An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds

An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds

One of the key issues in the creation-evolution controversy is the extent to which Genesis 1-2 should be understood as narrative history, and whether its statements with regard to the physical world should be taken as scientific statements, or at least as statements that carry some scientific content.

I was just reminded of the importance of this issue by an essay by Alvin Plantinga, “When Faith and Reason Clash” in the collection Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics, edited by Robert T. Pennock. In answering the question of what we do when our scriptural position and that of science clashes, Plantinga says (p. 121), “. . . I don’t know of any infallible rule, or even any pretty reliable general recipe. All we can do is weigh and evaluate the relative warrant, the relative backing or strength, of the conflicting teachings. We must do our best to apprehend both the teachings of Scripture and the deliverances of reason; in either case we will have much more warrant for some apparent teachings than for others. . . .”

He then proceeds to divide “evolution” into five claims, two of which are the Ancient Earth Thesis and the Common Ancestry Thesis. The reason I list just these two is that the difference between them is the focus of this short essay. I think also that the handling of these two elements by creationists of all varieties will emphasize the problems with any notion of “theistic science.” Plantinga regards the scientific evidence for an ancient earth to be so strong, and the scriptural evidence for a young earth to be weak enough that we can accept an ancient earth. Common ancestry, on the other hand, he interprets differently. He sees the scientific evidence as much weaker, and the Biblical evidence much stronger, and thus he feels justified in rejecting it.

Let me note first that I don’t think that the Bible makes scientific statements, and thus there should not be an issue of conflict between what the Bible teaches and what one learns from science, since they are talking about different topics. Nonetheless I want to look at the difference between these two issues on the assumption that one might extract some scientific information from Genesis. Is the Ancient Earth Thesis or the Common Ancestry Thesis better supported scientifically? Is either of them more forcefully contradicted by scripture? How would one deal with this approach?

Old earth creationists (OEC), and many intelligent design (ID) advocates see the evidence for an old earth as extremely strong, but in general they want to maintain some sort of historical and scientific truth claims for the early stories of Genesis. For a recent example, see William Dembski’s Christian Theodicy in the Light of Genesis and Modern Science in which he attempts to reconcile the idea that physical death is the result of human sin with an old earth in which death occurred prior to the existence of human beings. I hope to respond to that article some time soon. It’s really quite interesting. Here, however, I am simply noting that it takes the scientific evidence for an old earth seriously, seeing it as solid enough to effectively require that one deal with it, and thus requiring a somewhat complex interpretational solution.

Ignoring Dembski’s new view for the moment, however, let me look at just how difficult it is to reinterpret Genesis so that it will support an old earth, based on previous claims. In this way I’d like to outline just how solid the Biblical evidence is for each position, since according to Plantinga we should apparently judge each of these elements and relate them to the validity of the scientific evidence.

Read as narrative history, Genesis 1-11 teaches several things:

  • a young earth, in the neighborhood of 6,000 years old
  • special creation in the course of a week
  • a specific incident resulting in a fall of humans from their relationship to God which resulted in their expulsion from Eden, commonly interpreted as the source of all physical death
  • moral deterioration of humanity to a point beyond redemption except for a few
  • a universal flood that destroyed all those not in the ark, including all human and animal life, but apparently not plant life
  • the formation of multiple languages from an original universal language at the Tower of Babel

In reinterpreting these elements, old earth creationists do the following:

  • In some sense regard the creation days as long periods of time. (There are multiple ways of doing this, but I’ll regard it as just one element of interpretation.)
  • Deal somehow with the sense of “special creation” in the passage, when this creation is accomplished over long periods of time and with significant detours (extinction events, for example)
  • Find a way to understand physical death before the fall narrated in Genesis 3. (Again, there are a variety of explanations, but they are all more complex than the narrative history reading of Genesis 3.)
  • Dealing with moral deterioration and the flood as one element, they need to restrict the range of the flood so that it does not completely disrupt the geological record, as a universal flood surely would.
  • Relate the apparent history of language and patterns of migration with the Babel story. (I have really never seen anyone address this issue, but I think it would come up if the others were to be solved.

