Reconciling Genesis with science

Creationism states that God created heaven and earth, then plant and animal life, and finally mankind.  Science says the universe began with the Big Bang, then stellar formation, and eventually life evolved on Earth.  There has been considerable tension between the two viewpoints.  This spilled into politics ever since the Scopes trial.  Advances in biology, astronomy, and physics are bolstering the scientific explanation.  This causes distress for some religious people.  Not only do they feel embattled for having their views, some experience cognitive dissonance.

I’m a heathen, and mine isn’t the orthodox opinion.  By and large, I have no quarrel with Christianity, and I do understand their perspective.  Also, I have studied astronomy; actually, that’s a great way to apprehend the awe and majesty of the universe.  Hopefully the following might be helpful to some; take from it what you will.  It is not my object to debate the merits of religion or which is best.  Rather, I wish to present a path of understanding for believers struggling to reconcile religion with science.

Literalism isn’t the only way to go

Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
— Matthew 13:13

A major problem with reconciling Scripture with science is the assumption that the Bible must be taken completely literally, most typical of fundamentalism.  Unlike the Quran, there’s nothing in the Bible that states that every last word is straight from God.  Some parts of the Bible are historical, but some others are most certainly meant as allegorically.  For instance, the New Testament parables are allegorical; they wouldn’t be meaningful otherwise.  The fundamentalist interpretation isn’t the only one.

Considering Genesis as a creation myth settles these problems.  This isn’t to say Genesis is all wrong.  A myth is not a fairy tale; rather, it’s a symbolic story containing a rich deeper meaning.  They aren’t literal narratives; the truth is in that deeper meaning.  We heathens understood what myths were all about, and came up with many of our own back in the day.

Many events in Genesis are quite similar to the creation myths of neighboring Semitic peoples.  This doesn’t diminish from the importance of the Bible.  New religions usually develop from earlier sources; this is quite common.  It’s no problem to consider the Bible as the inspired words of ancient Levantine prophets, some of them hearkening back to earlier Mesopotamian sources.  The Bible certainly has meaning, even if it didn’t just float down from the sky on a cloud.

Let there be enlightenment

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
— Genesis 1:1

One big problem reconciling science with Genesis is that geology tells us the world is about 4.5 billion years old, beginning shortly after the sun formed.  As for the universe itself, the latest astronomical consensus is that the Big Bang happened thirteen billion years or so ago.  The science is pretty solid on this.

As for the Biblical account, Creation took place in six days.  By Archbishop Ussher’s reckoning, this happened in 4004 BC.  This contradicts paleontology, since fossils of many organisms – trilobites, dinosaurs, even ancient mankind – predates this quite significantly.

To resolve this, we should ask ourselves – what is a day to God?  Must it mean 24 hours of our time?  “Yom” in Hebrew often means a calendar day, but it can also mean an era.  So it’s not too much of a stretch to say a day during creation could span geological epochs.

As for the Big Bang, why couldn’t this be the very process that God used to create the universe?  We’ll have to set aside the fundamentalist assumption that God micromanages everything.  Imagine playing SimGalaxy on several billion monitors for thirteen billion years – that’s an awful lot of micromanagement even for a deity!  The Bible doesn’t go into details about how the universe formed, so there are really no contradictions to resolve.

What initiated the Big Bang remains a mystery for everyone.  Science proposes a great quantum fluctuation.  There’s no explanation thus far of how there came to be a chasm of cosmic nothingness where a random quantum fluctuation could cause a universe to spill forth from nothing.  If you’d like to consider it an act of God, why not?

Be that as it may, it certainly seems the universe was arranged to support life.  Without going into a long digression about ratios of physics constants, we have exactly the right balance to have stellar formation (the gravitational constant), and another fine balance allows molecular formation (the ratio of the strong atomic force, causing nuclear cohesion, to the weak nuclear force, causing radioactive decay).  Without stars and chemistry, life wouldn’t exist.  The balance is extremely delicate; you’re a lot more likely to win Powerball twice in a row than for these constants to be just right at random.

The rejoinder to this is the multiverse concept and the anthropic principle.  The former postulates that there are an infinite number of universes out there.  the anthropic principle basically states that we just so happen to be in the right universe, otherwise we wouldn’t be discussing this.  Since no other universes have been observed, and you can’t test this in a lab, the science is pretty shaky, so you can’t even properly call it a theory.  Again, you’d have to have a lot of faith to believe all this was all a lucky coincidence.

When the sun was young, rocks and dust and gas from space swirled around and formed common centers of gravity, falling inward and forming planets.  Surely it must have been a very amazing time, with meteors falling through the smoky, dust-choked gloom and striking bubbling lava fields.  Eventually order rose from chaos.  It’s not a huge stretch to say that Genesis 1:2-10 could be an approximate account of the world coalescing during the Hadean Eon.  That process was a slow one, beginning about 4.5 billion years ago, taking 500 million years to wrap up.

Evolution isn’t evil

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
— Genesis 1:2

Many religious people have a problem with Darwinism.  The theory has much going for it; natural selection works, and it’s actually quite intuitive.  If God wanted evolution to be part of the plan to produce millions of species, rather than micromanaging everything into being, why not?  Also, there’s no reason that divine Providence couldn’t nudge things here or there as necessary.  Darwin himself allowed wiggle room for that.

