One Endless Debate … (RJS)

This post wraps up our look at  Gerald Rau’s book Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. The final two chapters What Can We Learn From Each Other and The Heart of the Debate summarize his discussion and set the stage for moving forward.  I can’t do complete justice to the arguments he makes in one short post, and I won’t try. I will highlight a few of the points that raise the largest questions for me. I recommend this book as an introduction to discussions of origins, for those who are interested, any criticisms are outweighed by the positive aspects of the book.

The first of the final two chapters tries to take a roughly objective look at what each of the six positions (Naturalistic evolution, nonteleological evolution, planned evolution, directed evolution, old earth creation, and young earth creation) brings to the table.

From a scientific perspective many questions remain with respect to the origin of life and the early evolution leading up to the Cambrian Explosion. Of this there is no doubt. It is important that scientists supporting evolution, whether naturalistic, nonteleological, planned, or directed, admit this honestly. Once there are moderately complex life forms present questions remain, but the general outline of evolution becomes clearer. A precise description of mechanisms for the process is somewhat murkier. Rau emphasizes a distinction between neo-Darwinian (gradual change driven by natural selection) and non-Darwinian mechanisms. It is certainly true that an appreciation for the complexity of the mechanisms and constraints involved has grown significantly over the last several decades. For that matter, our understanding of the complexity of life in general has grown significantly over the last several decades. Denis Noble has written an interesting little book The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes highlighting the importance of top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out mechanisms in biology. The increasing appreciation of this complexity is not a challenge to evolutionary biology, but the very process of science. We (at least most of us) are searching for truth not defending dogma.

Noninterventionist models. In his discussion of the limitations of the “hands-off” evolutionary models Rau emphasizes the issue of information that is a cornerstone of much of the Intelligent Design movement. He alludes to the arguments in Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell. He suggests, in fact, that the argument made by YEC proponents that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics is related primarily to information.

Opponents often misstate the YEC argument in this area, saying that they ignore the fact that the earth is not a closed system but receives an input of energy from the sun, thus the reduction of entropy does not violate the second law. But the YEC argument (simply put) is that input of energy by itself in the absence of an organizing factor, does not reduce the entropy of a system, which is true. Photosynthesis and various chemosynthetic mechanisms currently provide the organizing principle, but again the question reverts to what organizing principle allowed these mechanism to form in the first place. Any organizing structure, like the organized structure it produces is inherently related to information. (p. 167)

I think Rau’s description here also leads to an errant view of entropy. Certainly it is true that a rearrangement of energy resulting in an increase of entropy elsewhere and a decrease of entropy in the system requires an organizing principle. Ice forms from water (a local decrease in entropy) as entropy increases elsewhere because of the intermolecular forces that favor an organized structure. Without the influence of the intermolecular forces ice would not form. But the organizing principle need not have anything to do with “information”. And it need not involve energy flowing into the system at all, it may involve energy flowing out of a system. “Self-organization” is an active area of research, albeit generally surrounding systems substantially less complex than the simplest cell. The challenge is to understand the underlying organizing principles. But whether we understand the principles or not, there is still no violation of the second law as long as the entropy of the universe increases.

Rau is quite right, however, that the origin of life remains a major challenge for any view of origins that rules out divine intervention.

Interventionist Models. With respect to the other three models (directed evolution, old earth creation, and young earth creation) the major gap is that of mechanism. Proponents of Directed Evolution have primarily attacked the perceived flaws non-interventionist views and direct creation views without really addressing the question of mechanism.

No writer from this model has written specifically on the origin of life, to my knowledge. This will be an important area for this model to address. What form would God’s interaction take, and would it be detectable scientifically? (p. 168)

In contrast, the OEC and YEC models consider the origin of life and the origin of “kinds” to be an act of God – mechanism is not particularly relevant for such a miraculous event.To Rau this is a significant issue – but not one that provides an insurmountable problem.

Lacking such a hypothetical mechanism, it would be better for YEC and OEC to admit that they have no scientific explanation for that part of the process. That does not automatically mean that the whole model is nonscientific. In fact it places them in exactly the same position as the evolutionary models, which do not have a viable hypothesis for the origin of life either. Supporters of evolution will undoubtedly disagree with that statement, claiming that they have at least the framework of a hypothesis. Nevertheless, I contend that until the gap between monomers and cells is significantly reduced, there is no viable scientific explanation for the beginning of life from a naturalistic perspective, and that “God did it” and “Nature did it” (Nature capitalized to show its deification) are equally religious explanations.(p. 169)

I do disagree with this statement – but not quite for the reasons that Rau gives. Nature deified is only an appropriate comparison if one is contrasting nontheistic with theistic models. No one in my acquaintance who holds to evolutionary creation considers a “deified Nature” as an active agent. The search for mechanisms for the origin of life is a search for the organizing principles that God ordained (and sustains). Nature didn’t do anything, nature just is.

