Fr Frank O’Dea SSS
When I was in my teens and began to take an interest in serious things I accepted what I perceived to be the church’s position which was that evolution is contrary to church teaching.
The argument against the idea that man evolved from the apes was ‘they haven’t found the missing link’. Perhaps also it was considered at that time that gorillas, chimpanzees and the other primates were too ugly to be considered as our ancestors.
However, thanks to David Attenborough and others like him we now see these animals as beautiful creatures.
Missing link? There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of missing links and more are constantly being found.
As I grew older my thinking changed and my final conversion came when I read The Phenomenon of Man by the Jesuit palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). I thought at last here is someone who makes a good case for evolution and can show there is no conflict between science and religion.
‘I doubt that any other Christian thinker has tried to make sense of evolution and belief in the God of Jesus Christ in such an innovative manner as this modest French geologist.’
(John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 137)
Teilhard de Chardin was thoroughly convinced of the theory of evolution and saw no conflict between evolution and his faith. Scientists working with evolution were concerned about what fossils of the past could teach us whereas Teilhard looked to the future.
Christ the Omega Point
Evolution sees a movement from simple forms of life such as one celled animals like diatoms to more complex forms such as fish, birds and mammals. ‘Where is this heading?’ was Teilhard’s concern. He was convinced that evolution was leading to God. He saw an evolution of consciousness from the simplest forms of life to the human.
He developed the idea that creation would eventually climax in Christ. He called this the Omega Point. Scripture says Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. (Revelation 1:8) The progression of evolution is from the simplest forms of life to its ultimate end in Christ.
‘For in him (Christ) all things in heaven and on earth were created … all things have been created through him and for him.’ Colossians 1:16
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Darwin was born into an Anglican family in Shrewsbury, England, had his children baptised there and was a leader of his community. He was of good moral character and was firmly committed to truth.
Darwin developed his theory of evolution when he made his five year voyage on HMS Beagle to South America and the Galapagos Islands 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador. On this voyage he noticed small but significant differences in the species of animals within nearby geographical locations. His belief that God created each species separately – which was the general belief at the time – began to fade.
What Is Evolution?
Humans have always bred domestic animals such as horses, cattle and sheep. Breeders choose the best of their stock and breed them to get a better animal.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) proposed in his book, On the Origin of Species, that nature does the same by a process he called ‘natural selection’, sometimes called ‘the survival of the fittest’.
Animals that are the strongest, fastest and most adaptable survive the harshness of life whereas weaker ones don’t survive as well. The strongest pass on their genes to their offspring thus making the species hardier.
An excellent example of evolution is in viruses. When we have an infection we take antibiotics to kill the virus, but the strongest survive and reproduce more viruses resistant to the antibiotic. Our antibiotics are becoming less effective which is a serious medical problem today.
‘Among the many questions that Darwin and other naturalists … began to ask was this: “Why … do small but distinct variations appear among geographically distributed species of birds and animals?” ‘ (Haught, p. 7)
On the Galapagos Islands Darwin noticed there were two kinds of tortoises. One kind had shells that rose in front, like a saddle, making it easier for them to lift their heads high to eat tree cactus on arid islands. Those with dome-shaped shells live on islands with good vegetation so it was not necessary for them to lift their heads.
Darwin theorised that the differences occurred to suit the different habitats.
‘Eventually Darwin began to doubt that a wise and intelligent deity would be so fastidious as to fashion separately each minute variation in distinct species of finch, iguana, or tortoise in an initial act of creation.’
(Haught, p. 7)
He began to believe that changes of habitat, climate and geography would bring about these changes over millions of years.
Geologists had already begun to discover that rocks were millions of years old which made people realize the world was much more ancient than was previously believed.
Darwin was well aware that his theory could be seen as denying the existence of a creator and this worried him so much he delayed publishing his work for twenty years, and then he published only because another scientist was about to publish a similar theory which Darwin considered to be inferior to his own.
He wrote to the botanist Asa Gray in 1860:
‘I had no intention to write atheistically … I can see no reason, why a man or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become.’
(Haught, p. 1)
Timeline of Life
Palaeontologists have made amazing discoveries which enable us to see how life evolved over billions of years.
Figures are approximate; b = billion; m = million:
- 5 b. Life began as one cell in the ocean though some say fresh water is a possibility.