Around the end of Hadean Eon – as the world was no longer quite such a hellish wasteland – life began.  Science agrees that life formed in the oceans.  It’s no accident that the pH level of blood is pretty much the same as that of seawater.  Eventually there were prokaryotes, the first microorganisms.  The specifics aren’t very clear.  As for how sea foam or mud at the bottom of the ocean or whatever could become a functional self-replicating cell with DNA, there are lots of missing pieces.  It seems a bit improbable that everything just came together randomly.

So this happened soon after the world became habitable, but apparently life hasn’t emerged spontaneously since then.  If life could easily form from any old mud puddle, then we’d observe many phyla of organisms with DNA and biochemistry obviously unrelated to anything else, as if they were alien life forms.  Other organisms might have right-helix DNA, or even some completely different genetic encoding method.  If you wish to believe that the Holy Spirit oversaw the process of putting together the first cell, that’s really about as good an explanation as any so far.

Chloroplasts emerged about half a billion years later, the basic element for plant life.  Chlorophyll is a very interesting molecule, using solar energy – on a quantum level, so I understand – to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen while nourishing the plant.  There was a great quantity of it in the beginning.  Much like neighboring Venus and Mars, Earth’s atmosphere once had high levels of carbon dioxide.  It took about a billion years for oceanic algae to oxygenate the atmosphere, paving the way for animal life, which has since then been a great ecological equilibrium.

Eukaryotes began to dominate, a more sophisticated type of cell with more structure and multiple chromosomes.  Eventually, multi-cellular organisms appeared, the first quite simple.  After that, things really took off.  About half a billion years ago, life took root on land.  All that corresponds to Genesis 1:25-26, though it will have to be considered figuratively.

Hey hey, we’re the monkeys

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
— Genesis 1:27

This is a big sticking point between religion and science.  According to science, humans have 98% of DNA in common with chimpanzees.  Other primates have a more distant genetic relationship.  Still, the thought that we’re related to chattering apes who fling poop is a rather disturbing one.

So what is meant by God creating man in His image?  Fundamentalists might consider God as an old man in the sky with a long, gray beard.  However, that’s not the only possible viewpoint.  If you write the name of God, YHVH, in Hebrew letters from top down (Chinese style) rather than the usual right to left, it forms a human stick figure.  Perhaps more to the point, humans have the power of reason.

One major genetic difference between apes and humans is that we have one less pair of chromosomes.  So two chromosomes fused, becoming our chromosome 2.  Changing chromosome structures is a random event, rare and quite risky.  So what happened here was the following:

  • A proto-chimpanzee had a chromosomal fusion that wasn’t fatal and didn’t cause serious problems.
  • Another of the opposite sex had a fusion on the same chromosomes in the same way, so they had compatible DNA.
  • They were around the same place at the same time to fall in love (well, you know).
  • Neither of the two had any recessive genetic problems that doomed the little tribe they created which eventually became humanity.

All that seems a bit improbable, but it did happen.  If you’d like to consider all this as a Providential tweak to evolution, you’re more than welcome to do so.  As for the story of forming Adam out of clay and Eve from Adam’s rib, that’s the best explanation the natural philosophers had for it at the time.  We heathens had quite a few similar explanations too.

We’re animals, but very sophisticated ones.  We can contemplate philosophy, write operas, form civilizations, launch spacecraft, build computers, and bake chocolate chip cookies.  Of course, it’s been quite a long road from cavemen banging rocks together.  Unlike other animals, we have the power of reason – something we have in common with God and the angels – and great power must be used responsibly.

in the Garden of Eden, baby

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it– Genesis 2:17

So now we’ll cover the Fall of Mankind.  After God created the world, soon after we wrecked everything.  God told Adam and Eve that they could raid the refrigerator all they wanted, but they’d better not touch that big lollipop on the coffee table, or else!  If you go by the literal meaning, it really looks like God set them up to fail.  It doesn’t take an omniscient deity to see what would happen next!  We’re left wondering how it was just for God to punish us eternally for breaking merely one rule.

Looking at it another way, the story is really about growing up.  Living in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were like children whose parents provide everything for them.  Upon adolescence, they started thinking for themselves and got rebellious.  One doesn’t exactly have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out what the snake and the forbidden fruit were all about.  After they became adults, Adam had to work and Eve had to raise children.

On another level, it explains how early mankind went from primordial innocence – being carefree cavemen – to a society relying on agriculture and family structure for its survival.  It also explains that we’re a little too curious for our own good, we make mistakes sometimes, and that we have moral responsibility for our decisions.  All told, Genesis is a powerful creation myth conveying many truths allegorically.

Finally, one might ask, if the prophets were under divine inspiration, why didn’t they describe things in scientifically accurate detail?  That wouldn’t have been possible.  The oldest parts of the Bible were written by Bronze Age hill people who didn’t have words to describe stellar formation, molecular biology, and so forth.  The ancient natural philosophers were cleverer than we often assume, but even they would’ve needed a lot of science they just didn’t have then to begin to grasp these concepts.  It makes sense that the Bible was written in a way that the common people would understand.

Reconciling Genesis with science

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