Creation or Evolution?

I’ve just finished a book I’d highly recommend: Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander. Alexander is a biochemist heading the Faraday Institute at Cambridge. I interviewed him back in July, somewhat embarrassed that I had only read bits of his writing. (But not embarrassed enough to skip the interview.)

He writes as an unapologetic evangelical with a robust view of the sovereignty of God, and as a convinced (and practicing) evolutionist. He begins with a strong statement of God the creator, a view from Scripture. Then he gives a careful and thorough layman’s explanation of genetics and how an evolutionary biologist sees the genome evolving over millions of years. It’s a serious treatment, which stretched me considerably. (I’m sure a biologist would find it mundane.) It helped me understand to some degree the complex knowledge that binds together evolutionary theory with a thousand strands; and it also helped me comprehend to some degree the plausibility of the theory. The creativity is in the details, and what seems impossible in the large (the self-assembling 747) begins to look quite realistic in the small.

I can’t begin to convey what he says. You have to read it for yourself.

I was struck by the level of detail that scientists have already drawn from genomic studies, only a few decades after we first grasped what DNA is. One small example: approximately 1,000 genes have been detected enabling a mammal’s sense of smell. All or nearly all of these can be found in human DNA (which is largely identical to any other mammal’s) but 60% have been “switched off” by mutations. They are there as genetic fossils. By contrast, mice have “switched off” only 20%. Eighty percent of their smelling genes remain functional, which is why mice smell so much better than we do. One presumes that humans are not nearly so dependent on smell for survival, so our mutations have piled up. For mice, poor senses of smell get weeded out.

One might possibly explain these facts by other theories, but evolution surely is an excellent fit. And there are many, many, many such particular examples.

Alexander goes on to cover everything that somebody worried about evolution and creation could be interested in. He is a thoughtful and careful student of Scripture, and it shows in his thorough treatment of Genesis and other important texts. He takes up Adam and Eve, the Fall, questions about God’s responsibility for natural evil (the tooth and claw critique of creation), and the biblical understanding of death. He critiques Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design.

Some of this is undoubtedly subject to counter-critique. Alexander obviously is extremely knowledgeable on multiple fronts, and he is generally charitable. (Not so much in his criticisms of ID.) But a detailed argument will always be answered, and for lay people like me it is hard to assess the quality of the arguments.

What I particularly like is the foundation of Alexander’s thinking: that God made the universe, and the task of science is to figure out how. He takes Christian delight in his conviction that his own and others’ scientific work has revealed a great deal of the magnificent “how” of God’s work. But in his chapter on the origins of life—i.e., the first cell—he is not bothered in the least by the admission of ignorance, that “at present we have very little idea as to where the DNA does come from.”

“I would like to suggest that theologically it doesn’t matter two hoots whether we ever manage to understand the origins of life scientifically or not. The simple reason is that God’s work in creation is not dependent upon whether we understand it or not.”

In that chapter he gives a great deal of information about the state of research into the origins of life. Alexander obviously does think that eventually, maybe in fifty years, scientists will be able to offer a credible story of how God brought life into being. But he doesn’t think for a moment the story will reveal “blind, materialistic, naturalistic forces” at work.

“These are God’s chemicals, God’s materials, that are being talked about here. A mystery bigger than the origin of life is why Christians should ascribe pagan-sounding characteristics to God’s world. Is this God’s world or isn’t it? … To confidently proclaim that the precious materials God has so carefully brought into being in the dying moments of exploding stars do not have the potentiality to bring about life, seems to me… insulting [to God]. Christianity, in a sense, is a very materialistic religion. We believe that all the materials of the universe without exception are God’s materials. ‘Who are you, oh man’, to tell God what potentialities are or are not built into his materials? All we’ll ever come up with anyway, if ever, is a detailed step-by-step description as to how God did it.”

That seems to be a very strong idea of God’s creation and of science’s role in exploring it.

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