Can We Trust the Bible Over Evolutionary Science?
James N. Anderson
Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
It’s no secret that one of the main reasons unbelievers give for not believing the Bible is that modern science—specifically, evolutionary science—has shown that the Bible’s account of human origins is mistaken. Indeed, evolutionary science is not merely an obstacle to unbelievers; it can also be a stumbling block for professing Christians. There are many believers desperately trying to reconcile a high view of Scripture with mainstream scientific claims about our evolutionary origins, and those who cannot do so invariably end up downgrading their doctrine of Scripture. In some cases this is just the first step in a near-complete abandonment of Christian orthodoxy. For both believers and unbelievers, the claims of evolutionary science pose a serious challenge to the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Can we trust the Bible over evolutionary science? I doubt I need to issue a “spoiler alert” before revealing that my answer to the question will be an emphatic “Yes!” Even so, much needs to be discussed before delivering that affirmative conclusion. Why can we trust the Bible over evolutionary science? On what grounds can we answer the question with a confident “Yes”? That will be the primary focus of this article. Along the way, however, I also want to say some important things about how we ought to approach this question—and similar questions about the trustworthiness of the Bible—so that readers may be better equipped to deal with this and other challenges to Scripture.
I. Analyzing the Question
Before attempting to answer our question, we need to take a closer look at the question itself to understand what’s really at stake. Any question of the form, “Can we trust X over Y?” suggests two things. First, it suggests that X and Y are two distinct sources of truth-claims. The question “Can we trust X over Y?” presupposes that X and Y make certain claims and present those claims as true. So the question we’re considering here assumes that the Bible is one source of truth-claims and that evolutionary science is another source of truth-claims. (Later on I’ll define more precisely what it means to speak of “evolutionary science” as a source of truth-claims.)
Secondly, a question of the form “Can we trust X over Y?” implies that X and Y are in conflict at some points—or at least appear to be in conflict. If someone were to ask my young daughter, “Can you trust your father over your mother?” that wouldn’t strike her as a very pertinent question, because in most cases her parents aren’t conflicting sources of truth-claims. (I say “in most cases”!) Likewise, if this essay bore the title, “Can we trust the Bible over the North Carolina White Pages?” I doubt it would attract much interest. I certainly believe the Bible is more trustworthy than the North Carolina White Pages, but that’s hardly a pressing question for anyone because there’s no apparent conflict between the two. In the case of the Bible and evolutionary science, however, it’s evident to most people that the two come into conflict at some very significant points.
Now, it’s only fair to acknowledge that many people believe there is no conflict between religion and science understood in very general terms. And there are many people—“theistic evolutionists,” or, as some now prefer, “evolutionary creationists”—who maintain there is no specific conflict between belief in God and the theory of evolution. Such people will argue for the possibility of God using evolution as his chosen means of bringing about life on this planet. Even though evolution operates entirely through uninterrupted natural processes—primarily natural selection acting on random genetic mutations, according to the standard neo-Darwinian account—God could have set up the natural laws and initial conditions of the universe so that it would play out in just the way he intended. Indeed, what appears to be random to us need not be random to God. What we observe in the biological world today could in principle be a divinely-rigged evolutionary outcome.
How does this bear on the question before us? I will grant that the theistic evolutionists are right about one thing: there’s no direct logical conflict between the existence of God and the standard theory of evolution. Neither logically excludes the other. Even so, that’s of little help to us in addressing the question at hand, for two reasons. In the first place, theistic evolution implies that God created the world in such a way as to largely conceal the fact that he created the world. The God of theistic evolution can be likened to a secret agent who carries out his mission by carefully covering his tracks and hiding all the evidence of his actions. But surely that’s not the God of the Bible! The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1 that God’s existence and attributes have always been “clearly perceived in the things that have been made”—indeed, so clearly that no one is left without excuse for failing to honor and thank God for his good work of creation. But if God has covered his creative tracks, so to speak, people would have an excuse. And the reality is that many unbelievers point to evolutionary science—specifically, to the claim that the apparent design in the organic world can be explained entirely in naturalistic terms—as an excuse for their unbelief.
