By | February 11, 2009 | archive, commentary

In the Beginning…

Many people believe that there is a conflict between science and religion when it comes to the question of how life began on Earth. While only a minority of people situate themselves squarely on one side of this debate, the topic tends to draw the attention of everyone. This is because the answer to the question of where we came from serves as the jumping off point for defining our morality and our purpose here on Earth. Quite simply, once we know what brought us into being, we know where to ask for instructions. Consequently, any explanation put forward, especially one that purports to be absolute, must be able to withstand an enormous amount of scrutiny.

Perspectives from Science

Scientific method – A method or procedure… consisting of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.
- The Canadian Oxford Dictionary [1]

As a model, the scientific method has served as the basis for every major scientific discovery for the last several hundred years. It is supposed to be a means of obtaining unbiased responses to answerable questions. The most validation any scientist can hope to receive from it is when its application fails to refute his ideas – no finding is infallible and anyone who suggests that it is does not understand how to apply the scientific method.

(Theory of) Evolution – A process by which different kinds of organism come into being by the differentiation and genetic mutation of earlier forms over successive generations, viewed as an explanation for their origins.
- The Canadian Oxford Dictionary [1]

As applied to the origin of life on Earth, the scientific method has brought forward the theory of evolution to explain how life has come to exist in its present form. In the 18th and early 19th century, European thinkers such as Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck began interpreting the fossil record as evidence that organisms change over time to form new types (or go extinct) and that different types may have evolved from a common ancestor [2]. Charles Darwin (grandson to Erasmus) and Alfred Russell Wallace later advanced the idea that these changes over time were due to selective pressures within the environment that favoured one type over another [3]. This theory of evolution by “natural selection” saw changes in organisms over time as a byproduct of competition between life forms.

Since then, an additional century and a half of experimentation and imagination has refined and re-vamped evolutionary theory. Concepts such as the Big Bang, continental drift, and punctuated equilibrium have allowed the understanding of the mechanisms of evolution to mature [2, 4]. The Miller-Urey experiments and subsequent work have shown how constituent components from life can emerge from primordial conditions, offering some support for the idea of abiogenesis [5, 6]. Enhanced methods of genetic analysis have led to further inquiry into evolutionary topics such as the “endosymbiotic” theory for the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotes [7] and the mechanisms of speciation [8].

When examining the bigger picture, it is interesting to note that there are some who suggest that the scope of the Darwinian model is too narrow, that the idea of evolution by natural selection fails to sufficiently address the “co-evolution” of the environment and the multiple organisms within it. These same individuals also take issue with the limited commentary on the extensive evolution of chemicals that pre-dated the formation of even the earliest life [2, 9]. In the last thirty years, unifying theories taking into account these and other aspects have emerged. One example of this is the “Gaia Theory” [10]. In brief, this theory states that Gaia is “the superorganismic system of all life on Earth [that] hypothetically maintains the composition of the air and the temperature of the planet’s surface, regulating conditions for the continuance of life” and that give and take within this system leads to the evolutionary processes that we observe [2]. In a similar vein, Fritjof Capra’s “Deep Ecology” – which incorporates, amongst other things, Gaia theory, chaos theory, and systems thinking – delineates a “web of life” where all living and non-living components on Earth have changed with each other through time [11].

The above examples highlight the diversity of evolutionary research that continues today and demonstrate that there are still many unresolved questions that scientists are pursuing answers for. Contrary to what some anti-evolutionists claim, the level of disagreement between scientists on these topics is not evidence of the shaky ground upon which the idea of evolution stands. In actuality, these disagreements serve as evidence of the vibrancy of the idea and highlight how its continued malleability has allowed it to flourish and take hold.

Genesis for Dummies

The world abounds with creation stories, too many to recount here. The theme common to them all is that a divine force served as the wellspring of life on Earth. In the interests of brevity, I will discuss only the Biblical story of Creation since Catholicism and Protestantism account for a combined 80% or more of the stated religious affiliation of North American citizens [12]. In addition, because the strongest criticism of evolutionary ideas has, by numbers anyways, been levelled by Christians, it becomes necessary to offer a Genesis-based counterpoint in this debate.

