Fashionable Nonsense: Reconciling science with Genesis



Eden, from The World Before the Deluge.

At least I know that, if I fail at everything else in life, I could write a book claiming to reconcile science and Christianity. People love them. No matter how many times the same old talking points are trotted out there always seems to be room for one more volume on the subject. And even if readers do not entirely agree with the content of such books many are still comforted by their existence. Among the “Things Christians Like” is to see scientists saying that hard evidence from nature supports Christian beliefs.

I do not say this to belittle the scientific expertise of authors of these books, such as Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Paul Davies, Dale Russell, Simon Conway Morris, and (as I will get to shortly) Andrew Parker. They are certainly experts in their respective fields. What I am continually frustrated by, however, is their insistence that nature documents the influence of supernatural power.

Lately it has become fashionable to find some refuge for God in the natural world, some signal that tells us there is a cosmic someone who planned for our existence. This trend is not concerned with recognizing nature as it exists and modifying theology to match it, but with impressing particular religious views on nature. Sometimes such attempts are well-received, other times not, but many people are generally happy to see such efforts. It is more important for science and religion to “play nice” than for us to recognize that nature cannot provide the direct evidence for divine intervention in the universe that many people desperately want to exist.

The latest entry into this subgenre of evolutionary apologetics is The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is Scientifically Accurate by biologist Andrew Parker. In this new book Parker claims that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 presents an accurate prognostication of our current understanding of the evolution of life on earth.

I honestly do not recall hearing anything about Parker’s new book at the time it was released two months ago, but today the Washington Post published a guest blog in which Parker presents readers with a muddled essay. In a few short paragraphs Parker breezes through what he interprets as the “scary” convergence between Genesis and modern scientific discoveries, all as a paean to something “inexplicable” outside our senses that can only be recognized as God. Parker closes with;

If we stick to science and avoid concocting theories of creationism, God may be revealed without self-deception…and in a form so much more powerful and guiding. So it has been for me.

Oh, what a little confirmation bias can do.

In 2003 Parker published a book called In the Blink of an Eye in which he suggested that the evolution of vision triggered the “Cambrian Explosion.” In the wake of the book he began to receive letters that his hypothesis made sense of Genesis. The evolution of vision, his correspondents suggested, corresponded the second command of “let there be light” (Genesis 1:14) in Genesis. Nevermind that this second command was for “lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years”; Parker believes that it corresponds with his favored evolutionary hypothesis. It is not about the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, he says, but the first time that animals could see the heavenly bodies thanks to the evolution of eyes.

Things get even more complicated when the rest of the order of Creation is considered. Grass and fruiting trees (angiosperms) are called forth on the third day, but both of these kinds of plants did not evolve until the Mesozoic (popularly known as the “Age of Dinosaurs”), many millions of years after plants evolved. Forget about the specifics, says Parker. Grass and trees just mean photosynthesizing organisms.

But what of the fact that Genesis 1 places the creation of sea creatures, including whales, and birds together on the fifth day? Marine animals evolved long before birds, that is true, but birds evolved from dinosaurs long before the first whales evolved from terrestrial, hooved ancestors. This is followed on the next day by mammals and “creeping things”, again confusing the chronological sequence of evolution that we know from the fossil record. (The first mammals evolved before birds, and anything that might be called a “creeping thing” upon the earth existed on land before the first tetrapods lived at the water’s edge.)

And it cannot be denied that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is followed by a second, very different story in Genesis 2. In the second story God has a garden all planned out but no one to take care of it, so he creates Adam and plants a garden in which Adam can live. At that point God realizes that his creation is missing something, a helper for Adam, and so he creates the entire diversity of animals in an attempt to find a suitable partner for the first human. Giraffes, porcupines, leopards, parakeets, squirrels, weasels… none of them measure up, so instead God snags a rib from Adam to make Eve. That story does not fit so well with what we understand about the history of life on earth, and Parker just waves it away without so much as a second thought.

In fact, Parker is utterly convinced that he is correct. When some of these inconsistencies were mentioned in an interview he conducted for the magazine Reform Parker asserted that the correspondence between Genesis and the history of life seemed clear enough to him. Unfettered by historical or theological scholarship Parker stated;

But I have no biases now and I didn’t have then. I just put them together [Genesis and the history of life] and they matched perfectly. And what I used is what I think is the best version of the history of life on earth, and my best interpretation of the first page of Genesis.

By this logic, almost anyone could have written the same book. It appears to be simply an exercise in cherrypicking answers and ignoring contradictions. Such a technique at once both strongly literalistic and so weak as to be meaningless. Genesis 1 really does correspond to history, Parker argues, except when it doesn’t, in which case we are not thinking loosely enough to allow the pieces to fit.

I am sure such a game of mix and match could be carried out with almost any other sacred book you care to name. (For another example of this kind of confirmation bias, note the belief that theropod dinosaurs were faithful steeds for Adam and Eve.) Parker’s premise is flimsy (and that is being charitable), yet it is still welcomed by some because it provides a refuge for God at a time when the faithful are having conniptions about the “New Atheists” (same as the old atheists). I am truly baffled by such attempts at reconciliation that are made so blindly. It appears that these days many people value being nice over rational thought, and I expect that we will continue to see similar half-baked efforts to reconcile evolution and Christianity for a long time to come.

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