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Evolution: A Dialogue

I love my family.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m the youngest of ten siblings. I have nineteen nieces and nephews, two grand-nephews, and a brand new grand-niece. That being the case, it probably doesn’t surprise you much that we have dramatically different ideals, faiths, and political beliefs. We pretty much cover a large swathe of the spectrum of ideology: we have liberals, conservatives, and libertarians; Democrats and Republicans; Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics — and some of those don’t match up the way you’d expect. Anyway: big group, lots of diversity. No surprise there.

What is surprising is the fact that, on the whole, we all maintain civility and respect for one another. Sure, we’ve pretty much learned that there are times that certain topics must be avoided, but we’ve also learned how to interact when those topics do come up in a gratifyingly adult manner…and to extend love and respect in spite of our disagreements. 

So I was very pleased when my oldest sister, Caroline, responded via e-mail to my previous post. She’s a Christian who holds very different beliefs from mine, and also a very smart lady, so we ended up getting deep into discussion about the validity of evolution and the interplay of science and religion. And though we ended up agreeing to disagree—as so often must be the case—I enjoyed the conversation so much that I asked her permission to share it with you.

So here it is, unedited. Let it never be said that adults cannot disagree civilly about fundamental matters.


 
Dear Joseph,

I read your blog post this morning, and though I don’t expect to change your mind about anything, I do feel I need to respond.

Firstly…MRSA, peppered moths, Darwin’s finches, are all examples of microevolution, which no rational adult will argue against because, yes, this kind of change HAS been observed. What IS still a theory, and not fact, is large-scale evolution…macroevolution…and this is, of course, where the controversy is and what virtually everyone expressing an opinion on it is referring to.

The “evolution” of one species to another has not been observed, nor are there fossil records to support the claim. It is a theory, and though I believe it should certainly be taught in our schools, it is disingenuous and unscientific to teach it as fact, refusing to include its many problems.

Secondly, please ask me your “questions about Genesis 1:27 vis-a-vis Genesis 2:22, among others.” Do you see some kind of discrepancy between the two? And I don’t see any problem with believing that an almighty God could have created the world in 6 literal 24-hour days, in a form that makes them appear billions of years old. But many wise Christian scientists and other thinkers have different interpretations of the creation story timeline. The time it took to create the physical world is not an issue for me.

But I don’t believe that the idea that God guided the mutation process supposed in the theory can be reconciled with what is revealed in the Bible. The whole thing, from start to finish, is the story of God reconciling humanity to Himself after the first humans sinned and were sentenced to die. All the problems with the theory of evolution notwithstanding, I find the conjecture that God’s chosen method for creating a species “in His own image” was a process that took millions of years and countless “random” but (incredibly highly unlikely) advantageous mutations, an idea hardly “elegant”.

Regarding the issue of global warming and the scientific community, just as for scientists who question or disbelieve in Darwinism, it’s tough to swim against the mainstream. And those who do can expect their careers to suffer. Scientists are human like the rest of us…with biases, desires for admiration and recognition, and the propensity to be less than honest if the truth will hurt. Here’s a link for you if you’re interested in more information about Richard Muller’s “conversion.” www.andrebernier.com/?p=329

Just a little more food for thought, dear brother.

Agreeing to disagree, with love,

Caroline

———

Thank you for your thoughtful response, Caroline.

I do think we probably will end up sticking with “agree to disagree” but I did want to respond to some of your comments.

Regarding micro- vs. macroevolution. I think you might be mistaken about whether there’s a fossil record to support macroevolution. Here’s just one example: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evograms_06

But even if one disputes such evidence, I don’t see any logical rationale to support the idea that evolution only occurs on a small scale. Consider bacteria. As I mentioned in my post, we’ve observed bacterial evolution firsthand. In the case of MRSA, it’s human medicine influencing the development of the bacteria. But bacteria don’t exist in a vacuum; they live on and in plants and animals.

So we agree that Staph “evolves” on a small scale. Now consider what might happen if it developed into a much more virulent strain, one that proved deadly to, say, house cats. Logic tells us that the cats that survived its infection would be the ones that are somehow immune. And maybe they have some other trait in common that’s caused by whatever genetic idiosyncrasy makes them immune to superMRSA — big heads, an extra toe, bright-red fur, whatever. Over a long enough period of time, you end up with a new species of cat with big heads, extra toes, or red fur, because the ones without those characteristics have been killed off by the bug.

