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God or Darwin?…
That's how the evolution question is often framed.

In fact, the dispute isn't about God or Darwin at all. It's an argument that has on one side about 1400 words from the first two chapters of Genesis, and on the other side 150 years of some of history's most thorough and convincing scientific inquiry.

But there's more to this framing of the argument. As one digs deeper into the Genesis creation story, one finds troubling problems, and when one probes further into the body of life science derived from the earliest evolution theory, one finds vast patterns of corroborative, supportive evidence.

Look first at Genesis.

And if you already know the material, please read along with me anyway—just to humor me. None of this is new thought; it's all been in the discussion for centuries. The first point to consider is that there may be as many as three separate creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, I'm not going to cite the evidence—instead, I ask you to read the creation text again, word for word, beginning to end (it's shorter than three typewritten pages), and see what you think.

Use any bible you choose, but for careful study it's probably not a good idea to use a bible paraphrase. (The Living Bible, for example, is a paraphrase of the American Standard Version). Paraphrases are rewordings of prior translations. They are often done to update language, but without reference to original manuscripts they sometimes change the meaning of passages. Better choices are translations made directly from ancient texts, such as the Revised Standard Version (1952), or the New Revised Standard Version (1990). The King James (or Authorized Version, 1611) is certainly acceptable. There are many other serviceable translations.

If you're especially familiar with the Genesis text, try to read it freshly, as if this were your first careful reading. Pay special attention to places where the story seems to start anew, or where passages seem to repeat. Where you find such passages, consider whether the text is re-stating the same message, offering a variation on that message, or is in fact a somewhat different story. What do you read there? Judge for yourself.

The second point to consider with regard to Genesis is its source. The verses themselves say nothing about their sourcing. Ancient tradition suggests that they were written by Moses, but many religious scholars (probably most) don't accept that notion. While it is common to hear the Bible referred to as the word of God—and many theologians discourse at length on that idea—there is no Old Testament passage that clearly refers to any part of the Old Testament as the direct word of God, and the phrase, "word of God" is not found in Genesis.

Some scholars suggest that the description of creation comes from two separate, ancient oral traditions, and may have been written as early as the ninth century BCE. Both of those oral descriptions may have been derived from an ancient Babylonian creation story.

While many people believe, from ancestral or religious traditions, that the Genesis creation story is the infallible word of God, there is nothing in the text, and little other evidence to support their belief. Certainly a scholar who was not from the Jewish, Christian or Islamic traditions, attempting to analyze the creation story, would be more likely to suggest an ancient, traditional, even superstitious source for the story than to suggest a genuine mystical or metaphysical derivation.

That's not all that can be said about the derivation of Genesis, but it's all I'm going to say here. My reader can easily research the topic, and will find a wide range of opinion, much of it irrational. Good, scholarly research is available as well. But the deeper one delves, the less certain one becomes of the authenticity and verifiability of the Genesis creation story.

Now, how about evolution…

…and its companion idea, survival of the fittest species? The popular press often refers to the evolution idea as a theory, and attributes it to Charles Darwin. Well, it is a theory, as is virtually everything in science, and while Darwin didn't exactly originate it, he did some of the most important early work in the field. His masterwork, On the Origin of Species, fueled the vast scientific inquiry and public interest in evolution that continues today, nearly a century and a half after its publication. But using language like, "Darwin's theory of evolution" may create false impressions: a dour nineteenth-century character, with mutton-chop sideburns, hand-writing heretical speculations by the late-night glow of an oil lamp.

In fact, Darwin was already a well regarded scientist, years before the publication of On the Origin of Species. He became far more widely recognized in the scientific community immediately upon that publication, and enjoys an even greater reputation today. Strip away the mutton-chopped stern countenance, and the facts reveal a brilliant, dedicated, hard working scientist, ranking with the greatest minds of his time and ours, relentlessly seeking knowledge and truth.

For all of Darwin 's greatness, though, the theory of evolution is hardly his independent invention. By the time he sailed on his extended research journey aboard the HMS Beagle, evolution was already recognized by some naturalists as observable fact. Many scientists, including Darwin's own father, had written about it. During the more than two decades between his Beagle journey and publication of Origin, others were hard at work on evolutionary studies. What was incomplete—and became Darwin's great contribution—was a causal explanation. Darwin reasoned out one of the essential mechanisms of evolution: survival of certain species that had evolved advantageous characteristics—and equally as important, the extinction of species with less advantageous traits. And even here, he was not alone. Other scientists were quickly gaining understanding of all aspects of what we now call evolutionary theory. Surely, if Darwin hadn't published when he did others would have—within months, or a very few years—and we'd today be celebrating or cursing some other naturalist as the founder of evolutionary science.

