Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why I Am an Evolutionary Creationist

This post is intended as a quick reference and resource in support of my position on the origins of living things, sometimes referred to as theistic evolution but which I (and others) prefer to call evolutionary creation. Evolutionary creation is defined by the Christian organization BioLogos as "the view that all life on earth came about by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent". In other words, it understands evolution as the means by which God created life on earth.

I will begin by presenting, as clearly (but concisely) as I can, the evidence for creation and evolution, followed by my reasons for combining them.


"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The very first words of the Bible express an unequivocally creationist (not to be confused with young-earth creationist, old-earth creationist, or other particular theories on the when and how of creation) viewpoint. The rest of Genesis 1 (and beginning of chapter 2) expound on this summary statement: in six "days", God separates light from darkness, the heavens/firmament (a solid dome thought to hold up the rain and snow) from the earth, and the land from the sea, then populates the earth with birds, sea creatures, plants, and land animals. This culminates in his creating man "in his own image" (Gen 1:27), male and female, to have dominion over the rest of the creation. So the center of Christian revelation begins with an account of God as creator; literarily, at least, "creator" is the foremost of his many names. By "creationism" I simply mean the fact that God is the creator of everything else. (See also Eph 3:9, Rev 4:11, 10:6)

Historically, the focus of creationism has been on the character of the creator (in the Nicene Creed: "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible) and of the creation (its distinctness from God, Heb 1:10-12; its dependence on God, Psa 65:9-13, Col 1:16-17; its witness to God, Psa 19:1-4, Rom 1:19-20; its essential goodness as God's handiwork, Gen 1:31, 1 Tim 4:4). The Bible consistently depicts God as the author, sustainer, caretaker, and redeemer of the created order. The questions about creation which divide Christians today (the historical/scientific process of creation, the age of the earth, the means by which life arose) were never dogmatically defined by the historical church and are not the primary focus of the doctrine of creation. To lose sight of the essential truths of creationism in the midst of controversies over its peripheral implications is to forsake the historical understanding of the church.

Besides the biblical witness, I believe natural theology offers other reasons for the truth of creationism. There is the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which (in its stronger, nontemporal form) holds that the existence of something (particularly the particular cosmos we live in) must have a reason or explanation of some kind, and this reason can only be a self-existent, personal, eternal, omnipotent creator. There is the teleological argument or "argument from design", which argues that the existence of order and logic in the natural order (or perhaps in the laws governing it) is best explained by a designer. There is the fine-tuning argument, which points to the multitude of conditions, from physical constants to cosmological conditions to the place of the Earth in the universe, which are "just right" for life to exist here. And there is the ontological argument, which argues that an infinite number of Gods must necessarily exist by definition...oh, maybe not. Ignore that last one.

Anyway, I believe that all of these arguments are better answered by theistic creationism than by alternate worldviews like pantheism or naturalism. For the sake of brevity I will refrain from going into more detail on this here. Of course natural theology is just as indicative of the truth of Judaism or Islam as of Christianity, buy hey, it is also possible (I think) to be a Jewish or Muslim evolutionary creationist.


Creationism fills in the "who" and "why" of origins; the theory of evolution supplies the "how" and the "when". Evolution is, according to renowned biologist Ernst Mayr in his helpful book What Evolution Is, "the gradual process by which the living world has been developing following the origin of life." The theory of evolution proposes that the diversity of living species today has its origin in common descent from an ancestor, combined with gradual modification by genetic mutation, combined with the preservation of certain advantageous mutations by natural selection. It makes the claim, audacious at first sight, that this seemingly random mechanism is the source of all the kinds of life we see today, even human beings.

Mayr outlines the evidence evolutionary scientists marshal for the theory. Most basically, evolution, like any scientific theory, is based on systematized observation—in this case, observation of the fossil record, the patterns of fossils discovered in various layers of the earth, or "geological strata". Since we can match these strata up with like layers around the world and date them with a variety of reliable methods (e.g. patterns in layers of sediment and radiometric dating of volcanic ash and igneous rock), fossils serve as partial records of organisms that lived in the time corresponding to the fossils' geological age. The most basic evidence for evolution consists in observations of developments in this fossil record—particularly the fact that more recent fossils bear more resemblance to living organisms, while older fossils tend to be more different. Darwinian theory predicts a smooth transition from species to species, but because of the incompleteness of the fossil record (due to the rarity of the conditions for fossilization), there are often gaps, though some lineages (such as the transition from reptiles to mammals, or whales and their land-living ancestors) are "remarkably complete".

