Posts Tagged ‘Evolution’

Book Review: The Liturgy of Creation

Dear Reader,

Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) presents an interesting new approach to Genesis 1. LeFebvre is a member of my own denomination, a pastor, and a professor at the denominational seminary. He is clearly an intelligent scholar who has done a lot of study and put a lot of thought into the argument he makes. Having read the book and taken some time to ponder it, I am still not entirely sure where I fall on its argument.

My own background is in biblical Hebrew [1] and I have given some thought to the creation story in the past. Going into this book I would have said I am somewhat agnostic on creation issues, tending toward an Old Earth creationism but certainly not a literal 6-day creationism. [2] I also would say (and have said) that Genesis 1 is a unique narrative. It stands not just at the beginning of our Bible but as an introduction to the Pentateuch, the Old Testamen,t and the Scriptures as a whole. Despite attempts to define it, it is not really like any other section of Scripture in terms of its style and genre. Therefore it is hard to know how to take it.  I have argued, for instance, that though literal creationists want to compare the use of days with numbers attached to other such uses in the Pentateuch, that these can not really be compared on an equal footing since they are not the same kinds of texts.

LeFebvre has no doubt gotten and will get a lot of flack for his book from literal 6-day creationists. In fact, a large part of the book is devoted to saying, again and again, that Genesis 1 cannot be used to say anything about the scientific aspects of when and how the earth was created. This is not my problem with the book. I went into the book already half-way on LeFebvre’s side in that I did not take the six days literally and I do take Genesis 1 as a different kind of genre, though I had no real answer to the question of what that genre is.

LeFebvre provides an answer to the question. The thesis of his book is that Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative (p. 6). As far as I know this is a genre he has uniquely identified and defined. The arguments he makes are built something like a brick wall in that they all hold together and work toward a common goal but it would be possible to disagree with some points here and there without knocking down the whole edifice. To mix my metaphors, one might say many of his arguments are circumstantial evidence. No one alone proves his point but when taken altogether he does make a compelling case.

I can’t possibly address everything LeFebvre brings into the discussion. I am going to leave aside all the scientific/creationist issues because (a) I am sure others will address those at length and (b) they are not issues for me personally. What I would like to focus on are just a few of the bigger issues and implications of Lefebvre’s argument.

Simply put, LeFeFebvre’s argument is that there is a genre within the Old Testament which he calls calendar narrative. He begins by looking at other passages from the Pentateuch and showing how the dates in them make no sense if taken literally (or at least pose serious issues). He shows how these dates line up with the festival holidays of Israel and argues that they were never meant to be taken literally but to tie Israel’s history to its calendar observances. These dates, he says, were for “liturgical remembrance,” not “journalistic detail” (p. 60). They were meant for the instruction of later generations (p. 66). Whereas the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures might tie their festivals to their myths, Israel’s festivals were rooted in their history (p. 14). Thus the story of the Passover, for one, is not intended to provide a precise history but to give instruction and meaning to the worshipper who will come later (p. 77).

Having learned “a reading strategy” (p. 66) from these other passages, LeFebvre turns to Genesis 1 and argues that the seven-day week it describes was also never meant to be taken literally. Like those other dates, the narrative of Genesis 1, according to Lefebvre, provides a justification for Israel’s festivals. In this case it is the weekly work cycle culminating in the Sabbath which is the focus (p. 113).  Note that it is not the Sabbath alone which Genesis 1 points to but the whole week. It is an example to us as much of what we should be doing the first six days of the week as what we should be doing on the final day. The description of God’s work week in Genesis 1 establishes the pattern for the human week. As LeFebvre describes the events of that first week, there are the normal patterns of plants growing and the normal taxonomy of animals with which the Israelite farmer would have been familiar (p. 173). There is nothing miraculous here; the original audience would have recognized what happens in Genesis 1 as mirroring their normal work. God, in this scenario, is the pattern for humans (p. 137). He is the Model Farmer (p. 165). The culmination of the week, the seventh day, is a time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. It is a day of feasting.

On one level, there is a lot of appeal to LeFebvre’s theory. As I said, it tends to be in line with where my thoughts were going anyway — that Genesis has a unique genre and that we need to understand it as such. I think we also need to admit that there are some parts of the Bible that are just hard to take as literal history. Some dates don’t seem to line up or to make sense. There are various ways to deal with these seeming contradictions and some are more convincing than others. LeFebvre’s theory does an end-run around such arguments by saying that these dates were never meant to be taken literally.  He rather elegantly does away with the seeming contradictions without undermining the text or robbing them of it meaning.

LeFebvre spends some time explaining how the Bible deals with the scientific theories and beliefs of its day. Basically his argument is that the Bible never contradicts what its original readers would have believed. It never stretches them scientifically even if what they believed was wrong (a geocentric universe for example). In the context of his overall argument, this is perfectly acceptable. Since the Bible was not meant as science, it has no need to correct wrong science or to teach right science. I do actually like how he explains all this. It was not something I had thought about in this way but it makes sense.

I am less persuaded by some of his other arguments. (Recall that these arguments are like bricks in a wall; if we remove too many the whole will fall but to reject one or two is not necessarily to overthrow the whole.) He largely discounts miraculous explanations for the seeming contradictions. Not that he is a denier of miracles altogether, but he argues that if “the supernatural help of the Lord” were needed to accomplish large tasks such as the making of the utensils for the tabernacle in a relatively short amount of time that the text would have made this explicit (p. 87). This seems like a big assumption to me. One could argue on the other side that because there are so many instances where things were accomplished in humanly impossible (or at least improbable) amounts of time that this is how the text operates — these things happen and it does not comment on them. As with so many aspects of the biblical story, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

The thesis of LeFebvre’s book is that Genesis 1 is something he calls a calendar narrative. He bases this identification on the analogy with the other Pentateuchal texts which give dates. While he makes a compelling argument that the other passages use dates in a liturgical way, I don’t think he has established that there is a genre called calendar narrative or that Genesis 1 necessarily uses dates in the same way. As LeFebvre points out, the dates in Genesis 1 are different. They are days of the week with no reference to months (p. 115). He would say that this is because Genesis 1 speaks of the repeated weekly cycle rather than the yearly festivals, but, nonetheless, it is a difference. Genesis 1 is also one compact, discrete, and highly organized narrative. Compare this to the Flood story or the descriptions of Passover. My belief going into this was that Genesis 1 stands apart from the other Old Testament narratives we have because of its form and organization. LeFebvre has made a connection via the use of dates but he has not shown me that there is a genre here or what its defining characteristics would be, other than the use of specific dates which hardly seems enough to define a genre.

There is a difference as well in how LeFebvre himself deals with the details of these narratives. When speaking of the other narratives, he seems to take their details literally, apart from the issue of timing. Thus he can discuss how long it would have taken to make the utensils for the Tabernacle because he assumes that these utensils were made just as the text says and that the other events also happened as well in roughly the order they are presented. Yet when he comes to Genesis 1, there seems to be very little that he takes literally. To dismiss the idea of a literal week is one thing, but LeFebvre also says that the events of Creation need not have happened in the order they are presented (p. 138) and that even the mechanism of Creation is not meant literally (p. 146).