Creationism – a theory attributing all matter, biological species, etc. to separate acts of creation, esp. according to a literal interpretation of Genesis, as opposed to evolution.
- The Canadian Oxford Dictionary [1]

In brief, Chapter 1 of Genesis states that God made everything from nothing in less than a week and that after that week the story of life began to unfold [13]. This is termed ex nihlo creation. On the first day, God made light and separated light and dark into day and night. He spent days two through four creating and separating water, dry land, and sky, creating fruit-bearing plants, and creating the sun, moon, and stars (the latter group brought forward so that time could be measured). On the fifth day God made life in the ocean and invented birds, encouraging them to increase their numbers. God created the creatures on dry land on the sixth day, including humans, who were told that they had been made in God’s image and that they were to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). On the seventh day, God rested.

Given that there are some who see Genesis as the blow-by-blow account of the creation of the Earth and everything in it, we can see why there are people who take issue with the theory of evolution. Evolution not only offers an account of the earliest days that is at odds with a literal interpretation of Genesis, it can also be described as undermining the Bible’s anthropocentric premise – that is, that mankind was given dominion over all living things and represents the highest form of living being.

The Sometimes Tortured Relationship between Religion and Science, Existing Creationist Factions, and the Beefs with Evolution

Looking beyond the issue at hand, it is fair to say that Christianity has had a difficult relationship with science (Note: I will, at my own peril, use the term “Christianity” to encompass both Catholics and Protestants. I do this because of the similar perspectives on science and evolution that have, at one point or another, been held by factions within these two groups). Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton were some of the more prominent individuals that were assailed by forces within Christianity [14]. Church positions on issues such as the Earth’s revolution around the sun and the laws of gravity can now be seen as wilfully ignorant, though at the time they justified the Inquisition and similar cheery events.

Because evolutionary thought did not begin to coalesce until a few centuries after the Inquisition, “common descent” proponents were able to avoid the persuasive techniques that had been previously employed by the religious hierarchy. However, from the initial Church protest against Darwin’s ideas, to the Kansas “Scopes Monkey Trial” of the 1920s, to the efforts of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement of the present, there has been a concerted effort by elements within Christianity to undermine evolutionary thinking [15].

At this point it is important to note that a continuum of creation/evolution stances has been characterized, with “Flat Earthers” being the group most adherent to a literal interpretation of the Bible and “Materialist Evolutionists” accepting a completely non-theistic explanation for the origins of life [16]. This continuum includes numerous other groups: “Young Earth Creationists” (YECs) who believe that the Earth is merely thousands of years old and that the “days” described in Genesis were actual 24 hour events; “Old Earth Creationists” (OECs) and related groups who believe that the Earth is ancient, that the “days” of Genesis were not necessarily 24 hour events (thus accounting for the Earth’s antiquity), that “microevolution” – change within an existing group – can occur, and that mankind was made by God in His image; and “Theistic Evolutionists” (TEs) who believe that the world is ancient, that God has created all life through evolution, that Genesis is an allegorical account of creation, and that God has provided a guiding hand during the process of evolution (especially when it comes to the development of man).

Materialism – the doctrine that nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications.
- The Canadian Oxford Dictionary [1]

Contemporary incarnations of Creationism exist. The ID movement, mentioned above, is an umbrella group that encompasses multiple Creationist factions. Its stated goal is to drive a “wedge” between science’s “materialist philosophy” and the population of the Western world [15, 17]. According to fans of ID, establishing this “wedge” will lead to a “cultural renewal” via a return to Christian principles. ID has led members of different anti-evolution factions (such as YECs and OECs) to put aside their differences in interpretation to provide a unified front against evolution. Organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research or Answers in Genesis are the leading proponents of this movement and they continue to attempt to “debunk” evolutionary theory and re-introduce Creationist teaching into classrooms via grassroots political movements [15].

One argument brought forward by ID proponents and other Creationists is that the process of evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This law states that “no process is possible in which the sole result is the transfer of energy from a cooler to a hotter body” [18]. Creationists interpret this as saying that things will always progress from order to disorder here on Earth [19]. Unfortunately, the fact that the Earth is not a closed system affects the ability to make this claim, as does the fact that order has been observed coming from disorder on numerous occasions in nature [20, 21].

