How I Made Peace with Evolution

A journey from faith to science and back again

Photo: Mohamed Malik / CC BY
This is very interesting. It’s a very soft surface, but here and there where I plug with the contingency sample collector, I run into a very hard surface, but it appears to be very cohesive material of the same sort. I’ll try to get a rock in here. Just a couple.
That looks beautiful from here, Neil.
It has a stark beauty all its own.

These are the words of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, spoken just ten minutes after humankind left our historic first footprints in the Sea of Tranquility. After adjusting to the low-gravity environment and positioning cameras, Armstrong gathered just two pounds of moon rock. They called it the “contingency sample,” because it was collected early in hopes that if a disaster occurred and the explorers were forced to leave, they were guaranteed to bring something home with them.

In total, Armstrong and Aldrin collected almost fifty pounds of moon rock during their two and a half hours on the moon. When the rocks arrived on earth, they quickly became the most important scientific specimens on the planet. NASA geologist Dr. Robin Brett described their first examination in exalted tones: “When we opened that first box of moon rocks, the hushed, expectant atmosphere in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory was, I imagine, like that in a medieval monastery as the monks awaited the arrival of a fragment of the True Cross.”

The Apollo 11 contingency sample, along with almost 800 pounds of additional rocks collected during the subsequent Apollo missions, resides in the Lunar Sample Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Each year, the laboratory distributes nearly four hundred moon rock samples to scientists and educators all over the nation and around the globe. Geologists and chemists in over 150 laboratories worldwide have examined these specimens and written thousands of scientific articles concerning them. These studies continue to reveal new secrets from the history of our universe, even forty years after the rocks’ arrival on our planet.

Which is problematic if you, like a dear friend of mine, happen to believe the Apollo moon landings were a hoax.

Consider the level of suspended disbelief this conspiracy theory requires. One must accept that thousands of scientists, all over the world, have either been unable to tell whether a rock came from another planet, or are knowingly involved in the largest cover-up scheme ever undertaken. [1] And it’s not just geologists. In August of 1969, observatories in California, Texas, Arizona, France, and Tokyo used a retroreflector left on the moon by Aldrin and Armstrong to precisely calculate the moon’s distance from the earth. All of the astronomers who made these measurements, and every scientist who has used the reflector since, would have to be in on it too.

I am ashamed to admit that in our debates about rocks and retroreflectors, I have accused my friend and his fellow conspiracy theorists of willful ignorance. Accusing someone of only believing what they want to believe is a dangerous game, because we all have blinders of our own making that we don’t acknowledge, especially to ourselves. Several years ago, in the aftermath of one of our heated discussions, it occurred to me that I had my own widely-accepted set of scientific facts that I chose to disbelieve, despite the testimony of thousands of scientists to the contrary.

My set of facts was Darwin’s theory of evolution. I was a creationist. I believed it was impossible for one species to evolve into another. I believed the earth was less than 10,000 years old.

The speck in my friend’s eye quickly becomes the log in my own when you contemplate how much more widely evolution has been studied than the moon landing. The National Center for Science Education has compiled statements supporting the validity of evolution from over one hundred American scientific and scholarly organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science: the world’s largest scientific society. The Global Network of Science Academies has received signatures from 68 scientific organizations around the world in support of evolution, including the world’s two preeminent societies: the U.K. Royal Society (founded in 1660) and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Together these groups represent 276 Nobel Prize winners. When in 2009 the Pew Research center asked 10,000 American scientists whether humans and other beings had evolved over time, 97 percent said they had. In 1986, when 72 Nobel Laureates sent a statement of support for teaching evolution to the U.S. Supreme Court, it contained the most Nobel Prize-winning signatures ever affixed to a single document.

Just as evidence for the moon landing is spread across many scientific fields from geology to astronomy, support for evolution is not limited to one area. Paleontologists find it in the fossil record; geneticists find it in the coded twists of our DNA; biologists find it in Petri dishes teeming with bacteria. If one were to pick which topic, evolution or the moon landing, has received more examination and validation by the world’s leading scientific minds, evolution would win by a landslide.

The consensus of all these scientific thinkers becomes even more compelling in light of the powerful incentives scientists have to produce findings that are contrary to what is commonly accepted in their fields. A peer-reviewed paper finding that the hundreds of pounds of alleged moon rocks are actually a hoax, or that natural selection does not really enable one species to transform into another, would be career-making material—but not one has ever been published. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and leader of the Human Genome Project, explains:

One of the most cherished hopes of a scientist is to make an observation that shakes up a field of research. […] That’s what Nobel Prizes are given for. In that regard, any assumption that a conspiracy could exist among scientists to keep a widely current theory alive when it actually contains serious flaws is completely antithetical to the restless mind-set of the profession.

