As I read across the spectrum of writings on creation and evolution, I often find a certain level of demonization of one’s opponents. Some Young Earth (YE) creationists ascribe to evolutionists an agenda of tearing down all that is good. Charles Darwin is portrayed as a cunning atheist, who devised his theory of evolution as a means to attack Christianity (see Was Darwin an Atheist? for my treatment of this subject). On the other side, the effectiveness of pro-evolution responses to YE creationists is blunted by bashing them as idiots and failing to address their underlying concerns. Since I have dwelt on both sides of this great divide, I hope by telling my own story here to provide some perspective on why YE creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and evolutionists do what they do.
(A) Early Faith
My spiritual awakening began with a desire for wisdom, as distinct from knowledge. Acquiring plain knowledge was never a challenge for me. I was reading at an adult level by age 8, and was typically a top student in my classes. By age 12 I had a good grasp of applied science and was building electronic circuits and was making my own black gunpowder to fill my rockets.
My parents took me to church and Sunday school as a child, but I don’t recall much penetration from those teachings. I became basically an agnostic materialist, leavened by a bit of pagan feeling of being one with nature. This started to change in my early teens. I got a sense that there was more to life than a narrow materialistic worldview could accommodate, and started thinking outside of the reductionistic box. I became interested in the bigger questions, and looked for wisdom on how to live life well.
This was a time when my family started attending an evangelical church. I began to read the Bible, and found a lot of profound wisdom in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. That pulled me into giving the Bible as a whole some serious consideration. When I read the Gospels I was deeply impressed with Jesus’s wholeness and authority. At home one night, after hearing in a vacation Bible camp of God’s offer of forgiveness and fellowship through Jesus, I said “Yes” to him.
I can’t claim that I rigorously investigated many other religions or worldviews before deciding for Christ. It just seemed right at the time, and I have found no reason since to regret that decision. I later did some due diligence to check the historicity of Christianity. Since the earliest extant physical manuscripts of the gospels date back only to about 200 A.D., that opens the question of whether people just made up miracle tales about Jesus many years after he was gone. It turns out that Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth is well-attested as having been written around 56 A.D. (e.g., when Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians about 96 A.D., he refers to that letter as still being in their possession). In I Cor. 15:3-8 Paul reminded the Corinthians that when he had first come to their city some years earlier, he had preached to them the same gospel about the atoning death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ that he had learned years before from the original apostles. If we work the numbers, we find that within 5-10 years of the Jesus-events of 30 A.D., Paul had met a diverse group of men who were all putting their lives on the line to testify that they had met with the risen Christ. While this will not convince a determined skeptic, it shows that the Resurrection was not some story devised decades later.
Another encouragement to my early faith came in the form of some dramatic answers to prayer. I will not elaborate on my own experiences, but on this blog I have posted links (here, here, and here) to reports or videos of similar episodes, where there appear to be rapid, significant healings.
In my first few years of being a Christian, I did not encounter any controversy over the Genesis creation story. Knowing what I did about science when I read Genesis 1, it seemed clear that it was not literally correct, but somehow that did not bother me.
I remember being impressed with how close the story came to what we now know of the epochs of the earth’s creation, despite being written millennia before modern science. In Genesis 1, the creation of the universe starts with a blast of light. Well, that sounded a lot like the Big Bang which started with mainly photons and particles that were too hot to form matter. The Genesis story progresses with the formation of the land and water, with life-forms being created thereafter. Classes of animals were formed in several stages, with the last stage being the creation of humans. That is pretty good. The creations of plants and of birds are out of order, but, all in all, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 seemed much more realistic than the creation stories of other ancient near Eastern religions. Thus, my original intuition was that it was no big deal if the Genesis story were not literally accurate. It was still majestic and inspiring.
(B) Encounter with Young Earth Creationism
When I got to college in the early 1970’s I was exposed to dogmatic young earth creationism. There was a strongly conservative Christian fellowship at my university. During my freshman or sophomore year they brought in Dr. John Whitcomb as a speaker. He was a co-author of The Genesis Flood, which was a hugely influential book in the 1960s and 1970s. This book made a case for the literal accuracy of the six 24-hour day Genesis creation, and for Flood geology.
In this view, the earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old and most of the sedimentary rock layers were laid down during Noah’s flood around 2500 BC. Adam was specially created starting with dust, and later Eve was also specially created, using a piece of Adam’s skeleton. In this original creation there was no sin, no pain, and no death. All animals were vegetarians. Adam’s sin led to drastic changes in biological functions, to yield today’s biosphere which includes carnivory, fear, and death.
I was impressed by Dr. Whitcomb. He was a devout and learned man, who was very serious about what he was teaching. In his lectures and his book Dr. Whitcomb presented evidence which seem to show that the mainstream scientific understanding of the earth’s age was incorrect. This evidence included polystrate fossils, supposedly older rock layers resting atop supposedly younger rocks, and recent lava flows where radioactive dating methods gave spuriously old dates.
