Rivals for Creation (2) Evolution

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We’ve looked at some of the ancient myths about the origin of the Universe. Now it’s time to come to the contemporary rival for creation: evolution.

Note that there have been significant attempts to harmonise the evolution narrative with the Biblical one, just as there have been serious attempts among scholars to harmonise ancient myths with the Bible too. As part of our consideration of this question, we will be asking whether or not it is possible to find common ground between Creation and Evolution. But first of all, let’s have a look at what the theory of evolution is and the case for it.

A brief history of time

Everything has a start point, including the Universe. This remains the mainstream conventional view although there are some who think that the Universe is in some way eternal. In fact, all through history, there have been people who have argued that the Universe and matter are in some way eternal – without beginning – although it may well have been through several incarnations.

The starting point for the Universe is often traced back to what is known as the Big Bang. This provides a fixed point beyond which we cannot investigate back any further. Stephen Hawking, in his classic book “A Brief History of Time,” argues that belief in the Big Bang theory of origins rests on two key assumptions; first, that the Universe is finite, but secondly, that it is not static.[1]

He notes that this hasn’t always been assumed:

“It is an interesting reflection on the general climate of thought before the twentieth century that no- one had suggested that the universe was expanding or contracting. It was generally accepted that either the universe had existed for ever in an unchanging state, or that it had been created at a finite time in the past more or less as we observe it today. In part, this may have been due to people’s tendency to believe in eternal truths, as well as the comfort they found in the thought that even though they may grow old and die, the universe is eternal and unchanging.”[2]

However, observations show that the stars are moving further and further apart.[3]  We live in a non-static, expanding universe. This is because the gravitational pull between stars and planets means that a fixed universe would be unstable:[4]

“in an infinite static universe nearly every line of site would end on the surface of a star. Thus one would expect that the whole sky would be as bright as the sun, even at night.”[5]

Hawking observes that Christians have long believed in a finite Universe with a beginning, but that Greek philosophers like Aristotle disliked the idea of divine intervention from outside, so thought of the Universe as eternal.[6]

The process of Universal expansion must have started at a given point:

“Hubble’s observations suggested that there was a time, called the big bang, when the universe was infinitesimally small and infinitely dense.  Under such conditions, all the laws of science, and therefore all ability to predict the future, would break down. If there were events earlier than this time, then they could not affect what happens at the present time. Their existence can be ignored because it would have no observational consequences. One might say that time had a beginning at the big bang, in the sense that earlier times simply would not be defined.”[7]

For these reasons, Hawking argues that this Universe had a start point, many billions of years ago.  He has, however, to some extent modified his views in recent years, arguing that the Big Bang accounts for a start point in terms of Space and Time. This, however, leaves us with a big question. We still haven’t explained where the matter and energy within the Universe came from.

“It seems that Quantum theory, on the other hand, can predict how the universe will begin. Quantum theory introduces a new idea, that of imaginary time. Imaginary time may sound like science fiction, and it has been brought into Doctor Who. But nevertheless, it is a genuine scientific concept. One can picture it in the following way. One can think of ordinary, real, time as a horizontal line. On the left, one has the past, and on the right, the future. But there’s another kind of time in the vertical direction. This is called imaginary time, because it is not the kind of time we normally experience. But in a sense, it is just as real, as what we call real time.”[8]

This makes it possible to talk in terms of a finite Universe, but with all the resources and energy it needs contained within it.

“Space and imaginary time together, are indeed finite in extent, but without boundary. They would be like the surface of the Earth, but with two more dimensions. The surface of the Earth is finite in extent, but it doesn’t have any boundaries or edges. I have been round the world, and I didn’t fall off.”[9]

In other words, we are not meant to attempt to investigate back beyond the Big Bang. The Universe is self-contained and we should not look outside it or before it for answers.

The Selfish Gene

There are two parts to the evolution narrative. The first part is to do with Physics and Quantum Physics etc. This describes the origins of the Universe, stars and planets.

The second is to do with biological evolution. This is portrayed as starting with a primordial soup of matter which led to the formation of atoms and molecules which through various processes and interactions began to string together into DNA. Replication and then mutation of these organisms then lead to diverse life forms.

Mutation may be in response to changing environmental factors. This is about adaption or natural selection which is sometimes referred to as “survival of the fittest.” 

Why would this happen? What drives evolution?  Richard Dawkins answers that this is all down to the genes and their survival. It’s all about how the Universe moves from simplicity to complexity:

“Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into even more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people.”[10]

He elaborates on Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection:

“Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name.”[11]

At some point after the formation of the earth, the raw materials for our existence would have been present in the so called primordial soup:[12]

“We do not know what chemical raw materials were abundant on earth before the coming of life, but among the plausible possibilities are water, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia: all simple compounds known to be present on at least some of the other planets in our solar system.”[13]

Then chemical reactions started to happen so that atoms “combined into larger molecules.”[14]

“At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it a replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man, things that ae that improbable can be treated for practical purposes as impossible. That is why you will never win a big prize on the football pools. But in our human estimates of what is probable and what is not, we are not used to dealing in hundreds of millions of years. If you filled in pools coupons every week for a hundred million years, you would very likely win several jackpots.”[15]

