Word Games

| By

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to tell where people stand just based on the words they use? The op-ed writers in The New York Times, for example, seem unable to write about George W. Bush without saying something rude. Journalists on Fox News have the same problem when covering stories about Barack Obama.

Sometimes the rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. You can still get the real story behind the scenes. But other times rhetoric can actually mislead. Consider the rhetoric used to describe evolution by fundamentalist groups like Answers in Genesis, a group dedicated to convincing Christians that evolution is incompatible with their faith.

"Why would the omnipotent Creator of the universe use such a wasteful (and cruel) process of survival of the fittest (meaning that animals have been ripping each other up over millions of years) to bring about the higher forms of life? This view of 'theistic evolution' goes against God's very nature -- and logic itself." The Answers in Genesis Web site poses this question to Christians who accept evolution as God's method of creation.

This cleverly worded question has been a part of the creation-evolution controversy for more than a century. But note the rhetoric in the question: "wasteful," "cruel," "ripping each other up." In this case, Answers in Genesis depicts God presiding over the process of creation and looking on in approval as animals kill each other in cruel ways. The bloodied survivors of the carnage live on to produce offspring, and that is how human beings are created: survival of the fittest.

This all sounds rather dreadful, and thus it is easy to see why the argument is so effective. But let's look more closely at this description, which I consider a gross caricature of evolution.

For starters, there were no animals to rip each other up for almost all of evolutionary history. If you are picturing dinosaurs killing each other, that happened during the Mesozoic Era, which began 245 million years ago and ended about 65 million years ago. Life evolved on Earth for more than 3 billion years before there were even simple animals that could have been "ripping each other up." During the first few billion years, life was dominated by rather boring, single-celled life forms incapable of anything so interesting as ripping each other up.

Now consider the phrase "survival of the fittest." In the passage above, this process is defined as animals "ripping each other up." Presumably the ones that rip the best are the most fit. But this is not what evolution suggests at all. Books discussing evolution define the fitness of an organism by approximately its number of offspring. More fit organisms have more offspring and send more of their genes into the next generation. Having large families -- whether your offspring are oak trees, brook trout or humans -- is what drives evolution.

I have two children; the coauthor of my book, Species of Origins, has none. My relative fitness, as I like to remind him, is two while his fitness is zero -- the lowest possible value. The current human gene pool has more of my genes in it than his, but this did not happen because I ripped him up or competed with him in any way. Similarly, if carrot-loving rabbits have more babies than their cousins who prefer broccoli, the rabbit population will end up with a preference for carrots -- no ripping required.

Violence certainly occurs in nature, described by Alfred Lord Tennyson as, "Red in tooth and claw." All you have to do is watch a nature special on the Discovery Channel to witness, for example, a lion ripping up a zebra. But this violence is there whether evolution is true or not. If, as Answers in Genesis contends, God created everything in six days a few thousand years ago, and evolution is completely false, do the animals in the nature special suddenly stop ripping each other up?

In fact, if evolution is true, the small amount of actual cruelty and violence in nature is partially redeemed. When one animal kills another -- perhaps because it was slow or less intelligent -- it strengthens the gene pool of that species by preventing the weaker animal from passing on its genes. The loss of life, though tragic, contributes to the overall health of the group. There is certainly some cruelty in nature, but evolution can bring about benefits from that cruelty.

This is the BioLogos way of looking at evolution. We accept what science has established with careful observation and decades of hard work, but we see no reason to reject evolution as incompatible with a God who can work through any process. Answers in Genesis, however, disagrees. Their followers are praying that the BioLogos team will "repent of their compromise and return to biblical authority." In their rhetorically charged opinion, we are confused because we "honor man's fallible ideas instead of God's infallible Word."

Word games.


About the Author

Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

More posts by Karl Giberson