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Southern Baptist Voices: A Response to James Dew, Part 1

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May 29, 2012 Tags:
Southern Baptist Voices: A Response to James Dew, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This essay is a response to Dr. James Dew in the Southern Baptist Voices series, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of BioLogos. For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here.

Dr. Dew's essay expressed three main concerns: Is macro evolution actually true? How does theistic evolution portray God's creative activity? Is it consistent to reject ID but to affirm the anthropic principle? Dr. Ard Louis responds to the first of these concerns today, to be followed by the second and third issues tomorrow.

I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to James Dew’s essay for several reasons. Firstly, his gracious tone invites real dialogue. Secondly, the three main issues he raises: 1) the status of the science of macroevolution, 2) God’s creative activity and 3) ID and the anthropic principle, -- reflect the most frequent questions I am asked by Christian friends who have concerns about theistic evolution. And finally, I see that we are both fans of Alister McGrath’s fascinating trilogy A Scientific Theology. I’ve put James’ recent book Science and Theology: An Assessment of Alister McGrath's Critical Realist Perspective on my summer reading list.

Although James’ paper was relatively brief, replying to each of his main points carefully requires considerable care. So today I’ll cut right to the chase and address his first, comprehensive point (“We [Southern Baptists] are not convinced that macro evolution is actually true.”), and look at his other two points in the second part of my essay tomorrow. I think we both realize, however, that in this online format, we can just skim the surface of some fascinating questions.

Is evolution true?

Before turning to that seemingly-simple question, we need to address the fact that the conversation around evolution is bedeviled by the many different ways the word is used. For the purposes of this essay, let me distinguish three clusters of meaning:

E1) Evolution as natural history: The earth is old and the kinds of organisms that populate our world have changed over time.

E2) Evolution as a mechanism: A combination of variation and natural selection helps explain the structure of the observed change over time in natural history.

E3) Evolution as a worldview: Also called “evolutionism”: Evolution as a way of seeing the world and extracting meaning from it.

Unfortunately popularizers of science sometimes conflate these meanings. Christians rightly object, for instance, when George Gaylord Simpson makes statements like the following in his book The Meaning of Evolution:

“Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.”

Now Gaylord Simpson’s book mainly describes evidence for evolution that falls under definition E1 and E2—in other words, the subjects of normal evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, we see here a common pattern in the popular science literature: Evidence for E1 and E2 are very strong, therefore you should also hold to E3. Ideally, Christians would respond to this conflation by pointing out the underlying philosophical presuppositions that lead a great scientist like Gaylord Simpson to make the statement above, and show why they don’t follow from his science. But unfortunately such distinctions have not always been made, and one can hardly blame the layperson for this. A recent report on the surprisingly large resistance to the theory of evolution in Britain commented that:

“In much the same way as earlier generations encountered evolution through a particularly ugly form of Social Darwinism, and not surprisingly then rejected it, many today, it seems, associate it with an amoral, materialist, hopeless, selfish outlook on life, which they are extremely reluctant to countersign and which turns them firmly against the theory.” -- “Rescuing Darwin

As a scientist who spends many of his waking hours doing research on evolutionary biology, I believe that mixing ideology with the popularization of science negatively impacts public support for the work my colleagues and I love so much. Once science is dragged into culture wars, everyone loses out.

As a Christian, I wish my fellow believers would spend their energy on combating Evolutionism (i.e. evolution E3—worldview), rather than creating organizations that focus on countering natural history (as young earth creationist (YEC) organizations do) or contesting accounts of evolutionary mechanisms (as ID organizations do). By choosing the wrong battles, they needlessly hand over ammunition to the cultured despisers of Christianity.

In summary then, one important factor motivating negative Christian responses to evolution arises from unfortunate conflations of materialist worldviews (evolution E3) with the popularization of evolutionary science (evolution E1 and E2).

Reconciling Genesis and natural history

Another important source of the tension Christians feel when reconciling Genesis with science arises from evolution E1 (natural history). Disciplines like geology and paleontology tell us that the earth is billions of years old, that bacteria ruled for the first few billion years, that what we might call animals only appeared about 500 million years ago, and that anatomically modern humans only showed up over the last few hundred thousand years. A surface reading of Genesis 1 suggests that God created all this diversity in six twenty-four hour days, not over billions of years.

Given that I completely agree with Dew when he wrote in his essay, “In the end, we believe that what is actually true of the physical world, will be perfectly consistent with Scripture”, how do I reconcile this broad picture of billions of years with Genesis 1? Well, a more careful reading of the early chapters of Genesis itself suggest that it was never meant to be read as a journalistic account with chronological days. For example, the sun and the moon are not created until the fourth day. You don’t need modern science to tell you that having a literal morning and evening without a sun doesn’t make much sense. The key hermeneutical issue here is genre—what kind of writing style is this?