Of course, the widespread support for evolutionary science only matters if you trust the men and women who administer it. Unless you aspire to become a scientist and study evolution firsthand, you must decide who to trust in the debate about how life has developed on earth. For most of my life I have rejected the idea that natural selection causes new species to form because I trusted people who told me that evolution was a conspiracy, born out of a desire to reject the possibility of an active, creative God. I was taught that my Christian faith was incompatible with evolution as a scientific reality. When I finally accepted the conspiracy could not possibly be real, my faith compelled me to search for ways the two could be reconciled.


Young-earth creationism is the notion that the world was created over a six-day period precisely as recorded in the biblical book of Genesis sometime in the last 10,000 years. On each day, a new portion of the world was spoken into being, from the moon and stars to sea and land creatures. Obviously such a belief is incompatible with evolutionary biology (not to mention many other scientific fields that involve the age of the earth), which requires small genetic changes over millions of years to produce different species. In order to accept evolution while maintaining faith in the Bible as a book full of essential truth, the Genesis accounts cannot be taken literally. One must accept that the purpose of the biblical creation story is to communicate that an all-powerful God created a good world out of nothing—not specifically how this occurred.

In my slow transition to belief that life on earth came about through an evolutionary process, accepting the Genesis stories as largely figurative was not a major barrier. The first chapter reads just like the ancient poetry it is, and there are internal contradictions that have never been satisfactorily explained. Many respected Christian leaders, from Origen, St. Augustine, and John Calvin to John Wesley, Pope John Paul II, and Billy Graham, have not regarded Genesis to be a literal, historical account. For me, and I believe for most creationists, the choice to reject biological evolution was born out of deeper philosophical implications. If Genesis is not literally true, how can we believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are not figurative as well? How could a loving God have used a process like natural selection, which requires suffering and death to function, to create a world that could rightly be called “good,” as it is in the first chapter of Genesis? How can we believe that humans share common ancestry with chimpanzees when the Bible claims we are set apart, made in the “image of God?” And on a larger scale, how can religious ideas such as God, sin, choice, grace, righteousness, and evil ever be compatible with evolution, which informs us that all of human experience is simply the product of accumulated behaviors weeded out by natural selection? It is important for anyone seeking to reconcile evolution with Christian belief to at least attempt to address these questions.

For many years I believed that in order to consider the Bible trustworthy, you cannot pick and choose which events it describes are literally true. You can have a real Noah’s flood and a real Jesus’ resurrection, but not one without the other. I have since realized that these two events are overwhelmingly different. The Genesis story of a worldwide flood is a transcription of oral tradition, written thousands of years before Jesus’ resurrection by an unknown author. Little to no scientific or historical evidence supports it in every detail, and it bears similarity to other flood myths that originated in the same period. In contrast, Jesus’ resurrection is a much more recent event, recorded by multiple authors decades after it occurred, which spawned a worldwide movement that would have been unlikely to form had its leader simply been crucified and buried. It is not irrational to accept the literal truth of much of the Gospels and little of Genesis.

Significantly more troubling is the question of how a loving God could employ evolution to craft a “good” creation. Natural selection requires death and suffering to operate, as over millennia creatures that are best adapted to their environment survive while the less fortunate die off. How could such a cruel process be the very engine God used to form the world’s astonishing diversity of life? There is no easy way to respond to this; it is simply a restatement of the problem of pain. Asking why God allowed suffering to shape the creation of life is not significantly different than asking why God allows suffering now. Addressing the problem of pain is beyond the scope of this essay. It will suffice to say that evolution presents no moral problem to Christian theology that did not already exist.

Unfortunately we cannot stop there. The Genesis narrative I was taught presented creation on the seventh day as idyllic and perfect. When the first man and woman broke God’s only commandment, evil and death entered the world, damaging creation. Here again, a literal interpretation of the Genesis story is incompatible with what we have discovered about the world through scientific exploration; we must accept that death was present in the world long before humans arrived. But if so, how can death be the considered a consequence of humanity’s actions?

