The Great Non-Debate: Evolution and Christian Faith

This essay discusses evolution and creationism.  The goal is to explain how science works and how the whole “debate” is really a “non debate”.  But if you are a Christian and you believe in a literal interpretation of the bible (particularly the young-earth model), don’t read my discussion of evolution.  It isn’t important.

Why?  Because it doesn’t matter.  Ask your self the following question.  If I could prove to you absolutely that life evolved slowly over billions of years; that human beings are just a node in a complex web of life reaching back billions of years; how would this change anything in the teachings of Jesus?

Does evolution have any bearing on the life, death or resurrection of Jesus?  What part of seeking the Kingdom of God or accepting Jesus as your savior is linked to a belief in evolution?

I question why we are talking about this at all. Think about it for a moment.  Jesus had nothing but scorn for the theological establishment of his culture.  He had nothing but scorn for those who replaced compassion and a relationship with God with blind devotion to rules and scripture.  Can’t you see that those who push literal biblical truth to the forefront of Christianity have become like the Pharisees and Scribes during the life of Jesus?

Is there anything in the theory of evolution that would prevent me from accepting Jesus as my personal savior?   If an important goal of a Christian life is to help others come to Jesus, how does it further your aim when you push people away who adopt a scientific world view?


I submit that Christians who make their particular interpretation of the bible a prerequisite to salvation, have lost their way.  Consider this important passage from Mark 9:47 (and Mathew 5:29 and Mathew 18:9)

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,

I submit that biblical literalism has led many fine Christians to sin; to put their approach to interpreting the bible on a pedestal and forget what really matters … to live a life centered on the reality of Jesus.  Maybe it is a useful crutch to you, but just as an eye is useful … when something becomes a path to sin, it should be cast aside.

So Christians, cast aside your emphasis on biblical literalism. Don’t care about whether people believe in evolution.  Do you really think Jesus cared?  Do you think Jesus spent time worrying about the age of earth or whether the earth was created in 6 24 hour periods of time?

I don’t think so.   Put your action where your words are.  If you really want to live a life according to the lessons of Jesus, then stop pushing people away with phony concerns about whether evolution is correct.  Return to the roots of Christianity and focus on what matters … helping people to adopt a life centered on the power of Jesus as their living savior.

Some comments on Evolution

Evolution is the central paradigm of Biology. Let me try to explain the concept of a paradigm and why it’s so important.

Behind any system of thought is a series of models. Observations, new ideas; even the questions we ask are guided by these models.  It’s the way our brains work.

Usually, we aren’t aware of the models we use, but they are still there.

Scientists are in the model business.  We make our models explicit and in doing so open them up to aggressive debate. That’s the key distinction between a faith-based system and science.  I’m not saying that scientists don’t have faith. We do. But everything – even our articles of faith — are open to debate.  When better models come along, they take over as the dominant model.

The models influence the questions we ask and the way we interpret data. Scientists are human and prone to all the weaknesses of the flesh. We invest our egos in our models, we reject models for all the wrong reasons, we cheat, and lie and everything else that comes with being a human being.

… but since everything is open to debate, eventually the best model wins.  It may take a long time, but eventually the scientifically superior model wins.  How do we judge models?  This is well defined.  Models must be

  1. Reproducible – two scientists in different times and places must be able to use the model and the relevant observations to arrive at the same conclusions.
  2. It must be possible to prove a model is incorrect; the model must be “falsifiable”. If I can’t make predictions with a model and test them by a physical experiment, it isn’t a scientific model.
  3. When two models equally well explain a body of observation, the simpler model – the one that explains more with fewer assumptions – is deemed the best model.

Point 3 is the famous Occam’s razor.  It’s an example of an article of faith in science. We can’t prove it, but we’ve found that it works very well and hence it plays a vital role in science.

Now that we understand what I mean by a model, let me go on to a paradigm. When you take a family of interlocking models, and that family serves as a foundation for whole classes of derived models, we call that family of models a paradigm.

It’s not an observation.  It’s not a theory. It’s the very foundation of a body of science.

Here’s an example. Long ago, the earth and by extension mankind was at the center of the universe. The planets, the stars and ultimately even heaven orbited the earth in a series of crystal spheres. This became the paradigm for cosmology. Unfortunately, it also came to embody our special place in God’s heart and to symbolize God’s relation to mankind.

