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This changes….something

March 28, 2010
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I’ve been hearing a good bit recently about the movie “Creation”, which is about Charles Darwin, with at least some focus on his faith.  According to a lot of the commentators I’ve heard, Charles Darwin is not just a giant of science (and if you don’t think his contributions have fundamentally changed biology then you probably don’t understand modern biology) but someone who changed the way we should think about God and ourselves.  Is this true?

I have to admit that I don’t generally like discussing the topic of evolution versus creationism, so it’s a bit odd that I decided to write an article on it.  The reasons I don’t like this topic are fairly simple.  First, it’s a topic that generates a lot of vitriol, in which discussion takes second place to screaming.  Second, it’s a topic that I, as a Christian and a biologist, get asked about quite a lot, and I’m often rather bored with it.  And, thirdly, as a Christian and a biologist I’m also aware of how much misinformation floats around the debate.  I am often confronted by people who wish to debate with me on the basis of a set of facts that are not actually facts.  At least some of this misinformation appears to be deliberately spread.

Despite this I’m going to write an article on the topic.  But I won’t be writing this article on the debate itself.  That’s been covered extensively, in more detail, elsewhere.  You should probably know that I am an evolutionist, but I don’t intend to write this article in such a manner that this will matter.

I’d like to start by categorizing claims.  The first category is fact.  Facts are things that are simply true or false, without wiggle room.  In a scientific paper these sorts of claims are found in the Results section.  Using a relatively simple example from my own field someone might claim to have observed a particular species two dozen times in wooded areas, but never in adjacent subdivisions.  This is either true or false.  Various sections of this claim could be true or false, but it’s not a matter of interpretation whether this happened or not (at least most of the time – we could certainly invent scenarios in which it was, which is why in a scientific paper “two dozen times” would be qualified by careful statements about what constitutes a single observed time and so on).

The next category is, of course, interpretation.  Having observed the species above someone might claim that these facts were the result of this species avoiding human activity.  This is interpretation.  Perhaps the animals are actually avoiding open spaces.  Perhaps they do use the subdivision extensively, but at night when they are harder to observe.  Perhaps the study methods have flaws, and the disproportionate number of observations in the woods are due to these flaws.  Interpretation is presented in a scientific paper in the Discussion section, and the role of science is to generate valid interpretations from raw data.

The final category is narrative.  At the level of narrative multiple interpretations are brought together into a single story.  For instance, the study we have been using as an example might become part of a larger set of studies that show that humans are driving species into extinction and changing the planet, which is, at that point, simply a simultaneous interpretation of numerous facts.  The narrative adds another piece to this.  In this case there are several possible conclusions, including “humans are a bad thing” and “we’d better clean up our act”.  Narrative is where we find moral judgments and calls to action.

I introduce this classification scheme because it helps us understand potential debates better.  Most debate occurs around fact and interpretation.  Is a given rock millions of years old?  That’s interpretation, a question about what particular isotope ratios mean.  Is a particular fossil a transitional species?  Again, this involves interpreting characteristics to place the fossil taxonomically.  Sometimes these challenges involve fact.  Was the isotope ratio actually the one given?  Did a particular fossil actually have these impressions when it was found?  This end of the debate is often especially ugly, since it normally involves claims that people lied or doctored data, but it is a real phenomenon.

The real problem, though, is that this simply isn’t the important end of the spectrum.  I once saw the front page of a creationist website shortly after a school shooting.  “This,” it proclaimed about the shooting, “Is what happens when you teach your children that they came from monkeys.”  We’ll ignore the issues of taxonomy here to ask a simple question: would two children, otherwise identical, reach different decisions about shooting their classmates if one believed that he had come from a non-human primate and the other believed he had come from a pile of sculpted dirt, as in Genesis 2:7?  I sort of doubt that the answer is “yes”.  But if we ask the question differently we begin to see the heart of the matter more clearly.  Would two children, otherwise identical, reach different decisions about shooting their classmates if one believed that the universe was meaningless and uncaring, and had produced him by accident, while the other believed that he was the deliberate creation of a loving God?  Maybe.  The difference here is that we’ve moved into narrative.  “The universe has no meaning” is not a measurable fact.  It’s not even a simple interpretation of several measurable facts.  It’s a story told out of a large set of interpretations.  The Bible deals more directly in narratives, but the Christian claim is, again, narrative.  Narrative, not fact or interpretation (although these should always be the foundation for narrative), is what drives people.

