It's life, Jim: Evolution and faith
(haven't had time to include the illustrations in this transcript, but you can always download the powerpoint)
The heavens declare
In Psalm 19 it says “The heavens declare the glory of God. Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge. Their voice goes out into all the earth”
This is a superb new image from the Hubble telescope of bright blue newly formed stars in a dwarf galaxy 200,000 light years away.
And the Bible says we get to know something about the glory of God by looking at the things around us. Like the stars.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: Missing the obvious
Here’s a story
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip.
They set up their tent and after a good meal and a bottle of wine they lay down for the night, and went to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
Watson replied, "I see a fantastic panorama of countless stars. There is the North Star which has helped guide us to this spot. I see the Big Dipper and the tail of Orion. I can make out the edges of the Milky Way and I know there are galaxies with millions and millions of stars beyond that."
"What does that tell you?"
Watson pondered for a minute.
"Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.
Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.
Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.
Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.
What does it tell you?"
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke.
"Watson, you idiot. Somebody has stolen our tent."
Isn’t it funny how one person can completely miss what seems totally obvious to another?
This is the week in which Sir David Attenborough has revealed that he receives hate mail from viewers for failing to credit God in his documentaries. David said "It never really occurred to me to believe in God - and I had nothing to rebel against, my parents told me nothing whatsoever. But I do remember looking at my headmaster delivering a sermon, a classicist, extremely clever ... and thinking, he can't really believe all that, can he? How incredible!"
There is plenty of challenge to people of faith in what Sir David says and we can’t cover it all today. But since it is soon to be the anniversary of Darwin I thought we should take a look at evolution.
This is part of short series about science and faith. We can’t cover everything – it is a vast topic - but in this mini-series we’ll be looking at three aspects of it:
• Last time it was: In the beginning – Layers of meaning in the creation account in Genesis 1 and how long it took - the age of the universe
• This time It’s life Jim – we are looking at Darwin’s big idea of evolution.
• And next time: Would you Adam and Eve it? – Human origins and what do we make of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 3? How special we are to God.
Some of you were expecting me to talk about Intelligent Design today and I know several people have been looking forward to a fruit cake. Do you get what I mean if I say the fruitcake got cut (?). Actually the fruitcake is gorgeous but it is maturing ready for next week.
I hope these won’t feel like science lectures: there’ll be talks, video clips, interviews and maybe even some discussion afterwards. Last week seemed to spark off a few email and text conversations so that was good too.
Aims of the series
I’ve set out a number of aims for the series:
• I’d like it help us to read the Bible properly. And last time we looked at layers of meaning in Genesis and tried to spot whether there really needs to be a conflict between science and the scriptures.
• Simply thinking about God and science together is good. We all face this stuff on TV, in the news, at school, in Waterstones, on the bus adverts.
• Enjoy studying science. God loves an enquiring mind. I have loved studying science – not just at school – it is an ongoing passion. I hope you also will come to enjoy studying science
• I think we all need to be able to Spot the bias – in the media for example. We are in the middle of major BBC series on Darwin: the genius of evolution. As you watch those programmes and read those news items, can you spot the difference between the science and the spin?
• Avoid the creationist caricature – last time I explained a whole spectrum of ways of understanding God’s creation. We’ll look at that again today. I want to give you language to explain the different ways of thinking, so that people can understand you and you can understand them.
• And finally I hope that our Worship will be enriched: inspired by science
Darwin and the big idea
Charles Robert Darwin has his head is on the English £10 note, and you can even get him in Lego! His book On the Origin of Species, written 150 years ago, has been hugely influential in the science of biology ever since. And Darwin’s big idea was evolution.Evolution in a nutshell
I’m going to try to explain evolution in fairly simple language in one minute. Apologies to scientists. OK here we go.
Genes are the DNA information in every cell of every living thing. Genes are what make it the way it is. But they vary. Or get changed by mutation, say in egg or sperm cells. So we end up with lots of differences within the same species. And occasionally the difference will help with reproduction or survival.
In natural selection, you end up with more of the ones that survive better or have more children. They inherit the genes, and so the good changes get passed on. And then more changes happen.
Change keeps happening gradually, different changes in different places and eventually there is a new species.
So Evolution suggests that all the different kinds of living things came about. Lots and lots of small changes over a long period of time. And so we, the plants, animals, mushrooms have a common descent. It’s like a tree of life, some of the big changes represented by the branches.
