This is the fourth post in a series based on Dr. Peter Dodson’s 2016 conference presentation “Fossils and Faith.”
Looking more specifically at evolution, which some Christians regard as problematic, if we do not look to Genesis 1 as a scientific account of Creation, can we find theological reasons to support the concept of evolution? Evolution, the record of change over time, imbues Creation with dynamism. Haught has referred to evolution as “Darwin’s gift to theology” (God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, 2000). In what sense can this be so?
One key insight comes from God’s own assessment of the work of Creation on the Sixth Day: “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1: 31). The affirmation of the goodness of Creation is an extremely fundamental Judaeo-Christian understanding. But note also the imperfection of Creation – in a word, very good means there is still room for improvement. How do you improve on perfection? You cannot. Perfection is a static state that is not consistent with the dynamism seen in the natural world or in human affairs. Creation is not finished – it is ongoing. Since the Fall of Adam, the imperfection of humankind has been all too evident. Only with the grace of God may we dare to hope that the future will be better than the past, as we struggle to overcome the burden of both personal and corporate sin.
Observation of the cosmos shows that the heavens also are by no means static. The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope has produced gorgeous images of so-called stellar nurseries, in which new stars are being formed as we watch. One of the most exquisite images from the Hubble is the nursery named the Pillars of Creation, located in the Eagle Nebula.
At the opposite end of the finite lifecycle of stars, supernovae record their cataclysmic deaths. A supernova is a possible astronomical explanation for the Star of Bethlehem in Matthew’s gospel, although numerous other phenomena have been advanced as well (a comet, a planetary conjunction, etc.). A widely reported astronomical event occurred in July 1994 when the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, having been fragmented into many pieces by the intense gravitation field of the giant planet Jupiter, collided with the surface of that planet over a period of six days with the impact force exceeding by a factor of hundreds the entire nuclear arsenal of the Earth. Unimaginably intense fireballs elevated the atmospheric temperatures around the impact sites by thousands of degrees Centigrade, and scars on the surface of Jupiter could be observed for months. Thus the work of Creation was not finished on the Sixth Day. Again, we may ask how this can be? The answer is that God’s love for Creation, all of Creation, is infinite. The infinite, by definition, cannot be poured out in an instant. God’s love is ongoing, and God’s love lifts all of Creation. This lifting we may call Evolution.
For my part, I accept that God created through the process of evolution. I accept that God created through the laws of Nature, the Secondary Causes of Aquinas. The Cosmos assembled itself according to God’s laws. What kind of a clockmaker would God be if he had to advance the hands of his clock minute-by-minute? Did God really have to create each and every species by a special act? If we attend carefully to the words of Genesis, it does not say that God fashioned living creatures directly. Instead “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds— livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1: 24). Let the earth bring forth – a natural process!
I reject the notion of a young Earth. The Earth gives the impression of great age, 4.6 billion years to be precise. To hold that apparent age is an illusion is to imply that God is deceitful, flying in the face of Psalm 33, verse 4, which reminds us that the works of the Lord are trustworthy. Amen! Accounts of Creation are numerous throughout the Bible (e.g., Isaiah 40; Job 38 – 41; Proverbs 8; Psalm 104; Psalm 148; John 1; Colossians 1:16, etc.), and most lack the apparent specificity of Genesis 1 and 2. Let us put to rest the myth that the Bible speaks univocally on the duration and mode of Creation. Let us not put limits on what God could and could not do!
I accept that life has a deep history. Life appeared on Earth by 3.8 billion years ago and possibly as long ago as 4.1 billion years. By 3.5 billion years, dome-like structures called stromatolites, which are formed by mats of sediment -trapping blue-green bacteria, become evident in the fossil record, for instance at Glacier National Park in Montana. Did the Spirit of God move across the face of the waters as in Genesis 1: 1, or did a bolt of lightning discharge into a primeval soup of chemicals? As a paleontologist, I surely cannot distinguish one from the other. As a theistic evolutionist, I believe the answer is not necessarily either/or; it could be both. It is an act of faith to believe either the Biblical account of Creation or the scientific one – nobody witnessed the event that has been lost so deeply in the mists of time.
Even if scientists succeed in creating life in the laboratory, my faith will not be challenged – Jesus did not come to save blue-green bacteria, for they are blameless. Jesus came to save sinners, meaning all humans. Harvard paleontologist Andy Knoll calls blue-green bacteria the working class heroes of the Precambrian because they were responsible for building up the oxygen content of the atmosphere, which allowed more complex life to flourish (Andrew H. Knoll, Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, 2003). Around 2 billion years ago eukaryotes appeared, organisms with a nucleus, a cell wall, and organelles such as mitochondria and the Golgi apparatus. These differentiated into plants, animals, fungi and protists, and the potential for sexual reproduction quickly followed, speeding up the pace of evolution. Around 600 million years ago soft-bodied sea creatures became large enough and complex enough to be visible to the naked eye – measured in inches rather than microns. Around 540 million years ago animals with hard parts developed: snails, clams, corals, sponges, arthropods (trilobites), relatives of the octopus that lived in beautiful shells. The seas teemed with life. Fishes were part of these fertile ecosystems. Around 425 million years ago the Earth began greening; plants began to colonize the land, followed by insects that grazed upon them. By 360 million years AC, vertebrates appeared on land to consume insects and breathe the sweet air.
Three hundred million years ago, great scale trees reached 100 feet in height, cockroaches were 18 inches long and dragonflies had 36-inch wingspans. By 230 million years AC, the first dinosaurs and mammals populated the Earth. 9 Dinosaurs reigned for the next 160 million years, after which the meek (in the form of small mammals) inherited the Earth. Mammals held unchallenged sway over the Earth for 65 million years and left a rich record in the rocks. We can, for example, trace the history of horses back 55 million years. At first appearance they had four toes on their front legs and three on their hind legs; had short faces and low teeth; and were the size of medium-sized terriers. We can trace them by stages and document their increase in size, the progressive reduction in their toes, the lengthening of their faces, and the development of high tooth crowns for chewing abrasive prairie grasses. The fossil record of horses is documented in Wyoming, Nebraska, Oregon, and Texas, among other places, although no one location preserved all their stages of development.
Many other ancient animals left behind a rich fossil record. The evolution of the rhinoceros has also been demonstrated on the Western Plains. Rodents have one of the most important, extensively sampled and exquisitely studied fossil records; these mostly small animals constitute about 40% of all living species of mammals today.
Human ancestors appeared in the African record about 7 million years ago, the first members of our own group, the hominids. Small-brained Homo habilis is the oldest member of our own genus, Homo, and lived in East Africa between 2.8 and 1.5 million years ago. Our near relative, the large-brained Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) dwelled in Ice Age Europe and Asia from 250,000 to about 40,000 years ago. They fashioned stone tools, and recently it has been thought that they may have buried their dead. Our own species, Homo sapiens, may have originated in Africa between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. When modern humans migrated out of Africa somewhat less than 100,000 years ago, they encountered their near relatives, the Neanderthals. We can only speculate about what social interactions were like between Neanderthals and modern humans. (Jean M. Auel has written a series of fascinating paleontologically-informed novels, beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear, 1980, exploring this very topic.) What we do know is that by 30,000 years ago there was only a single species of human, our own species. We do share some genes with Neanderthals, suggesting limited interbreeding (although these genes could have been the result of a common ancestor).