God, science and evolution Part 3 September 5, 2011
God, science and evolution Part 3
This post, the third in the series, contains Chapter 2 of this out-of-print 1980 book. Some updates have been added in square brackets where they seem necessary (references to my 2009 book “Who made God?” are denoted WMG) . However, the interesting thing is how little the subject has moved on in 30 years despite the enormous amount of research and comment during that period.
Thinking man has only a limited number of options open to him as he seeks to interpret the meaning of his existence and the nature of his origins. In this chapter, originally delivered as a lecture at a division of Imperial Chemical Industries, UK, we first consider the evolutionary options, only to reject them on rational grounds. We then consider the biblical account of the origin, purpose and destiny of man — in which we find a satisfying answer to these vital questions and, additionally, the need for a personal response..
WHAT IS MAN?
The psalmist, addressing himself to God, asks, ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him?’ (Ps. 8:3-4). Most of us, at some time or another, repeat this question because it is only as we understand what man is that we really know how to address ourselves to life. Our interpretation of the world around us, our ambitions, our attitudes towards our fellow human beings — all these things are critically affected by what we believe about the essential nature of man.
What options are available to us? The four options which I am going to put to you encompass, in my view at least, the whole range of possibilities open to thinking man. There are two options which we may call evolutionary, and two which we may call theistic or creationist, and we shall look at these in turn.
The evolutionary options
The theory of biological evolution begins with a common observation, namely, that in any species of creature or plant there are continual variations. No human child is completely identical to its parent. No dog, no fish, no flower reproduces identically. This is a matter of common experience. It is also the first point where serious confusion arises, because changes from generation to generation can be produced by two quite distinct causes.
The first is the redistribution of the same genetic material. We can talk, if you like, about the ‘gene pool’ in a species. As members of that species interbreed, different genes in the parental chromosomes come into conjunction and produce certain characteristics in the offspring — blue eyes or brown eyes, different colours of skin, the height to which a person grows, and so on. These variations within a species are nothing to do with evolution. They follow from the basic laws of genetics which were spelled out by Mendel in 1859, and they demonstrate the immense amount of variety that can arise within a species. No matter how long that process of variation goes on, however, it is always convergent. That is, it always leaves you with the same species, whether it be a dog, a fish, or a chrysanthemum. Almost infinite variations can occur by recombination of the same genetic material, as animal and plant breeders have demonstrated time and time again. But these variations can never give rise to a change of species. This has seldom been made clear in the popular writings on the theory of evolution.
The changes that can give rise, in principle, to a process of evolution are known as mutations, where the genetic material is actually transformed by some external agency or by an accident during cell division. Mutations may occur spontaneously or may be induced by radiation, chemical treatment or some other means. Mutations take the system outside the existing potentialities in the ‘gene pool’ of a species. Typical effects of mutation include deficiencies in certain body chemicals, such as the haemoglobin in our blood, deformities, and the inability to manufacture pigment (albinism is the result of such a mutation.) Such mutations have been studied in the laboratory and the rate at which they occur can be measured in rapidly reproducing species such as bacteria. Mutations are almost invariably harmful or neutral in their effects on the viability of the organism.
But, says the evolutionist, mutation may on rare occasions give rise to an advantageous feature in the animal or plant. When this occurs the advantaged member of the population survives longer and produces more offspring. Thus ‘natural selection’ chooses out advantaged members which eventually come to predominate and so the species moves forward. Well, in theory that can happen. I have no quarrel with the basic ideas of mutation and natural selection as mechanisms which operate in nature. But in all the work that has been done since Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, there has been no direct evidence of any mutation that has produced long-term advantages for a species. It is an arguable point, but the rates at which such advantageous mutations occur, if they ever do, persuade many biologists that this process could not have given rise to the development of species or different phyla (the major life-form groupings) from some original ‘germ of life’. [This subject of ‘beneficial’ mutations is treated in detail in WMG chapter 13; ‘The mighty mutation — can mutations create?’]
