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October 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 4 · pp. 17–23 

Evolution or God: Is It Either-Or?

Gaylen Neufeld

“By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3)

The mere mention of Charles Darwin’s name may evoke a response ranging from scientific admiration to a contemptuous discourse on rampant atheism in science. Darwin’s principle of evolution is considered by many scientists to be the single most unifying concept in biology. And yet, to many theologians and laymen, it seems to be one of the most threatening forces to the Christian faith. The evolution-versus-instantaneous-creation controversy that currently occupies the time and energy of so many people is not a new phenomenon. This controversy has often taken the form of a science versus religion debate in which one might be perceived as being either for or against God. The purpose of this paper first is to develop the history of the problem, and secondly, place into perspective the alleged either/or nature of the debate.

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT

Charles Darwin, along with Alfred Wallace, is rightly credited as being the author of modern evolutionary thought. He was by no means, though, the first to suggest that processes of gradual change were responsible for geological and biological development. However, it was the publication of Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859, that provided the unifying ideas that scientists had been seeking.

Until the last century, it was commonly assumed that the earth had existed for only a brief time. Indeed, Bishop Ussher (1581-1656) constructed a chronology based on the number of known human generations and a literal interpretation of the Bible. He calculated that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. There were few challenges to this concept until {18} near the end of the eighteenth century. Religious leaders were dogmatic about the specific act of creation; it was heresy to advocate any other view. The concept of fixity of species was firmly established. Any ideas regarding evolution were relegated to the background.

A special problem for these early leaders was the presence of fossils. Some described them as odd shaped stones while others considered them to be discarded mistakes of the Creator. Still others considered them to be the remnants of organisms which had perished in the Great Flood. Two French scientists, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and Jean Lamarck (1744-1829), working independently showed that the kinds of fossils changed from lower to higher geological strata. Furthermore, the deeper strata contained simple fossil organisms while more recent strata contained fossils more like modern species.

One of Lamarck’s contemporaries was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of Charles. In his book Zoonomia, he described the age of the earth in millions of years and concluded that living organisms had developed from a common ancestor. In the preface Erasmus Darwin wrote,

The Great Creator of all things has infinitely diversified the works of his hands but has at the same time stamped a certain similitude on the features of nature, that demonstrate to us that the whole is one family of one parent. 1

By the middle of the nineteenth century, many scientists were considering seriously the possibility of evolutionary development. At least two, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, were beginning to put their ideas in writing. Although they worked independently of each other, their conclusions were virtually identical. In 1858, they jointly presented a paper entitled, “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Selection”. Although the principles of genetics were unknown, they recognized that variations in natural populations were the units of evolution. They argued that environmental forces would select those variations that were favorable. Individuals with these favorable variations would survive to produce offspring and thus pass on the variations to the next generation.

Charles Darwin expanded on the theory in his famous book. He presented a mountain of evidence in support of the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection. The basic concepts of the theory of evolution by natural selection have remained for over one hundred years. Modern evidence continues to accumulate from many disciplines including physiology, immunology, molecular genetics and developmental biology.

Upon the publication of Darwin’s book, a veritable firestorm of controversy {19} erupted between the scientific community and the established church. The current debate can be traced back to this event which occurred more than a century ago. While Charles Darwin later took the position of agnosticism, no one was more surprised at the reaction which his book produced. Darwin did not consider his theory to be incompatible with a belief in God. In one of his last letters he wrote,

I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God 2

The Reverend Charles Kingsley consoled Darwin with these words in a letter written in November of 1859.

I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of divine intervention to supply the lacunas which He himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought. 3

However, theologians of that period reasoned that scientists were supplanting God as Creator by suggesting forces of nature to be agents of change. Man had been reduced to the level of a common animal and no longer held a unique place in the universe. The natural explanation for the physical origin of man seemed to pose a threat to the literal interpretation of the scriptures.

Since 1859, the conflict has continued between evolution and scriptural literalism, differing only in the degree of intensity. One of the most famous confrontations occurred in July of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, the so-called “monkey trial”. The state legislature had earlier passed a strong anti-evolutionist bill. In order to test the constitutionality of the bill, John Scopes admitted to the teaching of evolution in a high school biology class. Scopes was found guilty and a $100 fine was levied against him. The law remained in Tennessee until 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional on the basis of separation of church and state. Shortly thereafter, a number of organizations were formed which were designed specifically to counteract the teaching of evolution and for the promotion of instantaneous creation. The most visible of these has been the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a division of Christian Heritage College, San Diego, California.