LeFebvre’s overall argument makes a very strong case for the Sabbath which I am not at all opposed to but it does so at the expense of other meaning. Coming as Genesis 1 does at the beginning of the whole Bible and being as it is a highly ordered narrative (a fairly unique thing within the Scriptures) one expects it to give an introduction to everything that follows, to set the tone if you will. [3] For Lefebvre, that introduction boils down to the Sabbath and the Sabbath alone:

“When the Holy Spirit guided the compilation of the Pentateuch, the sabbath-week calendar was placed at the front — literally in its first chapter (Gen 1:1-2:3). The cadence taught in that passage is the foundation from which our vision of God’s kingdom is unfolded in the rest of Scripture.” (p. 218)

In other words: “The Sabbath promise is literally the framing paradigm for all Scripture” (p. 219). This is quite a bold statement yet it comes at the end of the book with little discussion of how this would play out for our interpretation of the rest of the Bible. Let me say this again: LeFebvre is proposing a new paradigm for understanding all of Scripture.  Now the Sabbath is a wonderful thing and I think he could go a long way by talking about the ideal Sabbath rest which was set before us in Genesis 1, lost, found again in Jesus, and awaits us in eternity. But is this the paradigm by which we should understand all of Scripture? There are surely competing options. Covenant comes to mind. Jesus said that all of Scripture points to Him. If we are to say that Sabbath is the paradigm then at the very least that needs to be understood under the heading of Jesus as our Sabbath rest in which case it is not really the Sabbath which is key but Christ.

LeFebvre makes grand claims for Genesis 1 and yet in many ways he seems to rob it of meaning. His view of Genesis 1 is very focused and narrow. He concentrates on the weekly cycle of work and rest but in his understanding there is little else that Genesis 1 has to tell us. Personally, I think God tends to be a little more multifunctional than that. If we compare Genesis 1 to the Flood story, another of his calendar narratives, we find that while we might follow LeFebvre in not taking the dates literally there is still a lot the text has to tell us about not just big concepts like sin and judgment (not to mention baptism) but even about details like how many animals came in. If there is such a thing as calendar narrative, we still need to ask and answer questions about how we are to understand this genre. It is not enough to say “calendar narrative” as a way to explain the dates in a story and then to ignore the rest of what that narrative has to tell us. Considering the genre of any piece is useful in that it helps us know how to read that piece. LeFebvre has given a theory about how to understand the dates of certain texts, but he hasn’t spoken to how this helps our understanding of the rest of the details of these narratives.

As LeFebvre explains it, there is little left in Genesis 1 that would have been new information for its original audience. He makes a point of the fact that its agricultural details would have been very familiar to the average ancient Israelite. The actions and details of Genesis 1 would have been completely representative of the weekly cycle of work and rest of the average person. So much so that LeFebvre calls God “the Model Farmer.” I am willing to give LeFebvre the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean it this way but it is hard not to feel at times that, rather than man following the example of God here, God is being made in the image of man.

Often throughout the book I found myself wondering if what we have here is a chicken-and-egg problem. That is, which came first? If the Passover story (as an example) is being told in a way that instructs about the later celebration of that festival at the expense of the actual details about how the original Passover happened, which is the original story? Are there events which happened upon which the festival is based? Or is the story about Moses and the Israelites told to justify the festival? Again, this may not be how LeFebvre himself sees it (and I suspect it is not) but this is quite how modern, non-religious scholars take such texts — every story is created to explain a situation the audience already is quite familiar with. This is the definition of myth (with no implied judgment on its truthiness). Thus in Greek mythology the story of Demeter and Persephone explains the seasons and the Tower of Babel story explains why people speak different languages. LeFebvre’s understanding of Genesis 1 seems to fall into this same pattern — it explains something the audience already knew (agricultural cycles) and why they have certain practices (weekly work/rest pattern) but it would not have been informative for the original audience. In such an understanding, it is a story to explain why we do things the way we do not to tell us how to do something. The question for Genesis 1, then, is: Is the creation story written this way to justify the weekly practice or do the people have the weekly practice because this is how creation happened?

In his understanding of how dates are used in the Pentateuch, I do think LeFebvre has hit on something that deserves more attention. He has shown quite clearly how the various specific dates given lined up with Israel’s various festivals and feasts and that is quite compelling. He has not convinced me that there is a genre here that can be used to understand Genesis 1 in particular.  What I would like to see is a fuller description of the defining characteristics of this genre and how we are to interpret it, especially how we are to understand the details of such a story given its genre. I tend to agree with LeFebvre that there is not much we can get about chronology from Genesis 1 but that does not mean that there is not more that the story is telling us beyond the weekly cycle of work and rest.

LeFebvre is quite right when he says that his interpretation makes the Sabbath the paradigm for all of Scripture. But that is a huge claim. It is a fairly daunting thing in the year 2000-something to say “I have a new paradigm for understanding Scripture.” If he means it, I think he also needs to speak to how that paradigm shapes our understanding of the rest of the Bible.

If I can close by returning to the analogy I started with, I think LeFebvre has some very interesting bricks here. I am not convinced he has built a wall. When he speaks of the Sabbath paradigm, I feel he is saying “look, I can see a totally new country from my wall,” but he doesn’t tell me enough about what that country looks like.

Nebby

[1] I have a bachelors and masters in Hebrew from one secular university and was ABD “all but dissertation” in a Ph.D. Program at another prestigious secular university.

[2] You can find earlier posts I did on the whole creation/evolution thing here.

[3] Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Book of Psalms in much the same way.

[4] “Secular” here describes the institutions which had no religious affiliation (except perhaps a very distant historical one). The students and staff held to a range of beliefs. Some, students especially, professed various forms of Christianity. Some, professors especially, were fairly religious Jews.

Evolution is a Mindset

Dear Reader,

I recently narrated for you Herman Bavinck’s article “Of Beauty and Aesthetics” [from Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)]. Today I’d like to tackle another from the same volume entitled simply “Evolution.”

My own education was faulty (I went to the public schools), and it was only in fairly recent years in educating my own children that I realized the profound impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution in other areas beyond science. Take, for instance, education. As I wrote recently, John Dewey’s very influential, pragmatic approach to education rests heavily on evolutionary assumptions. It assumes, for instance, that there is a kind of “progress,” a never-ending process of change which nonetheless aims toward no definite goal.

In its more sinister applications, evolution leads to eugenics. If humanity has evolved, if the process is never-ending, then we must be continuing to change. That means some of us are more evolved than others.  Funny how nobody seems to assume that they or their ethnic group is among the less-evolved. It is always the other guy who isn’t as advanced. This allows us to dehumanize him, maybe to experiment on him, maybe to try to wipe out his whole race.

A tree is known by its fruit, and more than the theological and biblical and scientific arguments, the ways that Darwin’s theory of evolution has played out in other areas has served to convince me that it is not fundamentally good.

What I am realizing from Bavinck’s article, and also from a book by Benjamin Wiker which I read recently, is that it is not so much that Darwin and his theory were influential, though they certainly were, but that they also were part of a larger movement, a philosophical trend if you will. Darwin is a product of his time as are Dewey and Marx and a host of others.

In The Darwin Myth (see my brief blurb here), Wiker shows that Charles Darwin was not the originator of the idea of evolution and that he was driven in his thinking by his own life circumstances. Wiker addresses the topic again in The Reformation 500 Years Later. Here he argues that the basic ideas behind Darwin’s theory go back to antiquity to a man named Lucretius. Lucretius’ philosophy is nothing more than materialism, He denies the spiritual and describes “how everything, from planets and stars to plants, animals, and humans, can be explained by the random interaction of atoms over infinite time” (p. 73).  His philosophy was not only non-religious; it was anti-religious. “‘[R]eligion,'” he says, “‘is the very thing that gives birth to wickedness and impious deeds'” (p. 72). Because in this philosophy life is no more than the interaction of atoms, it is not inherently valuable. Thus Lucretius, and those who follow him, are not only atheistic but anti-life (p. 73).

Bavinck delves deeper into the philosophical roots. Heraclitus, he tells us, rejected the idea of being and argued that movement, becoming, is the true reality. Aristotle also saw development in the world. “The higher always presupposes the lower,” Bavinck tells us, ” . . . but the higher is never the mere product of the lower; it in turn is something independent that rises above the lower” (p. 106). This way of viewing reality, applies not just to science but to other areas such as history. For the Greeks, history is ultimately un-understandable. It is the rise and fall of nations but there is no end towards which it moves. “[T]here is no progress, no hope of an eternal rest” (p. 107). Contrast this with Christianity which tells us that there is a purpose because there is an end towards which all is moving.