Let me just give one or two quotations, because this may put things more succinctly. Dr R. Laird Harris writes:
‘For over half a century scientists at Columbia University have been studying the common fruit fly (Drosophila), with a view to observing or inducing changes by mutations in them. Flies have been raised in varying environments, differences in temperature, humidity and the like, treated with x-rays and nuclear radiation. There have been changes. But some of the changes have been fatal. Others have altered the colour or size of eyes, wings and bristle hairs. Certain scientists would affirm that new species have been formed. This depends heavily upon one’s definition of species. Undoubtedly new types of fruit flies have been produced. But whether anything has been produced which approaches an organism that shows any major difference has been denied also. They are still fruit flies. It appears that breeding of new varieties within certain limits is easily possible. Even producing new giant strains of plants by doubling the chromosomes is feasible. But to form a new major type of organism just has not been done. If one sticks to history, and avoids prophecy in this matter, one sees that evolution by the addition of small mutations has not been demonstrated. Changes do not proceed towards a different type, they cluster around the type of the original organism.'(1)
The unconvincing character of mutation plus natural selection as a sufficient mechanism of evolution is half admitted even in the most confident assertions of evolutionists. Thus Theodosius Dobzhansky writes; ‘The occurrence of the evolution of life in the history of the earth is established about as well as events not witnessed by human observers can be … The most pressing problems of evolutionary biology seem, at present, to belong to two groups — those concerned with the mechanics of evolution and those dealing with the biological uniqueness of man.'(2)
This ardent champion of evolution is forced to admit that the mechanics or mechanism of evolution still present pressing problems. (This is no less true in 1980 than in 1958.) [Or in 2011].
R. B. Goldschmitz, a geneticist at the University of California, writes; ‘Nobody has produced even a species by the selection of micro-mutations. In the best known organisms, like Drosophila, innumerable mutants are known. If we were able to combine a thousand or more of such mutants in a single individual this still would have no resemblance whatsoever to any type known as a species in nature.'(3)
Writing in his introduction to a 1959 edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, W. R. Thompson says; ‘There is a great divergence of opinion amongst biologists, not only about the causes of evolution but even about the actual process. This divergence exists because the evidence is unsatisfactory and does not permit any certain conclusions.'(4) [For a recent ‘take’ on this subject of debated mechanisms see What Darwin got wrong by evolutionists Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, 2010. Daniel Osherson of Princeton University calls the book ‘A formidable challenge to … Darwinian orthodoxy in general’].
There are more fundamental objections to the Darwinian (or strictly, neo-Darwinian) mechanism of evolution by mutation and natural selection. In order to achieve advantageous changes there must have been a co-operative process which produced a number of compensating and reinforcing mutations at one and the same time. If we suggest, for example, that birds’ feathers arose by evolution from reptiles’ scales, we must postulate not one but a very large number of mutations, involving not only the physical form of the feathers but the controlling muscles, the oil-secreting glands and so on. Yet the advantage of feathers over scales, (which alone would enable natural selection to operate) could not emerge until the feathers had progressed to the stage of having a different function from that of the scale. The likelihood of the many reinforcing mutations necessary to carry forward the transformation all occurring before selection pressures could operate is remote. Take, as another example, the long neck of the giraffe. This is often given as an example of evolution. The giraffe was advantaged by having a longer neck because it could then eat food higher up in times of drought and famine. But the long neck of the giraffe could not have evolved without corresponding (and in evolutionary terms, quite independent) changes in the vascular system. This is because the difference in blood pressure between the ‘head up’ and ‘head down’ position is so great that the brain could not tolerate it without an intricate system which prevents this being a problem. It is no use just evolving a long neck. At the same time you have to evolve the appropriate anatomy and physiology to enable that long neck to give advantage to the animal. The chances of this happening by the coincidence of random mutations (in the various genes responsible for these different features of the animal) are incredibly small. On a more general note, one might also ask why all antelopes and related creatures did not evolve long necks if they were of such selective value to one species.
The first problem, then, is that the evolutionary hypothesis of vast change occurring by small mutations is quite inadequate to account for the development of entirely new forms of life.
The fossil record
The main building block of the theory of evolution, the fossil record, proves anything but the validity of that theory. Let me quote Professor Vialleton, a Frenchman, writing as long ago as 1924: ‘There is, then, when one considers evolution in the light of the real evidence, both great doubt and also exaggeration of its value, resulting in the idea that is very anthropomorphic, namely that everything has always begun very humbly and later has developed into very complex and lofty forms. Once again, one must say that this is not the picture presented by nature. One scarcely sees, throughout the geological ages, a gradual, slow multiplication of types of organisation. One does not at first find a unicellular being, then simple colonies of cells, then cellanturates, etc. On the contrary, Louis Agassiz remarked a long time ago in 1859, that in the first known fossils one finds, side by side, representatives of all the great groups, except the vertebrates, which seems to prove that the living world from its origin has been composed of diverse types, perfectly distinct one from the other, which have divided amongst themselves the various functions of life. Evolution has not begun from forms, truly simple in order to pass over into more complicated forms. The types of organisation one finds have always displayed their essential character initially. Genuine evolution, therefore, as one ascends the geological column from the first to the last representatives of any type of organisation, is trivial in sum and scarcely permits one to believe in the overweening power to effect biological transformation.'(5) [This is widely admitted today in 2011 by palaeontologists and is what led Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould to advance their theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ to explain the lack of gradual transitions in the fossil record].
