It is generally agreed that the most recent and perhaps greatest challenge posed by science to Christianity came with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Although evolution as a concept had become current and popular in the eighteenth century due to the work of pioneering French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, it was Darwin who provided the mass of evidence that led to the acceptance by science that all life on earth is descended from a universal common ancestor.
Which Theory? Whose Perspective?
Darwin’s evolutionary perspective, however, was radically different from that of Lamarck who held that evolution was progressive, with an inner drive towards perfection implanted in organisms by God known as orthogenesis. This inner drive was propelled, according to Lamarck, by the passing on to offspring of favorable adaptive characteristics acquired by organisms during their lifetimes. The inheritance of acquired characteristics as envisaged by Lamarck would imply a speedy and purposeful form of evolution. Darwin however, along with his co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace, proposed that evolution is driven by a mechanism called ‘natural selection.’ Those organisms that are best able to adapt to their environments will be ‘selected’ by nature to survive and reproduce, until they predominate in and eventually transform a species. The favorable characteristics that enable them to adapt, however, are not acquired during the span of a single life but incrementally, by ancestral members of their species, over vast evolutionary timespans. While Lamarckism was scientifically discredited in the twentieth century, evolution by natural selection is one of the oldest unfalsified theories in science. The Darwinian perspective on evolution, however, seems to imply that there is no overall purpose or meaning to creation; evolution is driven by competition between organisms, but this competition takes place within environments that are subject to chance and random events that favor some organisms over others. Although Lamarckism had posed a challenge to the direct creation of the cosmos and humanity portrayed in Genesis,Theologians who agree with the Darwinian perspective on evolution point out that natural selection must be understood as God’s instrument in bringing about the emergence of life on earth. The fact that natural selection depends on a certain amount of chance and accident does not rule out the action of divine providence. it did accord with the Christian view of the nature of God and the purposefulness of creation. The idea that creation has a purpose is itself linked to the well-known theological argument from design. Christian theologians from Aquinas onwards have used this argument as a proof of God’s existence. The adaptations that Darwin claimed had evolved through natural selection were perceived theologically as having been designed by an omniscient God. Darwin himself was well aware of the argument from design, having studied the work of natural theologian William Paley who elaborated on it. Paley argued that the world is so full of design there must be a divine Designer in the same way that a watch found on a path indicated the existence of a skilled watchmaker.
Despite the claims of many of his atheistic twenty-first century disciples that natural selection removes the need to believe in a divine Designer, Darwin himself was well aware of the theological counterargument that God is perfectly capable of creating through natural processes. Indeed, many of his closest friends and supporters, including the great geologist Charles Lyell, managed to maintain both their religious beliefs and their acceptance of natural selection by envisioning evolution as a process used by God to achieve his aims. Contemporary evolutionary creationists adhere to the view of Galileo that God wrote two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture, which are complementary. They hold that the Darwinian view of evolution does not conflict with the Judaeo-Christian belief that God has a plan and a purpose for creation. Theologians who agree with the Darwinian perspective on evolution point out that natural selection must be understood as God’s instrument in bringing about the emergence of life on earth. The fact that natural selection depends on a certain amount of chance and accident does not rule out the action of divine providence. Chance must interact with the constraining necessity of particular environments and can be viewed not as an alternative to design but a creative part of it, an aspect of God’s creativity. Random processes generate novelty which can then be directed by God towards the fulfillment of his plan.
Fossils, Cultures, and the Ape-Human Gap
Evolutionary creationism also allows for detectable divine intervention, which emerges from the scientific evidence itself. It is a little-known fact that the first scientist to claim that natural selection provides empirical evidence for divine intervention in the evolutionary process was Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace’s belief in a spiritual dimension to existence marked a surprising about turn from a longstanding atheism, and was caused by his discovery of natural selection. Although they remained great friends and collaborators throughout their lives, Darwin and Wallace disagreed strongly on this issue. Darwin held that human nature was developed from the lower animals by means of the same laws of variation and survival, and that as a consequence there was no difference in kind between human nature and animal nature, just one of degree. Wallace’s view on the other hand was that there is a difference in kind, intellectually and morally, between humanity and other animals. Wallace simply didn’t believe that natural selection could have bridged the ape-human gap, nor achieved our intellectual capacities. For Wallace it was the very fact that the same great laws that had caused the evolution of all life were so obviously active in the evolution of humanity that provided evidence of a ‘Power’ greater than natural selection that was also involved. For just as surely, he felt, as we can trace the action of natural laws in the evolution of organisms, so also can we simultaneously track the action of some unknown higher law responsible for what the natural processes could not have achieved. He maintained that natural selection cannot account for human genius in the fields of art, mathematics, music, and philosophy, nor for the power of conceiving abstract concepts such as eternity, infinity, truth, justice, and beneficence. Human consciousness could not be a product of purely material causes. Wallace felt that the purposeful activity of this higher ‘Power’ was analogous to the human activity of artificial breeding in order to produce higher forms and strains of animals.It is my opinion that because of the light it is shedding on our remote and mysterious African origins, palaeoanthropology is the scientific discipline that is now most crucial and relevant to evolutionary creationism. He envisaged God as guiding the natural laws and intervening directly in biological development at opportune times. There was, he asserted, divine intervention at least three times in the process of evolution, which he described as ‘an inbreathing of spirit.’ The first was the creation of organic life itself; the second was the origination of consciousness in the higher animals; and the third was the development of the higher intellectual and spiritual nature of humanity, which includes self-consciousness. Wallace also believed that there are certain aspects of the human body that natural selection could not have achieved; these include human hairlessness, the shape and capabilities of our hands and feet, and the human voice. He went so far as to claim that the whole purpose of the universe was to produce the human spirit.
As it happens, recent evidence from the fields of archaeology and palaeoanthropology support Wallace’s perspective on divine intervention in the evolutionary process in both the physical and intellectual spheres. There are two significant gaps in the fossil record that belie the stereotypical view of a gradual evolutionary trajectory from the ape to the modern human species. Homo sapiens appeared with relative suddenness in its anatomically modern form sometime between two hundred and three hundred thousand years ago. This form distinguishes it clearly from the many other hominid species who preceded or were contemporaneous with it. The cranial anatomy of Homo sapiens is unique in its high, globular, and voluminous vault, underneath which is tucked a relatively small face. Other hominid species—such as the Neanderthals—had large faces that receded backwards into sloping skulls. It is thought that our unique cranial shape may be related to our superior cognitional abilities. The second gap, generally referred to either as the ‘great leap forward’ or the ‘cognitive revolution’ is typified by the appearance of human culture in the fossil record about forty thousand years ago in Europe, where the record is particularly rich. European Homo sapiens had of course evolved in and immigrated into Eurasia from Africa, where there are various sites that reveal an explosion in human intelligence and an accelerated form of cultural development dating back to between seventy thousand and ninety thousand years ago. By the time they reached Europe, our ancestors had developed the ability to engage in sculpture, engraving, painting, music, elaborate burial rituals and specialized social roles. These abilities appear to have arrived all at once as a package rather than gradually. There is as yet no adequate scientific explanation either for the suddenness of their emergence or for the vast difference in cognitional powers between Homo sapiens and the other hominid species, a strong indication that Wallace was correct in his arguments concerning what natural selection can and cannot achieve. It is my opinion that because of the light it is shedding on our remote and mysterious African origins, palaeoanthropology is the scientific discipline that is now most crucial and relevant to evolutionary creationism.