This philosophy was revived in the 19th century. Advances in science helped its cause. With new inventions and new ideas, it was easy to believe that things were progressing. Scientific discoveries showed us how chemical and atoms interacted, and physical, purely materialistic explanations were applied across the board. As Bavinck points out, in such a system there is no way to evaluate what is progress, what is “better” and “higher.” And yet people saw that lawless tribes became civilized societies. The assumption was almost always that what we are moving toward is better than what came before. And if that is true, then we will continue to improve. It should not surprise us, then, that soon after Darwin’s day, social movements arose which truly believed that we could achieve a utopia on earth. Even the church was not immune, as optimistic postmillennialism and the social gospel surged.

There are, of course, flaws in this system, some of which we have already hinted at. It has no morality. It is unable to say what is good and what is bad. Because everything is predicated on change, its practitioners in various areas always assume that what is newer is better, but there is no real way to decide. It offers no explanation of ultimate origins. All creation is assumed to work like a machine which operates according to scientific laws, but there is no explanation for where the machine came from or what set it into motion. There is nothing which separates living from non-living, no explanation for why life itself came to be.

These criticisms apply not just to Darwinian evolution but to the whole materialistic philosophical movement. Bavinck goes on to give some specific critiques of Darwinian evolution. It assumes that likeness implies descent. We see similarities, say between apes and men, and so we assume that they are related and we use descent to explain their relationship (possibly descent from a common ancestor). But science has also shown us that sometimes animals that look the most alike are not the most closely related. Even today when we are able to analyze DNA, we must be open to other interpretations.

Again the same tendencies can be seen in other areas. As scholars unearthed (literally) texts from the Ancient Near East, they discovered flood stories and other myths which seemed reminiscent of the Genesis stories. What did they conclude? That they must all have a common source and that the Genesis account, being written down later (as they say), is therefore derivative.

I am reminded of how people, even small children, are apt to see faces where there are none (for example in car tail lights). We are so programmed to recognize faces that we see them where they are not. Bavinck implies that we also also programmed to see analogies. Perhaps then we also seem them where they are not. We focus in on likeness and attribute meaning to it. Correlation is not causation, but we are hard-pressed to assume otherwise (check out this website my kids love for weird correlations which I sincerely hope are not causations).

Nonetheless neither Bavinck nor Wiker denies a kind of evolution. What they deny is Darwinian evolution, a particular theory articulated by a particular man. In The Darwin Myth Wiker makes quite a lovely (though as yet unspecific) argument for a theory of evolution which depends not on conflict but on something else as the driving force. Bavinck does not reject the idea of change. There are natural processes at work which we must admit. It is the becoming without the being that he rejects. “Provided that evolution is not understood in a mechanical sense,” he tells us, “there is . . . no antithesis between creation and development” (p. 117).

Nebby

 

God’s Word Written in His Creation

Dear Reader,

I just finished another volume by one of my favorite authors, Frank Boreham. Boreham was a minister in New Zealand some years ago and  a very prolific writer. His books are very pastoral and most I have read, this one among them, are collections of essays. The volume I just finish is A Bunch of Everlastings: Or, Texts that Made History. Like his book A Handful of Stars, this one looks at the biblical texts that have moved and inspired great men. As you may be able to tell by now, I really enjoyed this book. It is not difficult reading and I may have one of my kids read it soon too.

I want to focus now on just one passage, a quote from Boreham’s chapter on Dean Stanley. The quote which inspired Stanley was a reference to “The Lamb’s Book of Life.” Boreham expounds upon this idea of a book, saying that “God is a great believer in putting things down.” I have often marveled how integral words are to God’s work: He created the universe by His word and He sent us salvation through His Son, also called the Word of God. As 21st century Protestants, we value the written revelation of God that those of the past have not had such ready access to. But Boreham speaks also of that other source of divine revelation: nature. He says that,

“[God] writes everywhere and on everything. He is the most voluminous author in the universe. Every leaf in the forest, every sand on the seashore, is smothered wth his handwiritng. The trouble is that I am slow to recognize the manuscripts of God.”

In a wonderful call to nature study, he goes on to talk of all the information one can gain who has knowledge of a tree– he can tell from its rings how old it is, what weather it has experienced and what diseases it has suffered. “A botanist,” he says, “could open the book and interpret the entire romance.”

And the same can be done for the earth itself if we have the knowledge. And here we get to the passage which struck me. Boreham says that:

“He taps at a stone, and crumbles a lump of loam, and straightaway tells you of the lora and fauna od the district in some prehistoric time. It is all written down; nothing happens without leaving its record. God is a great believer in bookkeeping.”

Now, I have done a series of posts on the whole creation/evolution thing; I don’t want to revisit the whole topic. But here is what Boreham made me think: if God has given us a written record in His creation and if God is not a liar or a deceiver, than shouldn’t we seriously consider the record He has given us. I have heard Christians say that God planted dinosaur bones in the earth to test us only and that they never truly roamed the land. Not only does this seem depressing, it does not seem like the God I know. It sounds too deceptive. But if the record in the earth’s layers also points to a very old earth, perhaps we should believe that as well. It is, after all, God’s record and He is not One to deceive. (I know there are a lot of other issues this raises like how we deal with Genesis 1 but, well, you can look back at those older posts for my thoughts on that.)

Nebby

Living Books for High School Biology

Dear Reader,

My oldest is finishing up his 9th grade year, that first year of the dreaded high school which seems to throw us homeschooling parents into such a dither. While I expect him to take outside classes at some point, for this year we were still doing everything at home (well, almost; see the bit about labs below). Never one to take any curriculum as I find it, I ended up piecing together different bits for his first year of high school science for which the topic was biology. To see the initial plan, refer to this post from the beginning of the year.

There were three parts to his biology course this year: a video based curriculum from DIVE Science, a lab component through Landry Academy, and a number of living books. Though he has done not the lab yet (that’s in about a month), I will say the living books have been the treasure of this year. I am really glad I decided to use them rather than just taking the readings assigned by the DIVE curriculum, which on a brief perusal I had found deadly dull and quite one-sided, and I am recommitted to including living books in future years.

I would like to give you reviews of both DIVE and Landry, but I will save that for a future post (or two). For now, let me share with you the books I had him read and how each of them worked out for us.

Living Books for High School Biology:

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Here is the schedule he used. It’s not very fancy, I know, and I am not sure in this picture how much you can read. If you can see at the top I wrote in “Narrate daily – written 1x/week.” I realize in high school he should perhaps be doing written narrations for everything, but I thought this might still be a bit burdensome for him. He’s a great narrator but has always struggled some with the physicality of writing too much. In other words, it slows him down a lot and he holds his pencil in such a way that his hand aches. Maybe next year we’ll up the quota on that. I’d also like to point out that in true Charlotte Mason style, this is a pretty simple, straightforward approach. Yes, I felt the need to add in the video component to make sure we weren’t missing key points and to give more of a method of evaluation (I made him do the tests from DIVE) and to add labs as well because I know colleges like to see those, but to me the core of it all is the living books. There is not a lot of busy work here, no worksheets and reading comprehension questions — just read and narrate, read and narrate. And it is effective. I really feel like he learned a lot this year and took a real interest in his studies as well.

But I know you are waiting for the main course so here it is:

Evolution by Paul Fleisher – To start off with the most controversial, I had my son read this book on evolution. The DIVE curriculum is unabashedly literal 6-day creationist and I wanted him to get a sense of all sides of the issue. You can read my own thoughts on the topic, which are quite rambling and ambivalent, here. Fleishman has a number of books on science topics. Not all are so controversial (not much is, after all). They are all slim volumes and we have found them well-written. He is good at taking what could be complicated topics and explaining them simply. In general I’d say his books are a middle school level.

