Debating Darwin

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See also: The Design Argument from the Living World

Christians seem to be obsessed with evolution. After a talk on science and faith to a group of Christians, you can be fairly sure that one of the first questions will be ‘Is it possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution?’ Fortunately, the answer is simple. Francis Collins, Tim Keller and host of other Christians including both scientists and theologians believe in evolution, and so it follows, obviously enough, that it is possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution. But presumably what the questioner means is ‘Should Christians believe in evolution?’ Granted, Christians can and do believe it, but should they?

A disclaimer: we don’t think it’s possible in a short article to do justice to this question, so we’re not going to try to provide a definitive answer. However, we’d like to emphasize that Christians shouldn’t get so hung up on this question. It’s not that those involved in Saints and Sceptics aren’t interested in this topic; some of us are very interested, others less so. Also, there’s probably a range of views on evolution among us – we’re a fairly tolerant bunch, as evangelicals go – so we just don’t think it’s crucial for Christians to hold any one particular view. Let’s explore why.

While Christians might ask “how did God create the universe?”, to our minds the much, much more fundamental question for modern people is “did God create the universe?” As Christians we are very good at focusing on questions that are only of interest to our own subculture and poor at  responding to questions asked by outsiders. If we are interested, in communicating the Christian message to those outside the Church it’s time we started thinking about their questions, not just our own.

So we recommend that those who reach the conclusion that Christians shouldn’t accept evolution  avoid making their opposition to evolution central to the Christian faith. If we recognize

a) that a lot of people who are not Christians accept evolution

b) many Christians accept evolution and

c) it is possible to believe in evolution and accept the Gospel,


d) there is no need to make this particular issue a stumbling block to those who might be interested in Christianity.

Of course, that’s not to say that Christians opposed to evolution shouldn’t express their views or argue their case; just that they shouldn’t make it part of the Gospel. It is not reasonable to believe that the truth of Christianity stands or falls with the theory of evolution. Would the truth of evolution mean that God doesn’t exist or that Jesus did not rise from the dead? No, of course not! At most, the truth of evolution would make some Christians re-evaluate their interpretation of Genesis; the evidence for God’s existence and the resurrection, for example, would remain intact.[1] For a person to call all of that evidence into question because they believe in evolution strikes us a mistake of enormous proportions.

In fact, it’s this kind of mistake that the  New Atheists make – Christians should know better. Instead of forcing people to choose between Christianity and evolution, why not focus on all the reasons in favour of Christianity that have nothing to do with evolution and remind people that even if they can’t work out how everything fits together, it doesn’t mean they should jump to hasty conclusions. Many Christians have lived with tensions between archaeology and specific passages in the Bible that have later been resolved; just as scientists quite happily live with tensions between theories that don’t quite fit in the hope that future developments will shed further light on the matter.

But what is evolution? Even Young Earth Creationists believe that Natural Selection explains why many organisms are well-adapted to their environments. Are they evolutionists? For the purposes of this article, we can think of evolution as the claim that the diversity of life on Earth has come about as a result of typical evolutionary mechanisms such as mutation, natural selection and genetic drift. Here we need to look at the science as honestly as we can without trying to distort it to fit with a particular interpretation of Genesis and similarly to look at the Bible as honestly as we can without trying to distort it to fit with science.

On the scientific side we need to find out what scientists actually claim and what evidence they point to. For example, we shouldn’t ignore the changes that have occurred during the history of life on Earth as captured in the fossil record; we also need to take seriously the genetic evidence which is highly consistent with common ancestry. While none of this is disputed by mainstream scientists, there is disagreement and ongoing research into the extent to which various mechanisms can account for evolutionary change. In a review article on evolution published in 2004, eminent evolutionary biologists Kutschera and Niklas highlight this point:

Whereas biologists no longer debate the existence of evolution as a fact of life (literally), the mechanisms that account for the transformation and diversification of species are still very much under investigation.[2]

The authors go on to identify various issues relating to the mechanisms of evolution. Sometimes it would be easy to get the impression from popular science books that it can all be accounted for in terms of mutation and natural selection, but there is a lot of debate about this. Kutschera and Niklas nevertheless emphasize the fundamental role of natural selection in evolutionary change and the continuity between microevolution and macroevolution. But others, while in no way denying evolution, question whether natural selection plays so great a role when compared to other evolutionary mechanisms. For example, Keith Bennett, a leading palaeoecologist and recipient of a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award, points out that

… there is still huge debate about the role of natural selection and adaptation in “macroevolution” – big evolutionary events such as changes in biodiversity over time, evolutionary radiations and, of course, the origin of species. Are these the cumulative outcome of the same processes that drive microevolution, or does macroevolution have its own distinct processes and patterns? [3]

He goes on to argue that the answer is ‘no’ because in the fossil record over the last two million years “the connection between environmental change and evolutionary change is weak”. He argues instead that macroevolutionary change “has its own processes and patterns” and suggests that its source lies in the non-linear dynamics of the relationship between genotype and phenotype.

