Evolution as a Christian

I believe both that life has developed over millions of years, and that there is a transcendent, personal source of the universe, revealed perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. How can this be? This note focusses on what I believe about biological evolution, with some comments on how this relates to what I believe about God. It may be of interest to Christians, agnostics, seekers and sceptics. It is already longer than intended, but remains a summary!

I think I have something to say on this as my academic background is in biology and philosophy. I’ve just finished my PhD in evolutionary genetics, I have a number of articles on evolutionary theory in preparation and one published as a book chapter, and I have presented research regarding evolutionary matters at various academic conferences, including conferences on antibiotic resistance, experimental evolution, the genetic code, and what makes humans different as a species. I believe when nature consistently gives the same message when approached from different angles then we should all listen – whether that is that the Earth is old and life has evolved, or that the universe bears marks of rational ordering – or, as I think, both!

This article conveys my current opinions. Not those of anyone with whom I am associated. If you disagree with me and want to critique this post’s contents, I would appreciate you discussing it with me directly. A number of Christians have sadly attempted to discredit people or groups I am associated with as a result of me speaking about these things, but no one has ever tried to contact me directly with a critique. I would like to note that sceptics have often  treated me with more courtesy and respect.

I am focussing on the science here because it is I think of broad interest and it is what I am trained in, not because I do not value the theological questions. If you want to pay for me to get a theological education, do be in touch. In the meantime, the scientific evidence remains to be dealt with.

On the culture war: Christians should not buy into the wholesale dichotomising of the sacred and the secular. Buying into it may look particularly pious but undermines the message of the gospel. It is urgent that Christians learn to engage the wider world on terms that the world can understand. Not all Christians must be academic researchers, but all should try to be able to be understood.

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Key points:
– There is abundant astronomical and geological evidence of an old universe and old Earth
– Life does not fit into a young earth model
– The nested hierarchies seen in life – both genomics and paleontology – fit an evolutionary model
– Arguments against evolution with confident conclusions opposing a gradual development of biodiversity are typically insufficiently informed by biology
– The mechanism of evolution remains an active area of research, within which Christians are free to follow the evidence
– For Christians this is not a ‘meh’ issue.

The Age of the Earth
The three most persuasive challenges to a young Earth model, in my view (in addition to the challenge of the evidence for evolution) are how we can see distant stars in a young universe, why the different measures of geological time coincide to such a large degree, and how all the biodiversity of land animals and birds could have arisen from a small breeding stock within the space of, effectively, a couple of thousand years. These are major problems, and the evidence clearly points to an old Earth in each case.

Life’s Diversity
Earth’s biosphere contains a superabundance of life forms. The claim that the majority of the land-dwelling species were collected and transported on an ark 5000 years ago is not plausible in light of the knowledge of the world that is now available. If we reduce the super-abundance of life down to a few select ‘kinds’ (at, say, the family level of the biological hierarchy) and work hard at it so as to only take baby T-rexs and such, perhaps they could all fit. As I see it, the big question is then how to get the super-abundance we see today within the space of a few thousand years. Perhaps ironically a process of rather rapid evolution would be required. This is rather difficult to distinguish from the kind that creationists decry as impossible for evolution to achieve. One quick example, possible due to the rapid expansion of genome datasets in recent years. Sequencing of the tiger genome shows it to be approximately 95.6% similar to that of the domestic cat. Compare this with 94.8% similarity between human and gorilla, and a higher proportion in common between human and chimpanzee genomes. These numbers are important because the cat family is a classic example of what is typically taken to be a biblical ‘kind’ by those who hold to a literal-historical interpretation of the Genesis flood narrative, and similarity between humans and great apes is of course taken to be outside the bounds of the possible for evolution.

