‘Is it on your grandmother’s or grandfather’s side that you are descended from an ape?” asked Thomas Huxley, Bishop of Oxford and one of the early opponents of evolutionary theory at an infamous debate at Oxford University in 1860. It was one year after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin Of Species had set the world alight.
There have been many letters written in the pages of the JC in the 150 years since its publication, debating the implications of evolutionary theory for Judaism and religion in general. Yet there is little doubt that a scientific consensus has existed for over a century now to the effect that the world was not created in just six days, and that in fact a process of random natural selection led to the evolution of present day life over millions and millions of years.
For those few who still cling to the idea that creation did literally happen in six 24-hour periods, it remains unclear how they realistically explain away the uncomfortable reality of facts such as the fossil record and the evidence of evolutionary genetics. It is perhaps not surprising that the secular world, and the secular press in particular, chooses this particular worldview to label as “creationism”. Yet in doing so, they perhaps conveniently mask the deeper challenge of the evolutionary theory, which is not to engage in what are really quibbles about the mechanics of the process of creation, but to deny the involvement of a divine power as the prime mover in creation.
After all, for an omnipotent God, does it really matter if He chose to create the world in six days or in six millennia? No, the crucial issue for us as Jews, as well of course for Christians and Muslims, is whether a living God engaged in the act of creation, has continued as an active force in the world up to the very present. And although Darwin’s intention was never to deny the place of God, the introduction of evolutionary theory into Western consciousness in the mid-Victorian era opened the door for the eventual declaration that “God is dead”.
The Origin of Species offered a non-religious explanation for how the abundance of life we see in the world around us could have come about by the random, mechanical process of natural selection. Coming as it did at the same time as scientific rationalism, it had its greatest triumph in the advances of the industrial revolution, and laid the foundations for a world that believes that the whole concept of God was an idea that had outlived its usefulness.
It is this crusade, to proclaim that belief in God is an outmoded and superseded form of belief, that lies at the heart of the ridiculing of “creationism”. And this crusade is particularly strong in secular Western Europe and in England in particular, for England has always been the most pagan of the Western societies.
You only have to reflect for a moment on the witchhunt that was undertaken last September against Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society. He merely suggested that science teachers should not treat creationism as a misconception if it came up in science lessons, but rather as a worldview, albeit one to be challenged. Yet the cacophony of condemnation from the secular scientific establishment, fanned by the voices of the secular media, swiftly led to his resignation.
It was not the suggestion that the Earth was created in six days that raised their ire, rather that anyone could give credence to the idea that the Earth was created at all.
But science doesn’t have all the answers. A striking example is the continued failure of biologists, despite decades if not centuries of effort, to create living matter from non-living components. In the accepted initial accounts of evolutionary theory, claims were made that if the right combination of molecules were present in the early “biological soup”, then these molecules could over time spontaneously combine to create the first living cell.
Yet despite numerous attempts, no one has yet come anywhere close to replicating such an event, and indeed many evolutionary biologists have surmised that the chance of life spontaneously coming into being is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Indeed, the late Fred Hoyle, the originator of the Panspermia hypothesis (the idea that life on earth was seeded across interstellar space in some way), is famously quoted as saying that “the chances that life just occurred are about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and constructing a Boeing 747”.
Yet for God to be removed from the equation, evolutionary biology has to give an explanation for how living cells came into being in the first place. And this is not the only area in which interpretation, faith and a mechanical view of the existence of life come into conflict. Although there are legitimate evolutionary explanations for how snakes managed to evolve poison glands without poisoning themselves, or for how the complexity of an organ such as the human eye came about, these too rely on allowing that very, very unlikely events may have happened eventually given a long enough time scale.
Yet there is nothing “scientific” about accepting these explanations based on improbable events happening at some point. It is, as the proponents of intelligent design suggest, just as reasonable to consider the possibility that there was a guiding hand in the process of the creation of life that continued to have a role in guiding the development of more and more complex creatures (as indeed is outlined in the account in Genesis).
Why should Jews and others, who take the complexity of the biological world as evidence of the ongoing wonder of creation, be cowed into feeling that there is something almost dirty and illogical in suggesting that God is the prime mover in that creation?
There is nothing in the evidence presented by evolutionary theory that contradicts that view. I, for one, am happy to stand up and be counted as a Jew who maintains the freedom to hold to his belief in the divine creation.
This does not mean, as the secular zealots would have us believe, that I have abandoned acceptance of rational evidence provided by the science, but only that I have recognised its limitations.