The world presents to us vast evidence confirming the evolutionary history of life, and nothing even remotely resembling a disproof of it. This is an inexplicable mystery if, as creationists insist, God created the variety of life through a means other than evolution. Had God done so, it would scarcely be possible for the world not to abound with clear evidence decisively refuting evolution; it would, in fact, be possible only if God deliberately rearranged the world after creation to make it look as though evolution had occurred, so that His poor subjects might be misled and thereby condemn themselves to an eternity in Hell. In other words, assuming God exists in the first place, either He used evolution as His means of creating the diversity of life on Earth, or else He is an abhorrent liar and deceiver: titles which traditionally have been reserved for the Devil.
What are some of the places where creationists should expect to find a smoking gun against evolution?2
The Fossil Record
One of the crucial predictions of evolutionary theory is that one should find a general progression of increasingly diverse and complex life forms when one traces the fossil record through progressively higher strata of sedimentary rock. This is not to say that major extinctions cannot occur, or that simpler life forms cannot persist alongside more complex ones, but merely that the more complex ones should not appear before the less complex ones have appeared.3 The appearance of organisms in the fossil record should reflect the branching, treelike structure of evolution.
Thus, had God wished to supply humanity with decisive evidence refuting evolution, He could have done so easily by depositing, preserving, and later exposing to paleontologists numerous mammalian fossils in the oldest rock strata (no difficult feat for the omnipotent creator of the universe). In fact, had God desired, He could have inverted the entire sequence of fossils with no more than a twitch of His little toe, placing all of the fossils of australopithecines and rhinos in the oldest strata, and every last vestige of blue-green algae in the newest.
Yet, when we examine the fossil record, we find a distribution that matches the predictions of evolution, not one of the countless distributions that would not. Creationist spokesmen are forced to seize upon any ad hoc explanation they can think of to explain this; they say, for instance, that Noah’s Flood somehow sorted the fossils into exactly the pattern expected by evolution, or that God, for some strange reason, decided to create life over the course of aeons in a sequence matching the predictions of evolution (in either case, God presumably did not care that the resultant fossil patterns would cause us to be deceived). Surely it is more sensible simply to conclude that evolution has occurred.
A second prediction of evolution is that the fossil record should yield transitional forms. Evolution does not require the fossil record to yield transitional forms as plentiful as the stars, since the conditions of fossilization are severe, and some organisms fossilize less easily than others, but one would reasonably become suspicious if, after more than a century of work, paleontologists had not discovered any transitional forms at all. A complete absence of transitional forms, in fact, is precisely what creationists should expect. Paleontology, however, has yielded plentiful transitional forms, of which a mere handful is listed here:
- From fish to amphibian: The fish Eusthenopteron and the early amphibian Icthyostega share so many characteristics as to constitute a virtual bridge between fishes and amphibians. The discovery of the even more intermediate Tiktaalik only seals the deal.
- From amphibian to reptile: Seymouria, according to Alfred Romer, “exhibits such a combination of amphibian and reptilian characters that its proper position in the classification of vertebrates has been much disputed” (Romer 1966:94).
- From reptile to bird: Archaeopteryx displays a distinct blend of major reptilian and avian characteristics, and highly resembles the theropod reptiles of its time.
- From reptile to mammal: Probelesodon and Massetognathus exhibit both reptilian and mammalian characteristics. Probainognathus even has two sets of jaw joints (one reptilian and one mammalian).
- From hominid to human: The transition from our “ape-like” ancestors to us is so well documented in the fossil record, with so many fossil forms so clearly intermediate that, as Jim Foley has shown, even creationists cannot agree with one another about which ones are “purely human” and which ones are “purely ape” (Foley 2005). Such confusion, of course, is exactly what we would expect if the fossils truly are intermediates.
If we look to some of the less prominent transitions in life, we find equally astounding transitional forms. For instance, evolutionists have hypothesized that whales evolved from ancient ungulates.4 Since the ungulates include such creatures as cattle, camels, and hippos, this is a hypothesis which many creationists have ridiculed, and virtually all have thought implausible. However, there is ample evidence for the transition in fossils ranging from Pakicetus (a land creature that does not look like a whale at all but has an ear region and teeth resembling that of fossil whales) to Ambulocetus (an intermediate with well-developed legs, capable of motion on land, but better suited to an aquatic life) to Basilosaurus (a primitive whale with small hind legs), demonstrating a full range of transitional characteristics between landgoing creatures and whales.
