Faith and Science continued

Faith and Science: The Questions

After our first discussion on Faith and Science, I was asked to join in a second class at church and answer questions sent by email:

  1. Is is accommodating the culture around us to agree to evolutionary views?
  2. Does it make us look anti-intellectual and backward to disbelieve in evolution?
  3. If evolution is true, does it change our view of God--and man?
  4. When scientists who are Christians with degrees from prestigious universities rule out evolution, are they credible?
  5. What actual proof is there that macro-evolution is true?
  6. Has the Bible been sufficiently mined for knowledge about science and evolution? Are there new discoveries in it about science?

You probably know by now that I'm a Christian with at least some scientific training, I have no problem with evolution (in fact I delight in it), but as far as genetics and biology are concerned, I'm no expert, merely an interested amateur. So here's an interested amateur's answers to the above...

1. Is it accommodating the culture around us to agree to evolutionary views?

It depends on what we believe and what culture we’re talking about. Having grown up outside the US, it looks to me more like Americans who disagree with evolutionary views are the ones accommodating culture. It’s not accommodating culture to tell the truth about what you think, but it might be accommodating culture to suggest an amateur's opinion is worth more than an expert's long-researched and well-tested conclusions. Being expert in one field doesn't preclude our being amateurs in another, and the fact that I have a science background doesn't make me a geneticist--it does encourage me to respect the conclusions of geneticists though.

2. Does it make us look anti-intellectual and backward to disbelieve in evolution?

Yes it does if we phrase it that way. Evolution is a scientific theory used by scientists. It’s proven very valuable to them. It provides consistent explanations for all the available data, useful directions of exploration for finding more data, and a valuable tool in fields like medicine, agriculture, ecology, genetic engineering, etc. It’s not something you choose to believe or disbelieve--it’s something that people trained in the relevant field find useful and know how to use.

We might as well say we don’t believe in dictionaries or computers.

3. If evolution is true, does it change our view of God--and man?

If we think the weather forecast is dictated by the devil, and any Christian who checks the paper before making plans is by definition a heretic, then yes, coming to understand evolutionary theory would radically change our view of God (possibly for the better).

If we’re more like the disciples who cried out, “Wow, even the wind and waves obey Him,” we would simply include evolution in our list of wind, waves and other natural forces, all of which obey Him.
4. When scientists who are Christians with degrees from prestigious universities rule out evolution, are they credible?

Their arguments are no more credible than when the great astronomer Fred Hoyle, from the highly prestigious Cambridge University England, argued against the Big Bang, or when the deservedly world-famous scientist Richard Dawkins, from the equally prestigious Oxford University, rules out the existence of God. Whenever a scientist uses non-scientific arguments or makes unsupported statements, his analysis ceases to be scientifically credible... even more so when s/he’s arguing in a field that’s not his/her field of expertise.

When judging an argument, we should always who's making it, how qualified are they in the relevant field (not just in "science" in general), and how well supported their argument is with scientific fact. A scientist who says "Of course, when we track down the first human male it won't be Adam" is speaking just as unscientifically as the one who says "Of course, we'll never find evidence confirming evolution of species."

5. What actual proof is there that macro-evolution is true?
For a start, scientific theories are never "true." They are valid if they adequately and consistently describe and predict the data. They are useful if they successfully direct further research and practical application. Evolution passes both these tests. But if it were "true" there would be nothing more to learn. Scientists continually try to learn more, to push the boundaries, and are already looking into the importance of memes and gene switching mechanisms. This doesn't make evolution false; it makes it a valuable theory that's displaying it's value by pushing the research forwards.

Similarly, Newton's laws of motion, on which much of modern technology is built, are not "true," but they are wonderfully valid and useful when applied to earth-scale speeds and distances, and it would undoubtedly be foolish to try teaching Einstein's theory of relativity to anyone who didn't first understand Newton's laws.

Also, micro- and macro-evolution are very misleading terms--they imply a difference which really doesn't exist. Evolution is the result of genetic mutation. We all know that mutations happen. We've all seen their consequences or heard of them. Mutations can be helpful, neutral or harmful to the species. Harmful mutations typically don't spread--they result in non-viable, helpless or sterile offspring. Helpful mutations do spread and result in offspring that fill new ecological niches, or achieve new, valuable potential. And neutral mutations create variation--different eye-color, hair-color etc.

We see examples of bird species mutating to fill ecological niches in isolated communities--deserted islands for example. After a while, birds on one mutational branch are seen to stop mating with those on another--perhaps it's hard for the larger, 3-foot-wingspan bird to mate with its 3-inch-wingspan relative. Statistically speaking, a mutation will eventually arise in the smaller birds (for example) that is beneficial to them and fatal to their larger relatives. Once this mutation has spread, the two branches are no longer genetically able to produce offspring together and speciation has occurred.