One could multiply this kind of quotation. Coulter, a biologist, tells us that the construction of a family tree is troublesome because of the missing links. He writes (my italics); ‘Botanists construct as best they can an imaginary picture of the missing link so as to complete the sequence of steps in the evolution of the plant kingdom. Obviously such a practice is mainly guesswork, but like so many hypotheses has been very useful in organising subject matter and stimulating research. The record of the rocks reveals practically nothing of the earlier chapters in the evolution of the plant kingdom. For these, therefore, we must rely on types of plants still in existence plus a liberal measure of scientific imagination.'(6)
As you read this kind of quotation from the protagonists of evolution you begin to think, ‘What substance is there in the theory?’ The embarrassment is that in the early days of evolutionary theory much appeal was made to the incompleteness of the geological record. The links were missing. The expected transitional forms were absent but this could always be blamed on a lack of information; the fossil record was incomplete. But the argument has worn increasingly thin with the passing years. The biological record is so infinitely varied, the number of fossils and remains so fantastic, that if there were transitional forms they would most certainly have turned up. There are, of course, extinct life-forms which are unknown today, and some of these may have been transitional, but the number of such examples is very small, and who is to say that a given fossil was transitional and not simply another distinct species separate from the two other forms it is supposed to link together? Indeed, evolutionary relationships between fossil forms (or living ones for that matter) can only be inferred if one first assumes that evolution took place. For example, the celebrated series of horses, which is often claimed as proof of evolution, are simply remains that have been arranged in ascending order of size on the assumption that they are related by evolutionary succession!
In the writer’s view, the fossil record now constitutes a severe embarrassment to the theory of evolution and some biologists, recognizing this, are beginning to talk about a multiplicity of evolutionary trees, that is, they suppose that the basic groups of creatures arose from separate origins. This is a current theory and shows the desperate straits into which the original theory has fallen. [For an up to date treatment of the ‘tree of life’ controversy see http://www.biology-direct.com/content/pdf/1745-6150-6-41.pdf]
I said at the beginning of this chapter that there were two evolutionary alternatives. Both of these have the same common origin which I have discussed already. In what way, then, do they differ?
If one believes that man is a piece of cosmic driftwood thrown up on the beach of time by a blind process of evolution, then rationally there is no meaning to life. Man is just an accident. There is no such thing as destiny, meaning or significance. One is forced into an existentialist philosophy; there is no meaning to our existence; ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ This is the position at which many people have arrived but to the majority of thinking people this nihilistic approach is intolerable. We just feel that there must be meaning, that it must matter whether I exist or do not exist, that mankind is not just a cosmic joke. The nihilistic and strictly logical attitude is not only very unwelcome but unacceptable to the majority of men.
So we are led to our other evolutionary alternative. Beginning with the blind biological process of evolution, some people (whose ideas are best known under the title ‘scientific humanism’) say; ‘Now we have reached this point, we refuse to give up and say the whole thing is meaningless. We must take advantage of the evolutionary accident we call mankind and forge for ourselves a destiny to which we can aspire.’
Now this is a noble viewpoint and one must respect the intellectual calibre of some of those who subscribe to it. Here is no nihilism but rather a willingness to accept the challenge. But I personally must reject this alternative for one basic reason — it puts far too much confidence in human nature. The only political group who tried deliberately to do what the scientific humanists tell us we should do were the Nazis in Germany, and they subscribed very fully to this opinion. You might also put certain contemporary racialist groups into this category, who keep alive the immoral dream of a race of men superior to their fellows.
