Evolution: Black and White in a World of Grey

A recent “Ask a Pastor” asked the following:

I was wondering if the Steadfast in Science writer could address where the theory of evolution is wrong in a scientific manner. Scripture passages, although applicable to the believer, won’t suffice in conversations that I have. Thank you!

 

Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer to that question. In many ways it’s tantamount to asking someone to demonstrate, scientifically, how “chocolaty” a chocolate milkshake is. Or to demonstrate, scientifically, that life exists only on earth and nowhere else in the universe. Everything depends on what you mean by “scientifically.” What I can do is provide, from a Lutheran point of view, some ways of thinking about questions of origins. I’ll also provide some resources for further reading at the end.

Consider the “chocolatyness” of a milkshake. Everything depends on what you mean by “chocolaty.” What’s your definition? If you’re talking with someone about questions of origins, get definitions. Nail things down. “Evolution” is a sufficiently vague concept that it requires careful definition. For example, how many have heard people compare the “theory of evolution” to the “theory of gravity?” “You accept gravity, don’t you? Well, why not the theory of evolution?” Let’s get more specific. Here is the theory of gravity:

Theory of Gravity
Gravitational Theorem

 

 

Elegant, isn’t it? Given two masses and the distance between them, and knowing the universal gravitational constant G, I can tell you – every time, all the time! – the force of attraction between them. Therefore there is no God. No, wait – Isaac Newton, the one who developed the theorem also said: “This… system… could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being” (From his Principia). So gravity proves that God exists. Well, no – lots of atheists use the theory and it works for them too! The theory of gravity is a simple fact. What one does with the fact, metaphysically, is a different story.

So, what about the theory of evolution? What’s the equation? What are the unknowns, knowns, and constants? What’s it’s predictive power? First, we have to nail down a definition of “evolution.” I know what gravity is: the force of attraction of one body on another. What is “evolution?” Here is a definition we could use: “the gradual change of one life form into another over successive generations by natural selection acting on genetic mutations.” I would be very surprised, though, if one of the first comments on this blog is not someone disputing that definition. So what exactly then is the “theory” of evolution? In reality it is a set of models that describe, qualitatively, how the first life on earth gradually changes over millions of years into the variety of forms of life we see today. And there are competing sets of models, not one unified one. There is the neodarwinian “modern synthesis,” which emphasizes phyletic gradualism, and Gould’s proposed “punctuated equilibrium” idea of cladogenesis. Many evolutionists would accept that both gradual evolution and more punctuated, rapid speciation can occur.

If you ask a rocket scientist (we have two in our congregation) to run the numbers on a trip to the moon and back – amount of fuel, trajectory, time in space, etc. – they can do it based on theories like the “theory of gravity.” Yet “evolution” doesn’t work in nearly the same way. First, we can’t predict the genetic mutations on which natural selection must act. They are by definition random, a “stochastic” or “dice-rolling,” process. Second, science cannot definitively say how natural selection will work on those mutations. Last, there are alternative explanations often proposed for the same set of data. One set of data that confirms evolutionary theory by one set of scientists leaves another group of scientists unconvinced.

The point I want to make here is that “science” is not always a black and white industry. I’ve searched the internet, and have not found anyone who disputes the validity of Newton’s gravitational theorem. So why all the hubbub about the theorems and models of evolutionary theory? I would suggest that one reason is that the evolutionary theory has not answered a number of questions to everyone’s “scientific” satisfaction:

  1. It does not account for the origin of genetic information to everyone’s satisfaction.
  2. Some predictions from evolutionary theory have turned out to be false, bringing into doubt the model’s predictive power.
  3. The lack of support for molecules-to-man evolution in the fossil record.
  4. Evolutionary theory does not account for the origin of the first life (abiogenesis).

Now, enter the Lutheran theologian, who would quote to you from the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3: “[The Lord]has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV). Humans have an in-born curiosity to find out everything we can about our world. We want to know where we came from, and where we are going. So far, so good. But as Christians we believe that humans since the Fall have an inherent defect in our curiosity: we cannot find out our true origin or destiny apart from God’s revelation (Romans 1:20-25). That inherent defect also means that the world in which we now exist is not the world as it once was (Romans 8:18-22). There is a radical discontinuity between things as they are now and things as they once were.

If there is one thing that science cannot deal with well, it’s radical discontinuities. Especially when it comes to past or future events. Every prediction of every science theory assumes “ceteris parabus” – “all (other) things being equal and unchanged.” Dating the earth through radiometrics assumes an initial quantity of undecayed isotope and a constant decay rate. Dating the universe through observation of distant starlight assumes a host of parameters have remained unchanged over time. Evolutionary theory assumes that the same things we observe happening in nature right now – genetic mutations, natural selection, death and birth – have happened the same way since the beginning of life (however that happened). Non-Christians have to make those assumptions. Christians do not have to assume – we have had the truth revealed to us.

The point I would make here is that “arguing interpretation” with an evolutionist is not as useful as it might seem. You, as a Christian, are starting from the standpoint of revelation – a standpoint you only have because of the gift of God’s Spirit given to you through Christ Jesus. A non-Christian evolutionist is starting from a completely different starting point. Only God working through his Word will change that perspective.

But what about our Christian friends who accept evolutionary theory as an account of our origins? That would describe me in college, by the way. From personal experience, two things helped me. One was distinguishing between operational science (ie: gravity) and historical science (ie: evolutionary theory). The second was the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is the ultimate “radical discontinuity.” It changed – and changes – everything we thought we knew about the world. If Jesus rose from the dead, he is who he claims he is. When Jesus speaks authoritatively about creation, (Mark 10:7-8), why wouldn’t we listen? Genesis is not a science text, certainly. But as an “origins for dummies” account of where we come from, it will not conflict with the math, physics, chemistry and biology of what actually happened “in the beginning.” A beginning, unfortunately, to which we do not have access.

At a “science and faith” conference in Austin a couple of years ago, a panel was convened to take audience questions. Many on the panel felt they had adequately reconciled evolutionary theory with Scripture, so that they would no longer be “embarrassed” as “flat earthers” before their scientists friends. “Fine,” I asked, “but what happens when you share with them your belief in Jesus as a resurrected miracle worker? How does modern science explain that?” Quiet silence followed. One theologian on the panel later said, “It’s all fine and dandy to talk about how evolution can be reconciled with Christianity. But when you dismiss Adam and Eve as fictional characters, suddenly Jesus and Paul want to weigh in on the discussion.” You’re a Lutheran. So proclaim the Gospel, and let the Spirit move hearts to understand His Word correctly. Start with Jesus, and work forward and backward from the cross and the empty tomb!

Resources for Christians on science questions (note: these are not “Lutheran” sites, so ask a pastor if you have problems with anything you read). “Creationist” refers to a group that accepts Genesis as their starting point on origin questions. “Intelligent Design” refers to a group that accepts theism, but not necessarily Scriptural revelation, as an acceptable conclusion to a scientific question.

Answers in Genesis (Creationist)

The Institute for Creation Research (Creationist)

The Access Research Network (Intelligent Design)

The Discovery Institute (Intelligent Design)

Evolution News (Intelligent Design)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.