To balance things out, I then had him read The Great Dinosaur Mystery: Solved! by Ken Ham. As the title suggests, this book seeks to explain (or explain away, depending on your point of view) the scientific evidence regarding dinosaurs in the light of that literal 6-day creationist understanding. Though intended for adults, it is written at a fairly simple level and is quite accessible to a younger reader as well. The edition I have is perhaps a bit dated but my impression is that the basic arguments remain the same. I do not find this book  convincing myself. As a biblical scholar of sorts (I almost got a PhD in Biblical Hebrew but for a little thing called a dissertation), this book irked me. The whole topic led to a number of good in-the-car-type discussions and also led me to write this post on the evidence (or lack thereof) of dinosaurs in the Bible.

For a little bit of a lighter take, the next book I had my son read was The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. This classic is about a scientist on an isolated island who is operating on live animals to alter them. The results are grotesque and disturbing. It’s a good book.

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The World of Biology by John Hudson Tiner — This volume does not on the surface look like a living book. It is laid out more like a textbook and its content would make a good, if slim, middle school biology course. But it is relatively interesting in how it is written. My son after reading a chapter told me not just how food is digested in the various parts of the body but the story of how they found out that chemical reactions happen in the stomach. It was pretty interesting and I learned something as well from his narration. And he seemed genuinely interested and eager to tell me. If that doesn’t make  a living book. I don’t know what does. The content here might be a bit simple for a high school level class which is why I am calling it “Middle School” but combined with others, I think Tiner’s book made a wonderful addition to our curriculum. And he has many others as well that I look forward to using. In fact my 8th grade daughter has been reading his History of Medicine and though she does not tend to be as enthused about her studies, she too seems pleased with her book.

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The next book was a treasure: Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself by George Gamow. Gamow is an older writer who has written a number of volumes which teach science in a narrative format. Most of his books are on physics but this one is biology. The premise of the book is that Mr. Tompkins goes about his day, starting with a visit to his doctor’s office, and falls asleep a lot and dreams of, for instance, traveling inside himself with his own blood cells. This is a fairly dense book and I would say it is high school level. My son really took to it and it didn’t seem to go over his head at all. FYI, the book Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life seems to be a subset of this book and could be worth using if you have less time to spend on it. But if you have time, do the whole thing.

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Next up is Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster: The Search for the Smallpox Vaccine by Albert Marrin. Marrin is a favorite author and we get his books whenever they are relevant. He has more on history and I suppose this one is history too in a way but it is medical history. When I asked my son which was his favorite book this year, this is the first one he mentioned. Marrin does a wonderful job of making a story of things, even things one might not expect to be interesting like oil. This is not too long a book and is an upper middle-early high school level.

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Lastly, there is Spare Parts :  From Peg Legs to Gene Splices by Wendy B. Murphy. My son has actually not gotten to this one yet but I read it myself and am excited for it. It is the history of what we do to our bodies from ancient prosthetic noses (kind of gross and with pictures!) to modern genetic engineering. The modern stuff is a bit more scanty but the whole thing is pretty interesting. My sister-in-law has a fake leg and I found the part of prosthetics, of which there is quite a bit, fascinating. It really made me realize how much she goes through or has been through that she never complains about.

And that’s the list. Next year will be chemistry and I am excited to use the Life of Fred Chemistry book (we love all things LOF) ut am also looking for living book suggestions.

Edited 5/23/2020: I have now had all four kids go through biology. We never used DIVE again and my experience with it is what has convinced me to stick with living books for high school science. Occasionally a child has already read some of these books so we have used a few different ones with different kids. My second child did a year on ecology and environmentalism and some of those books were use by numbers 3 and 4 as well. You can find that list here. My fourth child wanted to study diseases in 8th grade. Many of those books would work for high school biology too. That list is here. Also with the latter two kids I couldn’t find labs locally so I got some things together and we did them with a few other families. Read about that here.

Nebby

 

Does the Bible Mention Dinosaurs?

Dear Reader,

My high schooler this year is studying biology. The main curriculum I have for him, DIVE Biology, is a Christian one and takes a 6-day creationist approach. I am okay with this but I want him to also get an idea of what other people belive about the origins of the earth and its creatures. My own view on the topic is still  — if you will pardon the word choice — evolving; you can read my many posts on the creation/evolution topic here. So to supplement the video portion of the DIVE curriculum, I am not using their internet textbook nor one of the other many textbooks they recommend but am instead providing him with a selection of reading materials I have chosen. On the subject of evolution specifically, I had him read Paul Fleisher’s book Evolution . If you have never looked at them, Fleisher has some wonderful thin volumes on a number of science topics. He does a great job of taking tough concepts and making them accessible. Not all of them are as controversial as evolution so even if you don’t agree with him on this issue, you might want to check his books out. At any rate, Fleisher represented the main stream science view. Wanting to also give the other end of the spectrum its say, I then had him read Ken Ham’s The Great Dinosaur Mystery Solved! If you don’t already know, Ken Ham is the big guy behind the Young Earth Creationist group Answers in Genesis. Now the particular volume we used is not one of Ham’s most recent so I can’t say that it represents his best, most current effort, but I already owned it so it was what we went with.

One of the main tenets of Ham’s book is that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. This, of course, is based on their view that all land creatures, including people, were created on the same 24-hour day. There are a number of arguments made to support this position. There is the theological one that sin and death could not have occurred before the fall and therefore before humanity existed — I have thoughts on this but won’t take time to elucidate them here; I have touched on this topic previously in this post. There is the scientific argument that human and dinosaur bones have been found close together. I am not able to evaluate the scientific arguments myself. One group says one thing; the opposing one says the opposite; I don’t have the expertise to say who is right. Then there is the biblical argument — that the Bible itself seems to mention dinosaurs. Now this is an area in which I feel a little more competent. In case you haven’t heard me mention it before, I studied biblical Hebrew in college and grad school and was ABD (all but dissertation) in a Ph.D. program when I quit due to an overabundance of babies.  So when my son came to me for his narrations and told me that Ham’s book said that the Bible mentions dinosaurs, I had to pull out my Hebrew concordance and start looking up references.

Ham starts with the assertion that when people in the past have spoken of dragons they were really talking about dinosaurs. I have no problem with this point. Dragons as they are usually depicted are quite a bit like the larger dinosaurs. I don’t think it is by any means necessary to believe this — dragons could be entirely fictional, but it does make sense to say that if people in, say, ancient China had seen a large dinosaur, they would have called it a dragon. I would point out, however, that in all cultures that I know anything about it seems that dragons were a rarity. The stories never seem to have a colony of dragons living on the other side of the mountain; they are always rare beasts and quite to be feared. Because of this, I would find it a lot more plausible to believe that an isolated dinosaur or two survived and was seen by men than that humans and dinosaurs always coexisted. But the number of cultures which have dragon stories does at least make one think there must have been real creatures people saw which inspired them. And personally, I kind of like the idea that there are Nessie-like holdouts out there surviving way past their peers.

So if other cultures mention dinosaur-like creatures, what about the Bible? Does the Old Testament contain any references to creatures that could be dinosaurs? Ham says yes:

“It is highly interesting to note that the word ‘dragon’ (Hebrew: tannim) appears in the Old Testament at least 21 times. . . . There are passages in the Bible about dragons that lived on the land . . . Biblical creationists believe these were references to what we now call dinosaurs. There are also passages in the Bible about dragons that lived in the sea.” (p. 39)

In his end notes on this section, Ham cites Henry M. Morris who says that ” ‘Dragons, for example (Hebrew tannim) are mentioned at least 25 times in the Old Testament'” (p. 140) as well as two other authors who say that tannim meaning dragons appears 21 times.