Another flaw in evolutionary thinking, according to Creationists, is that transitional fossils that would characterize the progression of one form to another do not exist. There are multiple flaws with this argument, including a) the fact that transitional fossils have been observed and therefore some avenues of common descent have been characterized [22], b) the idea of “punctuated equilibrium” can account for instances where there are no transitional fossils [4, 23], and c) new fossils are uncovered all the time, some of which will undoubtedly provide evidence of transition.

A third argument made by Creationists, this one often specifically targeted at the theory of evolution by natural selection, states that evolution is a tautology (that is, it has a circular definition). These claims are largely based on work from Karl Popper [24]. The Talk.Origins website summarizes the Creationist stance succinctly: “[n]atural selection is the survival of the fittest [and the] fittest are those that survive” [25]. However, many people, including Popper himself, have refuted this over-simplification on the grounds that the term “fitness” refers to more than just survival (e.g. organisms deemed “fit” are constrained by laws such as those pertaining to chemistry and genetics) and therefore the definition is not circular [26, 27].

For individuals interested in a more in depth analysis of the above arguments and additional points of contention between evolutionists and creationists, it is worth noting that there are on-line resources providing exhaustive details on all facets of the creation/evolution debate. I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to thoroughly mine this resource – to check claims vs. counter-claims, etc. – before coming to any conclusions (I would recommend the Talk.Origins website as a jumping off point for the evolutionist perspective [25] and the True.Origins website as a jumping off point for the creationist perspective [28]). In my opinion, many of the arguments put forward by Creationists rely on selective referencing, oversimplification of concepts, and outright falsehoods that are easily contradicted and I feel that careful critical examination of the literature bears this out. More than anything else, it is frustrating that evolutionists are far more willing to point to the gaps in their model than Creationists. This failure to be self-critical about the literal interpretation of Genesis undermines their position.

Cockiness (or: Overstating the Case for Evolution)

I would be remiss if I failed to point out some of the shortcomings in the evolutionist argument. Most problems with the evolutionist perspective arise because proponents make over-reaching claims about evolution. The evidence can be oversimplified or misrepresented by individuals unfamiliar with some of the nuances of the actual research and this sloppiness yields mistakes that then become fodder for Creationist attacks against evolution [29]. Ultimately someone is left to clean up the mess made by others, but this becomes a daunting task since misconceptions will persist in the literature for years [30].

Another problem for evolutionists is the tendency to dismiss elements of the Creationist model automatically, without even attempting to disprove it via the scientific method. This reactionary approach is counter-productive as it undermines the logic that is supposed to drive evolutionist thinking. And while evidence in many instances does favour the evolutionist perspective, in other instances it is difficult, at present, to make a solid claim either way. Creationist interpretations, even if they defy Occam’s razor at its dullest, should not be discounted until a) they have been tested themselves and b) a falsifiable evolutionary alternative is available. Evolutionists would be wise to note that decidedly long leaps have sometimes been made by leading scientists, one example being Francis Crick’s belief in “directed panspermia” (the belief that the building blocks of life have an extraterrestrial origin) [31]. This is not to say that Crick’s theory is incorrect – it is just to point out that our present understanding leaves that theory about as falsifiable as the Genesis story.

Fish in a Barrel – Finding Flaws in the Literal Interpretation of Genesis

I would also be remiss if I failed to subject the Genesis story to the logical scrutiny that has thus far only been applied to the theory of evolution. However, Creationist precepts, as far as we can tell in the present, are not based on observable phenomenon and are therefore unfalsifiable. Hence application of the scientific method to Genesis is impossible. Nonetheless, if the first section of the Bible is to be taken literally (as is the case, to differing extents, in both the YEC and OEC factions), numerous problems emerge. We can ask how plants (created on day three, Genesis 1:12) managed to flourish in the absence of the sun (created on day four, Genesis 1:16). Did God have an alternative means of ensuring the plants’ survival while their chloroplasts were rendered useless? If so, how come it was not mentioned? In the same vein, we can also ask how God managed to have light (created on the first day, Genesis 1:3) show up three days before the sun arrived. Moving in another direction, we can ask if Genesis tells us that God thinks incest is a good thing. The question arises because a) humanity was encouraged by God to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) and b) humanity consisted only of Adam and Eve, so any multiplying in subsequent generations would have to arise through the pairing of their children. Of course, the incest question becomes moot in light of the fact that Adam and Eve never produced any female offspring, however one is left wondering how humanity managed to continue beyond Cain, Abel, and Seth.

