I believe in good science. It’s absolutely ridiculous to say that science is of the devil and needs to be ignored. That’s just unreasonable. I think it’s fairly safe to say that scientists are working on origins science regularly and continually, and the more and harder they work, the more the pieces of an evolutionary picture are coming together. While there are some contradictory evidences, as there are in many objects of scientific study, a more complete and somewhat reliable frame has been coming into clarity.
I guess one of the first things to be clarified is the various meanings of the term “evolution.” It’s difficult to have a reasonable discussion if we think we’re talking about the same thing, but we’re not. Evolution can mean…
…simply an unfolding, a working out; a process of development; a process of change over time
… the result of the process of development; the thing evolved
…the development of a species, organism, or organ from its original to its present state; creatures today are related to creatures that lived long ago, whose fossils we dig up.
…a theory that all species of plants and animals developed from earlier forms: an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies, and changing environments.
We all understand and agree about the first three. Of course living things develop, since we’re not all still babies. What the primary discussion about origins focuses on is the fourth definition, and two subsets within the fourth definition—whether they evolved naturally, or whether God had anything to do with it. While many theologians have painted a picture of “evil science”, some scientists have shaken their heads at “foolish Christians, and many on both sides of the debate have raised the banner of “conflict between science and religion,” the polarization between all camps need not be so extreme.
Another point to clarify is the various meanings of “creationism”. It can mean…
… creation by God by fiat in six days
…creation by God, who then stood back and let it evolve by chance
…creation by God, who then engaged creation as it evolved
While there are various schools of thought in the scientific community working to propose approaches to origins and evolution that are comprehensive (neo-Darwinism, punctuated quilibrium, phyletic gradualism, endosymbiosis, evolutionary developmental biology [or evo/devo]), there are also theological studies pursuing the biblical text deeper into its cultural roots and linguistic meanings to propose Biblical understandings that are more accurate than the traditional readings of the texts. These include ancient scholars such as Origen and Augustine, schools such as Yale and Princeton, and modern scholars such as Tremper Longman and John Walton. While the details are still being studied by both scientists and theologians, we need to understand that the points of conflict between them are far fewer than many assume. Science and theology are both very much living disciplines, ever-changing in their understandings, and refining previous beliefs.
Scientists still debate over whether the Big Bang is really what happened, how the moon formed, the rapid appearance of life forms in the Cambrian period, and many other issues, but as tools, methodologies, and persistent work increase, so does our understanding. More research is definitely needed in these areas as well as hominid development, dating techniques, and many others.
This discussion could go on for a long time, and will. We need to demand good science reporting that tells us ALL of the evidence, not blocking out what doesn’t fit the mold, and not jumping to conclusions based on the bias of what someone wants it to be. After all, almost none of us are reading the professional journals. We also need to be more tolerant of each other with discoveries or theories that are unpopular, or when the hint surfaces that a previous understanding is under question. If we demand good science and good theology, we have to be patient with the fits and starts of the process.
British biologist Gerald A. Kerkut (1927-2004) identifies seven assumptions that must be true for evolution to have happened.
1. Non-living material gave rise to living material. (Has yet to be proven, though experiments are taking place to attempt to replicate it or cause something like it.)
2. Viruses, bacteria, plants, and animals are all interrelated. (Genetic research supports this)
3. Protozoa gave rise to metazoa. (Genetics. Still no good hypothesis)
4. Various invertebrate phyla are interrelated. (Genetic information)
5. Invertebrates gave rise to vertebrates. (Genetics. As yet unproven. It has not been possible to demonstrate gradual assembly of the vertebrate body plan.)
6. Vertebrates and fish gave rise to the amphibia, the amphibia to the reptiles, and the reptiles to the birds and mammals. (Fossil record, genetics)
Sure, there are problems. Some of them are being worked out, and others are just stalled. I think we all understand and agree that science can only go so far. The exact conditions of the universe and earth from millions and billions of years ago are not reproducible. And while it’s possible for a physicist to study Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, a musician and a physicist will bring radically different observations to the table. Many branches of science still believe that the ultimate aim is to explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry, but not even a machine can be explained by the chemical and physical analyses of its component wheels and shafts and pulleys. It is possible to show how the functioning of each part contributes to the operation of the whole, but you thereby miss the purpose for which it was designed and built. And biologists have shown that the discovery of the physical basis of the genetic code in the DNA molecule, so far from explaining the origin of life, made it more mysterious.
Back to the “machine” illustration. From this example more to that of the animals, which are in some respects machinelike entities in that their bodies are composed of moving parts that can be understood only in terms of the purposes they serve. The difference here is that the purpose is internalized. A machine has no purpose of its own; it embodies the purpose of its designer. An animal has purposes of its own—a perspective shared by both the Bible and The Origin of the Species.
Christianity and science have been partners for millennia. The Bible shows the world to be both rational and contingent (likely but not certain to happen; happening by chance or unforeseen causes; dependent on or conditioned by something else). If the world is not rational, science is not possible; if the world is not contingent, science is not necessary. The necessary precondition for the birth of science as we know it is the diffusion through society of the belief that the universe is both rational and contingent, which is a biblical teaching. Five of the most important scientists in history—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Pascal—were all Christians. It never occurred to them that their scientific research and its results could be at odds with their Christian faith. On the contrary, they viewed their investigations of nature as a sacred duty and privilege. Of the five, only Galileo came into conflict with church leaders.
What are we to make of all this (and so much more)? Let’s all admit the jury is still out, encourage rational discussion, work to keep bias out of science, bias out of theology, look at all the evidences, and figure things out together. More study is needed. Now that’s a 3rd choice.