Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Lost World

April 21, 2015

The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, by John H. Walton.

When I first read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God the experience was like that described by G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. Chesterton imagines an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculates his course and discovers England “under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Chesterton claims to envy this yachtsman, for, “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

In reading Wright, I found that I was looking at all the familiar landmarks of the synoptic gospels but seeing them from a very different angle. Nothing was discarded, in the way that liberal readings are apt to do, but all was heightened and clarified. It took me three or four readings before I began to feel comfortable in this new country that was actually so familiar.

I’m having a similar experience reading John Walton’s two books on Genesis 1-3. Walton is a very conservative Christian—he taught for years at Moody Bible Institute before moving to Wheaton College–who takes every word of Scripture as indispensably true, but he reads this seminal text in a way that is entirely new to me.

It’s difficult to get a clear understanding of the whole argument without reading the whole book, which deals with many nuances of Hebrew, with many Ancient Near East texts, and with careful readings of the Pauline writings on Adam and Eve. Let me try, however, to give a few aspects of Walton’s argument that I found helpful, and that may pique your interest in reading more.

Walton starts by saying that we are a very materialistic age, and that we therefore read the text seeking an explanation of the material universe.  But in the ancient Middle East, he says, people took the material as a given: they were more interested in power and organization. All origins texts of that period, including Genesis, place the components of the universe in their roles and explain their purposes.

Walton argued in his first book, The Lost World of Genesis One, that Genesis 1 tells how God made the whole universe to be his temple. There is no interest in when and how, but strictly who and for what. All the players are summoned in an orderly fashion to their roles in the temple, including human beings who are made to represent God’s image and in that role to preside over his temple, keeping it and caring for it. Walton says there is nothing in the first chapter suggesting how long this took, or by what physical process it was done, or whether human beings were made in a single pair or by the thousands.

He makes the point that when God pronounces this “very good,” he does not say “perfect.” “Good” in the context means, “well-functioning.” All the pieces are in their places and are in play. There is no reason to assume that there is no death among the creatures: well-functioning creatures do die.

I particularly like one image that Walton uses to describe the nature of the story that Genesis 1-3 tells. He suggests that we differentiate between a “house” story and a “home” story. We have read Genesis 1-3 looking for the “house” story—how the building was constructed. We think it is all about wooden beams and concrete foundations and floor plans and roof joists. Instead, Walton says, we should read it as a “home” story. When a family moves into a house, they bring in their furniture, their decorations, their equipment. They assign rooms to different people and to different functions. Jill’s room and Kevin’s room, the dining room and the den are not defined by their physical characteristics but by the people who inhabit them and the way they use them. People humanize the house and make it their own. It then serves for family life, for hospitality, for renewal, for family rituals—for whatever purposes the family endorses. The “home” story is much more interesting—and much subtler–than the “house” story.

If Genesis 1 is a “home” story, what is Genesis 2? Walton reads it not as a repeat of and detailed account of the sixth day of creation, but as a subsequent series of events. He believes Adam and Eve are real historical creatures, but not necessarily the first homo sapiens. Rather they are chosen by God (like Abraham, later on) to be representative and archetypal human beings to extend God’s rule. They are placed in a garden where they fellowship with God, name the animals, discover the meaning of sexual differences (Walton argues that the description of God making Eve from a rib and presenting her to Adam may be Adam’s revelatory dream of the value and purpose of marriage), and are given two trees—one a tree of life, so they need never die, and one a tree of wisdom, which they are warned not to eat. They seize wisdom, rebelling against God. (Perhaps, in God’s good time, he meant to share it with them. But they wanted it for themselves, immediately.) Their expulsion from the garden means that, just like all the other creatures, they cannot eat from the tree of life. And so they bring death to the whole human race, because we cannot enter the garden that they were evicted from.

This understanding of the fall turns the original sin upside down—not as an introduction of death, but as a rejection of life. That leaves room for an interpretation of our world where God’s good intentions are shown not in a perfect original creation—one without death, suffering, pain, earthquakes, disease, predation—but one that is well made with an end in mind. That end is that image-bearing humans in fellowship with God (through the One Man, the Image of God) might achieve a perfect new earth and heaven.

Even as I write this brief summary I am aware that you can take exception to Walton’s exegesis at many points. It’s hard material to interpret—and it’s not just Walton’s grasp that one might question; any interpretation you care to summon up raises its doubt and questions. Walton doesn’t skip over hard questions. He tries to deal with every word of the text, including New Testament writings that are relevant. (In one chapter on Paul’s view of Adam, N.T. Wright himself adds a brief section.)