The second reason why theistic evolution doesn’t offer much help here is that the question before us isn’t whether we can believe in God, in some very general sense, but whether we can trust the Bible. And there are very clear conflicts between the teaching of the Bible and the teachings of mainstream evolutionary science: the sort of claims we would find in a textbook of evolutionary biology for example. It will suffice to mention here only two obvious points of conflict. (1) Genesis 1 records that God made plants and animals according to distinct kinds, whereas evolutionary science claims that all organisms are related through common ancestry; in terms of evolutionary history, there are no sharp discontinuities between different organisms or species. Every organism is, in the final analysis, a more-or-less distant cousin of every other organism. There are no original “walls of separation” in the biological world. (2) Genesis 2 records that God brought into existence the first human couple directly and immediately—Adam from the dust of the ground, Eve from the side of Adam—whereas evolutionary science claims that humans are descended by natural procreation from pre-human ape-like animals. In other words, there is no place for the special creation of humans in mainstream evolutionary science.
So our question—“Can we trust the Bible over evolutionary science?”—is an extremely important one, for there is a very apparent conflict between the Bible and mainstream evolutionary science. Each challenges the legitimacy and the trustworthiness of the other, and despite many attempts to reconcile the two, there is no way to do so without compromising one of them.
II. An Evidentialist Approach?
How then should we approach the question? How should we approach any question of the form, “Can we trust X over Y?” One method we might call the evidentialist approach. In simple terms, the evidentialist approach looks like this:
- Stack up on one side all the reasons for trusting X.
- Stack up on the other side all the reasons for trusting Y.
- Weigh up the two sides to see which has the better reasons overall.
Or to put the same idea slightly differently:
- Stack up on one side all the evidence we have for trusting X.
- Stack up on the other side all the evidence we have for trusting Y.
- Compare the two sides to see which has the greater weight of evidence.
On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable approach to questions regarding the relative trustworthiness of X and Y. It’s the sort of approach that might be taken in a criminal trial, with respect to conflicting witnesses. But there are two basic problems faced by the evidentialist approach to our specific question. The first is that the kind of evidence on each side may be very different. The kind of evidence we would have for trusting the Bible may be (and I would argue has to be) very different than the kind of evidence we would have for trusting evolutionary science. And that can make it difficult to compare and weigh evidences in an objective and quantifiable way. So the first problem is that of comparing different kinds of evidence.
The second problem (and a far more significant one in my view) is this: We come to the question as Christians—and therefore we don’t come to it with a blank slate or an empty ledger. We don’t come to it from “square one,” as though we have no prior beliefs or commitments. And it wouldn’t be right for us to try to go back to “square one” in order to answer it!
A couple of analogies will illustrate the point. Suppose I introduce you to two friends of mine: Dr. Calvin and Dr. Hobbes. The two doctors are both professional zoologists. But they have a disagreement: they make some conflicting claims. Dr. Calvin claims a certain species of spider is decreasing in number and will be extinct within 50 years, whereas Dr. Hobbes claims the same species of spider is actually increasing in number and there’s no danger it will go extinct in that timeframe. Having introduced you to these men and explained their disagreement, I put to you this question: “Should we trust Dr. Calvin over Dr. Hobbes?”
Assuming you can to resist the temptation to use the feature on your phone which makes a fake call to get you out of an unwanted conversation, how will you decide such a question? One approach would be to do some research on the qualifications of each man—his professional experience, his publication record, his reputation among his peers, and so forth—and then draw an informed conclusion about which of the two men is likely to be the more reliable source, at least with respect to the arachnological claims in question. That would reflect the evidentialist approach.
