As we conclude Section Two, it’s worth recapping the difference between abiogenesis and evolution that was first mentioned in the third conversation. Abiogenesis is the field of science that studies the process by which life might arise naturally from non-living matter, and is considered to be completely different to evolution. Evolutionary issues are typically discussed from the point of view that life already existed from which new species evolved, and therefore don’t cover the origin of life itself. So, in biological terms a clear distinction is made between abiogenesis (start of life) and evolution (descent with modification). In the context of this book abiogenesis can be considered the hand of God creating the first life, but because there is no way to explicitly prove this it should be viewed as a matter of faith and conscience. Thus, evolution (descent with modification) is merely a creative process that occurred between abiogenesis (creation) and now.
The core of evolution is ‘common descent’ or ‘descent with modification’. It has been well established for decades, and no other explanation accounts for the details that we know about life within God’s creation. It has been confirmed from independent areas of science (i.e. different methods of study that derive similar answers); and no contradictory claims have withstood serious scrutiny.
A common theme in the previous chapter was reference to the odds of certain things happening. That offers us a convenient opportunity to discuss one of the biggest objections to evolution as a creative process. Randomness vs Design…
Evolution is not random, but mutations are.
On the whole, evolution is not the random process that many think it is. As we have seen in the preceding chapters, genetic mutation is at the very heart of the evolutionary process. In its simplest form, it could be a single nucleotide changing (single nucleotide polymorphism – SNPs), through to more complex examples such as transposons and endogenous retroviruses. These mutations are random, because much like spelling mistakes when writing an essay, they can occur at any location without warning.
However, over time the results can be predictable. In an earlier chapter we considered the example of the deer mouse, in which a simple mutation had changed the colour of its fur. Knowing the various environments in which these mice live, we can easily predict that those with darker colour fur would not survive long in beach areas with lighter sand, whilst those with lighter fur would not survive long in wooded areas. Both would stand out and become easier prey than their counterparts that had the colour fur more suited to the particular environment.
A mutation might be random in the way it occurs, but once it affords that organism an advantage in that environment it will soon spread through the population and become the dominant characteristic of that population.
New species arise when so much variation has occurred that the offspring are eventually unable to interbreed. A common example of this today is the experimentation that has occurred between zebras, horses, and donkeys. Various combinations of “zedonks” and “zorses” have been bred, but more often than not, the offspring are sterile. Thus, once different species have been isolated they continue to develop independently of each other, developing their own defining population characteristics.
Evidence of design
This is a speculative assumption, but perhaps one of the reasons some fear randomness is because they feel it suggests God is not in control. Yet this should not be of concern. Was God “in control” when Adam and Eve sinned? It’s almost a hypothetical question, because of course God was in control of his creation. Yet he didn’t stop Adam and Eve from sinning, because he had created man with free-will. God knew what the outcome of Eden would be, because according to 1 Peter 1:20, Jesus was “foreknown before the foundation of the world”.
If Christ was fore-ordained before the foundation of the world, then God created man with free-will knowing full well what the outcome would be. Yet he didn’t abandon his creation, but has (through Christ) offered us all the opportunity to grow into beings that will ultimately reflect his glory. It’s a powerful symbol to think that his creation has been designed to do the same, i.e. to ultimately to produce a creature that reflected his glory. Was this not God’s plan from the beginning?
Most seem happy to acknowledge the concept of free-will in relation to human behaviour, so it’s perplexing to see such reluctance to acknowledge it at a biological level. Just because there is randomness (free-will) at one level, does not imply a lack of design (control) at another.
The fact is, there is strong evidence of design, but not where most people assume it to be. For example, whilst mutations at the genetic level might occur randomly, the very system in which they occur is governed by the “rules” of molecular biology and chemistry. Specific combinations of nucleotides make up codons, which are part of a genetic code that describes how these combinations will produce combinations of amino acids, which in turn produce proteins and control how they are “activated”.
For those of faith, this orderly progression from chaos to creation implies the handiwork of a creative God. To quote Emeritus Professor Ken Campbell:
“How does biological evolution fit neatly into God’s plan for the totality of Creation? This requires consideration of the whole of Creation as an entity from the development of the first chemical elements, to the formation of life, to the evolution of the means of modifying life, the methods of faunal extinction, and finally to the emergence of humans. Not only that, but the materially based human brain has the capacity to communicate with the Creator by prayer and meditation, for individuals to love one another, to care for the totality of Creation, to appreciate and create beauty. In biblical terms humans have been made in the image of God.”1
Even though the various verses in Genesis 1 (such as 11, 21, 24, 25) talk about flora and fauna being created “after their kind”, this does not preclude using common genetic building blocks such as DNA and RNA.
Likewise, verses such as Genesis 1:27 and Psalm 100:3 do not demand an instantaneous creative action. In fact, verses like Philippians 3:21 and 1 Corinthians 15:42 onwards give us some indication the creative process is still not fully complete.