I found it stimulating stuff. Perhaps the most significant contribution is to bring Genesis 1-3 into the literary world of its period. When we do that, Walton says, we find that many of the material questions we want to ask are not addressed at all. Instead, a worship-oriented view of the cosmos as God’s home and temple emerges. That clearly connects to the rest of Scripture, as a material history does not.

As for the possibility that science’s evolutionary story of origins is true, Walton simply makes the case that nothing in Genesis 1-3 rules it out. How and when God created the living creatures, including humans—Walton says Genesis does not address those questions. We can believe the science or not, on its own evidence.

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The Unexpected Results of Global Warming

April 3, 2015

Let’s not argue about whether 98% of climate scientists are correct in predicting global warming. Assume for the moment that they are right and that at least some of their catastrophic predictions will come true. What will be the result?

I don’t mean economically or ecologically. There will be hard facts—sea levels, temperatures, storms—that will play out, and we human beings will make our responses. We will build sea walls, move away from the coast, migrate from hot areas, change our crop rotation, and so on. We will do our best to cope with change, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Who knows just how successful we will be?

As I imagine it, however, one change will be almost certain. There will necessarily be a change toward revering science. If and when those predictions come true, scientists will gain a lot of credit. They predicted it, and we ignored it.

These days, appreciation of science is mixed up with a great deal of skepticism and even hostility, from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Lefties tend to despise GMO foods, anything with man-made chemicals, and sometimes vaccines. Righties fight to deny evolution and global warming. All sides include people who believe instinctively that alternative medicine (diets, supplements, naturopathic medicines) is better and safer than what scientific medicine recommends.

Most of these are small-scale issues, and the consequences of getting them right or wrong is hard to measure. With global warming, though, something really huge is at stake. We are making a global gamble that science is wrong. We’re letting skepticism about science have the decisive word. It will take some time to see how that gamble works out, but my guess is that our grandchildren will ask us, “How could you sit by and make no serious attempt to arrest climate change? Didn’t you listen to what the scientists said?”

Our grandchildren will grow up believing in science much more than we do. They will be a lot less tolerant of the science skepticism that animates so many people today.

There’s always this reversal after a national failure. The failure to address the Depression led to the New Deal and the government-enmeshed economy. The failure to face Hitler early led to the lasting popularity of the military-industrial complex after WWII. And the failure to address climate change will lead, I expect, to an era where science rules.

Whether that is a good thing is another matter.

Regarding polls on evolution and creation

June 13, 2014

Deborah Haarmsma of Biologos has an elegant post on recent Gallup polling of people’s views on evolution and creation. While the poll suggests that factions supporting young earth creationism and atheistic evolution are stable and unyielding, when you break the questions down with more detail you find a far more nuanced situation. Worth reading if you are interested in these questions, regardless of your point of view.

Death Before the Fall

April 30, 2014

My review of Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering has been posted on the Christianity Today website. The book is a very interesting and rather fierce critique of literalist readings of Genesis, from a quite orthodox and conservative perspective. Osborn’s concern to understand the meaning of animal suffering relates to those interpretations of Genesis.

Here’s the link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april-web-only/reading-genesis-without-philosophical-blinders.html?start=1

The Adam Quest

December 16, 2013

Two weeks ago one of the scientists I profile in The Adam Quest, Mary Schweitzer, was featured in The Economist Magazine. Here’s the article. Do you know how rare it is for any scientist to get this kind of recognition? She’s certainly on top of the world in paleontology. And her research is really full of surprises! Very interesting stuff.

So is her life’s story, which I tell in The Adam Quest. She was a housewife raising three kids when she decided to take some courses at Montana State for personal enrichment. She took a class on dinosaurs because she remembered being interested in them as a child. (She was also a Young Earth Creationist who believed that the earth, and thus dinosaurs, were only a few thousand years old. And she had never taken science classes, because they were too hard.)

Mary’s story may be the most interesting and surprising of the scientists whom I profile, but they really are all quite fascinating people.  The theory behind the book is that it’s much harder to demonize people whom you get to know. It certainly worked that way for me.

The book comes out in two weeks. It features profiles of eleven scientists who are Christians and involved in creation-evolution discussions. They are all (or have been) working scientists, defined as science PhDs who have published papers in peer-reviewed journals. They come from different points of view regarding the age of the earth and whether God used evolutionary means to create. I think you’ll find it a very interesting read. Some of my pre-pub readers told me they couldn’t put it down.