And that, more or less is evolution in a nutshell. And of course evolution of the nutshell.
Dawkins on evolution
But listen to Richard Dawkins on evolution.
Did you feel any discomfort watching that clip? Richard is saying that evolution is his reason for not believing in God, and he is actively working to persuade the public of his views. The classroom scene where traditional beliefs are challenged in a science lesson is probably experienced by every one of our young people.
So as people who do believe in God, how can we come to an understanding of evolution? That’s what today is about.
Today we’re going to look at a handful of topics that I hope will equip you to deal with the subject of evolution when it comes up:
• I’ve found it quite interesting to look at the Initial Christian reaction to Darwin
• And then how Evolution was Hijacked by various ideologies
• Why do some people dislike evolution?
• We need to look very briefly at the evidence for evolution, cos there’s new stuff out there
• And the crux of the matter: how can faith and science be compatible regarding evolution – there are at least three views.
• There is a lot of talk about random chance, so a quick look at “Chance is a fine thing”
• And finally you’ve probably heard in the news the controversies over Intelligent design – so we’ll take a look at that too.
Initial Christian reaction
There was lots of reaction to Darwin’s ideas. For example, you will hear the story told many times of churchman Soapy Sam Wilberforce’s outspoken opposition to the idea of evolution in public debate.
What you will hear less often is that very many prominent Christians of the time were very supportive of Darwin’s theory. Here are a few of them – look at the variety of church traditions and science disciplines.
I have to be honest and say I had only heard of two of these. Read Denis Alexander’s book if you want the full story. Just a couple of stories for now:
• Charles Kingsley, the novelist and professor of history at Cambridge, wrote to Darwin. “All I have seen of it awes me. It is just as noble a conception of deity to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention” each time. Darwin included these comments in the second edition of his book.
• Aubrey Moore
• Henry Drummond
• Asa Grey
• James McCosh
• George Wright
• Alex Winchell
• I find very interesting the support of Benjamin Warfield: a Calvinist theologian who helped to write the “Fundamentals” booklets around 1910 that led to the modern term “fundamentalism”. He said “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.” He called himself a “Darwinian of the purest water.”
At least half of Darwin believed in God, although he wrestled with the subject. He talks of the Creator at several key points in his books and said “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.”
Darwin was not trying to abolish faith – in fact he was trying to abolish slavery – and his contribution was to show that there was no basis for saying the different races of man were distinct species.
Anyway, Christian reaction varied to the biology of evolution and I am deliberately telling you the other side of the story. So when you watch a programme on TV that majors on Soapy Sam’s opposition, remember there is another side to the story. Spot the bias.
Hijacked by ideologies
Something else happened with the theory of evolution. It got hijacked. Lots of times. Used to support all manner of other ideas.
Here are a few:
• Herbert Spencer’s progress-oriented philosophy – he, not Darwin, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, even though it is actually quite a poor description of the evolution process. He then applied it to ethics, religion, economics, philosophy, sociology and psychology. And his phrase got used and abused everywhere – because you can take it in many ways. Here are a few of them:
• The Tories liked natural selection because it seemed to underpin ideas of laissez-faire economics in which only the financially fittest survived. Andrew Carnegie and JD Rockefeller saw capitalism as the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.
• At the same time, the socialists such as Marx and Engels insisted that evolution supported their theories of class conflict.
• Evolution was also used to support colonialism. A book about Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, defended the brutalities of colonial rule saying the black should either accept the white man’s rule or die trying to resist it, since it was “survival of the fittest”
• In the first world war, the Kaiser’s military officers believed that natural selection through violent and competitive struggle was a natural law that would lead to salvation of the human species.
• The USA led the way in passing eugenic legislation, with the compulsory sterilisation of confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles in order to prevent feebleminded, drunkards, paupers, sex offenders and criminalistic from marrying. Then the crop of defectives would be reduced to practically nothing.
• Nazi Germany extended this type of law and sterilised people with a wide variety of genetic diseases including schizophrenia, manic depression, blindness, deafness and alcoholism. This was then replaced by a programme to rid the Fatherland of its mentally handicapped, and Hitler said “the law of selection justifies this incessant struggle by allowing the survival of the fittest”.
The ideas of evolution were not the only influence on these policies of course, but in many people’s minds evolution is inextricably linked with some of the horrors I have described. Is it any wonder people react against it, when they think it is equivalent to racism, eugenics, nazism and capitalism.