- 5 b. Earliest animals; probably comb jellies
- 530 m. Animals with backbones (vertebrae).
- 489 m. Great increase in diversity of animals and plants.
- 460 m. Fish split into 2 groups: bony and cartilaginous.
- 397 m. First 4-legged animals evolved from intermediate species probably in fresh water.
- 310 m. First reptiles; some had mammal characteristics and evolved into mammals.
- 250 m. mass extinction wipes out huge numbers of species; dinosaurs take over.
- 180 m. Mammals that lay eggs such as platypus and echidnas.
- 150 m. A species of dinosaur became smaller, grew feathers, modified their mouths to form beaks and learned to fly becoming the first birds.
- 140 m. Mammals with a pouch for their young such as kangaroos.
- 100 m. Dinosaurs reach their maximum size.
- 75 m. Rodents appear and go on to be 40% of mammals.
- 65 m. Dinosaurs wiped out by a meteorite hitting earth causing darkness and cold for a long time. Small mammals survive.
- 63 m. Primates evolve: lemurs, aye-ayes, monkeys
- 50 m. Whales evolve.
- 25 m. Apes.
- 18 m. Gibbons.
- 14 m. Orangutans.
- 7 m. Gorillas.
- 6 m. Hominins with larger brains emerge.
- 2 m. Australopithecus afarensis, nick-named Lucy found in Ethiopia, could walk on 2 feet.
- 8 m Homo habilis; evidence of stone tools.
- 3-1.8 m Homo erectus & homo ergaster; fire & complex tools; first to leave Africa.
- 300,000 years ago, modern man, Homo sapiens. It had been thought modern man evolved 200,000 years ago but a report in June 2017 says fossils found recently in the Sahara, a thriving forest with rivers and lakes at that time, have put the date further back by 100,000 years.
- 250,000 years ago; Neanderthal man, named from fossils found in the Neander Valley, Germany. Debate continues whether this should classified as a distinct species. A report published in July 2017 says the fossil of a thigh bone found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave, Germany, shows the Neanderthals were genetically diverse.
- 25,000 years ago. Homo sapiens subspecies Denisova; fossils found in the Denisovan cave in Siberia. Interbreeding took place between Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Other species of Homo include: Homo habilis, H.rudolfensis, H. georgicus, H. heidelbergensis.
From Africa Homo sapiens gradually dispersed to inhabit the entire planet.
Some interbreeding with Neanderthals took place so there is a little of the Neanderthal in each of us.
An important question arises here. At what point of evolution does the spiritual human evolve. The bible says God created humankind in his own image. (Genesis 1:27) I believe it’s saying that humans are spiritual beings whereas the animals are not.
So were Neanderthals or Denisovans spiritual?
A clue could be found in the way they treated their dead. There is some evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead, and possibly decorated themselves and wore jewellery and cared for their sick and elderly. They may have been capable of symbolic thought. There is nothing definite yet on this matter.
In the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave a figurine with a human body and head of a lion was discovered. It was carved from a mammoth task about 40,000 years ago. Similar finds in a nearby cave suggest these people practised some form of shamanism. Does this indicate a sense of the spiritual?
What is Life?
Scientists have been able to analyse the molecular structure of life. We now understand DNA, the double helix and the astonishing wonders of a living cell. But they have not created life though Craig Venter and his team in the USA have done an amazing thing. They began with a simple bacterium and by a very complicated process using computer technology and their knowledge of DNA and genome sequencing were able to make a new form of life, a new ‘animal’. They called it ‘Synthia’.
The important point from our perspective is that they began with a living organism. They did not begin from scratch. They have not been able to put the spark of life into a non-living organism.
Some say that life began by chance through a lucky coincidence of certain molecules coming together and perhaps sparked by a lightning strike or some similar event.
I suggest an answer that is not by chance, namely, that this was a work of God. Science can put together the correct molecules required but cannot inject life into the mix in spite of deliberate attempts, so why should we think that chance would do what the scientists have been unable to do by years of assiduous work in their laboratories?
The Role of God
So where does God come into evolution?
Everything that exists is part of God’s creation including the laws of time, space, physics, chemistry, life, DNA.
