I’m glad you’ve agreed to this exchange. This topic is perennial, but I imagine you share my view that it’s also urgent and essential. With that in mind, I’ll dive right in–first, to make some general observations on the nature of the creationism vs. evolution debate, and second to offer specific scientific reasons why I embrace evolution.
One of the most painful experiences of my life was abandoning my belief in young earth creationism. I had been raised in a wonderful Baptist church that was fundamentalist but, as it was on the edge of a potato field in rural New Brunswick, Canada, it lacked the hard political edge that makes American fundamentalism so unappealing. It was a great place to grow up, to learn to love God, and I have nothing but fond memories of the believers with whom I worshipped as a child.
As an intellectually curious teenager I read with great pleasure many of the classic works of Christian apologetics and creationism, including Whitcomb and Morris’s classic: The Genesis Flood. I was fully convinced of its truth, and even contemplated attending Christian Heritage College in San Diego, where Morris’s Institute for Creation Research was located.
Because Boston was much closer to New Brunswick and the home of my beloved Red Sox, I decided to attend Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) on Boston’s South Shore. ENC was a Christian college and I was expecting that my creationist beliefs would be reinforced by my studies there. However, although the college was thoroughly Christian, with wonderful faculty and students eager to serve God, creationism was not taught in either the science or religion classes. My studies led me to question the assumptions supporting my creationism–assumptions that soon dissolved and left my childhood belief in creationism without a foundation. Eventually I abandoned creationism and embraced theistic evolution–the belief that God creates through natural processes over billions of years. I discovered, to my surprise, that creationism required a certain willful blindness to both the natural world and the Bible.
There were several reasons I abandoned creationism. And now, years later, I am convinced that creationism poses insurmountable problems for anyone who would defend creationism today. I would like to mention a few general concerns and then some specifics to make my point.
Creationists have to “explain away” a gigantic mountain range of evidence that the scientific community has accumulated in the past century. Neither the scientific community nor the scientific data is is on their side. They have to believe that God created a profoundly deceptive world, with countless markers inexplicably pointing to evolution, even though that was not how things originated. This makes no sense. Creationists, who are almost always Biblical literalists, also have to come up with eccentric and strained readings of the Bible to accommodate its many references to ancient near eastern cosmologies. The Bible speaks of a solid dome in the heavens (Genesis 1:6) holding back the waters to take one example. The Bible refers to the earth as “immoveable,” to take another (Psalm 93:1). The alternate readings of these passages by the creationists are not faithful to the text and twist the original Hebrew in ways that would make it unrecognizable to the writer. I don’t think creationists are as faithful to the Biblical text as they claim.
The most disturbing claim of the creationists, however, is their accusation that the scientific community is engaged in a vast conspiracy to trick the public into thinking that evolution is well supported. I believed this when I came to college but, as I pursued my degrees in physics, I realized that this could not possibly be true. Science is ruthlessly honest and done by bright, often maverick, intellectuals who would never sign on to a conspiracy to suppress the truth. As a fully trained scientist, now with a Ph. D in physics and publications in research journals, I can attest to the high level of integrity of the scientific community and its methods. Heroic efforts are made to ensure that bias and carelessness do not creep into scientific research. When you say, in your book The Lie: Evolution, that scientists cannot be trusted because they are “biased” and “not objective,” you are devaluing the work of so many honest and unsung heroes. Scientists are “truth-seekers,” which is why they have discovered so many useful and interesting things about the natural world–from curing smallpox, to landing a man on the moon, to establishing that epilepsy is not caused by demon possession. Scientists may not be perfectly objective, but this is hardly a license to set aside those parts of science that you don’t like. Medical doctors are certainly not perfect, but we put our lives in their hands when we go to the hospital. The question is not “What absolute guides do we have, that will lead us to certain truth?” The question is: “What is the most likely road to whatever truth we are capable of grasping?”
I am pained to see how the creationists tar the entire scientific community with this brush of bias, for they smear the work of a great many Christian believers like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and John Polkinghorne, who have made their peace with evolution without compromising their Christian faith. These three scientists are friends of mine and I can attest to the vitality of their faith.
Getting into some specifics, the following are reasons why I think Christians should embrace evolution over creation:
1) The age of the earth has been proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, to be billions of years, not thousands, as the creationists claim. There are so many categories of evidence for this: radioactive decay of different elements indicates that these elements were formed billions of years ago; the transit time of starlight from distant stars indicates that the light has been traveling for billions of years; continental drift reveals that the surface of the earth is very old; the fusion process by which atoms are forged in stars indicates that our sun is billions of years old; the expansion of the universe points to an ancient cosmos. And so on.
If the universe is not billions of years old, why is it filled with so many different and independent lines of evidence suggesting that it is? If all these dating methods are so unreliable, as the creationists claim, why do they converge on the same results?
2) Recent discoveries in genetics reveal that humans share almost all their genes with primates and other animals. If these genes were all functional and did something meaningful–like make blood clot, or give us two lungs–we could suppose that God used common genetic tools to make different species. But many of these genes are completely nonfunctional and do nothing. Some of them, called pseudogenes, are mutated copies of functioning genes. They sit irrelevantly beside functioning genes, not needed because their neighbors are doing all the work. There are so many different possibilities for pseudogenes that we would never expect, from a statistical point of view, for different species to have identical pseudogenes, unless they inherited them from a common ancestor. The distribution of these and other genes in different species strongly suggests that these species are related and were not created independently. Why does genetic research point so strongly toward common ancestry if common ancestry is not true?
The evidence from genetics is compelling and trustworthy. We have confidence in genetics to establish biological kinship in legal cases, such as paternity suits; that same genetics now indicates biological kinship among species and we should accept that as well.
3) I will add one more observation that seems significant. Creationists claim that humans and dinosaurs lived together on the earth just a few thousand years ago, until virtually all of them were destroyed in Noah’s great flood. If this were true, it seems odd that not one dinosaur fossil was ever found with a human fossil. Why are dinosaurs always found in strata that look so much older than the strata containing human fossil remains, and never found with human remains? Was there not one place on the entire planet where a dinosaur might have killed a human just as the floodwaters were doing them in?
To be a creationist requires distorting the ancient text of the Bible–God’s revelation in Scripture–to camouflage the obvious references to an obsolete cosmology. And it requires distorting the data from science–God’s revelation in nature–to camouflage the mountain of data supporting evolution. Why not accept the world at face value and let it speak for itself? And why not let the Bible be what it most clearly is–a collection of inspired texts from the ancient world, and not a textbook of modern science?
In embracing evolution my view of the natural world has been deeply enriched, for I have become a part of that world. I write these words from a home office looking out into a New England forest. The leaves have donned their autumn splendor and many are joining the birds in the air, in preparation for winter. Deer, wild turkey, raccoons, squirrels, and countless other species live in those woods, and occasionally come to visit and nibble on my landscape. How awesome to think that I share a history with these life forms and that, to varying degrees, I am related to them. I am humbled to think that God’s creative work is of such grand coherence and scope that the universe is one gigantic narrative of creation. This seems far richer than my former creationist view that the universe is a collection of separately created things. And, to top it off, God created us with minds capable of unpacking the whole amazing story.
Why would any Christian find it hard to believe that evolution was God’s way of creating?