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Anslem: The Third Paradigm: Adam and Evolution

Peter Eyland, 02/09/06 updated 8 March 2014

Peter's Slideshow on "Historical Christian responses to scientific paradigms: Adam & Evolution"

This was recently given on the Pacific Princess cruise over the Pacific Ocean. (February 2014)

Adam and Evolution


Adam and Evolution


Adam and Evolution


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Adam and Evolution


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Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin image

Darwin knew about selective breeding in domestic animals. He had experienced how variations could be used to develop particular traits. When he went to the Galapagos Islands, legend has it, he observed that an isolated island could produce finches with specialised beaks which were adapted to their available food. He reasoned that it couldn't be due to human intervention since there had been no humans there. It could only be the result of natural forces.

He continued that, since there were natural variations among finches, the particular environment of an island (i.e. the food available) must have given a competitive edge to a particular finch variation. This would produce a gradual accumulation of that finch variation within an island population until it became the dominant form.

It was then the effect of different environments that brought about the dominance of different types of finch on different islands. This selection of a particular variant came about quite naturally and so he called the process natural selection.

In a later edition of his book, he used Herbert Spenser's phrase "the survival of the fittest", to mean that natural selection occurred through the survival of the variant best fitted to its environment. It must be noted that the phrase "survival of the fittest" has often been used out of context to mean the survival of the best - with some cultural value judgment on what best means - this was not Darwin's idea.

It seems that Darwin did not mention natural selection till some 8 months after the Galapagos, and his connection with finches does not appear until 1935. However, like Newton's apple and Archimedes leap from his bath, the legend will continue. (For this view see Henry Nicholls in New Scientist, 15 July 2006, p.21).

Darwin ultimately applied natural selection to humans and concluded with the paradigm that: modern man was the end result of the process of natural selection from a prior "less highly organised" form.

Darwin did not know the mechanism that produced variation but predicted that it would be discovered at some later time. This was duly accomplished by the Christian, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884).

Darwin discussed various objections to his idea, such as the absence of transitional forms, the complexity of the eye, instinctual behaviour, and crossed species being sterile.
He defended his thesis with - the imperfection of the fossil record, the accumulation of gradual change, how domestication changes instincts, and degrees of fertility in crossed species.

Darwin did not have all the answers but his basic paradigm was that life in all it forms could occur naturally, i.e. without the need for divine intervention.


More information on the topic

Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford and T. H. Huxley debated Darwin's Origin of species at a meeting of the British Association in Oxford on 30 June 1860. Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) seems to have come out of it with a moral victory but without convincing the majority of Christians.

Asa Gray(1810 – 1888), although a Presbyterian, became Darwin's champion in the US. He wrote an influential book, Darwiniana, which argued for conciliation between evolution and orthodox Protestant Christianity.

John Henry (Cardinal) Newman (1801 – 1890) seems to represent the mainstream Christian feelings of the time. He didn't see Darwin's theory contradicting scripture, but felt there had to be more than unaided natural selection.

Post-Darwinian developments include discussion of the movement in nature towards complexity, in particular, rewinding & replaying evolution.

Steven Jay Gould argued that if evolution were re-wound and replayed there would a completely different results each time, because humans are a "wildy improbable evolutionary event".
Simon Conway Morris argued that if evolution were re-wound and replayed there would be much the same result, i.e. humans.

Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of the selfish gene. Here is his after dinner verse.
An itinerant selfish gene
Said ‘Bodies a-plenty I’ve seen
You think you’re so clever
But I’ll live forever
You’re just a survival machine’

Intelligent Design

Intelligent design seems essentially anti-evolutionary, so it is discussed here. We will look at three important areas: Michael Behe and Irreducible Complexity, William Dembski and Specified Complexity, Gonzalez and Richards on the fine balance of the Universe.

Michael Behe and Irreducible Complexity

Michael Behe image

In The Origin of Species Darwin stated:
"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down".

Michael Behe, in Darwin's Black Box, The Free Press, 1996, has argued that Darwin's falsifiable criterion is met by a system with irreducible complexity. In such a system, the removal of any one of the interacting parts would cause it to stop functioning. It cannot then be produced gradually - by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition non-functional.

He gives the simple example of a mouse-trap and also a number of complex biological systems. See:
Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation.
Genetic cascades.

mouse trap

However, Darwin explained in The Origin of Species: "if we look to an organ common to all the members of a large class ... in order to discover the early transitional grades through which the organ has passed, we should have to look to very ancient ancestral forms, long since become extinct."

The reason for this is that the final form may share very little in common with the original function. Today's complex form can then present an confusing picture because the path of evolution has been obscured. In building construction, supporting "scaffolding" may develop for one purpose and then be taken away for another purpose. The result will then be an apparently "irreducible" complex structure.