This is the point at which the concordance comes out. There are three words I can think of which could be taken to refer to dragons or the like in the Old Testament. They are (pardon my Hebrew): tannin, behemoth, and leviathan. As far as I can find (and it’s possible I am missing some references though I tried to be thorough), tannin occurs fourteen times, behemoth referring to some sort of extraordinary beast occurs once and leviathan occurs six times. If you are counting, that is a total of twenty-one occurrences. I cannot find that tannin alone occurs 21 times, and certainly not the 25 Morris cites, but the three terms together do give us the 21 number which Ham cites.  Let’s look at each of the terms in turn.

I’ll start with behemoth since it only occurs once referring to some sort of extra-ordinary creature. The word behemoth actually occurs quite frequently in the Old Testament. It is the plural form (-ot being the feminine plural ending in Hebrew) of the noun behemah which means beast. It is a common noun, occurring more than 150 times in the Old Testament and usually referring to the beasts of the field (as opposed to domesticated animals). The plural form behemoth occurs around 15 times. An example would be Job 12:7:

“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you.” (ESV)

The one reference in which behemoth seems to refer to more than just the usual beasts comes later in the book of Job in chapter 40. Here we find:

“Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you; he eats grass like an ox.” (Job 40:15; ESV)

It certainly sounds like God is here speaking of one beast, not of the beasts in general. As the passage continues, we learn that Behemoth eats grass, is strong and muscular, and has limbs like iron. He lives among reeds and lotus plants, presumably in or near the water. We are also told that he is not afraid of turbulent waters and that he is untameable by men. One phrase of which much has been made is found in verse 17: “He makes his tail stiff like a cedar.” This has been used to say that Behemoth had a huge, stiff tail; he has thus been connected with the larger, plant-eating dinosaurs like Apatosaurus. I do not think we need take the verse this way, however. It says not that his tail is large like a cedar but that it is stiff like one. One of my old professors said that Behemoth was a hippopotamus and I have to say the description does sound a lot like one to me — a herbivore that lives by the water and is yet quite vicious and dangerous to people, all of that could describe a hippo. If anything I am more intrigued by verse 19 which tells us that Behemoth is “the first of the works of God.” It makes me think rather that there were creatures who were prehistoric, who came early on in the history of creation. If all land animals were created on the same day, what does it mean to say this one was “first”?

This passage describing Behemoth is followed immediately by the best description we have of another extraordinary creature, Leviathan. In Job 41 we read:

“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?” (Job 41:1; ESV)

The following verses go no to tell us that Leviathan, like Behemoth, is untameable. He is strong and has fearsome teeth. In addition, “his back is made of rows of shields” (v.15) and he breathes fire (vv. 18-21). This certainly sounds like a dragon. But again, he seems to be a singular, unique creature, not one of a species. If people really lived alongside dinosaurs, surely they would be aware of more than one of them. There is also the problem that dinosaurs did not breathe fire. If we are to take away that one detail, this passage could describe a dinosaur, but then again it could also describe a crocodile.

The other passages referring to Leviathan add only a few more details. Isaiah 27:1 calls him a “fiery” and “twisting serpent.” Psalm 104:26 says that he plays in the sea. It is hard to know if this is his sole habitation or if he only enters the water sometimes. Again this could refer to a crocodile. I do not know if the large land dinosaurs spent time in the water as well. Lastly, we have Psalm 74. Verses 12-17 of this psalm seem to refer to God’s creative act. They speak of dividing the sea and establishing the heavenly lights. In the midst of this we are told that God also “crushed the heads of Leviathan” and “gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (v. 14). This makes it sound as if there was again one Leviathan, albeit with multiple heads, who was destroyed by God in the early stages of creation.

What are we to do with all this information? I still find myself fairly uncertain about what to think of Behemoth and Leviathan. Here are the things I think we can say:

  • They are each spoken of as unique, individual creatures, not as members of a larger species. That is, there is no indication that anyone was aware of there ever having been more than one of them.
  • Though God talks as if Job should be familiar with them, they are also placed, by Job 40 in the case of Behemoth and Psalm 74 in the case of Leviathan, in the early history of creation.
  • The only detail about Behemoth that makes it sound unlike creatures we know is this reference to its tail. I do think, however, that this need not refer to an extraordinary long tail but could mean simply that its tail is stiff like a cedar.
  • Job tells us that Leviathan breathes fire. If we are going to take the Bible at its most literal, I would think this is a problem for everyone, no matter their theory of creation. Dinosaurs did not breathe fire anymore than the other animals we know. (Or perhaps Ham thinks they did based on this passage?)
  • Both animals seem to spend at least some time in the water.

This last detail is not as insignificant as it may sound. Israel’s neighbors all had creation myths in which their god had to defeat the Sea (big “S” because it is personified) or a sea monster in order to form the world as we know it. Though Genesis 1 and 2 do not relate such a battle, we find remnants of this idea elsewhere in the Bible, including in the section of Psalm 74 discussed above. The Sea represented chaos and danger to the Israelites (they were not big beach-goers) and therefore was the antithesis of God’s orderly creation. And in the end times when all is perfect again, we are told there will be no more sea.

The last term we need to look at is tannin. The first thing we need to note is that Ham, and apparently the sources he quotes, speak of tannim, but the Hebrew word is with an -n, tannin. There are two very similar words actually. The noun tan means a jackal. Its plural would be tannim (-im being the masculine plural ending). This looks very like the word tannin which is our subject here. The plural of tannin is similarly tanninim. Ham and his sources seem confused by the similarities between these two nouns. Morris, as quoted by Ham in his endnotes, reads tannin in Malachi 1:3, taking  the verse to say that the mountains of Edom “have been laid ‘waste for the dragons of the wilderness'” (p. 140). This is a misreading of this verse. The Hebrew speaks of the tannot of the wilderness. This -ot is again the feminine plural ending; there is no reason not to think it is a plural form of the word jackal. Further supporting this reading, this is not the only place in which the jackals of the wilderness are used in such a context. An example would be Jeremiah 9:11 in which God says,

“‘I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals and I will make the cities of Judah a desolationwithout inhabitant.” (ESV)

My point here is that not all the supposed references to dragons even reflect the word in question, tannin. First we must eliminate those which are really forms of tan, jackal.

Having done so, we are left with 14 uses of the word tannin. These remaining references may be divided into three groups: those which seem to refer to large water animals collectively, those which seem to refer to snake-like creatures, and those which seem, like Behemoth and Leviathan, to refer to an extraordinary creature or creatures.

Let us begin at the beginning, with Genesis 1. Genesis 1:21 says that “God created the great  tanninim and every swarming living being with which the waters abound according to their kind and  all the winged birds according to their kind, and God saw that it was good” (my translation). We learn from this verse that the tanninim are large and that they live in the water. They are distinguished from the swarming creatures which also live in the water; these appear to be quite small things. The word for “swarming things” is also used to refer to insects those these are water-swarmers. Psalm 148 also treats the tanninim as a group of animals:

“Praise the Lord from the earth, tanninim and all deeps.” (my translation)

The association with the deeps seems to indicate that these are again water animals. Later in the psalm the beasts, birds and swarmers (same word as in Genesis 1:21 by the way) are also told to praise the Lord. What I take away from these two passages is that the tanninim are large, aquatic and not necessarily unusual; that is, they are listed along with other ordinary groups of animals (eg. birds).

There are other passages in which tannin seems to refer to a snake or snake-like creature. Most notable among these is Exodus 7:9 in which Moses’ staff becomes a tannin (see also verses 10 and 12). Of course, tradition says that the staff became a serpent and I see no reason to doubt that this is so. It is certainly a logical thing for a long wooden rod to become if it is going to become any animal at all. The connection with snakes is made clear in Deuteronomy 32:33 which the ESV translates as: “their wine is the poison of serpents (tannin) and the cruel venom of asps.” Similarly, Psalm 91:13 also uses tannin in parallel with adder.

