Oil and water? A ramble on science, Christianity, and evolution

Science (my chosen academic field) and Christianity (my chosen religion) have had a long and entangled relationship. Sometimes they have worked really well together, but other times not… This post is targeted at Christian scientists, non-Christian scientists, Christian non-scientists, and even non-Christian non-scientists.

“Christianity versus science” is too simplistic

Christian creationists believe that God created (and is creating) the universe, that He created (and is creating) humanity in His image, and that this gives us a unique position of authority and responsibility. These essential tenets of Christian creationism are orthodox and important components of the Christian faith. But in this day and age, ‘creationism’ is more often associated with a silly belief in anachronistic dinosaurs:

Ken Ham (2000)
Pseudo-science and pseudo-Christianity. Ken Ham (2000) “Dinosaurs of Eden: Tracing the Mystery Through History” Source: https://goo.gl/zb5DwE

Oh dear. Literal ‘7-day’ creationism is tarred as pseudo-science, and rightly so. It’s also terrible PR for Christianity, which has been (and still is) the religion-of-choice for legions of scientists and Nobel Prize laureates.

Now 7-day creationists are certainly Christians, and they hold beliefs about the physical universe that, not too long ago, would have been fairly harmless. If you didn’t have any reason to think differently, why not believe the universe appeared over the course of seven days, around 6000 years ago? No one else had anything more scientifically rigorous to suggest. But scientific advances have disturbed some Christians who simply relied on the Bible for all things cosmological and biological. Some of these Christians try and keep it simple, by repeatedly insisting that it’s just a matter of believing what you read, because Scripture is inerrant.

But regardless of whether or not it’s true, hiding behind a scriptural inerrancy doctrine ignores the fact that Scripture is always read out of a hermeneutic framework. Not every single verse, or even every single book, is of equal importance; and plenty of early Christian writings didn’t make the cut. The ‘interpretation’ can of worms is already well and truly open for older questions like “what does the Bible mean by ‘sexual immorality’?” and “who are the elect?”and Christians must either try to defend their chosen position, or say “I don’t know”, or “it doesn’t really matter”. 7-day creationism wants to make things a simple choice between Christianity and science when other (more defensible) positions are available.

Reinforcing this dumbed-down dichotomy, but from the other end, we have Dawkins and co. (the ‘new atheists‘). The result is toxically polarised mess. Even here in little New Zealand I can sense the confusion radiated by some of my fellow science students when they hear I’m a Christian — or by some of my fellow Christians when they hear that I accept evolution. So I’m going to bypass all that rubbish, and discuss what I see as the real relationship between Christianity and science.

Science and Christianity are separate pursuits (of course)…

Science is thought of as an objective ‘realist’ pursuit, meaning that scientific findings stand true regardless of who it was that discovered them. Subjective Postmodern critiques can inform the history and philosophy of science, but can say nothing about the truth of scientific findings themselves. So even if a scientist was old, white, rich, bourgeois, straight, cis-gendered and male (as most eminent scientists have historically been) that would have nothing to do with the validity of his results.

Christianity on the other hand, is mostly seen as a personal and subjective pursuit. Christians don’t often impress with their objective truth-claims: “I’m telling you, Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says he did, and the Bible is actually pretty reliable on this point!!”. Rather, Christians impress with what they do (e.g. the Salvation Army) and with their subjective faith experiences (everyone loves the idea of being ‘spiritual’). Therefore, in the eyes of many, the validity of a Christian’s ‘results’ are down to their personal conduct, not their intellectual achievements.

…but they still inform each other

Despite being different pursuits, there is still plenty of interaction between science and Christianity. 7-day creationism is an unfortunate result of this interaction, and Christians need a better way of incorporating humanity’s new objective knowledge of the material universe into their faith (more on this later).

Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum either. For a start, it can get very expensive. As soon as human resources and  money become involved, highly non-scientific concepts like ‘morality’ become involved. The Large Hadron Collider cost €7.5 billion. NASA spent about $109 billion (2010 dollars) on the Apollo programme from 1959-1973, which works out to about $18 billion for each of the six moon landings. Biology has the virtue of usually being cheaper than physics, but studying living things often requires killing them. Pharmacology is both expensive — taking a new drug through clinical trials costs about $1 billion on average — and potentially lethal for any rats or chimpanzees involved. It’s pretty sobering to think of the staggering amounts of money, human resources and animal suffering that have fuelled our precious scientific advances. I like to think that scientists everywhere are keenly aware of this, and spend many sleepless nights either justifying these decisions to themselves, or repenting of them.