Given that creatures such as these, which creationists expect not to exist at all, exhibit obvious transitional characteristics and exist in the places and time periods in which evolutionists expect to find them, we again have no option but to conclude either that evolution took place, whether through God’s design or not, or else that God created all of these creatures directly, transitional characteristics and all, so that man might be deceived into rejecting the true history of creation.
Patterns in Genetic Material
Had God created life through means other than evolution, He could have used the faintest whisper of His boundless power to endow each kind of creature with a different form of genetic material, or a completely different genetic code. But all life forms on Earth use DNA and RNA as genetic material, with a code that admits of only very rare and insignificant alterations, which is what one would expect had all life evolved from a common ancestor.
There is, furthermore, a high degree of correspondence between molecular phylogenies and evolutionary expectations, even for nonfunctional changes in DNA. Especially puzzling for creationism is the question of why these evolutionary expectations are borne out in the case of similar species living in similar climates on different continents: creationists should expect the DNA of such creatures to closely match, if DNA was designed for functionality. However, we find instead that these species often have DNA more closely resembling that of different species in adjacent environments than that of the similar species in distant locales. The appearance of the similar species is the result of convergent evolution: the species have managed to adapt in similar ways to their environments, but they remain genetically closer to the different species near them, with whom they share a more recent common ancestor. The manner in which such genetic correlations match evolutionary expectations is independent confirmation of evolution that would serve absolutely no purpose but deception in a world in which all life was created directly by God.
Evolution and Atheism?
Sometimes, especially when addressing religious audiences (from whom they draw the most funding and political clout), creationist spokesmen drop their scientific pretenses and reveal their narrow religious motivations by attacking evolution as atheistic. These creationists would have one believe that evolution presupposes and promotes atheism simply because it contradicts their particular interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Apparently they have decreed through their own infallible, godlike powers, that their human interpretation of Genesis is infallible, and that all who disagree with them must therefore be atheists and enemies of religion, or at least the unthinking dupes of such sinister forces, which they alone have had the moral and intellectual fortitude to resist.
Evolution, however, poses no special problem for the religious believer; most evolutionists have no problem reconciling their scientific knowledge with their belief in God. Creationist leaders attempt to frighten the believers they address by pointing to atheistic evolutionists such as zoologist Richard Dawkins (1986), philosopher Daniel C. Dennett (1995), and historian William Provine. Seldom, however, do they seem to mention believing evolutionists such cell biologist Kenneth R. Miller (2007), geneticist Francis S. Collins (2006), evolutionary biologist Francisco J. Ayala (2006), theologian James F. Haught (2001), philosopher Robert T. Pennock (1999), or evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden (2006). They ignore statements by church assemblies supporting evolution.5 Nor do they point out polls that show that a full 40% of scientists believe that a god guided the process of evolution (Witham 2002:54). Even many of those who believe that evolution proceeds without divine input simply do not understand what evolution is supposed to have to do with whether or not God created the universe, whether or not He forgives us our sins, or whether or not He was incarnated, crucified, and resurrected. While it is true that evolution knocks down one traditional argument for the existence of God (the argument from biological design) there are still plenty of other arguments left over upon which evolution has no bearing. Apparently, what creationist spokesmen really mean when they aver that evolution is atheistic, is that evolution is incompatible with the exact doctrines which they have chosen to enshrine as infallible. Most people, however, consider it rather arrogant to declare that any deviation from your personal interpretation of a religious text amounts to atheism.
But isn’t the wastefulness and arbitrariness of evolution incompatible with the existence of God? Atheists, naturally enough, tend to think so; but for the believer, the wastefulness and arbitrariness of evolution can present no special problem not already presented by the events of everyday life. Consider, for instance, the wastefulness and arbitrariness present in the rape and murder of a child: on the one hand, a person who is inclined to view such things as incompatible with the existence of a loving god is already at the doorstep of atheism, and will hardly be moved by the comparative tameness of the evolutionary history of life. On the other hand, it would be a sick joke beyond measure to suggest that anyone capable of genuflecting at the altar of God after considering the rape and murder of a child could possibly have his or her faith shaken by the cruelty of the evolutionary process. As far as the matter of atheism versus theism goes, the wastefulness and arbitrariness of evolution is either redundant or irrelevant.