Many of the church fathers, who knew nothing about modern geology or paleontology, but who were attuned to non-journalistic genres, also concluded that these were non-literal days simply by reading the text carefully. Alister McGrath recently summarized the views of Augustine of Hippo at Christianity Today, but many other examples could be cited. I suspect that part of the reason YEC views have grown so rapidly in popularity since the 1950s is that we moderns have a tin ear for non-journalistic narrative genres. By contrast, I believe that a non-chronological view of the days of Genesis strengthens the theological meaning of the text. For readers who want to delve further, I recommend starting with “Can we believe Genesis today”, by Ernest Lucas. (Editor's note: For more, see the blogs "God's Use of Time" and "When Appearances are Deceiving").

If, on the other hand, my Christian brothers and sisters maintain that their interpretation of Scripture mandates creation in six literal 24 hours days then they need to contend not only with the text, but also with some pretty comprehensive evidence from geology and paleontology—and for that matter, from astronomy, too. Believing that evolution E2 (mechanism) doesn’t explain natural history doesn’t get you very far towards anything that looks like six literal, 24 hour days. Just as atheist popularizers shouldn’t argue: E1 and E2 are true, therefore so is E3 (evolutionism), so Chrisitians shouldn’t think that if E3 and E2 are wrong, then so automatically is E1 (natural history).

There are other pressure points of course. What do we make of Adam and Eve, or, for that matter, of Abel who kept sheep and Cain who worked the land, if we can find fossils of anatomically modern hominids spread across the globe that predate anything like agriculture by well over one hundred thousand years? I don’t have space to treat these more complex issues here, but David Opderbeck and N.T. Wright are just two of the writers at BioLogos who have treated this subject from several different angles. Suffice it to say that I believe that a careful investigation of the text in its original Near Eastern context gives enough space for evangelicals to reconcile scripture with the conclusions of natural history. A good place for conservative evangelicals to start exploring options for doing so is Denis Alexander’s essay “Models for Relating Adam and Eve with Contemporary Anthropology.” (Editor's note: For more, see the blog "Dead Bones with a Living Message" by Darrel Falk and Stephen Mapes).

Assessing the evidence?

Evolution definition E2 encompasses mechanisms like variation and natural selection that scientists think may explain the change over time we observe in natural history. Now Christians should, I think, all agree that God created this mechanism. For example, our immune system can protect us with only a limited number of genes because it uses the mechanisms of mutation and natural selection to generate the rich diversity of antibodies we need to counter millions of different kinds of pathogens. The question on which Christians often disagree is whether these mechanisms are sufficient to explain the diversity of life throughout the history of the earth, in particular the emergence of new species (macroevolution). In answering whether evolution is true in this sense Christians typically disagree for two reasons.

Firstly, some Christians may have theological reasons to believe that God would not use the ordinary ways he sustains the world—the customs of the creator—to make new species. In other words, they may think that God needed to do miracles in natural history. I have written at length about miracles elsewhere on this site. In short, my pushback here would be as follows: if we look at how Old Testament describes miracles, e.g. God appearing to Abraham, or the miracles of the Exodus, or Elijah on mount Carmel, or miracles in prophetic literature, then we see that these are done for clear redemptive purposes in the history of Israel, and that their description is quite different from the way that Genesis depicts the creation accounts.

It seems to me that the Genesis text itself in no way requires us to assume that God could not create the natural world through his ordinary action. God’s ordinary action is just as much a reflection of his sustaining work as miraculous divine action is. I recommend reading Darrel Falk and William Dembski’s discussion of these theological issues in this same series to delve into that point more deeply. Both men agree that “God could have brought about life by means of a large-scale form of evolution that links all organisms to a common ancestor.” But they don’t agree, on other grounds, that this is what God actually did.

The second reason Christians may disagree is on scientific grounds. My reading of the modern ID movement is that their central claims revolve around skepticism that evolution of type E2 (mechanism) can explain evolution of type E1 (natural history). By contrast, my own view, based on years of studying evolutionary biology from the perspective of a physicist, is that the evidence that mechanisms like mutations and selection played an important role in the emergence of biological complexity around us is pretty overwhelming.