Finally, we are left with those verses in which tannin might refer to an extraordinary creature. In Ezekiel 32:2 God says to Pharaoh, “‘You consider yourself a lion of the nations, but you are like a tannin in the seas; you burst forth in your rivers,
trouble the waters with your feet, and foul their rivers'” (ESV). There is no inherent reason to suppose an unusual creature is here meant, however elsewhere in Ezekiel, Pharaoh is told:

“‘Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,the great tannin that lies in the midst of his streams, that says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales; and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams, with all the fish of your streams that stick to your scales.'” (Ezek. 29:3-4; ESV)

This is again, then, like Behemoth and Leviathan, a water creature and one that may be scaly. Also like those two, there are a few references to tannin which make it sound like a prehistoric creature God defeated. Indeed, there are two passages in which Leviathan and tannin are used side by sidse. Psalm 74:13, in the verse before it mentions Leviathan, says:

“You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the tanninim (note the plural) on the waters.” (ESV)

And Isaiah 27 reads:

“On that day the LORD will visit His hard, great and strong sword upon Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, and upon Leviathan, the twisting serpent, and He will kill the tannin which is in the sea.” (my translation)

The reference to prehistoric times we find in Isaiah 51:9 which reads:

“Arise, arise, put on strength, O arm of the LORD,

Arise as in the days of old, the ancient generations,

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces, who pierced tannin?” (my translation)

These are all the significant uses of the word tannin. The other ones I have found are brief and do not add much to our understanding of the word; they include Jeremiah 51:34, Job 7:12, and Nehemiah 2:13.

What then, can we say about tannin in the Old Testament? In some passages it seems to be a snake-like creature. In others, it seems to refer to a class of large water animals. And like Leviathan and Behemoth, it seems to be either a singular animal God once defeated or perhaps (noting the plural in Psalm 74) a group of animals.

So does the Bible mention dinosaurs? You can draw your own conclusions. Personally, Leviathan sounds a lot like a dragon to me, but not like a dinosaur which does not breathe fire. All three of the extraordinary creatures mentioned, Leviathan, Behemoth and Tannin, live at least partially in the water. I see not indication that Bible people were aware of large land animals like the larger dinosaurs nor of there being many of these creatures, whatever they were, in existence. Finally, God’s defeat of these creatures seems to have happened in the distant past and is tied to creation. If anything, I would think we could say from this that there were extraordinary and large creatures who existed early on in creation (implying a long process of creation) but that God has since killed them off.

What do you thin? Have I convinced you?

Nebby

Creation and Evolution (Part 4): Is God Deceptive?

Dear Reader,

This will, I think, be my fourth and final post on E.O. Wilson’s book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. You can read the previous ones here, here, and here.

Throughout the book, though his goal is to convince Christians to work with him in preserving the environment, Wilson comes off as quite dismissive of Christian beliefs and even a bit obnoxious and offensive when he discusses things like the end times (why this even comes up in such a book, I am not sure). Towards the end of the book, he very briefly mentions and dismisses the theory of creation known as Intelligent Design. This is again one of those passages that had a very mocking tone and I don’t know how he thinks he will convince anyone with the tack he takes. Nevertheless, in the course of it all, he asks a very good question of the young earth creationists (YECs). He says:

“Life was self-assembled by random mutation and natural selection of the codifying molecules. As radical as such an explanation may seem, it is supported by an overwhelming body of interlocking evidence. It might yet prove wrong, but year by year that seems less probable. And it raises this theological question: Would God have been so deceptive as to salt the earth with so much misleading evidence?” (p. 166)

Now I suspect that YECs would reply that Wilson and his fellow evolutionists are misinterpreting the evidence and that it does not say what they think it says. But the fact is that there are an awful lot of people who would see things the way Wilson does, that the fossil record and the layers of the earth and all that show an old earth with a long history of life. So I think Wilson’s question is a valid one: Are the YECs really the only ones interpreting this evidence rightly? If they are correct and everyone else is misreading the evidence, why? Why would God allow so many people to be led astray on this issue? Is He deceiving them on purpose?

Now obviously there are quite a lot of humans, both now and in the past, who have not been Christians. I would say that these people are deceived about a lot of things. Depending on the person, these might include whether there is a God, what He is like, what their stance before Him is, and how they can be saved. The Bible tells us that when it comes to salvation issues that the Holy Spirit reveals the truth to some people and not others. What YECs seem to be implying is that God also reveals the truth about other issues, those not so directly related to salvation like how creation happened and the age of the earth, to His people as well and withholds it from most other people. This is not an argument I can accept. I think God’s truth on matters of science and the like has come through many quite ungodly people. Such truths are not the province of Christians alone. Look, for instance, at how Islam preserved learning through the Dark Ages in Europe or at the wisdom on the ancient Greeks.

So if God’s truths on matters not directly related to salvation are not available exclusively to His people, why are so many people(in the YEC view) wrong about the age of the earth? It sure makes it sound like God is deceiving them on purpose. And if so, we must with Wilson ask why. This does not sound like the God I know. He is not the sort of God who would plant bones or strata or rocks in the earth that look old just to fool those silly scientists. He is a God whose creation makes sense and He does allow humans to find out about Him and His creation by studying what He has made.

So whatever the faults of Wilson’s book, I think we need to take this question seriously. How about it, YECs? How do you respond to this question?

Nebby

Christians and the Environment (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

In my previous post, I had a fair number of negative things to say about the book The Creation: An Appeal to Save LIfe on Earth by E.O. Wilson. The short version of that post is that I find Wilson’s own position so contradictory and illogical that his book was very aggravating for me to read. Nonetheless, in the midst of all that, Wilson does have some very useful things to say to Christians.

The object of Wilson’s book is to convince Christians, particularly  literal 7-day creationist ones, to join him in the fight to save our environment as we know it. Wilson himself is a professor of biology at Harvard University and a secular humanist. While I can’t see his book being very convincing to his target audience, Wilson does have some good points that I would now like to pull out.

Wilson speaks of stewardship which was actually a word that I had not heard outside of Christian circles very much. But this is exactly how we Christians should be thinking of our relationship to the environment. Genesis 1 and 2 give a picture of man (and woman) as the caretaker of the earth. It is our job to tend it and to cultivate it and I think Wilson is right that we need to be careful to not in the process abuse it or waste its resources.

Why this is not already a big deal in Christian circles in somewhat of a mystery to Wilson. Early on in the book, he says:

“I am puzzled that so many religious leaders . . . have hesitated to make protection of the Creation an important part of their magisterium.” (p. 5)

Wilson does not say it so straightforwardly, but I think we Christians do deserve to be asked: If you believe God created all this and you want to please Him, why do you not care more about preserving it? It is a fair criticism of us I think. While preserving the environment is not by any means the heart of the Christian message, it is part of God’s command to us to care for His world.

One point I think Wilson fails to get is that while we may mourn the destruction of so much of our environment and may seek to work to preserve what there is, for Christians there is never a loss of hope nor need there be a sense of panic about the state of the world. We are called to tend the earth but we do not do so alone. As in all things, God is ultimately in charge and the world will not go down the tubes unless He wills it. I realize this argument can be used to trash our terrestrial home; if God is ultimately taking care of it all, why should we bother? No doubt there are some Christians who think this way but I would venture to say that most are not so irresponsible. While I believe in a sovereign God, He can and does choose to work through us and He has commanded us to care for creation so we must do so, but at the same time we need not fear about its future in the way that Wilson seems to.

Wilson is at his best when his love for nature shines through as it does a number of times in this book. He does a wonderful job of showing how our environment serves us and even how obscure fungi benefit us. In fact, as I read through such passages, I was inspired to greater awe at how God has interwoven the parts of creation so that they work together and also work for the good of His people. How Wilson can see and describe such things without then seeing the Creator who made it all, I cannot understand, but I suppose that is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes in.