There was no different micro- and macro-evolution taking place in this scenario--just the same process, taking place in the same way, eventually leading to an inevitable conclusion, in a process called evolution.

I should point out, the above argument is a serious over-simplification. Like I said before, I'm not a geneticist. I haven't taken the necessary courses the fully understand the process, but this is as much as I understand of it.

Rephrasing the question: 5. What evidence is there for evolution?

Firstly there's the fossil evidence--not the existence of fossils of course, since that only proves that creatures have become extinct in the past; since creatures are going extinct in the present with monotonous regularity that should come as no surprise. Prior to the theory of evolution, it was possible to collect life-forms together into related groups--giraffes being more closely related to okapis than to pigs for example. The theory of evolution suggested that the remains of creatures which might naturally seem like ancestors of closely related creatures should be found in relatively recent geological strata, and that those of theoretical ancestors to less closely related species would be found in more ancient geological strata. This is, in fact, what the fossil record reveals.

Secondly there's the evidence of DNA analysis (something that wasn't available when I was first learning about this). Examining the differences in DNA of related species we're able to identify DNA markers, identical in all of one species, and identically different in all members of another. Using rates of mutation and ratios of successful to fatal mutations, scientists can perform a statistical analysis on the nearby genes (representing neutral mutations--genetic variety--hair-color etc.) and conclude when the two species might have been the same. The answers agree with the fossil record where available. Not only that, they agree when the analysis is performed using different marker genes. And they agree over all species that have been analyzed in this way.

Thirdly, the theory of evolution predicts that useful mutations might continue, even if they carry anomalous side-effects (side-effects that one might expect to see corrected if design were true). Such side-effects are seen in "junk DNA" where species still carry the dormant DNA strands for functions no longer of any use to them--gills encoded, but no longer expressed, in land animals for example. Similarly, the giraffe has a nerve going from its throat to its brain which travels all the way down the neck, round the shoulders and back up again--a natural side-effect of increasing neck-length, but rather an odd design feature. And all vertebrates have eyes that are constructed backwards, while invertebrates have the better, right-way-out design (hence the blind spot), suggesting that the eye evolved sometime after the backbone did.

6. Has the Bible been sufficiently mined for knowledge about science and evolution? Are there new discoveries in it about science?

Scientific discovery is a process of collecting data, analyzing data, looking for a pattern behind the data, making a hypothesis and testing the hypothesis and using the hypothesis. Scientists might teach by writing books and learn by reading them, but they don’t “discover” by reading them. We might look at the Bible in the light of science and history. We might be delighted to find confirmation that it records historical events occurring in a scientifically conceivable manner—that it doesn’t appear to be myth or fictional fabrication, and that it includes details not known to be scientifically significant to people at the time it was written. That might convince us that the author knew what He was writing about, and even that the author is God. But I don’t think God wrote the Bible to teach us science any more than I think He wrote it to teach us ancient Hebrew. I think He had much more important things on His mind, and I think we should too when we study His word.

Of course, linguists who are experts in ancient Hebrew can teach us a lot about how to reach and understand the early books of the Bible. And the Bible's revelation of a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever formed one of the bases of Western science, making the experimental method worthwhile. But neither of these issues constitutes "mining" the Bible for information, and I would hate to think of Christians arguing that the Bible should be treated as just another text book.


So if Genesis 1 describes a continuous, purposeful process, as those who understand ancient Hebrew suggest, and if the universe is beautifully designed with absolutely perfect and essential scientific constants for the existence of life as we know it, as those who understand the science suggest, what do I think happened in the Fall? My answer may be a little whimsical. It's not specifically Biblical or scientific; it's just my interpretation, and I offer it because I was asked to:

I image that Adam was one of many "first humans." Of all the humans then living, his genes were the ones that would be passed down to further generations--all other "families" would eventually die out, as indeed, we see families dying out around us all the time. God either saw or chose this, and took Adam to a place on earth where not only were the known scientific constants perfectly tuned, but so were all the ones we've never discovered (the ones that are no longer either perfect or constant). There Adam dwelled with God, married his wife, and lived in great harmony with nature. The lion lay down with the lamb, and the lamb died exactly when the lion needed to eat. Everything was in perfect ecological balance. But...

Well... imagine any of us in such a Paradise. Wouldn't we ask "What if we eat that fruit?" even though it was forbidden? Wouldn't we want to try "just once" whatever we'd been told we shouldn't do? And wouldn't we "accidentally" destroy that perfect balance, ending up with the world we have today?

That's my picture of the Fall. And in the New heaven and the New earth, one day we shall be made perfect and perfectly able to stick to the rules that make everything perfect.

Till then, I give thanks for salvation in the well-known and very historical Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate soon.

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