Something I really enjoy about teaching biology is surprising students with how different the natural world is than what we would expect based on our own experiences.
For example, one obstacle in teaching bird identification is getting some beginners to accept that baby songbirds are roughly the same size as adults. In numerous species, a two-week old fledgling is already close to the size of its parents when it leaves the nest. This developmental speed would be similar to two-year old human toddlers growing to the size and weight of their mothers (yikes!). Although this seems “wrong” from our perspectives, studying nature informs us that our initial perceptions are a narrow view of reality.
Here’s another example: A variety of animal, algae and fungi reproduce asexually by casting off swimming cells or wind-borne spores that grow into duplicate individuals. This is the equivalent of me releasing single cells from my fingertips that settle and develop into exact Gary Fugle copies (each one like an identical twin). How strange this seems to us and, yet, how wonderfully fascinating!
Most of us know that bees are attracted to colorful flowers, but we are unaware that once these insects land they are guided to nectar by intricately etched patterns emitted in ultraviolet light ranges perceptible to bees but not to humans. These UV patterns were unknown to humans until scientific techniques revealed them. My study of biology has continually revealed to me that the natural world is far more complicated, expansive and different than I once perceived it or expected it to be.
There is a lesson to be gleaned from these fun biological tales: we should be prepared to be just as surprised and fascinated by the elaborate evolutionary story revealed in nature. No one ponders the vast diversity of life on earth and immediately thinks it came from a slow, dynamic process over enormous amounts of time. That’s because we don’t perceive organisms evolving from our extremely short-lived human perspectives, and the billions of years over which evolution has occurred is almost beyond our understanding. But this is also why the topic is so astounding and awesome!
Some of the most frequent comments I hear from individuals skeptical of evolution are, “How could evolution possibly lead to the intricate human eye?” or “How could evolution give rise to the perfect structure of a bird wing?” The implicit arguments these individuals are making is that difficulty comprehending how something could happen is sufficient reason to discount it. I suggest it is far more important that the vast majority of biologists who have studied such things are entirely convinced by how intricately and extensively the natural world describes an evolutionary past.
I encourage Christians to be open to astonishment at what is revealed in the natural world. Biological evolution is more complicated and, for some, emotionally less satisfying than special creation events, e.g. a literal six day creation. But I assume that what we all desire is the truth, not pre-conceived notions or expectations of how God should or should not act. All Christians assert that God brought the physical world and the diversity of life into existence. Beyond that, we can be very open to learn more about the specific methods he used to do so.
Even further, I suggest that in embracing evolutionary understandings of creation, Christians are actually allowed to better appreciate the God we worship. By exploring God’s creative masterpiece, evolutionary biology reveals untold depth, complexity, elegance, and grandness. We see God and his power in larger and grander ways than we previously perceived. I believe we rightly honor God by investigating and understanding the wonders of evolution in his created world.
The Bible teaches us to wrestle with who God is. This is a good thing. Job (the righteous man “in whom God delights”) never wavers in his belief of God’s authority and power, but he struggles with questions about God’s actions. “I would present my case before him and fill my mouth with my arguments” (Job 23:4). When we believe we have a particular section of the Bible completely figured out, God will invariably be ready to teach us more about it.
We are always best off being open to changes in our perspective about a God whose ways are not wholly knowable. I encourage Christians to consider evolutionary ideas without anxiety, not as a compromise, a sad surrender or a dilution of our faith, but as part of our ever-expanding, glorious view of the God we worship.
ABOVE: A stunning view in Yosemite National Park. Photograph by Hannah Fugle, used with permission.