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Evolution, Creationism, and Christianity; what teachers need to know

I have assembled a team to help prepare materials about evolution for the use of non-biologists, and we would welcome comments and suggestions. The topic arises in Religious Education in particular, hence the title of this post. Most of the material here is borrowed from an article by the Reverend Michael Roberts, retired Anglican Vicar, field geologist, School Governor, historian of ideas, and part of the team. But first, some background.

Recent developments increase the importance of what Michael has to say. The Society for Biology made two recommendations in its recent evidence to the Scottish Parliament. One, now incorporated into the stated Governmental position, was that creationism not be taught in a science class since it is not a scientific theory. The other was expressed as follows:

We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…

Furthermore we urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.

The issues raised here are not confined to the science classroom, nor to Scotland. Religious reactions to such nineteenth century discoveries as the antiquity of the Earth, and the evolutionary relationships between living things, are and should be topics for discussion in the study of religion and of the history of ideas. Indeed, Creationism is singled out as a sub-topic in Scottish schools, as part of the syllabus for Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS). My own view is that an emphasis on Creationism in particular is unfortunate, since this is the most contentious, unhelpful, and indefensible of the various religious responses. There is also a real risk that discussion of the relationship between ideas might get sidetracked into irrelevant, and long since resolved, disputes about the underlying facts. But no doubt good teaching will supply the necessary balance.

Evolution is about to become part of the national curriculum in England, and non-specialist teachers there are urgently seeking helpful materials. No wonder, when one considers what is involved. Explaining evolution is a formidable task, not made any easier by the existence of a campaign of theologically motivated disinformation.

Teachers should of course be aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus in favour of accepting the facts of evolution and an ancient Earth, and know something of the lines of evidence that led to it, such as those mentioned by Michael below. It would also be an advantage to know something about the geological column, and radiometric dating. They should understand the concepts of natural selection and mutation, but preferably be aware that much if not most evolution is apparently neutral drift. Things being what they are, they must also be prepared to discuss the “objections” to evolution, such as why there are still monkeys, isn’t evolution only a theory, the alleged poverty of the fossil record, and the “problem” of the origin of new information. Here great care is needed. It is best for many reasons to let students come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think, and yet we are lying to them if we leave them with the impression that this is still an open controversy within science. Moreover, teaching with an emphasis on refuting arguments may prove counter-effective.

Finally, as if this were not enough, teachers should have some knowledge of the range of religious responses, and should realise that the Churches had generally accepted an ancient Earth and the fact of evolution by the end of the 19th Century.

Anyway, it is time to let Michael speak for himself, in the excerpts below. The full article is here. Michael is of course a Christian, and is mainly addressing his fellow-Christians, but I think that all of us can learn from what he has to say. There are things in his article that I like in it, and things that I don’t, and, in the spirit of intellectual enquiry, I will let interested readers work out for themselves which is which.

TAKING EVOLUTION AND CREATION SERIOUSLY (excerpted and lightly adapted from a blogpost by the Rev Michael Roberts, MA Geology, BA Theology, F.R. Hist. Soc, retired vicar, School Governor)

TAKING EVOLUTION SERIOUSLY

In essence, biological evolution means that all life is descended from a common ancestor, most popularly that we are descended from apes. Parodies and misunderstandings abound, and there is a prevalent view that evolution excludes creation and thus God.

The genius of Darwin in “The Origin of Species” (1859) was that he brought together previously unrelated aspects to biology; Variation and selection (leading to Natural Selection), the Geological Record, Geographical Distribution and the “Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings”. One of the main “gaps” in Darwin’s theory was the problem of inheritance or genetics. The solution to this was provided by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s but remained unknown until the turn of the century.

Genetics was what biologists were looking for and this resulted in the 1940s “Neodarwinian Synthesis” of Darwinianism and Mendelism. This has been further modified by such concepts as neutral drift (Kimura 1968), punctuated equilibrium (or stop-go evolution; Gould and Eldredge 1972), and molecular phylogeny (predominantly 1990s onwards). So our present science of evolution is far in advance of the original neo-Darwinian synthesis, let alone anything that Darwin himself could have imagined, and our appreciation of evolution has been both deepened and strengthened in the process. Evolution is regarded as much of a fact as the sphericity of the earth, – and rightly so!