In a bit more detail, the study of the degrees of similarity and difference of various fossils is called "homology". These similarities may be structural, physiological, molecular, or behavioral (as best as we can extrapolate it). Evolution supposes that the features of species change gradually due to mutation and natural selection, and the accumulation of such changes gives rise to new species. When a common ancestor is found for two species that demonstrates a point of divergence for their respective features, or when a transition fossil is found between a species and its purported ancestor, it is counted as evidence for the theory of evolution.

Another strong evidence is that, as method of dating fossils become more reliable, each fossil type is found at the time that it is "expected" in the record according to evolution. Evolution is extremely easy to disprove observationally. A single fossil determined to have been found in the wrong geological layer (e.g. a modern mammal fossil in a geological layer dated to 100 million years old) would be sufficient to cast serious doubt on it, or at least necessitate a major rethinking of the "tree of life". Yet no such too-early fossils have been found; the fossil record stubbornly refuses to (seriously) deviate from the patterns predicted by evolution. That constitutes strong evidence for its truth.

Originally, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution not so much from observation of the fossil record as of extant species in the present. He noted the differences between similar species: namely, three species of mockingbird on three of the volcanic Galapagos Islands which got there by a single colonization from South America 1000 km to the east. If a single species of mockingbird was responsible for colonizing the islands, then all three modern species are descended from a single, common ancestor species; the differences between island species (e.g. in beak shape) were most likely adaptations to different conditions, different kinds of food, etc., which were selected for over time since they were advantageous for survival. Eventually, Darwin realized that this mechanism of common descent and mutation with natural selection could apply not just to birds, but to all species on earth. The "origin of species", in Darwin's view, was a single, common ancestor in the distant past.

Darwin's theory of common descent solved the biological mystery of why certain groups of organisms (mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, etc.) share many of the same characteristics: they are descended from a common ancestor. They get their similarities from this common ancestor, and their differences from subsequent changes. The fossil record provides abundant support for common descent, offering common ancestors of dogs and bears, dogs and cats, rodents, ungulates, birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, etc. The hierarchy of animal taxa was known to biologists before Darwin; what he provided for the first time was an explanation for why animal taxa exist in a hierarchy. Some specific kinds of similarity that are well explained by common descent are:

Morphology: "Very suggestive evidence for common descent is provided by comparative anatomy," says Mayr. This is the most immediately obvious way of assessing similarities and differences between species, and it is easily grasped both for living species and fossils. It is the kind of similarity that allowed for the creation of hierarchical animal taxa even before Darwin. Patterns in morphological similarity are some of the strongest and earliest evidence for common descent.

Vestigial Structures: Why do species have morphological structures that have no functionality at all (or much less functionality than their homological equivalents in other species), like the appendix (which appears to help other mammals digest leaves but which we have little use for), human wisdom teeth, teeth in baleen whale embryos, hind legs in whales, or eyes in cave-dwelling animals? Again, vestigial structures are explained by common descent, by a shift in lifestyle resulting in vestigial structures no longer being utilized or promoted by natural selection.

Biogeography: Evolution also helps explain the distribution of plant and animal species. The relative similarity of species in different geographic regions is correlated with the amount of time the regions have been isolated from each other; when they were last connected, a common ancestor would have been present in both regions. In this way, taxonomical similarities can be correlated with geology. For example, North America and Europe were connected by a land bridge 40 million years ago while South America and Africa have been separated for 80 million years, which explains why there is more similarity in North American and European species. Common descent and dispersal from a single point of origin explains why there tend to be no mammals on oceanic islands but plenty of birds and plants; mammals tend to be worse at crossing water gaps.

Molecular Evidence: More recently, it has become possible to study organisms at the molecular level as well as the morphological. Comparisons of molecules indifferent species tends to confirm the evidence of morphology, though occasionally it tells us things we didn't know before. The study and comparisons of genes has allowed us to find deep similarities not just between humans and other mammals, but with plants and insects as well. It is possible to trace the evolution of genes in much the same way as the evolution of species.

