I’ve just bought the new book God’s Grandeur – The Catholic Case for Intelligent Design. It’s edited by Ann Gauger, whom I befriended over at Peaceful Science a few years ago, before she was hounded off by the constant sneering of the resident militant anti-theists there. Having brought back to mind my longstanding interest in biological origins, I thought before getting into it to do a blog on the surprisingly uncertain support for Darwinian evolution in the fossil record. Indeed, the more I’ve looked at the evidence over the last decade, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the evidence itself, freed from materialist metaphysical preferences, points more to some form of progressive creation than anything else.
But in fact I find that palaeontologist Gunter Bechly covers most of my intended material in his chapter so – go and buy the book! In fact I’d intended in my projected piece to lead up to looking at why God might even want to create over long aeons of deep time, rather than all at once. As one of my Bible Study group (scientifically trained, I might add!) said to me recently, “I’ve always wondered where dinosaurs fit in.”
Bechly has saved me the preamble of presenting evidence for the lack of gradualism in biological change, combined, in contrast, with the existence of general trends within that change. For example there is in the fossil record a clear movement from the “simple” to the more “complex” across the geological record, though it should be noted that no life is simple, and that common assumptions that dinosaurs, for example, are more “primitive” than mammals have been shown to be false. So, no Precambrian reptiles, and no rabbits in the Triassic.
Then again we find that changes in the major forms of animals and plants over time tend to be relatively gradual. So we can speak of the “age of amphibians,” or of dinosaurs, or of mammals (though this too is less clear-cut than you’d think – in our current “age of mammals” reptile species still outnumber mammals).
One topic Bechly covers well is one I’d intended to raise, and that is that once Darwinian naturalistic gradualism is taken off the table, for lack of evidence, and especially if one begins to countenance progressive creation, then the evidence for common descent also begins to look pretty equivocal. Lack of space requires me to refer you back to him for the pros and cons, though my own thinking is scattered across several of my older posts if you fancy exploiting the search function. The evidence certainly points to changes of flora and fauna, but whilst some is suggestive that the changes come about by descent with variation, a good part of it works against that scenario if viewed objectively.
One objection raised to either of these two theistic options – ie progressive creation by directed evolution or else by de novo creation of similar forms -is why God would wish to create this way at all, rather than all at once as the Young Earth Creationists hold.
I’m pleased to see that Bechly anticipates the bulk of my answer to this, in that God’s creativity can be expressed over time in many more ecological settings across three billion years of life than in our present world alone. But particular species fit better into particular biospheres than into others – he gives the example of Tyrannosaurus rex being quite unsuitable to share the African plains with lions and leopards which it would soon, perhaps, render extinct.
The trends in similar forms are easy to understand on the principle of common descent: famous “evolutionary” examples like the textbook horse sequence fit as easily into a directed evolution model as a Darwinian one (though they are generally more saltational and incomplete than is usually admitted by biologists). This is even the model held by many YECs to explain post-flood diversification, though they trend to attribute it to Satan’s corruption of nature rather than God’s wisdom – a view incompatible with Scripture, by the way, as I argued in God’s Good Earth.
But even this theistic, saltational, form of common descent has the problems of all saltational evolutionary schemes: how do the parents accept and nurture the “hopeful monster,” and how does it find a mate? De novo creation of a breeding population of a new species overcomes these problems, but exacerbates the conundrum of why God would create predominantly dinosaurs at one time, and predominantly mammals at another, whilst leaving not only mankind, but the entire ape line, until very late in the game.
Once again, escaping mentally from the Darwinian paradigm opens up the possibilities (and they are only possibilities, as the palaeontological and genetic evidence under-determines the conclusions, and is likely to do so this side of the parousia). For not all evolution is genetic, as examples used even by the likes of Richard Dawkins demonstrate.
It is possible to talk about the evolution of motor cars, for example, both in terms of the general trends in automobile design since 1886, and the development of particular models over time. Yet no car ever gave birth to another, either with or without heritable variations.
In thinking about this, we usually attribute such evolution to progress in the mechanical knowledge of engineers. Someone invents fuel injection, or disc-brakes, or monocoque construction, and so cars improve as human knowledge increases. A new Mercedes is far superior to Gottleib Daimler’s first effort, on this view. In the case of God, of course, the concept of such “new ideas” is entirely inappropriate. He does not think of new ideas, because he is omniscient – he is knowledge. In a way that too fits the fossil record, because as biologists point out and I have already said, the idea of evolutionary “progress” in biology is misleading. Dimetrodon was as well-adapted to the Permian deserts as parrots are to the modern Amazon forests, and Ichthyosaurs in the Mesozoic may well have led as complex lives as dolphins.