A more recent ideology to be linked with evolution is atheism. New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough present evolution as destroying any basis for ultimate meaning and purpose in life.
I don’t think any of these ideologies can be justified from the biological process of evolution. But because we hear them together so often, people think they are inextricably linked.
So slightly provocatively I’d like to hijack evolution too, to support faith in the Creator. Evolution is one of the wonders of God’s creation. Evolution is simply the mechanism God has chosen to create living things. Evolution should inspire us to worship God.
That is actually what I think, but the point is, the way you look at evolution is hugely influenced by your ideology, or theology, your worldview.
The theory of evolution does not prove that capitalism, socialism, racism, eugenics, and Nazism are right.
And the theory of evolution neither proves nor disproves the existence of God, and aspects can be used to illustrate either point of view. But we’ll need to look at that more closely in a moment.
By the way, Sir David has made a new film explaining his views on evolution that is on prime time BBC1 this evening. Can I challenge you to watch it tonight and try to spot the way his atheist worldview is thoroughly mixed in to the way he explains things. It might be quite an interesting housegroup evening to watch that or I can suggest some other programmes, and pause every so often to talk about how the worldview ideas are mixed in with the science. If you are doing it, invite me!
Why some people don’t like evolution
What I have said is very contentious in some Christian circles and maybe to you. Why is that? What about the story of Adam and Eve?
Was there a single pair at the start of the human race. Isn’t Adam and sin essential to our whole theology? If it was evolution why didn’t God tell us in the Bible? How do we interpret Genesis 3 – we’ll be looking at this next time, by the way.Evolution would have taken too long
The Bible talks of creation in 6 days. Creation took just a bit longer. Watch this for example:
As Marge says “What took you so long?”
Evolution takes a very long time – we’re talking hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Although this apparently causes tension with the Genesis seven-day account of creation, in fact there are many ways of resolving the apparent conflict as we saw last time.Nothing buttery – it’s immoral!
It sounds like a complaint about a way of cooking that doesn’t use any butter. But that’s not it!
Nothing-buttery (or reductionism) is a way of looking at the world that says it is nothing but all the smaller parts put together.
In this way of thinking you are nothing but a rather large bunch of little cells. And those are primarily water mixed with a few other elements carbon, zinc, copper, hydrogen, oxygen etc. And those atoms are nothing but electrons, protons and neutrons. And those are nothing but quarks, leptons and so on.
And so, as a human, you’d be nothing but an evolved ape.
• Behaving like animals is OK
• Ruthless competition is simply “survival of the fittest”
• Your genes made you do it – there is no guilt or responsibility
• Animals have as many rights as humans
• Love, creativity and consciousness are just biochemistry
So some people object to evolution because it makes them “nothing but”.Association with all sorts of evil
I’ve explained how the ideas of evolution were hijacked by all sorts of ideologies, some of them very evil. Evolution remains tainted by that association for some people.Too much death
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem said that Nature is red in tooth and claw and shrieks against the creed of God being love. Some scientists say that 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct. That seems wasteful. And some read the Bible as saying there was no death at all until Adam and Eve messed things up with that apple in the garden.God’s intervention
If the hand of God didn’t create us specially, does he really intervene in other things, like what we pray for?Random chance and God’s plan
If the human race is here because of random chance, how can God have a plan? How can our lives be meaningful and significant, how can our personal existence mean anything if we are the product of a cosmic accident?Christians on the defensive
So all this puts Christans on the defensive in a few ways:
Loss of believers: People have left the faith in droves and one factor is certainly evolution. Many believe Darwin’s theories to have seriously undermined religious belief. So Christians are defensive and attack evolution.
A need to hold on tightly: With faith under attack, it feels like there is a need to hold on tightly. People worry about a slippery slope? And so that leads to all or nothing thinking: If you can't trust the Bible in a detail of fact, when can you trust it? And so people hold tightly to very literal interpretations of scripture.
A sense of boldness in believing bigger things: Just the other day someone was saying “Why wouldn’t you believe God created everything in 6 days” as if it was a kind of bravado to believe something bigger. There is sometimes a sense of boldness in believing bigger things.
A need to belong: Some Christian movements still make opposition to evolutionary theories a litmus test of faithfulness. If you feel the beliefs of your community are under attack, you want to stick together, you have this need to belong with likeminded people and not to get isolated.