But now imagine a different scenario. You’re sitting at home one day, and the doorbell rings. At the door is a sharp-suited man with a grim expression who introduces himself as Agent Smith of the CIA. Agent Smith has some bad news for you. He tells you that your beloved spouse is actually a Russian secret agent who has been sent on a mission to seduce you with a view to gaining highly valuable commercial secrets from your employer. (We’ll assume for the purposes of the illustration that you don’t work for Taco Bell.) Agent Smith is clearly implying that your spouse has been feeding you a string of falsehoods.
Now that raises a question: Can you trust your spouse over Agent Smith? How should you approach that question? In principle, you could take the evidentialist approach. You could go back to “square one,” assuming nothing about either source, and evaluate the two sources. Perhaps your spouse has entered the room now and is contesting Agent Smith’s claims, but you have to say, “Sorry, honey, I can’t listen to you right now! I can’t simply take for granted that you’re trustworthy, because your trustworthiness is precisely what’s in question. I have to establish that from scratch!”
So you mentally stack up on one side all the evidence in favor of trusting your spouse, and then you stack up on the other side all the evidence in favor of trusting Agent Smith. (He shows you his CIA identification card, some official-looking documentation from the case against your spouse, suspicious-looking photographs of your spouse meeting a stranger in a café, and so forth.) You weigh up the two sides and finally decide which one to trust.
I assume it’s obvious what would be wrong with that approach. At the point when the conflicting claims arise, you already have a firm trust in your spouse. Your starting point is one of trust in one of the sources, and it would be wrong simply to suspend or relinquish that trust and to start from scratch. Instead, your question should be this: Does Agent Smith present you with any good reason to weaken or to abandon the trust you already have in your spouse?
The relevance of these two hypothetical scenarios should be apparent. It is the second of the two scenarios that most closely corresponds to our situation as Christians regarding the Bible. So when we consider the question, “Can we trust the Bible over evolutionary science?” we have to be clear about our starting point. We already trust the Bible! And it would be quite wrong for us as Christians to suspend or “bracket out” that trust as we consider that question. Instead, we should approach the question by asking this secondary question: Does evolutionary science present us with any good reason to weaken or to abandon the trust we already have in the Bible?
III. The Basis for Our Trust in the Bible
So the issue now comes to this. Does evolutionary science present a serious challenge to our trust in the Bible? The first step toward answering that question requires us to remind ourselves of the basis for our trust in the Bible. How do we actually know that the Bible is the Word of God and therefore supremely trustworthy?
On this issue I know of no better summary statement than the one found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Article 4 of the opening chapter of the Confession reads thus:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
The point here is that the Bible has intrinsic authority precisely because it is the Word of God. It doesn’t depend on some higher authority to certify or validate it, simply because there is no higher authority than God. But still the question arises: How do we come to know that the Bible is the Word of God? How do we come to know that it isn’t a merely human book, but rather divinely inspired? The Confession answers in the very next article:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
The Confession is essentially saying this: The testimony of the Christian church—the testimony of Christian believers through the ages—certainly counts for something. It bears witness to the inspiration of the Bible. Furthermore, there are many objective evidences that the Bible is the Word of God (what the Confession calls “incomparable excellences”) such as its unified spiritual message and its power to transform lives. In other words, it bears all the hallmarks of a divine revelation. Nevertheless, the decisive factor in our coming to know that the Bible is the Word of God is an internal work of the Holy Spirit in our minds and in our hearts.
This is what Reformed theologians have called the “internal witness of the Holy Spirit,” whereby the Spirit gives us the capacity to recognize that God himself is speaking to us in the Bible, and he actually produces in our minds a belief, an acceptance, an assured trust, that the Bible is the Word of God. What typically happens in practice is that we read the Bible, or hear it preached, and we find ourselves under a deep conviction that this isn’t merely the words of men but the very Word of God. In short, the Spirit of God gives us ears to hear the voice of God speaking to us in the Scriptures.
The core idea here is very similar to what we find Jesus teaching in connection with his role as the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) The sheep are precisely those who hear the voice of the Shepherd. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, Christian believers recognize the voice of their Master.