So, the theory wasn't really Darwin's in the first place—or in the second place, either. But the Origin book was a phenomenal publishing success, and precipitated a cascade of research, discovery and writing that has never slowed. Other scientists began to support the ideas in Origin with writing based on direct biological observation, statistics, paleontology, anthropology, geology, archeology, etc. By the nineteen-fifties—though religious and even scientific controversy over evolutionary science had never ceased—the early work of Darwin and others had been thoroughly confirmed and supported.

Then, in 1953, James Watson & Francis Crick revealed their structural model of DNA. Again, scientific investigation and explanation exploded. Where we had understood only the grosser causation behind evolution, we now began to understand the cause of the causation—the biological mechanisms of genetic change. Today, we have coded entire genomes—the full genetic structures—of hundreds of species, including Homo sapiens. We can, and we have, studied direct evidence of evolutionary biology—of the progressive development of species.

Virtually everything we've learned supports evolutionary theory. Every branch of science that studies life, new science and old, reveals broad and deep corroboration of the concepts of evolution. Whether we employ paleontology and geology to construct the fossil record, or genetics to study evolution in viruses, every field of scientific inquiry finds confirming evidence. And the various strands of evidence, from all the many disciplines, reinforce one another. Paleontology, anthropology and genetics do not take off in divergent directions; they all point harmoniously to each other.

Of course, there are many unanswered questions; that is the nature of science. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman said, "…we do not yet know all the basic laws: there is an expanding frontier of ignorance." Always, it will be so. But probably no area of scientific inquiry has received more study, and more consistent reinforcement than has the study of evolution of species.

So is it a theory?

Of course it is. So is the theory of gravity. Theory is science. A glance at any dictionary yields two related, but different, definitions of the word theory. The one that causes all the trouble reads something like: conjecture; assumption based on limited information. That, of course is not the definition that applies to science, and certainly not to the science of evolution.

The first definition of theory in most dictionaries—the one that does apply to this discussion—says that a theory is organized knowledge applicable in a wide variety of circumstances; a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure that analyze, predict, or explain phenomena. In other words, a scientific theory is the body of knowledge that explains a thing.

That kind of definition does fit the theory of evolution. Here is a vast, consistent body of knowledge, accumulated over a century and a half, verified through experiment, observation and discourse, that reliably and predictably explains a set of closely related phenomena.

The jury is in. In fact, jury—after jury—after jury—has seen and heard an enormous variety of evidence, and they have all come in with the same verdict: evolution is.

Let's return to the original question…

…flawed as it was: God or Darwin? This author doesn't pretend to know what God is or isn't. Those who insist that God wrote or inspired those 1400 words at the beginning of the Torah (Old Testament), and that the words are unquestionably true, will never accept any science that disputes that text. But those who pursue either religion or science as a genuine search for truth will have no difficulty in accepting evolutionary theory.

Are religion and science essentially the same quest for truth?

The ancient Babylonians could have titled their creation story On the Origin of Species, as Darwin titled his treatise. Both Darwin and the Babylonians sought answers to the same questions. The Babylonians didn't have the Galapagos Islands on which to observe a prolific, varied and isolated history of species. They didn't have microscopes with which to observe cell division. They couldn't analyze and criticize centuries of written discourse. They told each other allegorical stories, based on the limited laboratory they could observe.

But the Babylonians and the ancient Israelites were searching for truth, just as every scientist has, through all of recorded history. If the Babylonians could have seen and comprehended the same evidence Darwin saw, they surely would not have insisted on the truth of their oral narratives. If the ancient Israelites had been able to use Darwin's science, I suspect they would have incorporated it into their written version of creation, just as they incorporated the Babylonian narratives. Since humans first used language to exchange ideas, they have critiqued their thought, conserved what seemed true, and discarded what seemed false. We still do that.

Ancient Greeks, centuries after the Babylonians, had some pretty good science. They developed geometry, accurately measured the size of the earth, and conceived of elements and atoms. But they didn't have the tools to learn the nature of elements and atoms. No one had those tools until the past two centuries. So, today we can pass back a hearty "attaboy" to the Greeks for what they did learn, while we embrace the discoveries and thinking of all the Leonardos, Newtons and Einsteins who have followed them.

A couple of millennia from today, someone will be writing that the twenty-first century produced some pretty good science, but that many truths were simply beyond the reach of our tools. That is the nature of science. It is the nature of the quest for truth. It is the expanding frontier of ignorance.

God or Darwin?
Neither, actually—rather truth.

 

 
copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson