Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall (2015)

evolution-2-0-perry-marshall Perry Marshall applies ideas from engineering and information theory to evolutionary biology with a twist that combines intelligent design and evolution. He touts under-appreciated advances in biology that reveal cells to be far cleverer than most people realize, arguing that the cell’s complexity was intelligently designed and that this complexity actually makes evolution possible!

Like Michael Behe, Marshall believes random mutations are utterly insufficient to explain the diversity of life, yet he still believes in the general principle of common ancestry and its compatibility with Christianity. However, unlike Behe, who vaguely resigns the history of life to “non-random” mutations, Marshall highlights the “natural genetic engineering” work of James Shapiro, Barbara McClintock, and others to define a paradigm shift he calls “Evolution 2.0.” Marshall describes a suite of tools that provide “adaptive” mutations where DNA changes, not by copying errors from one generation to the next, but through cells editing their own DNA according to pre-programmed rules to intelligently respond to new challenges in fascinating ways. Marshall argues that not only does Evolution 2.0 finally provide a plausible explanation for common ancestry, but it does so with a clear level of purpose that has far more positive religious implications than the typical – and in his opinion, totally unbelievable – Darwinian story of chance progress through unguided randomness.

The Five Blades

The five “blades” of a “Swiss army knife” are Marshall’s metaphor for the tools cells have to improve themselves with precision and purpose.

Transposition is when cells re-arrange parts of their DNA. Not only do these arrangements apparently follow specific rules of grammar and syntax (i.e. more akin to rearranging words or sentences in a paragraph than simply random letters), but they are triggered more often when they are needed:

“No sir,” replied Dr. Shapiro, “they’re not random at all. When bacteria are comfortable, some mutations cannot be found in over ten billion cells. But when they’re starving, the mutation frequency can go by a factor >100,000-fold and they develop new adaptations so they can survive.”

Horizontal gene transfer is when cells share DNA with each other, both within and across species, apparently according to specific syntax so cells know how to properly integrate the new code in a useful way. Marshall describes a bacterium learning to resist an antibiotic by finding another cell with code for “a pump that can purge the poison from its own system… The bacterium finds the portion of the DNA that codes fora pump, inserts the new code into its own DNA, and starts multiplying.” Apparently we are still advancing the extent of our knowledge on what kinds of creatures can transfer genes with each other. (Among other things, this severely complicates attempts to draw trees of life from DNA sequence similarities.)

Epigenetics involves the switching on and off of existing DNA, in response to changes in the environment, to essentially change which code functions actually run on an organism. In at least some cases these changes appear to be inheritable, in what Marshall calls “Lamarck’s Revenge.”

Symbiogenesis is the instant creation of new forms from the combination of different species. Mitochondria and chloroplasts in cells are classic examples, as is lichen, which I learned is really a combination of fungi and algae. Marshall also explains some fascinating empirical lab evidence for such “quantum leaps” from symbiogenesis:

Dr. Kwang Jeon… did an experiment where tens of thousands of bacteria took up residence inside Amoeba proteus organisms. A fierce parasitic attack ensued, killing almost all the amoeba. But in the space of a year, amoeba and bacteria entered into symbiosis. Both modified expression of their genes as necessary, to support the mutual dependence.

Joen learned how to reliably trigger symbiotic cell mergers between amoeba and bacteria. It took 20 generations, about 18 months, for the cells to become fully interdependent. After that, removal of either symbiotic partner proved fatal to both.

Marshall claims that “major classes of cells, plants, and animals are built from symbiotic mergers of multiple smaller organisms.” He notes the work of Dr. Lynn Margulis, who “argued that Symbiogensis is a primary driver of evolution.” Unlike Darwinian evolution, which “emphasizes competition as the primary force, Margulis focused on harmony and cooperation.”

Finally, whole genome duplication is when a rare non-sterile hybrid offspring of two species “inherits double chromosomes… The process of joining the two DNA strands together also, in rare matings, provokes rearrangements through Transposition. This sudden rearranging is called hybrid dysgenesis, and it can provoke sudden new and useful features its parents never had.” Marshall discusses clues that the genetic information for the first jawed vertebrate came from a doubled chromosome in a single generation,” though this event likely “only created the conditions for the jaw to form some time later.”

Insights and Implications

Marshall’s fast-paced style jumps around with personal details about his brother’s loss of faith and his own journey of discovering parts of the science, with a variety to connections to Christianity and the Bible, and other implications and opinions. It’s easy-to-read and very accessible, but perhaps at the cost of diving deeper into the details about the “five blades.” He repeats “DNA is a code” over and over throughout the book without clearly (or at least, as clearly as I would have liked) demonstrating how, for instance, the encoding pattern is a choice that could have been different. That being said, Marshall provides numerous resources (via a well-designed bibliographic code, of course) for diving deeper into almost everything he covers, and the smorgasbord of content contains plenty of interesting insights throughout.

1. Marshall devotes one appendix to defending his harmonization of science and Genesis, highlighting similarities between the order of the creation account and the current scientific consensus. Whether you’re familiar with these lines of argument or not, there is much food for thought and some original thinking as well.

2. Marshall describes his engineering-based skepticism of the power of natural selection this way:

If natural selection explains how everything came to be, then how come it doesn’t teach you how to build anything?

If natural selection acting on random mutation is so elegantly powerful, why don’t programmers or businesses or really anybody create anything that way? He describes a general principle that “noise” always destroys data and argues for applying it to the genome, noting that when evolutionary biologists attempt to simulate random evolution via computer models, their best results look a lot more like “2.0” goal-seeking evolution than “random” mutation.

3. Marshall brings insight from his engineering background to the dismissive claims of poor design:

Is the body well designed or poorly designed? Skeptics often criticize the human body, presuming it’s an accumulation of chance accidents. They say things like, “The human eye is a pathetic design. It’s got a big, blind spot and the ‘wires’ are installed backward.”

…When I was a manufacturing production manager, I had to produce an indicator lamp assembly for a piece of equipment. The design had a light bulb and two identical resistors, which I thought were stupid… I learned the hard way that when you criticize a design, you may have a very incomplete picture of the many constraints the designer has to work within. Designs always have delicate tradeoffs… Sometimes you have to compromise between 15 competing priorities….

I am not saying there are no suboptimal designs in biology… But human beings must be very careful to not proudly assert that we could “obviously do better.” We don’t know that. We do not understand what’s involved in designing an eye because we’ve never built one.

4. More on the implications of “cooperation” rather than “competition”:

Nature is so often depicted as cruel and merciless in its bitter and unrelenting struggle. But when you actually spend time in nature… you witness fabulous, intricate interdependence. Grass keeps soil from eroding. Bees and flowers engage in a dance with each other… Big fish get their mouths cleaned by “cleaner fish”… Cooperation and symbiosis are so ever-present we tend to look right past them and only notice the competition.

5. Thoughts on common ancestry for humans:

Christians believe God became man, physically born of a human mother… If a human can be the Son of God by possessing the Spirit of God, then why can’t a primate become a human being by receiving a human spirit?

6. Marshall argues that Evolution 2.0 can actually teach us more about God and nature by revealing his skills as a designer, and letting us discover things that have enormous practical applications for designing and building responsive systems, from biology to business.

I believe in Evolution 2.0 because the God I believe in is more magnificent than previously believed. He doesn’t have to beam zebras from the sky onto the savanna. He designed a process that formed them from the dust of the ground and tailored them to their environment… God wants us to study all of what He has made… God is the Original Scientist, the Original Engineer. This opens huge vistas in medicine, genetics, computer science, and technology. You can’t learn how zebras are built from a miracle – but you can learn from a natural process… What if we understood God to be an engineer so skilled that he endows cells with the ability to engineer themselves?