The Heart of the Debate. The final chapter of Rau’s book looks at what he sees as the issues that are at stake in this debate. He runs through a number of different issues – the definition(s) of science, the inadequacy of empiricism, the objectivity (or lack thereof ) of science. The definition of science is, he suggests, at the heart of the debate.   In a section The battle for America’s youth he gets to the heart of the matter.  The battle over how origins are taught is, in essence a battle over the dominant worldview and a “battle for the hearts of the next generation.”

Rau looks here at an evolutionary alliance and an ID alliance.

The strength of the evolutionary alliance is that according to their definition, science can be done independent of religious beliefs. The strength of the ID alliance is that because they refuse to endorse any particular model, it is currently the only forum where Christians from evolutionary, old-earth creation and young-earth creation perspectives can discuss their interpretations freely.(p. 185)

“Wars”, Rau reminds us, “are costly.” This includes wars for the hearts and minds of the next generation. We need to move beyond the war mentality.

Doubtless in the end the whole truth will prove far more complex than we can conceive at the moment, in the same way that what we know of genetics and inheritance today was totally unimaginable a century ago. In the face of that knowledge, let us strive for humility and charity in our dealings with our brothers and sisters (and even those we do not consider family) who hold a different understanding of the issue than we do, realizing that we all see as “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:12 KJV) until we see face to face. (p. 190)

Final Reflections. This  book by Rau makes a valuable contribution to the discussion of origins in the church. There is much that is good in the book, and it can help structure useful conversations surrounding the issues involved.  His desire to lay out the issues and walk away from the culture war mentality that rages among Christians over these issues is commendable, and much needed.

Throughout the book I have had a nagging dissatisfaction with the line Rau draws between “Planned Evolution” and “Directed Evolution.” Planned evolution is noninterventionist while directed evolution is interventionist. The problem is that the idea of intervention, when, where, why, and how, is ill defined. Most of the people I know that Rau places or would place into the “planned evolution” group hold that God underlies and sustains everything.  The great Christological hymn in Colossians 1 is important here. “For in him all things were created: … all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  (Col 1:16-17)  And don’t for get John 1:2-3 “He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  We don’t separate “God did it” and “Nature did it” as cleanly as Rau seems to suggest with the line between directed and planned evolution.

The nagging dissatisfaction became more pronounced as I read the last two chapters. Rau opens his epilogue noting that “it is impossible for anyone to write from a totally objective position.” There will always be clues about the author’s position. This is certainly true – and isn’t a negative reflection on any book, including Rau’s. So where do the clues lead me? The book seems to lay the groundwork for an Intelligent Design approach to the question of origins favoring directed evolution and old earth creation type approaches. The sharp distinction between planned and directed models helps to drive this impression of the book in my mind. I don’t think this is a particularly useful line to draw (if you haven’t realized that yet). The continuum of views on evolutionary creation from planned to directed is far more complex and it would be useful to recognize this complexity and open conversation.

From the Dust. And … This seems like a good place to stop and a good place to draw attention to the film “From the Dust” once again. This film provides yet another excellent resource to structure a discussion of origins. The film has been available on DVD for a year from Amazon, but is now also available through iTunes both for purchase and for rent (as low as $2.99 in SD). The following clip, containing some material in the final edit of the film and some available as supplementary material, gives a good idea of the kind of discussions the film can foster. (You have to purchase the DVD for the supplementary material.)

Most significant for this post today:

7:07-7:23 There is a distinction which is there in scripture between heaven and earth. But the thing about heaven and earth is that they’re supposed to overlap and have an interesting interlocking interplay with one another. They are never supposed to be far apart. (N. T. Wright)

7:24-7:40 In the ancient world they didn’t have a line between supernatural and natural. God was in everything. You couldn’t talk about God intervening because you can’t intervene in something that you’re doing. And to them God was doing it all. That kind of functional aspect, that was very important to them. (John Walton)

As we consider the mechanisms of creation it doesn’t seem wise to draw a line between supernatural intervention and natural process. Evolutionary creation, whatever we learn about the mechanisms through which life arose and diversified, is all the work of God.

What do you think?

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  • Dorfl

    He suggests, in fact, that the argument made by YEC proponents that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics is related primarily to information.

