26 April 2010

It's arrived! "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?"

Amazon have finally delivered this book that I am itching to review. It is published by Inter-Varsity Press as a compilation of articles written by creationists specifically for this collection, but (oddly) with copyright held by the individuals themselves.

Essentially it is a multi=pronged hatchet job on Dr Denis Alexander's "Creation or Evolution - Do We Have to Choose?". In Alexander's book (which I have not read fully), it is argued that creationism is based on flawed science and flawed theology - the former I agree with; the latter is debatable only in the sense that all theology is flawed, theology being a discipline that starts off with a massively improbable and unprovable premise, and goes downhill from there. Alexander argues that science is at least compatible with Christianity - a point that is accepted by the large majority of Christian commentators.

But not by a small rump of die-hard science deniers who have managed to set up a reasonably successful stall for their patent snake oil within the evangelical Protestant Christian sector. Evolutionary science has been under attack from religiously-motivated creationists since the publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, and despite the fact that every creationist objection has been blasted out of the water, still the perky little gadflies pop up and fire off another round of nonsense. The most recent effort in this arena has been "Intelligent Design", a propaganda (for there is precious little science or theory) effort by the Seattle based creationist outfit "The Discovery Institute" to force the non-sequitur, "life is really complex, therefore god did it". These attacks have possessed all of the breathtaking inanity (to quote Judge Jones's perfect phrase) of olde tyme creationism, but without specifically pegging their pitch to a 6000-year-old Earth.

So, to some extent, "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?" is a refreshing return to form by the creationists - unashamedly simplistic in its naive analysis of the biblical texts and unashamedly young-earth literalist in its overall perspective, it's like stepping back in time about 200 years to the fire'n'brimstone, or teleporting to Ken Ham's Creation "Museum" outside Cincinatti.

Anyway, I have so far only read a few chapters, and so far the scholarship is very weak, the attacks on the scientific picture of origins are misguided, and the pretence at analysis paper-thin. Over the next few weeks I will review the chapters of this book from the perspective of science. I will also comment where appropriate on some of the wilder theological statements that crop up from time to time. Before that, perhaps a little quote from Chapter 1 (Alistair Donald) is in order: "a commitment to the supremacy of Scripture [sic] will not allow the embracing of any aspect of evolution that compromises the key themes of the biblical text."

There. You know the score. Stay tuned for more laughs...


  1. Cor Blimey Jimmy. Surely you have something better to do with your day. Read "Different" by Youngme Moon and do a positive critique of her brilliant insights. It will be rewarding and you will learn stuff instead of engaging in sterile argument that has negligible chance of convincing you further of the rightness of your position or indeed of convincing your opponents that they are wrong - simply because you are both arguing from fundamentally different bases of logic. Crazy waste of time and rant energy!
    Love Willo

  2. Sorry, Willo, but that is utter cobblers. This "sterile rant" is actually already having a very positive effect. More and more Christians are telling creationists where to get off, which is a good thing, and (despite the whingeing), the occasional slapdown actually enhances dialogue and strengthens the position of people who are not completely crazy. You may not *think* that this matters, but then you are not trying to advance medicine and science.

    Yes, creationist nutters are on the scientific fringe, and their ideas are given no credence, but in NI we have several politicians standing for election right now who have in the past tried to get creationism into the classroom on the back of exactly the sort of dishonest argumentation in this book.

    Science education and literacy is bad enough without letting charlatans have a free rein, so if you don't mind, I will continue on. This is not about letting the widdle poppets believe their harmless fairy tales. Creationism MAKES PEOPLE STUPID. Stupid people are less productive. Less productive people damage economies. That is *everybody's* problem. :-)

  3. Incidentally, just to reiterate - this is not the full book review, merely first impressions. Blogs are *for* rants! It'll take me a while to consider this book, and all I am doing in this post is pointing out some immediate howlers, and identifying areas where the authors are going to have to work very hard to make a case that will impress any scientist or indeed any thinking Christian.

  4. I'll be interested to read your thoughts about this. I've only read bits of Denis' book (although, mentioning a possible COI, I do worship at the same church as him in Cambridge) and I've only heard of this book so far, but I do get the impression that science writing and theological writing are too different to manage to satisfactorily deal with the debate on either side and I don't think that this will be dealt with by either of these books, both of which are written by men I respect. I haven't made up my mind yet where I stand, but I am intrigued by the idea that Creationism makes people stupid! :-)

    Kerrie (Thackray, here via DNUK)

  5. Well, I'll be paying close attention in any case!
    I doubt this book will get the same attention as, say, "The Signature in the Cell" so I'm glad to hear comments.

    I think that it's the first Young Earth Creationist book that IVP have released in a while.