Behe Connection

On the one hand, Marshall’s book would appear to be a natural partnership with Behe: Behe argues that evolution is real, but random mutation is not a sufficient mechanism, and Marshall steps in to provide those mechanisms that Mivart was anticipating would be found way back in 1871. In fact, Marshall essentially makes this connection in a brief discussion of Behe’s first book Darwin’s Black Box. Yet on the other hand, there is a discrepancy, with Behe arguing in Edge of Evolution that Shapiro’s “natural genetic engineering” does not appear to have done anything for malaria in several decades despite intense selective pressure and more numbers of creatures than all the mammals that are thought to have ever existed!

I reached out to Marshall for his perspective on this. He replied that he planned to respond after additional research but offered an initial opinion that Behe was “singling out a very specific instance or example that may be overlooking a larger pattern or singling out particular facts that exclude others. And I think he’s drastically underestimating the capabilities of natural genetic engineering. He’s also being vague about how evolution actually does work.” (If Marshall has the opportunity to respond further I will update this post.)


Marshall rejects the dogma of both sides, yet not with a “boring” conventional “theistic evolution,” but with an exciting “2.0” intelligently-designed-evolution that will be fresh and even paradigm-shifting for many readers, though he insists much of this has been known for years within biology communities while being understandably under-appreciated and under-reported by the Darwinian and creationist dogmatists. Of course, Marshall ends up sounding rather dogmatic about his own newfound position (perhaps history will remember him as “Shapiro’s bulldog”), with critics claiming he invokes a host of processes without truly understanding how they work or what their limits may be. But regardless, Evolution 2.0 is an exciting introduction to a lot of interesting ideas with profound implications for creationists and evolutionists, Christians and atheists alike.


The Edge of Evolution by Michael Behe (2007)

edge-of-evolution-michael-behe Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution is a decade-later (2007) follow-up to his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box, which described the “irreducible complexity” of certain biological structures and argued that Darwinian evolution could not produce them. In this book, Behe looks at the limits of what natural selection and random mutation can do, trying to define what he calls “the edge” of evolution.

Behe makes a careful distinction between the theory of common ancestry, which he believes and shares some evidence for, and the mechanism of random mutations acted on by natural selection (or, “Darwinian evolution”), which he argues is nowhere near powerful enough to account for the diversity of the creatures that share a common ancestry. He critiques scientists who present evidence of common ancestry as evidence of the power of random mutation.

Arms Race or Trench Warfare?

Behe looks at the best-touted examples of what Darwinian evolution can accomplish through the natural selection of random mutations, focusing on human resistance to malaria and malarial resistance to antibiotics. He argues that these “beneficial” single- or double-point mutations are really destructive: malaria hijacks machinery in human red blood cells to do its dirty work, and human mutations essentially break that machinery, sacrificing it as a loss for a net gain of stopping the malaria. Similarly, antibiotics hijack machinery in malaria cells to do their work, and malarial resistance essentially breaks that machinery in a similar sacrifice.

Far from an “arms race” of creatures developing new and complex machinery, Behe says these examples are actually the destructive consequences of a “trench warfare” where each side sustains damage to their own structures to prevent the attacker from taking advantage of them – like “burning a bridge” to block an invading army.

The “beneficial” mutations in malaria have not created new protein bindings, developed any new structures, or come up with any way to counter sickle-cell resistance, cooler temperatures, or other limitations. This explains why malaria has overcome many antibiotics within a few years but has not bested sickle-cell in centuries. “Darwinian evolution can deal quickly and easily with some problems, but slowly if at all with others.”

Since malaria multiplies to a trillion cells in a human host, and the number of malarial cells that exist each year (10^20) is more than the number of mammals that have ever existed, Behe argues we can compare the limited performance of malaria in the last few decades to the total performance of mammals over a hundred million years.

He argues it is not reasonable to expect Darwinian evolution to come up with any benefit that requires more than two point mutations. Quoting Coyne and Orr, he says we have to consider not just what is theoretically possible but probable enough to be “biologically reasonable.”

Behe discusses the evolution of an anti-freeze protein in the notothenoid fish over a few million years, arguing that a possible step-by-step pathway to its development is simple and fundamentally different from developing more complex structures. It “underscores the limits of random mutation, rather than its potential.”

Rugged Fitness Landscape

Unlike an imaginary smooth hill that can be climbed, mutation by single mutation, he describes a “rugged fitness landscape” of mutation effects, with a chaotic mess of valleys and local maximums. He argues that evolution by random mutation is most likely to get stuck on local hills. “Random mutation and natural solution can’t solve the rugged landscape dilemma – they actually cause the dilemma.”

“The eminent geneticist Francois Jacob famously wrote that Darwinian evolution is a ‘tinkerer,’ not an engineer.”

Behe highlights recent biological discoveries to look not just at the final complex structures of living beings but at their marvelous ability to self-assemble their complex pieces. Proteins must have matching shapes and charges to bind together from a huge array of possible shape space, quoting biophysicist Sarah Woodson, “it is as though cars could be manufactured by merely tumbling their parts onto the factory floor.”

He discusses intraflagellar transport (IFT) and its role in cilia construction, how materials are gathered at the base of a cilium before construction, how a rotating filament cap guides flagellum pieces down a rod. Repressors and hox genes and pyramids of cascading circuit switches. Markers that identify different segments of a body for the other pieces to fill in the details.

Behe says the “likelihood of getting two new binding sites” requires “more cells than likely have existed on earth.” He looks at HIV, a virus with nine genes that has a much faster mutation rate than human or malaria cells. “Every possible single-point mutation occurs 10^4 [one thousand] times per day in an HIV-infected individual.” Every double-point mutation would occur in each person once each day. And yet HIV has produced no new protein bindings for the development of new machinery.

To the objection that we cannot extrapolate to billions of years from the performance of malaria or HIV in a short amount of time:

“Time is actually not the chief factor in evolution – population numbers are… Since for many kinds of organisms the mutation rate is pretty similar, the waiting time for the appearance of helpful mutations depends mostly on numbers of organisms… The numbers of malaria cells and HIV in just the past fifty years have probably greatly surpassed the number of mammals that have lived on the earth in the past several hundred million years… The fact that no new cellular protein-protein interactions were fashioned, that mutations were incoherent, that changes in only a few genes were able to help, and that those changes were only relatively (not absolutely) beneficial – all that gives us strong reason to expect the same for larger organisms over longer time.”

Thus Behe’s conclusion: “Most mutations that built the great structures of life must have been nonrandom.”

Natural genetic engineering

Behe briefly discusses other scientific theories of how “unintelligent forces may mimic intent,” such as James Shapiro’s “natural genetic engineering,” which focuses on how the cell contains “sophisticated tools” to manipulate its own genes, so “evolution doesn’t have to proceed in a Darwinian manner by tiny random changes.”

Behe says “in many ways Shapiro has a higher, more respectful view of the genome than Darwinists do… it’s like a computer that contains not only specific programs, but an entire operating system.” But since it doesn’t explain where those tools came from, “if anything, he is pointing the way to a possible mechanism for the unveiling of a designed process of common descent.”

On the other hand, “the fact that natural genetic engineering processes are indeed quite active… yet malaria and HIV have made no good use of them in 10^20 tries, strongly suggests they have very limited utility.”


Behe spends a few chapters of the latter half of the book exploring some of the implications of his ideas and their connections to areas from science to theology. Among other things, he makes some good philosophical rebuttals to multi-verse explanations for the fine-tuned universe.

On matters of public health: “Darwin counsels despair. A consistent Darwinist must think that random mutation will get around any antibiotic eventually – after all, look at all that magnificent molecular machinery it built.. But intelligent design says there’s always real hope. If we can find the right monkeywrench, just one degree more difficult to oppose than chloroquine, it could be a showstopper.”