Another analogy may help at this point. I imagine most readers have had the experience of answering the phone only to be greeted with the words, “It’s me!” From a strictly logical perspective, that statement couldn’t fail to be true. (“Why, of course it’s you!”) Anyone in the world—even a complete stranger—could truthfully say, “It’s me!” Nevertheless, I’d wager that almost every time you hear those words you immediately know who ‘me’ is. The words themselves don’t identify the caller to you; rather, you directly recognize the voice of the person speaking to you. What’s more, that recognition doesn’t normally involve any conscious reasoning or inference from empirical evidence (“It’s the voice of a woman, probably in her 30s or 40s, with an East-coast Scottish accent, therefore…”). You simply know who it is by an immediate recognition. In an analogous fashion, when the Spirit bears witness in our hearts and minds to the divine authorship of Scripture, we immediately recognize the voice of God.
It’s important to emphasize that this explanation doesn’t reduce to unbridled subjectivism. The Confession isn’t saying that Christians experience something like a warm, fuzzy feeling that the Bible is the Word of God and conclude on that basis that it must be true. This isn’t the Calvinist version of the Mormon’s “burning bosom”! Rather, the Confession is asserting that the Spirit gives us a direct acquaintance with the Bible as the Word of God. Just as we can perceive directly that something is sweet from its taste, or that it is warm from touching it, the Holy Spirit gives us a spiritual capacity—a spiritual perception—by which we can perceive directly that the Bible is divinely authored.
Such is the basic Reformation position on the basis for our trust in the Bible, as represented by John Calvin, his fellow reformers, and subsequent Reformed theologians. And it’s a position that received sophisticated defense by Christian philosophers in our day.
One might think that we have said all that needs to be said. After all, if the Bible is indeed the Word of God then it is supremely trustworthy. It is absolutely infallible, because God is absolutely infallible. Nothing could be more trustworthy than the Bible, including evolutionary science.
The logic is entirely sound as far as it goes. If the Bible is the Word of God then nothing could be more trustworthy than the Bible. The problem, however, is that evolutionary science challenges our conviction that the Bible really is the Word of God. It presents a challenge to our trust in the same way that Agent Smith did in my earlier illustration. To put the matter in terms that have become commonplace in contemporary epistemology: evolutionary science presents us with a potential defeater for our trust in the Bible.
A defeater, as the word itself indicates, is something that defeats a belief we hold. It gives us a reason to abandon that belief or at least to hold it less strongly. To take a simple example: suppose I look out of the window when I get up in the morning and I note that the driveway is wet. I think to myself, it must have rained earlier; I form the belief that it rained during the night. A moment later, however, I remember that I had set the lawn irrigation system to turn on at 5 o’clock. I now have a defeater for my belief that it rained earlier; I have a reason to abandon the (hastily formed!) belief that it rained during the night. And if my cognitive faculties are working properly, I will no longer believe that it rained during the night.
Here’s another example. Suppose I buy myself a Boston Kreme donut, which I store in the kitchen cupboard and plan to enjoy when I get home from work the following day. As I’m driving home I say to myself, “I’m really going to enjoy that donut!” But when I walk through the door, to my great surprise and consternation, the first thing my wife says to me is, “Thank you so much for the donut, darling. It was just what I needed this afternoon!” I now have a defeater for my belief that I’m about to enjoy a donut. (I also form a new belief that I need to find a better hiding place for my donuts.)
A defeater, then, is something that defeats one or more of our beliefs. And a potential defeater is something that could be a defeater: it has the potential to defeat one or more of our beliefs. (Whether the potential defeater becomes an actual defeater depends on a number of factors, including how the potential defeater is processed by the person who encounters it.) So the challenge we need to address is that evolutionary science presents us with a potential defeater for our trust in the Bible. But should that potential defeater be an actual defeater? Does evolutionary science present us with any good reason to abandon or diminish our trust in the Bible? Now that we have a clear view of the nature of the challenge, we can tackle it head-on.
