Saturday, September 11, 2010

Evolution and Genesis

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
--Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor

St. Augustine made that comment in the early 400s AD, about 1450 years before Darwin's On The Origin Of Species, and went on at some length in that vein. The idea that the account in Genesis recounts the Earth's natural history in a simple way is an old one, but it was rarely taken seriously until recent centuries. This is why when Augustine wanted to explain how to take Genesis literally, he wrote a 400-page work on the topic, not a pamphlet that said it's all simple. (I have not read this work yet; I just found out about it and ordered it while researching for this post.)

I think the straightforward natural history reading of Genesis was largely invented recently as a reaction to the medieval Roman Catholic church. At one time, when the Church was a career, social, and political organization, they strongly discouraged Bible reading, including forbidding the translation of the Bible to "vulgar tongues", e.g. not Latin; and they held that all Bible interpretation was a matter of complex allegorical interpretation only to be undertaken by Church professionals. This helped keep people away from finding out inconvenient doctrines like the priesthood of all believers and our direct unmediated access to God through prayer. Martin Luther and the Protestant church reacted to this by encouraging the most literal interpretation possible, which in the case of Genesis gave us young-earth creationism.

In Biblical interpretation (exegesis), it's important to take an originalist view rather than a textualist one. The contains many styles of literature, not all of which are suitable for literal interpretation. When Jesus says "I am the true vine," he doesn't mean he has leaves, and when he says "I am the door," he doesn't mean he has hinges. If you are looking for the meaning, it is immediately apparent; if you strive for a literal meaning, it is absurd.

Or take this beautiful passage from Job:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:
"Who is this that darkens my counsel
     with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
     I will question you,
     and you shall answer me.
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
     Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
     Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
     or who laid its cornerstone-
while the morning stars sang together
     and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7, NIV)

The Bible only needs one true meaning. Even if you thought the Earth was flat, you would not imagine that instructing the reader about geology was point of this passage. You don't need to know that the Earth is round to see that this is about God's incomparable majesty, not the Earth's construction. And that's why early Christians were generally not confused by Genesis.

It is impossible to look at Genesis and believe that its main intent is natural history. It makes a spectacularly bad natural history. Light is created on the first day, and there is evening and morning each day, but the Sun, Moon, and stars aren't created until the fourth day. What was evening and morning with no sun? Where was the light coming from? A natural history would answer this; Genesis does not because that's not the point. Or, Genesis says,
And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth." And there was evening, and there was morning &mdash the fifth day.

And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:20-25)
So when were grasshoppers or cockroaches created? They move along the ground sometimes, and fly sometimes. Or bees, or bats? How about all the sessile sea animals? They aren't plants but they don't move. Natural history was never the intention.

I can't imagine anyone who's been a serious churchgoer and didn't hear a sermon on Genesis. There must be tens of thousands of volumes of commentary that have been written about it. But all of these words fail to convey more about human nature and God's nature than the compact little story as it is. It doesn't need to be natural history to be true.

I have some more words for young-earth creationists:
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4:25, NIV)
Young-earthers tend to display a horrifying indifference to the truth of what they say. Almost all the science is nonsense, only fit to deceive people who know nothing of the field; much of it is based on never having bothered to really understand Darwin in the first place. When you point out that one scientific claim is false, they just move on to another from the same bogus-science source. A bunch of little lies cannot shore up a big truth. When a Christian find out that one of the claims they've been repeating is a lie, that is "disgraceful and dangerous" as Augustine puts it, and they've been making Christians look vastly ignorant, they should step back from all the ideas they got from that source. Learn about each topic before you repeat it; learn the reasoning of the enormous majority of scientists who think that the young-earth claim is wrong. This page, is a really good start but it's down as I write this.

Or if that's too hard, (and deeply understanding some things like radiometric dating is hard), don't say anything about it. Learn from Paul:
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)


  1. Well and powerfully said. I only wish I could convince my family of this--they're frighteningly literal, and will not contemplate the idea that the Bible (in whatever version) isn't.

  2. Thanks, Heroditus! It sounds like you were lucky to get out of that environment still a Christian.

  3. What irritates me from my perspective is that, should I look at the power and breadth of evolution and the results it has wrought, should I see it as the result of a designer that designer comes off as roughly fifty thousand times more interesting and impressive than one that slung down the kinds over a long weekend and called it a day.

    Dammit, if you're going to revere a vast cosmic intelligence, give credit where it's due.

  4. I've noticed that too, LabRat. There's a paucity and poverty to the image of God's creation that young-earthers put out; and that applies to the God they describe as well. I think it's a natural result of the indifference to truth I mentioned.

    Y'know, I didn't actually talk about evolution in this post hardly at all. I've got a good bit more to say on this topic; some of it may be dull because I want to write a basic description of evolution for those who didn't get it at all in school (which apparently includes virtually all Star Trek writers); hopefully other bits will be interesting, like the relationship of the actions of a supernatural God, outside time and space, to events and physical law inside time and space.

