Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Creation or evolution - do we have to choose (chapter 4 - natural selection and reproductive success)

This chapter explains the "big idea" of Darwin's theory (in its modern form) - that natural selection, operating upon the the variations generated by mutations, is the engine driving the evolutionary machine.

By his own confession, DA postpones the difficult questions until later chapters, such as: where does the amazing complexity in even the "simplest" life forms come from in the first place? (i.e. the idea of Darwinism requires a pool of competing candidates to begin with), and are the changes generated by gene mutations (which DA concedes are normally harmful, not beneficial) able to cause not just one offspring to differ from another, but to bridge larger gaps - even such that ultimately the whole of all life is just a single family tree? That is, are there limits to the changes which can be generated by DNA copying errors? Likewise, questions of what evidence exists that such a process has actually happened (the fossil record, etc.) is not in this chapter.

So, like the previous chapter that makes this more of a plodding exercise in describing what the theory actually is, rather than one in which there's much argument to show that it's true or not. At least, though, in those particular cases which DA flags up, he attempts to answer them in later chapters. Other issues are not even raised.

To take an example, somebody attempting to evaluate the theory of evolution as a Christian theologian is going to have to grapple at some point with the fact that man is an awesome creature who is capable of vastly more than he needs to be capable of in order to survive. He's made in the image of God, not just as a machine to survive by the skin of his teeth. I like Handel; but even the most cunning and inventive minds haven't yet suggested how the ability to compose such intricate melodies, harmonies and so on stopped George Frederich or his fans from getting eaten by the local predators. All the wonders of human art and culture might ultimately be attributed to our immaterial souls, but they do at least pass through our physical brains. If Darwinism is a purported explanation for the origin of the complexity of those brains, it needs to explain this. Natural selection, as DA defines it, is to do with relative likelihoods of survival. Yet, the breadth of human capabilities exceeds what is needed for mere survival by a galactic mile and then some more after that. We might learn to play a piano concerto, debate the niceties of internal Labour Party politics, blend spices for the finest lamb madras, or contemplate the consequences of this or that chess move a few gambits down the line. It ought to be obvious that anyone who thinks that such excessive capabilities can be accounted for in terms of reproductive pressures is probably a few quality genes short up top themselves. DA, though, as has been his habit thus far in the book, simply ignores this question, if he's even aware of it.

One helpful "thought experiment" DA partakes in is to liken the (supposed) history of the earth to a 24-hour clock. On this scale, man appears at 3 seconds to midnight, and all of his record history takes place in the final fifth of a second. If we lengthen that to take in the whole history of the universe (not just the earth), then it's 1 second to midnight, and somewhere about 0.07 seconds for the bits we know about. DA, though, simply ignores the theological question that then arises, as to in what sense man's creation can with any responsibility or accuracy be portrayed in Scripture as being an event at the beginning of time, grouped with the creation of light and land when in fact they come at opposite poles in evolutionary reality. Nonetheless, DA is consistent in gliding over all such questions, because as we've seen his method is not to look for Scripture for history in any way - for him, it gives no parameters or boundaries, this is the role of modern science. Hence, he simply never raises the question; it doesn't come up within his methodology.

That's one of the things that concerns me about this book most. The undiscerning reader is not at the most fundamental level just being shown how evangelical thought and Darwinism can live together. He's actually getting a whole course of instruction in a new way of reading the Bible. A new way in which there are boundaries and limits set before we even open the book. A new way in which the key questions aren't to find out how the New Testament interprets the Old, or how the Saviour and his apostles guided us concerning the reliability of Genesis not just for matters of spiritual truth but also for flesh-and-blood matters of people, places and times. The reader is unwittingly being shown how to relativise the importance of the Scriptures, and form a whole new world-view which does not come from the mind of God as revealed in the Bible but from the secular "Enlightenment". A new world-view in which he learns not to ask "What does Scripture say?", but simply, in many important cases never to raise that question at all, because he's been taught to think of it as a category mistake.

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