    I've read Alexander's book, along with Darrell Falk's "Coming to Peace with Science". I think that their presentation of the Science was very powerful.

    However Alexander embraces Intelligent Design arguments whether he likes it or not. Certainly the Physics based arguments (Fine Tuning) and his "Biological Fine Tuning" argument (which seems weaker than "Discovery Institute" ID arguments).

    He also tends to literalism when discussing Adam and Eve...in a way that some Young Earthers would raise an eyebrow at (they were neo-lithic farmers. Who knew?)

    Phrases about kettles and pots in glass houses are springing to mind...or something like that

    Looking forward to your review.

  6. Graham & Kerrie, thanks for your thoughts. I rather like Denis Alexander, but yes, some literalist points do sit rather oddly. He decries the "God of the Gaps", but in embracing fine tuning, that seems to me exactly where he is stashing god. Still, it's better than the faux-literal preposterosity of the creationists (by which I mean the young-earth global flood crowd). A vital point a lot of people miss is that we see the universe as it is in *retrospect*, so fine tuning is really not a position we can insist upon, any more than a snowflake might feel that Kilimanjaro was specially fine tuned for it to land on.
    Graham, I'll lend it to you when I'm done (provided I don't lend it to Ron Elsdon first ;-)

  7. So, to some extent, "Should Christians Embrace Evolution?" is a refreshing return to form by the creationists - unashamedly simplistic in its naive analysis of the biblical texts and unashamedly young-earth literalist in its overall perspective, it's like stepping back in time about 200 years to the fire'n'brimstone, or teleporting to Ken Ham's Creation "Museum" outside Cincinatti

    I'm not so sure this is a return to farm by the YECs to 200 years ago Shane.

    200 years ago one could be forgiven for being a YEC. Our knowledge on how old the Earth actually was was far from being complete. Most of the early 19th century geologists had come to the correct conclusion that the Earth was much older thsn Ussher's 6,000 years, purely by observation. Kelvin's subsequent calculations using the cooling of the Earth's primordial heat yeilded a figure of between 20 and 30 million years, not nearly enough for biological evolution to have occurred and to explain Darwin and Wallace's observations. Kelvin was wrong of course because he didn't take into acount the fact that much of the Earth's interal heat is caused by radiogenic heating. it wasn't until the early part of the 20th century, with the discovery of radioactivity, that it was realised the Earth was billions of years old. This figures have been constantly revised ever since with the current age put at 4.55 billion years (plus or minus about 5%. This has been obtained by the radiometric dating of meteorites, not terrrestrial rock itself (much younger due to weathering and plate recycling).

    By the early 20th century, most evangelical leaders accepted either an ancient age for the Earth, or an old Earth and biological evolution. Even the likes of Spurgeon accepted geological time, despite AiG trying to claim otherwise.

    Really Shane, from what I can see of his book, it's nothing more than a reasserting of various baseless YEC claims, plus a few new ones thrown in. To many Christians who hold views such as myself, it's nothing more than devicive and typical of the position taken by YECs (i.e. Christians can only be YECs, no other view points are allowed/permitted).

    To be honest, I'm really surprised at Prof. Nevin taking sides with this intolerant lot. Any time I've heard him preach he's always come over as a very gracious individual. It's quite out of character in my opinion. Obviously Monty White's visits to the Crescent a couple of years ago may have played a part.

    For some history of the modern YEC movement, I can e-mail you some articles by the Rev. Michael Roberts. Michael is a trained geologist and an Anglican vicar. He's an expert in the history of geology.

  8. Hi Peter, fair points. I do accept that a lot of Christians make the error of thinking that acceptance of evolution means that they are not Christians any more, or that somehow they will be seen by other Christians as less "sound". Often it is not an intellectual decision, but one of cowardice - they are victims of bullying by the creationist loudmouths.

    From my perspective, what matters is the truth (so far as we can find it), and creationism is not just lies - it's *stupid* lies. Many creationists try to wrap up their nonsense in sciency-sounding language (I do need to write this review, don't I? It's the stock-in-trade for several of these authors), and they will pull the wool over the eyes of the generally science-naive readership.

    Part of the problem also is that your general Christian reading the scribblings of some nutter from Answers In Genesis has no way of knowing that they are talking nonsense - if Ballard throws in words like "exons" and "retroviruses" and "splicing machinery", what's Joe Soap to do?

    Where Christians *should* get concerned is over the fact that it is astonishingly *easy* to bamboozle non-experts. Evidence for this is the litany of people who should know better (but don't) who queue up to write positive reviews for this book.

    But you're right - most mainstream Christian thinkers are perfectly happy with Darwinian evolution. What we have here is a reactionary fringe. But they are influential all the same, and as I said before, creationism *makes* people stupid. That's the tragedy.