Christianity should have a lot to say about the environment. One of the issues that I struggled with in Wilson’s own outlook was how we humans can be a part of the ongoing process of evolution and yet rise above it and have such an impact on the environment. As I mentioned in that earlier post, I find Wilson’s arguments on such issues confusing (whether he himself is confused I have no idea; but I find the way he talks about such things contradictory). He says we are but a part of a purely naturalistic process and yet at the same time speaks of our ability to and responsibility to affect what is happening. Christianity has the power to reconcile these contradictory strands. It says that while we are created, we are also imbued with unique qualities which Scripture calls “the image of God.” It also calls us to affect but also to care for the Creation. We are a part of it and yet above it. This, I think, is not so far from what Wilson believes, but he is unable to account for the above-ness of humanity, or for the spiritual element he alludes to so frequently, in his purely naturalistic philosophy.

There are two more issues arising from this book that I woudl like to address but I think I will save them for future posts.

Nebby

 

The Creation and Environmentalism: A Book Review (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

In my search for good, living books on biology for my high schooler to read this year, I was pointed to The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life ion Earth by E. O. Wilson. This is not a book I am going to have him read this year, but I myself have just finished reading it and it is has given me a lot to think about and  a lot to be aggravated about.

Wilson’s book was recommended by someone I really like and though I knew that we differed on some points theologically, I was optimistic when I picked the book up. After reading the first pages, I nearly put it down never to touch it again. I didn’t think I would be able to bring myself to get through it. Of course, if I never read things I disagreed with, I wouldn’t have much to blog no would I?

Wilson is a professor of biology at Harvard University (a name which doesn’t impress me overly much; I spent 10 years there as a grad student myself, though in a different field). He styles his book as an open letter to a Southern Baptist pastor on the topic of environmentalism, particularly of saving the earth and its creatures from their immanent destruction. This is not a letter to one particular person whom he knows, but rather a straw figure who seems to be drawn from his own religious past. Wilson makes his own views clear in the first few paragraphs:

“I am a secular humanist. I think existence is what we make of it as individuals.  There is no guarantee of life after death, and heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. There is no other home. Humanity originated here by evolution from lower forms over millions of years. And yes, I will speak plain, our ancestors were apelike animals.” (pp. 3-4)

Now while I don’t personally agree with most of what Wilson himself believes (see this long series of posts on creation/evolution for more on that), the biggest problem I have with his book really comes from the next few sentences. They read:

“Ethics is a code of behavior we share on the basis of reason, law, honor, and an inborn sense of decency, even as some ascribe it to God’s will.” (p. 4)

In a nutshell, the biggest problem I have with this book is that Wilson’s own position seems so contradictory. He does not believe in God, he sees all earth’s life as the product of merely scientific processes, and yet he speaks of morality and even of the spiritual throughout the book. What is the spiritual if we are only the result biological and chemical processes? Where does morality come from if there is nothing higher? And with regard to the particular argument of this book, why should we work to preserve one particular environment and set of creatures on earth when Wilson himself admits that they have been constantly changing throughout earth’s history?

I will come back to these questions in a minute, but I do want to acknowledge up front that not everything in this book is worthless. While I find Wilson’s own position frustrating and contradictory, he actually raises some really good points when it comes to his opponent’s position and I think he can give us Christians much to consider when it comes to our own approach to the environment. He at times caricaturizes his opponent and even seems to mock Christian positions, which I don’t think helps his argument at all since his stated goal is to win Christians over in the first against environmental change, but if we can see through all this, he has a  few good points that are worth considering.

I suspect that all that I have to say will take multiple posts. I would like to begin in this one with the parts that irritated me the most, namely Wilson’s own position.

As I said above, Wilson appeals to morality a lot. I just cannot see where this morality comes from if there is no higher power.  In the quote above, he spoke of “reason” and “an inborn sense of decency.” Later on the same page he says, “You and I and every other human being strive for the same imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in that is larger than ourselves” (p. 4). There is a lot here to unpack and I hardly know where to begin. To begin with, I dispute the argument that all of humanity shares these same values. These seem like very western values to me. If recent history has shown us anything, it should be that not all people’s strive for and claim freedom like we Americans do. Many of our international troubles seem to stem from our mistaken belief that other people groups want the same kind of freedom we have. When given the opportunity to vote, they often surprise us by picking what we would call repressive regimes. Similarly, I am not sure that personal dignity is a world-wide value. The US more than anywhere else perhaps is about the individual, but other cultures are much more focused on the community and care much less about the individual person.

With regard to the cause larger than ourselves, we may ask if it matters at all what this cause is? Or is it enough to have a cause and yours is equally as valid as mine? Wilson makes it clear that his cause is preservation of the environment as it now stands and this book is his impassioned appeal on its behalf. But where do these causes come from? If we are the product of only impersonal processes, how do we develop the traits Wilson ascribes to us, the need for freedom, dignity, and something to believe in, among others? If I start from purely evolutionary presuppositions, I can see how some “values” might develop. The need for security, for instance, seems obvious. To pass on his or her genes, an individual must have some sense of self-preservation. And I could see that values which benefit the community might also be selected for. But where do we get “freedom of choice” and that larger cause bit? In the earlier quote, Wilson had mentioned reason, but how and why should we trust our reason if it too is only the product of numerous chemical reactions over the course of millenia? If I am a perfectly normal, reasonable person but you are  a raving lunatic, why is my logic and better than yours? Who’s to say the future will not be owned by the raving lunatics? They are more likely to kill the rest of us off after all.

There is one value for which Wilson attempts to provide a scientific reason. That is what he calls “biophilia,” that is, our innate love of other species (p. 63). Wilson shows that people of all cultures, when given a choice. prefer to live on a height, near water, looking down on a lightly treed landscape. It is easy to see how evolution might have favored such people. He makes a decent case that a natural setting is a healthy habitation for human beings and that we still respond positively to natural surroundings. I feel like he drops the ball a little on connecting this back to biophilia and why we should also prefer other living creatures, but I can at least see where he is going with it all. If Wilson had left it at that, and argued that we have an inborn drive to prefer other species, that they, in their very abundance, benefit us as a species, he might have made a decent point. When he tries to refer to other “values” that he presumes we share, like honor and freedom, I think he takes the point too far and he ends up with not much to stand on since he can’t say where all these values come from or what makes one better than another.

I think Wilson also hurts his own argument when he speaks, as he does a number of times, of the spiritual. Whatever he personally believes, he writes as one who is a pure scientist, who sees no role for the divine, whatever form it may take, in the development of the earth and its creatures. And yet he seems unable to make his argument without appealing to something higher. He says that:

“The spiritual roots of Homo sapiens extend deep into the natural world through still mostly hidden channels of mental development. We will not reach our full potential without understanding the origin and hence meaning of the aesthetic and religious qualities that make us ineffably human.” (p. 12)

He goes on to speak of “our souls” (p. 13) and the “wonder that shaped the human psyche at its birth” (p. 12). What on earth do these terms, soul especially, mean when we are not more than biological organisms? Still later he speaks of “the mystery of the world” and certain creatures which he considers “jewels in the crown of Creation. Just to know they are out there alive and well is important to the spirit, to the wholeness of our lives” (p. 58).

Wilson speaks rapturously of science, seeing it as the pinnacle humanity has reached after “the long, torturous path dominated by tribalism and animated by religion” (p. 105). He says that it “makes no claims beyond what can be sensed in the real world. It generates knowledge in the most productive ad unifying manner contrived in history, and it serves humanity with obeisance to any particular tribal deity” (p. 106). Despite these grand claims, the fact is that Wilson himself cannot seem to help referencing terms of a spiritual nature, things that he and his science cannot define or prove the existence of.