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Nested Hierarchies
Putative evolutionary relationships between lifeforms [outside of prokaryotes subject to rampant gene-swapping (‘horizontal gene transfer’)] generally fits a tree-like structure. Differences between gene trees and species trees and other issues are of high technical interest but frequently make sense as we come to understand evolutionary processes better and do very little to undermine the overall pattern that is apparent. The expansion of genomic data available has allowed the building of large trees of species, and when a step back is taken to see the big picture it is clear that the data fits the pattern expected. The initial strong evidence for evolution came from the fossils. While there are many extinctions along the way there is a general increase in biological diversity over time. We start with bacteria and eventually get more complex multicellular systems such as dolphins and human beings, and every major group of organisms subsequent to the Cambrian has a likely predecessor evident in the fossil record. The branching tree pattern evident in the fossils is replicated in striking patterns of genetic similarity. The level of similarity observed at the molecular level is extreme and goes beyond what would be expected from a de novo design perspective for common participation in the biosphere.

Arguments Against Evolution Need More Biology
The probability of obtaining complex proteins appears prohibitive for an evolutionary process. This probability argument or something similar has been most famously made by atheist physicist Fred Hoyle, and also by plant physiologist (and creationist) Frank Salisbury in the journal Nature in 1969. The argument makes two key assumptions in order to be convincing (i.e. in order to obtain the vastly improbable numbers that appear in basic calculations of the problem) – firstly, proteins are highly specified (only one possible structure will suffice), and secondly there is no way to get from one structure to another. Both of these assumptions are shown false by careful studies of relationships amongst proteins in different species, including closely related species which everyone agrees share an evolutionary history.    It may be that there is still a probabilistic difficulty for neo-Darwinian evolution from the origin of new proteins – but the case is harder to make biologically convincing than many people have assumed.
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The Mechanism of Evolution Remains an Active Area of Research
I think it is important to distinguish between the pattern and the process of evolution. The pattern is the grand tree of life famously sketched by Darwin in an early notebook. The process includes both whatever gave rise to the novelty observed with new branches in the tree and the evolution we see today, as in the development of antibiotic resistance. There is significant evidence for the pattern of evolution. The processes of evolution occurring today, which explains the rise of phenomena such as antibiotic resistance, are also reasonably well understood. Random mutation plus natural selection appears to be adequate to explain a range of events that we know occur around us.

However, scientistic triumphalism is not warranted. The historical processes giving rise to the wide diversity of life however are less well understood. It’s hard to test what happened many million years ago in systems different to what we observe today. If we grant that what is chiefly required in evolution is changes in DNA sequence, then the same processes of mutation plus natural selection that we observe today in the lab in microbial systems (for example) could conceivably give rise to the entire diversity of life, given enough time. Whether other mechanisms beyond random mutation and natural selection were in fact involved in the development of life is an active area of research. Evolution is not limited to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, with other mechanisms such as horizontal gene transfer, symbiosis, and the inheritance of epigenetic changes potentially playing a role.

Christians: Don’t Respond with ‘Meh’
Christians reading this may already believe that evolution is compatible with a robust Christian faith. This is good, but please be careful. The claims of modern science about an ancient Earth and evolutionary history to humankind do require reinterpretation of biblical texts, and careful thought concerning Christian doctrine. This is not something to be taken lightly. I am not advocating an uncritical acceptance of everything that secular science claims to say about topics such as the history of the human race, I’m advocating attempting to integrate as much data as we can to make sense of the world, trusting that ultimately this is God’s universe.

I believe the work of the likes of Henri Blocher and Lydia Jaeger on the doctrine of the fall of mankind is important in this area, and I hope to delve into it much more.

On Christian Faith and Evolution:

I have a number of articles and eventually books planned on this topic, if I am granted the time and energy to complete them. I believe God, the God revealed in the Bible, is responsible for why the universe exists (was created and continues to exist), why there are moral facts which are binding on our lives, and the facts of history concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Touching on science beyond the universe’s ‘mere’ existence, I believe God is responsible for and explanatory of why it obeys orderly laws, why the laws are comprehensible to us, why the laws are mathematically elegant, why the universe is fine-tuned for life, why the relationships between chemicals facilitate complex biochemistry so marvellously, as well as why life arose, contains diverse extreme optimalities as found in the genetic code, and diversified in the way that it has including the remarkable adaptive features of human beings. I will discuss these topics with sceptics until I have no more breath left.