Randomness and Design

July 11, 2012

I found this quote quite helpful in untangling a word that gets used in discussions about evolution:

“The word “random” as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated. My children like to observe the license plates of the cars that pass us on the highway, to see which states they are from. The sequence of states exhibits a degree of randomness: a car from Kentucky, then New Jersey, then Florida, and so on—because the cars are uncorrelated: Knowing where one car comes from tells us nothing about where the next one comes from. And yet, each car comes to that place at that time for a reason. Each trip is planned, each guided by some map and schedule. Each driver’s trip fits into the story of his life in some intelligible way, though the story of these drivers’ lives are not usually closely correlated with the other drivers’ lives.”

–from Stephen M. Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” First Things, October, 2005

The Father of Intelligent Design

February 1, 2012

Yesterday I spent the morning with Phillip Johnson, the retired Berkeley law professor who, more than anyone else, fathered Intelligent Design. He is unrepentant. Johnson is as convinced as ever that evolution is a hoax, a demonstration that if you will not consider evidence for God-as-creator, you will predictably find no God in creation.

I like Johnson, not so much for his thinking as for how he communicates it. He enjoys an argument, but he likes to be friends with those he argues against. I detect no rancor. He has fond memories of hammer-and-tongs annual debates with William Provine, the Cornell historian of science, which usually concluded with beer and talk at a local tavern.

Over the last decade Johnson has suffered from two strokes and (most recently) an operation that went wrong and put him in the ICU for nearly two months. He told me when he woke up in the rehab hospital, he just wanted to die as quickly as possible. He couldn’t face another round of rehab.

But he did. He’s struggled to mend, with the tremendous help and encouragement of his wife Kathie. He says he has learned a lot of humility, and with it more sympathy for others.

He’s grateful for his resurrection (his word) not only because of how he has grown, but also because he otherwise would not have seen the 49ers’ tremendous season. With a glint in his eye, he predicted more good seasons to come. Which suggests that, in all likelihood, he’ll be arguing yet awhile.

Yet, Johnson said, “Convincing the world no longer seems so important to me. I’m 71 years old. I feel a lot closer to death. I can almost step across the boundary from this life to the next. If my Christian faith is correct, I will soon hear answers from the most authoritative source available.”

How Do You Like Your Octopus?

September 19, 2011

Lots and lots of cool stuff can be found on the internet, such that one could spend all day, every day searching it out. I sometimes suspect that David Graham does so, but I think he has a real job as a doctor. Anyway, of all the cool things, David came up with this quite amazing video of an octopus and its camouflage, which I highly recommend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pB4N8_PUFc0&feature=youtu.be

How do you respond to such wonders? Or to the amazing processes of orchid pollenization, which I learned about last evening from an eminent geologist who has extended his scientific interests to Costa Rican orchids? Evolutionary biologists try to envision the step by step process by which such wonders came to be, through material processes over millions of years. Young-earth creationists imagine God doing it almost instantly, like a magician. They say that random processes could never invent such complex things, and that God and random material processes are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

That’s very debatable–doesn’t God cause the clouds to rain? and coins to come down heads or tails?–but whichever side you take, all theists worthy of their theism will see the wonders of God rampant and worthy of praise. I defy anybody to watch that octopus and insist that it is pointless.

 

 

Creation or Evolution?

September 13, 2011

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.

The Direction of Evolution

July 6, 2011

I had a fascinating and hugely enjoyable interview–several hours worth–with Simon Conway Morris, an outstanding paleontologist at Cambridge. Conway Morris did some of the main work on the Burgess fossils that Steven Jay Gould wrote about in Wonderful Life. Gould was celebrating the randomness of evolution, the sense he gained from the fossil record that evolution was throwing out new life forms in a splendid and arbitrary abundance–and that it was purely accidental which ones survived. Famously Gould suggested that if the tape of evolution were run again a thousand times, it would come up with a thousand different results.

Conway Morris takes a very different view. He thinks there is an inevitability in evolution–that life must go in certain directions because those are the only possibilities–and that those possibilities are actually quite narrowly limited. I won’t try to describe these views any further now, because it’s complicated, but this view naturally brings a very different macro view of evolution.

Conway Morris is a Christian, who came to a serious intellectual commitment while he was in graduate school studying the Burgess fossils. At that time he began to read C.S. Lewis and went on to Chesteron, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and others of that “Inklings” circle and their influences. (I know, I know, neither Chesterton nor Sayers were Inklings–we need a word for this loose circle of associates and influences.) Conway Morris is a voracious reader and a fascinating talker. The good news is that he is currently writing a book that will sum up the history of evolution as he understands it. I can hardly wait to read it.