Relating the Bible to Science (Evolutionary Theory): Some Cautionary Notes

It is important that Christians respectfully listen to one another when they disagree on how to relate the Bible to current scientific theories. I hold the view of old earth creationism which accepts the age of the universe and the earth to be respectively, 13+ and 4.5 billion years old.  I accept that fact that interpretation of the length of the Creation day and week in Genesis 1 will remain a moot point. On the other hand, I find it hard to accept the view of the so-called young earth creationist like Ken Ham (who is pretty influential among the home-schooling Christians in Malaysia) who asserts that the earth is only 6000 years ago. Holding to young earth creationism would require an outright rejection of hundreds of technical papers on geochronology published in scientific journals written by scientists from across the whole spectrum of beliefs. It cannot be denied that consensus of old age of the universe and the earth transcends individual ideology and belief.

Young earth creationists sometimes appeal to the so-called “mature creation” view which says that the earth looks old only because God made the earth with an appearance of old age. But they should be honest to admit that this view would render as irrelevant all scientific attempts to date the age of the earth/universe, and by the same token the validity of the scientific enterprise. Following the mature creationist, we might as well claim that the earth and all human memories of experience of life on earth was created only minutes ago.

Scientific integrity would require Christians take seriously the convergent and compelling results given by various radiometric dating methods which indicate an old earth. On the other hand, I have not found the claims for general evolution [see below for various meanings of evolution] to be sufficiently compelling. To be sure, the architectonic structure of the Tree of Life alluringly suggests a theory that is rational, coherent and comprehensive. Recent advance in the science of genetics gives us insights into how variations emerge as various biological species adapt to environmental changes over time. But notwithstanding the beguiling beauty of the Tree of Life, one must not forget that this is an artificial construct filled with many unacknowledged assumptions and projections. The dotted lines in the Tree of Life actually means we don’t know what actually happened, though we hope that some explanations would eventually be found.
Note how the family tree of horses are filled with exotic names: Orohippus, Epihippus, Mesohippus, Miohippus, Merychippus, Dinohippus and finally the modern horse, Equus. But notice that the older genera are all horses (hippus simply means horse in Greek). The modern existing genus, Equus is of course, a horse (the word suggests something different, but it means the same thing; only this time, the Latin word is used). In other words, horses remain horses although general evolutionary theory claims horses ‘evolved’ over 50 million years. In this respect, let’s call a spade a spade; or rather, call a horse (hippus), a horse (equus).

Still, it would be superficial, if not futile for Christians to reject general evolutionary theory simply because the Tree of Life is an artificial construct with gaps, or that the evidence for any scientific theory remains inconclusive. We must acknowledge that contemporary evolutionists appeal to various branches of science to support the theory of general evolution which range from fossil evidence, genetics, molecular biology and physical anthropology. Christians who reject the theory of general evolution must evaluate the evidence for general evolution in all these areas of science.

More importantly, it is not enough for Christians just to adopt a negative posture in addressing various evidence for general evolution. All too often, defensive Christians gleefully point to some divergence in the evidence and ignore that often times the scientists do give explanations as to why these divergence arises because of attending circumstances. Christians should realize that a war is not won by sporadic guerrilla raids. Christians will always come across as guilty of selective nit-picking unless they are able to offer an alternative theory that is experimentally robust and which offers an explanatory power that is equally comprehensive and coherent. Their alternative scientific theory will gain credence only if it is theoretically productive and generates subsidiary theories that are amenable to a program of scientific research and verification.

Evolutionists have derided proponents of Intelligent Design (and I identify myself as one who upholds Intelligent Design) as elevating a metaphysical theory to the status of a scientific theory. Perhaps, evolutionary critics of Intelligent Design should be reminded that one who lives in a glass house should be careful before throwing stones. In this regard, evolutionists should also be honest that the general evolutionary theory today is not as robust or evidentially conclusive as they would like us to believe. Unlike theories of the hard sciences found in experimental physics and chemistry, theories of biological science are often are often underdetermined. That is to say, the evidence often remains insufficiently robust and is open to conflicting interpretations. General evolutionary theory is one such biological theory.

It may be more fruitful if proponents of Intelligent Design and general evolution in the contest for superiority cease from upping their claims beyond what current evidence allows.  Modesty would suggest that neither theory presents first order knowledge (concrete claims that are made within particular areas of knowledge about the world), and that what is contested are claims to second order knowledge (generalization or clarification about first order knowledge) given by both theories.

We must have courage to resist intimidation and pressure to conform to any artificial and insufficiently supported generalization in science even though they are presented to us in nice colourful diagrams in scientific textbooks. Since so-called evidence for general evolution remains inconclusive, every inquirer (Christian or not) should have the liberty to join the dots differently as they seek after “an inference to the best explanation” (Peter Lipton).