As Jones & Harrell noted, “To rethink what we think about the Bible is not to rewrite Scripture, nor is it to capitulate to Christianity’s detractors. Instead, rethinking and reworking our theology in light of accurate data results in a more dependable and resilient theology.”2
In his book Relics of Eden, Daniel Fairbanks wrote that, “Thanks to the Human Genome Project, we now have more evidence of evolution for humans than for any other species.” He goes on to say, “After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?”3
This is not something to fear. If we believe that all living organisms share the same creator, why not consider that all living organisms share a common genetic heritage? It makes perfect sense, and it shows a remarkable system designed to produce a diverse creation culminating in a creature that reflects the image of the creator.
Quite simply, the more we understand about the natural world, the more we understand God’s true creative genius….
Our journey so far…
We began these conversations by looking at the relationship between science and faith and making the point that both are of the same author, and therefore we should be unafraid to eagerly embrace both, and we then considered the environment in the mid-to-late 1800s, in which Bible students were doing just this, including those who established our community. We then briefly touched on some of the misconceptions about evolution to get those out of the way so that we could positively pursue “The Fourth Conversation”. This is the conversation that is long overdue in our community, and it is one that can be conducted in a positive, humble and Christ-like manner.
We began this fourth conversation by looking at concepts in the Bible that were taken as common knowledge at the time – and yet today we know that demons aren’t real, we know the heart processes blood (not thoughts), and we know the earth revolves around the sun. In looking at these concepts, we made the point that these were examples of what faithful people in the Bible believed. Even though we now know they are not scientifically accurate perspectives they don’t diminish the authenticity or authority of God’s word from a theological perspective.
From here, we looked at references in Genesis that indicate the presence of other people on the earth at the same time as Adam and Eve. Certain clues from Genesis helped to narrow down the timeframe to very late Neolithic age, and within six generations of Adam we were in the Bronze age. We then looked to archaeological evidence to see what this could tell us about populations around the world at that time.
The archaeological evidence shows that there were large, developed societies that predated Adam’s era (pre-Adamic), and so we considered the question as to whether God would have “discontinued” these cultures to begin again with the creation of Adam. Not only would this would represent a mass-extinction event for which there is no supporting evidence, but on the contrary, the evidence shows cultures flourishing in different parts of the world throughout Adam’s time period.
Whilst the archaeological evidence shows there was continuous human habitation, the support for an evolutionary creation doesn’t come from just archaeology. The fields of genomics and genetics have demonstrated robust proof of a continuous, evolutionary creation.
Thanks to the Human Genome project we have the most powerful proof for human evolution though common descent. This, and other genome mapping projects have provided rich sources of evidence that wasn’t available to our community fifty years ago.
Anatomically modern remains (i.e. those whose skeletal features resemble modern humans) appear in the fossil record from about 190,000 years ago, and DNA is helping us to trace ancestry of the world population groups. Sequences of ancient other hominin species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans has been found in various human populations – something that is simply not possible if God started the entire human race from scratch.
Not only have these other DNA sequences been found in our genome, but we have been able to identify modern population groups in remains of humans that are 30,000 – 40,000 years old. The only way these other hominin and ancient human DNA fragments could exist in modern populations is if there was a continuous lineage.
There have only been about 300 generations since Eve, and yet there is evidence of thousands of generations in DNA, and there is too much genetic diversity to have come from just two people 300 generations ago.
Given the proof that homo sapiens existed long before God created Adam the question becomes, “how far back can we go?” Genetic ‘scars’ help us to trace back millions of years to common ancestors with other hominid groups. To be clear, we did not descend from monkeys and apes – that is a misconception – but we do have a common ancestor. We know this because those genetic scars are too precisely located and too numerous to have just appeared multiple time in different species by chance.
We concluded this discussion with the point above that there is evidence of design – just not where some insist it has to be. Evolution does not negate the ‘master-work’ of God, because – as mentioned earlier – evidence of a process does not disprove the existence of a process creator, and we have seen that the biological framework in which life occurs has been designed to result in a creature that reflects the image of its creator.
It’s worth reflecting on Romans 1:18-20. Paul is talking about a different subject to this, but in that discourse he draws on a principle that is worth heeding: God is displeased with those who suppress truth, because his eternal power and divine nature have been made clear in the things he created. Therefore, rather than seeing the evolutionary sciences as subjects to be feared and suppressed, we should be embracing them with enthusiasm and awe, because studying the natural world to understand the way God created life is a privilege no other creature in God’s creation is able to enjoy. In this way, it can be pathway to praise and worship as we acknowledge his eternal greatness and creative genius.
1 Ken Campbell, Lord of all creation (Christian Perspective on Science and Technology, Online Journal, 2014) Vol 10 https://goo.gl/A4Z5Gf
2 Tony Jones, Daniel M. Harrell, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith (Abingdon Press, 2008).
3 Daniel Fairbanks, Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (Prometheus Books, 2007)