So did Darwin change everything?  Did he spin a new narrative about humanity?  In short, no.  If he wrote such philosophical works they have remained largely unnoticed.  But, more to the point, did his theory (interpretation) force the creation of a new narrative, or deal a death-blow to an older one?  Again the answer is no.

By the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859) Charles Lyell had already published Principles of Geology, popularizing the much earlier ideas of James Hutton, which held that the earth was very old, perhaps indefinitely so.  Even theories like Cuvier’s version of catastrophism, which were perhaps more amenable to some readings of Genesis, required multiple repetitions of creation.  Darwin’s own grandfather is known to have postulated evolutionary ideas, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ideas, published at the turn of the 19th century, were evolutionary in nature (although his understanding of inheritance was quite poor, and the mechanism driving his theory depended on this bogus system).  Darwin stepped into a world in which quite a number of people had shoved God very, very far to the sidelines.  Perhaps, as the Deists (who go back to at least the seventeenth century) held, God had done some creating, but natural processes had been running the show since then.  Corruption in some more authoritarian branches of the Church had done its work as well, and in France especially religion was seen as the enemy of progress.

So what did Darwin do?  Darwin proposed a mechanism for evolution that worked.  Because this mechanism worked evolution became widely accepted in the scientific community.  But did this change the narrative?  Not really.  The difference between a God Who does nothing whatsoever here and now and a God Who, perhaps, did nothing whatsoever at any time ever is inconsequential.  Darwin may have allowed some Deists to throw aside a weakened, anemic god for atheism, but Darwin’s contribution, while vastly important for biology, changed the narrative very little.  The narrative that Christians hate so much was already in place, and, in some form, probably always has been.

As always, I think this ends up boiling down to some rather practical things.  First, the narrative is not the interpretation.  It is something additional, and the people who specialize in good interpretation of scientific data are not always the same people who are best at understanding how that translates to some sort of meaning in the narrative sense.  There is overlap (I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t believe that), but there is a weak joint between the science and the narrative.

Second, the interpretation is the hardest end to tackle.  It’s tempting to make Darwin the god-killing boogeyman because then the world could be restored to order simply by defeating Darwin in post-mortem intellectual combat.  But Darwin’s final synthesis came out of a lot of other work (in fact, Darwin was pushed to publish when a younger colleague [Alfred Russel Wallace] wrote to him asking him to look over a theory which was functionally identical to Darwin’s).  It’s not simply a matter of becoming a specialist in a particular branch of biology: one would need to become an expert in a half-dozen fields at least to address all the interpretations that underlie the current story of how the earth and its life came to be.

Thirdly, the narrative, not the interpretation, is what actually matters.  The narrative is what calls us to action, what inspires or deflates us.  The interpretation matters only so far as it supports or hinders particular narratives.  A lot of ink has been spilled in the fight over a particular reading of Genesis 1 and 2 (I would remind the reader that Genesis itself is primarily about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, not Creation).  However other readings do exist, and existed long before Darwin.  Augustine, who was born roughly a millennia and a half before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, noted the severe problems with a narrative that insists that days, mornings, and evenings existed before the Sun was there to mark them, as well as some more general philosophical problems.  As best I understand it he appeared to think the opening of Genesis was obviously meant as a different sort of literature than straight history, and needed to be read as such.

There are more problems of science, reading, faith, and history than I can address here.  There are already numerous resources devoted to the science, writers on both sides have written about issues such as whether Genesis 1 is in the form of a poem, many people have walked the life of faith on both sides of this line, and increasingly books are being written from both sides about the position the Church fathers took on the Creation episodes in Genesis.  I don’t claim to have added a great deal to this already over-packed warehouse, but I hope the thoughts I have presented here have raised some interesting questions, at least at the lay level.

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