Evolution: a plea for Christian empathy

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Some people might think the very first topic for a "faith in scholarship" blog to address would be the notorious controversy around evolutionary origins for living organisms and especially for human beings.  But this blog has run for nearly four years without the word "evolution" appearing at all*!  To some extent this is deliberate.  We wanted to show how a Christian perspective can shed light on all areas of research in arts and sciences, while steering clear of what is all too often a flashpoint where Christians fail to understand each other.

But the time has come to touch that tricky topic!  We're planning some occasional posts around this issue with the aim of garnering insights and ideas for other areas of scholarship as well as biology.  Now, there is of course a broad scientific consensus that the paradigm of evolution by natural selection provides an adequate scientific explanation for the origins of all kinds of living organisms from a common ancestor.  Among Christians and Muslims, however, there are small communities of researchers working with opposing paradigms consistent with Special Creation (divine creative acts for different kinds of organisms) and in some cases a young earth (<10,000 years old), and indeed there are also scientists not professing religious faith who are skeptical of the consensus paradigm. We should also note that, while most research biologists can readily situate their work within an evolutionary framework, very few actively study historic or contemporary processes of evolution themselves.  That's the sense in which evolution may be called a research paradigm.

What have I to say here?  I'm an ecologist trained in biology, and a committed Christian since childhood, so I've had plenty of time to reflect - and my conclusion may surprise you!

While many Christians holding to the scientific mainstream position clearly find it embarrassing that so many fellow-believers - with trained scientists among them - might reject it, and these in turn may be ashamed of the first group, I personally see this stark situation as a fantastic educational opportunity.  An opportunity, that is, to learn about the rationales behind divergent views and seek to understand how intelligent, faithful fellow-believers come to hold them.  And if you don't believe there's sophisticated, convincing reasoning in the minority view, you need to read more**!  After all, next Sunday I might sit down in church next to someone who believes the age of life on Earth to be a factor of half a million different from what I believe.  This phenomenon has inspired many surveys and studies, but it's also a great challenge - indeed, it's probably the main reason I began studying history and philosophy of science.

The next thing to point out is that there's a lot more than two contrasting paradigms out there.  Alongside the mainstream biological consensus (which is itself evolving!) and a contrasting view where all kinds of organisms were created within four days or so (I hope you've read Genesis 1 recently?) some 6,000 years ago (if you've analysed Genesis through Chronicles in the right way!), there are other non-consensus views concerning timescales and mechanisms, many of which attempt to reduce the apparent gulf between the extreme views.  Then of course there is plenty of divergence within the biological consensus concerning histories and mechanisms of evolution. 

That last area is particularly interesting to me.  The tradition from which FiSch comes doesn't find "supernatural" a helpful category for thinking about God's work (more of that in another post), so I want to look christianly at theories that are fully biological.  And some theoretical emphases may be more plausible within a Christian philosophy than others - especially if they avoid reductionisms.  For example, Danie Strauss has argued that Darwin's theory itself is too physicalistic to explain biotic evolution, and Uko Zylstra suggests that the Intelligent Design movement points beyond itself to the need for biotic laws.  Simon Conway Morris sees some kind of physiological laws in the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence, and Robert Ulanowicz advances a model where self-organising processes are the foundation of biological diversity.

I'd go so far as to suggest that in the evolution controversy, God calls His people (1) to learn how to appreciate rationales very different from our own, and (2) to recognise the role of faith in the development of scientific ideas.  That is, we must be able to overcome scientific dogma; after all, if the majority were always correct, science would have no history.  If we read the forthcoming posts with such an attitude, I trust they will yield much fruit.


*except in reference to the journal "Trends in Ecology & Evolution".

**The most helpful book I've found for appreciating diverse positions on evolution is "Mapping the Origins Debate" by Gerald Rau (IVP, 2012).

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