Why Christians should celebrate Darwin

By Denis Alexander
13 Feb 2009

One of the deep mysteries of the early 21st century is why one set of Christians go round churches trying to persuade another set of Christians to reject the theory of evolution. This is in a world of incalculable need, both material and spiritual. Trying to persuade Christians to disbelieve Darwinism soaks up huge resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

The mystery deepens when one remembers three important facts. The first is that scientific theories become established or fall by the wayside as a result of publishing evidence in peer-reviewed journals, not by popular vote. So if someone has a problem with a theory, there is only one way to critique it properly, and that is to take the hard road of becoming a research scientist, and then to publish ideas supported (or not) by data in good journals.

Far from being a 'holy cow', evolution is no less immune to counter-evidence than any other theory, and any scientist publishing hard data significantly undermining Darwinian evolution (rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian, human foot-prints besides dinosaur foot-prints, variation in genetic codes between species, that kind of thing) would be an instant celebrity.

The second fact which highlights the mystery of the anti-Darwinian crusade is that evolutionary theory has been hugely strengthened over the past decade by the advent of genomics: the sequencing of the DNA of hundreds of living organisms, including ourselves, revealing a mass of new data that can only be explained by an evolutionary history, and establishing beyond any reasonable doubt our own common inheritance with the apes.

In other words, Christian opposition to Darwinism has increased at precisely the time when Darwin's theory is being most powerfully supported by new discoveries. The complete DNA sequence of the wonderful platypus, published in Nature on 8 May 2008, provides further stunning information about evolutionary history.

Of course biologists still argue about the mechanisms of speciation; whether natural selection is at the level of the gene, the genome, the organism, or even the group; and about the details of different evolutionary lineages.

It is good there is still so much to sort out; otherwise many would be out of a job. But biologists are in no doubt that the evolutionary account is broadly correct, and indeed the theory provides the framework within which all current biological research is carried out.

The third fact that deepens the mystery even further, is that this anti-Darwinian crusade is a very modern phenomenon. Mainstream denominations in the 19th century were rather quick to baptise evolution into the Christian doctrine of creation.

The historian James Moore writes that “with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution”, and the American historian George Marsden reports that “with the exception of Harvard's Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s.”

Ironically, among the writers of the Fundamentals, that mass-produced series of twelve booklets published in the period 1910–15 which later contributed to the emergence of the term ‘fundamentalism’, we find a number of evangelical writers firmly committed to Darwinism, such as Benjamin Warfield, who called himself a “Darwinian of the purest water”, James Orr and the geologist George Wright.

Creationism is largely a late 20th century phenomenon, at least in Europe. Groups did not go round churches trying to persuade Christians to disbelieve in evolution in the 1960s. Now that's quite common. Something has changed.

So what is it that has changed? From a sociological perspective, the phenomenon looks less mysterious. There is a very familiar process in the history of science whereby interest groups move in to utilise the prestige of scientific theories in support of their particular ideology.

Unfortunately the end result is that in the public consciousness the actual meaning of the label given to the theory itself changes, and so 'Theory X' becomes socially transformed into 'Theory Y' with all kinds of philosophical barnacles attached to it.

Evolution has suffered particularly badly from this kind of process and has been used in support of virtually every kind of ‘ism’ imaginable, including socialism, capitalism, racism, eugenics, and atheism. As George Bernard Shaw once remarked, Darwin “had the luck to please everybody who had an axe to grind”.

Ideological transformations need various kinds of energy inputs to nurture and sustain them, and in this context Richard Dawkins et al have done a great job by seeking to invest evolution with a radical atheist agenda, thereby unwittingly supplying fuel for the creationist cause.

“Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin”, claims Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett proclaims that “Evolution is not a process that was designed to produce us”. In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea Dennett pictures evolution as a “universal acid” destroying in its path any basis for ultimate meaning and purpose in life.

No wonder creationists are so active. Who wants a universal acid flowing down their street and into the front door of their homes and churches?

The first and important response to all this is to knock the philosophical barnacles off the theory of evolution in order to allow it to do its important scientific task: to explain the origins of biological diversity on this planet.

Evolution as a biological theory has no ideological implications. It simply represents the inference to the best explanation to account for a huge mass of disparate data that spans a great array of different disciplines.

Scientific theories are like maps that join up many different types of data to render them coherent. Evolution provides a brilliant historical narrative to make sense of biological life on this planet in all its remarkable variety.