Regarding biological evolution, the young earth creationists pointed to a lack of transitional fossils, and also the lack of observed transformations from one major life form to another happening today. Much was made of fossil mistakes such as “Piltdown man” and “Nebraska man”. (Piltdown man was later discovered to be a deliberate hoax, and Nebraska man was an imaginary construct based on the finding of a tooth which was actually from an extinct pig.)
As a young Christian it was naturally appealing to me to believe that the rock layers and indeed the whole universe confirmed and demonstrated the truth of God’s revelation in the Bible. It did not occur to me to be skeptical of this teaching. Also, I was surrounded by smart, competent students (this was Princeton University) in the Christian fellowship who took all this to be completely true. Therefore I became a believer in YE creationism as an undergraduate. I did not make it a big focus of my faith, but I did persuade my Christian roommate at the time that Genesis was literally true.
(C) Different Views of the Bible
During those undergraduate years I planned to become a minister, so in my coursework I concentrated on ancient Near Eastern history and the Hebrew language. After graduation I attended a relatively conservative, academically rigorous seminary.
Two episodes in the seminary classroom impacted my views on the Genesis story. I took an Old Testament class under Meredith Klein. Prof. Klein spent quite a bit of time on Genesis 1-3, noting the parallels with typical covenants between kings and subjects in the ancient Middle East. He considered that the two triads of the six creation days in Genesis 1 indicate a thematic, rather than chronological framework for revealing the creative acts of God. This “framework” view notes that days 1, 2, and 3 involve the formation/structuring of day/night, sky/sea, and finally water/land, while days 4, 5, and 6 provide occupants or rulers for these realms, in the same order: sun and moon (for day/night), birds and fish (for sky and sea), and land animals on day 6. The earth was initially (Gen. 1:2) “formless and empty.” These two deficiencies are corrected in the next six days, as the earth is “formed” (structured) in days 1-3, then “filled” in days 4-6. There is a pleasing, symmetrical logic to all this. In this view, the sequencing of the accomplishments in Genesis 1 is not expected to correspond to the actual physical order of events. This point of view offered me a way to acknowledge that the Genesis account is not chronologically accurate, while maintaining a high view of Biblical inspiration.
Another significant classroom interaction occurred in a New Testament exegesis course. I was comparing two Gospels and noted some events that I could not reconcile between them. I went to the professor to try to get some help on this, and noted that he did not have a nice pat answer. I finally asked him point-blank, “Do you believe that there are actual discrepancies in the Bible?” He looked at me and hesitated for a few seconds, weighing what to say. Finally he said, “Yes.” At the time I was scandalized, and did not want to accept this. Later I calmed down and reflected that this professor seemed to be as good a Christian as I, and maybe he knew something that I didn’t. That helped released me from the fear that my whole faith would go down the drain if there were any inaccuracy in the Bible.
(D) Old Earth Creationism
After a year in seminary I changed my vocational plans. I went back to college for a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went on for a PhD. I picked up enough hard science along the way to realize that the earth was in fact several billions years old, and that the rock layers were laid down over millions of years, not in a single global flood. I still could not stomach evolution.
By the 1990’s I was reading and agreeing with the publications of Hugh Ross, founder of the Reasons to Believe ministry. Ross staunchly defends the Big Bang as a singular, non-recurring event, seeing it as evidence for a Creator who lies outside of this universe. The Genesis creation story, more than most ancient creation narratives, is consistent with the Big Bang’s one-time (not cyclic) creation of the universe at some finite time in the past.
Ross also points out the many physical constants that are finely tuned to enable the survival of carbon-based life-forms like us, seeing this as evidence of purposeful design of the universe. He teaches a form of “old earth creationism,” where the “days” of Genesis 1 represent long geological ages, which are in correct chronological order. He has to put non-traditional interpretations on the various elements of the Genesis story, in order to make it fit what is known of the geological history of the earth. Given those interpretations, Ross can then claim that Genesis marvelously provides an accurate description of the formation of the earth and its biosphere. While endorsing the conclusions of mainstream astronomy and geology, Ross rejects macro-evolution. He sees Adam and Eve as supernaturally created, not descended from other primates.
In the late 1990’s I also read Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, which highlighted apparent challenges to evolution, such as lack of transitional fossils and some putative quandaries in genetics, while not disputing an old earth. Johnson claims that Darwinism constitutes a naturalistic philosophy intrinsically opposed to religion. This book helped initiate the modern Intelligent Design movement. I found Johnson’s book convincing, since that is what I wanted to hear at the time. I was not motivated to do the hard work required (for a non-biologist) to dig into all the technical arguments for and against evolution, or even to search out and weigh critical reviews of Darwin on Trial such as that written by Stephen Jay Gould.
A key question for the Old Earth/anti-evolution viewpoint is: If all those fossils in those old rock layers do not represent organisms that had slowly evolved over time, where exactly did they come from? The only consistent answer for this viewpoint is that God miraculously created hundreds of new species every million years or so, in a sequence which just happened to mesh with evolutionary expectations (then let them go extinct). That seems unpalatable. This issue is so awkward that anti-evolutionary old earth creationists (including today’s Intelligent Design proponents) typically avoid addressing it at all. It just never occurred to me to ask this question.
