Most bogeymen are dispatched well before childhood ends. However, for many evangelicals, the Evolution Bogeyman lasts much longer. Much like children nervously peaking under the bed each morning, many evangelical students (and their parents!) scan nervously through the course outline prior to stepping tentatively into that first high school or university biology classroom. Many, like I did myself, use various avoidance strategies. However, these strategies only help to solidify and strengthen the perceived threat.
When I stumbled across David Hill’s article “Who’s afraid of Biology 101?” I was optimistic that he would directly address the evangelical tendency to be intimidated by evolution. However, my optimism evaporated when I read the opening paragraph:
Students from Christian homes are often warned about the dangers of secular lifestyles in college, especially those relativistic worldviews rooted in humanism and evolutionary theory. Many parents sending their kids off to school are not only concerned with the temptations of the social atmosphere, but they also fear the potentially more damaging outcome from an intellectual culture hostile to Biblically-based perspectives.
A) Do not Avoid Science
First the positive. Hill does not say Christians should avoid learning about evolution. He acknowledges that Christians should examine modern scientific explanations, including biological evolution. Taking biology 101 will allow Christian students to
“… walk away four months later appreciating modern scientific theories about the universe and have their faith strengthened because they understand this conflict more deeply”.Although I strongly disagree with the implication that evolution and faith are inherently in conflict, or that the majority of those teaching it are attacking a biblical worldview, I commend his advice to Christians that they seek to understand modern ideas and theories, even ideas and theories that are in conflict with a biblical worldview or are taught by those biased against a biblical worldview. As both Jesus and the apostle Paul demonstrated, we need to directly engage our culture, not run from it. And to properly engage, we need to first listen & understand.
B) Natural Selection and its Relationship to Moral Relativism
However, Hill’s second conclusion that we need to be wary of an evolutionary paradigm because “it results in a morally relativistic worldview” is completely unsupported in the essay (and I believe unsupportable). He states:
An evolutionary paradigm describing the result of competition and environmental stress within nature can be stated very simply: the fit survive, mutations arise and new species arrive. According to this mode of thought, humans are no exception to this rule, being an ordinary product of the machinery of natural selection, as much as daffodils, flounders, or pigeons. This indifference and utter accidentalness in the origination of living things is unnerving. It proposes that everything is relative, that nothing under the sun — least of all the human race — is special in any way.I have commented before that humanity’s connectedness to all other life on planet earth does not contradict the fact that we are created in the image of God. What needs to be addressed is the contention that the mechanism of natural selection somehow leads to moral relativism. Briefly, the acceptance of natural selection should not lead us to accept moral relativism since first, it acts on populations not individuals, and second, it is descriptive not prescriptive.
1. Populations, not Individuals
Natural selection is a mechanism that operates on populations, not on individual organisms. (See here). Individual orchids, sheep, and hominids do not evolve – populations of orchids, sheep and hominids evolve over time (generally very long periods of time). Natural selection is unrelated to individuals or their choices. In fact, maybe a better term for natural selection is environmental sorting of heredity as indicated here.
2. Descriptive, not Prescriptive
Natural selection is an explanation for how things have changed over time. It is thus descriptive and is not meant to be prescriptive. The theory explains the paleontological, genetic, and morphological data, but does not in any way provide guidance on how humanity should act in the future. As Kyle Maxwell states:
The theory of evolution is merely an account of the mechanisms God has used to create us. It can no more be a guide to our moral choices than Newton's laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, or Boyle's law. Bear in mind, by the way, that scientific laws (of which evolution is one) are descriptive, not prescriptive or normative. That means that scientific laws describe what DOES happen in the universe; they do not tell you what moral choices to make. Many persons make a mistake here by confusing the different meanings of the word law. For example, they'll think that the law of gravity "punishes" a person for stepping off a cliff. That is not so. The law of gravity describes how an object moves in a gravitational field. The choice of how and where you place yourself in such a field is up to you. (Quoted from here - scroll to the 3rd post at the bottom).C) A Christian Paradigm
Hill might include more than just the scientific evidence for natural selection in his “simple” definition of “an evolutionary paradigm” ; it is not clear from his essay. But based on his definition, the conclusion he reaches is not warranted. It is true that some paradigms might lead to moral relativism, even paradigms near and dear to the hearts of many evangelicals. One could try to make the argument that the economic theory of capitalism leads to moral relativism (“survival of the fittest” is certainly more applicable here than in biological evolution) or that the political theory of democracy leads to moral relativism, but both of those statements are obviously simplistic and can be debated. However, the contention that capitalism and/or democracy leads to moral relativism is easier to defend than the claim that natural selection leads to moral relativism. Both capitalism and democracy are at least partly prescriptive; natural selection (and the science of biological evolution) is purely descriptive.
In one sense Hill is right. Making an Evolutionary Paradigm (however it is defined) foundational for defining truth, making choices, and finding purpose is unacceptable for Christians. Our primary paradigm must be Christ-centered and biblically guided. If this approach is trumped by any other paradigm, whether a Democratic Paradigm, a Capitalist Paradigm, or an Evolutionary Paradigm, we have committed idolatry. Christians can of course hold democratic political ideas, capitalistic economic ideas, and evolutionary scientific ideas, but these ideas need to be secondary to, informed by, and measured against our primary paradigm, which is faith in Jesus Christ.
D) Still Promoting Fear of the Bogeyman
Although the title of Hill’s article seems to suggest that evangelicals should not fear evolution, I believe his argument will only make things worse. The impression one is given is that accepting the evidence for biological evolution inevitability leads to an evolutionary paradigm that is itself equivalent to moral relativism. Since moral relativism is incompatible with the Christian faith, the message is really “learn about the scientific ‘theory’ of evolution but hold your breath so that you don’t inhale its toxic ramifications”. This is equivalent to giving your fearful 6-year old a loaded gun when going to bed. Someone might get hurt, but it sure won’t be the bogeyman.