The replicator then acts as a mould for further replications.[16] However, copying of cells leads to errors, just as when we copy text, we make mistakes.[17] He says:

“We do not know how accurately the original replicator molecules made their copies. Their modern descendants, the DNA molecules, are astonishingly faithful compared with the most high fidelity human copying process, but even they occasionally make mistakes, and it is ultimately these mistakes that make evolution possible.  Probably the original replicators were far more erratic, but in any case we may be sure that mistakes were made and that these mistakes were cumulative.”[18]

Eventually, there would have been a variety of different replicators, some more stable and some greater in number.[19]  The ones that survived would have been those that were able to replicate quickly, producing a greater population or organisms that were able to replicate accurately, leading to greater stability.[20]

He explains further:

“If you already know something about evolution you may find something slightly paradoxical about the last point. Can we reconcile the idea that copying errors are an essential prerequisite for evolution to occur with the statement that natural selection favours high copying-fidelity? The answer is that although evolution may seem, in some vague sense, a ‘good thing’, especially since we are the product of it, nothing actually ‘wants’ to evolve. Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly in spite of all the efforts of the replicators (and nowadays of the genes) to prevent it happening.”[21]

In an evolving Universe, there would have been competition between molecules for survival and space[22]

“Replicators began not merely to exist but to construct for themselves containers, vehicles for their continued existence. The replicators that survived were the ones that built survival machines for themselves to live in.”[23]

These replicators “go by the name of genes and we are their survival machines.”[24]

So, in effect, our existence is down to selfish genes. Just as the ancients believed that humans existed as a by-product of the priorities, conflicts and errors of the gods, so too with evolutionary theory. Our existence is a by-product – this time, of our genes.

Evidence for Evolution and Dating the Universe

Evolutionary Theory requires an old Universe and an old earth to allow time for all of these processes to happen and for the rules of probability to work. Denis Alexander[25] says that “Biological evolution is a slow process taking place over many millions, in fact billions of years.”[26] He goes on to note that,

“The best current estimate for the age of the material which forms the earth is 4,566 million years. The universe is three times older at 13,700 million years.”[27]

How do we know that the Universe is old? Well, evolutionists believe that there are three pieces of evidence that support this and they are all to do with rocks and fossils.

First of all, there is the distance of the stars from the earth. When we look at the night sky, we are observing stars that are light years away from us. It would take millions of years for light to travel from even the nearest stars so that we could observe it here.

Secondly, we are able to observe the process of evolution through the fossil record. Different layers of rock would have been laid down at different times.  We can observe fossils in each rock layer and their progress from simple to complex organisms.[28]

The third means of dating evolution is called radio-carbon dating using radio-isotopes. Alexander explains:

“The decay of radioisotopes provides one of the most important methods for dating the age of the earth as well as the dates of rocks and events since the earth began. This method relies on the fact that many atoms have unstable nuclei (the ‘parent’ nuclides) decaying spontaneously to a lower energy state (the ‘daughter nuclides). For example potassium-40 (the ‘parent’ nuclide) decays to argon-40 (the ‘daughter’ nuclide) at a fixed rate so that 50% of the parent is lost every 1,260 million year. This is known as the ‘half-life’ of the isotope, meaning the time it takes to lose half of the parent nuclide. This rate of decay is independent of physical and chemical conditions such a pressure, temperature and chemical binding forces, so radioisotopes make excellent ‘clocks’.”[29]

This provides us with a method for dating the age of rocks found on the earth. The age of the earth is calculated by measuring uranium-lead ratios using ore samples from the earth’s crust. These are then compared with results from meteorites which enable scientists to calculate what the starting ratios would have been,[30]

“because such meteorites have remained isolated as they travelled through space since the formation of the solar system, they record the original isotopic ratios of the material which initially came together to form the earth.”[31]

Summing Up

The argument for evolution is that we observe an old Universe characterised by the vast distance between earth and our nearest observable stars. The age of the Universe can be measured by dating rocks and fossils. The progress of evolution can be observed in the fossil record which traces the development of complex organisms from simple organisms. The argument is that the Theory of Evolution provides the narrative which best fits the evidence we observe.

[1] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (London: Bantam Press, 1988), 6.

[2] Hawking, A Brief history of Time, 6.

[3] Hawking, A Brief history of Time, 10.

[4] Hawking, A Brief history of Time, 7.

[5] Hawking, A Brief history of Time, 7.

[6] Hawking, A Brief history of Time, 8.

[7] Hawking, A Brief history of Time, 10.

[8] http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html (accessed 15-06-2017).

[9] http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html (accessed 15-06-2017).

[10] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 12.

[11] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 12.

[12] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 14.

[13] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 14.

[14] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 14.

[15] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 15.

[16] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 15.

[17] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 15.

[18] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 17.

[19] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 17.

[20] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 17.

[21] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 18.

[22] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene,18.

[23] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 19.

[24] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 20.

[25] A Christian who believes that Evolutionary Theory is compatible with the Genesis creation account.

[26] Alexander, Creation or Evolution, 49.

[27] Alexander, Creation or Evolution, 49.

[28] See Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? 120-125.

[29] Alexander, Creation or Evolution, 50.

[30] Alexander, Creation or Evolution, 51.

[31] Alexander, Creation or Evolution, 51.

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