Mark Perez

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Book Review: “Thinking About Evolution: 25 Questions Christians Want Answered” by Anjeanette Roberts, Fazale Rana, Sue Dykes, and Mark Perez

Reasons to Believe is a science-faith thinktank that operates from the perspective of Old Earth Creationism. Essentially, they hold that the earth and universe are billions of years old, but that God created progressively. Individual species or families were created by God ex nihilo at different points in time. Recently the organization published a book, Thinking About Evolution: 25 Questions Christians Want Answered that explores the evidence for evolution.

The book is written around 25 chapters corresponding to the eponymous questions. These questions are: “Does Evolution Explain Life on Earth?; Is Religious Belief the Only Reason to Question Evolution?; What’s Philosophy Got to Do With Evolution?; How Can We Keep Our Thinking Free from Fallacy?; Is Evolution Really a Problem for the Christian Faith?; What is Chemical Evolution?; Is Microevolution a Fact?; Does Microbial Evolution Prove Evolution is True>’ Is Natural Selection the Blind Force Driving Evolution?; Is There a Novelty Problem for Evolution?; What to Do with Teleology in Evolution? Can Evolutionary Processes Generate New Information?; Does Evolution Explain the Fossil Record?; What about the Genetic Similarity between Humans and Chimps?; Are the Hominin Fossils Evidence for Human Evolution?; Did Humans and Neanderthals Interbreed?; Did Neanderthals Create Art?; Can Evolutionary Processes Explain the Origin of Eukaryotic Cells?; Can Evolution Repeat Outcomes?; Can Evolutionary Co-option Explain the Irreducible Complexity of Biochemical Systems?; Has Evolution Refuted the Watchmaker Argument?; Is the Watchmaker Really Blind?; Is Junk DNA Evidence for Evolution?; Why Are We Progressive Creationists?; What if Big-E Evolution is True?

I wrote all these chapter titles out because it’s worth seeing that this is the content of the book. At a glance, readers interested in science-faith intersections probably have a number of assumptions about the answers to these questions, given the creationist background of Reasons to Believe. These assumptions may line up, but there are also sure to be some surprises mixed in there. For example, microevolution is most definitely affirmed as factual, but a significant amount of ink is spilled about trying to guarantee Neanderthals aren’t in any way associated with humans.

One thing that’s evident throughout the book is that there are numerous assumptions guiding the way evidence is interpreted by the authors. This is, of course, totally impossible to avoid. We all have assumptions that go into how we interpret anything. But some of these assumptions are put forward as almost obvious statements as though all Christians can or should agree. For example, in the chapter on “Is Evolution Really a Problem for the Christian Faith?” by Fazale Rana, he writes “Science should have no problem detecting a Creator’s handiwork–and even determining a Creator’s attributes,” (72). Prior to this remarkable statement, SETI is cited as an example of scientists attempting to find intelligence based on scientific assumptions. But of course, SETI and similar endeavors are predicated on the notion that intelligence wants to be discovered or that it is, in principle, discoverable. Yet many Christians may oppose this. For example, there is a lengthy tradition and numerous writings related to the hiddenness of God. Paul K. Moser, a philosopher, has written a few books on the topic of evidence for God only being available purposively (for example, The Elusive God). If, as Christian theology affirms, God is personal, then it seems quite possible that a person would have reasons to perhaps hide from or not be available for evidence in conventional means, especially given that person’s goals may be relational to humans rather than purely evidentiary. All of this is to say that certain assumptions made by the authors in this book are worth challenging. The very model that Reasons to Believe operates upon–a kind of strong concordism in which science will ultimately reveal God (or, minimally, unveil that the Bible is unchallenged by science, properly interpreted)–relies upon such assumptions. If they’re mistaken, significant questions about the inputs and outputs of the model would be raised.

The evidence for evolution is extremely strong. I don’t think the authors would seriously dispute that statement, given that they frankly acknowledge microevolution and microbial evolution. However, when confronted by this evidence, and the rather reasonable inference that one can move from small changes over large time to bigger changes, the authors shut down. For example, in the chapter on microbial evolution, Anjeanette Roberts writes, “But does microbial evolution involve production of totally novel protein products, cellular structures, cellular functions, metabolic pathways, or stepping stones to major transitions between kinds of organisms? …That’s highly debatable” (106). One might want to debate this, but the mere fact that just a sentence before, it had been acknowledged that microbial evolution does occur means that such “stepping stones” are in place. If we can observe microbial evolution in such small time spans, then given hundreds of millions of years, it seems to be little more than a lack of imagination to insist that such larger changes could not possibly occur. Of course, that’s not how strongly worded the objection is here. Throughout the book, the authors dance along this fine line of implying the evidence for evolution is highly contentious or questionable while also having to acknowledge that evolution just does occur.