There has been a subtle shift in the tactics of such groups. Scientific creationism (creation science) is now proposed as an alternative to evolutionary science. No longer is the teaching of the Genesis account promoted simply because it is in the Bible. Considerable effort is made to show that the scientific evidence purportedly supports special creation, {20} or at least that it does not support evolution. If creationism can be shown to be supported by scientific evidence, the argument is that it should be taught in the schools as a science. Additionally, creationists concede that microevolution may in fact take place. This is construed as change within “kinds” but having strict boundaries, perhaps at the family level. Abandoned is the concept of fixity of species. Central to the creationist argument is a recent origin of the earth, i.e., 10,000 years instead of billions of years, and the Noachian deluge (the Great Flood).

THE PROCESS OF SCIENCE

Science is generally considered to be a process or method by which knowledge is attained. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines science as systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied. Scientific investigation begins with an idea (hypothesis) and proceeds through the acquisition of evidence (data) to conclusions which either support or reject the original hypothesis. The acquisition of scientific knowledge is not always such a neat and tidy affair, however. Any honest scientist will readily concede that serendipity often plays a timely role in discovery. The discovery of penicillin is a classic example. However, in order to be scientifically honest, the conclusions must be supported by the available evidence no matter the method by which the evidence was obtained. Trying to fit the evidence to preconceived notions is a corruption of the process.

There is no absolute proof in science. The theory is only as good as the available evidence. It is constantly being subjected to skeptical scrutiny by scientific peers. Thus, as new and better methods are devised and new evidence becomes available, theories and ideas may have to be revised. History is replete with examples where viewpoints have changed as new developments have occurred.

Science, by definition, deals with the measurable and that which can be objectively analyzed by the physical senses. Tangible relations are investigated where objective data are obtained and verified. Outside of this realm, science is not only silent but its use is inappropriate. True science is not dogmatic but rather is open-ended and does not deal with preconceived conclusions. The scientist who extends himself beyond these boundaries is no longer speaking for science but rather has extended himself to personal speculation.

DEFINING EVOLUTION (IS EVOLUTION A SCIENCE?)

To the biologist, evolution is defined simply as biological change in organisms through time. But, mention the word to a number of persons and a variety of definitions can be received. As Olson says, {21}

Evolution is a term that can conjure up a host of images and conceptual extrapolations—nature red in tooth and claw, social Darwinism, robber barons and laissez-faire capitalism, reductionist materialism, aggressive atheism, ethical relativism, human perfectibility, a self-existent universe. To the scientist acting as a scientist, however, such ideas are simply not germane. Evolutionary theorizing is merely a way of explaining in natural terms the history and mechanism of change within the universe as a whole, in certain parts of it such as stars and the earth, and in life on our planet (i.e., cosmology, stellar evolution, historical geology, and organic evolution).

More often than not, [the scientist] has no theological or philosophical ax to grind, and is likely to be a bit irritated when a nonscientist carries his ideas beyond what he feels to be their legitimate bounds. 4

It is true, of course, that some have a propensity for carrying scientific evidence to personal speculation. While some may attempt to define evolution as a comprehensive philosophy of existence, i.e., the universe is all there is, this is not what the scientist is speaking of when describing biological evolution.

Scientists involved in the study of evolution utilize the classical methods of science. Observations are made, evidence is obtained, and conclusions are arrived at. Paleontology and geology were the original disciplines that contributed evidence. Evidence from the past but existing in the present was used to construct a model for origins. While this reconstruction is not an experimental science, it does lead to conclusions based upon observations.

The acquisition of evidence now extends far beyond these two disciplines. Molecular biology has opened entire new vistas for the understanding of living organisms. Modern genetics, protein chemistry, and immunology have become important tools and a wealth of evidence has verified the evidence from other disciplines.

