Posted by: Andries Louw | 11 March 2012

Evolution and Genesis in schools

This article caught my attention: Religion forces science teacher to quit. I immediately identified with the one-word commentary of the person who shared the link on Facebook: yikes! According to News24 the teacher said that she put teaching natural selection on the syllabus for the year, but that the teachers in the school’s science department were mainly Christian and that “staff issued a reprimand” over teaching evolution. Referring to the head of biology in the school, the teacher was quoted as saying:

What he actively does in class is he poo poos the idea [of evolution], he makes kids laugh at the idea of the age of the Earth as proposed by scientists currently. He poo poos the fossil record, he gives what he believes is counter evidence to carbon dating.

What I find very disturbing about this approach followed by some of my fellow Christians, is that nobody wins. Instead of creating an opportunity to teach children and teenagers to think about the natural sciences, religion and modern biblical scholarship, it just deepens the polarisation in a debate where nobody seems to listen to each other and therefore nobody learns anything. I was not surprised to read psychohistorian Auke Slotegraaf’s remark (I didn’t try to improve the English since I’m simply quoting from the News24 article):

Sometimes the world is very complicated it is difficult to communicate science to the public and the result is that some people have a negative view of science and then science communicators then bend over backward to try and accommodate people while they on the other hand, they know it is E=mc², it’s not E=mc² plus baby Jesus.

I fail to see what Einstein’s equation has to do with the creation(ism) vs evolution debate. Maybe I’m missing something here. Moreover, to say that it’s not E=mc² plus baby Jesus, sounds like a very emotional reaction to me that totally misses the point. Why haven’t we made significant progress in this debate? Why do we always run into a dead-end, even before the debate can start?

I think there are at least seven reasons for this:

  1. We underestimate the power of worldviews, paradigms and presuppositions
  2. There are huge misunderstandings in the debate
  3. People get very emotional very quickly when they encounter opposing views and it is an open secret that emotional reactions are not conducive to rational thinking
  4. People forget that all of us were issued with two ears and one mouth, so they forget to listen carefully before they talk/write
  5. People love creating caricatures of those on the other side of the debate, instead of trying to understand them better
  6. Many people on both sides of the debate totally misunderstand the Bible

The seventh reason is that I don’t think we will make progress by debating the issue. We will only make progress if we dialogue about it. In a debate there must be a winner. In a dialogue, the objective is not to win, but rather to clarify issues, to try and understand where the other party is coming from, to learn something from somebody else even if you differ fundamentally from that person.

What should we as Christians learn? Not only do we need to learn more about the theory of evolution, we also need to learn a few things about the Bible. There’s a very long list of things to learn, but for starters let me just mention the following:

  1. Evolution concerns itself with the basic question: Where do species come from? It doesn’t try to answer the question whether there is a God or not
  2. There is nothing in the Bible that proves natural selection right or wrong. The Bible wasn’t written to answer these questions
  3. Genesis 1 and 2 are not modern scientific texts and should not be read as such
  4. Genesis 1 and 2 are ancient texts, using language that made a lot of sense to people living in the ancient world
  5. In the ancient world, people had a radically different understanding of the world and the universe to the one we have today
  6. Some elements of the ancient worldview:
    • The earth was thought to be a flat surface standing on pillars in the sea – today we know that the earth is a sphere
    • The sky was thought to be a dome, stretched like a canopy from east to west, beyond which were “the heavens”, the dwelling place of God or the gods (depending on your religion) and other spiritual beings – today we know that the atmosphere is a thin layer around the earth. Are there really Christians who believe that God stays somewhere out there in space? According to my understanding God exists outside of time and space and is present everywhere!
    • The sun, moon and stars were thought to be attached to the sky like lamps – Does any Christian believe that?
  7. According to Genesis 1 God created light on day 1  and the sun, moon and stars on day 4
  8. The order in which God creates things in Genesis 1 differs from the order in Genesis 2
  9. So maybe it doesn’t make sense to read Genesis 1 and 2 as modern scientific texts about the origin of the universe, the age of the earth and the origin of species
  10. Maybe we need to take note of other ancient literature, such as the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, written in Akkadian cuneiform on 7 tablets in honour of the Babylonian god Marduk, recovered during the middle of the 19th century
  11. Maybe we need to pay attention to the mass of scientific research done since the beginning of the 19th century by a host of brilliant scholars on loads of ancient texts, to try and piece together the puzzle of how the different stories in the book of Genesis came together into the single written volume we have today
  12. Maybe the crisis of the Babylonian exile can shed some very important light on this and other puzzles. The Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem around 586 bc and the subsequent exile into heathen territory caused such an existential crisis for the Israelites who lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, that it probably helped set a process in motion whereby they started to write down their oral stories that were handed down to them over centuries from father to son. Psalm 137, the inspiration behind Bony M’s popular song, By the rivers of Babylon, captures some of the raw emotion they experienced during this period.

Maybe we need to carefully re-read Genesis 1 and 2, taking into account the insights gained from the historical critical research on the Old Testament that continues to grow today. Maybe a whole new world will start to open up for us if we take these beautiful texts seriously as ancient literature written by people who believed in one creator God, surrounded by many other nations who were worshiping amongst other things, the sun, moon and stars as gods.

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Responses

  1. I say more power to the teacher making fun of evolution. It is a joke.

  2. Evolution says . . . without any proof . . . that complex DNA structures and cells formed via an explosion involving mostly hydrogen.