V. Does Evolutionary Science Give Us Defeaters?
We’re now at the point where we need to be more specific about what is meant by “evolutionary science.” Evolutionary science isn’t a person or office that can be directly consulted. You can’t call up the National Academy of Sciences and ask to be put through to “Evolutionary Science.” Neither is evolutionary science a well-defined source of any other kind, like a recognized set of official documents. How then should we identify the claims of evolutionary science?
There is a remarkably naïve view in our culture today—it deserves to be called a modern myth—that “science” is some kind of official, identifiable, authoritative source that speaks to us with one distinct voice. I could cite numerous expressions of this view, but here I will mention only two, both connected with the contemporary debate over climate change. A few years ago I noted a stream of ‘tweets’ from the official Twitter account of the White House, promoting the President’s policy on dealing with climate change, all of which carried the hashtag #ScienceSaysSo. Not “scientists” say so—which would be questionable enough—but “science” says so! More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a new report on the global climate. Invited to comment on it, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, led with this statement: “Science has spoken.”
“Science says so.” “Science has spoken.” Such language reflects a historically naïve and philosophically indefensible view of what science is and how it functions; indeed, it represents a shallow personification of science that borders on deification. Having noted such concerns, however, I believe it is possible to define “evolutionary science” in a sensible way that permits a meaningful consideration of the question posed:
Evolutionary science: A consensus of opinion among a particular subgroup of scientists who are generally regarded as experts in the theory of evolution.
Given this definition of “evolutionary science,” I see basically two ways in which evolutionary science might present a defeater for our trust in the Bible. First, there is the general testimony of evolutionary scientists; and secondly, there is the empirical evidence cited by evolutionary scientists in support of those specific claims that conflict with the Bible. Let us consider each way in turn.
The General Testimony of Evolutionary Scientists
Here’s the first way in which evolutionary science might present a defeater for our trust in the Bible. There are scientists who are experts in the theory of evolution—recognized authorities in their field—and among them we find a settled consensus that all organisms on earth, including humans, are related by common descent having evolved from simpler life forms through entirely natural processes. Since this is a consensus among experts, we should trust them on this. We should accept their testimony. In three words: “Scientists say so.”
I think there are several reasons why the testimony of evolutionary scientists, while not to be dismissed out of hand, shouldn’t defeat our trust in the Bible. For one thing, scientific consensus is notoriously fallible and open to revision. At one time there was a consensus that the earth was stationary and the sun orbited the earth; that theory has now been abandoned. At one time there a consensus that an element called “phlogiston” is released during combustion; that theory has also been abandoned. Examples could be multiplied of instances where an earlier scientific consensus is now considered quite mistaken.
Furthermore, I suggest we ought to be suspicious of any scientific consensus which has significant religious, moral, political, or economic implications. There is another prevalent modern myth to the effect that scientists are disinterested observers of the natural world, entirely objective pursuers of the truth. In reality, scientists are flawed human beings like the rest of us, with all the familiar prejudices, biases, and agendas. Moreover, it’s as clear as day that evolutionary science isn’t religiously neutral. Richard Dawkins, arguably the world’s leading promoter of Darwinism, famously quipped that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” while Cornell biology professor William Provine once remarked that evolution is “the greatest engine of atheism ever invented.” Combine such comments with what Paul declares in Romans 1:18-32 and it’s evident that Christians need to approach the consensus of evolutionary scientists with a healthy dose of skepticism. For those who want to flee from God, the Darwinian theory of evolution is the getaway car of choice.
To these observations I would add that evolutionary science is largely self-defining and therefore self-serving. It’s hardly surprising to find a consensus among evolutionary scientists about the theory of evolution, given that one can be an evolutionary scientist only by accepting evolutionary science. There is an unavoidable element of circularity in the way scientific communities operate, including the community of evolutionary scientists. It’s practically a tautology that if an evolutionary scientist didn’t accept evolutionary science, he wouldn’t be a member of the group of evolutionary scientists. And who are evolutionary scientists trained by? Other evolutionary scientists, of course. And what are they taught when they’re trained? You see the point. It’s tempting to suggest that the consensus of evolutionary scientists on the origins of human beings carries little more weight than the consensus of professional football players on whether football is a great sport.
