21 Rain shadows

Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t provide a road map to the complex process that has produced biological diversity. We have to figure it out ourselves. But just because something is complex, this doesn’t mean  it can’t happen naturally. It just means that there is a greater number of variables that need to be ‘satisfied’ for it to occur. But so what? Satisfy those variables, and it will happen.

Many patterns that are complex and highly unlikely (or at least seemingly so, for as long as we are ignorant of the workings of their natural mechanisms) develop as a result of the interplay of natural variables. For example, if we didn’t know that a host of natural variables governs the formation of rain, we’d be at a loss to explain the existence of “rain shadows.” (That is, orographic precipitation, the phenomenon whereby a much greater volume of rain falls on the windward side of a mountain range than on its leeward side.)

In our state of meteorological ignorance, we might ask, “What are the chances that rain would, in its vast majority, only fall on one side of a mountain range?” I believe we’d conclude that it would be impossible for this phenomenon to happen without God’s direct involvement. No amount of time and chance could bring about that result.

However, if we knew and understood the specific meteorological conditions that must be satisfied for rain shadows to occur, that knowledge would dispel our ignorance, and we would no longer need to appeal to the mysterious workings of God to provide an answer. Consequently, and without deliberately rejecting God, we would come to realize that rain shadows are a natural result of the way the world works. One could still choose to believe that God was involved, but that belief would remain within the realm of faith, because scientifically, God’s involvement could never be proven scientifically.

From a scientific perspective, rain formation is ateleological. That is, the mechanisms that cause it to rain do not have the foresight to know that that is what they will accomplish. These forces of nature are not deliberately working towards a specific outcome, and yet highly distinctive and conspicuously non-random precipitation patterns develop.

But how can rain, without guidance from God, “know” to fall only on one side of the mountain? If the forces of nature that cause it to rain are blind, how then do they accomplish the will of God?   This is, of course, a meaningless question within the realm of science. A person of faith might claim that God is not frustrated by this kind of blindness. And so it is with evolution. Therefore, the rain analogy is a good argument against the need for teleology within the scientific realm when explaining the origins of biological diversity.

The northern reach of the Atacama Desert, in parts of which rainfall has never been recorded. An extreme example of a rain shadow. Photo by S. Godfrey.

From this analogy, on which I continued to meditate in the days and months that followed, I concluded that I was free to take seriously the thesis that life in all its complexity and historical diversity could be the result of the interaction of many variables and processes in nature. Evolution, in other words (contrary to what I was taught and believed while growing up), wasn’t devised specifically to deny the existence of God, any more than the science of meteorology was. It developed like any other branch of science, as biologists, paleontologists, and geologists sought to “subdue the earth,” that is, to make sense of it and provide a natural explanation for what they observed. I felt as though a huge field of study had opened up to me.

Over the past 200 years, the work of paleontologists has given us a much clearer picture of the many bizarre and wonderful organisms that have lived on earth over the course of its 4.5 billion year history. I now rejoice in being able to have a part in the study of fossils. For me, the question of the origin of biological diversity no longer necessarily carries with it any theological baggage. It is simply a scientific question. Put it another way, the question of origins is only as theological as is the origin of rain.

I have come to the end of my story without having said anything about the natural mechanisms of evolution. Clearly, an understanding of these mechanisms was not the stimulus for this endeavor, and quite frankly, I don’t really care one way or another what they might turn out to be. (I understand the broad strokes of the current theory of evolution. Whether the scientific understanding of the mechanisms within that theory will change is another story.)

Rather, my goal has been to highlight the evidence that convinced me that young-earth creationism was untenable, and that there was good reason to look for comprehensible natural mechanisms that could account for the diversity of life through time. The result of my pilgrimage in understanding is that I am at liberty to study organisms past and present with a view towards, among other things, adding to our understanding of how life’s diversity came to be.

If, however, after becoming engaged in the enterprise, I find that I am dissatisfied with the natural mechanisms that have been proposed to account for any aspect of the evolutionary process, science offers its practitioners the luxury of being able to propose a better suite of natural mechanisms to account for evolution or any other natural phenomenon. This dissatisfaction must always push a scientist to propose a better explanation; it would be intellectually lazy, and unscientific, to claim that it simply must have happened as a result of direct, supernatural intervention by God.

I will remember my years in Drumheller as having marked that time in my life when I laid aside the anti-evolution tenets of young-earth creationism. However, there remained one major problem. If the Genesis creation account was not a literal telling of how things came to be the way they are, then what was it about? I had to know!

I was unwilling to leave that tension unresolved indefinitely, even though I had wrestled with it for nearly 10 years. Knowing that my brother-in-law, Chris Smith, had moved from a literalist interpretation to a new understanding of what the first chapters of Genesis were about, I went to him for help. As a result of his contribution to this book, many lengthy discussions, and a study of biblical cosmology, I now have a substantially different understanding of the intent and message of the Genesis creation account. But I will let him tell his part of the story, in the posts that follow.

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