Seven Days That Divide The World by John Lennox (2011)

john-lennox-seven-days-that-divide-the-worldOxford mathematics professor John Lennox offers his thoughts on the relationship between Genesis and science in the short but insightful book, Seven Days That Divide The World. Lennox notes various historical approaches to Scriptural interpretation, comparing the current “young-earth/old-earth” divide to the “fixed-earth/moving-earth” controversy of centuries past. Lennox argues that Scripture allows for an old-earth interpretation involving sophisticated, meaningful metaphors, but he also argues the Scripture indicates the special distinct creation of man, not seeming to allow for the common ancestry of humans and animals. He also offers thoughts on the Bible’s and science’s “convergence” on the non-eternity of the universe, and the significance of “non-material” information in universal constants and the human genome as pointing to a “non-material” Creator.

Some of the quotes below are introductory references to ideas that are presented with more fully-developed claims in the full text of the book.

On Interpreting the Bible, and specifically the first chapters of Genesis

“What we think the natural meaning is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed.” “”We cannot simply read it as if it were a contemporary Western document written to address contemporary Western concerns.”

“There are two extremes to be avoided. The first is the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture too closely to the science of the day… The opposite danger is to ignore science.”

“For many years, if not centuries, there would have been two major polarised positions: the fixed-earthers and the moving-earthers… These positions were held.. by those who were convinced that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and who regarded it as the full and final authority.” They agreed “on the core elements of the gospel… They disagreed, however, on what Scripture taught about the motion of the earth.”

“We cannot keep science and Scripture completely separate… the Bible talks about some of the things that science talks about… However, saying Scripture has scientific implications does not mean that the Bible is a scientific treatise from which we can deduce Newton’s laws… We are encouraged… to find out many things for ourselves.” Psalm 111:2, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” “God loves an enquiring mind…”

“If the Biblical explanation” of the beginning of the universe “were at the level, say, of twenty-second-century science, it would likely be unintelligible to everyone, including scientists today… One of the most remarkable things about Genesis is that it is accessible to, and has a message for, everyone, whether or not they are scientifically literate.

“Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.”

“We know now that the earth does not rest on literal foundations or pillars... the words “foundations” and “pillars” are used in a metaphorical sense. However.. the metaphors stand for realities. God the Creator has built certain very real stabilities into the planetary system that will guarantee its existence so long as is necessary to fulfill his purposes. Science has been able to show us that the earth is stable in its orbit over long periods of time, thanks in part to the obedience of gravity to an inverse square law, to the presence of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt of earth’s axis, and to the existence of the giant planet Jupiter, which helps keep the other planets in the same orbital plane. Earth’s stability, therefore, is very real… Even though our interpretation relies on scientific knowledge, it does not compromise the authority of Scripture… Scripture has the primary authority. Experience and science have helped decide between the possible interpretations that Scripture allows.”

“What we learn from this is that it is just not adequate to choose an interpretation simply on the basis of asking how many people held this interpretation, and for how long”

“We should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The Biblical text might just be more sophisticated than we first imagined.”

On historical interpretations of the creation account

“The understanding of the days of Genesis as twenty-four-hour days seems to have been the dominant view for many centuries,” but certainly not the only one:

“Philo (10BC-AD 50) … thought creation was the act of a moment, and the Genesis record had more to do with principles of order and arrangement”

“Justin Martyr.. and Irenaeus… suggested the days might have been long epochs on the basis of Psalm 90:4 (“For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past”) and 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). Iranaeus applied this reading of Genesis to the warning God gave regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (“In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) Since Adam lived on to 930 years, “He (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit.”

Augustine: “As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think, let alone explain in words, what they mean… But at least know that it is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.” Augustine held that God had created everything in a moment, and that the days represented a logical sequence to explain it to us.

“Origen… pointed out that in the Genesis account the sun was not made until the fourth day… “Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first, the second, and the third day, and the evening and morning existed without the sun, moon, and stars?”

The word “day” makes no obvious sense in the absence of the sun and the earth’s rotation relative to it… Some have postulated the existence of a nonsolar light source that functioned for the first three days. However… we know nothing about such a light source, either from Scripture or from science. The logical alternative is that the sun existed at the beginning of the Genesis week… One suggestion is that on day 4 the sun, moon, and stars appeared as distinguishable lights in the sky when the cloud cover that had concealed them dissipated… “The verb ‘made’ in Genesis 1:16 does not specifically mean ‘create’… can also refer to ‘working on something that is already there’ or even ‘appointed'”… The verse is speaking about God appointing the role of the sun and moon in the cosmos.”

“In any case, the fact that some early church fathers had difficulties with interpreting the text should give us some comfort, make us more humble, and, in addition, show us that the difficulties are not all generated by modern science but arise from a serious attempt to understand the text itself.”

On the “days”

“The question of the age of the earth (and of the universe) is a separate question from the interpretation of the days… Logically possible to believe that the days of Genesis are twenty-four hour days (of one earth week) and to believe that the universe is very ancient… This has nothing to do with science. Rather, it has to do with what the text actually says.”

“Even though the Hebrew language does have a definite article (ha), it is not used in the original to qualify days one to five… it is used for days six and seven. A better translation, therefore, would be “day one, day two… day five, the sixth day, the seventh day” or “a first day, a second day … the sixth day, the seventh day.” Thus a “possibility” of “a sequence of six creation days… that might well have been separated by long periods of time.”

Does the work week pattern of Exodus 20 insist the creation week was identically structured? “There were not only similarities between God’s creation week and our work week, but also obvious differences. God’s week happened once; ours is repeated. God’s creative activity is different from ours; God does not need rest as we do… God’s week is a pattern for ours, but it is not identical.”

Human Beings: A Special Creation?

“Genesis does not deny what chemistry tells us – that all life has a material substrate of common elements… “let the earth sprout vegetation” … “let the earth bring forth living creatures” … “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” .. Therefore Genesis affirms that (human) life has a chemical base, but Genesis denies the reductionist addendum of the materialist – that life is nothing but chemistry… Genesis seems to be going out of its way to imply a direct special creation act…

“Let the earth bring forth living creatures… Let us make man… This surely deliberate repetition is a clear indicator that, according to Genesis, you cross neither the gulf between nonlife and life nor the gulf between animals and human beings by unguided natural processes.”

Regarding the attempt to find a helper among the animals: “It is interesting that the first lesson Adam was taught… is that he was fundamentally different from all other creatures.”

Unlike, for instance, “The Lord appeared to Abram” … “Genesis 1 and 2 are not talking about God revealing himself to humans that already existed, but rather explaining how those human beings came to exist in the first place.” … “There was no man to work the ground” alongside suggestions that “there were millions of Neolithic farmers in existence at the time.”

Death Before the Fall

“Paul… says that death passed upon all human beings as a result of Adam’s sin; he does not say that death passed upon all living things… We do not accuse the lion of sinning when it kills an antelope.”

Discussing the special features of carnivorous creatures: “The view that animal death did not exist before humans sinned makes the existence of predators problematic.”

“In light of the New Testament’s explicit statement “God alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16) does it follow that Adam never had intrinsic immortality, but was dependent from the beginning on regular access to an external source of food (the Tree of Life) for continued existence?”

“What was the difference, exactly, between the inside and the outside of that garden?”

“Evil in the universe appears to antedate the sin of Adam and Eve… C. S. Lewis: “Man was not the first creature to rebel against the Creator… If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared.”

“It is simply false to suggest, as some do, that the only alternative to young-earth creationism is to accept the Darwinian model.”

The Message of Genesis 1

“The Genesis account… is diametrically opposed to all idolatrous interpretations of the universe, whether of the ancient, pagan kind or the modern secular variety.”

“The Biblical teaching, that the earth was specifically designed as a home for human beings, fits well with what contemporary science tells us about the fine-tuning of the universe.”