This question begs for context. First, the notion that physical death did not exist before humans were created is not the only way to interpret the Genesis account. In the story, God promises Adam and Eve that if they eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” they will “surely die,” and yet after eating the forbidden fruit Adam lives nearly a thousand years. It is more likely that the Genesis author is referring to spiritual death: a separation between God and humanity. It is also possible that the events of the Fall (in whatever form they took place, the Adam and Eve story has plainly figurative elements) could have had consequences that were retroactive, influencing prior events. We are not told, and we do not know. What we do know is man and woman’s disobedient actions result in a separation between them and God that exists to this day and has caused immeasurable pain and loss. [2]

A more open and nuanced interpretation of the Eden story like the one I have been describing does not require us to sacrifice the teaching that we are made in the image of God, either. Accepting that humans and apes share a common ancestor does not remove the possibility that God’s image has been impressed upon humanity. It is possible the Eden story is a metaphorical description of what happened after human consciousness was sparked. Perhaps it is no accident that consciousness, the origin of life, and the origin of the universe remain some of the most profound mysteries in science. These mysteries may be so complex that it is impossible for our limited minds to ever comprehend them. If so, we should not be surprised that scripture would speak about them in artful ways that convey deep moral and spiritual truths without regard to the specific details that science has since partially illuminated.

Finally, there is the question of whether Christian belief has meaning at all if our lives are governed entirely by behaviors which we have evolved to possess over many thousands of years (including religion). To address this concern, it is important to view evolution as a tool which God has used to form the diversity of life in our world, and not as a philosophical paradigm unto itself. This perspective is sometimes difficult to accept because evolution is often presented by both its proponents and detractors as something more than a collection of mechanical processes. Popular neuroscientist, atheist, and author Sam Harris has gone so far as to argue that science can answer moral questions and determine human values. A full rebuttal of these claims is beyond the bounds of this essay, but if any unity between science and religion is to be found, we must reject science’s supposed ability to answer questions about human morality and purpose. Questions such as, “why are we here?” and “how should we live?” are best answered by religion and philosophy, while questions about the mechanics of the world such as, “how does natural phenomena occur?” are best left to scientific inquiry—though certainly the two inform one another. [3] Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne describes evolution’s limits in his 2009 book, Why Evolution is True:

[The] notion that these lessons of evolution will inevitably spill over into the study of ethics, history, and “family life” is unnecessarily alarmist. How can you derive meaning, purpose, or ethics from evolution? You can’t. Evolution is simply a theory about the process and patterns of life’s diversification, not a grand philosophical scheme about the meaning of life. It can’t tell us what to do, or how we should behave.
The world still teems with selfishness, immorality, and injustice. But look elsewhere and you’ll also find innumerable acts of kindness and altruism. There may be elements of both behaviors that come from our evolutionary heritage, but these acts are largely matters of choice, not of genes. Giving to charity, volunteering to eradicate disease in poor countries, fighting fires at immense personal risk—none of these acts could have been instilled in us directly by evolution. […] It is clear, then, that whatever genetic heritage we have, it is not a straitjacket that traps us forever in the “beastly” ways of our forebears. Evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go.

Of course it’s just as important to recognize the limits of religion as the limits of science. Theoretical phsyicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne provides insight here:

Evolution does not contradict the Bible, which says that “God formed man from the dust of the earth,” any more than astrophysics contradicts the Bible when it says that God also made the stars. Evolution and astrophysics give an insight into the scientific details of how God did these things, which are not what the Bible is about. The Bible gives insights into the much more important ethical and spiritual realities—remember that people used to worship stars and planets, and, in some cases, make human sacrifices to them.

Reconciling science and religion, then, requires a healthy respect for both science and religion’s vast but limited ability to answer questions about our world. To foster this respect we must also reject the accusations levied at both religion and science by their detractors. Jewish filmmaker Ben Stein, in his 2008 documentary “Expelled,” accused evolutionary science of being the seed of racism which led to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, while atheist author Christopher Hitchens blamed religion for a slew of violent acts throughout history in his 2007 book, God is Not Great. Neither religion nor science should be held accountable for horrendous acts committed by individuals who twisted religious and scientific ideas to promote their warped causes.

Not only should we reject the use of science and religion to disparage one another, we must recognize the ways in which the two are complementary. Whether they acknowledge God or not (and many do), scientists reveal the character of God when they make discoveries about our world. The Big Bang theory, for instance, did not begin with a group of atheists conspiring to come up with an explanation for the origin of the universe that made no mention of God. It began with astronomer Edwin Hubble using the Doppler effect to observe that light emitting from distant galaxies was traveling away from us faster than light from closer galaxies. Science does not lessen our need for God, it expands our knowledge of how God works.

This is why religion should not be used to explain away natural mysteries which science has yet to crack, in a manner commonly called “god of the gaps,” and science should not be used as an all-encompassing philosophical approach to life. Properly understood, science and religion complement each other in the search for knowledge and wisdom. They are both driven by the same insatiable curiosity in all of us. As Annie Dillard artfully put it,

What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we’re blue.

I would like to request a few moments of silence… and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way… “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.”

