On Evolution

posted May 02, 2005

Springboarding from here, discussing an article on how Darwinians may be their own worst enemy.

I was raised Christian and Creationist.

By explicit and informed choice, I am still the former. I can no longer call myself the latter. I thought it might be interesting to share my thoughts and conclusions on that, and why I do not believe that to be a fundamental conflict.

As is my speciality on this site, I would point out the "Creationist" and "Evolutionist" are not the only two choices, nor is this really a "shades of grey" situation, either. Instead, there are several distinct questions that arise, with more-or-less binary answers.

Looking at it from the evolutionary point of view (just so we have something to hook to), the basic questions are:

  1. How did life start?
  2. Obviously, there are multiple species. How are they related to each other, if at all? (Note this "relation" simply covers factual relationships, not how those factual relationships arose. For example, you can trace a family tree without reference to, or even explicit knowledge of, the mechanics of human reproduction; the relationship can be traced without knowing the "why". See next question...)
  3. If there are relationships between the species, how did those relationships arise?

And for each "How?", you may also substitute "Why?" and add it to the list.

Breaking down the questions to this degree of detail, the stereotypical Creationist platform immediately runs up against some serious difficulties. To sketch out the answers:

  1. God created it via an act of will.
  2. They are not particularly related to each other, as each creature creation was an act of will by an intelligent being.
  3. Any relationships are by choice by the Creator, most likely due to similarity in creative purpose.

For each corresponding "why?", the Creationist answer is "because God said so."

Considered abstractly, "Creationism" is perhaps not so horrible scientifically. But you get down to what it seems to be saying, and point #2 really has a problem. All the various life forms clearly are intimately related, on a level far, far deeper than mere morphological structure. I'll clarify what I mean by that in a bit.

Now, the stereotypical Evolutionist answers to those questions:

  1. Somehow, with no external non-material influences, a simple life form arose from amino acids and gained the ability to self-replicate. From there, life evolved.
  2. Life forms are related by common descent. That is to say, the whole of the family tree of every life form on Earth has one or very few ancestors.
  3. The mechanisms of genetic mutation in a strictly materialistic world completely explains the relationships and changes.

For each corresponding "why", the Evolutionist position is effectively "No particular reason." (I say this because while they may have reasons for this or that, I think they would agree that regardless of the probability of life arising, the Universe has no particular preference either way, so even if life is exceedingly probable it's still just a dice roll.)

Note in both these cases I said "stereotypical"; of course there are variations but few of them ultimately matter at this level of detail.

Finally, I offer you what I believe to be the best supported scientific answers to those questions:

  1. From the fact that life exists now, and clearly there was a point in the past that it did not exist, we may infer it had a starting point, but we have no truly good theory on how it happened. There are several candidate theories, but they are more of a beginning of a theory than a full explanation. (Moreover it has proven quite difficult to make a life form of any kind that could plausibly evolve from nothing; we've done experiments on creating the simplest possible life forms, and we've genetically engineered some bacteria that are incredibly simple, but they are still way, way too complex to evolve from scratch without intermediates we have no evidence for.)
  2. Life forms are related by common descent. That is to say, the whole of the family tree of every life form on Earth has one or very few ancestors.
  3. Genetic variation can be demonstrated to cover a lot of the variation, but it hasn't been proven to be the only influence, if for no other reason than such a proof is effectively impossible due to the sheer number of living things that have existed, most of which we have no DNA-level access to. But it definitely can provide an explanation for most demonstrated changes, and it seems plausible that it can cover the rest of the things we can't prove.

My personal commentary:

  1. The Evolutionist position oversteps science here; it is probably fair to say abiogenesis is the leading scientific theory but there really is no evidence in this domain and that's more ideology of scientists than evidence; nobody has produced anything like life in the lab (they've taken the first step of hundreds or thousands, not terribly impressive). Basically nobody has any good idea where life came from, and an intelligent designer here is neither more nor less scientific a theory than any other. Science will most likely never solve this one for certain, there just isn't enough evidence.
  2. Common descent, via an unspecified mechanism, is essentially mathematically provable; I was fortunate enough to get the math in University to follow that and I agree it is rigorous. (This is what I meant earlier when I was discussing the Creationist position; the relationships between species are the deepest possible, not merely surface similarities.) What that says is that if the Creationists are right and God is directly intervening in the creation of new life forms, in some sense that is a miraculous violation of physical laws, then he is doing it in such a way that happens to correspond exactly to the way things would have through common descent. Exactly. Occam's razor suggest discarding that hypothesis, though it should be observed Occam isn't a proof technique, just an extremely powerful rule of thumb. (It does tend to break down where intelligence is involved.)

    It should be pointed out that every clause in "God is directly intervening in the creation of new life forms, in some sense that is a miraculous violation of physical laws" is important; Quantum Mechanics, for instance, leaves room for an omnipotent God to undetectably (even in theory) affect the Universe without any violation of any physical law. Every time something may either zig or zag, Physics can only give probabilities, it can't be certain even in principle. Thus, dropping "miraculous violation of physical laws" still leaves a theory that can be neither proven nor disproven.