Behe wrote significantly: “It is often said that science must avoid any conclusions which smack of the supernatural. But this seems to me to be both bad logic and bad science". US courts have ruled that "intelligent design" is not science because it appeals to the supernatural for explanation. It seems to be more a “god of the gaps” argument, i.e. one which argues from ignorance rather than knowledge. It fails to provide any testable or falsifiable hypotheses, and also there are arguments against its specific claims for irreducibility. Such arguments are in a way unnecessary, after all evolution is consistent with the belief in an intelligent designer of the Universe either through apparently random or directed evolution.

William Dembski and Specified Complexity
William Dembski image

William A. Dembski wrote No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence, Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

He argues that intelligence leaves a characteristic trademark or signature, which he calls "specified complexity". He says that undirected natural processes like the Darwinian mechanism are incapable of generating the specified complexity that exists in biological organisms.

Dembski proposes that an event exhibits specified complexity if it falls through three causal filters.
• it is contingent and therefore not necessary;
• it is complex and therefore not easily repeatable by chance; and
• it is specified in the sense of exhibiting an independently given pattern.

From this premise, Dembski argued that there are natural objects in the world that can be unambiguously identified as objects that could not be the outcome of unguided natural processes alone, and must therefore be the products of intelligent design.

To give an example: forensic scientists look for signs of intervention at a crime scene. They ask if the event could occur naturally or was there the characteristic signature of human involvement? Archaeologists also have to decide whether a rock was naturally shaped in the form of a tool or if it was specifically designed. Other examples are arson, plagiarism, and the SETI project.

Another example: a man slipped on mint jelly and claimed an insurance payout – four times.
This was contingent and complex, and so slipped through the first two filters, but the pattern showed signs of human planning.

Dembski invokes a mathematical theory of information to detect 'designed objects'. As an example, he argued that information encoded in DNA:
• has a meaning independent from its structure,
• is not required by natural law, and
• could not have occurred by chance.

Now a design implies a designer and Dembski suggests that the designer could be some kind of “aliens”, but this seems a ploy to avoid the supernatural.

Essentially Dembski assumed that there are three explanations for natural events: chance, necessity and design. There is a limit on causes in science, only two kinds of explanation are accepted: chance and necessity (natural law). The Oympian god Apollo is not considered to be the cause of plague (as in The Iliad). The Norse god Thor is not considered to be the cause of lightning bolts. Sticking pins in dolls, or "pointing the bone", is not a material cause of pain to someone (unless manipulated psychologically). This illustrates that Science is limited to natural causes, i.e. the observed regularities in nature that allow reason to create reliable and testable patterns.

Scientists agree that intelligent agency can be detected in the particular activities specified by Dembski. However it observes that in complex systems, there are laws that apply, which cannot be derived from Physics but are nevertheless consistent with them. These natural laws produce apparent design and complexity that do not need any intelligent intervention, that is they naturally produce self organising systems.

Gonzalez & Richards and the fine balance of the Universe.

The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, 2004

Gonzalez & Richards draw attention to the fact that if any one of the fundamental constants of physics or any one of the fundamental parameters of the universe is slightly different then the existence of life like ours becomes impossible.  This leads into what is called the Anthropic principle.

Building nuclei

The strong nuclear force, (involved in keeping protons and neutrons together in the nucleus), must be just right. If it were 0.3% stronger or 2% weaker no nucleus would be stable.
The weak nuclear force (involved in beta decay) must be just the right strength in order to get the right mix of elements forming as the Universe evolves from the Big Bang.
The neutron mass is 0.138% greater than that of the proton so we have more protons than neutrons in the Universe. If it were 0.1% more massive, then there would not be enough neutrons available to form the heavy elements. If it were 0.1% less massive, then protons would decay into neutrons and the Universe would be full of neutron stars and black holes.
The number of protons must equal the number of electrons in the Universe to one part in 1037 or electromagnetic forces would overcome the gravitational forces and no galaxies, stars or planets would form.

Building atoms

There are no stable elements with atomic masses of 5 and 8, so the existence of the higher stable elements we see, depends on an excited energy level of the carbon nucleus being fortuitously equal to the typical energy of three alpha particles in a star's interior (predicted by Hoyle).
The nuclear energy levels of carbon and beryllium had to have exactly the right values or the life-giving elements of carbon and oxygen would never have formed.

Building molecules

The strength of the electrostatic force must be just right for covalent bonds to form the 40 different elements needed to make the molecules from which we are made.
The ratio of the mass of the electron to the mass of the proton must be just right to give electron orbits of the right size and stability.

Building stars

The gravitational force must be just the right strength – if it were stronger, the stars would burn too hot and not last; if it were weaker, the stars would not be hot enough for nuclear fusion and so the heavier elements would never form.