To be fair, it’s often claimed that there is a consensus across the entire scientific community about the theory of evolution. All scientists—or nearly all scientists—accept the theory, we’re told, and therefore the rest of us should too. But the truth is that most scientists have no special expertise in evolutionary science. They’re specialists only in their own fields. And to whom do they defer when asked about evolutionary science? You guessed it.
One final point is worth noting before we move on. Recent trends suggest that a growing number of scientists are admitting to serious doubts about whether the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution actually explains the empirical evidence it is supposed to explain. When we add this fact to the considerations above, it seems to me that the general testimony of evolutionary scientists doesn’t give us a defeater for our trust in the Bible. It simply doesn’t carry sufficient weight. And the same goes for any general scientific consensus.
Empirical Evidence for the Specific Claims of Evolutionary Science
Let’s consider now the second way in which evolutionary science might present a defeater. Evolutionary scientists could give us empirical evidence for the specific claims that conflict with the teaching of the Bible. It’s not possible here to enter into a detailed discussion of all the supposed evidences for the theory of evolution; there’s simply too much ground to cover and the material would get rather technical and tedious. Instead, I propose to briefly address some representative examples that deal specifically with claims about human evolution, i.e., claims that humans are descended from pre-human ape-like animals, such that we share a distant common ancestor with chimpanzees and other apes. What are some of the actual evidences given for these claims about human origins?
(1) Often it is claimed that there is compelling evidence for evolution in general, i.e., for the common ancestry of all species, and therefore we should accept that humans are part of that larger picture. However, it’s well known—if not widely admitted—that there is considerable evidence against that general theory of evolution. For example, the fossil record is simply not what we would expect to find if the theory of evolution were true. We would not expect to see all the gaps and discontinuities between species that we do in fact see. The problem of the “missing fossils” has been a thorn in the side of Darwinism ever since Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, and there have been many ingenious attempts to get around it, but all involve speculative theories that function to explain away the observational evidence rather than to independently predict that evidence. As such, these modified theories of evolution don’t serve to increase the evidential support for the Darwinian theory of evolution. Indeed, the fact that evolutionary scientists have to make ad hoc adjustments to their core theory actually weakens the evidential case for Darwinian evolution.
(2) Another common argument is that there is specific fossil evidence for human evolution. We have discovered bones from pre-human hominids that demonstrate (so we are assured) a clear line of evolution leading up to present day humans. No doubt most of us have seen the stereotypical reconstructions depicted in natural history museums purporting to show the step-by-step progression from ape-like ancestors to modern man.
In reality, such reconstructions are highly speculative and susceptible to doubt. “Fossil evidence of human evolutionary history is fragmentary and open to various interpretations,” wrote the British paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, Henry Gee, in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. After all, fossils aren’t discovered with convenient little labels telling us exactly which species they come from, and how that species is related to any other species in our current taxonomical scheme. The reconstructions of our supposed evolutionary history are precisely that: reconstructions. And the actual physical evidence on which those reconstructions are based is sparse and ambiguous.
No wonder, then, that paleontologists disagree quite markedly about how to interpret the fossil evidence and which species were our supposed evolutionary ancestors. It turns out that the fossil evidence falls into two basic categories: ape-like species and human-like species. There are no clearly intermediate transitional species, and there is no consensus about the supposed line of descent from the first group to the second group. Evolutionary scientists agree that human evolution happened: they just don’t agree on where it happened, when it happened, and how it happened. Consequently it’s very hard to see how the fossil record gives us solid evidence of human evolution.
(3) A third common argument for human evolution is that it is supported by genetic evidence. Technology has advanced to the point where we can now ‘map’ the human genome, the DNA code that is taken to define us as a species, and we can compare it with the genomes of other species such as apes to determine how we are related to them. So the argument is that modern DNA analysis discloses our close genetic relationship with apes, which is precisely what the theory of evolution predicts.
