"Creation vs. Evolution": Is This a Sensible Question?

School boards in an uproar. Parents protective of their children. Teachers defensive. Students confused. And American presidential candidates feeling compelled to declare their views. The furore over creation versus evolution has been going on for almost a century and a half since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859).

The sad thing is that so much energy is wasted on what is, mostly, a non-issue: “creation versus evolution” is, in most respects, nonsense.

Belief in creation means simply to believe that a deity, or several deities, brought the cosmos into being. It is a core belief of many religions: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, of course, but also varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism and tribal religions around the world. That God (or the gods) created the world is the belief. How God (or the gods) did so is the open question.

Nowadays, however, many people assume belief in creation means belief that God created the world in six 24-hour days, that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that it appears older because a global flood in Noah’s time laid down the deep layers of sediment that evolutionists think took billions of years to accumulate.

Yet these beliefs are a particular, and recent, variety of Christian thought, properly known as “creation science” or “scientific creationism.”

Creation science was popularized in a 1923 book called The New Geology by amateur U.S. scientist George McCready Price. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Price learned from Adventism’s founder Ellen G. White that God had revealed to her that Noah’s flood was responsible for the fossil record.

Price didn’t influence the popular mind much, however. It remained for a 1961 book called The Genesis Flood, largely an academic dressing-up of Price’s work by engineer Henry Morris and theologian John Whitcomb, to disseminate the creation science scheme. A variety of organizations (such as the Institute for Creation Research in California) have so energetically propagated these ideas that some polls show they are believed by more than 40 per cent of the American population and almost as many in some regions of Canada.

This version of creation, however, is but one of four different understandings of creation held by Bible-believing, church-going Christians.

A popular view among conservative Protestants has been that there was a huge interval between an original creation described in Genesis 1:1 and the “formless and void” earth described in Genesis 1:2, out of which God then created the present world. This “gap theory” was promulgated by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), and has since been accepted by millions of Christians the world over.

A third version understands the six “days” of creation to be metaphors describing “ages” of time, any of which might have been millions of years long. This was the view of McGill University’s distinguished scientist Sir J.W. Dawson in Darwin’s day. More surprisingly, it was also the view of William Jennings Bryan, the famous defender of creation at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.

Finally, there are those Christians who believe that God used the process of evolution. Some believe God did so to produce minor changes within species, but intervened directly to produce each significantly new form of life. (This view is coherent with the previous one, such that minor evolution takes place during the long ages of the latter creation “days” when life emerges on the planet.)

Some restrict God’s special intervention to the creation of humankind. Such believers feel that there are key theological reasons to maintain belief in a separate creation of humanity, and particularly in there being a first pair, Adam and Eve, whose transgression helps explain the subsequent history of humankind and particularly of God’s economy of redemption. Without an actual Adam and Eve, so this theo-logic goes, much of the Bible’s teaching about sin and salvation doesn’t make (as much) sense (Gen. 3; Rom. 5; I Cor. 15).

So-called Intelligent Design (ID) is compatible with either of these two views, namely, that some natural phenomena are best explained—particularly because of their complexity and what we might call the interdependent complexity of their components—by positing the direct creative action of an intelligent designer. (I hope to write more about the controversy over ID before long. I don’t think it’s as unscientific and as epistemologically confused as many of its opponents say it is.)

And some believe in full-fledged “theistic evolution”: that God used evolution plain and simple (as if it is “plain and simple”!) to produce all life on earth.

Thus the Genesis account is seen by many believers to be highly figurative about the mechanics of creation, but still teaching important truths about it: that the world is an ordered and interdependent whole; that human beings are to care for the earth as gardeners care for a garden; and especially that it was God, not impersonal processes or other deities, that brought all else into being.

There are only two respects, then, in which “creation versus evolution” makes sense: first, when certain Christians insist that “creation” must mean “creation science” and thus rule out any divine use of evolution; and, second, when certain evolutionists insist that “evolution” must mean only what Darwin thought it meant, namely naturalistic or atheistic evolution. For then, of course, “creation versus evolution” really amounts to “theism versus atheism.” Put this way, however, we should recognize that we are dealing now with a religious and philosophical issue, not a scientific one. Science cannot, in the nature of the case, rule out God as somehow supervising evolutionary processes.

To be sure, science might conclude that “we have no need of the hypothesis” that God created the world (Laplace). We should be honest enough and knowledgeable enough to recognize, even as scientific laypersons (among which I am, of course, to be numbered) that science is a long way from proving that we don’t need such a hypothesis—whether regarding the origin of the universe (the “something from nothing” problem); or the immensely improbable cosmological “fine tuning” necessary for life on Earth; or the currently inexplicable arising of multicellular organisms; or the persistent problem (noted by Darwin himself) of the absence of “transitional forms” in the fossil record (the many “missing links”); and so on.

Maybe evolution, theistic or otherwise, can explain all these things–as Christian Francis Collins believes just as firmly as atheist Richard Dawkins believes. But we must allow that evolution has not yet done so.

And that’s a pretty important set of allowances to make—as the ID proponents, as well as the creation science people, rightly insist. Indeed, the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould himself agreed, sufficiently so that he and Niles Eldredge postulated “punctuated equilibrium” as a theory to explain the last problem on that list. The creation science and ID people simply aren’t wrong about everything—and their opponents would do well to heed their criticisms, even if they hate their alternative theories.

So what should we do about the vexed questions about origins and evolution?

First, we should teach science as a method, as an adventure of discovery and debate, not as a dull, fixed set of indubitable facts to be indoctrinated. We should teach students what science really is. As the late Neil Postman, no friend of theism or Intelligent Design, has pointed out, what better opportunity could textbook writers and teachers have to demonstrate how science actually works than to plunge students into a controversy like this one?

Second, we ought to keep clear what is science and what is religion. When scientific creationists move beyond positing some vague supernatural force behind the Big Bang (a circumspection ID proponents try to maintain), to proclaiming Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin, then boundaries have been transgressed. Exactly in the same way, however, when leading scientists like Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins start saying (as they often have) that scientific observation points strongly toward atheism, then we’re not talking about science anymore.

Third, let’s all appreciate that human beings don’t know everything about anything. Scientific creationists sometimes sound as if they know exactly what the Bible says, and so they know how science must work out. But no one knows for certain just what Genesis 1 and 2 really say about the origins of the world. We can only give interpretation our best shot, and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence.

Similarly, some scientists sound as if they know exactly what the natural record says, and so they know how religion and philosophy must work out. But no one knows for certain how life really began and developed on our planet: we can only give interpretation our best shot, and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence. This is the way both theology and science have proceeded historically, and this is the way they ought to be conducted and taught today.

Darwin’s main defender–his “bulldog”–T. H. Huxley, coined the term “agnosticism” to describe his lack of certainty about God’s existence. A little agnosticism, or at least a little humility, about our science as well as our theology would help us all make our way better through this needlessly polarizing controversy over what is fundamentally a false choice, “creation versus evolution.”