Critical density

If the density of matter in the early universe was a little higher than a critical density, then the universe would have re-collapsed before any structure had time to form. If the density was a little lower then the galaxies could not have formed. If the universe had initially been above or below the critical density by more than one part in 1059, then life, as we know it, could not have arisen.

The Anthropic Principle.

There are about 25 constraints on physical constants as described above. There are a further 32 constraints on the galaxy-Sun-Earth-Moon system required to make life possible here as we know it. These and many other coincidences makes the Universe statistically improbable.
The Strong Anthropic Principle says that the bizarre and improbable coincidences we see must mean that Universe was specially designed for us.

The Weak Anthropic Principle says that since the production of life is a rare event, any universe that has intelligent observers is guaranteed to display bizarre and improbable coincidences.
It would actually be observing that "the constants are wrong" that would undermine science.

Thomas Aquinas argued for design the 13th century, William Paley updated this argument with his watchmaker analogy. Behe, Dembski, Calvert and Richards' arguments for Intelligent Design are in this same tradition but more complex.

Was Adam a historical person or a historic paradigm?

Genesis is structured by the re-curring formula "these are the generations of ..." (Hebrew: toledoth).
The "generations of Adam" starts at Gen 5:1, then there is

Gen 6:9

Noah’s sons
Gen 10:1

Gen 11:10

Gen 11:27

Gen 25:12

Gen 25:19

Gen 36:1

Gen 37:2

This suggests the book was primarily constructed around a series of genealogies with narratives about those historical people. Now the "generations of Adam" starts at Gen 5:1, but the first "generation" mentioned is of "the heavens and the earth" in Gen 2:4. It appears therefore that Genesis chapters 2 to 4 have been constructed as a literary form to conform to the structure of the rest of the book, rather than as a genealogical table of a historical person.

In the Hebrew language, the word “Adam” stands for man as humanity rather than say man as opposed to woman. Genesis chapters 1 – 4 Man/Adam has the definite article (“the man”) 22 times and omits it 6 times. Wenham in his Commentary on Genesis says that the language and context is that of humanity as a whole and not a particular person.

It is then difficult to decide when “Adam” as a personal name is first mentioned. The NIV and RSV use the name Adam first in Gen 3:17, however the NRSV however does not use the proper name until Gen 4:25, and it is not absolutely required before 5:1. In Chapter 6 Man/Adam reverts to humanity in general.

Also, Genesis 2–4 is more like the language of the book of Revelation (an apocalyptic style) than literal history. God walks about with a form that is later denied, apparently plays in the dirt with his hands, and doesn't know where Adam has hidden. There are talking snakes, mythological trees, angels with flaming swords and so on.

It may be that the reason people want it to be history is confused with the question - "Do I have value and purpose", or "am I an accident of Nature"?

A theological concern may also be involved. The significance of a passage like Romans 5:12 and a particular theory of salvation, may override any non-historical reading of Genesis. In Romans 5:12, Paul wrote that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.”. It is not specified how men came to sin and this gave rise to various theories.

The Catholic and Protestant churches adopted an Augustinian theology about a “fall of man” in Eden (though the Bible nowhere uses the term “fall of man”). Augustine taught that humanity was originally perfect ("man's nature was created at first faultless and without any sin"), but fell by choice and "since all were in that one man ... they all severally derive original sin" (De nupt. et concup. 2:15). This is a "genetic" inheritance of an original decision which requires a single historical ancestor.

The Eastern churches place their equivalent idea of a fall at Genesis 6:5. The “fall of man” was for them, not in the Garden of Eden, but was the reason for sending the flood. They also do not teach a physical transmission of guilt but highlight the consequences of previous actions. In other words they teach that sin is endemic and rapidly infects humanity. A consequence of this is that there is no requirement for a single historical ancestor and people are held responsible for their own guilt, not Adam's.

When Paul wrote about Adam, he may have used a common understanding about a corporate person, such as "Israel". In the Tanakh "Israel" is often said to sin, i.e. as a nation not an individual. In the same way, Adam can be both a historical yet corporate person - a parable. It perhaps should be noted that Christ was portrayed as both an individual yet corporate person. The Christian believer is thought to be swept into Jesus and in some way die at the same time that Jesus did. However this unity in his death is not transmitted in any "genetic" way through families.

Summary 3rd Paradigm

• Darwin's paradigm showed that the origin of life on Earth could be explained by natural selection.
• Mainstream Christianity generally accepted the idea of evolution.
• Intelligent design is not science but complex arguments about design.
• A non-historical Adam does not necessarily distort conventional theories of salvation/redemption

Anselm Summary

Science has introduced three paradigms to Christianity:

Mainstream Christianity generally accepted each of these at the time, and adapted its theology without violating basic principles.

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