The other narrative, the Christian doctrine of creation, refers not mainly to the origins of things, but why they exist. The biblical claim is that there is only one great duality, that which exists between the Creator and everything else. God is transcendent, distinct from the created order, but at the same time also immanent in its every aspect. All things exist by the creative and sustaining power of the Word of God.

So all that scientists can describe is the out-working of God's will, mediated through secondary causes, for there is nothing else to investigate. But the narrative that they provide is complementary to the creation narrative, which addresses a different set of questions: why has God brought all things into existence? Why are we here and what is our future?

Biologists who seek to invest evolution with an atheistic agenda have simply missed the point. It is not that evolution cannot be presented in a way that appears compatible with atheism. Of course it can. But equally you can baptise evolution into virtually any world-view you like and it will fit comfortably within most.

In other words, scientific data are simply unable to adjudicate between different metaphysical world-views, which have to be assessed on different grounds.

Asking a different kind of question is more useful: “Is evolution consistent with a particular world-view?” This is the type of question that scientists often ask in the discussion sections of their papers when assessing their data in relation to rival theories.

Christian thought does rather well in answering that kind of enquiry in the evolutionary context. If there is a God with intentions and purposes for creation, then we expect order, directionality and the emergence of personhood. This is precisely what evolution delivers. Taken overall it is far from being a chance process, with design space repeatedly filling up with organisms living within the constraints of particular ecological niches.

Very similar organs, structures and biochemical pathways evolved independently many times in the remarkable phenomenon known as convergence, because these are what you need to flourish in a given niche. On a planet of light and darkness you need eyes, so eyes are what you'll get, and indeed compound and camera eyes have evolved independently more than twenty times.

The arrow of biological time also displays a marked increase in complexity over its 3.8 billion years, leading eventually to the recent (past 2 million years) remarkable explosion in brain size, and the emergence of humankind with the most complex known entity in the universe located between the ears, equipped to pray, worship and know God. Such a historical narrative seems quite consistent with the creation narrative that the biblical narrative provides.

Likewise creationists are wrong in thinking that if you accept evolution, then somehow basic Christian doctrines will be watered down or even jettisoned. That is not my experience, nor do I observe that happening in the lives of my many Christian colleagues who are evolutionary biologists.

But Christians do need to pay serious attention to the way that the scientific and theological accounts relate to each other: we cannot take the intellectually lazy route of keeping the narratives in watertight compartments.

I take the early chapters of Genesis to represent a profound theological essay, written using figurative language, that is foundational to our understanding of the rest of the Bible. It is not scientific literature.

Indeed it cannot be scientific literature because this only began to emerge as a more specialised form of language two thousand years later with the founding of the first scientific journals, and the further specialisation of this scientific genre of literature has been continuing ever since.

Understanding of our own evolutionary lineage has been steadily improving over the past 50 years, taking something of a leap forward with the completion of the Human Genome project in 2003.

Our genomes are littered with the fossil evidence of our evolutionary history, including thousands of pseudogenes, genes that are functional in other mammals, but switched off in humans because we don't need them; retroviral insertions in which a virus has left its leaving card in a primate ancestor millions of years ago, a stretch of DNA faithfully replicated ever since; and transposons ('jumping genes') that act as similar signatures of our inheritance. We are all walking fossil museums; every cell of our body contains a little history book, written in the language of DNA.

As we engage with Darwin's double anniversary in 2009 (birth: 1809; Origin of Species, 1859) my hope is that Christians will be celebrating Darwin enthusiastically, for he has provided us with a great theory that provides the framework for all contemporary biological and biomedical research.

All truth is God's truth. But Christians have an extra reason to celebrate: creation theology (as distinct from creationism) places the evolutionary narrative within the larger scheme of God's purposes. Thankfully there is more to life than biology.

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© Denis Alexander is director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. His latest book is Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Monarch, August 2008). Dr Alexander was previously Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.

Faraday Institute website: http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php

Books by Denis Alexander available from Ekklesia:

* Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? - http://tinyurl.com/aty5mh
* Re-building the Matrix: Science and religion in the C21st - http://tinyurl.com/cazgfd
* Beyond belief: Science, faith and ethical challenges - http://tinyurl.com/df8772

Also on Ekklesia:

John Hedley Brooke, Darwin and Religion (research essay) - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8619

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This article has been excerpted with grateful acknowledgement from ‘Viva la evolution’, which appeared recently in Third Way magazine - http://www.thirdway.org.uk/

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