God lives in the eternal now. In this eternal now the dinosaurs are just as much present to God as we are.
It’s a struggle to find a satisfactory way of saying how God relates to creation. On the one hand we want to avoid thinking of God is aloof from creation as though he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty handling crude matter. On the other hand we don’t want to fall into the trap of making creation itself, Mother Nature, into a deity.
We must remember we are dealing with a mystery beyond our comprehension. I’ve culled a few thoughts from respected thinkers.
John Polkinghorne, scientist and Anglican priest, puts it this way:
‘Creation is not something he (God) did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now . . . Christian theology . . . sees the world as the consequence of a free act of divine decision and as separate from deity. The universe’s inherent contingency is conventionally and vividly expressed in the idea of creation ex nihilo (from nothing).’
(John Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief, Society for Promoting Christian Belief 1994, p. 73)
The bible says that God is the creator of heaven and earth. Polkinghorne comments:
‘[This] doctrine safeguards the fundamental theological intuition that creation is separate from its Creator, that he has made ontological room for something other than himself.’
(Polkinghorne, p. 74)
‘The point is not that God makes things but that ‘God makes things make themselves’, as Charles Kingsley, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Frederick Temple, and other religious leaders have put it.’
(Haught, p. 42)
‘Even the most devout believer would have to say that when God does act in the world, He does so with care and subtlety. At a minimum, the continuing existence of the universe itself can be attributed to God. The existence of the universe is not self-explanatory, and to a believer the existence of every particle, wave, and field is a product of the continuing will of God.’
(Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, Harper Collins, 2002, p. 241)
Perhaps we could summarise these ideas by saying creation is separate from God but intimately linked to him.
I believe that evolution is God’s instrument for the development of life.
Chance and Necessity
Polkinghorne suggests there is both chance and necessity in evolution. Chance could be genetic mutation or climate change. By necessity he means that evolution respects the laws of the universe such as gravity and the laws of genetics, chemistry etc.
‘The actual balance between chance and necessity, contingency and potentiality which we perceive seems to be consistent with the will of a patient and understanding Creator, content to achieve his purpose through the unfolding of process and accepting thereby a measure of the vulnerability and precariousness which always characterize the gift of freedom by love.’
(John Polkinghorne, One World: the Interaction of Science and Theology, Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 1987. p. 69)
Creation Praises God
The bible is full of references to God and creation.
One example is the Canticle from Daniel 3:57-88:
O all you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord.
To him be glory and praise for ever . . .
And you, heavens of the Lord, O bless the Lord.
And you all clouds of the sky, O bless the Lord.
The canticle continues with a listing of other elements of creation: sun, moon, stars, showers, rain, breezes, winds, fire, heat, cold, frost, snow, night, day, lightning, clouds, mountains, hills, plants, fountains, springs, rivers, seas, birds, wild beasts.
Readers of The Book have no doubt that God is the Creator of all things and it is fitting that we should praise him.
Darwin could see the beauty of creation. His last sentence in The Origin of Species reads:
‘There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most wonderful and most beautiful have been, and are being evolved.’
Non-believers miss out on the richness of the spirituality of evolution when they deny the existence of a beneficent creator.
The author of the Book of Proverbs says God has a somewhat playful face. He has Wisdom saying,
‘. . . when he (God) marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.’
The Wonder of Animals
I think that the playful God really took some delight in creating (or allowing the evolution of) remarkable animals. God is the Creator and exercises his creative genius in producing amazing animals.
The migration of birds is an astonishing phenomenon, but migration of butterflies?
David Attenborough has described how the Painted Lady butterfly migrates from Britain to Africa. However the butterflies that leave Britain are not the same individuals who get to Africa. They go in stages. They fly across the channel to France which in itself is an amazing feat for such a fragile creature, but that’s just the beginning. Then they breed, producing new individuals. This process is repeated many times until they fly across the Mediterranean and reach North Africa. The return journey is made in a similar manner. Amazing! How do they know where to go?
The Darwin’s Bark spider can shoot a strand of cobweb 25 metres. Once the end of strand catches onto something, the spider then builds her cobweb on the strand.
The seahorse is a remarkable animal. It swims upright and has a prehensile tail which it can wrap around a suitable object such as seaweed or coral to keep still. It is the male seahorse that gives birth. The female lays up to 1500 eggs in a pouch in the male’s body. He fertilizes them and gives birth when the time is right.
