Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Christianity and Evolution

I recently visited a Christian site called which is involved in campus activism. There I addressed a blog posting on why college students are converted away from their faith with the following observation:

"One of the reasons why universities are so good at converting Christians away from the faith is because of the anti-science bias of too many Christians. I saw this firsthand when I went to Western Kentucky University to major in Recombinant Gene Technology. Most of the people who entered the biology department entered Christians and existed atheists. The reason for this was not that anyone directly tried to convert anyone from Christianity — in fact, probably half the staff were professed Christians, including the head of the department, who taught a Sunday school class. No, the reason for it was that students were presented with insurmountable evidence for evolution. They had been taught by their pastors that evolution was incompatible with Christianity, so faced with the evidence for evolution, students chose facts over faith.

I was not one of them. I chose both facts and faith. I was taught exactly the same thing. I was, after all, raised in a Baptist church. My best friend was the son of the pastor. I often spent the night at my pastor’s house. But I also knew that “a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a day.” Meaning, I understood that a story meant to help a wandering tribe of nomadic shepherds understand how God made the world may be true in a more metaphorical way than in a merely factual way. So when I encountered the incontrovertible facts of biology, I accepted it, without rejecting God.

I think it is important that our churches learn to not pre-undermine their young followers by preaching scientific falsehoods and being anti-science. God and science to not conflict or contradict. Evolution and the Big Bang theory do not deny the existence of God — no matter what many Christians may believe."

To which Frank Turek replied:


Outstanding post! Thank you very much. As a credentialed biologist, would you mind briefly describing in lay terms what you see as the best evidence for macro-evolution?


Frank Turek"

So I did. The following is my complete response:

Before I begin my discussion of “macroevolution,” I really need to address a few other issues. One, I need to address the issue of theory. Two, I need to address the issues of creationism and intelligent design. Then I will address some issues of evolution, including evidence for “macroevolution” and the mechanisms of evolution – which include but are not confined to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or “descent with modification.” Finally, I want to address the issue of materialist ontology (a fancy word for “how the world really is”). Keep in mind that I am going to address each of these issues as a church-going born-again Christian who is nonetheless convinced by the scientific facts supporting evolution, including biological and cosmological evolution.

What is a theory? When I talk about evolution to many Christians, evolution is dismissed as “merely a theory.” This comes from a misunderstanding – too often perpetuated by postmodernists in the humanities – of what a theory really is.

A scientific theory is developed in the following way: 1) data are collected, 2) the data collected show a structural pattern that must be explained, leading to 3) the development of a theory that explains the pattern(s) observed. From the theory one develops hypotheses, or predictions, which one should either be able to test directly, through experimentation, or indirectly, through observations. A hypothesis can go something like this: since we have X and Z, we should expect Y. If we find Y, that supports the hypothesis, which in turn supports the theory. If we somehow disprove a hypothesis (such as by proving Y is impossible), that can mean one of several things: 1) the hypothesis is wrong, but the theory is still good (there was an error made in the creation of the hypothesis), 2) the hypothesis is wrong because the theory is incomplete and needs modification in light of new data, or 3) the hypothesis is wrong because the theory is wrong. The latter is the hardest to prove, though theories can fall out of favor because they are incapable of creating enough good hypotheses, while another theory does so much better. Hypotheses raise questions answered by the scientific method and by observation and data collection, and those answers are fed back into the theory to modify it and make it more accurate – which simply means it is able to create more and better hypotheses. And so on, in a feedback loop. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been so modified – first, through the modern synthesis (with genetics), then through neo-Darwinism, then through evolutionary developmental biology, and no in conjunction with systems theory, self-organization theory, game theory, information theory, catastrophe theory (emergence), chaos theory, bios theory, and complexity theory – that Darwin would barely recognize it.

We need to contrast scientific theory with the kind of theory found in the humanities, where someone comes up with an idea and then tries to fit everything into it, discarding (or ignoring) any facts inconvenient to that theory. I believe this is what most people think of when they think of “theory.” Such theories are indeed “mere theories,” based as they are on little to nothing much of the time. Marxism is such a “theory.” It is a shame these “theories” have the same name as scientific theories, as they are the complete opposite of one another, and have opposite results.