Note that I’m not particularly singling out any of these elements as wrong, or even extremely improbable. I’m simply looking at the weight of scriptural evidence that must be reinterpreted in order to accept an old earth view under Plantinga’s idea of theistic science. If one is to read Genesis as narrative history with scientific content, then I think the young earth folks have the inside track on straightforward exegesis.

Now let’s turn to common descent. At the risk of oversimplifying, since I’m not a biologist, let me state this simply as the descent of all life from a single life form by descent with modification. To reconcile such a picture with Genesis we need to deal with at least two elements of the old earth scenario, time and physical death prior to the fall. But the reconciliation already provided by the young earth advocates already cover those points. In addition, we need to deal with the issue of reproduction after their kind. And that is where I would really like to discover what the great problem is.

In the good old days of George McCready Price, whose books were part of my early education, creationists tended to believe that species were very closely fixed. A “kind” was a rather tight package and corresponded closely to species. Over time, that has changed, and with good reason. But creationists of all varieties are still trying to find the boundaries of “kinds.” Why are they doing that? Most importanly why are people who can accept an old earth hung up on the issue of kinds?

If we can accept a range of variation within a population and still call that reproduction “after their kinds,” then where in the Biblical text is this absolute warrant for a hard coded boundary? By shifting the distribution of characters in a population, you can move the population anywhere you wish without any single creature ever failing to reporduce “after its kind.” It seems to me that rather than being the most difficult element of the picture, “after their kinds” is actually the easiest one to deal with. Once any variation is permitted within the definition of such reproduction, there is no inherent limit on such variation.

Thus with much less effort than is required to allow an old earth we have an explanation for common descent that is in accord with scripture. What is more, many of the difficulties inherent in spreading special creation over a period of time are removed. Many people question the idea of special creation that takes long periods of time simply because it hardly seems “special” any more. The OEC tells the evolutionist that God took the same amount of time, permitted the same amount of death and destruction, allowed the same number of species to become extinct, only the creation is more personal and special. The question is why? If, on the other hand, God was using variation and natural selection as the process of creation, then the time factor and the “after their kind” explanation make perfect sense together.

It seems to me that there must be some other issue here, and with that issue we’re headed straight back toward the dreaded “God of the gaps” theology. The real point is that OECs can still see specific, identifiable acts of creation by God with an old earth, but if we allow creation of all life forms via descent with modification, this evidence for the existence and activity of God disappears. I think that is the real reason why there is so much greater resistance to common descent than there is to an old earth (though one shouldn’t underestimate remaining Christian resistance to an old earth). But I think scripture can be interpreted to support common descent with greater ease than an old earth. In fact, the greatest barriers have already been eliminated by the old earth argument, and indeed, common descent helps make some better sense of some of the difficulties that the old earth view introduces.

I can’t leave this subject without noting that I believe that either set of interpretations, young or old earth, are misguided. We need only look at the nature of the “after their kinds” statement to see the problem with reading science from Genesis. There is no definition here to determine just how descent with modification would occur. There is no limit on the “kinds.” Evolution by this standard could wander anywhere. We know that in actuality, evolution is constrained in its pathways by the existing form of the creature. There is simply no statement in Genesis 1-11, and I would suggest in the entire Bible, that is defined in such a way that it could be used directly in science. Further evidence for this is provided by the large number of alternate interpretations applied to the text. I used just one general set, but any OEC could challenge me on any point and claim he has a better interpretation. But that would simply show that the original statement was not well-defined in a scientific sense.

Theistic science is a non-starter, at least from the Biblical point of view. The Bible fails to provide such knowledge.