Of course this doesn’t happen all the time; usually you’d end up with a cat that’s physically almost identical to its predecessors, just with the built-in immunity. But given the number of species on the planet and the number of potential external influences on mortality, there’s a basically limitless number of opportunities for this kind of selection — which means even if the physical changes happen once in a million times, there are still plenty of opportunities for large-scale physical development.

My overall point is, we’ve observed in pretty much every area of life how small changes cause big changes. So to propose that evolution happens only on a small scale just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of our understanding of, well, pretty much everything.

I do wholeheartedly agree that it’s wrong to pretend that evolution is a scientific law. I’m not entirely sure that anyone actually does that; if they do, that’s bad teaching, and bad science. But either way, I am hugely in favor of teaching students to look critically at any widely held idea; that’s what science should teach.

Regarding Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: My general question has to do with the order of Creation laid out in Genesis 1 as opposed to that in Genesis 2. I chose 1:27 and 2:22 as examples because they highlight the discrepancy in order. 1:27 implies that God made man and woman simultaneously; 2:22 is the more familiar story of God creating Adam first, then later creating Eve from his rib.

But in a more general sense, the order is different in the two chapters. Genesis 1 has the order of creation (divided into days) as: 1. Night and day; 2. Heaven; 3. Earth, sea, plants; 4. Stars, sun, moon, seasons; 5. Fish and fowl; 6. Land creatures, then man and woman.

Genesis 2 (starting at verse 4) seems to tell a very different story: Earth and heavens (specifically in one day); then plants; then rain, then Man; then Eden; then animals; and only then Woman.

If the Bible is true and accurate in every word, it cannot contradict itself. (The concepts of truth, accuracy, and contradiction make this impossible.) But it seems to do so quite clearly in the first two chapters. This leads me to wonder how one can believe that the Bible is true and accurate in every word. Reconciling this seems like it must require special interpretation — but again, a necessity for interpretation is incompatible with the idea of the Bible being word-for-word accurate. So there’s my confusion.

If one takes the Creation story as metaphorical or poetic, though, I do think that at least the six-day model can be reconciled with the idea of evolution. I find it particularly interesting that the progression goes earth, sea, plants — and only later fish and fowl, and land animals later still. That fits with the scientific understanding that life began as tiny organisms in the sea — neither plant nor animal, really — which led to vegetation, and then later to sea creatures, and then later to land, and then later to us. :)

I don’t see any theological problem with the idea that a divine Actor could be responsible for the genetic mutations that improve a species’ fitness for survival, and thus drive evolution. The reason I find it more elegant is that it does not diminish the role of a Creator — implying that God is a being powerful enough to oversee countless, minute manipulations while foreseeing and understanding the literally limitless changes that would result — and yet also does not contradict the detailed understanding of our world that our highly evolved and/or God-given minds have developed. (To be clear, I’m not saying this is God’s only role.)

To me, the alternative seems to imply that God gave us rational thought and powers of observation so well developed that we can formulate consistent, logical, and time-tested theories about the history of Earth — but He’ll punish us for using them. As though the entire geological and paleontological record of the Earth is a huge test, and as soon as we believe what our God-given brains, and the God-created physical evidence, have helped us to understand, we fail. That seems to me like a pretty mean way to run a railroad.

So…I hope this incredibly long e-mail helps illustrate a little better where I’m coming from. It probably goes without saying, but please understand I’m not trying to sway your opinions at all — just make mine more clearer.

I’m so pleased we can have conversations like this, Caroline.

With much love,
-joe

———

Ah, yes…Archaeopteryx. I’ve run across him (her?) before. Archaeopteryx looks like a bird but has some features that modern birds do not, so evolutionists see it as an intermediary form. But it doesn’t have “transitional” features like part scales, part feathers, which we should expect to see if new life forms evolved from existing ones. It’s probably just a bird that is now extinct. Scientists (evolutionists) disagree on what it is; it only “supports” macroevolution if you’re already a believer.

