Sunday, June 26, 2011

Should Christians Embrace Evolution?:Biblical and Scientific Responses, edited by Norman C. Nevin--A Review

Should Christians Embrace Evolution?:Biblical and Scientific Responses, P&R Publishing, ISBN 9781596382305, June 2011

I had hoped and expected this book to be a serious discussion of the relationship between science and religion, and how when approached seriously and openly, each can inform and enlighten the other. Instead, this collection of essays is an apologia for Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design, with the voices of believing Christians who are engaged with science nowhere permitted to speak for themselves.

Raised as a Catholic in the 1960s, I was taught from diocesan-approved textbooks that said the physical world is what God did, and that the Bible, whose purpose is to lead us to understanding of our relationship with God, could not validly be interpreted in ways that contradicted proven scientific fact. Several essays in this book make the point that scientific "truth" can change, sometimes rapidly. An example (not offered by the essayists) is the previous scientific case for gradualism vs. catastrophism--that all geological change takes place slowly, rather than as the result of sudden, dramatic events. This assumption changed and was abandoned in the face of mounting evidence that sometimes catastrophic sudden change does happen, Floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and meteor strikes can have dramatic effects, and even some of the slow processes involve things the gradualists had difficult imagining, such as the movement of continents. Thus one scientific "truth" was replaced by another.

It's a fair point. However, it overlooks the fact that every way in which we look at the age of the Earth--the geology of Earth itself, decay rates of radioactive elements, what astrophysics tells us about the size and age of the universe, etc.--gives us a planet over four billion years old, a sun about five billion years old, and a universe significantly older than that. In the face of that, it's not enough to point to genealogies in the Bible and say that Earth is "obviously" only about six thousand years old. Argue that Genesis 1-3 is literal and not a simplified version intended to help pre-literate pastoralists and farmers understand their relationship to the world and God, and you're stuck with explaining (away) God putting all this evidence of great age all around us.

Likewise, there is ample evidence of evolution from multiple lines of research, archeology, paleontology, and genetics among them. The argument is offered that the genetic evidence of evolution is based in "fossil DNA," the junk DNA that appears to serve no function, but that in fact we are gradually finding that this junk DNA isn't inactive and meaningless, is not merely "fossil" DNA. In reality, though, the strongest genetic evidence of evolution is mitochondrial DNA, passed on from mother to offspring, which has never been considered "fossil DNA." To a lesser extent, Y chromosome DNA, passed from father to male offspring, plays a significant role and is also anything but "junk" or "fossil" DNA.

This leads us to the argument that, if Adam and Eve were two Neolithic farmers who were blessed with the friendship of God, then we can't all be descended from them, and the inheritance of Adam's Fall becomes highly problematic--that in such a case, Adam is not the Head of the human family, we are not his children, and visiting the curse of the Fall upon us all is arbitrary. But this is confused and backwards.

If Adam and Eve were created ex nihilo, and were the sole ancestors of the entire human race, then we must immediately ask who Cain, as well as his siblings, married. Lower animals could happily mate with their siblings with no awareness of guilt, but it's a real problem if you have just one human family with fully developed moral sense. Despite repeated insistence on the importance of Adam as the direct ancestor of all subsequent humanity, the problem of who his children married is never mentioned by the essayists.

Evolution, on the other hand, does offer both mates for the offspring of Adam and Eve, and a clear path for all living humans to be descendants of Adam. In fact, the genetic evidence that the essayists dismiss so easily tells us that we are all descended from a genetic Adam, as well as a genetic Eve. How does this work when evolution also says there was never just one man or just one woman? Because their descendants were more successful. More of their offspring survived, and more of their offspring survived, and intermarried with other lines, and without any necessity for incest, over millennia all human beings are descended from these two early humans.

The Fall is also present in this understanding. Animals, even our closest relatives, the bonobos and common chimps, and our closest companions, dogs, do not have a moral sense. They feel emotions, they understand social rules, they are complex and intelligent creatures-- but they don't have a sense of morality, of Right and Wrong. Humans do. Chimps kill other chimps, dogs sometimes kill other dogs--but the first human being who possessed the ability to grasp that some things are not just inconvenient or inappropriate for social or pragmatic reasons, but wrong, was the first human being able to commit theft, or infidelity, or murder, in the sense that we understand these words. And as the first species to understand mortality, that we will die, we are also the only species for whom death is a part of our lives.