So some people don’t like evolution, and there are quite a few issues. We can’t give a response to all these topics today, but we will look at a few of them.The evidence for evolution
So first is there any evidence for evolution. In fact there is a lot, and a lot more now than when first I started looking at this subject some years ago.
You have probably all seen a fossil at one time or another – a creature preserved in stone millions of years ago. Scientists have collected huge numbers of these, worked out how old they are, looked at the differences, thought about how they must be related to each other, and worked out a tree of life to explain that they all must have come from a common ancestor.
People used to challenge the theory by saying “show me the fossils half-way between a dinosaur and a bird, or half-way between a fish and a land animal” Some of those transitional fossils have now been found.Genetics
Fossils used to be the only real evidence. But the Human Genome project and other genetic research means that we now have another insight into where we came from. It turns out there are kind of genetic fossils in every cell in your body. Whole families of creatures have strings of information that used to do something useful, but a spanner got in the works and they broke. It’s like derelict machinery that has been copied faithfully ever since as each generation is born.
Have you ever wondered why we need our five a day of fruit but dogs and cats don’t? It turns out that humans cannot make Vitamin C because the gene to do it has a spanner in it. All the machinery is there, just one spanner in the works. Other animals have the same genetic machinery, but no spanner. And all the primates like the apes have the same broken gene like us. Having an identical piece of broken genetic machinery is very strong evidence for a common ancestor. There are now lots of examples like that, and this is where Denis Alexander’s book brings us right up to date.Evolution in progress
The third line of evidence is evolution in progress today. There are several well-documented examples which you can read in the books or ask Tom Cameron about (Tom works in the department of evolutionary biology).
How can faith and science be compatible regarding evolution?
You are probably wondering how can faith and science be compatible regarding evolution. I want to give you four pointers.
First of all, nearly everyone accepts evolution at some level.
Last time I introduced the spectrum of views there are on creation. Let’s take another quick look, this time concentrating on the ideas of evolution.
Young Earth Creationism
The most strident of the voices heard in the media. According to Young Earth Creationists it didn’t take millions of years, it all happened very quickly in the last 10,000 years. Given the rhetoric, you might be surprised to realise that most do acknowledge that evolution happens but just for little changes within species.
Old Earth Creationism
Tend to insist that God made all the animals according to their kinds by intervening at critical moments to bring about various “leaps in complexity” So special creation is the origin of new species, not evolution. The similarities in DNA are put down to common design not common ancestors
Also known as theistic evolution – the mainstream position of the Catholic church, and certainly some of the Anglican church.
There are shades of understanding here too.
• The central thinking is that evolution was God’s idea for creating new species, and that there was a plan, not just a random kick-start and leave it (that would be deistic evolution).
• God is the creator and sustainer of it all, not just the God of the gaps we can’t understand yet.
• There is plenty of space in our understanding of the mechanisms for God influencing those apparently random processes by the power of his word – just like we can influence things without breaking the laws of physics.
• That initial spark of life is still a real puzzle – how did the mechanism that can make copies of itself get started? We might find a mechanism – but even if we do it is a marvellous thing.
• How do we understand Adam and Eve in an evolutionary way of thinking? Opinions vary – I’ll say something about that next time.
So everyone accepts evolution at some level.
The Martian and the car – clever mechanisms, clever designer
Yesterday the hairdresser asked me what I was doing this weekend and I said I was doing a talk on science and faith. He asked lots of questions and seemed quite interested so I told him bits of what I told you today. Once he’d finished and I was paying another hairdresser came over and said “what’s the name of that theory you were explaining again”. So I explained it all again (to the shop) and suggested he looks it up on Wikipedia. He wished me well for my talk and I said I’d let them have a link to the podcast. Anyhow, I told them the following story, and he said he got the point. So maybe you could use it as well, if you are trying to explain this stuff.
Imagine a visiting Martian sees a car for the first time and immediately ascribes its creation to the work of humans. He says “Isn’t that amazing. It must have been a human that did that!”
Then the Martian is told that it was actually built by robots in a factory, but that humans designed and built the robots.
The visitor’s admiration for humans as designers is lessened not one bit. In fact it is increased by the discovery that the humans (the primary cause) bring about their purposes through robots (secondary causes)
This is a parable about the whole of the universe. Look at the complexity of life on this planet. “Isn’t it amazing. It must have been God that did that”. Then we’re told that actually it was built by the mechanisms of physics, chemistry, biochemistry, evolutionary biology and so on. Clever mechanisms, clever designer.
