a scientist and a Christian, this is a way of meditating on God’s works, leading to worship and praise of the Creator. Yet, surprisingly it seems that thoughts such as these can not easily be shared by increasing numbers of evangelical Christians. The problem lies in the idea that we see the galaxy as it was two and a half million years ago. Recent polls suggest that around 40% of Americans believe that God created the universe only a few thousand years ago.

This belief comes from an interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis as a literal historical account. Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) performed a detailed study of Biblical chronology, and concluded that the Creation took place in the year 4004 BC. Those who hold that this is the truth are called “Young Earth Creationists” (YECs).

The six-thousand year timescale comes into direct conflict with modern science, including Darwin’s theory of evolution, which requires millions of years for its processes to unfold. But it is not just evolution that requires these timescales. As we have seen, astronomy also implies vast ages, as does geology, and the observations made from radioactive dating of rocks.

YECs seek especially to attack the theory of evolution, which is blamed for the rise of atheism, because it contradicts a strictly literal interpretation of the Biblical account. However the long timescales were not dreamt up by scientists in order to fit in with the theory of evolution. The geologists of the early nineteenth century (many of whom were devout Christians), had come to the conclusion before Darwin that the earth had to be at least millions of years old (current estimates are that its age is around four and a half billion years). So the idea of an immense age of the earth is not due to Darwin or evolution, but comes from other areas of science.

Additionally, the idea that one should not interpret the early chapters of Genesis literally is not some modern invention, or compromise that we have to adopt because modern science says the earth is billions of years old. The early Christian father Origen (185-254 AD) writing about the Days of Creation, and the descriptions of the Garden of Eden, wrote the following:

I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history...

Origen, living in the third century AD had no scientific reason for believing that the earth was billions of years old. Yet it seemed to him obvious that the Genesis texts were figurative – in fact he didn’t think anyone would doubt it. Equally St. Augustine (354-430 AD) did not believe that the days of creation were 24 hour periods. Why is it, then, that in the 21st Century, so many people are insisting on a literal, rather than a figurative interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis?

I think that the advance of atheistic philosophy has a lot to do with it. Richard Dawkins’s recent book “The God Delusion” is an all-out attack against all forms of religion, whether moderate or extreme. He would like you to believe that the truth of evolution means that the bible is completely false, and that atheism follows inevitably from the acceptance of evolution. He is also known for the vehemence of his attacks and his scorn for religion, describing it in one place as "juvenile superstition". This kind of rhetoric, at which Dawkins excels, is bound to polarize opinions to opposite extremes.

YECs who describe themselves as “Creation Scientists” agree with Dawkins that if evolution is true then the Bible is completely false. They research into alternative ways to explain the long timescales indicated by mainstream science. They take as inviolate the idea that the timescale must fit in to the 6,000 year period from 4004 BC to the present, and attempt to make the science fit in with that. I have spent much time trying to assess the validity of the theories advanced by creation scientists, and have come to the conclusion that sadly, their ideas are not so much science as wishful-thinking. While I do not doubt the sincerity of these people, I fear greatly that impressionable laymen are going to be misled by this so-called science, and will later discover its flaws and have their faith shattered as a result. I know a few people to whom this has actually happened.

A recent example of the kind of ideas put forward by creation scientists is the R.A.T.E. project (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth). This was a $1.25 million study performed by the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) and other Creationist groups to attempt to explain why radioactive dating techniques show the earth to be billions of years old. The solution they have come up with is to propose periods of extremely rapid radioactive decay (one of these being day three in Genesis Chapter 1) which accounted for what should have taken billions of years.

There are two major problems with this proposed solution. The first is that there is no known way to accelerate the rate at which radioactive atoms decay. We can’t do it today, and there are no scientific mechanisms we can propose to explain how it could have happened. The second is that the effect of having billions of years worth of radioactive decay happening in a day is like having billions of nuclear weapons detonated at once. The R.A.T.E. scientists have themselves calculated that the heat generated would have vapourised the earth!

At a recent conference in Denver, presenting the results of the R.A.T.E. study, the speaker acknowledged these difficulties, and suggested that the problem was solved by “Divine Intervention”. But it seems to me that this is to make nonsense of trying to find a scientific explanation in the first place. We might just as well have said that the whole Creation process was a miracle from the start. The shortcomings in this reasoning are illustrated in a famous cartoon, depicting a blackboard with some abstruse mathematics, and a large gap in the middle containing the words “then a miracle occurs”. Invoking a miracle to explain bits you can’t describe scientifically is a dangerous strategy, and is known as a “God-of-the-gaps” argument; if scientists eventually come up with a naturalistic explanation, God gets squeezed out. God should not be relegated to a mere filler of the gaps in our knowledge. He is supreme and transcendent over all nature.

By contrast, the God indicated by the R.A.T.E. scientist’s explanation appears to be supremely deceptive. What we are being asked to accept is that God performed two miracles, which are not described in the bible – one in causing all the radioactive elements to decay in a rapid fashion, and another to take away all the heat. The only purpose of these miracles, it would seem, is to make the earth look like it is billions of years old, instead of thousands. Why would God do that?