There’s also a more individual side to it. As professional academics, scientists need to ask themselves hard, personal and subjective questions on how their careers should be spent. Is it all about ladder-climbing, publishing as many papers as possible, and getting tenure somewhere? Or should it all about some ‘big cause’ like species conservation, or climate change mitigation? Should you climb down from your ivory tower and try to engage the public on important issues? Or should you just keep your head down, work hard, and try to enjoy yourself along the way?

By Frits Ahlefeldt. Source: http://goo.gl/hR74RZ
By Frits Ahlefeldt. Source: http://goo.gl/hR74RZ

So the subjective and personal aspect of science is extremely important. There are lots of capable scientists out there and some of them will be Christians trying to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to the academic world of research.

Evolution for Christians?

So if you’re a Christian who finds evolution convincing, but would like to keep on being a Christian, what should you do? When discussing biblical interpretation earlier, I mentioned that one could either take up a position and defend it, admit you don’t have all the answers, or simply dismiss it as a trivial distraction (“guys, let’s just go feed the poor ok”). My own view is a mix of all three, and I’ll summarise it below.

(And if you’re not a Christian, I’m sure you’ll find this interesting too… prepare for some profound insights into the tortured and cognitively dissonant mind of an evolutionary theist!!)

Defend a position — evolution is mostly deterministic, which is good

In Genesis 1, God first made the universe, the Earth, the plants and the animals. He looked at everything and said that “it was good”. Then He made mankind in His image, took a second look at things, and said that “it was very good”. How can this be reconciled with a picture of evolution where everything is the product of random capricious processes?

First, note that evolution isn’t actually random. If it was, scientists would be far less enthusiastic about it! Allow me to explain with some basic biology… For every gene in your genome, you have two copies (alleles). These get packaged into separate gametes (i.e. sperm or eggs), so if you have a child then each allele has a 50% chance of being inherited. It’s the same odds as to whether your child will be a girl or a boy — the father’s X and Y chromosomes have an equal chance of being inherited. In an evolutionary context, this is called genetic drift, and it is the only aspect of evolution that is actually ‘random’ in any sense. This kind of randomness isn’t too disconcerting. Humans are pretty used to the whole ‘is it a boy or a girl’ thing, as well as the uncertainty of whether their child will end up with Mum’s nose, or with Dad’s eyes.

Girl or boy? It's more or less 50:50. Source: http://goo.gl/jbYuCn
Girl or boy? It’s more or less 50:50.
Source: http://goo.gl/jbYuCn

Darwin didn’t know about alleles, but the modern evolutionary synthesis views evolution as the change in the frequency of alleles, in a population, over time. Small differences in allele frequencies between Europeans and Asians make us slightly dissimilar, but larger differences between the human and chimpanzee populations make us far more dissimilar. Genetic drift is one of four ‘forces’ that determine the frequency of an allele in a population. The other three are migration (alleles leaving and entering), mutation (produces new alleles) and natural selection (encourages ‘good’ alleles and removes ‘bad’ ones). While very hard to find and measure, these other three forces are properly deterministic (yes my doubting friend, perhaps even mutation!) Complex and tricky? Yes. Random? No.

It’s nice when you find that something is deterministic. Scientists pummel the universe in the hope of finding intelligible rules and consistencies, and Christians look for the order which God created from something that was “formless and empty”. In fact, any scientific evidence of determinism stands a good chance of being picked up by natural theology — which is the attempt to demonstrate truths about God solely on the basis of reason and nature (as opposed to using revelation). While basing one’s faith on natural theology alone may be unwise (i.e. it can turn people into deists), it’s still fun as a hobby. If King David and Thomas Aquinas weren’t above indulging every once in a while, then it can’t be too bad!

For modern-day natural theologians (like this guy), convergent evolution is intriguing. The evolutionary lineages of sharks (Gnathostomata) and dolphins (Tetrapoda, or Osteichthyes for the cladistic purists) have been separate for about 400 million years, but they’ve come up with the same streamlined shape, distinctive dorsal fins, and position in the food chain completely independently. A second example is the striking similarity in eye construction for vertebrates and cephalopods (i.e. octopuses and squid). These lineages have been separate for about 540 million years, but each have managed to come up with functionally identical image-forming eyes.