“So, both Genesis and science say that the universe is geared to supporting human life. But Genesis says more. It says that you, as a human being, bear the image of God… The galaxies are unimaginably large compared with you. However, you know that they exist, but they don’t know that you exist.”


“The idea that the universe did not come to be without the input of information and energy from an intelligent source seems to me to have been amply confirmed by scientific discovery…. The language of mathematics has proved to be a powerful tool in describing how things work. Its codification of the laws of nature into short and elegant “words” consisting of symbols surely reflect the greater Word that is ultimately responsible for the physical structures of the universe.”

“Above and beyond that… we humans possess a “word” of mind-boggling length, the human genome.

“In recent years information has come to be regarded as one of the fundamental concepts of science. One of the most intriguing things about it is that it is not physical. The information you are reading at the moment is carried on the physical medium of paper and ink. But the information itself is not material… The nonmateriality of information points to a nonmaterial source – a mind, the mind of God.”

On Literary Parallels To The Creation Account

“The impression given is of a text that is written in “exalted, semipoetical language”

“Similarities… have led some scholars to surmise that the Genesis account is derived from the Babylonian Enuma Elish… However, many scholars point out that the similarities mask much more significant differences… The God of Genesis is utterly distinct. He was not created by the universe, as were the pagan gods. It is the other way round… Furthermore, according to Genesis, human beings are created in the image of God as the pinnacle of His creation… According to the Enuma Elish, on the other hand, human beings are created as an afterthought to lighten the work of the gods… Also, by contrast with the Mesopotamian myths, Genesis has no multiplicity of warring gods and goddesses; the heavens and earth are not made out of a god… there are no deifications of stars, planets, sun, and moon – the usual names of the last two are not even used in Genesis 1.”

“It is frequently asserted that the text of Genesis is theological and literary, as distinct from historical or scientific… It is, however, perfectly possible for a text simultaneously to inform us about objective facts and to have a theological purpose.”

On Scientific Parallels To The Creation Account

Quoting “English philosopher and historian Edwyn Bevan” discussion of the Genesis days’ parallels to the scientific story of an ocean covered in thick clouds followed by emerging land followed by plant life followed by animals followed by humans: “The stages by which the earth comes to be what it is cannot be precisely fitted into the account which modern science would give of the process, but in principle they seem to anticipate the modern scientific account by a remarkable flash of inspiration…”

Andrew Parker, Research Director at the Natural History Museum in London, “The opening page of Genesis is scientifically accurate but was written long before the science was known.”

On the universe having a beginning: “What is striking is that the Bible claimed it for thousands of years, whereas scientists only recently began even to entertain the possibility that there might have been a beginning.”

From physicist Sir John Houghton: “For human beings to exist, it can be argued that the whole universe is needed. It needs to be old enough (and therefore large enough) for one generation of stars to have evolved and died, to produce the heavy elements, and then for there to be enough time for a second-generation star like our sun to form with its system of planets…”

On Theistic Evolution / God of the Gaps / Miracles

“On the seventh day God rested. The work of creation was done. That would seem to imply that what went on during the creation sequence is no longer happening.”

Michael Behe argues that “natural selection and random mutation do something,” but their limit “can be transcended only if mutations are introduced that are nonrandom.” Simon Conway Morris “suggests that the uncanny ability of evolution to find its way through the space of all possible paths… is congruent with creation.”

On the risk of theists like himself resorting to “God of the gaps” arguments: “I see evidence of God everywhere… God is the God of the whole show…” But if the universe and earth came about as a result of the natural unfolding of fine-tuned conditions and natural laws, “Theistic evolution now asks why we should introduce a special supernatural act of creation at the point of the origin of life…. Of course, the issue is not whether or not God could have done it in a particular way… The question is, did God do it all in that way?”

“Most physicists seem to be able to live with the view that the origin of space-time is a singularity… It is part of the historic Christian faith that there have been other singularities in more recent history – preeminently the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ… That being the case, I find it strange that some Christians seem to find a priori difficulty in the claim that there have been some additional singularities in the past, like the origin of life and the origin of human beings.”

Distinguishes between “miracles” that “stand out against the known regularities of the universe,” and a “supernatural” action to “set up the universe with its regularities.” “For in both Old and New Testaments, the Bible clearly distinguishes between God’s initial acts of creation on the one hand and his subsequent upholding of the universe on the other… Genesis 1 records a sequence of creation acts followed by God’s resting. “

The Religion of Geology by Edward Hitchcock (1851)

131px-Edward_HitchcockEdward Hitchcock was an old-earth creationist from the 1800’s. A pastor as well as a geological surveyor, Hitchcock’s equal passions for theology and geology were clearly on display in his work The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (1851)a series of lectures arguing for the harmonization of “revelation” (the Bible) with recent discoveries in geology. Hitchcock had an eloquent style, clearly defining his propositions and assertions, differentiating between certainties and conjectures, and kindly acknowledging objections. He argued against both young-earth and atheistic worldviews of his day, claiming that geology reveals an old earth with miraculous creative acts that “corrects” previous interpretations of Scripture and enlarges our understanding of the “vast plans of Jehovah,” expounding on not only the creation of the world but also cosmology, eschatology, and the problem of evil.

The work is freely available in the public domain on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere (I found it on Apple’s iBooks)

Overall worldview:

Hitchcock believed the Earth’s rocks have changed form since God’s original creation, according to consistent laws and forces, by the same processes presently depositing sediment layers in lakes and seas. He believed these layers contain fossils arranged orderly like “the drawers of a well-regulated cabinet,” with four or five divisions that he interpreted as separate divine acts of creations over time, as geological processes slowly “improved” the Earth’s condition for the presence of more complex creatures, in “a vast series of operations, each successive link springing out of that before it, and becoming more and more beautiful.” He saw all this as evidence of God’s “infinite wisdom” and “infinite benevolence” (phrases which occur over fifty times in the lectures).

On the role of science in interpreting the Bible:

Hitchcock argued that we use many methods to help interpret the “natural” language of the Bible, including grammar and history, and that scientific discovery is simply another viable method. He gave examples from advances in chemistry, meteorology, and astronomy that affected interpretations and argued that geology is just as qualified.

He argued that since the “object” of Scripture is the “plan of salvation,” we “ought not to expect” terms used “in their strict scientific sense,” but in their “popular acceptation.” The “earth” doesn’t necessarily mean the spherical globe proved by science, but “that part of it which was inhabited,” being all the reader would have understood. “We ought only to expect that the facts of science, rightly understood, should not contradict the statements of revelation, rightly interpreted.”

Hitchcock used several examples, beginning with the setting sun as describing appearance rather than scientific accuracy. Like Miller, he quoted the older theologian Turretin as one who insisted on an unmoving central Earth, even though today the “language conveys quite a different meaning to our minds,” and no one suspects any contradiction.

Unlike previous scientific advancements, Hitchcock said some Christians had the idea that the relatively new science of geology was hostile to the Bible, and searched it not to understand but to find contradictions and attack it, resulting in “striking misapprehensions of facts and opinions, with positive and dogmatic assertions, with severe personal insinuations, great ignorance of correct reasoning in geology, and the substitution of wild and extravagant hypotheses for geological theories.” He feared they were weakening the faith, having “excited unreasonable prejudices and alarm among common Christians” against science, while awakening “disgust and even contempt among scientific men… who have inferred that a cause which resorts to such defenses must be very weak.”

While acknowledging that science has degrees of certainty, and that we should be hesitant to alter Biblical interpretation without strong reason, Hitchcock was confident that many claims of geology were solidly settled, and he discussed their connection to previous interpretations of Scripture in three main areas: the age of the earth before man, the existence of animal death before the Fall, and the extent of Noah’s flood.