    “Opponents often misstate the YEC argument in this area, saying that they ignore the fact that the earth is not a closed system but receives an input of energy from the sun, thus the reduction of entropy does not violate the second law. But the YEC argument (simply put) is that input of energy by itself in the absence of an organizing factor, does not reduce the entropy of a system, which is true. […]”

    Doesn’t his argument basically boil down to claiming that it’s a misrepresentation to claim that an argument based on the second law of thermodynamics actually has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics?

  • RJS4DQ

    Most people (including most scientists) don’t really understand the second law.

  • Morbert

    Ultimately, the “2nd Law” argument is an attempt by creationists to paint their usual “Life couldn’t have happened by chance.” mantra with a scientific veneer.

    What is clear is the 2nd law of thermodynamics has nothing to do with their argument. The 2nd law is a very precise statement about the thermodynamic behaviour of systems, and it is in no way violated by evolution.

    The unrelated “organizing factor” argument is incidentally a weak one, as the natural selection of inheritable mutations is the organizing factor that drives life. In other words, it is a straw-man to argue that evolutionary biologists claim life arose by chance.

  • In the context of a culture war and many heated and painful debates, it is truly refreshing to feel the objectivity, respect and care of this author as he presents the different positions out there.
    I am certainly open to the view of “directed evolution”(DE) and for me, the fact that a darwinian explanation of processes having taken place over millions of years sounds plausible to our ears doesn’t mean it is right.
    In other words, its explanatory power in and of itself does not rule out the possibility God caused certain mutations, for example.
    If it something positive and beneficial, this is most often unverifiable.

    The problem for DE is bad design. Granted ID proponents can explain away a great deal of it, but there are things that remained undeniably poorly designed.

    This is why I am closer to the “Planned Evolution” view.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    “The problem for DE is bad design”. How does bad design disappear under PE?

  • AHH

    It depends on how meticulous the “P” (planning) is seen to be.
    If one sees it as God planning every little detail, then one has a potential problem with “bad” design. But if it is seen as God setting up a landscape for creation to explore in which creatures would eventually evolve who are able to respond and love and receive the gift of incarnation, the “bad design” problem goes away.

    But I agree with RJS that the dichotomy set up by these terms, where either God is actively directing things or is absent from the process (and either a meticulous planner or not) is not a healthy way to look at things. Even if it is a mystery to us, I think we have to start by affirming that the processes we see as “nature” is also God in action, as much so as any apparent miracle.

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    Thank you. Depends what you mean by “little details”. A landscape filled with predators and parasites is not a little detail. High infant mortality isn’t a little detail. Etc, etc. A conception of a “mechanic” God with his hands deep in the guts of the system faces the same problems as a “technocratic – don’t bother me with the details ” God. It is indeed an endless debate.

  • Susan_G1

    I think perhaps we are dealing here with theodicy (the question of God and evil) more than evolution? This is my greatest difficulty with evolution. I can understand intellectually why untold numbers of creatures might have suffered and died (and suffering cannot be denied – argue the beauty of evolution with the victims of Tyrannosaurs or saber-toothed tigers) but I haven’t read a good answer yet.

    I believe in evolution. I believe in a good God. How do I integrate the two?

  • ThisIsTheEnd

    Yeah it is the problem of natural evil. As to your final question all I can say is “With great difficulty” ; ). But it’s better to be informed and troubled then to be ignorant and serene.

  • Gerald Rau

    Thanks, RJS, for the discussion. I hope it will go far beyond the borders of this blog.

    I agree that there is too great a distinction between PE and DE, but one has to find some demarcation mechanism in order to have useful categories. As I stated in the book, DE is largely unexplored territory, and two distinct models will undoubtedly emerge from the middle ground, one supportive of ID and the detectability of design, another that doubts design is detectable but emphasizes the continued primary work of God or dismisses the distinction between primary and secondary action as irrelevant (as opposed to proponents of PE who think God works in the world through secondary channels). Probably there are some who currently consider themselves as Evolutionary Creationists, which I have classified as PE, who would agree with this second group. Part of my hope is that more Christians will begin exploring this area and fill in the middle of the continuum, because (if you had not guessed it) that is where I believe the answer is as well.

    Many of your other criticisms are valid. I had to simplify many complex ideas to try to fit everything in one book (how could one discuss the intricacies of the second law in less than several pages, which would lose the average reader?), and Nature deified is an expression of NE, not theistic positions – I was contrasting the extremes, not the middle, which I believe is trying to find a way to harmonize “God did it” with “Nature did it.”

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think a potential solution is foregoing the popular notion of God as “Omnipotent Landlord” . . .less ‘Father’ (which I love as a concept but that too often has us picturing God as a Greco-Romanic super-being looking down from high) and more ‘Spirit’