Another debate concerns “gradualism”. Associated with Darwin, the idea is that evolution comes about as the result of the accumulation of successive small variations. This, however, has been challenged both in terms of how well it corresponds to the changes in the fossil record, and also in terms of the mechanisms of evolutionary change. An interesting and instructive discussion of this topic can be found in the book Compositional Evolution by Richard Watson (published by MIT Press). Working very much within the framework of evolution by natural selection, Watson argues that compositional evolution, which involves the combination of pre-adapted genetic material, can give rise to adaptations that are not possible within the gradualist framework.

A final example of new thinking about evolution concerns the work of the eminent evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris,[4] who draws attention to the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence, which refers to the evolution of the same biological trait in independent lineages. A common view of evolution is that it is a highly contingent process; the history of life on this planet could have been very different because there is very little constraint on the possible directions in which evolutionary change might go. By emphasizing convergence, however, Conway Morris argues that evolution is a highly constrained process, i.e. that the evolutionary options are very limited, and that the evolution of intelligent life was almost inevitable. He has also argued for “inherency”, the idea that templates for complex structures were formed long before the complex structures themselves and hence that even relatively simple organisms contained within them the potential for much greater complexity.

It must be emphasized that all the scientists mentioned above work very much within the framework of evolution. Also, our goal is not to argue in favour of any or all of the above viewpoints,[5] but rather to point out that within the field of evolutionary biology, there are a lot of different viewpoints on the table and a lot of disagreements about the nature and mechanisms of evolutionary change. This is just part of healthy disagreement within science. Some of these views are perhaps more consistent with a theistic viewpoint than others; but we think Christians can be open minded about these issues and bear in mind that further new directions will almost certainly come along in the future.

Despite the complexity of the issues, some “Creation Evangelists” have argued that we should begin our defence of the Gospel with a critique of evolution and an insistence upon a literal reading of Genesis 1. Their rationale is that this is the first chapter of the Bible, and if unbelievers don’t take these verses seriously they won’t accept anything else that the Bible has to say. But most outsiders do not sit with a Bible and work through it sequentially: typically, they will hear the Gospels first. Rather than a lecture on the merits of Flood Geology,  it would seem wiser to begin with: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Creation Evangelism forces a false dilemma on the reader: it isn’t a matter of having to choose between believing that God created the world in six consecutive 24 hour days a few thousand years ago or else treating Genesis as a myth. There is a wide range of interpretations held by people who take the Bible seriously. And “Creation Evangelism” assumes, often without argument[6], that a literal reading is the only way to take Genesis 1 seriously. But Christians have never unanimously agreed that Genesis Chapter One should be read as literal history. To give but one problem with treating Genesis 1 as a literal historical account: in an age before digital watches and atomic clocks people measured time by the rising and the setting of the sun. Morning commenced when the sun rose, evening commenced as the sun set, and days were measured from sunset to sunset; yet in the Genesis account the sun is not created until day four.

This puzzled many ancient minds; how could there be evening and morning in the absence of the sun? Indeed, in the absence of heavenly bodies to measure time, what did it mean to say that one day had passed? So long before the dawn of modern science, many theologians concluded that the Creation Week of Genesis One could not be interpreted literally. In The City of God Augustine wonders “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive.” He would go on to reject a literal interpretation of the seven creation days. The early Christian theologian Origen asked “What person of any intelligence would think that there existed a first, second, and third day, and evening and morning, without sun, moon, and stars?”[7]

Rather than debating the finer points of exegesis and hermeneutics, we should ask a more significant question: does evolution undermine belief in God? There are two good reasons for thinking that it doesn’t. First, as already noted, there are plenty of other arguments for belief in God based on the order in the laws of nature, fine-tuning, cosmological arguments, moral arguments, etc. Second, as we’ve argued elsewhere, there is no good reason to think evolution removes the need for design even in the context of biology. Roughly speaking, this is because a) complex, conscious life would be very unlikely to arise given only unguided evolutionary mechanisms and b) those mechanisms themselves arguably require design. This isn’t necessarily a problem for evolution, but it does suggest that there is no reason to reject design and so anyone who accepts evolution has good reason to believe in God.

