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)


Comments

Evolution: Black and White in a World of Grey — 58 Comments

  1. @SHG #50

    So–what is the relationship between miracles and time? For instance, turning water into wine. Or that pesky “long day.” One can even make the case that miraculous healings and resurrections (Lazarus, for instance) have a time component.

    Just askin’

  2. There is a scientific paper, “Comment on time-variation of fundamental constants” by Physicist Michael J. Duff, July 11, 2004. The paper is less than 3 pages, with the rest of the file’s 12 pages devoted to questions by various reviewers and Duff’s responses.

    Here are the first and the last paragraphs from the paper (I’ve removed the reference numbers and the Greek or non-printable characters or replaced them with the names of the constants):

    The claim that the fine-structure constant–the measure of the strength of the electromagnetic interaction between photons and electrons–is slowly increasing over cosmological time scales has refuelled an old debate about varying fundamental constants of nature. In our opinion, however, this debate has been marred by a failure to distinguish between dimensionless constants such as the fine structure constant, which may indeed be fundamental, and dimensional constants such as the speed of light, the charge on the electron, Planck’s constant, Newton’s gravitational constant, Boltzmann’s constant, etc, which are merely human constructs whose number and values differ from one choice of units to the next and which have no intrinsic physical significance.

    In summary, it is operationally meaningless and confusing to talk about time variation of arbitrary unit-dependent constants whose only role is to act as conversion factors. For example, aside from saying that the speed of light, c, is finite, the statement that c = 3 × 10^8 m/s, has no more content than saying how we convert from one human construct (the meter) to another (the second). Asking whether c has varied over cosmic history (a question unfortunately appearing on the front page of the New York Times, in Physics World, in New Scientist, in Nature, and on CNN) is like asking whether the number of liters to the gallon has varied.

    The paper is less than 3 pages, with the rest of the 12 pages devoted to questions by various reviewers and Duff’s responses.

    Duff is not the only one who has taken such a position. For example, Barrow and Tipler, in their The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Chap. 4) point out some “unsavory consequences” for this planet if dimensional constants changed with time, and the difficulty of detecting any time changes in the dimensionless fundamental constants.

    One of the experimental methods used to look for changes in the dimensionless fundamental constants associated with nuclear interactions over time has been to compare the fission product distribution from the Oklo natural nuclear reactor to the fission product distribution of uranium today. So far, the dimensionless fundamental constants do not appear to change over time (within experimental uncertainty).

  3. @Win #1 Win, Sorry I don’t understand the question. By definition miracles are outside the natural order of things, including time, but I wasn’t making that point. I’m traveling, not sure when/if I will get back to this.

    I remember Carl once described what it would have taken for God to create the ‘long day’ – probably the most incredible miracle in the bible. After all, man could turn water into wine with enough time and money (the nuclear reactions to turn oxygen and hydrogen into carbon being the tricky step) but man will never stop celestial bodies in their tracks without ripping themselves apart if it could be done.

  4. @Carl Vehse #2
    I’ll have to read that sometime. Of the excerpt, the first half of the first paragraph seems to make a valuable point, the rest seems like trivial argument over unit systems. Of course the speed of light’s magnitude depends on the unit system, but it is still a fundamental constant (in terms of its dimensions) even if the particular value is a manmade construct.

  5. Sheer happenstance just read this in current First Things p70. “she (the Church) grants science it’s authority and undertakes the long tiring work of understanding how revelation and science relate, to the glory of God and the betterment of man.”
    Begs the question of what authority is granted to science of course, but I appreciate the sentiment that reconciling science and revelation is not easy if you believe it is important to do so (another question). Sorry threw out a bunch o comments tonight but may not have Internet to follow up for a couple days

  6. So long as the theory of evolution reflects the cumulative conclusions of a good-faith application of the scientific method it is not at all “wrong in a scientific manner” but in fact scientifically “correct”. The theory is not completely satisfactory in many ways, and it may well come to pass that scientists will replace it with an improved theory, but it is our current best guess, scientifically speaking.

    Can we please be honest with ourselves and with each other? The underlying issue is not the scientific dissatisfaction of the theory of evolution, it is rather the dissatisfaction with science:

    Christians do not have to assume – we have had the truth revealed to us.

    The underlying issue is whether one chooses to have more confidence in truth revealed to us or the current best guess that has been obtained through the scientific method, which accepts only those theories that logically follow from repeatable observations. The issue is exactly this:

    “You accept gravity, don’t you? Well, why not the theory of evolution?”

    And the answer is clearly that the theory of evolution conflicts with truth revealed and Newton’s model for gravity does not. Maybe in time the science will advance to the point that it gets the correct answer, but for now the best that it can do is just wrong.

  7. I am a Lutheran in public high school and we are currently learning about evolution in biology. We watched a series of videos about why evolution is true and they used the “you believe in gravity so why not evolution” thing, and it made me really mad and sad when they said genesis was completely false and basically made fun of Christians who believe it. Thank you so much for this article! It’s nice to know there are people out there who have the same beliefs as me! God bless!

  8. What _should_ have been presented is that a number of depictions in the book of Genesis are not consistent with the current results of the scientific method. It is not consistent with our best understanding of astronomy and geology as well as biology.

    Why does that make you sad? Why does that make you mad?

    Science is an open invitation to anyone to “prove it”. If you are passionate to determine exactly how the Earth was created, or how it came to be populated with life, then please come join the effort. You will discover that there is a huge body of work – data and analyses – created over hundreds of years by thousands of people determined to figure out how everything all fits together.

    Some people don’t do science. They select certain data and present it a certain way to come up with a story that they like and consider the process “done”. This is non-science. It isn’t science until there is a competent good-faith effort to reconcile _all_ of the data and _all_ of the _logical_ implications of that data.

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