(E) Into the Fray
Sometime around 2004 I had an impactful conversation with a colleague at work. I had conceived of all genetic mutations being merely point substitutions at various spots along the DNA strand. That seemed to offer no way for the increase in informational content in the genome which would be necessary if life evolved from simple bacteria to full-fledged animals. I offered this to my chemist friend as a reason that I was skeptical about evolution. He listened to me politely, then informed me that there are other types of mutations that are known to occur, including ones where whole sections of DNA can undergo extra duplication and get inserted into the new DNA strand. For instance, an extra copy of a gene may get added to the genome. (I did not know about this, since my last exposure to genetics was a high school biology class in 1970.) It was immediately clear to me that gene duplication offered a viable pathway for an increase in genetic information. This dissolved my strongest mechanistic objection to evolution, though at the time I did not think very much about it.
I became more deeply engaged in the creation/evolution debate as a result of an encounter around 2008 at a church men’s retreat. A participant there offered a short workshop in creationism. He was a committed young earth creationist, with some knowledge of biology. He presented slides and handed out written material that claimed to show that all the evidence for the earth being very old was mistaken, and also that evolution was scientifically impossible. I was not prepared to counter the examples he gave, but I felt an obligation to stand up and say that there was more than one point of view among Christians on these issues.
This gentleman urged me to get on board with YE creationism. He recognized that I was a scientist and may have hoped that if I came around to his point of view, I could add my voice to the cause. We started corresponding back and forth, and sent each other some books.
With my background knowledge, and with a lot of help from web sites such as TalkOrigins and Old Earth Ministries (formerly Answers In Creation), I was able to point out where all the geological evidence being presented for a young earth was flawed. For instance, in The Genesis Flood is a photo of the “Lewis Overthrust”, where supposedly ancient Precambrian rock layers are resting on top of supposedly younger rock layers. This order of rock layers seems to contradict the normal geological model, where younger sedimentary layers are deposited atop older, pre-existing layers. Mainstream science explains this formation by claiming that the Precambrian rock layers were pushed over on top of the younger rock layers in a nearly-horizontal thrust fault. However, The Genesis Flood showed a picture taken by Walter Lammerts of the fault interface, and in that photo there is no evidence of the deformation and abrasion you would expect if one heavy rock layer were slid across the top of another rock layer. This looked bad for mainstream science – – – until I found a TalkOrigins article with a photo of the overthrust fault, showing the expected deformation and abrasion, and explaining that Lammerts’ serene photo was not a picture of the actual fault line.
Radioactive dating is science’s key method for assigning absolute dates to rocks, so YE creationists attack its reliability. The young earth evidence that had seemed most compelling to me were cases where recent flows of volcanic lava which were known to be only a few hundred years old were submitted for radioactive dating. These dating methods mistakenly reported the lavas as being many thousands of years old. In one of these cases the lava from a 200-year-old flow from a Hawaiian volcano was dated to be over a million years old. However, as I dug into the details I found that the YE creationists were not telling the whole truth on discrepant radioactive dating. For example, with that Hawaiian volcano, it turns out that it was little crystals of unmelted minerals within the lava that were dated as having solidified over a million years earlier, which is plausible; the main body of the lava itself was (accurately) dated as being very recently congealed. I later summarized many of my findings about the geological evidence for an old earth in this article on the Grand Canyon. TalkOrigins and Old Earth Ministries have collected rebuttals to most of the other YE claims.
Not having a current biology background, I was at a loss on how to respond to this gentleman’s claims that all known mutations are harmful, and that genomes are necessarily deteriorating with each generation. He sent me a detailed book, Genetic Entropy by retired Cornell professor John Sanford, which makes the case for the inexorable accumulation of deleterious mutations over time. The implication is that populations could not become more fit or even maintain their fitness for millions of years. Rather, all populations, especially humans, exhibit steady degradation from an earlier, better state. This fits with a perfect creation about 6000 years ago.
Having found that the panoply of arguments against an old earth were bogus and actually deceitful , I became motivated to settle, at least for myself, the question of evolution. In order to determine the truth about these matters, I spent hundreds of hours studying genetics and reading original papers in the field. Some helpful general resources were the Biologos website, “Evolution for Christians” by a professor at Berea College, and “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” at TalkOrigins.
I found that all the objections advanced against evolution were unfounded. There are plenty of examples of beneficial mutations, and plenty of evidence within our genomes of common ancestry with chimpanzees. Furthermore, the fossil record is broadly consistent with evolution, if one looks at the fossils that have been found instead of merely complaining about those that have not been yet found. It is intrinsically unlikely to find fossils of the actual ancestral transitional forms, since (from elementary population genetics) a new species is most likely to develop in some small, isolated population.
I wrote up my findings on geology and genetics in the form of several long letters to my creationist correspondent in the 2008-2009 timeframe. Having put all that effort into these letters, I later published them as “STAN 1” through “STAN 4” as the initial content on this Letters to Creationists blog.
[Continued in Part 2 , which describes the personal and theological aspects of working through the creation/evolution issue ]