Barry Newman's Blog

November 28, 2010

Science and Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 (part XVIII)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:58 pm

Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 and Biological Evolutionary Theory

The evidence claimed for biological evolutionary theory is substantial, whether or not one is committed to it.  Appeal is made to the fossil record in combination with various types of radio – isotropic and bio – chemical data.  Certain changes in species and the distribution of species throughout the world, readily observed in modern times, are matters also considered relevant, along with a mechanism considered plausible as to how evolutionary changes might occur.  This is not to say that there are not many aspects of the theory still being worked on or that there are not numerous “puzzles” still to be solved.  The theory is such that it is difficult to see how it could be conclusively “falsified” but that is also true of “well adhered to” scientific theories in general.  Some scientific theories simply “fade away” as the puzzles remaining to be solved become too numerous, or simply remain unsloved for too long a time, when alternative theories become available that seem more attractive or as adherents to the original theory reduce in number!

One of the objections that some Christians have to biological evolutionary theory is the role that chance or randomness seems to play in that theory.  Another is that it seems improper that man is a descendant of earlier non-human life forms.  Again another is that it would seem improbable that God would set something in motion that would operate for such a long time before mankind appeared. Yet another is that the theory envisages evolutionary development to be ongoing today.

According to biological evolutionary theory variation in the genetic species is due in part to seemingly random processes including, mutations (changes to the chemical makeup of genes), genes being repositioned within the chromosomes, genes of one species being taken over by another species, and all of the DNA or RNA of one species being incorporated into the genetic makeup of another.  (The evolutionary relationship between species is in part determined by the extent and nature of the similarity in genetic makeup.) Other seemingly random events affecting the evolution of species include changes to the environment with which the species is interacting.  Such changes can be subtle, gradual whether subtle or not, or dramatic. Much of the mechanism of evolutionary development is put down to “natural selection” by which survival and reproduction of an organism, generally considered as part of a population, is either assisted or hindered, given the nature of the environment.  Speciation can also be assisted by a process termed “genetic drift”, often important in small isolated populations, in which the frequency of traits passed on from one generation to another changes, seemingly randomly.  In reality it needs to be noted, that there is not one simple absolutely cohesive biological evolutionary theory agreed by all evolutionary biologists.  There are a number of competing theories that deal with various aspects of the main theory though in the course of time their number might diminish considerably.

I refer to “seemingly random” partly because a strict determinist, relying on something like the immutability of natural laws, would probably claim that all such changes conform to a rigid cause and effect regime.  Events are referred to as “random” when the processes are too complicated to tease out all the relevant cause and effect relationships involved or when for other reasons the relevant information required to make judgements on what exactly caused what and when is simply not available and in some cases, perhaps cannot ever be available.  None the less, there is a deep down commitment by scientists to strict cause and effect associations that are in conformity to what may be described as “natural law”.  Furthermore, given that “law” is involved, it is assumed that these cause and effect relationships are always inevitable.  While such a commitment seems a necessary one for the scientific enterprise to proceed there are some difficulties associated with this assumption.  

First of all we cannot ever be absolutely sure that what we have decided is a law actually holds up in all instances or in fact is even a reasonably good description of what the universe is like and that indeed it will not be replaced by a “better” law.  Furthermore at the level of the very small, our observations cannot but affect what we hope to observe so that it is no longer what we intended to observe.  This problem is encapsulated in what is known as “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle”.   (It could even be that there is “uncertainty”, seen as such from our perspective, built into the very fabric of the universe.)  Furthermore in our consideration of the very small we come across odd phenomena that are very difficult to conceptualise, for example, the phenomenon of “entanglement” in which measuring the property of one “object” seems to “immediately” bring about the determination of another “object” some distance away.  It is indeed, from our point of view, a strange universe.  None the less, given a commitment to the idea of scientific law, and while recognising the limitations we have in observing the phenomena of our world one might question whether random processes really are random.

Whether one wants to view biological evolutionary theory as a theory entailing randomness or of strict but unobservable causality, the question remains, “What is the relevance of this theory for the notion of God as creator?”  If Genesis 1: 1 – 2: 3 is correct and if biological evolutionary theory is a really good theory then the theory could be a reasonably good description of how God brought living forms, including plant life, into existence.  That he used chance, deterministic means or any other processes to bring about his intended end, is not inconceivable though ultimately what might be chance to us might not be considered chance to him.  Or at least it would not in any way be considered by him to be outside of his sovereign control.

In recent times, a theory referred to as “Intelligent Design” has been proposed by some who point to, what they claim to be significant, the difficulties in adequately explaining the origins of various biological systems, for example, the human eye.  The theory appeals to what is known as “Information Theory” and the idea of “irreducible complexity”.  Without elaboration and perhaps without due respect for the theory, my own view is that the theory is not likely to be very productive, that it probably relies too heavily and inappropriately on “Information Theory” and that the existence of these types of complex systems referred to is in principle capable of an explanation – different explanations for different systems – without recourse to the Intelligent Design approach.

A final word about scientific law.  The laws are manmade.  We create them.  We modify them or even abandon them as we try to better understand our world.  They are based on the assumption that the world is characterised by regularity.  The biblical picture of the world and God who made it, is that God has created it to be such – a world that has a stable regularity about it and hence in principle predictable.  The extraordinary events, sometimes referred to as “miracles”, of the Bible, no matter how they might be explained, are exceedingly rare.  They are mainly found associated with the exodus of Israel from Egypt and her settling into the land of Canaan, the lives of two prophets, Elijah and Elisha and the last few years of the life of Jesus and the era of the Apostles immediately following.  There is little point in appealing to Scientific Law to exclaim that such extraordinary events cannot occur.  We are not entitled to tell the world what can or cannot happen.  We assume that certain things will not happen but that is just an assumption, as justifiable in ordinary circumstances as that might be.  The claim that Jesus rose again from the dead, appearing in our world in a genuine “physical form” but never to die again is a claim that on a scientific basis one might object to but one is not entitled to claim that it could not have happened.  If this is indeed God’s world, he can do with it whatever he chooses and whenever he chooses.  If at any time he chooses to do something extraordinary it will be for a purpose determined by him and it will be its extraordinary nature that will bring attention to itself and ultimately, in principle, to him.  Ordinary events do not attract such attention.

(To be continued)


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