The Bible and Creationism
Creationist leaders conclude from their interpretation of the Book of Genesis that evolution cannot have occurred. However, in doing so they presuppose that their personal interpretative powers are infallible. In asserting that God must have inspired the creation stories in Genesis, that He could not have inspired mythological creation stories for any purpose, and that He could not have meant for the creation stories in question to be interpreted in any other way than that which the creationist leader finds most intuitive, these creationists seem to place very severe constraints upon what God can and cannot do. Stranger still, these typically are the same people who loudly berate evolutionists for supposedly trusting human reason over the word of God. These creationists do not seem to realize that their judgement that Genesis is the word of God, and their judgement about how Genesis is to be interpreted, both are products of their own distinctly human reasoning. To reason is inescapable, whether there is a god or not.
Hence, instead of immediately declaring our first impressions about the Book of Genesis to be infallible, and then refusing to budge regardless of evidence, let us not be afraid to embrace the faculty of reasoning which, if God exists, can have come from no one but Him. Let us consider what our most cautious scholarship tells us at this point about the creation stories in the Book of Genesis.
The current consensus among biblical scholars regarding the first five books of the Bible is embodied in what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. For the purposes of our discussion, we need only note that the Documentary Hypothesis detects the hands of at least four distinct authors (or sets of authors) in the Book of Genesis; these authors are abbreviated to J, P, E, and R, for reasons we need not get into. According to Richard Elliott Friedman, P is responsible for the first creation story in Genesis, which runs from 1:1 to 2:3, and J is responsible for the second one, which runs from 2:4b to 25 (Friedman 1996:246). When P wrote his account, he was apparently familiar with, and in fact following a synthesis of, J and E (JE) which contained the J creation story (Friedman 1996:188). But P was intended as an alternative to, not a supplement of, JE (Friedman 1996:188-206). A later editor (R) fused together the JE and P accounts while adding a few sentences of his own. If you have ever noticed how uneasily Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-2:30 sit together, and how different they sound from one another, this is why: they are, in fact, two distinct creation stories, the former being written as a later alternative to the latter.6
It is, of course, always possible with sufficient ingenuity to interpret any two passages of any two texts so that they form a single narrative, and this is the standard strategy among creationists with respect to the J and P creation stories. The question is whether this is the right strategy. Supposing God had wished to give us the one true account of creation, and that it was an important matter for salvation, why would He give what creationists consider the first part of the story to J, later give what creationists consider the second part of the story to P (even though P was trying to write something to replace JE), and then leave it to the human ingenuity of R to later fuse the two accounts together as well as he could? If it were important to God that intelligent people believe the creationist interpretation of Genesis, wouldn’t He give the entire account to a single person all at once (like to Moses, as tradition has it)? Instead, we are left with a process that has all of the hallmarks of human political maneuvering and none of the appearance of inspiration by God.
The problem is exacerbated when we notice that some of the statements in Genesis directly contradict modern science beyond evolution. Genesis 1, for instance, places waters above the stars, and has the Earth, grass, herbs, and fruit trees existing before both the sun and the stars. Of course, if we have decided in advance to fit the words of Genesis to the findings of modern science by any means possible, we can certainly make the fit. However, given that every religious person denies the rationality of this method when people of other religions use it to demonstrate the truth of their holy texts, accepting such a method when considering one’s own holy text would be hypocritical. If we refuse to embrace this double-standard, then we must concede that the Genesis creation stories have the appearance of pre-scientific mythology. Therefore, again, if the creation stories of Genesis were inspired by God in the first place, it is apparent that they were not likely intended by Him to offer an entirely true account of creation.