Scientific humanists would throw up their hands in horror at the examples I have chosen. This destiny of man, they would protest, must be shaped by wise men, good and true. But their very evolutionary philosophy makes it difficult to define what you mean by wise, good and true, because it affords no ultimate or absolute moral values. Moral values, in their view, have just arisen in the course of history; they have no absolute significance. My definition of who is wise and what is good may differ from yours, it may differ from Huxley’s and Haldane’s and it certainly differs from Adolf Hitler’s. The problem is: who is to decide? Who is to take control? Can any intellectual elite be trusted to remain incorrupt? And even if we did find somebody whom everybody trusted, how capable is man of creating his own destiny, and then steering his ship safely home to its harbour? We have only to look around the world today and down the recent history of man to find that, with all his education, knowledge, science, culture and powers, mankind inspires little confidence as the arbiter of his own destiny.
(a) Theistic evolution
The two alternatives discussed so far I have called evolutionary — nihilistic existentialism and the scientific humanism which leads to an undue reliance on the human intellect and human nature. Both, surely, are blind alleys in our search for meaning in life and existence.
The third alternative, to which we now come, still retains the theory of evolution but sees it as a controlled or purposive process. I am going to shovel a lot of different philosophies into this particular sack! It covers an enormous range of ideas, from a Christian viewpoint which believes in a personal Creator who used the process of evolution to effect creation, to the mystical philosophies like the Bergsonian concept of the élan vital, the life force, in which the very process of evolution is endowed with a mystica, quality. It also includes the approach of Teilhard de Chardin, who generalized evolution from the biological realm onward into an evolution of consciousness, mind, society and finally spirit. This is a teleological theory, looking forward to a goal, a peak to which man is climbing. That peak of attainment, that total spiritual consciousness, de Chardin refers to as ‘God’. All these approaches have in common the retention of biological evolution. At the same time they avoid the philosophical dilemmas of the pure evolutionist and retain the idea of God or at least the concept of the spiritual.
I reject this also, first of all because it is building upon the foundation of biological evolution which I believe is scientifically unsound; and secondly, as long as biological evolution is retained, the spiritual dimension is just like icing on the cake. Let me explain what I mean by this. There is a philosophical principle derived from Occam’s Razor that forbids any explanation of a phenomenon that is more complicated than it needs to be. If an evolutionary paradigm is sufficient to explain the observed phenomena, namely the biosphere and ultimately the universe itself, why introduce concepts such as ‘spirituality’ or God? This is a very difficult question to answer.
A third most fundamental objection to theistic evolution is that although it appears to reconcile the evolutionary theory and religion it does so at a great cost, sacrificing some of the deepest insights of the Christian faith. I believe, for example, there is a basic conflict between the teachings of Scripture and theistic evolution and this theme is developed in detail in chapter 5.
(b) The creationist view
Why is the theory of evolution so popular? Why has not Einstein’s theory of relativity or Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory attained the same degree of popular acclaim? Why is our fourth and final option, which is a thorough-going creationist viewpoint, so unacceptable to the mind of modern man?
I would suggest that evolutionary theory provides a kind of escape route for the human mind. There is something rather uncomfortable and inconvenient to the human heart about the concept of God. Once you admit that God, a personal supreme Being of some kind, created the heavens and the earth — and that such a personality also created the human race — you immediately admit a relationship with that personality. And such a relationship of creature to a Creator automatically involves the idea of accountability. If l am a creature from the Creator’s hand, by whatever route, then I am in some way accountable to Him. The first chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans says that men ‘did not like to retain God in their knowledge’. There was something uncongenial about the idea of God and the inference of accountability. Somehow I have to answer to God, to my Creator, for the way in which I have used my life.
These thoughts are difficult for the human heart to accept. The Bible puts it even more strongly; ‘The carnal [that is, natural] mind is enmity against God’ (Romans 8:7). The natural mind is not only uncomfortable at the idea of accountability, but is positively rebellious against it. So a theory which enables us to dismiss God from the universe is a very acceptable and very comforting theory. I believe that this accounts for both the widespread popularity of evolution and the emotional tenacity with which it is normally embraced.
But evolution does not really solve the problem. If God did not create mankind and we evolved instead by processes of biological evolution following chemical evolution, stellar evolution, back to the primeval clouds of hydrogen, where did everything come from? ‘Well,’ you might say, ‘it could have all been energy before it was matter.’ Where then did the energy come from? You will see that sooner or later you reach a full stop. Now you may say, ‘All right, we admit to having no explanation of ultimate origins, but there is no particular advantage in adding one more step and saying God created the energy or the matter, because then you ask “Where did God come from?” and you are no closer to an answer.’ Let us accept for a moment that the idea of God may not help you at that point, but it does not hinder you either! [The big bang theory of the origin of the universe is discussed at length in WMG Chapter 7].