Here’s a more relatable explanation of convergent evolution. Imagine you’re an early cetacean applying for the highly competitive position of ‘fast versatile pelagic predator’ at apexpredators ltd. As a mammal, you make use of your inherited ‘advantages’ (breathing air, having a high metabolic rate and a big brain) and work on bringing yourself up to speed in other areas (limbs become fins, you use your vocalisations as sonar). Your CV impresses, and you well enough in the interview that your employers decide to partition the job between you and old Mr Shark (who used to have it all to himself).

Hmm, two very strong applicants. Source: http://goo.gl/caUBNM
“Hmm, we have two very strong applicants for the position.”
Source: http://goo.gl/caUBNM

But where did this ecological ‘job’ (niche) come from? Well to have predators you need to get prey, and to have prey you need to get photosynthetic organisms, and in order to have photosynthetic organisms you need to get a whole lot of stuff. Niches can be thought of as ‘emergent properties‘, arising as side-effects from an underlying system, but having the ability to feed back into their underlying system and influence it. Pretty cool.

Well, I could go on about convergent evolution and emergent properties all day, and hopefully you understand my excitement (if nothing else). My point here is that — as with the Big Bang theory — these scientific concepts are a godsend (haha) for natural theology. Science generally shows order and determinism triumphing over randomness and chaos.

Admit you don’t have all the answers — problems with evolution are just like problems with evil

Even if evolution is deterministic it can still seem cold and indifferent, or worse, cruel and capricious. Think of all the ‘failed experiments’ who died out, the ‘unfit’ animals who got eaten, the unrelenting need to reproduce… When you think about it, this is evilness, and it’s no different to humanity’s other experiences of evil. To name just a few of these experiences, we have climate change, the latent threat of nuclear destruction, 9 million Syrian refugees, inequality, poverty, religious persecution, insurmountable relationship problems, ruinous workplace environments, poor physical or mental health, the death of loved ones, and finally, our own mortality.

Christianity is no stranger to evil. I’m not talking about rotten things done in the name of Christ (that’s a separate issue for another time), rather that Christianity comes equipped with two ways of coping with the meaningless evil stuff in our lives. The first is the theological attempt to answer the question “how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely good God allow bad things to happen to us?”. Many answers, or theodicies, have been proposed and the best of them is probably the Irenaean one. However, abstract theodicies on their own are usually of little comfort to people who are suffering.

Fortunately the Bible sans theology manages to deal with evil very candidly and cathartically, where no matter how bad things get there is always good cause for hope (see Job 14: 13-17 and Lamentations 3). And where do Christians find cause for this nutty hope? From their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 7: 24-25).

Cheer up Job! You know, sometimes I find it really hard to get out of bed. Source: http://goo.gl/n16NX2
“Cheer up Job! You know, sometimes I find it really hard to get out of bed.”
Source: http://goo.gl/n16NX2

So by virtue of their faith, Christians are actually rather well equipped to deal with the unforgiving nature of evolution specifically, and of the world in general. Non-Christians and non-religious people in general sometimes characterise belief-motivated hope as a ‘security blanket‘, or as some sort of self-administered placebo. Well… I reckon they’re right in saying that hopeful and optimistic people are generally healthier and happier than the gloomy cynics. But if they go one step further and equate the belief that ‘Christ is risen’ with the belief that ‘it will be sunny tomorrow’, then that’s where we’ll start to disagree.

My point here is that the Christian faith is well suited to dealing with evil, and the thought of evolution taking place over billions of tough, cruel, attritional years should pose no problem. The years we face today are no kinder, and yet we still manage to enjoy ourselves.

A trivial distraction — Christians have better things to do

Does that heading sound a bit anti-intellectual? Good, it’s supposed to. Now it’s true that learning and speculating about all of this can be fun and edifying. It’s also a way of making one’s faith intelligible to people who’ve always assumed that Christianity and science have nothing to say to each other. But as with natural theology, getting too invested in it leaves you prone to abstract detachment and navel gazing or worse, arrogance and hubris. Having an excellent knowledge of biblical scholarship and theology is all very well, but Christians should not “merely listen to the word, and so deceive [themselves]. Do what it says” (James 1:22). The intellectual side to one’s faith is a tool (or a weapon) and so it’s always going to need a bit of care and maintenance. But it also needs to be used.