What, then, could their function be, if they were inspired by God? I can only speculate. Perhaps they were meant to give the ancient Jews another strong element of culture to rally to in times of crisis. The Jewish people and national identity have survived through conditions in which countless others have been destroyed or assimilated, and their shared creation myths may be part of the reason why. Perhaps these myths have served their purpose, and were never meant to be collected into a book and preached as infallible truth forever. I do not know; I am not a theologian, nor even a believer, and am personally content to accept the stories as myths in which no god had a hand. But were I a believer, I would see some wisdom in the old dictum that Scripture tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go. I would recognize that I would still have faults and shortcomings even if there had been no historical Adam and Eve to somehow pass their own sinfulness to their descendants. I would recognize that the arrival of a Messiah, or the return of a once-resurrected one, would be no less possible even if God never said “Let there be light.” And I would recognize, above all, that to insist upon binding God to one’s first impression of a text, disregarding His gift of reason, would be a sign of arrogance rather than piety.
To the rational believer, science is a means of using the God-given gift of reason to understand how God has actually done things. At one point in history, believers used to think that the Sun revolved around the Earth, because they thought the Bible revealed this infallible truth. Science, however, revealed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Although some believers resisted this discovery bitterly at first, mistaking their own interpretations for the infallible word of God, virtually all eventually came to understand that God simply could not have set things up the way they had thought. Now few believers think the Bible contains such a teaching at all. While believers will find the scientific view of the world enhanced and enriched by their religious beliefs, it is sheer folly to insist upon a point of doctrine, grounded in intuition and the authority of tradition, when scientific evidence indicates its falsity. The time will hopefully come when the creationists, like the geocentrists of old, set aside their dogmas and follow the light of reason so that they, too, may learn the great wonders science teaches of the universe, and, if He exists, of God.7
1 This article is a revision of a pamphlet I wrote in 1994. I have rewritten it in part to clarify my main line of argument and to offer new lines of argument and exposition where my thinking has changed, but primarily to correct parts where the tone of the pamphlet was overly hostile. The reader should understand that I was reacting to creationists who painted evolutionists as inveterate sinners and arrogant buffoons who hated God and loved sin, and were responsible for every single evil, real or imaginary, that had ever appeared on the face of the Earth. In light of such creationist excesses, I hope I may be forgiven for retaliating in kind in my youthful exuberance. I continue to believe that such creationists, who unfortunately still seem to comprise a substantial proportion of the creationist vanguard, deserve every insult I have thrown back at them. However, I have also come to realize that the average creationist on the street is just like everyone else: someone with limited time and resources, who is doing his or her best to discover the truth and navigate an uncertain world. I do not believe such people are stupid, even when they have been convinced by self-important propagandists in their religious communities to reject sound science, and I therefore regret that the earlier version of this article tarred all creationists with the same brush.
2 What follows is not by any means intended to be a comprehensive catalogue of such places; instead, it offers only a couple of representative examples, which more or less make the point.
3 Except where this can reasonably be explained by the incompleteness of the fossil record. Human fossils in Precambrian strata, for instance, could not be explained in this way.
4 Because of new molecular and fossil evidence, the working hypothesis that whales evolved directly from the mesonychids (a now extinct kind of ungulate) is no longer accepted. Instead, the evidence indicates that whales evolved from artiodactyls (another kind of ungulate), which are themselves descendants of early mesonychids.
5 One example among many: the 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a resolution the second article of which “Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator” (National Center for Science Education 2002:7).
6 Friedman’s book is highly recommended to those who want to understand who the different writers were, what their different concerns and motivations were, and how this is known.
7 This article is, of course, brief, based as it is upon a mere pamphlet. I have not come even close to listing all of the lines of evidence for evolution, nor have I taken up many creationist objections and replies. For the first, I would recommend visiting the Talk.origins archive. For the second, I have done extensive work in the Defender’s Guide to Science and Creationism.
Ayala FJ. 2006. Darwin and Intelligent Design. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Collins FS. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: The Free Press. 294 pp.
Dawkins R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. New York: W. W. Norton.
Dennett DC. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Foley J. 2005. www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/compare.html.
Friedman RE. 1997. Who Wrote the Bible? San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.
Haught JF. 2001. Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution. New York: Paulist Press.
Miller KR. 2007. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. New York: HarperCollins.
National Center for Science Education. 2002. Presbyterian resolution on evolution. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 22(4):7.
Pennock RT. 1999. Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Romer A. 1966. Vertebrate Paleontology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roughgarden J. 2006. Evolution and Christian Faith. Washington: Island Press.
Witham LA. 2002. Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.