Over time, as humanity learned more, it became increasingly difficult to substantiate this earth-centric paradigm. Copernicus proposed and Galileo conclusively demonstrated that the earth orbited the sun and did not hold a special place in cosmology. We all know what happened next.  Since religious ideas had become associated with the old paradigm, the church was threatened by the new paradigm. They ruled it invalid since it went against their faith-based ideas, burned at least one scientist at the stake and placed Galileo under house arrest.

But Human reason won in the long run and the new models carried the day. What about the church? It eventually apologized – which did the now dead Galileo no good at all (let alone how comforting that must have been to the people executed for their hearsays). More importantly, by defining God in the natural world of observation, they started a long process of God-denial.  As knowledge of the physical world grows and fewer and fewer things fall under the realm of magic, God shrinks. I don’t know what the end result will be, but there are many who believe that if we don’t change this trend, God will be marginalized to insignificance.  (See John Spong’s book, “rescuing the bible from fundamentalism” for an excellent development of these ideas).

… but I have digressed.  The point is that a paradigm is the fundamental way we organize our understanding of science. We get it wrong, we make biased observations, and we screw it up.  But over time, the best paradigm wins.

Some day, evolution as an explanation for the origin species may fall to the wayside.   But for now, it’s the central paradigm of biology. You can dispute it, but then you need to follow the rules of science and propose a better model.  It’s never enough to trash a model. Science uses whatever model does the best job.

This is a key point – so important that I want to ramble a bit to further develop the idea. In a court of law, all you need to do is “create reasonable doubt”. This is fine and proper for a legal proceeding.  In science, however, we always have imperfect data. There is no such thing as the perfect collection of observations. I can create “reasonable doubt” in just about any theory. But until I come up with something better (as defined by the rules of science), the model stands and continues to be used.

Hence, the challenge to those opposed to evolution and its role as the central paradigm of modern biology is this: tell me what better model I should use.  And since we are talking about science and not religion, this so-called better model must be judged as “better” according to the rules of science.  In particular, this new model must be one that I can objectively test. This is why the idea of God creating the world in 6 days is not a scientific model. If you can’t measure God, how can you use God in a scientific theory?   You can’t.

Please note that we must distinguish between truth and scientific theories.  This is a tough distinction – especially for a fundamentalist.  Science doesn’t involve itself with Truth with a capital “T”. We produce scientific models that follow the rules of science. Most of us assume they correspond to the fundamental way reality is structured, but nothing in science says that has to be the case.

For example, numerous surveys have shown that many scientists believe in God.  I am sure some scientists even believe that somewhere behind evolution, there’s a designer guiding the process. This is fine and may be reality, but even those scientists know it’s not science to invoke God.  They do so as they go through the human struggle for Truth, but they don’t use it as part of their struggle to establish scientific truth.

But returning to evolution, note that there are some VERY clear observations that any model for the origin of the species must explain.

We know that the earth is very old – somewhere around 5 billion years old. We know that life emerged slowly over the last few billion years or so. We know that over time, species have come and gone.  There are species alive today that weren’t around earlier. This is based on countless observations of the fossil record all around the world.

So where did these species come from?  Any model you propose must explain the fundamental observations. I know that a couple billion years ago, we can find no sign of life. I know that 500 million years ago, there were no land animals.  300 million years ago, there were no mammals. I know that 200 million years ago, there were no birds. Five to seven million years ago, there were no humans.

The fossil record is incomplete so we may get some details wrong, but the broad strokes are crystal clear. Species come and species go. Of course, this is easy to explain if evolution is constantly working to fork off new species. If not evolution, then what?  Remember, in scientific discourse, it’s not enough to trash a theory.  You have to propose a replacement.  Did God from time to time decide to make new species?

Some people attack evolution by saying that if evolution were true, we’d have found “missing links” in the fossil record.  Since we don’t have missing links, evolution must be false.

What, may I ask, would a so-called missing link look like?  We have fossils of fish with legs.  Is that a missing link?  In evolution, at every step of the way you have a working species.  So I don’t understand what I’m supposed to look for in terms of a species intermediate between two other species.