    Creationists in general seem to have this idea of a very heavy handed influence on new life forms that would necessarily leave some sort of huge signature on the resulting life form, but no such signature can be found. On the other hand, science can not say, even in theory, whether there may be a God having a much more subtle influence on the events of the Universe, by acting through the fuzziness and uncertainty built into this Universe, this having rather obvious implications in fact well beyond just a discussion of evolution.

    (Personally, I find it interesting that technically speaking, almost anything is possible without actually violating the laws of the universe, in the sense that the probability is non-zero. But a full discussion of that is out of scope of this message, I suppose.)

  3. To review, question three is, "How did these relationships arise?" I find myself in agreement with the scientific position in the present time, but there are a lot of questions about how the DNA mechanisms arose in the first place. DNA seem parameterized in a lot of ways; you might be able to find a single gene sequence that controls the length a given body part will grow, such that you can make it a lot longer or a lot shorter, or anything in between, with relative ease. Not everything is like that, but a lot of the grunt work of creating a new species can be done just with such gross fiddling; the commonly-used example of all the species of Finches is covered to a large degree by beak variations, leading to some other basic variations.

    However, there is the question of how this flexible and adaptive system arose in the first place, which sort of echos the first question. There seems to be this basic minimum for life as we know it, and it is not at all clear how this system arose; we can sort of follow the progress given the existence of life in the first place, but that is a big given.

To the corresponding "Why?" questions, science simply must stay silent.

To me, it is fairly clear and nearly unassailable that a process like what evolution conventionally describes has been taking place once the first life form arose. It is impossible to scientifically state, even in theory, that no extra-Universal being had a hand in directing it (this is universally true, thanks to QM you simply can't prove whether a God had a hand in how events turned out). It is completely unknown how life started, and thus still plausible that it was designed in some fashion, though even such design could have been through rather subtle tweakings rather than the "bolt from the blue", lifeless rock one second, fully-fledged life-form the next.

As observed by others, the ideologies of Evolutionists and Creationists are the real conflict. I think in both cases, they over-step science; by and large the Evolutionists are less guilty of this (Creationists do indeed have the tendency to make stuff up, or accept theories that fit their pre-conceptions rather than the facts), but nevertheless the Evolutionists are still over-stepping science, which only says what has happened, not why; they are not permitted to claim scientific support when they insist on pure Materialism.

Ultimately, I think this shows is that ultimately, the scientific aspects of evolution are not in conflict with Christianity, or several other religions. (It may contradict others that are more firm on the origins of life, but I can't be specific as I am not an expert on all religions.) Science can't answer "Why?" questions, and there is plenty of room for non-material sources to affect the processes.

A note to my fellow Christians: One of the central tenants of Christian theology is that God is Truth, and that we can discover this truth via inspection and interaction with the real Universe that he created. Most scientific philosophers that I've seen, even very non-Christian ones, tend to agree that this philosophical ideal from the Reformation, led to modern science.

Given this, we owe it to ourselves and God to approach this question in the spirit of honest inquiry. The Bible verses dealing on this topic are extremely short and are clearly, no matter how you slice it, merely the shortest and most fundamental of summaries on the topic, not college textbooks. (How life began is an interesting topic, but ultimately, much like many other interesting topics, the details are not important to the vast majority of is, the vast majority of the time.)

In the event that we do find an honest conflict, we must dig deeper. Consider 1 Corinthians 15:14: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." And 32b of the same chapter: "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" From this I get that it is OK to say and think such hypotheticals; from the consideration we may grow stronger, not weaker. We must approach the Universe, God's creation, with the humility to see truths that may be very surprising. (It is no particular stretch to imagine an Anti-Einsteinian Relativity religious movement; I think it doesn't exist mostly because it doesn't seem to matter to most people, and because most people don't understand how thoroughly it contradicts their beliefs about how the Universe works.) If Christianity is truth, we may look at the evidence that seems like there may be no God for a moment, and come through the other side stronger (or at least not weaker) for facing the truth and seeing the claimed implications are, if not falsifiable, also not provable even in principle.

While I do not think that Science is in conflict with Christianity, I think that both Evolutionism and Creationism are; the former obviously, the latter ultimately for the exact same reason when it gets down to it.

I do not think God will look kindly on those who, in their pride, believe that they have worked out the history of the Earth over the past two billion years and refuse to open their eyes to evidence to the contrary, and as a result sow seeds that reap a harvest of legitimate mockery of Christianity, and by implication, Christ. Evolutionists may be their own worse enemy, but the same is true for Creationists. You shall know a tree by it's fruit, and the fruits of Creationism have been intensely bitter. It is time for that tree to come down. End of Christian note.


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