One last point of evidence: while it is true that most of the evidence for evolution is simply observational, we also have some experimental evidence of evolution. We have observed and even directed it both in the laboratory and outside it. (e.g. selective breeding and domestication of animals) As point 12 of this Scientific American article describes, we have even observed the creation of new species of fruit flies (using Mayr's definition of a species as a reproductively isolated community) by selective breeding.  We have also experimentally bred entirely new features into e. coli, namely the ability to feed on citrate. I often hear creationists say that they believe in microevolution (the development of differences within a species, like Galapagos Finches or dogs) but not macroevolution (the mechanism explaining the origin of all species from a common ancestor). But microevolution and macroevolution work by the exact same mechanism; they are only quantitatively, not qualitatively different. As the fruit fly experiment shows, the boundary between the two is not precisely definable. Saying you believe in microevolution but not macroevolution is somewhat like saying you believe in early modern, but not ancient history.

Note that in the whole preceding discussion, I have presented my reasons for believing the theory of evolution without trying to disprove the truthfulness of the Bible, bringing in philosophical notions opposed to a Christian worldview, or paying attention to religion at all. Contrary to what many Darwinists and creationists would have you believe, evolution is, first and foremost, a scientific theory (not a doctrine or interpretation of the Bible), supported by scientific evidence like any other theory, and is entirely distinguishable from the philosophical and sociological conclusions people have drawn from it. Consequently, it is not (methodologically) possible to disprove evolution using philosophical or theological argumentation. The way to disprove evolution is to show that it does not, in fact, adequately explain the observable evidence (e.g. by observing contradicting evidence, like a mammal fossil showing up too early in the record or some kind of bird-fungus hybrid) and to present a different scientific theory that explains it better. This is simply the way that any scientific theory is debunked and replaced.

Evolutionary Creation

I do not believe that evolution and creation are in any essential conflict. Further, while they are certainly conversant with each other, they make their points on fundamentally different levels. Creation is, first and foremost, a theological doctrine, while evolution is, first and foremost, a scientific theory. Confusion on this distinction lies behind a good deal of the supposed conflict between faith and science.

For this reason, I cannot support the efforts of creationists who try to reconcile the Bible and science by massaging the scientific consensus to make it fit their interpretation of Scripture. The first problem with this is that it subverts or distorts what we can know from the creation (which is, of course, God's handiwork) in order to preserve a preferred interpretation of Scripture. It thus denies God's general revelation in favor of (one's own understanding of) his special revelation. I do not believe that truth works like this. The Bible does not simply "trump" verified knowledge from other sources; all truth, as they say, is God's truth. I believe rather than the intelligibility of nature and our ability to study and benefit from it are results of God's creativity; to deny these things in favor of a doctrine of creation is simply self-undermining, tantamount to saying that not everything God made is good. The book of God's words does not contradict the book of God's works. And, of course, Scripture says nothing "on its own" without a human act of interpretation on our part. Even if the Bible is infallible, what justifies our confidence in interpreting it in a way that contradicts the scientific consensus, without any prior grounds for disputing this consensus?