13 thoughts on “An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds

  1. Right, I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where fixity of “kinds” is actually established. Fixity of species comes from Greek ideas, Plato’s Forms, and Aristotle’s forms, the genera and species.

    Semitic ideas allow for significant amounts of change, for instance, the Genesis snake’s shift to crawling on its belly and “eating dust” (we don’t know from what it changed, however). The world is inherently unstable and seemingly plastic for the Semites, with the only fixity coming from divinities and semi-divinities, like the pharaohs.

    The problem for the creationists/IDists from the Bible is where humanity is concerned. It does seem that humans are indeed set apart in the Bible, especially in the later sections. Unfortunately for the literalists, humans are fairly closely related to living animals, and even more closely related to extinct hominids. They can’t allow for much evolution in Hominidae, then, and in order to “make a principle out of it”, they tend not to allow much evolution in the rest of organisms either, though substantially more (and much much faster) than they’ll allow for Hominidae and hominids.

    It’s all very slippery, then, with varying degrees of accommodation. What is important in this context is that Plantiga is clearly reading his biases into the “kinds” of Genesis (and there isn’t any real statement that disallows kinds from turning into other kinds, though it may be implied somewhat). Yes, probably to protect humans from having evolved, but also because he tends to think in the rigid categories of the metaphysician, following Plato and Aristotle.

    I guess I have some sympathy with Coyne’s (I think it was he) statement that creationism is paganism, since Plantinga has to read pagan ideas into the Bible in order to get to his interpretation of rigid kinds. I would expect that disregarding God’s evidence in the world (if we credit God for the world) is indeed likely to lead to some kind of heresy or another. Are any of these “leading lights of ID” ever going to learn what disrespect they give their putative deity whenever they falsify the world, and texts, like thay do?

    Glen D

  2. Glen,

    While I think Plantinga’s position is misguided (as a Catholic, I don’t share his commitment to literalism), I think you’re criticism is unfair.

    You don’t have to be a Greek philosopher or one of their students to use “kind” in this way. More basically, one doesn’t have to have a philosophical theory of universals to judge that two individuals are the same in some respect. I take to be the prephilosophical sense of kind, i.e., that this and that are the same animal. Sameness and difference are elementary concepts.

    And while I agree that there is nothing in this basic sense of kind barring change in kind, it would seem that one kind producing another of the same kind does bar a change in kind. The sameness here is not between individuals, but between their kind.

  3. Hmmm. I suspect the place of teleology in nature is the nub of the issue. As soon as evolution in anything but a trivial sense is allowed, you have to accept that clearly functional characteristics of organisms can develop in a natural, undirected way. And if the apparent teleology of organs, limbs etc. is a product of undirected natural processes, not God’s will working directly in the world, then Deism is perfectly sound theology. For Plantinga, and a lot of others, that’s a completely unacceptable result. (A terrible kind of argument, and completely at odds with any respect for the evidence, but religion comes first for Dr. P.)

  4. Glen Davidson said:

    The problem for the creationists/IDists from the Bible is where humanity is concerned.

    and Bryson Brown said:

    I suspect the place of teleology in nature is the nub of the issue.

    I think these two together probably give the correct answer. Once you allow an undirected process to “create” in the sense of producing new structures and processes, where will it ever end? Personally, I don’t think it does end, thus humans are the result of undirected processes. How this relates to my faith is not something I see any need for science to deal with. That’s my problem.

  5. The Bible worldview has its own set of problems.

    Do we have the correct Bible, what was the intent of the authors rather than what we impose on them after the fact, is the canon we accept the correct canon, is the Bible the word of God or the witness of human authors.

  6. Henry Neufeld says:

    “Let me note first that I don’t think that the Bible makes scientific statements, and thus there should not be an issue of conflict between what the Bible teaches and what one learns from science, since they are talking about different topics.”

    If the Bible doesn’t talk about “science” topics, exactly whose choice is it to determine what is (or isn’t) a science topic?

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