These too are the words of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, spoken as he performed the Christian communion sacrament on the surface of the moon in July of 1969. The act was a little-known event in the story of the moon-landing, but the elements Aldrin took were the historic first food and drink consumed by a human on another celestial body. The symbolism of this moment illustrates the deep union that is possible between science and faith. Here is a man who believed so thoroughly in the credibility, precision, and possibility of science that he was willing to bet his life on them. In doing so, he saw no conflict between the discoveries of science and a religious faith that gives hope to many. Instead, he married them together. During his return to earth, Aldrin read from the book of Psalms: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

Those verses were on my mind too last month, when my wife and I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon during a vacation in Arizona. This was my second trip to the park. The first was during my middle school years, and at the time I believed what I had been taught: that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s Flood only a few thousand years ago, and all of the educational signs in the park that said otherwise were the work of godless scientists, determined to spread a history of our world that left no room for the possibility of a divine presence.

Revisiting those signs was a strange experience. This time I read each one with no suspicion of malice, no reason to fear or reject what it claimed, but instead with a desire to learn. And what I read was how an immense, mysterious, and creative God carved one the world’s greatest natural wonders in a story that twisted and turned through ice ages and earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic shifts, over millions upon millions of years. I admit that in some ways I liked this story better than the one of God blasting out the canyon during a six-week flood—but this doesn’t matter. They are different stories. They teach us different lessons; they move us in different ways. It took many years for me to begin accepting both with humility and openness, but I am so grateful to attempt it now.

Which is to say—all of this is to say—that the world is so much wider than we think it is. Science and faith have so much left to show us, so many more miracles left to reveal. All the churches and laboratories on our planet ring with the resounding hum of a living presence that can only be amplified by our incessant search for truth. I made peace with evolution because it is a step in this exploration, a note scribbled in humankind’s field book with wonder and surprise. The expedition journeys forward, and we only gain from believing in the small discoveries we make.


This story originally appeared on my personal blog. Click here to view comments on the original piece.

Footnotes

[1] For more on identifying moon rocks, see the WUSTL Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences’ article, “How Dow We Know That It’s a Rock From the Moon?

[2] For more on the question of death before the Fall, see the BioLogos Foundation’s article, “Did death occur before the Fall?” (updated July 9, 2012)

[3] The distinction between evolution as science and as philosophical paradigm, as well as several other ideas presented here regarding the reconciliation of evolution with Christian faith, are discussed in pastor Tim Keller’s BioLogos white paper, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople.” Also to clarify, by describing evolution as God’s tool, I am not claiming that God’s presence is somehow detectable in nature using scientific means. Because God is by definition supernatural, it follows that God is not perceivable in natural processes, and is therefore inaccessible to science. From a philosophical, spiritual, and artistic standpoint however, God’s presence has been evident in nature to many people throughout recorded history.

References

Jones, E. (2013, September 23). One small step. NASA Apollo 11 lunar surface journal. Retrieved December 14, 2013, from http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11.step.

Cantin, R., & Jones, E. M. (2012, March 30). Contingency sample. NASA Apollo 11 lunar surface journal. Retrieved December 16, 2013, from http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11ContingencySample.html

Weaver, K. F. (1969, December). What the moon rocks tell us. National Geographic. Retrieved December 16, 2013, from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/1969/12/moon-landing/moon-rock-text

Gugliotta, G. (2008, July 8). The keepers of the moon. The New York Times. Retrieved December 16, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/science/space/08moon.html

Washington University in St. Louis (2009, July 18). Apollo 11 Moon Rocks Still Crucial 40 Years Later, Say Researchers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 16, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/07/090717150254.htm

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Sager, C. (2008, September 4). Statements from scientific and scholarly organizations. National Center for Science Education. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from http://ncse.com/media/voices/science

IAP Statement on the teaching of evolution. (2006, June 21). IAP. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from http://www.interacademies.net/10878/1390

Macilwain, C. (2010). Scientific academies: in the best company. Nature, 465(7301), 1002–1004. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/4651002a

Public praises science; scientists fault public, media. (2009, July 9). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/

Almquist, A. J., & Cronin, J. E. (1988). Fact, fancy, and myth on human evolution. Current Anthropology, 29(3), 520. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/203672

Collins, F. S. (2006). The origins of the universe. The language of God: a scientist presents evidence for belief (p. 58). New York: Free Press.

Wright, N. T. (2003). The resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Coyne, J. A. (2009). Why evolution is true. New York: Viking.

Polkinghorne, J. C., & Beale, N. (2009). Questions of truth: fifty-one responses to questions about God, science, and belief. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Dillard, A. (1982). Teaching a stone to talk: expeditions and encounters. New York: HarperPerennial.

Olasky, M. (2013, July 24). Communion on the moon. World Magazine. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from http://www.worldmag.com/2013/07/communion_on_the_moon

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