On the Bible and the age of the Earth:

Hitchcock believed in a literal six-day creation that occurred six thousand years ago, but he argued that Genesis 1 allows for an undefined interval between the creation of the universe out of nothing in verse 1 and the six-day creative act that followed (This sounds similar to what in the early 1900’s was called the “gap” theory, though that word does not occur in the lectures). He was “willing to admit” that “the common interpretation, which makes matter only six thousand years old, is the most natural,” but argued “the strict rules of exegesis” allow for such a gap (his defense includes a treatment of the oft-neglected Exodus 20:11 counterargument, which he argues is a simple summary that does not limit the creation of the universe itself to the six-day creating period).

Rather than describing the first creation of life, Hitchcock believed the “six days’ work” was the most recent of several creative cycles, arguing that Gen 1:2 is better translated something like “Afterwards the earth was desolate,” or “empty and vacuous,” – i.e., finally ready for the creation of man and other creatures after the extinction of the previous cycle.

(He also claimed Psalm 104 as support for this cycle view: “thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust, Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.”)

His interpretation of Genesis 1 includes discussions of “bara” (bawraw) and “asah” (awsaw) and the implications of differentiating between creating “out of nothing” and “renovation or remodeling” of previously created materials. He addressed what I believe now would be called “day-age” interpretations (see his contemporary Hugh Miller), but he thought it required too much cherry-picking to try to fit the geological record into metaphors for the six days or to have the earlier days of creation describing extinct species rather than living ones.

On science and the age of the Earth:

Hitchcock declared that “no chronological dates are registered on the rocks,” unaware that radioactivity would one day be argued to provide the very thing. Yet he believed there was enough evidence to place such unknown dates far beyond six thousand years (though he placed the six-day creation, including Man, at such time.)

Hitchcock seems to have detailed the evidence behind these beliefs in his textbook-style Elemental Geology,  but he included some details here. He said man’s remains are only found in the uppermost “alluvium” of a few hundred feet, where only slight changes have been observed in recorded history. The “six or eight miles” of rocks beneath, full of animal remains, suggest a gap closer to “ten million” than “ten” years (the closest he gets to suggesting an actual age). There was “incalculable time requisite to pile up such an immense thickness of materials, and then to harden most of them into stone.”

He declared broadly that “each successive investigation discovers new evidence of changes in composition, or organic contents, or of vertical movements effected by extremely slow agencies, so as to make the whole work immeasurably long,” far beyond lumping into “a few thousand years,” with even more time required for the “decomposition, consolidation, and metamorphosis” of the “far thicker” “non-fossiliferous rocks.” He referred to vast numbers of “vegetables” required to produce “beds of coal from one to fifty feet thick, and extending over thousands of square miles, and alternating several times with sandstone in the same basin. He referred to masses of limestone that are “nearly half composed of microscopic shells,” suggesting the need for large amounts of time for such quantities to live and die and consolidate.

Far from diminishing the power or authority of the Christian God, Hitchcock was adamant that these geological discoveries greatly increased our understanding and appreciation of the “vast plans of Jehovah,” comparing the increase of time to the increase of space. Astronomy had enlarged our knowledge of the numbers of “worlds” by millions, and thus enlarged our conception of the Author’s power, wisdom, and benevolence. He saw “as much grandeur” in the “vast duration” of time as the “vast expansion” of space – in fact, even more so, due to what he saw as evidence of God’s miraculous cyclic creative interventions:

“Mechanical philosophy introduces an unbending and unvarying law between the Creator and his works; but geology unveils his providential hand, cutting asunder that law at intervals, and planting the seeds of a new economy upon a renovated world. We thus seem to be brought into near communion with the infinite mind. We are prepared to listen to his voice when it speaks in revelation. We recognize his guiding and sustaining agency at every step of our pilgrimage. And we await in confident hope and joyful anticipation those sublime manifestations of his character and plans, and those higher enjoyments which will greet the pure soul in the round of eternal ages.”

On death before the Fall:

Unlike the book I read by Hugh Miller, which merely mentioned in passing his view that death before the Fall was an obvious reality, Hitchcock devoted an entire lecture (Lecture 3) to exploring this theology. Noting the common interpretation of animal death originating in the “apostasy” of our “first parents,” he argued that the 1 Corinthians passage (“Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead”) clearly does not include animals, and the Romans passage  (“By one man sin entered into the world, and the curse by sin”) doesn’t indicate whether animals are included or not.

If Romans allows for either possibility, and if geology is permitted to help us interpret it, Hitchcock argued that the answer is clear: while man is only found at the very top of fossil layers, animals are found in miles of rocks, many species of which could not live in current climates. Many were clearly carnivorous, as indicated by fossils of other animals inside their bodies, as part of God’s plan to keep animal populations balanced.

Hitchcock developed a theological theme of a cycle of death and resurrection: “Dead organic matter is essential to the support and nourishment of living beings.” He argued that without death there would be no nutrients to support new plant life, and animals would eventually exhaust all available food. “To exclude death… would require an entirely different system.” The carnivorous teeth, muscles for chasing prey, digestive systems for eating it, etc, would have required so much change that it must have “amounted to a new creation,” which in Hitchcock’s view surely would not have “passed unnoticed by the sacred writer.”

Hitchcock addressed the “common” view that Genesis 3 indicates “thorns and thistles” springing from the curse, arguing that this interpretation may have been influenced by Milton’s writings and that the passage could simply indicate the result of man leaving the perfect garden to tend the less fertile soil that was already there. Addressing the view that the curse on the serpent suggests effects on animals, Hitchcock argued this curse was a spiritual reference to the devil only, noting that serpents do not literally “eat dust,” and that while it was “cursed above all cattle,” modern snakes “appear as happy as other animals.”

Hitchcock argued that a “system of death” is a necessary counterpart to a “system of reproduction,” without which the fruitfully multiplying creation would soon have the world “overstocked.” While this may not seem benevolent, he argued that death is not as bad for animals as it is for intelligent, psychological men, and that total animal suffering would be worse without it (animal utilitarianism?). Without the aggravating effects of sin, he actually saw animal death as evidence of “infinite benevolence and wisdom.”

(Hitchcock devoted two additional lectures – 6 and 7 – to expanding this point. He acknowledged that a history full of “desolation and death” would seem “the very place where the objector would find arguments to prove the malevolence, certainly the vindictive justice, of the Deity.” He argued geology offers evidence of the infinite “divine benevolence” not only throughout sinless history but also in the present fallen world, harmonizing “infinite and perfect benevolence in God with the existence of evil on earth,” which he called “the grand problem of theology.”)

Hitchcock argued that man would not have understood the penalty of death if he had not seen it in animals. He also discussed a more speculative theory that historical animal death could have been caused by man’s apostasy even before the apostasy occurred as part of God’s foreknowledge and plan.

Hitchcock seemed open to the question of whether or not sinless man was immortal, suggesting that if not, the tree of life may have preserved against natural decay, and that without sin man may still have “translated” to a higher existence without “death,” like Enoch, Elijah, and the same change that “shall pass upon multitudes” when “we shall all be changed.” In this view, sin changed “not the going out of the world, but the manner of going.”

On Noah’s flood:

Hitchcock believed that ascribing all the fossil layers to a global flood was “absurd.” He argued that Genesis supports a limited regional flood, noting places in the Bible where the phrase “all the earth” only refers to known or inhabited land, not the entire globe, and noting logistical problems with holding all the animals on the Ark and dispersing them afterwards (Hugh Miller’s work went into more detail on this).

He said the Flood cannot explain the geological order of a “well-regulated cabinet,” nor the prevalence of extinct species: “with the exception of a few species near the top of the series, the fossil species are wholly unlike those now alive,” with “at least five distinct races of animals and plants,” many of a “tropical character” that could not have been “contemporaries” with living species.