For example, Sue Dykes makes it clear that she questions the existence of transitional forms, but then has to explain away the transitional forms that have been discovered in the fossil record (161ff). The reason to dismiss transitional forms appears to be that Dykes prefers to define transitional forms in the now-archaic way Darwin did as finding exacting step-by-step A-to-B lineages that we know for certain show the transition from A-Z. But this is not how evidence works. If we had the evidence to plays someone at the scene of a crime at the time in which it occurred with the weapon and intent to commit murder, someone coming along and saying “Ah ha! You cannot tell me the exact sequence in which the victim was stabbed!” wouldn’t be a compelling reason to question the suspect’s guilt. The sequence is there, though the order may be hotly contested. Examples Dykes investigates include whale evolution, which is quite frankly a compelling series of transitional fossils. Why are they questioned, then? Because there is the occasional discovery that may perhaps have a fossil dated differently or one form showing up earlier than expected! But that doesn’t really undermine the sequence any more than having one’s ancestor (grandparent, say) still alive today would mean one could not have been born yet. On a total-species level, it would be surprising to see entire species that were successful and ubiquitous enough for there to have actually been preserved fossils of them just dying off the exact moment a somewhat more adapted creature came along. Moreover, it is difficult for me to take seriously the questioning of transitional fossils when so many striking examples have been found. Not just the ones that exist in the public’s memory writ large, but also numerous amazing examples, like turtles, having “halfway” point type fossils. I wrote about some of these elsewhere. Again, do we have every one of the presumably hundreds of species preserved to get from point A-to-Z? No. But missing C, D, F, G, H, and I hardly precludes calling B, E, J, and M transitional forms.

The authors occasionally fall into the unfortunate position of implying that because scientists have updated predictions and models due to changing evidence, we can question the core idea. Sue Dykes writes about Hominin fossils, “It seems that the more we dsicover and the more we test, the more frustrated paleontologists become. New discoveries regularly undermine the ideal of a clear, single evolving lineage leading to modern humankind” (177). Well yes, because I doubt there are any paleontologists who actually that that “ideal” is attainable in actuality. Evolution is messy. It doesn’t produce simple chains. There are offshoots, branches that break off, never to come back, divergence, convergence, and more. Simply having a ton of fossils that fit to show evolution is occurring and not being able to find an “ideal” lineage doesn’t undermine the evidence for evolution. The stunning number of fossils and traits that can be found amongst them instead shows the compelling notion of evolution over time.

I was also surprised to see Fazale Rana seem to argue that evolutionary biologists would think that if we turned back the clock, evolution would just repeat results (225). I believe it was in Dawkins’s work that I read (reading it as a skeptic of evolution, more than a decade ago) that evolution would do the exact opposite. The metaphor was a videotape: if we rolled back the tape, the movie evolution would play would be completely different, because the forces acting upon nature that drive evolution couldn’t possibly be replicated. This seems to undermine the whole chapter in which Rana makes this statement about replicating results. Convergent evolution doesn’t really seem to be evidence against evolution, either, which is the somewhat confusing point that may be alluded to in this chapter (“Can Evolution Repeat Outcomes?”). Instead, Rana argues convergence points to progressive creationism due to shared features. But this was not established in the text, and the point Rana made about rewinding the clock seems to me to be mistaken.

A few chapters hint at more difficult problems for evolution. The question of irreducible complexity was compelling to me for quite a while, but though the authors here make the case, it still seems that co-option is but one of the several possible ways evolution could account for seemingly irreducible complexity. As has been pointed out by others much more in the know than I, irreducible complexity itself is something of a construct. For example, it may be the case that taking out a part of the eye that allows us to focus upon something would make the eye unable to function as an eye, but it would hardly make it useless. The mere ability to sense light/dark would be extremely advantageous on a number of levels. Another problem that is raised in the book is the question of generating information. I myself have become pretty skeptical of this argument, though, because it seems something of a category error. Yes, there is a strong metaphorical connection between human written language and the “language” of DNA, but to equate them to the point that is required for introducing intelligent design into the process is a stretch at best. Rana makes his case by pointing to the stunning improbability of randomly producing a functional cytochrome (153), but the very nature of evolution makes this nonsensical. Evolution isn’t randomly generating series of DNA strands in order to, hopefully, come up with a functional and beneficial protein. Instead, it is operating upon existing, functional (and even deleterious or non-functional) features. Simply stating blind probabilities is to massively overstate the range of actual possibility.

The concluding chapter is perhaps the best chapter of its kind I’ve read in any creationist literature anywhere. Anjeanette Roberts writes, “there are many faithful Christians today who confess Christ as Lord, hold the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and believe in real miraculous events… while also holding that God used the initial conditions he established at the creation along with evolutionary processes to accomplish his purposes for life’s biological history on Earth” (282).

Later, she writes, “After all, it is not one’s view of origins that determines a person’s Christian status” (ibid). Then, she writes this great counterfactual: “If at some point in the future, the scientific evidence shows that evolutionary mechanisms are the mechanisms of god’s creation, then interpretive models… will fill a needed space in biblical Christian thought,” (283). Though not fully stating it, it is clear the implications here are that Roberts, and presumably other RTB scholars, are acknowledging that if evidence existed to convince them evolution were true, they would utilize some of the models for reconciling that with biblical truth that they already see as viable. This is an extraordinarily honest position, particularly for a creationist organization. Too often, people accuse creationists of being liars and/or deceivers, obfuscating truth. I have noted numerous points of disagreement with the book in my own review here. But let it be said that I think that RTB has done extremely valuable work, and that they’ll continue to do so. I can’t help but admire the integrity and honesty of their scholars, and am honored to work alongside them for God’s Kingdom.

Thinking About Evolution will give readers a solid base for understanding the most prominent old earth creationist perspective. While I think that the case it builds against evolution is lacking, I appreciate the candor, the integrity, and the genuine searching for truth the authors are pursuing. Readers interested in the intersection of Christianity and science will appreciate this book.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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