To me it is just as respectable, scientifically and intellectually, to claim that God created matter and energy, as it is to say that either matter and energy were always there, or simply to say we do not know where they came from. It is no more intellectually respectable to say that there is a process of continuous creation going on which we cannot study in the laboratory or know anything about — to claim that a process totally unknown to science — ‘must be going on because otherwise the alternative is God’. It is no more rational or objective to say that than to say, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’
However, there are other advantages about the concept of God, and very profound advantages. For example, the evolutionary paradigm takes for granted the existence not only of matter and energy but also of physical (natural) law. It does not ask about the nature or origin of the very laws of nature to which it appeals. Why are there four quite different laws of force: gravitational, electromagnetic and the forces that hold the nucleus together, the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ interactions? Why four, why not five, why not one? Science cannot answer that kind of question. The idea of God is a very satisfying hypothesis at this point. Not only do we identify God as the first cause and prime mover, the Creator, but we see Him throughout the universe as the sustainer and upholder of all things! There are two verses in the New Testament I would like to quote here. One says of Christ that He ‘[upholds] all things by the word of his power’ (Hebrews 1:3). The other, in Colossians 1:17, says, ‘By him all things consist.’ These verses state that the integrity of the physical universe as we know it, the laws by which it operates, can be equated to ‘the word of His power’. The laws of science are a present-tense moment-by-moment manifestation of the existence and will of God. If God were to vanish the universe and all the laws of nature would pass out of existence at that same moment. That is what the New Testament teaches and to me as a scientist it is an extremely satisfying hypothesis. To me as a Christian it is more than a hypothesis.
It leaves us with both a Creator and an ever-present cause for the whole of existence. Moreover, it takes the miraculous out of the realm of fantasy. If the operation of scientific law, of gravitational law, of electromagnetic law and so on, is simply the moment-by-moment ‘upholding of all things’ by the word of God’s power, then the suspension of those laws, or the introduction of some temporary new law which we may class as miraculous, is no more difficult to explain than the existence of physical law itself. They are both of the same kind. They are both the moment-by-moment will of an immanent and almighty God. We shall develop these ideas at greater length in chapters 3 and 4.
It has not been my purpose simply to attack the theory of evolution. I believe it needs to be attacked, if only because the popular impression is given that evolution is scientifically proven. This view is terribly biased and ignores the yawning chasms in the theory which make it unacceptable to me as a scientist. I was also anxious, however, to present something positive. The Bible is not on the defensive against the theory of evolution, but has a positive theory of being to propose to us. It accounts for the creation and the sustenance of the physical universe, whereas evolution, even if accepted and admitted, only tells half the story, since it cannot account for the existence of the very physical law upon which it leans so heavily. The concept of creation and a sustaining God is to me far more satisfying as a cosmic theory than anything the theory of evolution has yet produced.
Beyond all the scientific and philosophical arguments, however, lies the personal issue with which I began this chapter. If we follow evolutionary options in answering the question: ‘What is man?’, we reject all that is meaningful in life. We reject all hopes of heaven, all belief that the universe is ultimately rational. If, on the other hand, we see in nature the eternal power of God, we are led back to the concept of man’s accountability to his Creator. The questions of moral accountability and sin arise, and we begin to see that the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption from sin are inseparably linked together. The mission of Christ was to ‘seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:19), namely human beings like you and me. Here, then, is an option which not only proves to satisfy our questing minds, but comes to grips with our moral weaknesses and failures. It leads us not only to a unity of comprehension, but into personal contact with a forgiving God. Christ is not only the One who created all things (John 1:1-3) but also the Saviour by whom we ourselves may be created anew, for ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
1. Laird Harris, R., Man; God’s eternal creation. Moody Press, Chicago, 1971, p.33.
2. Dobzhansky, T., Evolution at work, Science, vol.127, 1958, p.l092.
3. Goldschmitz, R. B., Evolution as viewed by one scientist, American Scientist, vol.40, 1952, p.94.
4. Thompson, W. R., Introduction to Origin of Species, Everyman’s Library No.811, 1956, p.xii.
5. Shute, E., Flaws in the theory of evolution, Craig Press, Nutley, N. Jersey, 1961.
6. Newman, H.H., (ed.), The nature of the world and of man, Garden City Press, New York, p.321.