Genesis and the origin of the Origin of Species

August 29, 2008
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Published in The Times, 29th August 2008

There are some even in this sceptical age who still believe that God is an old man with a long beard. His name is Charles Darwin, patron saint of scientific atheists.

Next year will be a double anniversary for followers of Darwin: the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. We will no doubt hear it asserted that Darwin dealt a death blow to religious belief.

That, it should be said, is quite untrue. What it dealt a death blow to was one very poor argument for the existence of God, namely the argument from design. This argument figures nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. It does not even belong to its world of thought. It belongs instead to the tradition of Ancient Greece and to the idea that the most important truths are those that can be proved.

In fact none of the most important truths can be proved: that right is sovereign over might, that it is better to be loved than feared, that every human being however poor or powerless is worthy of respect, that peace is nobler than war, forgiveness greater than revenge, and hope a higher virtue than resignation to blind fate. Lives have been lived and civilisations built in defiance of these truths, yet they remain true.

What might a religious believer say to Darwin’s heirs? The following thoughts are purely hypothetical, but he or she might say, first, that Darwin helped us to understand the “how” of God’s “Let there be”. The Creator created not just life but life that is in itself creative.

That may be the meaning of the otherwise untranslatable phrase in Genesis ii, 3, that on the seventh day God rested “from all His work that God had created la’asot”, which means literally “to do, act, make”. Jewish commentators understood this to mean that God implanted creativity into nature. God creates something from nothing. Nature creates something from something. Darwin brought new depth to this idea.The believer might continue that Darwin helped us to understand one of the key ideas of the Bible: the kinship between humans and animals. The first humans were forbidden to kill animals for food. The covenant with Noah after the flood was made also, as Genesis ix states five times, “with every living creature”. The Bible forbids cruelty to animals. This is the polar opposite of the view of Descartes, that animals lack souls and therefore can be used as we will.

The believer might go on to say, as does Matt Ridley in his book Genome, that we now know, having deciphered the genetic code, that all life in its seemingly endless variety has a single source. In his words: “There was only one creation, one single event when life was born.” The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.

The believer might wonder, as does Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society, in his Just Six Numbers, at the extraordinary precision of the six mathematical constants that determine the shape of the Universe, such that if even one were fractionally different neither we nor the Universe would exist.

The believer might mention other mysteries, such as how did life evolve from non-life? How did sentience emerge? How was the uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness born? How did life evolve at such speed that even Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, was forced to suggest that it came from Mars? And the ultimate ontological question: why is there something rather than nothing?

We might refer to the arguments that persuaded the philosopher Antony Flew, late in life, to abandon his atheism. She might cite the curious paradox, noted by Richard Dawkins, that selfish genes get together and produce selfless people. We might wonder at the fact that Homo sapiens is the only known life form in the Universe capable of asking “Why?” And we might add, in the spirit of Godel’s Theorem, that there are truths within the system that cannot be proved within the system. We would then say:

None of these is a proof. Each, rather, is a source of wonder. The Psalm does not say, “The heavens prove the existence of God”. It says, “The heavens declare the glory of God”. Darwin helped us to understand how the many emerged from one. The more we know about the intricacy and improbability of life, the more reason we have to wonder and give thanks.