This is the fifth and final post in a series based on Dr. Peter Dodson’s 2016 conference presentation “Fossils and Faith.”
The history of life on Earth is deep beyond our comprehension. When a visitor to the Grand Canyon gazes into that vast and colorful chasm, the brain fails to process the magnitude of what it sees. This also happens when we contemplate time and space. What does a million years mean? What does a billion years mean? What does a light year mean? There are many ways of representing the immensity of geological time. As a child I was deeply impressed by a figure in my favorite dinosaur book, a vertical helical spring with one end at the beginning of time and the other lodged in recorded human history; the relevant positions of significant events in the history of life clustered remarkably near the upper end. John Haught likes to represent the history of life in the 13.7 billion year old Cosmos as a 30 volume set of books of 450 pages each, in which each page represents one million years (Resting on the Future: Catholic Theology for an Unfinished Universe, 2015). The first 22 volumes are blank and lifeless. The Earth appears in volume 21, but life on earth waits until late in volume 22. The explosion of complex life at the beginning of the Cambrian Period begins late in volume 29. Dinosaurs appear on page 220 of volume 30 and disappear on page 385. Hominids appear on page 440 of the last volume, and modern humans only make an appearance in the last paragraph at the bottom of page 450.
My own preference is to represent the age of the Earth as a 365-day calendar. The Earth began 4.6 billion years ago on January 1. Bacteria appeared during the month of February, perhaps as early as February 10. Eukaryotic cells with a nucleus and mitochondria appeared by July 13. Fossils became abundant in the Cambrian explosive diversification event on November 17. Dinosaurs and mammals appeared on December 13. With the exception of birds, dinosaurs became extinct on December 26. Homo habilis, the earliest members of the genus Homo, appeared at 5 p.m. on December 31, New Year’s Eve. Homo sapiens appeared by 11:15 p.m., and all of human history is confined to the final minute before midnight, 11:59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
When the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked what his studies of biology told him about the Mind of the Creator, he is said to have responded: “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” This is because there are 400,000 species of beetles, making them the most abundant group of animals on Earth. To this I would add a love for dinosaurs – they lived on Earth for more than 160 million years, and like all of Creation they gave praise to their Creator.
By studying the history of life, we learn many things. One of the conclusions we may reach is that God loves all of life, and that the extinct plants and animals had significance and beauty in their own right. God shows immense patience. Many will ask, if the account I have offered is true, why did it take so long for Humankind to appear? Creationist Duane Gish said, “Evolution is so inefficient. God could not possibly have worked that way” (Evolution: the Fossils Say No! 1973). Really? Who is Duane Gish (or Peter Dodson) to tell God what God can or cannot do? Let us avoid blasphemy if we can! Studies of the fossil record show us that 99.9% of all creatures that have ever lived are extinct. Otherwise the Earth would be crowded indeed. And consider this – we could not thrive in a world that was terrorized by Tyrannosaurus rex! It is not hard to believe that it was Divine Wisdom that sent an asteroid hurtling towards Earth 65 million years ago to wipe out the dinosaurs and cleared the way for mammals and humans to inherit the Earth. With the Psalmist we may share the wonder: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8: 4). Humans are a very special species “crowned with glory and honor” – for all of our faults, we are beloved of our Creator, “little lower than heavenly beings” (Psalm 8: 5). The standard accounts of evolution suggest no basis for inferring that humans are anything other than an accident of the uncaring Cosmos. But as believers we are not compelled to accept this metaphysical position. Our profound intuition is that we are here because God wants us to be here, a view that contradicts no scientific finding. Humankind is no accident. God was not surprised by our appearance.
A strictly scientific account of human affairs is “hopelessly incomplete,” according to evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala (Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, 2007). Science does not tell me the purpose of life; how to live my life; and why I should love my neighbor. What room is there for wisdom, beauty, and goodness in a strictly naturalistic system? We may grant that atheist scientists, from Bertrand Russell to Dawkins, share an uncompromising passion for honesty and pursuing the truth. How is this ethical behavior consistent with the idea that our moral imperatives are only adaptations, “tricks played on us by our genes” (Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God and the Drama of Life, 2010) to ensure their propagation into the next generation? If human discourse in the absence of free will is merely the result of our genes or our environment (for in this view there is nothing else), then why should the words of Dawkins or Dennett be trusted; are they anything more than clever automata? As G.K. Chesterton said, “Mr. Darwin can explain everything but Mr. Darwin explaining everything.” Darwin himself was aware of the contradiction. “The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind,” he wrote, “which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or are at all trustworthy. Would anybody trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
Atheism is a powerful explanatory belief system, but so is religious belief. Religious belief can fully accept a scientific account of the world, but it can also incorporate a human perspective. Science does not require atheism. Modern western science grew out of Judaeo-Christian beliefs about the relationship between God and Creation, the material world. Science cannot accommodate all of human experience, and therefore it fails to describe the world that we actually inhabit. Science enriches us materially, but absent, extra-scientific foundations can leave us spiritually impoverished. Religious faith enriches us spiritually and brings meaning and purpose to life. I accept the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. I accept with gratitude the gift of salvation that He has won for me. Everything in my life follows from these facts. Because of my beliefs, I see reality more clearly and in more depth than my atheist colleagues do. And this I also know – God LOVES dinosaurs. Like all creation, as described in Psalm 148, they gave Him praise. “The works of the Lord are trustworthy” (Psalm 33:4).
There is a postscript to this story. Fifteen years after I was challenged so sharply by Will Provine, who asserted that a scientist could not be a believer, I delivered a paleontology lecture at Cornell University. Unbeknownst to me, Will Provine himself was in the audience. He greeted me with great warmth afterward and invited me to lecture to his evolution class because he wanted his class to hear from a theistic evolutionist. I accepted with pleasure. I spoke about my fossil research for 40 minutes, but I reserved the final 10 minutes for thoughts on science and faith. In the question and answer session that followed, a student asked me if I saw any evidence for God acting in my life on a daily basis. “Oh, heavens yes!” I replied. “One of the most exciting things about being a Christian is that sometimes God uses me to touch other people and sometimes God uses other people to touch me. For example, fifteen years ago God used Professor Provine to touch me!” Provine beamed with pleasure at this thought and we embraced on stage, to the amusement of all present.