The second problem with this approach is that reconciling the Bible with science in this way can't simply stop at evolution, or even the age of the earth (which is even better-supported scientifically, by literally dozens of independent indicators, than evolution). The Bible contains numerous other examples of the ancient science we would expect from its ancient Jewish authors. Denis Lamoureux, a Canadian evolutionary creationist, describes these in his book on the subject, appropriately titled Evolutionary Creation.
  • The immobility of the earth (1 Chr 16:30, Psa 93:1, Psa 96:10), in contrast to our modern understanding of the Solar System; this was one of the main points on which Galileo was condemned.
  • The earth resting on foundations/pillars, somewhat like a building (1 Sam 2:8, Job 38:4-6, Psa 75:3, Psa 104:5), or on the waters (Psa 24:2, Psa 136:6), again in contrast to our modern conception of a spherical, revolving, orbiting earth.
  • A flat (Mat 4:8), circular (Isa 40:22) or square (Isa 11:12, Ezek 7:2, Rev 7:1, 20:8) earth/landmass with a definite center (Dan 4:10) and ends (Isa 41:8-9, Dan 4:12, Matt 12:42); the Hebrew word translated "circle" refers to a flat, two-dimensional surface. No, the Old Testament does not presage the Greek discovery of a spherical earth.
  • The existence of a circumferential sea surrounding the earth (Job 26:7-14, Job 8:22-31).
  • The underworld, sheol or hades, spatially existing underneath the earth (Num 16:31-33, Pro 5:5, Isa 14:15, Matt 11:23, Luk 10:15). The underworld is also indirectly referred to along with heaven and earth, as being "under the earth" (Phil 2:10, Rev 5:13).
  • The movement of the sun across the sky (Josh 10:13, Psa 19:6, 50:1, Ecc 15); as distinct from the Sun appearing to move because the Earth rotates.
  • The firmament, a solid dome or "vault" of the sky holding up the (rain)waters above the earth (Gen 1:6-8, Psa 19:1). That the firmament is understood as a solid structure rather than simply the expanse of space is shown by the application of the Hebrew word raqa to it in Job 37:18, which is elsewhere used to describe metalworking (cf. job 22:14, Ezek 1:22).
  • Waters above the firmament, in the heavens, thought to be the source of rain (Gen 1:6-8, 7:11, Psa 104:2-3, 148:4, Jer 10:12-13).
  • Foundations of the heavens, holding them up above the earth (Job 26:11, 2 Sam 22:8); mention is also made of the "ends of the heavens" (Deu 4:32, Isa 13:5, Psa 19:6, Matt 24:31).
  • The location of the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament (Gen 1:14-19).
  • The heavens being rolled up and the stars "falling" to earth (Isa 34:4, Matt 24:29, Rev 6:13) or being thrown (Dan 8:10, Rev 12:4). We consider language of "shooting stars" to be merely figurative or poetic today, but only because we know that meteorites are not really stars. The ancient Israelites didn't!
  • Ancient taxonomy: bats are birds (Lev 11:13-19), the hyrax and rabbit are ruminants (Lev 11:5-6).
  • The mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mat 13:31-32, Mar 4:30-32); seeds germinate by dying (Jhn 12:24-25, 1 Cor 15:35-37).
  • An ancient, one-seed model of reproduction in which the woman's womb serves as the "field" in which the man's "seed" (which contains his progeny in tiny form) grows. Hence the biblical language of women as "barren" (Gen 11:30, Jdg 13:2) and the statement that the yet-unconceived Levi was "in the loins of his ancestor", Abraham (Heb 7:9-10).
  • Medical conditions like muteness (Luk 11:14), blindness (Mat 12:22), epilepsy (Mat 17:14-18), and skeletomuscular problems (Luke 13:10-13, 16) are caused by demons, alongside other instances of what appears to be actual demon possession (Luk 8:26-39).
I have never seen anyone (even Ken Ham) attempt to consistently subscribe to the science found in Scripture. Such a feat would be absurd, if not impossible for a modern person; it would involve denying modern geology, astronomy, medical science, biology, the eyewitness testimony of everyone who has been to space, and the existence of the orchid (among other facts). We have accepted all of these other discrepancies between biblical and modern science without much fuss (well, maybe with fuss in the case of the Heliocentric cosmos) and don't consider them to be contradictory to a "biblical" worldview. Why is evolution singled out as the one area of science that apparently can't be reconciled with the ancient science of Scripture?

This also rules out the converse approach, known as concordism, of altering our interpretation of the Bible to match our scientific knowledge. (Which, I suspect, is why the above examples don't bother most Christians; they simply don't notice the Bible's ancient worldview and assume it is speaking to their modern one with all these examples being "poetic" or "phenomenological") Aside from the fact that most concordists do not apply this method consistently (denying the scientific consensus on points like evolution that they cannot read into Scripture), I simply do not think that trying to locate a 4.5-billion-year-old earth, Darwinian evolution, a spherical earth revolving around the sun with the other planets, and modern cosmology all in the Bible constitutes a fair, respectful reading of the text. If we force the Bible to speak in the language of our modern cosmology/geology/biology, we silence its original voice.

I prefer to let both Scripture and science speak for themselves, without prematurely bringing them into conflict with each other. The Christian faith confesses God as the creator and sustainer who made all things good and man in his image; through the theory of evolution, science teaches us details of how he created life. Contrary to what Darwin himself and other skeptics have believed, studying God's means of creating through evolution does not marginalize him any more than studying his means of sustaining the creation through physics, chemistry, etc. does. I think this misconception traces at least partially to the shift in peoples' concept of God described in the first chapter of The Unintended Reformation, in which the loss of the apophatic (negative) view of God, Scotus' idea of metaphysical univocity, and Occam's razor combined to allow God to be "explained away" by reason and Enlightenment thinking. But God is far more than simply an explanation for questions of science or philosophy. Between the true God and our study of his works, then can be no final conflict.

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