But that claim in no way means that I think we have a completely comprehensive theory for macroevolution. Although many patterns are observed, and constituents known, many big questions remain wide open for investigation. Think of the role of developmental processes in creating new species. In fact, I hope the research in my group will contribute to new understandings of how evolution works. But whatever the final explanation that emerges, stochastic processes like mutations will almost certainly play an important role. Their imprints are everywhere in our biology, right down to our DNA. BioLogos has devoted a number of posts to explaining this evidence, and I recommend the many excellent essays by Dennis Venema in particular. I have also written elsewhere why I don’t think these mechanisms should be particularly worrying to Christians.

The big question for James Dew and other Southern Baptists who doubt macroevolution, is this: Who should they believe, scientists like myself, or advocates of ID? This problem is not easy to resolve, in part because—as Mark Noll famously pointed out—we evangelicals have not invested nearly enough effort or energy into higher learning. There is no trusted community of scholars to help the church adjudicate on such complex multi-disciplinary questions. We need scholars who have devoted their lives to these topics and who are working at the highest levels in their fields because these issues are difficult to master. I have written elsewhere why I think such collective methods of knowledge generation have deep Christian roots. But currently we evangelicals have much room to grow in our engagement with the world of higher learning. We rely far too much on single individuals. It can’t just be scientists on their own, or theologians on their own, or the church on its own. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is any short-term fix to this problem.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Christian scientists I know who work professionally in fields closely related to evolutionary biology (and I have met quite a few) are pretty convinced that processes like mutations and selection played an important role in the emergence of biological complexity. But without a proper forum or tradition of engagement between the academy and the church, such an argument from authority is, with some justification, probably not enough to dislodge longstanding suspicions that Southern Baptists may have about evolution.

Finally, on this topic of macroevolution, I would like James Dew and other Southern Baptists who doubt evolution to consider the following prediction. Rapid advances in DNA sequencing technologies are allowing my colleagues to find detailed genomic evidence for the role of mutations in the evolution of all kinds of organisms. What is now a growing stream of evidence will soon become a flood. Southern Baptists pastors should be aware of this development because such genetic evidence – e.g., humans have clear remnants of a gene that chickens use to make egg yolks -- is much easier for bright teenagers in their congregations to understand than more traditional evidence for evolution based on the fossil record. I predict young believers will start asking more and more questions in the midst of their churches—your churches. My hope is that you, their pastors, will respond to this development by creating space for those who believe, as we do at BioLogos, that mainstream science, properly interpreted, is compatible with evangelical Christian faith. Even if you, or many in your congregations remain skeptical about macroevolution, I believe that allowing a wider range of views on evolution will strengthen the spiritual vitality of your churches, and indeed the Church as a whole.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, Dr. Louis addresses Dr. Dew's second and third areas of concern.

Further Reading:

1. Alister McGrath, Dawkins' GOD: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Wiley-Blackwell 2004.

2. Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins. Chicago University Press, 2010.

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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HornSpiel - #70173

May 29th 2012

Couple of comments on McGrath’s response. Firstly he states:

the three main issues he [Drew] raises: 1) the status of the science of macroevolution, 2) God’s creative activity and 3) ID and the anthropic principle

These are not the main issues Drew raises, they are: 

  1. That TE this sounds like deism, not theism and 
  2. There seems to be an unspoken allegiance to methodological naturalism in this position.

I can appreciate that McGrath would like to change the terms of the debate to perhaps indirectly address Drew’s concerns. However BL having invited the SBs to pose their issues, it behooves the responders to directly address their concerns.


E1) Evolution as natural history: The earth is old and the kinds of organisms that populate our world have changed over time.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Organisms have changed over time seems to me an euphenistic way of avoiding a very distasteful concept among some Christians, namely that we are, species-wise, close cousins of the apes.  Does E1 also include the concept of common descent? In particular, that humans share a common ancestor with other primates, and indeed all other living organisms? Is that a claim that can be left ambiguous, like whether or not there was an historical Adam and Eve, or is it central to E1?

HornSpiel - #70174

May 29th 2012

Mea culpa, having reread more carefully Drew’s article I see that the two points I mention above fall under the rubric of God’s creative activity. I appologize for the tone of my comment. I do hope McGrath does addresse, frankly, Drew’s objectuions to TE in his next post

Tim Holton - #70212

May 31st 2012

I think it is interesting that Ard laments the lack of an evangelical community of scholars who embrace both the Bible and higher learning. I am not close enough to the Vatican, but they certainly appear to have a better model - at least in terms of astrophysics.

I also think it is extremely helpful to reiterate that there is not a completely comprehensive theory for macroevolution. There must be room for ambiguity in our searching for answers - too often the cognitive dissonance associated with deeply-held beliefs encourages obscurantism and dogma rather than openness.

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