I do not believe that the early chapters of Genesis are required to be read as a straightforward historical account of the events of creation and early human history. The structuring of chapter 1 and numerous symbolic motifs throughout the early chapters are suggestive of a less literal intended meaning. For some discussion of the text I recommend this essay.

Even the neo-Darwinian mechanism (which I believe is certainly insufficient as a comprehensive explanation of life) is compatible with the sovereignty of God. Apparent randomness at the physical level merely indicates that we lack the ability to predict the outcome of an event, not that someone outside the system cannot know what will happen. Take for example the rolling of a die – the biblical understanding of God is that he is in charge of even this ‘random’ event. [Proverbs 16:33]

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Evolution can be read as a history of suffering and death, but this needn’t be seen as the dominant theme of the narrative. Excellent work by Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley and Harvard evolutionary dynamics expert Martin Novak has shown the importance of co-operation in evolution. Other themes can also be picked out.

Some other Objections:

“Yeah but there are other scientists who disagree so it’s just your opinion Zach. You’ve sold out.”
– I am happy to discuss this, particularly the genetics, in detail with any scientists you point in my direction. I have personal connections to two of Europe’s formerly leading proponents of a young Earth view who no longer hold this position, and can cite other examples. As far as I can tell the young earth view is increasingly restricted to those who have been raised in educational contexts where belief in evolution is not a serious option. I think you will increasingly struggle to find serious young earth creationist scientists who were not educated at the undergraduate level at a Christian university with YEC part of the belief system required of faculty.
Intelligent Design is more complex because more amorphous. I have discussed various of these points with most of the leading proponents of ID that might be named. Some of the arguments are very interesting, but they are not rigorous enough to persuade most scientists and the usual set-up of the debate as ‘evolution versus design’ is extremely unhelpful and unfruitful in my opinion.

“Science has shown that this God talk is redundant. Give it up, Zach.”
– Science has shown no such thing. Science presumes the essential coherency and intelligibility of the natural universe, a coherency and intelligibility I accept with great tenacity because I accept the historical events concerning Jesus Christ, and the authority I believe that these events indicate he has. See also the list I gave earlier including various features of the laws of nature, and the previous post on this blog.

“Evolution undermines belief in God, as just another evolved trait, (due to mechanism ‘M’) which is not necessarily truth-apt”
This is a difficult argument to run for at least three reasons.
-Firstly, if evolution undermines belief in God, then similar arguments suggest it may undermine moral beliefs, mathematical beliefs, and metaphysical beliefs such as ontological naturalism.
-Secondly, if God exists, the God can and does often use natural processes to achieve desired ends. If God does exist, then natural mechanism ‘M’ may contribute to true belief in God. If God does not exist then belief in God due to ‘M’ is false. Whether M is reliable or not is difficult to assess without a separate belief concerning whether God actually exists or not. If ‘M’ is only convincing as undermining of God-belief for naturalists it does not offer much in the conversation.
-Thirdly, belief in the Christian God is primarily concerned with particular claims concerning the nature of God that have nothing to do with any generic God-belief mechanism, instead being reliant on historical claims. Many people may have a tendency to believe in God due to ‘M’, but this does nothing to undermine the claim that God can be personally known because of Jesus.

“The kind of God you are talking about is not the biblical God. It may as well be the God of Islam, Deism, or some other belief system”
I emphatically disagree. A God particularly interested in human beings and the faithfulness of God being expressed in natural law are particular kinds of belief about God that stand in tension with other belief systems such as Deism, and I think Islam. As I understand it on both of these belief systems God is less constrained than on the biblical view and hence there is less reason to expect any particular outcome given their concept of God.

If you’d like to discuss these things with me,  or would like ideas of what to read on this to learn more, or have things you think I should read, do let me know. Truth is worth looking for!