Evolution: Fun as a Barrel Full of Monkeys
Let me start by clearing up some common confusions about what evolution is not:
- Evolution does not imply that God does not exist.
- Evolution does not claim man came from apes.
- Evolution is not “just a theory” among many theories about how life began.
- Evolution is not “bad science” that attempts to intrude on religion.
I should expand on these a bit. If you agree with all the above, you can skip this paragraph and the next two. (1) and (4) are both based on the idea that God is supernatural. That is, outside of nature; not a part of nature, but something other than nature. (If there are any pantheists in the audience, pardon me, but I have to do one thing at a time, so I will only consider monotheism.) Since God is not a part of nature, and we are a part of nature, we cannot measure God. Therefore, science (and biology in particular) has nothing to say about the existence of anything supernatural and therefore nothing to say about God.
There are two ways in which (3) is annoying. My personal favorite is when I have heard, “evolution is just a theory, is hasn’t been proven,” from someone who clearly knows nothing about science at all. This is just confusion about the definition of theory. They seem to think that evolution is just an idea and that there are other competing ideas that are equally worthy of merit. This is not the case. A good theory explains the existing evidence and makes predictions about the future that can be tested and has stood up to many such tests and observations. Evolution is a solid scientific theory. “Creation Science” is not a theory at all and is really an oxymoron.
In (2) I am probably confusing the issue a little, but evolution does not claim humans came from apes. Rather, it claims that modern apes and humans both came from a common primitive ancestor. Chimpanzees did not become humans beings. Chimps and human are both descendants of another creature which no longer exists. So, when people say, “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys,” they are simply showing that they do not understand the science at all.
If Not This, Then What?
So if it is none of those things, what is evolution? Charles Darwin wrote his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. In his book, Darwin proposed “natural selection” as the explanation for how a wide diversity of species could come into existence. He had visited the island of Madagascar and there on the island he had seen unique variations of animals found on the mainland. What struck Darwin was that the differences in the island animals were things that were helpful for living on the island. It was as if the animals had adapted genetically to living there. He had the idea that animals had come to the island from the mainland and over time had adapted to the different living conditions on the island.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests that when animals reproduce, sometimes, slight mutations happen. If these mutations are things that tend to help a species survive and pass on their genetics, then the mutations survive. If the mutations are not good for survival, they will not be passed on to the next generation (or at least passed on in smaller numbers). Over a long period of time, these mutations pile up and make a big enough difference to appear as a different species altogether.
The appearance of mutations can be shown experimentally. This is not in dispute. The passing on of traits by genetics is not in dispute either. “Unnatural selection” by humans is how we breed domestic animals like dogs, pigeons, or cattle to be what we want them to be. It is clear that these parts of the model work fine.
People can usually accept the idea of small changes in animals over time, but not the huge differences between species or say the difference between fish and mammals. This is just a confusion over how large numbers work. Even if only one mutation in a hundred generations is useful, over a few million generations, even very unlikely events can be shown to happen often mathematically.
To expand on this idea a little, consider the domestic dogs many of us humans have as pets. If we breed two dogs together, the littler usually has some that look like the father, some that look like the mother, some that are like both, and sometimes an oddball or two that are maybe extra large or small or some other difference. By selecting the specific traits we want in each generation, over a few generations, we get very specialized breeds of dog. Hence, we have wild difference in the same animal in only a few years. Natural selection works in much the same way.
Apes who spend their lives in trees need great upper body strength and a tail for balance. Imagine a group of apes that splits into two groups (A) and (B) when food becomes scarce. (A) goes deeper into the trees. (B) moves to the edge of the trees to search more in the open fields and on the ground. Over a long period of time, as group (B) spends more and more time on the the ground, and less in the trees, those apes born with shorter tails prospered more since their long tales were no longer necessary and in the way. Those who had greater lower body strength for walking did better. The ones with a slightly tilted pelvis could walk upright just a little longer. Over a few million years, group (B) has no tail at all, stronger legs, and a tilted pelvis, allowing them to walk on two legs. If group (A) met with group (B) years later, they would share a common ancestor, but be different species.
But Isn’t Evolution for Atheists?