Perhaps many Christians make this mistake because the kinds of theories developed by the humanities are developed to help us to understand texts, and the truth-claims of Christians are text-based, while scientific truth-claims are materially based. This, of course, brings us to the question of “what is truth?” Scientific truth is different from religious truth. Science is based on mere facts – things provable by physical observation and experimentation. Religion is based on a different kind of truth – Jesus said that he is the “aletheia,” which has implications of an afterlife in the Greek. In ancient Greek mythology, the Lethe was the ridver souls drank from to forget the afterlife before they were born into a body. “Letheia” means “to forget,” and “aletheia” literally means “without forgetting” or to “unforget.” Christ was thus the physical demonstration of God and God’s world. This is the kind of truth Christianity as a religion is concerned with: this kind of experiential truth – not with mere facts. The facts of the world neither (directly) prove nor disprove God’s existence. Belief in God requires faith – “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 1:1) – not proof. To demand or expect scientific proof is to be disobedient to God and his commandment that we have faith. As Jesus chastised Thomas: “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Next, let me address the issues of creationism, intelligent design, and evolution (in the larger sense, including cosmological evolution). For my money, creationists have a much more solid, dignified position that, though refuted by the scientific evidence, at least does not require that God be an incompetent boob like intelligent design theory does. It does have one serious problem, though, that I will address below. The claim of intelligent design boils down to this: periodically, God has to intervene to set things on the right path or to develop some complex entity or body part. What this really means is they do not think God was competent enough to create a universe with rules that would create everything as we now see it, that he couldn’t create a universe that didn’t need him to come in and continually tinker with it to get it right. I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe in a God who is incapable of creating a universe that could evolve without his continual interference. Doesn’t that go against the idea of God’s perfection?

The creationist is faced with a somewhat different problem, but one no less troubling – which is that it would appear that God created a world and a universe designed to fool us into believing falsehoods about it. I side with Descartes in rejecting the idea of God purposefully fooling us. Such a God would be evil, and that goes against the Christian belief in God being wholly good. The claims I have occasionally heard that Satan put the fossils in the ground is just plain silly – and doesn’t explain astronomical observations, unless you believe Satan moved the stars too. This would refute the statements made in Genesis that God’s creation is good. Yes, man fell from a state of grace when he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but that act affected the fate of man, not the nature of reality and the world God created.

There are many areas which need to be addressed regarding “macroevolution.” The silliest version of the objection to macroevolution is that “you don’t see a lion become a zebra,” which is something that no evolutionary biologist has ever claimed. Straw men do not help you make your case – they only make you look a fool. So let’s do away with such foolishness, as to accept such tactics is to accept that you don’t have the arguments or the facts to make your case. If we look at what evolutionary biologists do claim, it makes a great deal of sense. And the fossils, genetic evidence, etc. support the story very well.

I have heard many people say “I believe in microevolution but not in macroevolution,” meaning they believe one cat can become another cat, but they don’t believe “big leaps” occur. Well, what do we mean by “big leaps” that result in not just a new species, but in new genera, families, etc.? If we take the fossil record seriously, what we see are some very clear developments among many branches of animals. Take mammals, for example. The fossil evidence suggests the earliest mammals resembled shrews – they were small, with primitive features. Look at the paws of a shrew. They resemble the paws of mice and even of primates. Animals with different kinds of paws developed from common ancestors. Cats and dogs have paws similar to each other and to their common weasel-like ancestor, while hoofed mammals all share a common ancestor along a different evolutionary path. There are many fossils showing the evolution of hoofed feet in mammals, with splits leading to single-hoofed horses, hoof-toed camels, cloven-hoofed goats, sheep, and cows, etc. There are huge numbers of fossils, supported by genetic trees showing relatedness, to support this. Are there gaps? Of course. Fossilization requires rare conditions. But we do have a sufficient number of fossils to see trends. The expectation by some that we should have a “complete” fossil record that shows every single “transitional” species is unrealistic and, considering the reactions of many to the discovery of a transitional species in demanding transitions to and from the transitions, it seems to be beside the point for too many. They have a theory, and no amount of evidence is going to sway them, even if it were possible to find fossils from every generation from every species that ever existed – which it is not. Such people come across as irrational – and they are. Unfortunately, such people are also typically the most vociferous defenders of Christianity, making it appear that Christianity is itself irrational. This is why many students, when faced with the incredible amount of fossil evidence and genetic evidence, along with explanatory mechanisms, reject Christianity. That is a shame, since it does not have to be that way.