To summarise the most obvious arguments for Evolution, these are

1) The Evidence of the Fossil Record.

400px-Geo_time

The geological record shows a progressive “appearance” of life. ; invertebrates with shells at the base of the Cambrian (550m.y.); Vertebrates (fish) in the middle Ordovician (460 m.y.); leading up to Mammals in the Jurassic (180 m.y.); and finally “Man” a few million years ago.

2) “Mutual Affinities”

There are great number of mutual affinities between all forms of life. For example the structure of all vertebrates have much in common. If, say, the fore limbs of a bird, a whale, a dog and a human are compared, they all have the same basic structure and are said to be homologous, and point to a common ancestor. Here is a diagram of homologies

tetrapodlimb

 

3) Geographical Distribution.

The oddities of geographical distribution were explained before Darwin by holding that God created different creatures in different places. Thus, for example in the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin visited when on the Beagle in 1834, God with would have created umpteen different finches on different islands. Evolutionarily this is seen as common ancestral finches living in isolation on different islands, and then diverging over subsequent generations. On a longer timescale lifeforms before the Mesozoic in Africa and South America were similar, but have diverged since then. The classic example is the Wallace Line in the middle of Indonesia. The reason became clear with the discovery of Continental Drift which demonstrated that the two continents started to move apart during the Mesozoic.

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[To these one could add residual organs, evidence from embryology, defects of design, and the relationships shown by molecular biology, among other things, but this might overburden both class and teacher.]

This is a terribly brief summary of Evolution, but there are many excellent non-technical books, such as Why Evolution is True (Jerry Coyne), Your Inner Fish (Neil Shubin), and The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being (Alice Roberts).

TAKING CREATION SERIOUSLY

Open any childrens’ Bible on the first page and you are usually confronted with an idealised picture of a giraffes and lions on Noah’s Ark.

ararat_or_bust

Thus from an early age people are encouraged to believe in a literal six-24 hour day creation. This aids and abets youngsters to give up their faith at an early age, but the problem often persists to adulthood, leaving them with a nagging doubt that God could not have created the world, because Genesis is incompatible with science.

The Bible begins with the marvellous double “account” of Creation. I say double because Genesis 2 differs from Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is the best known with its structure of creation on six successive days. Approach it literally and you are in mess. Attempting to tie it in to scientific discovery always fails, as is inevitable as the Bible was “written” 3000 years before the rise of Geology. See it as a hymn to God the Creator and it comes to life. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The focus is on God, the Rock of Ages, not the ages of rocks. Again “And God said” occurs nine times as an introductory formula for God’s creativity. Ultimately Genesis One is a “Whodunnit” not a “Howdunnit”!

Ancient-Hebrew-view-of-universe

Genesis 1 and 2 are not the only parts of the bible, which speak of God the Creator. Take the last five chapters of the Book of Job, or Isaiah chapter 40 from verse 12, some of the Psalms especially 8, 19,and 95 (the Venite) to mention a few from the Old Testament, and John chapter 1 and Colossians Chapter 1 verses 15 to 20., both of which speak of a “Cosmic” Christ.

Taking Creation seriously is an affirmation that God is the Creator of all that is, with a realisation that the Bible gives no scientific explanation. Science will inform our understanding of Creation, not overthrow it.

Jacobus_ussher4004 B.C. AND ALL THAT.

In the margins of many old Bibles, we will find dates in years B.C. for the Old Testament. For Creation the date is 4004.B.C., and this date is usually ascribed to Archbishop Ussher of the seventeenth century. Up to 1650 most Jews and Christians reckoned the age of the earth to be a few thousands.

With the rise of scientists such as John Ray, Whiston and others before 1700 the earth was seen as somewhat older. The flowering of geology at the end of the eighteenth century, with Smith, Cuvier, de Saussure and Hutton, developed that further, and before long talk was of millions of years. Many of the early geologists were Anglican clergy and soon the churches took the vast age of the earth on board.