If macroevolution has occurred, you’re talking about the method of emergence of every life form that exists and there should be multiple fossils of intermediary creatures. Darwin himself knew his theory would collapse if there weren’t.

Your “overall point” about small changes causing big changes and so large scale evolution must be a reality is still a theory that does not have nearly enough evidence to proclaim as fact…which is a view that you were ridiculing Republican candidates for having. And which you now hold also? “I do wholeheartedly agree that it’s wrong to pretend that evolution is a scientific law.”

Your question about Genesis is an easy one. Genesis 1 is giving an account of what God created. Genesis 2 goes into detail about His creation of man and woman. There is no contradiction at all. We do this all the time today. We begin a thesis or a book with a general overview, and then develop it with detail.

Regarding our God-given brains and rational thought (which alone should give anyone pause in explaining the existence of by evolution), it’s interesting that you should mention that. Because many, if not most, of our greatest scientists in previous centuries have believed that it glorified God to use the intellect He gave them to approach science as a means of discovering more about Him by examining His creation, and gave God praise. Some still do.

But I believe the reason the theory of evolution has so many proponents today is because ours is a culture that is increasingly seeking to throw off the yoke of being in subjection to God. It’s much easier to do my own thing if I was created not by a God with a plan for my life and certain expectations, but through mindless, random mutations and “chance.” Sadly, we are seeing the consequences of a “meaningless” existence with all the teen (and adult) suicides today.

I know there are true believers for whom God and evolution are not mutually exclusive. And if there was good, solid evidence for it, I would be one of them. But the evidence weighs on the side of a marvelous, supernatural creation of life in all its complexity and should bring us to our knees in awe.

“I’m so pleased we can have conversations like this, Caroline.” Me too :) You are a gentleman (and a scholar?), Joe.

Love,
Caroline

———

I think a common misconception about fossils is that they are more common than they are. The truth is, an organism only becomes a fossil if the conditions are exactly right. Most often, everything decomposes long before there’s an opportunity for the bones to petrify. And then when fossils do happen, how many more must be lost to general geological activity?

Basically, fossils that last to the modern day are the exception rather than the norm. So it makes sense that there would be gaps in the fossil record, and that we see groupings of species rather than a steady continuum of ever-changing forms. What we’re seeing are the remains of only those animals who died in the right place and the right time to be preserved. So it’s no surprise that there are uneven groupings in the fossil record; any given fossil bed will generally offer up only those creatures that lived in the same general time and place.

That’s why evolution is considered a scientific theory and not a scientific law — because there are these gaps and open questions. That’s the point I was trying to make when I said that it’s wrong for schools to pretend that evolution is a law (as in, the law of gravity or of inertia) rather than a theory. But again, that’s “theory” in the scientific sense: something that still does have a great deal of evidence to support it. The progression goes hypothesis -> theory -> law. Hypotheses are ideas that have not been tested; theories are hypothesis that have been tested, and supported by substantial evidence; laws are theories that are proven and successfully tested in every case. Teaching evolution as though it falls into the last category is simply false, and any teacher or school who does so should be rightly taken to task for it.

Of course our understanding of evolution has progressed beyond Darwin’s initial exploration, just as our understanding of gravity has progressed past Newton’s. Given that we’re talking about things that happened very long ago, it’s likely that evolution will never make the jump to scientific law. (Well, assuming we can’t build a time machine!) But looking at the available information that science does have, combined with the observable data we can witness on a small scale, we can get a very robust picture that provides very strong evidence that our understanding of evolution is fundamentally accurate.

Regarding small changes causing big changes: I wasn’t trying to build a case on evidence; the point I was trying to make is that it seems contrary to logic and to our understanding of pretty much everything to propose that evolution can happen only on a small scale. The position seems to be saying that small things can change, but those changes don’t impact the larger things that they interact with, constantly and intimately. That idea seems incompatible with everything we know and have observed about interactions between pretty much any two things, animate or inanimate. How would a more complex organism somehow avoid being impacted by changes in the millions of smaller organisms it interfaces with constantly? It is, if nothing else, incompatible with our understanding of the most basic biology.

To put it another way: How could microevolution not result in macroevolution, over time? What quality, characteristic, or event makes larger creatures immune?