At some point humans, genetically just a third species of chimpanzee, made the breakthrough, or was gifted with, or was tempted into, the knowledge of Good and Evil--and chose to commit evil. There is the Fall, right there, the thing that makes us unable to make of Earth the Paradise it could be, the thing for which we need Redemption. I do not understand why this is less tragic, less hopeful, or less illuminated by the Grace of God, than reading Genesis 1-3 literally.

Where this book is weakest is in the essays in the latter part of the book, which attempt to grapple most directly with the science of evolution. Unfortunately, only one evolutionary scientist, Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University, is quoted more than once or twice, or in more than isolated single sentences shorn of all context. Alexander is himself an evangelical Christian, and is perhaps therefore a greater "threat" for Young Earth Creationists than Catholic, Jewish, or mainstream Protestant scientists. Unfortunately, quoting and arguing with only one party amongst the many who disagree, combined with the ability to choose what you quote and to represent its larger context, makes for a weaker argument, not a stronger one.

In addition, the various essayists, especially in the latter part of the book, which has all the form and structure of building towards a crushing conclusion, make statements about scientific fact that are just bizarre. For instance, on page 188, John C. Walton tells us that:
"the principle features characteristic of living things are: organization, metabolism, adaptation, response to stimuli and, particularly, reproduction. Viruses, which are intricate assemblages of proteins and DNA, are clearly excluded by these criteria, leaving single cell micro-organisms, lacking nuclei (i.e., bacteria and archaea) as the simplest forms of life.
There you have it; viruses are not life, a statement no biologist would agree with, but which is vital to the argument that life is too complex to have arisen by chemical means.

And on page 192, we find the following interesting statement:
For amino acids to form, the early atmosphere must have been without oxygen; but this seems improbable because oxygen is the most abundant element (47%) in the earth's crust and is overwhelmingly abundant in teh hydrosphere.
What's wrong with this is that oxygen is highly chemically reactive, and free O2 in the atmosphere is a product of life--specifically, the product of plant life taking in CO2 from the air and releasing O2 as a biological by-product. No life yet, no free oxygen in the atmosphere to prevent the formation of amino acids. With simple and obvious mistakes like this, it's hard to take the rest of the "science" in these essays seriously.

It's weakened further by the fact that all the essayists come back to asserting that evolutionary theory is wrong because Genesis says something different, and we need to read Genesis literally because, well, we just do. It's briefly mentioned, at page 118, that the Catholic Church has never favored Biblical literalism or regarded the Bible as the sole source of divine revelation--and that study of the natural world is regarded as another source of revelation. It's also noted elsewhere that the Fundamentals, the documents on which modern Biblical literalism is based, are documents of recent composition, not ancient Sacred Scripture.

Nor do I understand why our ancient, immense, complex and beautiful universe, with a slow unfolding of life towards the Image and Likeness of God, is less divine, less inspiring, less Awesome than creation ex nihilo in six days. The Bible was revealed initially to pre-literate farmers and herders, people who needed Divine Truth but had, in plain fact, no use for a science textbook laying out in detail a process of Creation taking billions of years, a textbook on genetics and paleontology and evolution. We have large and complex brains for a reason; we're supposed to use them. Rejecting our ability to study, investigate, and gradually increase our understanding of the beauty, wonder, and complexity of God's Creation is, at best, the ungrateful rejection of a marvelous gift. And on page 119 we find this breathtaking statement:
Of course, the 'Catholic' policy promotes considerable intellectual humility and interpretive generosity but at a high cost: namely, the loss of a unified sense of the truth that we might approximate through our own efforts as blessed by divine grace.
In other words, being comfortable that you have "a unified sense of the truth" based on your own personal reading of the Bible is more important than remembering human fallibility, limitations, and susceptibility to error in understanding the Divine. I am seriously not persuaded that we should be tossing out intellectual humility in favor of a "unified sense of the truth" that we create for ourselves.

For the most part, this is an intelligent, thoughtful, well-written book. I don't agree with the arguments, the reasoning, or the conclusions, but if you want a well-written defense of Young Earth Creationism and rejection of evolution, this is an excellent place to start.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.