February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
April 30, 2011
In a reply to an interesting interview with theologian Conor Cunningham, here at The Other Journal, commenter Denis Devcich says the following:
Creationists have no problems with fossils – they had to be rapidly buried in order to be preserved as fossils, and this fits in with Noah’s flood. Yes, the dinosaurs were created with all the other land animals on the 6th day and survived on Noah’s ark. Some even survived into the Middle Ages (they were called dragons as the word dinosaur was not invented at that time). Evolution relies on grand statements for its appeal eg a dog wandered into the sea and became a dolphin, etc etc. but when it gets down to the fine details we find evolution impossible. Evolution is also blasphemous because it implies that a loving, all-good God would use an evil method (ie the death and destruction of inferior life forms) – the Scriptures tell us that God detests the lover of violence (Ps 11).
Denis names a truth, which Cunningham should have anticipated: of course Creationists have no problem with fossils (as was made clear in the title of Duane Gish’s book, Evolution? The Fossils Say No!). What they do have a problem with, as Denis’s own comment exemplifies, is physically precise, evidence-based reasoning about fossils that fits them into an ever-more-detailed, ever-more-cohesive world-picture linking the atoms to the stars and everything in between. That’s science. Simultaneous emplacement of all fossils by a Noachian Flood is about as likely as dropping a ton of randomly mixed Monopoly bills from an airplane at 50,000 feet and having them all stack themselves in order as they flutter to the ground, $1 bills all at the bottom and $500 all at the top. Fossils as we actually find them are layered in a perfectly segregated sequence that
(a) could not have been produced by a single flood sweeping away billions of creatures all alive at the same time,
(b) is so consistent that parts of it are used by oil companies to find oil,
(c) agrees with the evolutionary account of branching, universal descent that is also confirmed by the messy tracks or molecular “fossils” left by evolution in all DNA, including our own, and
(d) is never violated in undisturbed layers of rock (e.g., you never find the thighbone of a horse in the gut of a Tyrannosaurus, as predicted by the scientific view that horses didn’t evolve until at least 10 million years after the last Tyrannosaur died). And you never find a bird in an older stratum than a feathered dinosaur. Moreover, the many strata in which fossils are found were manifestly formed by many different types of deposition, including repeated flooding and drying interlayered with volcanism; deposition of multiple layers of diverse character followed by folding, twisting, erosion, and new layering on top; and just about every other sequence of events imaginable. One mighty Flood? Sure—and Santa’s elves built my house.
I’m well aware that a special band-aid or patch story—if necessary, one invoking miraculously intervention—can be concocted to explain away any number of such observations. I’m also aware that there is no logically airtight way to disprove these stories, individually or in groups, especially if a Creationist explainer is willing to invoke miracles rather than physical processes. However, I ceased to be a creationist myself (in my late teens) when I finally sensed that the resulting confabulations of patches were grotesque—even, unintentionally, blasphemous. Those who pump them out against evolutionary biology like flak gunners trying to defend London against the Luftwaffe offer us a universe that is a mere spaghetti-tangle of long-shot coincidences mingled (in some versions) with miraculously planted meatballs of Divine fraud: an ugly, silly universe; a universe without beauty, dignity, deep history, or a fabric of sense. The Creationist world-story has all the artistic integrity of a Saturday-morning cartoon produced by a crack addict—and this whacked-out construct, we are to suppose, glorifies the All-Wise. What’s worse, what is positively disastrous whether or not you think God should be a decent artist, is that the Creationist story (Old Earth, Young Earth, any version) has zero predictive power. Paleontologists—the scientists who collect and study fossils—go into the field every day all over this planet and find exactly what their theory predicts they will find, including types of species they have never seen before; of equal importance, they do not find the things their theory predicts they will not find (for example, they never find human skulls mingled with Titanothere bones); whereas Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates never, ever do this. Because they cannot. Because their narratives produce no predictions. Because their world-story is not a sense-making structure but a ball of Scotch tape.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote,
“I hear, let us say, of a certain theory about the universe. As a trial, I assume it to be true; then, if I discover with a start that, once assumed, it explains the boots on my feet and the nose on my face, that my umbrella has a new and radiant meaning, that my front door suddenly explains itself, and truths about my cat and dog and wife and hat and sideboard crowd upon me all day and every day, I believe that theory and go on believing it more and more.” The Daily News (London), March 14, 1903
Which is exactly why I, and virtually all scientists, believe the “theory” (structure of evidence-explaining ideas) that is “evolution” and “go on believing it more and more.” Chesterton was, in fact, speaking explicitly of evolution when he wrote this passage. (In later years—horrified, I believe, by the rise of Eugenics, and encouraged by the early-20th-century period of scientific doubt about natural selection as the engine of adaptive evolution—he made the mistake of turning increasingly against evolution: but that is another story.)