But there is another reason for the evolution of human artifacts, and that is the change in the environment for which they are designed. Let me use the example of guitars, since I’m familiar with it. During the twentieth century the “Spanish” guitar began to develop from a parlour instrument for blushing ladies to strum to something one could play in a concert hall, and more particularly as part of a band. In America at least that meant a jazz band, dominated by rather loud trumpets, trombones and clarinets that went on to become whole sections of these noisy beasts, supplemented by saxophones, drums, pianos and who knows what else by the time Benny Goodman or Stan Kenton reached their zenith..
The quest then was to make the guitar louder, so that it could be heard at all, let alone play solo lines.
Body sizes began to grow, so that C. F. Martin & Co, which had shortsightedly numbered its models downwards as they got bigger, had to introduce the “0”, then the “00,” and even the “000” before they gave up and invented the “Dreadnought” in 1916. Gut strings (before nylon was invented!) were replaced with louder steel strings, necessitating stronger necks and bodies to take the additional tension.
Those jazz guitars with f-holes were invented by Lloyd Loar for Gibson guitars in the 1920s because they projected sound better above a jazz band, and the sizes were gradually increased to the maximum any normal player could manage.
Along the way the Dopyera brothers invented the brash-sounding National and Dobro resonator guitars, and saxophone makers Selmer, in France, introduced Macaferri’s large guitar with an internal resonator, as favoured by Django Reinhardt, all to increase volume.
Eventually, of course, electronic pickups were invented, and in 1950 Leo Fender produced the first commercial solid-bodied electric guitar. Jim Marshall invented the iconic 100 watt 8X12 amplifier stack, and after that the guitar could not only be heard in a big band, but could easily drown it out.
Now my point is that, although each of these developments achieved an increase in volume to keep up with louder ensembles, they also responded to, and nurtured, particular kinds of music, so much so that all of them are still in production to suit particular purposes.
So if you see a Martin Dreadnought, chances are there will be a folk singer at the business end. A big f-holed archtop will probably be playing jazz (unless Steve Howe from Yes is perversely using it for prog rock), and Hank Marvin abandoned his beloved Fender Stratocaster for a Macaferri acoustic to play gypsy jazz in Australian retirement. As for resonator guitars, they are so redolent of delta blues that Paul Simon was easily understood when he wrote:
The Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar.Graceland
Even that tiny parlour guitar with gut strings still finds a place in an early music consort that no Gretsch Country Gentleman could fill, however twangy.
So likewise it is quite rational to envisage God’s desire to create variants on a biological theme to suit particular ecological niches in particular, progressive, biospheres. This is no new idea, being no more than a version of the mediaeval philosophical “principle of plenitude” that governed pre-evolutionary biology. This held that God, being infinite, would create all that it was possible for him to create, thus enabling Linnaeus to originate the modern classification of species without any thought of common descent.
In fact, the principle might also enable Linnaeus to predict “transitional species,” based on tracking God’s ideas rather than genetic pathways. One of the examples of evidence for common descent given by Gunther Bechly is the Darwinian prediction that there were once spiders with tails, based on their phylogenetic affiliation to primitive scorpions. Such a fossil has subsequently been discovered – but you will see that Linnaeus might just as correctly have predicted its existence on a de novo creation model! It might support the theory of common descent, then, but it does not prove it.
Like all creation, the Christian can affirm that the wise and wonderful things now only found in the fossil record existed for their own sake and for God’s own delight, not to mention that of the angels (Job 38:7). They glorified God simply by being what he intended them to be, without necessary reference to mankind, even though the latter is created in his image. Yet, as I reminded the member of my Home Group, the fact that we know about the dinosaurs, and through the methods of science can increasingly reconstruct the world in which they lived, brings them into our human world. And that enables us to give praise to our Father for them in exactly the same way that we can, and should, praise him when we see a sparrow on our bird feeder, or notice the spring-green leaves appearing on the beech trees.
Whether they came about by common descent or by de novo creation is irrelevant to that worship. But in my view it’s likely to be severely hampered once we start burying creation under “natural processes” like natural selection or near-neutral mutation, whatever “natural” may mean in a cosmos sustained by the will of God moment by moment.