Our admiration for God as designer is lessened not one bit. In fact it is increased by the discovery that God (the primary cause) brought about his purposes through such wonderful mechanisms (the secondary mechanisms).
Did God do lots of special creation or did he create mechanisms (like evolution) that would make it turn out just the way he wanted? Or some mixture of both? As you have heard, there are different views on that.
But either way I want to make one thing clear: It is all created and sustained by God.
Look at these scriptures with me:In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. Hebrews 1:2-3Col 1:15-17 [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
It is all created and sustained by God – through Jesus in fact.
Chance is a fine thing
One part of the evolution story is that changes happen through random mutation. So there will be a tiny change to a gene in a sperm or an egg cell and the child will have a gene that is different from its parent. Usually it breaks the genes, but very occasionally something new happens. And it is all unpredictable – a random process.
And so the question is: how can our lives be meaningful and significant if we are the product of a cosmic accident.
But I want to tell you that random is not necessarily mean unplanned. Have a look at this little demonstration from the RI children’s lectures this year.
So you can see that it was completely random, and yet it was planned. It is the same with almost everything we do. Pour a glass of water. Some of you will have done experiments proving that the water molecules are rushing round bumping into each other randomly. And yet your purpose was to get a drink and you did – without breaking any laws of physics. In the same way I believe God speaks and brings about his purposes even though there are many random processes involved. Is your brain hurting yet?
The second point. Random is not the same as purposeless. In my work I deal with call centres and we know that calls arrive with a random distribution. But not one of them is purposeless.
In fact this randomness, or uncertainty at the heart of the physical world seems to make it clearer to me how true freedom and free will could be possible. Everything isn’t pre-determined.
Chance is a fine thing!
Summary so far
Just to summarise the plot so far.
Charles Darwin came up with the basic ideas of evolution as the origin of species. Some Christians in his day loved it, some hated it. There does seem to be quite a lot of evidence for evolution, not just in the fossil record, but examples in recent times and striking evidence in the derelict machinery of the pseudogenes in our DNA code. There is also a movement that rejects and argues against evolution - usually called creationism. But that isn’t the only form of creationism. In evolutionary creationism, which is a mainstream way of thinking in many Christian churches, God designed, created and sustains the entire universe including the evolutionary mechanisms that led to human beings.
Atheists like Richard Dawkins tell us we can’t believe in God and accept the theory of evolution. I think that is a hijacking of evolutionary theory to support an ideology – atheism.
Creationists, ironically, say the same, and have many lines of objection. I think that is tragic and self-defeating and in fact it is this teaching which has undermined the faith of many young believers.
I don’t want our young people to grow up thinking they have to choose between science and faith. I want them to know that it is a wonderful thing to study science and think God’s thoughts after him.
So I hope these four insights help:
• Everyone accepts evolution at some level
• Clever mechanisms, clever designer – remember the martian and the motor car
• It is all created and sustained by God
• Chance is a fine thing – and not the same as unplanned or purposeless.
Let me leave you with some very positive principles to take away. They apply regardless of what you think of evolution or where you are on that spectrum.
• In the master your money course you will have heard us teach many times “It all belongs to God”. That is the foundation for handling money. The equivalent here is “It is all created and sustained by God”. And that is the foundation for understanding science.
• How do we know. We believe in the existence of God by faith, not science or the arguments of intelligent design (except at a very basic level)
• It is good to understand the universe through science. We are thinking God’s thoughts after him. As it says over the door of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, quoting a Psalm. “Great are the works of the Lord; they are studied by those who delight in him.” So science is a holy enterprise.
• It is amazing what God has made. The fine tuning of the universe, the emergence of life, the mechanism of evolution, and the extraordinary capabilities of human beings. Wonderful and amazing.
• God is not disproved by science. Despite “the God Delusion” and the shelf of other books along those lines in the last couple of years.
• The wonders uncovered by science inform our worship. When you sense awe or beauty or elegance or just amazement at a science programme – tell God about it! He loves to hear that you are enjoying what he made.
And now, with that in mind, my prayer for you is this:
• May you be inspired to put your faith in God the Creator and to know him.
• May you enjoy science, despite the way it is sometimes presented as opposing faith.
• May you find the resources to understand and explain to children, young people and adults who puzzle over science and faith
• May you sense that amazement and wonder, and be moved to worship the author of it all.