Hitchcock noted that rivers mentioned in Genesis before the Flood suggest there was not a major reshaping of the land:

This theory requires us to admit, that in three hundred and eighty days the waters of the deluge deposited rocks at least six miles in thickness, over half or two thirds of our existing continents; and these rocks made up of hundreds of thick beds, exceedingly unlike one another in composition and organic contents.

He claimed to have no theological problems resorting to miracle to explain things if necessary, but if history showed not only difficulties, but irreconcilable contradictions, and if a limited flood was consistent with the text and removed the difficulties, then he saw history as revealing a limited flood to be the correct interpretation.

On evolution:

Hitchcock argued in Lecture 9 against the Lamarckian “theory of development” which claimed to show how “all the higher families” “may have been evolved.” He saw this “hypothesis of creation by law” as an attempt to explain “how animals and plants may be produced without any special exercise of creating power on the part of the Deity.” Spontaneous generation was said to support the natural emergence of life “without parentage,” but Hitchcock argued that improvements in science were ruling out more and more claims of such abiogenesis. He correctly predicted that “more scrutinizing observation” would reveal the last remaining footholds of tiny creatures to follow the same pattern of “descending from parents” observed in larger animals.

He argued against claims that the “mammalian embryo” evolves as it forms, literally beginning life as an insect, and becoming a fish, etc, believing (perhaps presciently, in a pre-DNA paradigm) “the human condition results from laws as fixed as those that regulate the movements of the heavenly bodies.”

He noted that hybrid species are generally infertile, and uncommon in the wild, declaring that there seem to be “strong barriers around species.” He claimed animals described in the “catacombs of Egypt” “three thousand years ago” “are precisely like the living species.”

He admitted that the “general” view of geology seems to support the theory of “development” but claims “the tables are turned when we descend to particulars.” He claimed the first members of each epoch are “higher,” not “lower,” and even show signs of “degradation,” not progression, as time unfolds.  He said strata are marked by “sudden changes” with “entirely different” species “of a higher grade than those that preceded them, but could not have sprung from them.” He explained his theory that as the earth slowly changed and improved, old groups “died out” as it become “unsuited” to them, and the Creator brought in new “more complicated and perfect” groups better adapted to the new conditions.

He said vertebrates “become more and more complex as we rise on the scale of the rocks,” but there “does not appear to have been much advance” of invertebrate classes, except in numbers and variety. Similarly, flowering plants have gradually advanced and now “predominate,” but flowerless plants “seem to have been as perfect at first as they now are.”

He said the “doctrine of development by law” cannot explain the “wonderful adaptation” of animals and plants to the conditions of the world without making the law as intelligent as the Deity himself. He concluded that the idea “corresponds only in a loose and general way to the facts, and cannot be reconciled to the details. If that hypothesis cannot get a better foothold somewhere else, it will soon find its way into the limbo of things abortive and forgotten.” (Fascinatingly, it was only ten years later that Darwin changed the course of history by presenting such a foothold.)

To Hitchcock, the evidence against such ideas was so “overwhelming” that he speculated that its advocates simply “do not like the idea of a personal, present, overruling Deity.”

On intelligent design:

With remarkable similarity to modern discussions on “intelligent design,” Hitchcock came close to using the very phrase when he referred to “the evidences of high intelligence and unity of design” in Lecture 8 (which even opens with a brief discussion of “the human eye”!)

Hitchcock described creation as “a series of harmonies, wheel within wheel, in countless variety, yet all forming one vast and perfect machine.” He argued that this harmony pervades the entire history of the planet, and that the same laws of physics and chemistry applied throughout (he refers to “the distinct impressions of rain-drops” in red sandstone layers as evidence that “meteorology” has been consistent).

“The present and past conditions of this world are only parts of one and the same great system of infinite wisdom and benevolence.” From biology to chemistry, “one golden chain of harmony links all together, and identifies all as the work of the same infinite mind.” Quoting William Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise, he said there is so much uniformity of construction and adaptation “that we can scarcely fail to acknowledge in all these facts a demonstration of the unity of the intelligence in which such transcendent harmony originated.”

He also spoke in Lecture 5 of the “argument from design.” “When geology shows us, not the commencement of matter, but of organism, and presents us with full systems of animals and plants springing out of inorganic elements, where is the law that exhibits even a tendency to such results? Nothing can explain them but the law of miracles; that is, creation by divine interposition.”

He argued that this natural evidence for miraculous intervention supported the Christian idea that God would also intervene in history by giving us his Word.

On atheism:

Hitchcock also had some interesting comments on atheism, which he saw the evolutionary hypothesis as tending towards (or, at best, towards a hands-off theism that was still “dangerous,” as it “may swing off into utter irreligion”). He argued against two common arguments that were used to support atheism, which today have been largely forgotten. Hitchcock was remarkably accurate in predicting the demise of both arguments. The first, as referenced above, was that spontaneous generation proved there was no need of a creator to specifically create life.

The second was the idea that the universe was eternal, having always existed and thus needing no creator to kick things off, contra Genesis 1:1. It is often now forgotten that this was a common belief before the Big Bang of the twentieth century. Hitchcock argued that, regardless of the eternity of matter itself, the Earth at least must have had a beginning, and that geology shows modifications of matter only explained by a Deity. He said natural laws may turn a ball of fire into sea and land, but only God could populate the chaos or void with life, initially as well as after each major extinction. “To prove that any organic system shows a tendency to ruin is to show that it had a beginning.” From this he conjectured that if earth and life had beginnings, surely all matter did also? Correctly anticipating the coming overturn of cosmology, he said, “Science has not yet placed within the reach of man the means of proving its non-eternity.”


In hindsight, some of Hitchcock’s work seems more eccentric than brilliant. For instance, he speculated about a very materialistic “new heaven and new Earth” as a final cycle of destruction and re-creation, conjecturing about resurrected bodies made of “ether” that could survive while a new crust cools from the fiery destruction!

Overall, however, given the scientific context of the time, it is remarkable how well most of these lectures hold up over one hundred and fifty years late. Many of Hitchcock’s predictions came true, and many other concepts that have been refined still contain relevant principles. From philosophical bantering about the relation of scripture and science, to exegetical delving into the days of creation, to the “Cambrian explosion” as an example of miraculous creative intervention, many of the same sorts of ideas are still discussed today (often with folks completely unaware that someone two centuries prior thoughtfully engaged the points they bring up).

Hitchcock’s love for both the Bible and natural science shine throughout these engaging lectures. He marveled how the “disturbance and dislocation” of long, slow geological processes could create beautiful scenery, from Niagara to the Alps, that “so intensely gratified” the soul; he saw this as evidence of the “predominance of benevolence” of a Creator who “delights in the happiness of his creatures.” He developed a philosophy of miracles to explain the interaction of natural laws and supernatural intervention, including answers to prayer. He bemoaned that “a large proportion” of the church had “yielded” to skepticism and forsaken the “fasting and prayer” of their forefathers, and wished they would be “led back to the Bible doctrine.”

Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of his geological views, it cannot be said that he held them in ignorance of the Bible’s teachings, or out of a desire to accommodate evolutionary or atheistic ideas, which he argued against as forcefully as any young-earth creationist of his time or ours. By contrast, he believed geology, “rightly understood,” strengthened the case for a personal loving God of “infinite wisdom and benevolence.” May his work be a comfort to anyone struggling with such issues today.


Testimony of the Rocks by Hugh Miller (1857)

Testimony of the Rocks is a collection of twelve lectures by Hugh Miller, one of the original old-earth creationists. Published in 1857, this work discusses details of the “Geologic” record and argues for its harmonization with the “Mosaic” record of the Bible. The lectures take us back to the original era of discussion about how to interpret the new findings of geology that contradicted previous understandings of Scripture. (I will do my best to limit this post to objectively summarizing Miller’s beliefs and arguments. I may do a follow-up post with my personal opinions and reflections on the work.)