So there are arguably good grounds for rejecting unguided evolution. This leaves open the question as to whether God guided evolution or went about things in some other way. Theistic evolutionists could argue that God guided evolution providentially (perhaps by setting the laws and initial conditions of the universe to determine a certain outcome; or perhaps by acting throughout the universe’s history at the quantum level). However, we should point out that Christians have excellent reasons for believing in a personal creator who has miraculously intervened in history. This can affect how a Christian views the scientific evidence.

While they agree that evolutionary theory adequately explains much of the history of life, progressive creationists argue that God intervened in an extraordinary way to bring about specific kinds of life on this planet. Theology profoundly shapes how progressive creationism interprets the evidence of evolution; many will argue that it is not a scientific theory for that reason. However, the theological beliefs in question are not irrational. Theistic evolutionists might claim that God used evolution without the need to act directly at any stage along the way, but in some cases the difference between progressive creationism and theistic evolution is not very clear. For one thing, it isn’t clear what it means to say that God guides evolution without acting directly.[8] God’s action is crucial to both theistic evolution and progressive creationism and so both are very different from unguided evolution.

One final point is worth mentioning. We think that the broader and greater the claims made for evolution, the weaker it becomes. In particular, if it is claimed that consciousness, aesthetics, morality or religious belief can be explained in purely evolutionary terms, we must respond that the evidence is very weak. Attempts to explain the origin of consciousness in purely physical terms, let alone evolutionary terms, have serious problems as we have argued in other articles. And many atheists agree, including the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel. In his book Mind and Cosmos (OUP, 2012, pp.44-45) he writes

… since the conscious character of these organisms is one of their most important features, the explanation of the coming into existence of such creatures must include the explanation of the appearance of consciousness … An account of their biological evolution must explain the appearance of conscious organisms as such.

Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this, the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth.Nagel’s point is essentially that because consciousness is an important aspect of life on Earth, evolution cannot claim to adequately explain life on Earth unless it can explain not just the physical aspects of living organisms but also consciousness. And he claims that the materialist version of evolution cannot achieve this. We would add that even a God-guided physical process would not explain consciousness if consciousness cannot be explained in physical terms!

In conclusion, we think that Christians shouldn’t make disagreements with each other on evolution central to Christian faith. There’s no good reason to believe that evolution undermines belief in God or even causes much of a problem for design arguments from biology. Related to this, we think that there are very good reasons to reject unguided evolution. We have also noted that there are a range of different viewpoints  about evolutionary mechanisms; it is worth pointing out that evolution does not necessarily involve believing that all of life came about as the result of random mutations and natural selection.

Finally, we don’t have any issue at all with God using natural processes in the creation and subsequent development of life. No doubt the various evolutionary mechanisms on the table are part of that story, although how significant any particular mechanism is appears to be a matter of scientific debate. It seems likely that science will shed more light on these and other yet-to-be-discovered processes. We think it is entirely reasonable to be open-minded about these issues: in contrast to some Christians who seem to think there is just one tenable view and some atheists who use evolution for their own purposes and who give the impression that all the main issues have been more or less resolved.

At the same time, we see no reason to believe that God could only have acted by guiding natural processes rather than by acting in more direct ways at different stages. Finally, we are highly sceptical that evolution or other physical processes will be able explain the most remarkable feature of life on Earth, the existence of conscious minds. That is to say: it cannot ultimately explain us.

[1] This is not to deny that there are legitimate questions here, but even in terms of Genesis the difficulties might not be so great as many people suppose. See, for example, C. John Collins ‘Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matters’ Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 62:3, September 2010 pp.159-162. Tim Keller discusses his own views here: Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople. For one contemporary restatement of “Progressive Creationism” see JJ Davis ‘Is “Progressive Creation” Still A Helpful Concept’ Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith  50 (December 1998): 250-259.

[2] U. Kutschera and K.J. Niklas, ‘The modern theory of biological evolution: an expanded synthesis’ Naturwissenschaften 91 (2004) 255–276.

[3] Keith Bennett, ‘The Chaos Theory of Evolution’, New Scientist, 18 October, 2010. Available at:

[4] See his Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] In fact, some of them appear to conflict with each other so they can’t all be right.

[6] For the record, condemnations and insinuations of heresy are not arguments. For an irenic and considered defence of Young Earth Creationism see Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds A Case for Young Earth Creationism Zondervan Digital Shorts, 2012). The book also contains a number of thoughtful responses from a range of evangelicals.

[7] For an insight into how evangelical theologians interacted with evolutionary theory in the late 19th and early 20th Century see KR Birkett, ‘Darwin and the Fundamentalists’ Kategoria, 1996 number 2 pp 25-53. There was never a blanket condemnation of Darwin.



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