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Don't be too uncritical of evolution

Posted at 09:00 on 13 August 2018

Now I'm mostly quite sympathetic towards BioLogos. Their aim is to demonstrate to evangelical Christians that science in general -- and evolutionary science in particular -- need not be a threat to our faith, and on the whole I think they do a fairly good job of it. I've also learned quite a lot about apologetics in general from them, and through participating on their online forum over the past three years or so.

But such a message needs to be communicated in the right terms. As science-literate Christians, we should be reassuring our fellow believers that you can trust the Bible as the inspired Word of God regardless of who or what did or did not evolve from what. Unfortunately, it often doesn't come across in those terms.

Take, for example, these posts on the BioLogos website:

Now these articles make some valid points -- bad arguments can cause more harm than good, so you need to make sure your facts are straight, and be honest about what the evidence can and can not accommodate -- but just look at the titles. They seem very blunt and in-your-face, and anyone seeing them for the first time will wonder what on earth they're dealing with. They don't convey a message of "you can trust the Bible, evolution or not," but of "evolution is a fact, science trumps Scripture, get over it." Such a message is more in line with what I would expect from sites such as The Sensuous Curmudgeon, Friendly Atheist, The Panda's Thumb, or No Answers in Genesis than with that of an organisation that self-identifies as evangelical Christian.

I'm not saying this to criticise BioLogos, but to make a point. Specifically:

Don't just uncritically accept everything you hear about evolution.

There is a danger, when attempting to discern the harmony between science and faith, of shifting your focus away from upholding the truth of Scripture regardless of evolution onto upholding the truth of evolution regardless of Scripture. Such an approach can all too easily lead down a very dark and dangerous road of giving a free pass to everything that science publicists have to say about evolution -- right down to the more questionable details and dubious moral and philosophical inferences from it -- while questioning more and more of the Bible until all you've got left is 1 Corinthians 13, the maps and the cover.

If there's one thing that I've learned about evolution, it is that it is not a single, take-it-or-leave-it monolith. On the contrary, it is a complex, multi-faceted subject with a lot of different moving parts. The scientific definition of evolution -- change in allele frequencies in biological populations over successive generations -- may sound fairly tightly constrained and even somewhat abstract, but it covers a lot of ground, especially when you consider that we're talking about 4.5 billion years of it.

There's a lot of debate about exactly what ground it covers. I don't think it's helpful to quibble about whose definition of "evolution" is the correct one; that just gets into arguments about semantics, and it achieves nothing. Instead, a more honest (and helpful) approach to evolution would be to break it down into its more well-defined constituent parts and discuss them separately and individually.

Some aspects of evolution are indisputable facts. Even young-earth creationists acknowledge this when they try to draw a distinction between "microevolution" and "macroevolution." Nobody can dispute, with honesty and integrity, that biological populations change over time. Nor can anybody seriously dispute that they have been doing so for far, far longer than ten thousand years. And it is simply not realistic to claim that there are no transitional fossils, when new ones are being catalogued on a daily basis.

But there are other aspects of evolution -- especially certain philosophical, moral and teleological inferences drawn from it -- that as Christians we can and should reject. For starters, we should not accept any interpretation of evolution that reduces us in status as humans to nothing more than Just Another Animal. Common ancestry or not, the Bible still teaches us that we are created in the image of God, and as such, we have been given an authority as stewards over creation -- and with it, a responsibility -- that has not been given to the rest of the animal kingdom. Nor should we allow the animals to set our moral and behavioural standards. There are certain forms of behaviour that are common among all kinds of animals -- including the great apes -- that nobody in their right mind would consider to be acceptable among humans. Cannibalism is just one example that comes to mind here.

Nor should we accept a view of evolution as an entirely undirected, meaningless process, such as the "blind watchmaker" evolution espoused by Richard Dawkins. As a software developer, I understand evolution to be an algorithm -- evolutionary algorithms are widely used in industry to solve problems that are computationally extremely complex. They are also used with very specific goals in mind, and as such they are directed and intentional. Far from being the antithesis of design, they are a tool for design.

When it comes to events in the Bible -- in particular, in Genesis 1-11 -- don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. There's a tendency among many theistic evolutionists to view the stories of Adam and Eve, or Noah and the Flood, as "myth" or "parable" -- perhaps having a theological message, but little or no basis in historical reality. Such a position doesn't necessarily follow. The Human Genome Project may have shown that the human population of Earth could not have been less than a few thousand any time in the past half a million years, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Adam and Eve were not real, historical people. There are even some evolutionary creation models that allow for them to have been created de novo -- one example being Joshua Swamidass's genealogical Adam. Similarly, just because the Flood didn't extend as far as Greenland, Antarctica or Japan, didn't reshape the continents or create the fossil record, and didn't feature dinosaurs on the Ark, doesn't mean to say that it never happened anywhere.

When dealing with evolution, yes, you need to know what you are talking about, yes, you need to be honest about how you approach it, and yes, you should avoid knee-jerk reactions to findings that make you feel uncomfortable. But don't just blindly accept everything you hear about it without question. As 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, "Test everything; hold on to what is good."

Featured image: Artist's impression of Tiktaalik roseae. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.