This idea of “apparent age” is also not new. It was explored by author Philip Gosse, in a book titled “Omphalos” in 1857, who attempted to explain the fossil record by arguing that God created the world to look like it was in the middle of natural cycles. The word “Omphalos” means “navel” in Greek, and Gosse claimed that Adam, who had no mother, would nonetheless have been created with a navel, to look as if he had been born naturally. The author Charles Kingsley, a friend of Gosse, and practicing Christian, on being asked to review the book, wrote thus:

“… if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes God-the-Sometime-Deceiver. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in ... your newly created Adam's navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason, but my conscience which revolts here ... I cannot ... believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind."

Intelligent Design

The “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement overlaps with YEC, but its proponents are not necessarily “Young Earth” in orientation – they often have no problems with immense timescales. Although their critics often describe them as "anti-evolutionists", it is perhaps fairer to say that they question evolution as an adequate explanation of all the complexity of life that we see around us, and propose that some of what we observe is better explained by the actions of an intelligent designer. It is indeed true that the computer-like code that exists in the DNA in every cell of every living thing is one of staggering complexity. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has observed: “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created”.

ID proponents argue that the DNA code, with its resemblance to computer code, implies the existence of a programmer (or “Designer”); they assert that in certain cases it is too complex to have occurred through the process of evolution. ID theorists make no pronouncements about the identity of the Designer – they have stated, for example, that it could be a sufficiently advanced alien life form. However, many of the prominent ID proponents are Christians who believe the identity of the Designer to be God.

A flagship example of the complexity of nature used by the ID movement is the “bacterial flagellum”. This is the whip-like tail that bacteria use to propel themselves through water. Amazingly, the drive mechanism functions exactly like a tiny electric motor, with all the same components present as with a real electric motor (the diagram is a stylized representation illustrating the presence of all these components). It is easy, on seeing such a marvel to proclaim that this is evidence of a Designer. However, it is dangerous to propose a Designer just because we don’t know how such a thing could have evolved. This, too, is a “god-of-the-gaps” argument.

The modern ID movement has updated the old “watchmaker” argument of William Paley (1743-1805) – which initially impressed Darwin himself, until he came up with the theory of evolution. Paley argued that if you should stumble upon a watch in the middle of a field, you might reasonably suppose, given its intricate mechanisms, that the watch had been deliberately designed by someone. By analogy, certain intricate contrivances found in nature, such as the eye, are also deemed to imply the existence of a Designer who created it all.

It seems to me there is a serious flaw in this argument right from the start. It is indeed quite reasonable to infer the existence of a watchmaker when you come upon a watch, because you already know that watchmakers exist, and so the most likely explanation of the watch is that there is a watchmaker.

What if the observer doesn't know that watchmakers exist? Science fiction writers often imagine forms of life that are so different to our own that we might have difficulty in recognizing it as such, apart from its complexity. In “Star Trek” when faced with an amorphous pulsating blob, Dr. McCoy would say “Its life, Jim, but not as we know it!” Suppose such weird alien creatures landed on our earth in the middle of a desert and saw a watch, a mechanism as alien to them as they are to us. I think it is quite possible that they would mistake the watch for a life form, having no idea as to its purpose. To put it another way, watchmakers are people whom we can see, but as the Bible says "No one has ever seen God" (John 1:18). God reveals himself to us through Jesus Christ, not through our current lack of knowledge of how the bacterial flagellum might have evolved.

A second major problem for me with the design argument is that it seems to be bad theology. The Bible tells us that Christ is supreme, at the centre of everything. He is before all things and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). But ID singles out special instances that evolution supposedly cannot explain – postulating in its place a cosmic programmer who, at certain times, installed a new program into nature as if it were a computer. Other, simpler objects in nature are deemed not to require this special explanation. But the Colossians passage indicates that God is the creator and sustainer of everything whether simple or complex. It tells us that God is intimately involved in the unfolding of the natural laws. This view is also known as “Theistic Evolution”, and it is the view to which I subscribe. It harmonizes with what we read in Genesis Chapter 1, where it says “Let the land produce vegetation …. And the land produced vegetation”. (Genesis 1:11,12). God’s creative action is to endow nature with the capability of bringing forth life.


Much of this debate has to do with well-meaning Christians trying to defend God against the relentless advance of atheism, but I would like to draw the reader’s attention to something much better - the incredible sense of wonder and awe we get from embracing without fear what science tells us. Darwin himself sensed this wonder, and wrote thus in the final sentence of “Origin of Species”:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

A little known fact about the great composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams is that his great-uncle was none other than Charles Darwin. The following story appears in “The Book of Musical Anecdotes”, which serves as a way of concluding this discussion:

There was a great kerfuffle among the [Vaughan-Williams] family - like everywhere else - when The Origin of Species was published, and Ralph, when he was about seven, asked his mother about it. His mother was extremely sensible. She said, "The Bible tells us that God made the world in six days. Great-uncle Charles thinks it took rather longer. But we needn't worry - it is equally wonderful either way."

Yes, indeed, it is wonderful. We should be profoundly grateful that we can say, along with the Psalmist “I meditate on all your works, and consider what your hands have done” (Psalm 143:5), and that science has opened up these astonishing wonders to us.

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