Wilson is clearly passionate about his discipline. This shows when he talks of the ants (his area of specialty) he has studied and when he talks of how we should introduce children to nature. I also think his goal, the stewardship of the earth (yes, he uses the word stewardship; I thought only Christians threw that term around these days), is a noble one. Where he fails is in showing me why someone coming from his point of view, someone who relies only on science and who does not (openly) acknowledge the divine in any form, should care.

Wilson makes a good case that humans have had a big impact of nature. I think it would be hard to deny this. Animals may affect their environments but they have not done so and cannot do so in anything like the way people do. We shape, mold, transform, and yes, often destroy our environments. Though we may have adapted to live in certain conditions, we also adapt the world to suit us, living in places that would otherwise be uninhabitable to us. What Wilson fails to account for is how this is even possible. Why do humans rise above the rest of the creatures? What makes us different? Wilson clearly has a sense that there is something that sets us apart. That is why he speaks as he so often does of the soul and the spirit. But without any religion, he is left foundering and contradicting himself.

If evolution is all there is, then humanity is only part of the process and we have no reason even to think that we are the culmination of it all. The fact is there have been mass extinctions in the history of the earth (Wilson addresses this on p. 73). Why is it bad if there is another? I know it takes a long time for the earth to come back after each of these but if that is the process, if it is impersonal, why should we care? I can’t help picturing in my head some sort of cartoon with dinosaurs telling each other they need to eat fewer plants (or fewer of each other) so that they will not die out — after all, we are the climax of evolution. Setting aside for a moment the catastrophic scenario, if the earth is changing, getting warmer they say, whether it is human-caused or not, won’t the animals and plants adapt? Isn’t that what they have always done? Why is today’s monkey more to be valued than tomorrow’s? To return to the problem of morality, if there is no one in charge, if creation is just impersonal forces, just physical laws and chemical reactions by the ba-zillions, why should one environment or one set of species be preferred over another? We have no basis on which to judge that this scenario is good and that one is bad. Oh, we could argue that this or that is better for the human species’ survival. Wilson comes close to that when he discusses getting rid of head lice and mosquitos (two species even he could do without; p. 35), but for the most part his argument is not that we should be so self-serving. Honestly, I would have respected that argument more. Instead he tries to appeal to our common values, as he defines them, and his argument falls flat.

I realize this has been a pretty negative post. I can’t say this is a book I would recommend because I feel it has so many weaknesses and I don’t think it achieves its stated goal which is to convince Christians to help preserve the environment. If anything, I as a Christian am frustrated by what I see as the inconsistencies in Wilson’s own position and turned off by the way he talks to Christians and at times inaccurately and mockingly portrays their positions. If one can see through all this, there are some good points Wilson makes and I do think that for Christians there are some very good reasons to take care of the earth. These I will touch on next time.

Nebby

Genesis, Creation, and Evolution

Creation and Evolution

Creationism

One Brief Thought on Evolution

Evolution, Creationism and the Direction of the World

Christian Views of Creation

How Did Creation Happen?

Why Evolution?

Human Evolution and an Update

Alternative Views of Evolution

The Genre of Genesis 1

Does “Day” Mean “Day” in Genesis 1?

Evolution is a Mindset

Dinosaurs in the Bible?

God’s Word Written in His Creation

Environmentalism and Creation:

Creation and Environmentalism (A Book Review)

Christians and the Environment (Part 2)

Christians and the Environment, Part 3: Wilderness?

Genesis 6:1-4

Genesis 6:1-4:  part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4

The Meaning of Genesis 6:1-4 (and Genesis 1-11)

Why Evolution?

Dear Reader,

If God used a long evolution to create the world as we know it with all its various creatures, why did He do so?

I do not mean here to ask whether God used evolution or not. I have discussed creation and evolution in a number of previous posts (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; I told you there were a lot, and technically that series of posts is not finished though I haven’t worked on it in a while). My question is really if God chose to use evolution, if He allowed many species to die out before man was even born (including, of course, dinosaurs), why did He do so? I don’t want to oversimplify anyone’s position; I know there are a lot of reasons young earth creationists believe as they do. But I wonder if part of the reasons that some Christians are so resistant to the idea of evolution is that it seems to take the focus off the human race. If the earth is billions of years old and we are relative newcomers on it, well, that seems to make it all less about us, doesn’t it?

This must be how Copernicus’ contemporaries felt when he said that the earth was not the center of the universe. He argued that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. But does it? Theologically does it? I think the Bible tends to tell us that it does. Of course it tells us nothing about other worlds that might be peopled with other races (not that I believe in such things, but I don’t think the Bible rules them out). But in our own world, God places man at the head. He names and rules over the animals. He subdues the earth. In time, he will even judge angels. It’s a pretty important position.

So if man is the pinnacle of God’s creation, why would He waste billions of years getting there?

One possible answer is that God was getting the earth just right for us. I am thinking now of its geological layers. He knew we would need oil and coal and gold and other metals. So He took the time to lay these down deep in the earth for us to mine out. Fossil fuels require living things to have died and been buried long ago. So the great age of the earth (if one accepts such theories) would give Him time to get everything right for us. It is rather a nice picture, I think, of a God who is planning ahead, like a mother preparing a nursery, to get everything in place which will be needed.

Of course, God being God, He could have just made the earth with all these things in it. The earth could have an apparent rather than an actual history. Switch the other preparing the nursery image above for Samantha from Bewtiched snapping her fingers and everything that is needed appears in its proper place in an instant. This is, I will admit, much closer to the picture the Bible gives us of a very quick creation in which as soon as God speaks a thing it is done. But the first picture has something the second doesn’t — love. The instantaneous snap leaves no room for pondering and considering the loved one. No room for consideration and savoring. Perhaps the mother in the first scenario could have paid someone to come in and stock her nursery in a day. But she enjoys the process. She treasures each minute of fingering the little onesies and imaging how they will be used. It is a joy to do it herself and to take her time over it because she does it for the one she loves (already! though he or she is not there yet).

A slightly different picture takes us out of the picture. God is creative. Maybe like an artist, He enjoys the process. Maybe He felt no need to rush it and even before we, His people, were there He savored the process. He delights in His creation; maybe He delighted in the dinosaurs and everything else that existed before people did.

Finally (and these explanations are by no means mutually exclusive), maybe God is trying to tell us something.We were watching a Great Courses video on geology recently and one thing that came out is that there was a constant process of death and new life throughout the earth’s history. For example, when the large reptiles die out in a relatively short span of time, this allowed the larger mammals to surge to prominence. They became both larger and much more abundant very quickly (geologically speaking). This is perhaps one of the better known examples but it is not the only one. One of the points being made was that this sequence of events has happened over and over again. And it struck me that this is just how God communicates to us. He likes to repeat a theme. In Bible studies we call them types and antitypes. Think of all the things in the Bible which take three days. Or all the times water is parted. Or all the times God chooses the younger son, the one no one expects. The list could go on and on. And not only God does repeat Himself (presumably to get things into our thick heads), even the nature of the message here is His sort of thing — death brings forth new life.

Did God use any sort of evolution? I don’t know. But rather than reading about evolution and being repulsed and thinking that this whole theory removes God from the process and is anathema, I get a different picture — of a God who savors and delights in His creation and in preparing a place for His children and even of a God who is setting up the patterns He will continue to follow of death and new life.

I realize this is a touchy-feely type argument and I am not usually a touchy-feely person. But I also think that a lot of our discussions about evolution (and other things) are influenced more than we realize by our own preconceived notions and feelings. I don’t mean to discount the biblical evidence. My point here is simply that evolution need not preclude God and that I can even see ways in which it seems to fit with the character of the God I know. Honestly, when I read scientific descriptions of how the earth was formed or how its many creatures, past and present, came to be, I find myself more in awe of creation and therefore of its Creator, not less.

Nebby