The Creation Order of Genesis

The discovery of the Higgs boson brought forth a fresh crop of high-minded religious apologists to favor us with platitudes about how science and religion can be reconciled, if only we “extremists” would stop fighting about it all the time. Here’s one of them I came across the other week, who asserts that the creation order given in Genesis contains a hidden correspondence with the picture of life’s evolutionary history assembled by scientists. As always, he has to phrase it in insufferably lofty and superior language implying that he’s the first person to have ever thought of this:

Do you honestly believe that it is coincidence that the creation account in Genesis actually follows a similar progression order to the widely accepted evolution model? Is it coincidental that Genesis clearly spells out life originating in the sea, then on land, and only then birds are mentioned?

Does this not correspond with the progression of life from ocean based organisms, through to amphibians, and eventually to birds and mammals as portrayed by the evolutionists?

Does it, now? Let’s examine the Genesis 1 creation story in greater detail and see if it corresponds with the actual order of appearance in the fossil record. For purposes of this post, I’ll leave out the contradictory account in Genesis 2, which actually has human beings being created first, before any other animal.

According to Genesis 1, after some preliminary firmament-creating and water-separating, on the third day God creates the Earth, and the first living things he places upon it are flowering plants. “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.” (1:11)

But this is wrong. The first plants to appear on the Earth were not the flowering plants, which includes all true grasses and all plants that bear fruit which contains seeds (the scientific name for this group is angiosperms). On the contrary, the first angiosperms appear in the fossil record much later on, only 140 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs. For hundreds of millions of years before that, the Earth was dominated by other kinds of plants not mentioned in the Genesis account: mosses, ferns, and a different kind of plants, the gymnosperms, which do not bear seed-containing fruit and are represented today mainly by conifers and cycads.

On the fourth day, God creates the sun, moon and stars. I won’t belabor the point, but obviously the sun and other stars existed long before the Earth, and our moon predates all modern life. It would have to, since the prevailing hypothesis is that it was created by a gigantic impact that would have melted the Earth down to the crust, sterilizing any life that existed beforehand.

Next, on the fifth day, God creates all aquatic life (including the “great whales”) and all birds (“every winged fowl after his kind”). Again, this is wrong, and not just because the writer erroneously claims that Genesis depicts birds as appearing after land animals. Although fish did arise before land life, whales and dolphins are latecomers to the oceans. Like all mammals, they only arose after the dinosaurs had fallen, opening up new niches for other species to diversify into. The same is true of birds: they’re not as ancient a lineage as fish, but a new and late-arising branch on the tree of life, descended from one group of dinosaurs that survived the great K-T extinction 65 million years ago.

Finally, on the sixth day, God creates land animals, insects (“every thing that creepeth upon the earth”), and human beings. This, too, is wrong in several ways. Unlike birds and whales, insects are truly an ancient lineage: the earliest known insect fossil is about 400 million years old, and the oldest insects of all are likely even earlier. And of course, “land animals” is a huge group, many species of which predate human beings by enormous time intervals (particularly if we take this group to include dinosaurs, as the creationists do).

Far from paralleling the geologic record, the Genesis story gets it wrong on every detail. If the creation order of Genesis followed the order of appearance of major groups of multicellular life, it would have begun with simple, non-vascular plants like moss and algae, followed by fish and insects, then amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals and flowering plants, birds, whales, and finally human beings. (Here’s a good reference for the evolutionary timeline.)

This doesn’t mean that progressive, scientifically minded Christians are forbidden to interpret the Genesis account as a parable for the gradual emergence of life over the eons, if they so choose. But it does mean they must abandon the pretense that the Genesis account contains any sliver of real scientific accuracy, or any hint of knowledge that wouldn’t have been available to the nomadic Iron Age herdsmen who wrote it. (The same is true of the rest of the Bible.) It’s based on mythology, folklore and tribal superstition, and nothing besides.

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