Several things can be said about this line of argument. In the first place, we should note that the genetic arguments often assume common ancestry rather than proving it. They typically take for granted that we have a common ancestor, and on that basis draw conclusions from genetics about which species are most closely related to us. The genetics alone don’t establish common ancestry; rather, common ancestry functions as an ancillary assumption in the argument.
Secondly, the genetic arguments typically involve great leaps to conclusions that simply aren’t supported by the evidence in question. It’s often noted, for example, that our genome is 99% identical to that of chimpanzees, and then the conclusion is effortlessly drawn that we must be closely related to chimpanzees. But that’s a non sequitur. Since we have an anatomy very similar to chimpanzees, it stands to reason that the DNA which specifies that anatomy will also be very similar. Yet that genetic similarity can be equally well explained by common design as by common descent.
In any case, while the 99% statistic sounds like compelling evidence on the face of it, the numerical value itself means very little apart from an interpretive context. Among other things, it depends on exactly how one compares the genetic data (and precisely which genetic data one compares). It turns out that different methods of comparison give different numerical values. Moreover, one might just as well argue that since humans are radically different from chimpanzees in so many respects, we cannot be defined solely in terms of our DNA. In the end, the genetic evidence can be interpreted in very different ways depending on the assumptions one brings to it.
Much more could be said about the supposed scientific evidence for human evolution, but I want to take a step back at this point and make a more general observation about scientific theories and the evidence used to support those theories. One conclusion we can draw from the preceding discussion that evidence doesn’t speak for itself—despite what many people naively assume. Evidence always needs to be interpreted against a backdrop of guiding assumptions and prior knowledge. Moreover, evidence is always susceptible to different interpretations, each of which may be consistent with the evidence taken alone.
In the last half-century or so, philosophers of science have recognized that the complex relationship between theories and evidence presents scientists with a number of challenges, one of which is known as “the problem of theory underdetermination.” Here’s the problem: whenever we gather a body of observational evidence, there is always more than one theory that fits the available evidence. Consider by way of illustration the data points depicted in Figure 1, which we can take to represent a set of empirical observations. What underlying theory would explain this raw data? Perhaps the most natural theory is one that posits a linear relationship between the points, as in Figure 2. But this is far from the only theory that fits the data. As Figure 3 illustrates, a theory positing a sinusoidal relationship between the points fits the data equally well. The raw data itself doesn’t select for the linear theory over the sinusoidal theory. The two theories are underdetermined by the data they seek to explain.
One might suppose that the straight-line theory should be favored over the sine-wave theory, since that’s the simpler or more natural of the two theories. But in mathematical terms a sine wave is very simple too, and sinusoids are ubiquitous in the natural world. The sine-function is related to the position of a point as it moves in a circle. And what could be simpler or more natural than a circle? (If you think “a line” is the obvious answer that question, that only reveals your geometrical bias!) The upshot is this: which of the two proposed theories you favor will depends on criteria other than the observational evidence, because the evidence itself doesn’t settle the issue.
One might imagine that the way out of the problem of theory underdetermination is simply to eliminate competing theories by obtaining more evidence. In the example depicted in Figure 1, additional data points might rule out one of the two proposed theories. The trouble is that for any finite set of data there will always be innumerable theories that could be constructed to explain that data. While additional evidence might help to exclude some theories, or groups of theories, there will always remain an unlimited number of possible theories consistent with the data.
To be clear: my point is not that one scientific theory is ultimately as good as any other, or that there can be no rational basis for favoring one theory over its competitors. Rather, the point is that scientists cannot rely solely on observational evidence to establish their theories. They have to rely on other criteria to select between alternate theories—and that’s exactly what happens in practice, even if the scientists don’t realize it. What’s more, those other criteria are typically philosophical—even religious—in nature.