So, I think I’ve said what I had to say. Thanks for reading!



8 thoughts on “Oil and water? A ramble on science, Christianity, and evolution

  1. Martin Neal says:

    I’ve heard it argued that the reason Europe developed science and industry before China, despite China’s massive head-start, was that central to the worldview of medieval Europe was the belief in a God of order, logic, and rules.

    This meant that in medieval Europe, inquisitive minds were given free and totally ethical rein to cut stuff up and find out how it worked, and build up models and rules and theories on how the world fit together. Because if the goal was to understand God then understanding his creation was as good a place to start as any.

    In contrast to eastern philosophy which tended to like contemplating the world from a safe and moderately existentialist distance.

    So while the Chinese were contemplating the beauty of the rustling trees, Robert Hooke was busy discovering cells.


    1. Chris McDowall says:

      Hi Martin, yeah I’ve heard that argument too. I think it’s fairly persuasive, and I’ve heard similar arguments that point to institutional and political stability as paving the way for scientific and technological advancement, and for military success. The task is to explain how/why Europe took everyone else over, when others like the Arabs, Turks, and Chinese failed (or just couldn’t be bothered).

      Personally, I think Christianity promoted scientific research directly and also a little more indirectly by providing a very stable institution, the church, which encouraged educated people (e.g. clergymen and aristocrats) to dabble in science – like you said above. Nowadays we have research universities, scientific journals and conferences, with the whole thing being paid for by government and corporate funding. The church hasn’t just been separated from the state, but from science too.


  2. Chris Ward says:

    If you give up on the inerrancy of Scripture Chris you may as well not bother to write anything else, you have already lost any argument you might advance as a Christian scientist (BTW, are you really a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy?). No wonder your classmates are confused over what you believe, you obviously are extremely confused about your faith. If you really believe not all scripture is equal, and “didn’t a lot of it not even make the cut”, you are as deceived as poor old Dawkins, who also tries to judge God’s word. If this was meant to be a Christian apologetic, please, please don’t do another until you sort out both your science and your Christianity.


    1. Chris McDowall says:

      Hi Chris, no I’m not a believer in ‘Christian Science’, or in Scientology… in my opinion they’re both pretty kooky and it’s unfortunate that their names have ‘science’ in them. Rather, I’d identify more or less as an Evangelical with a scientific education. My views on the cross-over between Christianity and science owe a lot to Simon Conway Morris, John Lennox, and Francis Collins.

      I suppose my quibble with biblical inerrancy is that it isn’t very helpful on its own. It’s not enough to say that Genesis 1 isn’t wrong, you need to go one better and recognise its poetic nature, and the fact that ‘science’ and ‘history’ were tentative Greek innovations which would have meant nothing to the inspired author of Genesis. I actually find reading Genesis 1 with evolution in mind to be very powerful, as it shows God the Creator to be sovereign over a tumultuous 13.8 billion year process. I’ve heard plenty of sermons where the preacher enthuses about the amazing size and beauty of the universe. So why not have some sermons that go just a bit further, and describe the huge amount of time needed for such a universe to form, the relativistic nature of time (i.e. looking at the distant reaches of the universe is essentially looking back in time), and how it is even more amazing that God went to all that bother just to create life and humanity, here on little wee Earth?

      2 Timothy 3:16-17 is where the biblical inerrancy doctrine is derived from, but remember that Scripture is the living and active word of God (Hebrews 4:12) which can be translated into all languages (even scientific ones). I don’t think I’m judging God’s word, instead I’m applying it to what scientists have discovered using their God-given abilities.


  3. Teresa Douglas says:

    One big theological problem with evolution is the millions of years of suffering and death that must have gone on before mankind arrived – and God said it was very good? I don’t think so… Second theological problem is that if God lied in the beginning of Genesis – how do we know when He started to tell the truth, or indeed, if He’s still lying?
    As for the scientific problems with evolution – Darwin himself said that one of his biggest hassles was that there was no sign of any missing links between any two animal groups/phyla. Also every biological structure seems to have a purpose – nobody has ever seen anything (alive or fossilised) that uses a half-developed system. After all, a half-developed eye, lung, etc. which has ipse facto no useful function would be lost again in the next random reshuffling. Most evolutionists seem to confuse natural selection – which LOSES information, and observably happens all the time – with evolution – which INCREASES information, and has never ever been observed. Creation and evolution deal with exactly the same facts, but interpret them through the lenses of diametrically opposed faith systems.
    Chris, have you ever seriously checked out any of the creation websites – say Answers in Genesis for example? They have scientists in every field – many PhD.s – who work on this sort of thing.