Miller believed geology clearly proved the Earth was older than six thousand years and that the fossil record clearly predated the flood. He argued that Scripture allows for day-age or revelatory interpretations of creation and a local flood, and responded to some contemporary objections to such notions. He also argued against the proto-evolutionary “development hypothesis” with arguments that sound very proto-intelligent-design. He wrapped it all in a developed theology about continually “higher” elements of a progressive creation culminating in man and pointing yet further to the Divine Man and the end of the age.

On animal death before the Fall: Miller does not directly address theological objections to animals eating each other before the Fall, except to express his belief that the facts are so clear that such objections are irrelevant.

In Lecture 8 he says there once was an idea “that there was a time, ere man had sinned, when there was no death among the inferior creatures,” but it was “now no longer tenable.” In Lecture 2 he notes, “It has been weakly and impiously urged… that such an economy of warfare and suffering” would be “unworthy of an all-powerful and all-benevolent Providence.” His response is that the geologist’s job is simply “rightly to interpret the record of creation,” and the “established truths” of the geologic record made it clear that God did indeed create animals in this way. If the objectors want to question the justice of it they can settle that “grave charge” with “the great Creator himself.”

On the creation story: Apparently unaware of any need to harmonize animal death with the Scriptures, Miller spends considerably more time harmonizing the “Mosaic” creation story with the geologic record.

In an introductory letter, Miller notes that he once held “with Chalmers and with Buckland” to the “gap” theory before he was as familiar with the later geologic layers, and he now holds that “no blank chaotic gap” exists in the record. In a later lecture he says that such a scheme was “perfectly adequate in 1814,” but with the advancement of geology “was found in 1839 to be no longer so.”

Instead, Miller essentially argues for a metaphorical “day-age” view, trying to fit three general geological divisions (Palaeozoic, Secondary, and Tertiary) into the third, fifth, and sixth creation days with the respective rise and fall (i.e. morning and evening) of plants, reptiles, and mammals as the dominant groups within each.

Miller philosophizes about how the creation story was revealed, arguing that since most of it took place outside the existence of man, it could not have been written down as observed history, but like John’s prophetic visions of the future, Moses may have received visions of the past in “prophecy described backwards” by God who stands “beyond and above space and time.” Miller points out that Moses received the “appearance” of “the Tabernacle and its sacred furniture” (Numbers 5:4), and argues that in a similar manner he may have received “sight or vision” of the creation, perhaps even individual visions over the course of a week of discrete days from each period.

Miller developed an extensive theology regarding Man “created in God’s own image” as the “highest” created being in a long chain of progressively “higher” animals. Unlike some old-earth readings, his theology does not downplay the Fall. Miller speculates with moving prose about the “Tempter” silently watching God’s long creation until “man enters the scene,” molded in God’s image but with “a weakness in the flesh that betrays his earthly lineage,” which awakened “grim hope in the sullen lord of the first revolt” to disrupt God’s progressive plan and bring Man lower again, until “Messiah comes,” ordained “ere the foundations of the world” to redeem Man and bring him higher still:

What is to be the next advance? …the kingdom—not of glorified man made in the image of God, but of God himself in the form of man… Creation and the Creator meet at one point, and in one person. The long ascending line from dead matter to man has been a progress Godwards,—not an asymptotical progress, but destined from the beginning to furnish a point of union…

(I must note that this upward theology was marred by a literal white supremacy. Miller notes that “all human races are of one species and one family” and even quotes Paul saying “God hath made of one blood all nations,” but he compares features of different ethnicities to argue that Caucasians were the most progressed of humans, even declaring confidence that both the first and second Adam must have been “the perfect type of Caucasian man.”)

On the extent of the flood in Scripture: With great literary flair regarding the way devastating events imprint themselves on individual and collective memories, Miller details the multitude of similar flood traditions across cultures, from Chinese legends to ancient drawings from Mexico. Miller believes they point back to a single event that destroyed all humanity, but he does not believe that event was geographically worldwide, noting the fallacy of suggesting that “that where the tradition is to be found, the Flood must have been,” if there were no survivors outside the Ark, but rather descendants of Noah who filled the world and brought the memory with them.

Promoting a local flood theory, Miller argues for the principle of metonymy, whereby “a considerable part is spoken of as the whole,” to interpret the Flood passages that say things like “all flesh died that moved upon the earth.”

Of this class are the passages in which it is said, that on the day of Pentecost there were Jews assembled at Jerusalem “out of every nation under heaven;” “that the gospel was preached to every creature under heaven;” that the Queen of Sheba came to hear the wisdom of Solomon from the “uttermost parts of the earth;” that God put the dread and fear of the children of Israel upon the nations that were “under the whole heaven;” and that “all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn.”

Miller addresses some objections to the consistency of this interpretation by a contemporary named Kitto, arguing that such phrasing clearly did not apply “to the people of Japan” or “the Red Indians of the Rocky Mountains,” and thus he saw no reason to assume that the Flood narrative’s comprehensive language could not be metonymic as well. Miller notes older theologians (Matthew Poole, Bishop Stillingfleet) who argued for this possibility before geology made it attractive, questioning “the need of overwhelming those regions in which there were no human beings.”

On the extent of the flood in Nature: Miller takes it for granted that the flood was not responsible for the primary fossil layers. Unfortunately, the view was apparently not popular enough at this time for us to know what Miller would have said to defend his opposition to it. Instead, he addresses the more contemporary belief that a global flood was responsible for “superficial” features of “the drift, the boulder and brick clays, the stratified sands and gravels….” He cites the concentration of these effects in colder latitudes, and their absence from the equator, as well as existing shell species having a current habitat “about ten degrees further to the north” than their corresponding fossils, as all better explained by a recent ice age in the northern hemisphere. He also notes extinct volcanoes with “loose” ashes that “exhibit no marks” of the erosion he claims a global flood would have produced.

Miller devotes his entire eighth lecture to critiquing the practical logistics of a global flood, particularly as it relates to the Ark and the animals. He claims the increasing discoveries of animal species, especially extinct varieties, cast doubt on the Ark having enough room – “we now know that there are six species of rhinoceros.” He also highlights the great amount of unrecorded “special miracle” he says would have been required to preserve animals with specific diets and habitats and return them afterwards whence they came.

On the plain reading of Scripture: While discussing his local flood theory, Miller quotes a contemporary theologian who refused to give any ground to alleged objections to the global reading:

“Were the difficulty attending this subject tenfold greater, and seemingly beyond all satisfactory explanation,” says Dr. William Hamilton, “if I yet find it recorded in the Book… I could still believe it implicitly, satisfied that the difficulty of explanation springs solely from the imperfection of human knowledge…”

Here again, however, Dr. Hamilton seems to have mistaken the question actually at issue. The true question is, not whether or no Moses is to be believed in the matter, but whether or no we in reality understand Moses…

The controversy does not lie between Moses and the naturalists, but between the readings of theologians such as Matthew Poole and Stillingfleet on the one hand, and the readings of theologians such as Drs. Hamilton and Kitto on the other.

Miller argues that men fall into “extravagant error” when they “have sought to deduce from it what it was not intended to teach—the truths of physical science.” He argues that the contemporary objections to a local flood or an old Earth were mistaking the teaching of “authorship” of creation to a depiction of its “construction,” and he compares them to previous generations who believed the Bible taught the earth was flat “until corrected by the geographer,” or that the Earth was fixed and immovable “until corrected by the astronomer.”