There were a minority of Christians who opposed geology, as did some of Faraday’s colleagues at the Royal Institution. However, by 1860 hardly any clergy or educated Christians believed in 4004.B.C. The Evangelical clergyman-astronomer Richard Main wrote, in 1862, “Some school-books still teach to the ignorant that the earth is 6,000 years old. No well-educated person of the present day shares that delusion.” (Alas, many share it in 2015!)

Bust of Hugh Miller (d. 1856) by William Brodie in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Miller was a prominent member of the Free Church of Scotland, and a geologist whose Testimony of the Rocks discarded biblical literalism as incompatible with the testimony of nature

Putting actual dates to the age of the universe, the earth or rock strata proved difficult,
even after biblical chronology was dethroned. Late 19th Century geologists favoured an age of around 100 million years, but radiometric dating proved this time much too short. For forty years now the age of the earth has been unchallenged at 4,600 million years, the oldest rocks at a little over 4,000 million, and the base of the Cambrian at 550 million. Such numbers are mind-boggling, but then so are black holes and the structure of the atom.

(Recently, Creationists have tried to demonstrate that the geological methods are fatally flawed, and that the earth is but a few thousand years young. Not one of the Creationist arguments has any substance to it. It is sad to be so negative, but Creationism is a confused hot-potch of bad science, misunderstanding and misrepresentation.)

The problems some have over geology is caused by a too literal view of the Bible, and not allowing the pre-scientific biblical writers to communicate truth about God in a non-literal way. It also does not recognise that most educated Christians never took Genesis literally!

[Michael goes on to speak of the absurdities of literalism, the apparent belittlement of human life by incorporating it in the animal sphere, the concept of humankind as made “in the image of God”, the differences between methodological and philosophical naturalism (I have a piece of my own on this), and evolution’s dismissal of the concept of a designer, as in Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker.]

An atheist will see “design” as a chance happening, a theist will see “design” as a recognition that God is above and behind all things: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19, verse 1)

However, not all “design” is beautiful; some is frankly horrific. Darwin could not see the work of a Benevolent Designer in the Ichneumon fly. This lovely little creature lays its eggs inside a caterpillar. The eggs hatch and proceed to eat the caterpillar alive, keeping it so until the larvae emerge. “Design” does not point conclusively to a Good God. Thus

Beauty of (apparent) design is a problem to the atheist; Suffering is a problem to the Theist.

THIS VIEW OF LIFE (AND DEATH)

Of the evolutionary picture Darwin said, “There is grandeur in this view of life”. But he should have added “AND DEATH”. The natural world is incredibly wasteful of life; just consider frogspawn. The spawn will produce hundreds of tadpoles, and if TWO survive to become frogs and breed, that is success. Three is a population explosion. The fate of the tadpoles is varied, some, to the horror of children, are eaten by other tadpoles. Then, one of my joys in late spring is to hear the Cuckoo calling. The music of the adult is not matched by the morality of its offspring casually heaving out its adopted kin. Life is shot through with suffering and death. Nature is Red in Tooth and Claw. Human life is also often cruel and short. Surely “an all powerful, all-loving God simply would not allow small children to die in screaming agony” (Michael Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously)? Suffering is the great problem, whether personal, intellectual, or religious.

Contrast this with Milton’s view (Paradise Lost) that all suffering is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. Since the rise of geology in 1800, this view has been untenable, but it has not always been possible to bury it, especially in popular Christianity. Very often Milton’s view is accepted as the traditional view. As the admirable Bishop Colenso said in 1863, “We literally groan, even in the present day, under the burden of Milton’s mythology.”

We still do.

[Michael continues his discussion of the problem of evil, in highly personal ways. Does it make sense to blame Adam and Eve for the fact that children are dying today of malaria? This lets God off the hook, but at what cost? He invites us, instead, to share Darwin’s contemplation of the tangled bank, and sees science as a way of understanding and appreciating the work of the Creator.]

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