Now here’s the pay-off for our purposes. One of the criteria we use to select between competing scientific theories, and between different interpretations of the same observational evidence, is our prior knowledge: what we take ourselves to already know about the world. We can ask: Which of the available theories fits best with our prior knowledge? In practice, all scientists apply this criterion (again, whether they recognize it or not). But as Christians one of the things we take ourselves to know already is that the Bible is the Word of God. That’s part of our prior knowledge. It’s one of our background assumptions. So it’s quite legitimate for Christians, when presented with empirical evidence that can be explained by different scientific theories, to favor those scientific theories that are consistent with the Bible and to reject those scientific theories that are inconsistent with the Bible.
And this is especially true with regard to the theory of evolution. The observational evidence that many scientists take to be explained by evolutionary theory (or better: evolutionary theories) can also be explained by alternate theories, such as a theory of special creation that allows for widespread speciation within natural kinds. What’s more, there’s a raft of other evidence (such as the fundamental differences between humans and other animals) that is better explained by those alternate theories. What all this means is that the evidential arguments of evolutionary scientists need not be—and should not be—a defeater for our trust in the Bible.
Can we trust the Bible over evolutionary science? I answer with a resounding “Yes!” We know that the Bible is the Word of God because there are many objective evidences of its divine authorship, and through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit we have eyes to see those evidences and ears to hear the voice of God speaking to us in Scripture. Furthermore, for the reasons I’ve laid out, I’m persuaded that evolutionary science has delivered nothing that comes close to defeating our trust in the Bible.
I would like to close with one final thought, more pastoral than philosophical in nature, which I suggest gives us another important perspective on this issue. When we ask the question “Can we trust the Bible over evolutionary science?” we’re implicitly asking this question: “Can we trust Jesus over evolutionary science?”
Why do I say that? Simply because Jesus consistently and unambiguously affirmed that the Old Testament scriptures were the very Word of God. He specifically appealed to Genesis as a reliable historical account of human origins. And he insisted that “the Scripture cannot be broken.”
So whom will you trust? Has Jesus ever given you reason not to trust him unreservedly and wholeheartedly? To put the matter bluntly: if you can trust your spouse over Agent Smith, you can certainly trust your Savior over evolutionary science.
- This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at the Raleigh Reformation Conference in October 2013. ↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.7.4-5; Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), Second Topic, Question VI. See also Question 5 of the Belgic Confession: “We receive all these books [of Scripture], and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and conformation of our faith; believing without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesses in our hearts, that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves.” ↑
- See, e.g., Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 241–323; James N. Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status, Paternoster Theological Monographs (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 177–99. ↑
- “Of Warming and Warnings,” The Economist, November 3, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21630639-most-comprehensive-climate-report-yet-issues-its-shots-across-bow-warming-and. ↑
- The “Climategate” scandal which erupted in November 2009 offers a striking illustration. Andrew C. Revkin, “Hacked E-Mail Is New Fodder for Climate Dispute,” The New York Times, November 21, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/science/earth/21climate.html. ↑
- The point can be taken even further: evolutionary science itself is highly interdisciplinary, involving contributions from such diverse fields as paleontology, zoology, molecular biology, chemistry, biophysics, genetics, statistics, and so on. It is virtually impossible for any scientist to have special expertise in evolutionary science as such, rather than some particular field within it. ↑
- For a thorough discussion of the problems the fossil record poses for Darwinism, see Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2013). ↑
- Henry Gee, “Return to the Planet of the Apes,” Nature 412, no. 6843 (July 12, 2001): 131–32. ↑
- For an excellent critical analysis of the purported evidence for human evolution, see Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin, Science and Human Origins (Discovery Institute Press, 2012). ↑
- For a good overview, see Kyle Stanford, “Underdetermination of Scientific Theory,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/scientific-underdetermination/. ↑
- Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948); John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009); Craig L. Blomberg, “Reflections on Jesus’ View of the Old Testament,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 669–701. ↑
- Matthew 19:4-6. ↑
- John 10:35. ↑