So we are not claiming cats turn to sheep in macroevolutionary theory, and the evidence in fact shows a common ancestor in a shrew-like animal that could easily give rise to the different mammal body shapes we see. We also increasingly have the evidence to support such evolutionary development. If we understand hairs and feathers as modified scales, the transitions from reptiles to birds and mammals are also fairly unremarkable. The argument that “if apes evolved from monkeys, then why do we still have monkeys” is resolved with the fact that apes in fact evolved from a common ancestor which is now extinct, but that led to them and to certain monkeys. Speciation comes about from reproductive isolation of groups, which can occur due to geographical, climatological, or genetic changes (or any combination of these). As genetic changes occur in these isolated populations, the two groups drift away from each other and become reproductively isolated. These genetic changes include not just point mutations, but also through genetic inversions in chromosomes, recombinations, jumping genes, foreign DNA, etc. Also, your genes are full of redundancies. A lot of changes to the DNA can be absorbed with no effects. In complex organisms, there is further redundancy built in with multiple copies of genes that can be used as backups if a gene gets a harmful mutation. Also, repair mechanisms fix many mutations, and backup genes can act as templates for repairing harmful changes. Many of these mechanisms are so incredibly complex they are only just now being discovered and understood.

In addition, we have become aware of many more processes in nature that help us understand evolutionary changes. Changes that affect development can have dramatic effects. A slight weakening of a site on a developmental protein can result in, say, neck bones growing a little longer than in a previous generation. Soon, you have giraffes. A trigger for physical maturation may be lost while sexual maturation is retained. This is a mechanism known as neoteny, which appears to have been the mechanism which turned a kind of sea squirt into the ancestor of fish. There is still a creature, called the lancelet, which strongly resembles the larvae of sea squirts – and which is closely genetically related to them. The fishes and the lancelet both share a common ancestor in the neotenous sea quirt larvae. This is an example of true “macroevolution” if we are thinking of it as a dramatic change. But even here, the dramatic change is only between adult forms. The mature lancelet looks just like an immature sea squirt.

In addition, we have mechanisms in nature explained by systems theory, like strange attractors which stabilize certain forms and allow transitions from one order through chaos to another order – as described by catastrophe theory. Bios theory explains creativity in systems, and chaos theory explains stability in systems. All of these, in combination with Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, explain how species evolved over time.

Many people are concerned that science is dependent upon a materialist ontology, and that materialism is itself atheistic. But science does not have to be dependent upon materialism. In fact, the evidence increasingly shows the world isn’t such much materialist as informational in nature. Thus, I subscribe to an informational ontology, which is highly compatible with Christianity. I do not ascribe to a materialist ontology nor an idealist one, but rather, an ontology of information. In other words, I take the following from John 1:1 seriously:

en arche hn o logos

"the foundation of all things is information"

Admittedly, this is a definition that comes about in light of information theory -- but if you truly understand both what information is, and all the meanings of logos, you can see that "information" is a good translation of "logos." Certainly a far, far, far, far, far better choice than "word," which is such a peripheral meaning of logos as to be almost completely inaccurate. When we "Logos," we communicate information one to another, process that information, and pass on that information. All things are information at different levels of complexity -- information processors, which all communicate different kinds of information at different levels. For biological organisms, the vehicle of communication tends to be chemical, though also photons and sound waves. Humans communicate using more complex information-carriers, particularly through grammatical, syntactical language. If we look at the ways to define information -- as a noun, it is that which is without form; as a verb, it is that which gives form to another. Thus, pure information is that which is without form, which gives form.

"The foundation of all things was information, and the information was 1) to the advantage of 2) at, near, by 3) to, towards, with, with regard to (the word translated as "with") God, and God was information."

That is the most literal translation of John 1:1 I can render. The story of the universe is one of foundation on information, and the increasing complexity of that information over time in the universe. Atoms have less complex forms of information than do chemicals and especially chemical cycles and systems. Biology is a set of highly complex chemical systems. The human brain is a highly complex neural system in complex interaction with other humans through complex social systems. That information is communicated through language, which itself must be highly complex in order to communicate most efficiently. God is the most complex of the universe, and thus has all the information. This is how God is both the Alpha (the inform information that gives form at the beginning of the universe) and the Omega (the most complex, most informed).

All the other theories I use in my philosophy -- evolutionary theory, game theory, chaos theory, complexity theory, emergence theory, etc. -- explain the ways in which information interacts to create more complex things and how those complex things engage in complex interactions. Information theory is the foundation of all these things. Information is the foundation of all things.
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