Since an important element of science is scientific verification, critics are fond of saying that evolution is not a science since it cannot be reproduced. They apparently use the terms verification and reproducibility interchangeably. While it is true that past evolutionary changes cannot be reproduced, the evidence can and has been verified by corroborating evidence from closely allied disciplines. One does not ask the policeman to reproduce the accident to prove that it happened. Verification is obtained from the evidence available which may include debris remaining at the site, tire marks on the pavement, and the wreckage that exists afterward.

While most scientists will agree that evolution has in the past occurred {22} and is in the present occurring, there may be and is disagreement on the mechanism of this change. Theories for this mechanism are constantly being revised in the light of new evidence. Disagreement and revision, however, pose no threat and science makes no apologies for this. That is the way science works; it is a dynamic and not a static discipline. The scientist who closes his mind to new viewpoints cannot for long remain in the mainstream.

IS IT EITHER/OR?

Some Christians will no doubt be uncomfortable with the above treatment of evolution. This is probably due to the fact that many Christians assume that belief in the Christian God and biblical authority are incompatible with evolutionary science. Consequently, any favorable treatment of evolution will automatically be interpreted as an attack on God and the Bible. However, is the notion of a “Christian evolutionist” a contradiction in terms? Is the choice really between either instantaneous creation or atheism? Are we forced to choose between either the Bible or evolution?

In response, it is necessary to distinguish between religious truth and scientific truth. Religious truth may be defined as revealed truth about God based on and requiring faith. Scientific truth is objective, compelling, intellectual cognition of a scientific achievement which is sufficiently open-ended to allow for revision and refinement. Unless the limitations are recognized, controversy about the valid areas of each is bound to occur. When the psalmist says, “O Lord, how innumerable are Thy works; in wisdom Thou has made them all! The earth is full of Thy well-made creations” (Psalm 104:24), he is acknowledging a worshipful relationship with God. This profound meaning is beyond the scope of scientific testing.

What can be learned from Genesis? Can we expect to derive scientific truths from this book? I think not. It is a book of religion and not of science. Early biblical writers were concerned with impressing the idea of one God and not the many gods of a polytheistic culture. Furthermore, they were affirming God as the Creator. They were intent upon the questions of “Why?” and “Who?”. Scientists concern themselves with the questions of “What?”, “How?”, and “When?”. Christians should expect revelation from God concerning the nature of His being and our relationship to Him.

Does evolution as a science teach atheism? My answer is, “no”? Those who insist otherwise do not understand it. Science can neither prove that a Creator exists or does not exist. Science deals with phenomena that can be observed, measured, and studied by the physical senses. The belief in a Creator is outside the realm of science and is dependent upon faith. {23}

Most scientists react with consternation when science is used in an attempt to verify religious beliefs. Van de Fliert argues that

We deal a death-blow to the Christian religion when we bring the Holy Scriptures down to scientific level by teaching that the Bible should give us a kind of scientific world-picture or axiomata of historical geology, or of Western science of history, or physics, biology, jurisprudence or whatever science it be. Thus, we lose the Bible as a reliable Word of God completely, because we then make its teachings dependent on the poor state of our scientific knowledge today . . . which will change tomorrow! 5

Can evolution be compatible with a belief in a God? My answer is, yes. Is it not possible to believe that he is a God of nature who works through natural laws and who creates by slowly evolving life on this planet? These natural laws, after all, are his! Is it not possible that natural selection could be a part of a plan of creation? Is it not possible that man is a part of this plan? As Harms puts it,

For me, man is a creation who is spiritually unique among God’s creatures. His biological uniqueness is not crucial to my theology. 6

The redemptive sacrifice of Jesus is the primary message of the gospel and should never be rivaled by issues which are peripheral and detract from it.

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and dominion, because You have created all things and by Your will they were and have been created” (Rev. 4:11).

REFERENCES

  1. Zoonomia, 4th American ed. (Philadelphia: Edward Earle, 1818), preface.
  2. Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), II: 81.
  3. Ibid., 1:274.
  4. Edwin A. Olson, “Hidden Agenda Behind the Evolutionist/Creationist Debate,” Christianity Today 26 (April 23, 1982), 26-27.
  5. J. R. Van de Fliert, “Fundamentalism and the Fundamentals of Geology,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 30 (1978), 38.
  6. Clarence Harms, “A Perspective on Creation,” Journal of Church and Society 2 (Fall 1966), 16.
Gaylen Neufeld is Professor of Biological Sciences, Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas.

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