I can’t deny that evolution is the hottest topic at the interface between science and religion. However, just because it’s a hot topic doesn’t mean it’s a valid point. Not even the most atheistic, naturalist scientists “believe in” evolution. That’s not how science works. “Believing in” something is a question of faith. Evolution, on the other hand, is a fact.
Let me explain what I mean: If I pick up a pencil (remember those?) and drop it on the floor, it’s a fact that it will travel all the way down to the floor unless something stops it first. The pencil hitting the ground is a fact, and no one will dispute it. The hypothesis here is that a gravitational force acts on the pencil. We can test this hypothesis in various ways, but hundreds of years of post-Newtonian kinetics has produced few alternative hypotheses as to “why” the pencil hits the ground.
Evolution, as we define it (see below), is a fact. It happens. New species evolve all the time. In some cases, we can witness evolution and the development of new species during our lifetimes. This occurs most commonly in microscopic organisms. But “how” evolution occurs — and more specifically, who directs the evolution of new species — is the question that hangs many people.
Aspect 1, “Change over time.” Organisms that are simple, biologically speaking, came before organisms that are more complex. Most people think the simpler organisms changed into the more complex organisms over millions and millions of years. In other words, there has been an increase in the complexity of living organisms over time.
Aspect 2, “Common ancestry.” This is the hypothesis that any species evolved from a previous species. The hypothesis of “universal” common ancestry says that there was originally just one species of life on Earth, and by branching off that species, all other species were formed. Then, there was breaking off from those species, and so on.
Aspect 3, “Random mutations and natural selection.” Natural selection, a hypothesis first proposed by Charles Darwin, holds that random mutations occur in an organism’s genetic material (DNA) and those changes that make an organism better able to survive and reach reproductive age are passed onto the offspring. Over time, enough changes are retained to form a brand new species.
Aspect 4, “Naturalism and the Theory of Everything.” Some scientists believe that the evolutionary process can explain everything from biology to psychology to economics and so forth. These scientists essentially believe that all change in the universe results from random occurrences as opposed to purposeful acts. Such theories tend to be unscientific in nature and fall more into the realm of philosophy or religion than science itself.
Most Christians believe in the fact of evolution (Aspect 1), although there is considerable debate about the meaning of “over time” since new species can be observed arising, especially in single-celled organisms, within a few generations. This debate is not particular to Christian scientists, though. Christians also accept the fact that new species evolve, and there is to some extent agreement on Aspect 2, common ancestry. Of course, whether there was just one original species of life on Earth or many is not agreed upon, even among atheists.
As for natural selection, there is considerable debate in the scientific community that natural selection is not the only factor in play. Most people would hold natural selection as true, but other changes in the genetic material that produce changes that are not very important to individuals in a population reaching reproductive age also contribute to the formation of new species. These factors are known as genetic drift or gene flow. They can contribute to the evolution of a new species, but the genes that drift and flow don’t necessarily make an organism more fit to survive and reproduce, as Darwin’s theories of natural selection hold.
And finally, Christians dismiss the entire scope of naturalism: life has a purpose; our seeking of God has a purpose; our understanding of the moral law has a purpose. For these elements of existence, especially of human existence, randomness can’t provide any answers.
But despite what some fundamentalist preachers say, Christians for the most part accept evolution as fact. It is the only viewpoint that is entirely consistent with God’s creation of the universe. Whether all species were created in six days or one species was created and then evolved into many others is open for debate among Christians, but the question itself isn’t all that important.
God is truth, and any known facts, including evolution, must be reconcilable with that truth. If the facts don’t fit one’s beliefs, then no matter how stubbornly one wants to hold onto those beliefs, they are not true. The simple fact that evolution occurs in our world, the world that God himself created, by whatever mechanism, would negate the entire premise of any argument against evolution.
Look, the Bible is not intended to be a science textbook. It’s not even that good a history book. Looking there for answers as to “how” evolution occurs — or how any process occurs — is a dead end. Science, on the other hand, provides hypotheses as to “how” things occur, but if you want to know the “why” or the “who” behind something, science textbooks are admittedly underdeveloped. Instead of looking for reason and purpose in a science textbook, Christians tend to seek answers to those very different types of questions from God.
Furthermore, asking if a supreme being “guides” evolution on Earth is a complete waste of time. Two possible answers exist: yes and no. If a supreme being does guide evolution, then we should commit ourselves to spreading the love he himself professed in the gospels. In the course of showing this love to one another, we will seek to understand the process of genetics, natural selection, and evolution as thoroughly as possible in order to comfort his children — i.e., to show them our love.
If a supreme being doesn’t exist or doesn’t guide the evolutionary process on Earth, then it is still integral to human nature to try to make some sense out of our world. Clearly, humans have compassion for each other, for other forms of life, and for the planet itself. Understanding the “how” behind the things that are important to us — even if our understanding lacks purpose or reasons — is very important. How can we care for the sick and ease their suffering if we don’t understand how physiology works, for example?
But as to the question of evolution, there are no quick answers. I think we all need to be a little more humble when it comes to discussing evolution. Just remember that all truth belongs to God if you’re a Christian, and there is no scientific discovery that God will not use for his glory. Arguing about it may make for good entertainment on the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, but in the ultimate analysis, it’s really not that interesting a question. Love and kindness will reign on Earth, whether people think those parts of human nature are from God or just from a random arrangement of molecules. Even if God exists, in other words, it makes no difference to him “why” we do what we do. It’s what we do that defines us.