With love,
-joe

———

Dear Joe,

God created you, and that’s that!! :) Actually, I do believe He wants us to explore and investigate the world, and ourselves, and formulate hypotheses and theories for how things operate in His creation. But ultimately, He wants our observations to lead us to Him. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Romans 1:20 And…”The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” Psalm 19:1-2

But to address your previous email…I understand that not everything that ever existed leaves evidence. But for a process to have resulted in the incredible diversity and complexity we see in all living things today, there had to have been some intermediary forms preserved in the fossil beds that have been discovered. If the problem is simply that fossils are rare, why would evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould have felt it necessary to propose “punctuated equilibria” – the idea that species evolved faster over a shorter period of time?

Beyond the fossil issue, one of the primary inadequacies of the theory of macroevolution is its inability to satisfactorily show how evolution could have occurred at the molecular level, where everything begins and the complexity of life is most clearly seen. I think if Darwin had been able to see what microbiologists today see in a single cell, he would not have had the confidence to propose his theory.

Add to that the lack of a workable explanation for how transitional life forms could have even survived, i.e. with half scales, half feathers, the issue of irreducible complexity, the fact that the precise instructions found in DNA require intelligence, and the absence of a reasonable hypothesis for how life originated in the first place, much less for how its “building blocks” came to be, to name just a few of the problems…and you have a theory that is based more on faith than on fact.

Though we are surely going to have to continue to agree to disagree on the veracity of the theory of macroevolution, can we at least agree to agree that the scientists and laypeople (and there are many) who do not believe it are not idiots? And, in fact, may be very intelligent people?

Love,
Caroline

———

Hi Caroline,

Sorry for the long delay in response. Have been busy with other writing.

I do feel like this might be the point where we have to agree to disagree. I recognize that the idea of evolution on a large and long scale is just plain incompatible with the belief that the world was created in six days, six thousand-ish years ago. And that’s OK! :) I think the important thing is that we’re able to discuss things of serious meaning civilly and rationally!

On that note, I did want to clarify that I absolutely do not think that those who don’t believe in evolution are idiots! And I apologize if I gave that impression. The point I was trying to make is that there is a very specific definition of the word “theory” in a scientific sense — and as a result, when politicians try to dismiss a scientific theory by implying that it’s as valid (or more to the point, untested) as the colloquial definition of “theory,” they appear ignorant of a very basic element of the scientific method. (And I don’t think one’s opinion about the veracity of those theories matters in this instance; I’m talking about the definitions of the word, not whether the theories are defensible or not.) I know that “ignorant” can be a loaded term, and of course I do disagree with those who don’t believe in evolution. But my larger point was intended to be about politicians who appear ignorant about some pretty fundamental issues — either due to genuine ignorance or a calculated attempt to misrepresent the issues.

And to be clearer, I certainly don’t think YOU are an idiot! :) We disagree about plenty, but I have great respect for your obvious intelligence. I particularly appreciate your willingness to engage in thoughtful discussion.

On that topic, would you mind if I posted this e-mail thread as a follow-up post on my blog? I think it would serve as a good example of how it really is possible to have a civil debate about very fundamental issues, and also help educate folks about the deficiencies that some see in evolution. I would leave everything as-is, except for reversing the order of course, and posting a short introduction.

Let me know! And thanks again for a very thought-provoking conversation. :)

Much love,
-joe

———

Dear Joe,

I was just sitting here wondering if I should find out if you received my last message when I received your email. I figured this was probably going to be the point where we leave things.

Thank you for your respectful and loving attitude. My love for you and Kim goes beyond our disagreements too, and yet it motivates my argument because I want you both to know the God who created and loves you….the one who “knit you together in your mothers’ wombs”. He is real, and He can be known. Any other questions/problems you have with the Bible…please ask me.

None of us knows how much time we have on this earth. It behooves us to consider what, if anything, lies beyond and if you even allow the possibility that Christianity is true, you would be wise to consider its claims.

Yes, you may post our discussion on your blog.

Hope your Thanksgiving holiday is truly memorable!

Love,
Caroline


Comments

1

1: Caroline on November 18, 2011 at 5:39 am


Thank you, Joe. This is very honoring and I truly appreciate it.

I love you too :-)