Consider monapsid tetrapods; pre-Mesozoic mammalian reptiles.  Are those missing links?  How about the famous archaeopteryx: feathers, wings, but clear theropod features plus teeth. Is that a missing link?  Take a look at some of the early hominids such as the well-known Astropolithaces Afrensens (AKA Lucy). These apelike hominids with remnant knuckle-walking adaptations – are they missing links?

“Missing link” is not a useful concept since it provides a misguided view of evolution. But if you want missing links and the above examples don’t fit the bill, I’d like to understand what I am getting wrong.

If you want to see a specific example of evolution in action, take a look at the origin of birds. The evidence in the fossil record is overwhelming that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  Take a look at a triceratops hip.  It’s a chicken all the way. Go to a library and check out Science Vol 284 page 2137.  It shows quite clearly how bird like features appeared in dinosaur species throughout the Jurassic period. We have feathers on caudipteryx to a wish bone in a velociraptor to the very famous Archaeopteryx; all pointing to the origin of birds from dinosaurs.

And as you dig into the genomes of different species, you find even more evidence of evolution.  I don’t have time to go into it now, but as we collect more and more genome data, the paradigm of evolution for the origin of the species looks even better.

I repeat what I said before. If God created life on earth, she either did it through evolution or she deliberately made it look that way.  Either way, it’s a VERY well-established paradigm and will continue to be until a better scientifically valid paradigm can be proposed.  If you or anyone you know has a better paradigm to propose; I’m “all ears”.

The Nature of Faith

I closed the last section with the phrase

If you or anyone you know has a better paradigm to propose; I’m “all ears”.

This attitude is at the core of science.  We take specific points “on faith”.   I’ve mentioned Occam’s razor.  Another example of a point of faith is inductive reasoning (if you do an experiment N times and it produces a fixed result, if you do the experiment the same way for trial N+1, you’ll get that same fixed result).  Just because something has happened a certain way 99 times, that doesn’t mean it must happen the same way the 100th time.  But we assume that it will because experience tells us induction reasoning works.

Science is pragmatic.  We use what works and when something better comes along, we throw out the old and bring in the new.

Now contrast this with religion. Faith is to believe without evidence to compel that belief.  The story of “Doubting Thomas” captures the essence of religious faith. Thomas was thinking scientifically and refused to believe in the resurrection of Jesus until he could verify it experimentally.  Jesus later appeared to him.  After conducting his experiments Thomas believed and Jesus said (John 20:29)

“… Because you have seen Me, have you believed?  Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed”

Faith is elevated in religious circles.   To hold to a point of view regardless of whether it is evidence based is a key aspect of religious faith.

And that is fine.  I can’t emphasize enough that I am not attacking religious faith.   But it is not scientific.   Your religion may compel you to believe in a created earth and that is fine.  But don’t expect science to conform to that belief.  It can’t.

Science is not in conflict with religion.  Science ignores religion.


Solving America’s gun problem: a modest proposal

Another week; another school shooting. The problem is the availability of guns in America. We have roughly as many guns as people. No other country comes close to this ignoble statistic. Our mental health problems and rates of violent crime don’t stand out compared to the rest of the world. It’s the gun violence that stands out, with school shooting just the tip of a blood-laden iceberg.

Anyone but a gun-crazed, NRA-nut is tired of the empty platitudes coming from our so-called political leaders. Our “thoughts and prayers” or calls for better mental health programs are delay tactics used by the cowards we put in office. We need real solutions. And I have a good start at one.

Continue reading

Argument by scriptural authority and the fight over abortion rights

Consider the classic children’s song that goes something like this:

Jesus loves me this I know
For the bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong

This is an example of an “argument by scriptural authority.” These arguments are less concerned with persuasion than with justification; i.e. you won’t change someone’s mind with such an argument, but it does lay out why a person holds a particular point of view.

Continue reading

Parallel Programming Environments: Less is More

The single most important paper for programming language designers to read came out in 2000. It wasn’t written by a computer scientist, mathematician, or physical scientist.  It was written by a couple of professors studying psychology and marketing:  “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire too Much of a Good Thing?” Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006. (2000).

Continue reading