As for whether evolution is evil or not, this is a profound question that Denis is right to bring up but wrong to dismiss so confidently—especially on the basis of a line or two of Hebrew Scripture plucked from context and applied willy-nilly to the history of nonhuman life, much as Joshua 10:13 (“the sun stood still”) was once cited to prove that the Sun goes around the Earth. Evolution does involve death and suffering (at least, it involves suffering once sentient creatures have evolved): and that is a fact that Christian theology must grapple with. We have been woven on a loom of birth, suffering, and death through deep time, through hundreds of megayears. Every cell of us is stamped all over with the history of the evolutionary journey like a well-used passport. And our anatomy records that journey too, and the fossils record it. And lots of Christian thinkers—many of them orthodox—have been grappling humbly, productively, sometimes joyously with it.
To mitigate your own theological anxiety, if any, about the deep-time history of death and pain, or at least to keep it real, you might, the next time you go out for a walk on a shining, green Spring day, with flowers blooming and birds chirping, try to remember that you’re looking the great dark Darwinian beast itself, Evolution, right in the eye. It’s going on all around you. This is it. Because evolution, broadly considered, is simply the history of life, including not only its spectacular changes (bald eagles from bacteria!) but the long static interregna during which not much happens except just about everything: the ordinary round of birth, life, and death that we see all around us all the time and are, for a little while, part of. To make evolution into a special, cosmic nightmare, whether to beat down religion with or to march against in the name of religion, one must project a selective shadow of actual Nature on the wall and add scarey sound effects. Rarely, I think, do we start out for a hike in the woods and end up weeping on our knees, overwhelmed by compassion, crying out “How could a benign, omnipotent God allow all this?!?”
It worries Creationists, and some other thoughtful people, that science leaves out God. But for religious believers who accept science, this is an implicit compliment to God, just as it’s a compliment to Charles Dickens that I start reading Oliver Twist without feeling I need to get the author on the phone to fill in all the missing parts as I go along (good thing, too). Does the artist’s art stand, or fall? Does it suck, or rock? If we can make sense of it on its own terms, then, in general, it stands.
And in the case of the physical world, “make sense” means “make sense on natural, physical terms.” For it is not only atheist scientists that are committed to natural, non-miraculous explanations for the history of life and everything else. The commitment of science to “materialism,” as some call it, to purely natural explanations, means simply that we look stubbornly for natural causes rather than throwing up our hands at every mystery and exclaiming, “Hallaloo, another miracle!” Even ordinary, nonscientist people trying to understand some aspect of the physical universe—looking for a lost sock, for example—invariably presume, and persist stubbornly in looking for, only natural causes (stuck in drier? hiding in sweater? stolen by dog?). Even Creationist sock-seekers, I gather, consider Divine intervention only as an absolute last resort or not at all. Methodological naturalism, as the stubborn quest for natural causes is called, may be especially congenial to atheist scientists but is just as incumbent on Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Wiccan scientists: it is merely our commonsense approach to problem-solving applied to the universe as a whole, micro to macro, across deep space, through deep time. It is merely science itself. And it works.
As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “There’s glory for you!”
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.