    1. Chris McDowall says:

      Hi Teresa. Hmm I think pre-human suffering is only a theological problem if one assumes that the Fall was a literal event which took place in the Garden of Eden, between the first two humans and Satan manifested as a snake. I don’t assume any of that, because I don’t think the scenario makes sense scientifically. For example, the two lineages that eventually produced humans and chimpanzees split off from each other about 5 million years ago, and the human lineage has gradually been getting to where it is ever since. This rules out the idea that Adam was literally created straight from the dust (although we all of us certainly are indirectly created from dust — we eat plants for food, and plants extract nutrients from the soil).

      My view is that suffering has always been present in the universe, and that the account of the Fall does an excellent job of describing exactly what is wrong with things: we are in conflict with our world and environment, and also with each other. So God’s statement that “it was good” could instead refer to all the noble and beautiful aspects of creation which exist and are somehow sustained in spite of evil and suffering.

      If this is true, I don’t think it makes God a liar. It means that we’ve been holding Him to things He didn’t actually mean when He gave us Genesis 1-3. New scientific findings don’t really change anything about creation, they just oblige us to update our terminology if we want scientifically educated people to take us seriously.

      I’ve a fair deal of exposure to creation science over the years — I’ve been on the AiG website before, seen documentaries, and read a book or two. Back when I was 16-17, I was persuaded by a number of ‘creation science’ case studies (evolution of complex structures like eyes and flagella, getting genetic information from ‘nothing’, etc) as well as the idea of ‘intelligent design’. However later in the school year we covered some of these issues in biology, and I also read more widely about them. This left me content that evolution was on the money (as far as it went), and from studying at university it’s pretty clear that scientists are generally nice people who have no interest in undermining Christianity. There are a lot of PhDs out there, and there will always be a few who deny widely-held ideas like evolution or climate change, or promote crazy ones like homeopathy. For that reason, I think it’s important to read widely in science and make sure that what you’re hearing is the ‘scientific consensus’.

      As for evolution itself, a lot of misconceptions are out there. Looking back through time, it can be tempting to call ancestral species ‘missing links’ or early versions of structures like eyes ‘half developed’. But it’s important to bear in mind that at the time, these species and their structures were purely products of their immediate circumstances. Evolution doesn’t plan ahead. So yes, the theory of evolution predicts that structures like early eyes and flagella will be functional, and as it happens there is evidence for this. For example, singled celled swimming algae have ‘eyespots’ that can detect the direction light is coming from, planarian flatworms have little pits filled with light-sensitive cells, nautiluses have ‘pinhole camera’ eyes with an iris but no lens or cornea, and finally vertebrates and octopuses/squid/cuttlefish have the most complex eyes. These examples of functional, but less complex eyes show how more complex eyes could potentially have evolved.

      As I say in the blog post, natural selection is just one of four evolutionary forces (with the others being mutation, migration, and gene flow). While it’s true that natural selection and gene flow remove genetic variation, migration and mutation are able to introduce it. How mutation works is really interesting… it’s not just losing or gaining the odd little gene here and there, we also have entire DNA sequences from all sorts of weird and wonderful places. A lot of it comes from viruses, a lot of it is just multiple copies of what we already had, and a little bit come from the Neanderthals and Denisovans (unless you’re from Africa, that is).

      Another important point to bear in mind when grappling with the strangeness of evolution is that just as a physical structure like a limb can change its function (e.g. leg –> flipper), so too can a gene. For example, the set of genes in flowering plants that control flower development used to be an extra copy of the leaf-development genes. But they got modified slightly, and started producing specialised leaves (i.e. sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils).

      Hope that helps.


  4. Chris Beard says:

    Thanks Chris Helpful stuff for a (science) layperson. Highlighting the “dumbed-down dichotomy” is important I think, and interested to read of the non-randomness in evolution.


    1. Chris McDowall says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for that. I don’t think I’ve got this all worked out by any means, I’m just using what I’ve picked up to try and point things in a more helpful direction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s