Contradictions and conundrums abound in Genesis and the issue for Biblical literalists then becomes this: how do you explain these contradictions without attempting to view the text through an interpretative prism? A literal take on Genesis cannot be done piecemeal as that would go against the notion that the entire Bible is God’s absolute, inflexible word. However, the gaps mentioned above can only be explained through interpretation and speculation, and once that is allowed, equal value must be attached to every other interpretation of the Bible on the creation/evolution continuum.

Something tells me that this would not be an attractive option for some.

One Last Thing (or: Can’t We All Just Get Along?)

In the final analysis, I do not believe that God and evolution have to be viewed as mutually exclusive. There is no proof that a supreme being did not guide evolution, so it makes sense that people are able to reconcile their suspicion that life developed through evolution with their belief in the human soul. The fact that science does not enter the dominion of religion and faith by tackling issues of morality also helps bridge the gap. In 1996, Pope John Paul II re-affirmed the Vatican position that evolution does not necessarily conflict with Christian beliefs [32]. I am sure that there are millions of people who read the Bible for inspiration and moral guidance who agree with the assessment of His Holiness.


I would like to extend my thanks to Cathie Garnis and Emily Vucic for helping edit this report. I would also like to extend special thanks to Bradley P. Coe for his many insights into this issue and for his helpful enthusiasm throughout the writing process.


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3. Darwin C: The origin of species by means of natural selection, or The Preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. London: J. Murray; 1859.

4. Eldredge N, Gould SJ: Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism. In: Models in Paleobiology. Edited by Schopf TJM. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper; 1972: vi, 250.

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12. CIA World Factbook: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/ 2003.

13. Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 1990.

14. Ferngren GB (ed.): Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2002.
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16. Scott EC: The Creation/Evolution Continuum. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 1999, 19(4):16, 17, 21-23.

17. Discovery Institute: The Wedge Strategy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy 1999.

18. Atkins PW: The second law. New York: Scientific American Library : distributed by W.H. Freeman; 1984.

19. Morris HM, Institute for Creation Research.: Scientific creationism, Public school edn. San Diego: Creation Life; 1974.

20. Kauffman SA: At home in the universe : the search for laws of self-organization and complexity. New York: Oxford University Press; 1995.

21. McShea DW: Possible Largest-scale Trends in Organismal Evolution: Eight Live Hypotheses. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 1998, 29:293-318.

22. Futuyma DJ: Evolutionary biology, 3rd edn. Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates; 1998.

23. Gould SJ, Eldredge N: Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology 1977, 3:115-151.

24. Popper K: Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography: Fontana Press; 1976.

25. The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy: www.talkorigins.org 2004.

26. Popper K: Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind. Dialectica 1978, 32:339-355.

27. Stamos J: Popper, Falsifiability, and Evolutionary Biology. Biology and Philosophy 1996, 11:161-191.

28. The True.Origin Archive: Exposing the Myth of Evolution: www.trueorigins.org 2004.

29. Wells J: Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?: C. W. Daniel Company Ltd.; 2000.

30. Gishlick AD: Icons of Evolution? Why Much of What Jonathan Wells Writes About Evolution is Wrong. http://www.ncseweb.org/icons/ 2004.

31. Crick F: Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1982.

32. II PJP: Magisterium Is Concerned with Question of Evolution for It Involves Conception of Man. In: L’Osservatore Romano (English ed). vol. 44. Vatican City; 1996: 3, 7.

(Originally published May 9th, 2005)

About timonbuys

Timon Buys is currently a graduate student at the BC Cancer Research Centre. He draws inspiration from Bill Watterson and Terry Fox. Also, he gets pleasure from palindromes like Bob, kayak, and DNA.