No. Evolution is a scientific model for how different species of animals developed and continue to develop. Evolution has nothing to say about the supernatural. If this means that we now have a better idea of the method employed by God to create the various species then this should not be surprising at all. It happens all the time. Anytime we rely on the “God of the gaps” we are asking for trouble.
But That’s Not What Genesis Says!
Of course not, and I wouldn’t expect it to say anything like that. As I have said in other places, Genesis contains much allegory. Many smart people believe this. I believe it. St. Paul believed it and says so in Galatians 4:21-24. The book of Genesis is about man’s relationship to God, not the historical details. Read my article on the age of the earth.
Now, if Genesis is allegorical, we do not have to believe that every single creature that lives today was on the Ark. Do I believe there was an Ark? Yes, I do. Was there a flood? Yes, there was. Did it cover the entire surface of the earth? I doubt it. I suspect is was more localized to specific areas prone to such things and worldwide. I do not think it is a coincidence that there are stories of a flood at about the same time in cultures from all over the world, from the Babylonians, all the way to the American Indians. I’m going far afield from my expertise, but is it possible there was global climate change in the past, with glaciers still melting from the previous ice age and massive flooding worldwide?
The real question is: if the flood was not covering the entire surface of the earth, is the story false? Is it less in any way? I think not. I think the animals and people in Noah’s geographic area were all drowned. I think Noah’s observance of God’s instructions and his obeying were what saved him and his family. Did animals come from all over and get in Noah’s Ark? Yes. If you’ve ever seen animals moving ahead of a flood or a coming disaster this doesn’t surprise you at all. Taken with a little license, everything in the flood story is not only reasonable, it is likely.
Why mention all of this? Because as long as we continue to insist that our understanding of the Bible is correct even when it flies in the face of evidence to the contrary, we will continue to stumble in the dark on certain other issues. If Christians are willing to argue that scientist who spend their entire lives studying biology and had years of training and education are wrong because Christians think that Biologists must be wrong because what the Biologists are saying contradicts how Christians understand of the Bible. This needs to stop.
I’m Not Making This Up
If you look at earlier posts, or books by smarter people on the subject, you will find that many notable people have also believed this way. It is a very modern idea to think that one who is uneducated in the science or in the theology is qualified to have an opinion at all. In this case, if you do not understand the science behind evolution, or the theology behind the creation, maybe you should reconsider your position on rejecting the science. St. Augustine and most Christian thinkers of the past would have agreed with me. It is only the modern uneducated and politicians who want you to stand up in the face of science and deny them based on your own ideas about how the world should work.
Can We Stop Now?
Let’s all agree that we won’t talk about “Creation Science” anymore, now that we know it isn’t science. Let’s all agree that evolution is more like gravity that it is like atheism. Let’s also agree that although the Bible is God’s Word, we do not always have a perfect understanding of it, and that as science learns more about how God’s creation works, it is okay for us to try to understand what God is trying to tell us in the light of a new discovery.
Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, was burned at the stake by the Church in 1600 AD for saying that the stars extended outward into space instead of existing in a celestial sphere at a fixed distance from Earth. In 1632, Galileo Galilei, building on the earlier work of Copernicus, claimed that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than the other way around and the Church put him under house arrest for heresy.
These things happened because some (well-meaning I suspect) people in the Church believed that the science was wrong, not because they knew about the science, but because they believed it challenged the teaching of the Bible. They were wrong. They were wrong about what they thought the Bible was saying. They were wrong about their understanding of the science.
I propose that we stop now. Let us leave the science to the scientists. If we are not sure about which scientist to believe, I would not be surprised if we can find excellent scientists who are also Christian. I imagine it would not take long at all to find a Christian biologist who could explain evolution and we would not have to suspect a sinister motive.
I propose that we also drop this modern idea that anything new that tends to make us reconsider our current understanding of the Bible, or even of God for that matter, is bad or evil. Let’s consider it a good thing. The more I can understand about how the world works, the better I can understand the things God has been trying to tell me about it and therefore about Himself.
The word “evolve” means to gradually develop. Our own understanding of God’s Word is always evolving. Our relationship to God is evolving. Evolution, gradual development, is everywhere in God’s universe. Rejecting evolution as God’s chosen method is unreasonable.