I believe also that God took delight in the evolution of animals that live under extreme conditions of cold, heat and aridity – extremophiles.
When the cold weather comes in Alaska wood frogs actually freeze solid like the frozen food in your freezer. When the warmer weather arrives they thaw out. Usually freezing produces ice crystals which destroy the organs, but the wood frogs produce a chemical which prevents the ice causing harm.
There is strange life in the volcanic vents deep in the oceans where the temperature is 350 degrees C and the pressure is many times atmospheric pressure; red-tipped tube worms, shrimps with eyes on their backs and dozens of other strange life forms. Some think that life might have begun in these depths.
There is microbial life in liquid asphalt, beneath rocks in cold deserts and half a mile below the ice of Antarctica!
If we think of God as human we could say to him, ‘Now Lord, you are skiting about your ability when you allow extremophiles to evolve!’
For some time the beautiful but cumbersome tail feathers of the peacock had Darwin troubled. He could not see how such a huge tail could help the peacock survive better. Then he realised it made him more attractive to the female so his beauty would be passed on the next generation.
Birds of paradise add dance to their act to interest the female. I have seen the Australian lyre bird dancing on the branch of a tree – a wonderful spectacle!
The male palm cockatoo in North Queensland goes even further by adding drum beats to woo the female. He uses sticks and seedpods to strike hollow tree limbs.
The male dung beetle has large horns not because it helps him find food more easily (dung can’t escape the predator!) but because those with the largest horns attract the females. Over generations the horns got bigger.
Darwin called this sexual selection.
Personally I find it hard to believe that creation is able to produce such beautiful and amazing animals by itself. Non-believers make a big point of these evolving over millions of years. They do have a point there but even so I don’t find this a satisfactory answer.
Spirituality in Animals?
I said above that animals don’t have a spirituality but two documentaries of elephants make me wonder. The first talked about a man who had a great love for elephants and was kind to them. When he died, a herd of elephants came some distance to his house and waited there for several days before leaving.
The other documentary showed a herd of elephants on migration. They came across the skeleton of a dead elephant. They stopped and each elephant touched the skeleton with its trunk.
We’ll never know what was going through their minds.
As well as beauty there is disorder and pain in creation and we must deal with this as well. This is a big problem which causes some people to reject the idea of a loving God. The book of Job deals with this perplexing matter.
Suffering was a problem for Darwin.
His mother’s death when he was eight had a serious effect on Charles.
‘Later, the death of his own daughter Annie at the age of ten would prove to be more of a factor in Charles’ abandonment of the idea of a beneficent deity than would the idea of natural selection.’
(Haught, p. 4)
Darwin saw a lot of pain in the animal world and found it very hard to understand.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote about man:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed.
I feel there is no pleasant or easy answer to this question of suffering except to meditate on the fact that God himself suffered in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ painful death on the cross caused pain to God in a way which we cannot understand.
When Darwin published his theory, some non-believers jumped on this idea as a proof there is no need for God.
On the other hand some fundamentalist Christians denied the theory altogether because it didn’t fit in with the creation stories of Genesis which they took literally.
There has been a battle, sometimes bitter, between these two groups ever since
‘When I worked at Westminster Abbey, one of the questions most frequently asked by visitors, especially Americans, was “Is it true Charles Darwin is buried here?” On one occasion, noting the route the visitor had just taken . . . I replied “Madam, I think you just stepped on him.” “Good!” came the emphatic reply.’
(Tom Wright, Surprised by Scripture, SPCK, 2014, p. 1)
There is no contradiction between Christian belief and evolution. Science and religion need a conversation, not a confrontation.
Science and religion are two different disciplines, though they can sometimes overlap and influence each other.
Science teaches us how the universe came to be as it is.
Religion teaches us why the universe is as it is.
Science deals with the physical, religion deals with the spiritual.
Religion encompasses science; it is a much broader view of the universe.
Religion and science are developing disciplines. Scientists are constantly finding new species, more ‘missing links’, and gaining more insights into evolution.
Likewise religion is also developing and learning new ways to interpret the findings of science.
Who knows what lies in the future?
The ultimate question is: why is there something rather than nothing?