After note: Balance to BioLogos
It seems to me that a number of our younger believers have been persuaded to abandon the church’s historic belief in the historical Adam and Eve because of such views advocated by various writers in BioLogos – https://biologos.org/
It should be acknowledged that folks at BioLogos have done good work exploring how Christian belief may be harmonized with science today. We should give due attention to their arguments for theistic or directed evolution (in contrast to atheistic or non-directed evolution). Whether theistic evolution fits well with classical Christian beliefs remains to be seen.
However, it is disturbing that some writers from BioLogos have been too willing to abandon important Christian beliefs which they view as unnecessary obstacles to the project of harmonizing science and Christianity. Criticism of Intelligent Design seems to provide these critics an opportunity to demonstrate ‘intellectual honesty’ which would presumably gain, albeit, grudging acceptance by atheistic evolutionists who dominate the academia. In the process some writers for BioLogos strongly urge fellow Evangelicals to relinquish the inerrancy of the Bible as the Biblical writers were alleged to have depended on outmoded and defective views of the world and its origins. The corollary then would be to abandon belief in the origin of the present human race from a historical human pair, Adam and Eve.
For the moment, I shall only highlight two issues.
First, we can make an informed judgment on these controversial claims only if we have accurate information from both sides of the scientific and theological divide. In this regard, we may want to balance information from BioLogos (https://biologos.org/) with information from websites like Evolution News and Views (http://www.evolutionnews.org/), Uncommon Descent (http://www.uncommondescent.com/) and Reasons to Believe (http://www.reasons.org/).

Second, we should remain open minded and respectful of competing theories in science, but we should be mindful that scientific theories and explanation are always work in progress. Today’s scientific dogma may become tomorrow’s scientific heresy. Any harmonization should always be regarded as tentative. There is no need for hasty abandonment of the inerrancy of the Bible, just because the present state of knowledge may not allow for final resolution or harmony of Biblical doctrine and some current scientific theories. It is alright to wait and seek for fuller evidence to help in resolving the issue at hand. Meanwhile, our belief in the reliability of the Bible should remain unwavering at it is based on the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ who taught unequivocally the plenary inspiration and reliability of the Bible (See, John Wenham, Christ and the Bible). I shall demonstrate how the reliability of the Bible is based on the authority of Christ in a later post.

 

Postscript – Added on 18 Feb 2015.

Much confusion arises in the debate on Evolution and Creation because the opposing sides are working with different meanings of evolution. It would be helpful to refer to the taxonomy of evolution given by Stephen Myer & Mike Keas.

Principal Meanings of Evolution in Biology Textbooks:

1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms
have descended from a common ancestor.
4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited
descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random
variations or mutations.
5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended
from a single common ancestor.
6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended
from common ancestors solely through an unguided, unintelligent,
purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on ran-
dom variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection,
random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic
mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of
design in living organisms.

In my view, there seems to be evidence to support Evolution (1-4). However, the evidence for general evolution/Evolution (5) remains inconclusive, if not debatable.

Myer and Keas suggest that Evolution (6) in reality is a metaphysical theory.

The “blind watchmaker” thesis, to appropriate Richard Dawkins’s clever term, stands for the Darwinian idea that all new living forms arose as the product of unguided, purposeless, material mechanisms, chiefly natural selection acting on random variation or mutation…Evolution in this sense implies that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and other equally naturalistic processes) completely suffices to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms. Although Darwinists and neo-Darwinists admit that living organisms appear designed for a purpose, they insist that such “design” is only apparent, not real, precisely because they also affirm the complete sufficiency of unintelligent natural mechanisms (that can mimic the activity of a designing intelligence) of morphogenesis. In Darwinism, the variation/selection mechanism functions as a kind of “designer substitute.” As Dawkins summarizes the blind watchmaker thesis: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye.”

Myer and Keas conclude that Evolution (5) and (6) are expressions of reductionist and naturalistic worldviews with (ir)religious implications,

The blind watchmaker thesis suggests that the neo-Darwinian mechanism (and other related ones) functions as a designer substitute; it plays the role of creator in the scientific account of biological origins. Thus, clearly, this sixth meaning of evolution does have larger metaphysical or worldview implications.

Many philosophical naturalists or materialists find support for their worldview in neo-Darwinian theory for what seems to them good reasons. If neo-Darwinism is true, God’s creative activity (whether expressed discretely or gradually) would no longer be necessary to explain the origin of new living forms, since a strictly naturalistic mechanism would suffice…Further, if neo-Darwinism is true, then the natural world does not display evidence of actual design, divine or otherwise—as most religious theists affirm. For both of these reasons, neither neo-Darwinism nor other materialistic origins theories taught in the public schools (such as the chemical evolutionary theory of the origin of the first life) are religiously or metaphysically neutral.

Undoubtedly,  the biology textbooks give the impression that the theory of evolution is settled scientific theory based on overwhelming evidence. However, evolution theory is a combination of empirical observations, logical inference, and tentative, disputed hypotheses.  Not surprisingly, a significant minority of scientists have doubts on Evolution (5),  many scientists have increasingly questioned the adequacy of the neo-Darwininan mechanism(refer to footnote 19 of their article for scientific authorities and peer-reviewed journals) and many more would dispute with the plausibility, if not scientific status of Evolution (6).

Scientific integrity should require the teaching of evolution in schools to acknowledge these ongoing scientific disputes. Evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny and not as a sacred dogma that cannot be questioned. Is it not the case that the historic mission of science has always been to demolish any sacred cow of human tradition with verifiable/falsifiable knowledge based on well-founded empirical evidence?

Source: Source: Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas, “The Meanings of Evolution,”  Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas,  in Darwin, Design, and Public Education, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, ed. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003), 135-56.

3 thoughts on “Relating the Bible to Science (Evolutionary Theory): Some Cautionary Notes”

  1. Hi Kam Weng,

    Agree fully with you! Keep up your good work & wishing you & Tien & children a very blessed & fruitful 2015.

    Love in Jesus,
    tan guat

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