I have just started Evolution and Christian Faith (2006) by Joan Roughgarden, who is both a convert to Christianity and an evolutionary biologist specializing in lizards. So far, her book strikes me as painstakingly polite and even-tempered:
I don’t want to argue with other Christians. I want to share with them the fellowship and the love of Jesus. (p. 5)
I myself love a good kick-and-bite argument, civilly conducted, but it takes all kinds to make a Church (I Cor. 12), including wrath-averters like Roughgarden and the scientists who run the BioLogos Forum. Here, then, is a book by a mild-mannered but hard-core evolutionary biologist who argues not only that Christianity is compatible with evolution but that Christians should “rejoice” in it (p. 5), and who rejects Intelligent Design along with other creationisms. I should be humming with affirmative vibes.
But so far, about 20 pages in, I’m still cool. Perhaps this will change; I hope so. At the moment, I get the sense that Roughgarden is sidestepping in order not to offend evolution-doubting readers. On pp. 15-16, for example, she compares the words of the Genesis account of the creation of life (Genesis 1:11–27) to the fact that, as science has shown, “all life belongs to one huge family tree,” p. 13). Genesis says that God “created” various living things on successive days — trees, whales, cattle, “creeping things,” and finally humans — but, Roughgarden argues, surely God could have done the “creating” any way God pleased, including the family-tree method. And “Genesis doesn’t speak one way or the other” (p. 16). Therefore, no contradiction, not even an apparent one. “I wonder,” Roughgarden concludes, “why the impression is widespread that evolutionary biology somehow conflicts with the Bible” (p. 16).
Can she really have no clue as to why 40% of Americans affirm strict creationism? True, the Genesis text is sketchy enough on the details to allow us to pack all the complex scientific narratives we want into words like “day” and “create,” but this tactic strikes me as a strained and unsustainable coddling of Biblical literalism. Some Christians’ “special creation” reading of the life-origin verses is not actually hard to understand: those verses appear only a few sentences after God’s creation of the world itself in verse 1:1, historically interpreted by Christians as ex nihilo (out of nothing). To extend that abrupt creative style to the verses pertaining to animals and humans requires an interpretive act, like any reading of any text, but not a bizarre or inscrutable one. It would be a farther fetch, I think, to propose that the ancient Hebrews who first told this creation tale, and eventually wrote it down, would have been perfectly unperturbed by the identification of their vision with “evolution’s tree of life.” Just how ahistorical, as readers, are we willing to be?
Another problem is that the Bible doesn’t end with Chapter 1, and later material makes it essentially impossible to maintain the easygoing compatibilism that Roughgarden deploys for Genesis 1. How are we going to pack the actual geological history of the Earth into the Flood narrative? It’s a relevant problem: the Flood is a big hairy deal for modern creationists (dig the theme park). Yet I do not think there is any way we can reconcile the Flood narrative to modern earth science by being broad-minded about its terminology. All writings must be interpreted to be read at all, but all interpretation is constrained, at least elastically, by texts: and this text is more constraining than the creation verses because it is more elaborate and particular. There’s a real collision here between narrative and reality: the Flood is clearly described, but it never happened — neither geologically (the global inundation) nor biologically (bottlenecking of the human race to eight or so individuals and of all other terrestrial animal species to either fourteen individuals or two). The whole fabric of the ground under our feet, and the chemistry within every cell of every animal including you and me, rules out the literal Flood, unless one is willing to posit, without any specific Biblical or other evidential ground, a vast number of miraculous interventions by God to make the sediments, the DNA, and a lot of other stuff, look as if such a Flood had never happened. Admittedly, the only thing to prevent anybody from asserting such interventions is acute embarrassment.
It’s hopeless: Biblical literalism and the world-story revealed by science cannot coexist except at a few, carefully selected, highly stretched points. The requisite interpretive burden or filter set becomes as complex as the text itself, and in the end, one is just making stuff up.
To repeat, I just don’t buy that Roughgarden can’t imagine why some people read Genesis as a distinctly non-evolutionary narrative. But I like her, respect what she’s doing overall, am sure I will learn things about evolution itself in later chapters, and hope to follow up this post with praise for other aspects of her book.
About the Author
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.