  5. Responding to Evyl Robot Michael, who said in response to Ozymandias in a gun thread:
    "Genesis is a creation myth, not a science textbook. Anyone who gets confused about the difference, theist or atheist, should be sent to an intensive course in world mythology until they are sensible." [quoting Ozymandias]

    Wow, Ozy. That certainly is an authoritative and blanket way to put it. Who died and made you The Supreme Prophet of the New Era? Have you even read The Book of Genesis? Very little of it has anything to do with creation. Yes, that's how it starts, but there's a lot more in the book than, 'Then The Lord said... ...and it was.' It really bothers me when people make blanket statements as if they are the ultimate authority and know what's best for everyone else. It reminds me of a high school chemistry teacher where I graduated, who made comments about evolution being a 'true, proven fact.' She basically told the class that they could believe anything that they wanted but that it made them stupid if they didn't believe in Darwinist origin of life. And, in the spirit of blanket statements, let me say that hardcore Darwinism is nothing more than reheated spontaneous generation, incidentally. In its current form it's pretty much the quaint relics of the age of 'science' that was based on alchemy and phrenology. But, you can believe whatever you want to, I suppose. ;)
    Darwinist evolution is about as well proven as a theory that takes place over such large time scales can get. It does not include an origin of life.

    Darwinist evolution requires a few things:
    Organisms which reproduce and transmit characteristics to their offspring.
    Some potential for change or error in that process.
    An environment in which an organism with one set of characteristics may reproduce more than another.

    A very basic summary of the way it works is that once in a while an organism in a population is born with a fortunate change; almost all changes are unfortunate. The one with the fortunate change produces more offspring than the other organisms in that population. In turn, those offspring, as they also carry the fortunate change, likewise produce more offspring; etc. Gradually they replace the population that does not carry the the change.

    Another case is when the fortunate change suits the organism to a new ecological niche instead of the old one. In this case the previous population continues in the old niche.

    Evolution cannot and does not attempt to explain the origin of life; it does not occur until after there is life that reproduces itself.

    It has no connection to spontaneous generation.

  6. Oh absolutely! Of course Genesis isn't literal. I should clarify. I believe God created the heavens and the earth. He didn't waste the words to tell us exactly how. It adds to the wonder and mystery. I believe in a God that is capable of creating all the wonder and complexity and ever changing world that we know today.
    I just get annoyed with the people that replace God with science as if the 2 are mutually exclusive. They aren't. Even if you could fill in all the holes and answer all the questions that would move evolution from scientific theory to law, it would not negate God. I put young earth creationists in the same box as alchemists trying to make gold out of lead.

  7. Evyl Robot-- You're right, I was sloppy. Correct "Genesis" to "the first two chapters of Genesis". And I have read the book of Genesis and in fact most of the Bible (except for the bits with the begets).

    In addition to Mousie's explanation of evolution, I have to say that the conventional scientific theory of life's start is not reheated spontaneous generation. Under certain conditions that existed when life began and have been imitated in the laboratory, amino acids can form. After thousands of years, these amino acids combine by chance into a simple RNA (iirc) replicator. Over millennia, the cell develops.

    The key point is that amino acids don't form nowadays because Earth's current chemical composition is very different from its chemical composition four billion years ago, so the observations that disproved spontaneous generation don't apply.

    Also, I just realized that "creation myth" might be offensive-- I was talking religion with my pagan roommate and her definition of "myth" bled over. I didn't mean to express an opinion on the truth or falsity of it, since it's an issue that reasonable people can come to different conclusions on. The point is that the first two chapters of Genesis are supposed to convey truths about the divine, the world and human nature-- not to serve as a substitute for science.

  8. Ozymandias, here I have to disagree with you too. There isn't a conventional scientific theory of life's start. There are a collection of radically different theories that all have giant gaping holes where nothing is explained. For some more information on amino acid experiments, see here. RNA cannot self-replicate. It is a molecule that is used to encode genetic information; it is replicated by complex enzyme activity. Alone it is something like a CD of software without a computer.

    This isn't to say that the lack of a theory is proof of a miracle; I don't think it was the kind of miracle that was scientifically unexplainable. Most of them aren't. It's just something no one knows yet.

  9. Thanks, Mousie, that's quite interesting. I was working off high school biology and my rather erratic reading about science, which hadn't taught me that Miller-Urey had some problems.

  10. In high school they tend to give you the impression that we know a lot more than we actually do. Partly this may be due to lack of time to present all the material; I think partly it's intended to avoid giving material to young-earth creationists. For whatever reason, Miller-Urey especially seems to be presented as much more conclusive than it actually was.

  11. Miller-Urey is hideously out of date both within and without the high school science classroom. So is the DNA dogma, the idea that RNA can only come from DNA and DNA can likewise only come from DNA, but for some reason they still teach it. RNA can indeed replicate on its own and in some viruses it does- it's also been done in the laboratory.

    Actual current theory regarding abiogenesis is a seriously wild and wooly world, but reheated spontaneous generation it ain't. Start with the RNA world and the rabbit hole only goes deeper from there.

  12. Cool! Apparently I'm a year out of date on RNA.