Miller notes there is something different about “the Mosaic geology” that requires some reconciling. But he ultimately compares those who oppose harmonization with an old earth to an earlier theologian named Turrettine who refused to accept that the earth revolved around the sun:

First,” he remarks, “the sun is said in Scripture to move in the heavens, and to rise and set… ‘The sun knoweth his going down.’ ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.’ Secondly, The sun by a miracle stood still in the time of Joshua; and by a miracle it went back in the time of Hezekiah. Thirdly, The earth is said to be fixed immovably. ‘The earth is also established that it cannot be moved.’ ‘Thou hast established the earth, and it abideth.’ ‘They continue this day according to their ordinance.’ Fourthly, Neither could birds, which often fly off through an hour’s circuit, be able to return to their nests….” The theologian, after thus laying down the law, sets himself to meet objections. If it be urged that the Scriptures in natural things speak according to the common opinion, Turrettine answers, “First, The Spirit of God best understands natural things. Secondly, That in giving instruction in religion, he meant these things should be used, not abused. Thirdly, That he is not the author of any error. Fourthly, Neither is he to be corrected on the pretence of our blind reason.”

Miller notes that Turrettine, a contemporary of Isaac Newton, “could have found at the time very enlightened teachers” but instead “labored to pledge revelation” to a false astronomy. Likewise, he urges his geological opponents to learn about what he viewed as the obvious truth of the geological record, and to allow that the Bible could accommodate those truths, rather than damage Christianity by limiting it to a false interpretation of nature. Of his contemporary “anti-geologists,” he says:

they sometimes succeed in doing harm, all unwittingly, not to the science which they oppose, but to the religion which they profess to defend…

He believed it would not be long before “the vagaries of the anti-geologists will be as obsolete… as those of the astronomers who upheld the orthodoxy of Ptolemy against Galileo and Newton.”

On evolution: Miller’s lectures predated Darwin’s Origin of Species by a few years, but there were early evolutionary ideas going around. While Miller adamantly agreed with the geological narrative now espoused by evolutionists, he adamantly rejected what he referred to as the “development hypothesis” in its “Lamarckian” stages.

“There are no intermediate species—no connecting links,” Miller claims. “All geologic history is full of the beginnings and the ends of species… but it exhibits no genealogies of development.” And while he believed fossil layers had clear chronological ordering, he didn’t think this order supported gradual development, referring to “the oldest portion of the oldest terrestrial flora yet known” containing a well-developed “stately” tree.

On intelligent design: Miller’s sixth lecture compares “Divine” work to human work in a manner reminiscent of modern intelligent design arguments. He sees similarities between Man’s work and various animal features, and claims numerous examples of old architecture imitating fossil patterns that were unknown at the time.

On the geological evidence: I was hoping this book would offer insight into the construction of the geological narrative in the 1800’s, but Miller spends many more words describing what geologists believed about the record than how it was developed and why they were so confident about their interpretation of it. Perhaps I have to go back further to Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology for that.

In one description that indirectly suggests deeper time for fossilization than a single flood, Miller notes that “smaller animals” are often found with “only half the skeleton” – the under side – suggesting that mud hardened the lower bones into place while “the uncovered upper sides” disappeared from prolonged exposure.

Lecture 11 offers some speculation about how mud rolling in from a shallow sea could deposit layers over time. It also mentions some changes and uncertainties in classifications of some deposits, and briefly mentions one instance of “a reverse folding of the strata” – something that, as I understand it, would be the foundation of George McCready Price’s young-earth arguments seventy years later.

Read it for yourself at Project Gutenberg. I found the work for free through Apple’s iBooks app.

The Skyscraper Fallacy

Photo Credit: Britannica
Photo Credit: Britannica

I commonly see a criticism of intelligent design that appears to betray a fundamental misunderstanding or even a total ignorance of what is posited by irreducible complexity. I see this straw man fallacy used so often in this context that I am going to presumptuously attempt to canonically identify it as the Skyscraper Fallacy.

Here is a good example of the Skyscraper Fallacy, or at least the most recent example I stumbled upon, prompting this post:

3. You think macroevolution is an inherently different process than microevolution. At its core, “macroevolution” is simply the steady accumulation of the small changes we observe in “microevolution.” It seems any sane person must admit that, if small changes can occur, then it is logically consistent that small changes adding up over extremely long periods of time would result in very large changes. On the other hand, the creationist assertion that there is some mysterious, invisible barrier within “kinds” that prevents large-scale changes is as logically consistent as saying you can walk from your front door to the sidewalk, but walking to your friend’s house across town is fundamentally impossible.

Now there are many legitimate criticisms of ignorant anti-evolutionary arguments in Tyler Francke’s piece (and elsewhere on his site), but I do not believe this is one of them. It is like saying evolutionary processes build skyscrapers one floor at a time, and viewing the evolutionary critic as believing it is possible to add a couple floors to a small building (microevolution) while believing it is impossible to add hundreds of floors (macroevolution).

If the difference between microevolution and macroevolution in the critic’s mind were merely one of magnitude, then it would be legitimate to respond that a large amount of time can easily expand the smaller building and eventually create a skyscraper. To use a more mathematical analogy, it would be like saying evolution is a small multiplier that can turn little numbers into slightly bigger numbers but is incapable of generating gigantic numbers over time. The evolutionary defender claims that the critic is like a mathematician who believes in multiplication but denies the existence of large numbers! How preposterous!

But whenever you find yourself flippantly dismissing a position, it is worth examining whether you are responding to the strongest version of the argument, or merely a weaker straw man. Irreducible complexity refers to systems “composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” The evolutionary critic who posits irreducible complexity is not claiming that all evolutionary processes are like building a skyscraper. He is claiming that many evolutionary processes – perhaps a great deal of them – are more like building an arch.

An arch cannot be built layer by tiny layer, or it will fall over. There must be a carefully-designed simultaneous implementation of interlocking pieces for the construction to be successfully completed. You may need a scissors truss to keep the legs steady or even a hydraulic jack to pry them apart for the final piece if thermal expansion complicates your distances. It would be much more difficult to build an arch than a skyscraper through incremental, undirected processes. The difference is not merely one of magnitude; it is a higher degree of difficulty altogether.

To return to the mathematical analogy, the critic is not saying that enormous numbers do not exist, and that evolution can’t multiply enough times to get there. The critic is saying enormous numbers do exist – but some of them are primes.

But is that really the case? What objections might defenders have to this proposed fallacy?

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As the above photo from Utah’s Arches Natural Park indicates, it is possible to build an arch through weathering and erosion. The evolutionary defender may posit lost scaffoldings, changes in function, or other mechanisms, as the wiki link does, to potentially explain the development of every interlocking feature known to biology. Perhaps every biological “prime number” is factorable. Perhaps defenders are perfectly aware of the relative complexities of “arches” but simply sincerely believe that evolution is capable of reducing all of them to outcomes that are just as accomplishable as the “skyscrapers,” so that it is not even necessary to acknowledge the difference.

I would respond that there is a difference between acknowledging a degree of difficulty that you believe is explainable and ignoring it altogether. I do not claim to be an expert on allegedly irreducibly complex mechanisms or the merits of their proposed reductions. But I am at least not convinced that such explanations have strong enough empirical or even hypothetically modeled evidence to warrant the absolute confidence necessary to implicitly assume such reductions.

Furthermore, even if the defender believes the assumption is warranted, I would encourage those who accuse evolutionary critics of sloppy or misinformed postulating to be wary of engaging in such sloppy arguments themselves. When a defender does this, the critic feels his arguments are not being objectively considered but brushed away by the defender’s existing bias.

Perhaps you can’t literally walk to “your friend’s house across town” like you walk “to the sidewalk” because there’s a river and a four-lane highway in the way. Even if there are bridges and ferries and shortcuts and crosswalks that allow us to conjecture solutions, I do not believe a mechanism for taking tiny steps allows one to hand-wave away the other degrees of difficulty simply by appealing to greater magnitudes of tiny steps.

Thus, when I see complexity-based evolutionary critiques hastily dismissed due to the obvious progression of “small changes” to “large-scale changes,” I am not certain whether or not the dismisser truly understands the argument he is dismissing, and that is why I am calling it the Skyscraper Fallacy.