The Modern Creation Story
As our readers work through successive chapters of The Language of Science and Faith, Francis Collins and I hope they will become increasingly more comfortable with science and prepared to engage openly with contemporary scientific ideas about origins. We conclude the book with a reflection on what the modern creation story looks like, through biblically informed eyes.
In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth.
The universe begins with a mystery called, for lack of a better term—and there once was a contest to find a better term—the Big Bang. The moment of the Big Bang is beyond the grasp of science. We cannot observe it directly; our theories take us close to that moment but stop short; and our simulations of the early universe in laboratory settings can’t get back to that point. What we can do, though, is see the results, and our simulations and theories start working just a fraction of a second after that moment of creation.
What appears at the Big Bang is what we might call the rational foundations—or the Logos—of the universe. The deepest and most fundamental laws of physics, with their various properties, emerge. These laws specify the kinds of physical interactions that can take place. Remarkably, as we saw in an earlier chapter, there are only four kinds of interactions that occur in nature: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Every event, from the thoughts in your head as you read these words, to the laughter of a toddler, to the light being produced by the sun, rests upon these four interactions.
Out of the Big Bang comes a specification that there will be only two kinds of physical objects in the world: quarks and leptons, and their mirror-image anti-particles. Protons and neutrons are composed of quarks; the electron is the best-known example of a lepton. Every physical object, from a potato chip, to the Eiffel Tower, to the diamond on an engagement ring is made from quarks and leptons.
All the natural phenomena that generate the grand narrative of the universe, no matter how rich or mundane, result from quarks and leptons interacting via four kinds of interactions. Who could possibly guess that a world defined so simply could become so interesting?
The four forces and two particles in the universe initially seem like nothing more than chaotic parts of an incomprehensibly messy maelstrom. But then things start to happen—things that no team of scientists or even science fiction writers could ever have even imagined, much less predicted. Out of what looks like chaos comes a most remarkable and transcendent order.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The quarks, with electrical charges of 2/3 and –1/3, combine under the influence of the strong nuclear force, and soon they are all gathered into protons and neutrons, which have electrical charges of 1 and 0.
The protons, neutrons, and electrons buzz about as the universe expands and cools. As the temperature declines, the electrons drop into orbits around the protons to make hydrogen atoms—unimaginable numbers of hydrogen atoms spread across the entire universe.
All the particles in the universe are now electrically neutral; it turns out the universe has a perfect balance between the positive and negative charges. Once the particles in the universe have become atoms, with no net charge on them, the electrical force becomes far less relevant and the weaker gravitational force takes over. The hydrogen atoms are gathered by gravity into huge clusters, steadily growing until much of the hydrogen in the universe is gathered into gigantic clouds. The clouds get steadily larger in size, surpassing the moon, then the earth, then large planets like Jupiter.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.
At a critical point the gigantic clouds of hydrogen ignite. Across the universe great clouds of hydrogen turn into stars; gravity has made them so dense that the atoms are crushed together until they start to fuse. Here we discover one of the many remarkable balances in nature: the strong force cooperates intimately with this gravitational crushing, and the hydrogen atoms combine to become helium atoms. The process that generates starlight also builds the periodic table—multi-tasking on a cosmic scale—as the simplest atoms -- hydrogen -- fuse to make helium. The fusion process continues to build increasingly heavier atoms: lithium, beryllium, boron, and then the all-important carbon, and on to nitrogen, oxygen, neon, sodium, and beyond.
Some of the largest stars become overwhelmed by their own gravity and undergo catastrophic inward collapses so violent that the stars actually “bounce” and explode with the force of a billion atomic bombs. Such explosions populate vast regions of space with the elements created inside the star; the explosions are strangely orderly and eerily silent since there is no sound in space. Gravity gathers the stellar material back into big clouds again. A large cloud at the center of the explosion can become another, second generation, star.
The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
The smaller clouds, with their rich roster of elements fused from hydrogen, gradually compress into balls orbiting about the second-generation star. Many of these smaller balls, which will one day be called planets, have a remarkable new kind of structure formed from chemical combinations of atoms. One interesting molecular combination is of hydrogen and oxygen and known as H2O. In most parts of the universe, this molecule is solid, in the form of ice. In other parts the H2O is a gas. But on planets exactly the right distance from a star, the H2O is liquid, a particular liquid called water.
Very complex structures, from a mechanical point of view, have been built from simple raw materials; a universe that was once nothing but vast swaths of hydrogen gas now has solar systems where chemically rich planets orbit about stars with remarkably stable outputs of light. Planets at just the right distance from their “suns” have a temperature where water is liquid. This water is surprisingly capable of encouraging the formation of ever more complex molecules like amino acids, carbohydrates, and lipids. By providing a medium where atoms and molecules can jostle around gently, various combinations can form naturally. The result is increasing complexity.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.”
These complex materials grow ever more varied until one particular arrangement actually starts duplicating itself. The ability of this structure to make copies of itself from the surrounding materials enables it to dominate the local environment and soon the waters are filled with this new process. The universe has come to life. In some extraordinary sense we can now speak in meaningful terms about the universe having information—tiny blueprints that direct the formation of ever more interesting and varied forms of simple life.
Subtle interactions between these primitive life-forms as they compete for resources make them increasingly more robust, as the stronger ones reproduce themselves more effectively. The copying process, driven by a surprisingly creative set of molecular interactions, steadily and mysteriously pushes the life-forms to greater and greater complexity. The information molecule driving all this will one day be identified as DNA and discovered to have an amazing ability to both reliably makes copies of itself and to explore small variations. These explorations will allow the molecule to locate small improvements to its basic structure and then reproduce that new variation with greater efficiency until it would come to dominate.
A major change occurred when single-celled forms of life began to cooperate and form multi-celled organisms. This cooperation empowered entirely new developments that would lead to astonishing increases in complexity and sophistication. Eventually specialized functions would emerge enabling organisms to collect visual information, to hear sounds, to have body temperatures that were constant, to have solid skeletal structures that would provide enormous protection when they were on the outside and great mechanical dexterity when they were on the inside.
Then God said “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, Andover the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
As complexity increased the need to process more and more information from the external world increased also, and a remarkable central processing unit of enormous power and sophistication emerged. These brains, as they would one day be called, endowed their possessors with a growing capacity to function in the world and to understand the world.
Mysteriously these brains that evolved in response to challenges having to do with survival and reproduction acquired capacities to think about complex subjects. The capacity to do mathematics emerged and with it came increasingly deep insights into the patterns and underlying order of creation.
Eventually the most advanced of the life-forms on the planet, human beings, became deeply religious. Throughout the history of our species belief in God or gods has been close to universal. Abstractions like right and wrong, the meaning of life, and where everything came from have become critically important questions. The religious impulse developed into one of the deepest aspects of our complicated understanding of ourselves.
And God saw that it was Good.
The previous blog is adapted from The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins. The book, which will appear in February 2011, is the first in a series of books that BioLogos will be producing in concert with InterVarsity Press. (Collins’s contributions to this volume ended when he became head of the NIH).