    Evolution says . . . without any direct proof . . .that apes had a fatal fusion of chromosomes but survived to produce a human who happened to find someone to mate with.

    Evolution says without any proof and against all odds that a select few genes not only formed randomly but formed over and over again in different and completely functional arrangements via random genetic drift . . .. even though the odds of this actually working are zero since there would not be enough space or time for all combinations to be gone through to get from point A to point B.

    You MAY AS WELL believe that explosions create cars. What a joke.

  3. @mike00000000001
    And here we have a perfect example of one of those “oogklap” Christians who refuses to dialogue but insists on winning the debate…Mike, did you actually READ the blogpost? Or just see the word “evolution” and subsequently saw RED?

    Yes we need to dialogue
    Yes we need to learn about and appreciate the Bible as ancient literature and not necessarily as factual historical renderings from Genesis to Revelations (NOT its intended purpose)
    NO we must not bash others for wondering, asking, querying and being confused about evolution vs creationism/ the origin of man/ the Bible!

    What on earth good will that do? Serve to alienate pre-believers and stereotype Christians? Is that what you want to happen? That will not help anybody one bit, but you know what will?
    Sitting down together and listening, prayerfully responding, being open to someone else’s point of view and doubts. Even if just to give them the space to have them.

  4. Cecile, my lovely wife, I love your passion 🙂 but let’s see if we can take what both of you said and turn that into a dialogue. Calling someone “a perfect example of one of those ‘oogklap’ Christians who refuses to dialogue” will not help to engage him in dialogue.

    Mike, could you site some sources for the things you refer to above, the things that evolution says? Secondly, how do you read Gen 1 and 2?

  5. My disbelief in evolution has nothing to do with religion. I have QUESTIONED my religion . .. in the process I discovered the improbability of genetic drift creating new genes. This may lend support to my religion but it does not prove it. The only thing it proves is that DNA is likely to be traced back to an external memory or intelligence. You may be surprised how scientific this issue could become as scientists struggle to explain DNA. As of this moment I continue to question my own religion in general. I don’t understand, for example, why I can’t simply see God and why I appear to have free will. But to the point. Someone needs to show me that genetic drift can and did create all present genes. I don’t know if you are up to that one. I see it as improbable from a purely rational stand point. Please do not go to school text books as an authority. Those books are known to be biased. Scientists themselves can be biased and often are. If they really want to believe Darwin they will. Just show me an actual explanation I can trust. You want dialogue? Demand the science behind so called darwinism be explained and fully questioned in broad day light.

  6. As for sources there are so many I can’t even remember. I know that the genes that form our own proteins are as many as 4^10,000 big and in many cases much larger. That number is in fact so big that it would take more space than exists on earth and more time (even much longer than 14 billion years) to form the same strands of DNA over and over again let alone various different strands that are each compatible in different like forms that have different FUNCTIONAL arrangements of the SAME genes. The space runs out quickly as species take up habitat space. Given so few combinations gone through at just one time I cannot fathom how the SAME genes would, above and against all odds, show up again and again in different species that cannot even mate. You try and tell me that is not intelligent design with a straight face 🙂

  7. Here is one very large protein. You can see, due to the number of combination genetic drift would have to go through, how unlikely it is that genetic drift is the cause of this.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titin

  8. Mike, I happen to share the view that the universe was intelligently designed, because it seems to be a much more logical explanation than assuming that all the building blocks for life just happened to arrange themselves in such a manner that life on earth was made possible. I believe that God is this intelligence. I would also love to see some people write their counter-arguments to the idea of intelligent design here. This is the kind of environment I wish we can create in schools, where teachers and learners would be encouraged to argue both sides of the debate and where learners are learning the skills to dialogue, to research, to think and to debate these kind of issues.

    Back to evolution: Many of the misunderstandings are linked to the way we use terminology e.g. when two people debate the theory of evolution, are they necessarily talking about the same thing? The theory of evolution itself has evolved a lot since the time of Darwin. That’s the nature of any scientific process. Theories change as new evidence becomes available, and as you rightly point out, scientists are also biased and therefore interpret the same evidence in different ways.

    So in order to have good dialogue and good debates about the origin of species and of the universe, we all need to learn more about what is actually meant by terms such as evolution, natural selection, mutation, etc. We also need to carefully distinguish between evidence (e.g. the fossil record), methods to interpret the evidence (e.g. various dating methods) and theories (e.g. evolution).

    The main point of my post is that very often the debate cannot even start, because there are too many misunderstandings and because people often don’t listen to each other.

  9. When I hear the word evolution two things come to mind.

    1. The idea that we came from a single cell billions of years ago (a process that would involve adding many new genes) (Often called Macro evolution). This idea also includes the notion that the very first cell came from a primordial soup that in turn came from the big bang. I don’t agree with this

    Or

    2. The change that we see in current species (a process that only involves the exchange of genes that already exist within a species) (Often called micro evolution). I do agree with this.

  10. My problem iss where the first DNA came from . .. . where the specific strands sequences for the proteins we now have came from. My conclusion is that no matter what I do I can not imagine how these sequences could have arisen via random mutations or chemical reactions because there are too many possible useless sequences. This is the DNA data problem . . . . I accounted for everything . . . amount of space needed, amount of time needed, limitations of random noise, the affects of preservation and replication . . . . nothing RANDOMLY brings about the needed sequences . .. NOTHING. So how then can people believe in abiogenesis unless they have faith in luck?


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